I am amazed by the continuing popularity of The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club and American History X with my undergrad students, especially since many come very conservative Christian backgrounds. I’m not shocked that they enjoy violence and sex. Conservatives and Christians of every stripe consume pornography and enjoy mainstream action adventure films.
What I find shocking is the appeal of debasement and degradation in these films. During Shawshank, Andy (Tim Robbins) is repeatedly sodomized. Near the movie’s end, he escapes prison by crawling through a sewer.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
What about American History X?
Its graphic violence is married to deeply felt performances and rich characterizations — at least of some of the white characters. But it also indulges in some of the oldest stereotypes and cliches on the books. Students think of it as an uplifting tale of brotherly love and redemption.
Here’s what bugs me. All three films have very problematic notions about race. But I want to focus on what these films might be saying about our relationship to each other.
First let me put things in perspective. These films weren’t huge popular successes.
American History X $6,719,864
Fight Club $37,030,102
The Shawshank Redemption $28,341,469
(figures taken with a grain of salt from http://www.boxofficemojo.com)
But these films are popular with folks who love and study and make movies. You can be sure that that will have an effect on what we see on our screens.
Like some rap, heavy metal, video games and television procedurals with their unending procession of broken, violated bodies, these three films suggest that American viewers may need more and more violence – even rage – to feel or to connect to anything at all. If that’s true, we are passing from the glory that was Greece to the grandeur that was Rome. If we are so desensitized that debasement seems like victory and life, it will take more than Obama and a better economy to bring us change we can believe in. Let alone give us movies with murky pleasures that reveal rips in our social fabric. Folks with maybe too much leisure and money, getting off on the storylines of the marginalized. Desperately needing those narratives for?