Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 26, May 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel Herbert

 

An Economy of Annihilation:

Wheeler Winston Dixon's _Visions of the Apocalypse_

 

 

Wheeler Winston Dixon

_Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema_

London: Wallflower Press, 2003

ISBN 1-903364-74-4

169 pp.

 

Wheeler Winston Dixon's _Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema_ is a dynamic and provocative new book, which challenges its reader with some unsettling arguments. Dixon believes that the world is going to end. Not in billions of years or even in hundreds of years. No, the catastrophic end of the world is going to happen quite soon, any minute. This belief provides the central guiding concept for _Visions of the Apocalypse_. Although the title seems to indicate an ensuing study of films with apocalyptic themes and imagery, Dixon's subject is broader and more diverse. Dixon surveys myriad forms of popular culture, with an emphasis on American culture, in order to delineate the numerous ways that contemporary society is declaring its exhaustion and self-destructive impulses. This provokes discussions of developments in digital cinema technologies, the monopolization of media distribution, aesthetic and ideological differences between war films from different eras, the contemporary trend of cinematic remakes across national lines, and specific film texts which project images of global catastrophe, among many other topics. These subjects are related in that they all foretell the inevitable, imminent, and total destruction of the world by violent means.

 

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and the United States' domestic and international response to the attacks, provides one of the recurrent issues in this book. In fact, one can see this book as an immediate response to the rapid and discouraging shifts in American culture following September 11, which perhaps speaks to the particularly urgent and critical tone which pervades throughout. However, if the attacks of 9/11 provoked this volume, then Dixon shows with vehemence how even that tragedy occurred within a larger cultural sphere, saturated with suicidal tendencies. As he says in the book's opening sentences: 'This is a book about the end of cinema, the end of the world, and the end of civilization as we know it. The signs are there, waiting to be deciphered' (1). Pronouncements such as this indicate the style and intellectual objectives of the volume, and similar statements punctuate its five chapters with condemnation. Dixon's insightful analyses of specific texts, such as films and television news broadcasts, are consistently brief, which contributes to the book's overall sense of urgency and imminent threat. It is as if the attacks of September 11 impelled the author to critically evaluate the culture in which that tragedy occurred, in order to better grasp the logic of such an incomprehensible set of events.

 

At times, the nuanced logic that Dixon traces can appear fairly disheartening, as it seems to almost entirely condemn American popular culture. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to the reader of _Visions of the Apocalypse_: to maintain a sense of hope and potential resistance while engaging in Dixon's excellently articulated argument. To this end, Dixon offers a few glimmers of hope in his vastly scoped cultural analysis. These anodynes to cultural malady regularly take the form of exceptional, visionary film artists, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda. By the example provided by such figures, Dixon indicates how certain individuals, through their inspired and inspirational works, might make an intervention into the morass that is popular, commercial media.

 

Dixon begins his book with an appropriately titled introduction, 'The Tyranny of Images', though its contents far exceed a mere charting of terrifying visions of destruction or an analysis of the impact of such depictions. Here, the author lays out the argument that organizes the entire book: the world is on the brink of destruction and nobody cares because we are exhausted with ourselves. The possibility of global nuclear holocaust, instead of solely instilling fear and anxiety, provides a perverse comfort because in that event, 'all bets are off, all duties executed, all responsibilities abandoned' (2). Both the fear and the comfort caused by this possibility can be seen in filmic representations of nuclear war, many of which Dixon finds too falsely optimistic in that they offer the hope of survival following a nuclear attack. Instead, he finds a suitable depiction of the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear war in the Japanese film _The Last War_ (1961), which presents no chance for survival in the post-nuclear world.

 

In addition, Dixon notes a number of other symptoms of this cultural exhaustion, sometimes in unlikely places. For instance, he discusses the recent cycle of neo-noir films and connects this to a growing nihilism which pervades culture at large. He goes on to use _The Attack of the Clones_ (2002) as a prime example of numerous problems in contemporary cinema. Among these is the advent of digital cinema, which threatens to erase the line between 'the real and the constructed', and dispenses with the centrality of the human (9). The use of spectacular special effects in that film, and similar digital blockbusters, depict an imaginary perfection that effaces organic and emotional realities. Further, the film is indicative of the economic conservatism of the Hollywood industry, in that it is a franchise film which seeks to build brand recognition at the expense of originality or competent artistry. Dixon finds the recent wave of Hollywood remakes equally deplorable on the same grounds, especially those derived from films from other national cinemas. Remakes, sequels, and franchise films all speak to an overwhelming lack of originality in popular cinema, consequences of the economic constraints of Hollywood as well as the culturally dispersed fear of alternative social possibilities. In Dixon's treatment, the flaws in the economics of cultural production seem aligned with failures in the human imagination for survival and enhancement. The increasing conformity of film and visual culture represents this new tyranny of images.

