Cultural artifacts from the age of fear



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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79 Responses

  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Some make the argument that crime is low today simply because we’ve locked up those who would be predisposed to committing it. And thank goodness we did!

    What do you say to that one? I’m curious.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    As a nitpick, Escape from LA was made strictly for the dollar dollar bills; made in ’96, when we were already well on the downslope from the crime peak, and even the memories of the Rodney King riots had started to fade (that is from broader Americana – I’m sure they were still in the zeitgeist of most Angelenos).Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Kolohe says:

      Interestingly enough, that book about “super-predators” I link to was also published in ’96. I guess they were both lagging indicators.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Will says:

        ’96 was still close enough that the dropping violent crime rates could be waved away as an aberration. Twenty years later after the peak of the “War on Crime”, that argument is much, much tougher to make.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Prisons have become a private industry now. The phenomenon has created its own forms of corruption.

    An interesting side effect of our crackdown on illegal immigrants has been the rise of prison labor to replace some of it.Report

  4. Avatar Patrick says:

    These movies are all great examples, but if you really want a cultural artifact that gives a window back into that period, my first recommendation is the superb ‘The Warriors.’Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I hated all those flicks. Brazil was a sorta interesting take on Gummint Gone Rong. THX1138 was, too.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Damn, THX1138 is a great flick. So good I bought a copy and play it every year or so to remind me why I’m a Paleo.
      “Stay calm, everything will be alright!”Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    And what about Minority Report?Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

      What about “Enemy of the State?”Report

      • Minority Report and Enemy of the State are part of the new paradigm.

        They’re not about the fear of crime. They’re about the fear of where the fear of crime has led.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          It has been my observation only the petty and feeble minded rascal goes into a Life o’ Crime. Your entrepreneur class of criminal goes into politics, where the real power resides.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Entrepreneur class criminals are smart enough to go after the aggregated power.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              After first arriving in Louisiana, I became fascinated with the character of Huey Long. The Kingfish’s histories have been written by his enemies, as were several of the Caesars, but thanks to the Code Napoleon, the Governor of Louisiana had perfectly legal patronage powers that any dictator would envy. A proper study of Huey Long is a whole education in itself and he is the most quotable American politician since Jefferson.

              “They say they don’t like my methods. Well, I don’t like them either. I really don’t like to have to do things the way I do. I’d much rather get up before the legislature and say, ‘Now this is a good law and it’s for the benefit of the people, and I’d like you to vote for it in the interest of the public welfare.’ Only I know that laws ain’t made that way. You’ve got to fight fire with fire.” Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          They’re not about the fear of crime. They’re about the fear of where the fear of crime has led.

          I’d argue that this was what both Robocop and Demolition Man were about as well. (and in a different way Escape from New York)

          Although it’s a fairly standard dystopic speculative fiction trope to have an ‘insider vs outsider’ dynamic characterized by:
          a) the insiders lead life of relative affluence and order,
          b) the outsiders lead of life of relative poverty and anarchy.
          c) something specific or systemic or both is creating this divide
          d) this forms the fundamental tension of the plot
          (who’s ‘happier’ is determined by the point the author is trying to make)

          It’s been used in everything from HG Well’s Time Machine to Wheadon’s Firefly.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

            Also we can include every Schwarzenegger sci-fi films in this, with ‘Running Man’ being more ‘fear of crime’ based, whereas Total Recall was more about straight up corporate dickatude.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

              During one gaming night, whilst raiding the fridge, I walked through the room where my friend’s wife was watching The Running Man. She had never seen it before (!). It happened to be the Buzzsaw scene.


              Then, seconds later, Buzzsaw said something similar.

              I digress. It was about corporations? Or something? Huh.Report

  7. Avatar Ben JB says:

    Something extra to chew on: RoboCop isn’t just about government break-down that leads to privatisation in the field of law enforcement–it’s about the danger of corporate crime. At the end of the day, the really dangerous criminals are the coke-snorting CEOs with their private exemptions from the law. Street crime is piddling in comparison to office-building crime (and, in fact, street crime is inextricably linked to office-building crime).Report

  8. Also.

    Yeah, crime. It sucked.

    But age of fear? Get teh fuck out. I mean seriously, have you looked around? Age of Fear? You’re living in it.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    A sort of forgotten one from that era (because Paul Schrader is so criminally underrated) was Hardcore with George C. Scott as a Dutch Calvinist buisinessman whose daughter gets sucked into the world of porn (partly because her father and mother got divorced!) and he has to rescue her in L.A. It was made in 1979 and whenever people ask me about Reagan’s election in 1980 I tell them, “Go see Hardcore. That guy is who voted for Reagan!”Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Damn. I really want somebody to pay me to write an article about this stuff so I can watch all these movies guilt-free.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Will says:

        Seriously, I don’t know when the Criterion Collection is going to get it together and issue a Schrader box set. They’ve issued a few of his movies, but they *need* to get Blue Collar out on DVD. There’s something wrong in the world with that movie being so hard to find on DVD (not to mention the fact that Rolling Thunder, a fantastic movie he wrote) is still not on DVD.Report

  10. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Also, here’s the thing about New York in the 70s and early 80s- okay, it was famously dangerous to live there. Also it’s the last time that city was really culturally significant in a world historical sense. The music, the art, the movies- it was all important. Now? Who gives a damn about New York?Report

  11. Ummm… Dirty Harry, anyone? A whole franchise, no one mentioning it. And the blaxploitation cop flicks (e.g., Shaft) tap in to the same ethic, plus add some racial stereotyping that again would have quite a lot of difficulty making it out of a studio today.

