A lot of the reviews I write for Filmism.net make reference to what I think of as a very American narrative framework. For a kid of my generation (the 70s and 80s were my formative years), Star Wars is the focal point to which all the influences led and from which almost all of them have come.
Kurosawa, Flash Gordon, Westerns and even Richard Wagner all spilled from George Lucas’ brain onto the pages of his script The Star Wars, and you can see the exploits of the heroes, droids, creatures, good and evil space battles and hardware in so many movies since then it’s not just a genre or movement, it’s a culture.
Until recently I thought such mythologies were uniquely American because so many formation myths the American social body politic holds dear cleave to it.
One constant element is the rough and tumble hero and his disdain for the authority of political structure. When America was shiny and new and formed on a different political idea (democracy and the rule of law), authority hierarchies based on bloodlines were European imports, the kind of political frameworks America was formed to shake off.
What else is the John McClane/Han Solo/Peter Quill/Ethan Edwards/Jim Stark archetype but the smirking, wise-cracking, devil-may-care lovable rogue who does things his (such a character is seldom female) own way with little regard for orders, protocol or chain of command?
Another seemingly American formation myth is of leaving the homestead with meagre possessions slung over ones’ back to see (and routinely conquer) the world. If it wasn’t Luke Skywalker growing up bored in a dustbowl being introduced to his larger destiny and its accompanying romance, fame and swashbuckling thrills, it was Dorothy Gale being whisked away from farmland Kansas, a place eerily similar in aesthetic to the moisture farms near Anchorhead, Tattooine.
Such a ‘see the world and how much glory and excitement there is’ narrative was co-opted from Hollywood (which had already been sowing the seed of it for a few decades at picture houses by then) by the government to drive recruitment for World War II. We have plenty of examples from pop culture of the warships lined up at the Brooklyn docks ready to ferry a generation of first generation immigrant children from all over to the European and Pacific fronts.
But here’s what I’ve recently realised after thinking about those story tropes and the extent to which moviemaking is built on them.
The reason these mythologies are so powerful and all pervasive in our culture might not be because they’re espoused by the most influential entertainment and pop culture industry on Earth, it might just be because that industry is reflecting them from mythologies past, ones that in fact predate America altogether.
My tip off came when I was listening to an interview with George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road. He was talking about meeting with Aboriginal Elders in outback Australia while preparing to shoot Mad Max 2. Because a lot of it would be shot on traditional lands, he wanted to show the councils and leadership the script to get their blessing.
To his (and my) surprise, they responded to the story and the Man With No Name, stoic-drifter-driven-by-justice figure because he featured prominently in a lot of their Dreamtime creation stories. Here was a culture that had limited exposure to American entertainment but recognised one of the archetypes we most associate with it immediately.
He went on to say the reason the movie did so well internationally was because Max was a blank slate. With only very basic drives and motivations, the cultures wherever the movie appeared laid their own local folklore templates over it. In the Scandinavian countries he was thought of as a Viking, in Japan he was thought of as a Ronin, etc.
As I write these words, I still haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces so I know I’m very late to this party. Campbell is writing about everything from Beowulf to Tony Stark and the universality of character tropes we think of as American. He helped inspire George Lucas, as every cinema nerd who ever drew breath knows.
So maybe, in thinking so many of the characters we respond to are quintessentially American from quintessentially American sociopolitical structures, I didn’t have it wrong as much as just the wrong way around.
America was the first global power in the post colonial age with the opportunity to make itself from the ground up. Every other nation from Europe, South America, Africa and even pre-settlement North America evolved from tribal groups who co-existed, traded, clashed and merged.
While we as a species collectively dreamed about growing from a wide eyed neophyte to a master, wandering the land righting wrongs and defending the weak (or, by the same token, wishing someone was out there to protect us from various cruel invaders from Roman Legions across Eurasia to stoned and crazy American GIs across Vietnam), the development of nation and state often taught us that there was no justice for the weak and no defender against oppression.
Maybe America is the one place that had the chance to build itself upon those dreams of leaving home, conquering the world, being the hero, thumbing its nose in the face of organised structure, being the heroic flyboy who laughed in the face of danger and ended up vanquishing the bad guy, getting rich and getting the girl in the process, and all Hollywood is doing is reflecting the wish fulfillment of the human race back at us for our entertainment.
On small screens now (and as I write these words, there’s little chance of that changing any time soon. America is still drowning in COVID19 and MGM has just announced they’re moving one of the only dead certs left this year, No Time To Die, to next year, so a major cinema chain is closing all its outlets) is Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. It won’t change your life, and having been too old to have been caught up in the 90s-era toy craze I didn’t expect to even be entertained. But you’ll be surprised at the world-building and the sense of big-screen scope.
I was underwhelmed by the lush and beautiful-looking but emotionally sleight Call Me By Your Name, but I’d be remiss not to call your attention to Exists. Made by one of the guys behind The Blair Witch Project, it’s another found footage horror film set in a forest. I know, I know, but trust me, it’s worth it.
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