‘What do you call Assassins Who Accuse Assassins?’
The Rise Of Counter Culture, The Anti-Hero & Entertainment’s Hand In The Decline Of Polite Society
By Miles Weaver
This article also fits in as part of my ongoing ‘Saving Planet Earth’ as a critique on the ‘culture war’ and the blame that the entertainment industry is unfairly saddled with by the side that views themselves as the arbiters of moral value and taste.
The late ‘60s and ‘70s in Hollywood saw a very interesting sea change in cinema. Whereas the classic hero, so frequently encapsulated in the mould of John Wayne, had dominated the screen for so long, the late 1960s saw the likes Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper roar into town on choppers, smoking dope, flipping off the man and bucking the system. They rallied against political correctness, they fought back against traditional ‘American values’, they spoke out, stood out and refused to toe the line. These two men, accompanied by the somewhat unhinged Jack Nicholson, in ‘Easy Rider’, helped open the floodgates, ushering in a new generation and mindset in entertainment; they being the anti-heroes and the purveyors of counter culture.
In fact, in cinema, the anti-hero has gone on to become so mainstream that it is now the staple figure of the Hollywood action movie. It has become the upstanding moral citizen of a picture, defined as an ‘anti-hero- merely because (in so many cases) it has a lack of respect for authority. A true anti-hero, and a true counter culture figure, is rarely accepted by the by the numbers studio heads of Hollywood. Someone who criticizes the world around them, or who resorts to violence in a more indiscriminate manner is trodden down in favour of someone that uses violence only on ‘the bad guys’. While that figure has faded in Hollywood, throughout the world of entertainment; in music, comedy, literature, art, debate, to name a few, those characters and real life people are very much at the forefront of their fields, much to the chagrin of the ‘moral masses’ around them.
But why? Why have these figures, that rail so aggressively against the mainstream, that put profanity in their songs, tear down established icons of Government in their routine, or make confrontational comments about respected public figures in their work, why have they become the prominent figures, and the true cutting edge of entertainment? We are told, so very, very frequently by the purveyors of news, opinion and morals, that it is because of the declining standards of society, because of the lack of respect for establishment and order, because of a smutty entertainment industry that pushes sex and violence and rebellion as something that is cool. Wait. Hold on. If the decline of standards is to blame on these counter culture figures and these entertainers that so aggressively flip off your piously held morality, where do they come from? Where do they get their ideas from? It’s not out of a simple desire to shock, no. Nor does it stem from some desire to corrupt society. For they all live within that society. They are part of it. So where does this vicious circle really begin?
Let’s look at a little bit of comparative history. In the ‘20s and ‘30s mainstream cinema was dominated by the classical hero. Coincidently, this was a time of peace, mixed with a little economic turmoil. The public was placid, accepting of its Government’s behaviour and respectful of the pillars of society. Once the Second World War broke out, most mainstream films moved into war territory in support of their nation. Now, as we move into the ‘50s we start to see small hints of the anti-hero in several films, but nothing one would call direct counter culture. The Korean War is acknowledged in the media and is something that the public is aware of, but information is limited. The ‘60s hit, Kennedy is assassinated, the Cold War really gets into full swing and the Vietnam conflict begins proper. Students lead riots in Paris, followed by similar student protests around the world over Western intervention in Asia. The media is heavily involved in the reporting of all of these events. Coverage is occasionally graphic, but all three are things at the forefront of the public’s mind. Later in the decade, ideas that had been germinating for two years (and more in many cases) come to the big screen, New Hollywood is born, helmed by ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘The Graduate’, ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘’Midnight Cowboy’.
Throughout the 1970s the New Hollywood movement goes from strength to strength. Films are openly anti-Government, anti-war and anti-status quo. True anti-heroes helm films. Comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin become mainstream, instead of fringe genius’ like Lenny Bruce was in the ‘60s. The devastation of Vietnam, the ongoing, merciless, depressing Cold War, the Watergate Scandal engulfs America. Britain begins to slip into economic turmoil towards the end of the decade. Once again, the media covers and saturates every major event. Coverage grows increasingly graphic and unashamedly uncensored. Governments strive for control over a media that is now free of inhibitions, and broadcasting much truth to the public. We see such masterpieces as the Godfather Parts I & II, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation (all films by Francis Ford Coppola, all of which confirm that period of his life as the greatest streak of unmitigated genius in the history of cinema), The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, Patton, M*A*S*H, Clockwork Orange, French Connection and All The Presidents Men; films which are unashamed in their graphic portrayal of society, civilisation, the nature and hypocrisy of men who claimed to be moral. The brutally critiqued the status quo and their government, while throwing a middle finger into the face of anyone that thought that ‘their side’ was anywhere near a moral high ground. Michael Corleone could be seen as cinema’s greatest anti-hero, a criminal overlord, ruthless, merciless and heartless, that the audience still finds themselves rooting for, because they understand his reasons. The Vietnam War ends in 1975, and is soon followed by blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. The Cold War, a lingering fear, subsides somewhat in its ability to terrify, there is relative calm amidst the public and the media. Heavy metal and punk cement a legacy of anti-conformism and confrontation.
