|In modern America, no nightmare is forbidden|
- Sunday, May 16 2004, 10:05:27 (CEST)|
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'In modern America, no nightmare is forbidden'
JG Ballard reveals what the Hollywood disaster movie says about the US
Friday May 14, 2004
The Unconscious will always expose itself. If the British tabloid press
shows the nation's unconscious mind at work - a bubbling pit of prurience
and anxiety - then the Hollywood block-buster reveals the deepest
fantasies and paranoia of the American psyche. Either way, it's probably
better to have our monsters oozing towards us across the sitting-room
floor than bottled up in the basements of our minds.
Writing 50 years ago in War, Sadism and Pacifism, the English
psychoanalyst Edward Glover commented: "The most cursory study of the
dream-life and fantasies of the insane shows that ideas of world
destruction are latent in the unconscious mind." But it's clear that in
today's America these fantasies are no longer latent. The British are
still reticent about their deepest fears - class war, a reversion to
economic feudalism, the spectre of an all-dominant and all-vapid consumer
society. But in modern America, there are no suppressed dreams, no
Every American fear and paranoid anxiety is out in the open, from the
ranting of ultra-right shockjocks to The Day after Tomorrow, Hollywood's
latest attempt to traumatise us with fears of climate change. Here, global
warming melts the polar ice-caps, flooding our planet and plunging us into
a global catastrophe. The computerised special effects are more real than
reality itself, bypassing many areas of the brain and posing problems for
philosophers and neuro-psychologists alike, hinting at a future where the
human race abandons "old" reality in the same way that Americans abandoned
We might think that the US had enough problems coping with Iraq, where the
abuse of prisoners has given a spin of sexual perversion to its drive
towards world domination, something the British Empire, with its croquet
and memsahibs, never achieved, alas. But disaster movies have been a
Hollywood staple for decades. Earthquakes and tsunamis, asteroids and
volcanoes, alien invasions and deranged machines have destroyed and
re-destroyed the planet, analogues perhaps of all-out nuclear war against
the Soviet Union. Or, more likely I suspect, a thinly veiled glimpse of
the self-destructive urges lurking alongside the hamburger and comic-book
culture we all admire. As the nation infantilises itself, the point is
finally reached where the abandoned infant has nothing to do except break
up its cot.
Unsettling as our own tabloids may be, the British psyche and its problems
hardly matter to the wider world. But the turmoils of the American psyche
have vast ramifications. Are films like The Day after Tomorrow, Armageddon
and Independence Day a warning signal to the rest of us? Since Hiroshima
and Nagasaki displayed the vast reach of US power, the greatest danger is
that Americans will believe their own myths. Is the gulf stream faltering?
Is the equator moving northwards? Without doubt an alien, and possibly
European plot, to be countered by the greatest display of "shock and awe"
its super-technologies can muster.
Americans, rightly, mourned the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. The
destruction of the twin towers seemed to spring straight from a national
memory bank stocked by Hollywood, and the horrific newsreels are
effectively the greatest disaster movie to date. We can all probably cope
with The Day after Tomorrow, but my fear is that in due course the
"remake" of 9/11, with the ultimate in special effects, will inspire
Americans to more than revenge.
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