    In addition to fear of crime and quasi-sexual unease about race relations, these movies also reveal something that continues to repeat today — overt hostility to civil rights, the glamorization of the government engaging in violence to thwart the corrupt, sniveling lawyers and the pusillanimous, invertebrate judges who abet them.

    They show that the pursuit of Justice-with-a-capital-J requires a Man With A Big Gun Who Isn’t Afraid To Use It in order to be administered. The ethic here is that justice isn’t found in a court; courts are places where justice is subverted and held up for mockery and civil institutions are simply too handicapped for even well-meaning people working within the system to get anything productive accomplished. Justice is found out on the hard streets in neighborhoods tougher than a poached hockey puck, where a few good men make it by hand one case at a time, using the sometimes ugly but thrilling tools of violence, snap moral judgments, and clever quips delivered to scumbags right before they get served up what’s coming to them. Sure, they have to play by their own rules and occasionally work outside the system, but you don’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, bruthah.

    That ethic lives today. We are supposed to cheer on Keifer Sutherland in 24 as he beats the ever-loving snot out of the Really Bad Guys he fights with because, damnit, he doesn’t have TIME to go get a search warrant and establish rapport with his just-captured informant to extract reliable information, the bomb is tick-tick-ticking away right now endangering innocent people!

    Plus les choses évoluent plus elles restent identiques.Report

  12. Avatar Pinky says:

    No one’s mentioned Mad Max yet!?Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Pinky says:

      Mad Max isn’t really *about* crime, I’d say. It’s about the downfall of civilization due to nuclear war. Crime plays a big factor, but these other movies have crime skyrocketing because civilization sucks for (some reason inherent in the way we run the place). Mad Max has crime skyrocketing because civilization sucks because we nuked everything.

      That’s a whole ‘nuther thread of movies. Similar and some overlap.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        I was thinking another genre would be liberal paranoia films of the 70s- stuff like the China Syndrome- as a counterpoint to the right-wing action flicks of the late 70s and early 80s. If there’s anything I remember about the 70s (and for some reason I remember a lot more of the 70s, in spite of being a child, than I do of the 80s) it’s that the adults seemed paranoid and angry all the time.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        FWIW- I don’t think there wasn’t a nuke war in Mad Max. Society was crumbling due to oil running out. The dystopia existed on the crumbling margins of the society.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to greginak says:

          by the third movie, they strongly implied that a nuke war had torn up Sydney, (or whatever city that was supposed to be)Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

            By the *BEST* movie, you mean.

            Listen all! This is the truth of it. Fighting leads to killing, and killing gets to warring. And that was damn near the death of us all. Look at us now! Busted up, and everyone talking about hard rain! But we’ve learned, by the dust of them all… Bartertown learned. Now, when men get to fighting, it happens here! And it finishes here! Two men enter; one man leaves.

            And, of course, Aunty said it better: Do you know who I was? Nobody. Except on the day after, I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody. Report

            • We had a drinking game in college called “Thunderdome” where two participants stand over a trash can and shotgun beer for beer until one vomits. Everyone else stands around chanting, “Two men enter, one man leaves! Two men enter, one man leaves!” Needless to say, girls were not impressed.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                Try it sumo no birru style. Clad only in boxer shorts, the two “sumo wrestlers” run at each other, each having chugged a beer, their guts colliding in a mighty whack. Eventually, one will puke on the other.

                It’s hard to say who has actually won, when it’s all over, but tremendously amusing for the bystanders.Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

            the third MM movie…PAH is what i have to say to that.Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kolohe says:

            And then it turned out to be all The Jews’ fault.Report

          • Avatar Mabuse in reply to Kolohe says:

            It is implied (and is the consensus among my own peer group) that the nuke war occurred sometime between the first and second movies; so technically both views are accurate.Report

  13. Bonfire of the Vanities also fits this I think.Report

  14. Avatar Pinky says:

    I think the genre was influenced by the Miranda decision and other court cases that expanded or protected the rights of the accused. Society was trying to figure out what the new equilibrium should be. It’s worth noting that many of these movies were critical of law enforcement and/or mainstream society. Demolition Man, Robocop, Mad Max, and the Dirty Harry movies all involved the “powers that be” crossing the line, either by pursuing criminals illegally or by manipulating the public’s fear of crime.

    I recently watched some Miami Vice episodes. You can see the different influences: the fear of crime, the sense that insiders were manipulating the system, even the glamourization of the criminal lifestyle. One important part of the show and the genre we’re discussing, which no one’s talked about, was cocaine. At the time it seemed to be spreading like wildfire, and capable of infinite damage. The idea of a huge criminally-insane underclass wasn’t so far-fetched.Report

  15. Avatar Bob says:

    Crime rates have fallen, most likely, because of Roe v. Wade. Most crimes are committed by males between the ages of 15 and 35. A great many abortions started taking place after it became legal, and those males who would have grown up fatherless or in a badly dysfunctional home never got born, thus they commit no crimes.Report

  16. Avatar TheOldCrusader says:

    One thing nobody mentioned is how peaceful and low crime the 50’s were in much of the country. It wasn’t just Miranda, it was a rapid rise in crime and Miranda that made people think the country was becoming unlivable.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to TheOldCrusader says:

      so because police had to inform people of their rights made everybody else think crime was out of control.

      So was crime low for blacks, gays and women. True rape and DV were rarely reported, i wonder why that might have been. Does the immense power of the mob count as crime?Report

  17. Avatar Paul B says:

    I did live through those times, and I don’t buy your premise. Look at modern TV shows and you will find a huge emphasis on crime. Newspapers and other media love crime because it sells. Politicians love crime (and these days, “terrsm”) because it is something to demagogue. Cops and the incarceration industry loves crime because it keeps the money rolling in. Nothing has changed. Go ahead and laugh at Predator 2. I will be laughing at “Bones”.Report