The ‘80s see the Falklands Crisis, the American sponsorship of Contra Killers in Nicaragua which results in the deaths of thousands, accompanied by many other regime overthrows sponsored by the CIA throughout Latin America, all of which result in tremendous bloodshed. The media reports and exposes these atrocities, while also reporting on the Afghan and Iran-Iraq Wars in Mesopotamia. Augusto Pinochet cracks down in Chile, resulting in the mass internment, torture and disappearance of thousands. Mass unrest throughout Britain, resulting in the trade union strifes. The media reports all of this, point blank and unashamedly. Films become more gory, more violent, more graphic. Many film heroes have open contempt for authority (John McClane in Die Hard, Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop or Batman), and many icons of the period openly fight against that which is established as ‘good’. (A perfect example being Schwarzenegger’s Terminator). Films like Platoon continue to criticise the American Government’s behaviour over Vietnam, while comedians truly take the gloves off on both sides of the Atlantic and unashamedly lambaste President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. ‘Alternative comedy’ is born; crude, crass, politically charged, aggressive and unafraid. Artists like Run DMC and NWA bring rap into the mainstream, shedding light on a totally unseen section of American life and bringing the true nature of race relations in America into cold reality.
It seems that the point is becoming clear now. In each decade Governments have become more and more eager to spread their power, influence and own brand of death throughout the world. In each decade, the news media has grown larger and larger in confidence and integrity, until it reaches a point where it was unafraid of exposing the true horrors of what our masters in the ivory towers were doing and tolerating worldwide. The coverage of the two Gulf Wars has only taken that level of exposure further, and has become ever more graphic each time. It is this writer’s opinion, based on the evidence I present here, that this is what has led to what many would call ‘declining moral values’, but which I call hypocrisy. Entertainment has only ever reflected the standards of the society around it. There is a reason why much popular entertainment in the most repressed countries is so innocent, naïve and child-like in comparison to our own. Their entertainment is kept totally inoffensive for the masses, because the masses are kept intellectually inoffended. They cannot learn the truth about their government without outside help, so domestic entertainment can only reflect that naivety.
The moral crusaders never seem to take up much objection when the newsmakers show pictures of men and women with their arms and legs blown off, however, they never get outraged when they see piles of dead bodies being unloaded into mass graves. As long as the statement ‘Some may find these graphic images disturbing’ is uttered first, they’re fine. But when they hear swearing, or see violence on television or in a film, or hear it in comedy or music, despite the appropriate warnings being given to them about who the content is suitable for, they get enraged. They are unable to put two and two together, and understand that entertainment only reflects the world around it. It is the nature of the medium. When the news becomes increasingly graphic, so does entertainment. When governments begin treating countries like training grounds, musicians, film makers and comedians start kicking back against the system.
And that is where the ‘moral fabric’ of society has unwound. That is where the anti-heroes of cinema have risen from. The glamorisation of guns and knives has appeared in the media because it appears every night on the news. Such weapons of killing are even advertised and glamorised in advertisements for the army. Perhaps if governments begun to act with some restraint and respect for human life, the entertainment industry would begin to show some more restraint, and greater respect for human life in its canon. One directly influences the other, and if there is a trickle down effect from entertainment onto the public, then there is also one from the highest level of society, down onto its entertainment. Were there less to attack, or were there less exposure of the dishonest workings of our democracy, then maybe there would be more restraint. But the decline of society’s moral are not being bought about by bad language or violence or sex in entertainment, it is bought about by those that commit such acts on a mass scale in real life, and those that report and expose it. Entertainment, even at its most base levels, reflects the nature of the society it is coming from. Entertainment is not killing moral decency in western society, it is merely mirroring the process that we tolerate as it happens.