Cultural artifacts from the age of fear

A few days ago, I was idly watching Predator 2 with the roommates. It’s an amazing cocktail of offensive racial stereotypes, bad acting, and ridiculous action sequences, plus Gary Busey and Bill Paxton.

Needless to say, we enjoyed every minute of it.

Here’s what got me thinking: The movie, filmed in 1990, bookends an era in which fear of crime absolutely pervades popular cinema. Predator 2 imagines near-future Los Angeles in the midst of a gang war between competing narco-traffickers (the gangsters’ overtly racialized personas merit another post entirely). The police are overwhelmed, the media are a bunch of siren-chasers, and urban violence is an ineradicable fact of life, on par with traffic congestion, pollution, and block parties.

I didn’t live through the 1970s and 80s, so I’m reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about the climate of that era. But from what I’ve read, fear of crime was an omnipresent political and social issue, and it’s amazing how bizarre some of these pop culture artifacts seem when removed from that context.

Kurt Russell in Escape from New York and Escape from LA. Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series. Sly Stallone in Cobra and later, Demolition Man. Robo Cop. To one extent or another, all of these movies paint an incredibly bleak picture of urban crime. Of particular note are blockbusters that anticipate uncontrollable future crime waves: Russell’s Snake Pliskin franchise imagines a world in which New York and Los Angeles are literally quarantined from the rest of the country. Things have gotten so bad in Demolition Man that a quasi-totalitarian regime takes power by the time the protagonist is resurrected from cryogenic stasis, several decades into the future. Robo Cop is probably the best example from this sub-genre: Future Detroit is about to hand over law enforcement to a private corporation because the city has become ungovernable.

One suspects that these over-the-top plot devices reflected real cultural and political fault lines. LA and New York may not have been on the verge of open gang warfare in the 1980s, but crime was substantially higher than it is now. Prominent criminologists were breathlessly predicting that the next generation, conditioned by an atmosphere of crime and violence, would become “super-predators,” destroying what was left of civil society in the process.

The stark reality is that crime rates went down and now we’re saddled with a system that incarcerates proportionately more people than any other country in the world. At least on this blog, we’re generally in agreement that criminal justice should be more humane, less punitive, and less focused on locking up non-violent offenders. But it’s easy to look at the current state of affairs and marvel at its insanity. Less easy is to empathize with the conditions that gave rise to such a profound overreaction in the first place. As weird as it sounds, movies like Predator 2 are a window into the cultural pathologies of a bygone era. And I, for one, am profoundly glad to have grown up without the likes of Robo Cop and Snake Pliskin as pop harbingers of a future awash in crime. It’s a genuine luxury to look back at these movies and laugh.

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79 thoughts on “Cultural artifacts from the age of fear

  1. 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.

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  2. 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).

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  3. 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.’

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            • 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.”

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        • 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.

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  4. 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).

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  5. 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!”

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      • 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.

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  6. 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?

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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.

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  9. 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.

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  10. 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.

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    • 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?

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  11. 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”.

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