 

Dixon continues to develop this connection between economics and cultural logics of conformity in Chapter One, titled 'Freedom From Choice'. He begins by stating that Hollywood and cinemas in other parts of the world once existed on an equal footing, as far as getting wide theatrical distribution. Citing a variety of cinematic examples from the last fifty years, Dixon explains that numerous international films of distinctive quality achieved distribution and critical success within the United States. However, as a result of the decline of art house and repertory theaters, this phenomenon has now been almost entirely eliminated. Saturation booking practices also contribute strongly to the decline in cinematic diversity, and Dixon provides a history of the practice, leading up to the present situation of saturation booking on a *global* scale, where blockbuster films might open on 7000 screens at the same time all over the world.

 

This phenomenon is only one effect of the 'hyperconglomerization' of media production, which Dixon cites as a primary culprit in the elimination of media diversity. Another facet of this development is the regular use of market research analysis. Dixon discusses the example of the Girls Intelligence Agency, which seeks the opinions of females between the ages of 6 and 20 in order to exploit the desires of this market (33). This dynamic produces films that relinquish personal vision and originality in lieu of commercial success by design. As Dixon states, 'the corporate culture knows no boundaries -- and values no allegiances --  focusing solely on the bottom line' (36). Perhaps the strongest element of this argument comes about within Dixon's discussion of the changes in copyright law and practices. As laws are being passed which greatly extend the duration of copyrights, corporations have been empowered to hold on to properties almost indefinitely. This eliminates the possibility of alternative interpretations of works that were bound for public domain. Even worse, corporations often do not release a great number of their copyrighted titles, effectively eliminating them from culture.

 

Dixon does examine some alternatives within this consolidation of cultural texts. Numerous industrial and educational films from the past, which offer poignant insights into culture, have fallen into public domain. In fact, as Dixon notes, many distributors have sprung up that specialize in public domain films, thus keeping these texts circulating against the colossal tide of corporate entertainment. Additionally, Dixon briefly considers the work of found footage filmmakers, such as Craig Baldwin, who use popular texts in subversive ways. However, Dixon qualifies the potential impact of these alternatives, as he closes the chapter with a comparison of the reality television programs _An American Family_ (1973) and _The Osbournes_ (2002), as two ends of a creative spectrum. He concludes by situating _The Osbournes_ as just one more example of the move toward product promotion and commercialization in popular media.

 

In Chapter Two, titled 'Invasion U.S.A.' after the 1952 apocalypse film of the same name, Dixon specifically interrogates how the attacks of September 11 impacted film and broader cultural formulations. In accordance with the new state of fear and emergency readiness engendered by the attacks, Hollywood films reflect a narrow spectrum of ideological possibilities. Dixon discusses a number of recent war films, many of which were made before 9/11, yet which all 'seek to create a sense of unity out of deeply disparate factions' (68). Dixon explicitly compares this contemporary cycle of films to those made in response to World War II and the Cold War, in order to indicate how Hollywood has previously responded to social fear and paranoia. One of the consequences of 9/11 is the self-censorship on the part of Hollywood, as they eliminated films with references to airplane hijackings, nuclear terrorism, or other plots of mass destruction. Dixon also notes that the radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications stopped airing songs which might have recalled the destruction of 9/11, and thus illuminates once again a synthesis of social panic and economic conservatism. Patriotic war films and the elimination of 'controversial' cultural texts all contribute to ideological strictures of the post-9/11 social setting.

 

For Dixon, this development works in conjunction with imperatives and policies on the part of the United States government, panic-driven rumors, and configurations of conflict in the news. He cites the rumors that the face of Satan could be seen in the smoke of the burning World Trade towers, among many others, to indicate how panic and fear have created irrational paranoia on a massive scale. Further, Dixon states that Hollywood has worked with the US government to consolidate public opinion in the effort to support the current administration's domestic and military imperatives by creating films and trailers that advocate these positions. According to Dixon, these initiatives have the primary objective of keeping the public in a state of fear and subservience. He discusses the numerous news reports and interviews with administration officials in which they situate a future calamity as an inevitability; massive catastrophe, or the expectation thereof, has become a mundane part of our new existence. For Dixon, this widespread acceptance of fear and a hypersurveillant governmental authority is further indication of a massive cultural meltdown.

 

In Chapter Three, 'The Limits of Time', the author remobilizes some of the elements of his argument in Chapter One in order to discuss the increasing effects of hyperconglomerization and the shortening of cultural attention spans. He begins by discussing the further degradation of artistic quality in various media, as an effect of the consolidation of media producers. He notes that Clear Channel has made a serious impact on theater, and 'currently has no fewer than eight shows on Broadway as investor and producer' (98). The negative effects this kind of hyperconglomerization has on the creative possibilities of art is even more pronounced, in Dixon's view, by the Oprah Book club, where even genuinely good books get corralled into a heap along with 'resolutely unchallenging pop books' (101). The international extent of this cultural and economic process can bee seen in the recent wave of French teen comedies, which emulate such American movies as _Porky's_ (1981) and _American Pie_ (1999). In this way, Dixon indicates how hyperconglomerization functions internationally to limit artistic possibilities in accordance with short-sighted economic gains.

 

This short-sightedness of culture is another of the chapter's primary themes, which Dixon construes as working in synthesis with the economics of cultural production. Films such as _Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines_ (2003) and _A.I.: Artificial Intelligence_ (2001) indicate how committee-made movies use overwhelming, big-budget spectacle to cover over their otherwise emotionally vapid content. This contributes heavily to a cinematic environment of 'instant disposability and planned obsolesce' (119). A further consequence of this is the gradual elimination of indie film genre, due to the economic unfeasibility of this once innovative area of cinema. Dixon also examines the roles that video games play in this new media environment, arguing that they purge characterization and instead merely provide spectacles of violence. Dixon notes that such games contribute strongly to the violence-saturated social and cultural landscape.

 

Notably, Dixon examines a few bright lights amidst this dark sea of cultural gloom. He discusses the work of Jean-Luc Godard, in particular, as noble and worthwhile. In addition, Dixon also situates the work of contemporary feminist French filmmakers in opposition to the aforementioned teen comedies. Such works as _Baise-Moi_ (2001) symbolize for Dixon a positive turn toward films with intelligence, honesty, and vitality. In fact, he holds the contemporary French cinema up for commendation, saying 'the country seems able to incorporate the past of cinema into the present, creating works that are simultaneously commercial and thoughtful' (113). However, he immediately follows this by saying that 'this will not continue if US global cinematic dominance prevails' (113). As he also notes that Godard has totally withdrawn from commercial cinema, Dixon's situates these figures as singular, exceptional, and rare.

 

Dixon closes his text with a Coda, titled 'The Copenhagen Defense', which reemphasizes and synthesizes many of his earlier points. After a brief discussion of the invention of the nuclear bomb, he states that the potential consequences of this world-changing technology are greatest in the present moment, due to the possible unmonitored commercial traffic of nuclear weaponry. As even the greatest threat to the continuation to life on this planet is now determined by commercial forces, which Dixon has vehemently denounced throughout the book, the prospects for humanity appear very grim indeed. Dixon then describes numerous examples of films which indicate American culture's fascination with its own total destruction, many of which were made during the Cold War. Yet now, he says, with the ontological shifts instituted by new computer graphics technologies and video games, as well as the attacks of September 11, our dreams of massive self-destruction are at once both virtually and actually fulfilled. Synthesizing his two primary complaints about contemporary culture, the increased commercialism and an insatiable appetite for catastrophic violence, Dixon once again raises the example of the film _Invasion U.S.A._. As a cheaply produced film designed to make a fast buck by exploiting people's anxieties about nuclear warfare, _Invasion U.S.A._ encapsulates Dixon's problems with the *contemporary* cultural setting. Like the Nazis before us, says Dixon, contemporary culture forecasts its inevitable extinction through spectacles of destruction.

 

At the very end of _Visions of the Apocalypse_ Dixon offers an anecdote which functions as one last parable by which to measure ourselves. He tells the story of an old acquaintance of his, the experimental filmmaker Andrew Meyer. Meyer made 'lyrically beautiful' films during the 1960s in New York, for which he earned notable acclaim at film festivals (142). Dixon emphasizes that these films were hand-crafted and meagerly budgeted, and solely reflected the personal vision and creativity of the filmmaker. However, by the mid-1970s, Meyer had begun working in the commercial film industry, most notably reworking the disaster film _Tidal Wave_ (1973) for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. In Dixon's view, this is another example of commercial imperatives circumscribing the possibilities of human imagination and creativity.

 

This story indicates the philosophical center of _Visions of the Apocalypse_. Although left implicit, Dixon rigorously maintains a Romantic humanism throughout the book as that which is most threatened by the commercial forces which propel popular culture. He consistently holds the inspired, creative individual up for praise, even where an individual's works are severely hindered by unsavory economic strictures. In fact, Dixon positions this heroic, Romantic humanism as the reprieve from our shared cultural meltdown and the obstacle to our total self-destruction. He states, 'when we cease to exist, the world ceases to exist because we can no longer apprehend it. And it is this moment that we fear and anticipate above all others because it represents the complete disintegration of the self' (143). Here, the work of the individual becomes the necessary work of humanity.

 

By unflinchingly critiquing the contemporary culture of self-destruction, Wheeler Winston Dixon's _Visions of the Apocalypse_ presents a serious contribution to the heroic effort for which he calls. The book deftly negotiates between moments of personal reflection and presentations of factual information, between precise analyses of single texts and broader generalizations about cultural dynamics. In this way, Dixon provides an engaging and provocative argument about the contemporary cultural setting and its underlying propellant forces. If the book presents a challenge to the reader, it is not a result of the style of the book, as the writing is clear and accessible throughout. The challenge of this book is to follow Dixon in thinking beyond commercial culture and creating alternatives to our own annihilation.

 

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, USA

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Daniel Herbert, An Economy of Annihilation: Wheeler Winston Dixon's _Visions of the Apocalypse_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 26, May 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n26herbert>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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