Original teaser poster for Richard Donner's Superman (Warner Bros, 1978)

Original teaser poster for Richard Donner's Superman (Warner Bros, 1978)

Author's note: This article was written in 2013 and is currently unpublished. I set it aside to work on other things and have resisted coming back to it. I decided to publish it here due to a recent conversation in my Film and History class on the different processes that film employs to encapsulate the time periods in which they were produced. Hopefully, this article will find its way into a journal or book chapter in the future, but in the meantime, enjoy. 

 

 

Believe a Man can Fly

 Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and the Cinematic Recovery of American Mythology in 1970s Hollywood Cinema

“Both our vast military complex and increasingly imperial presidency,

  symbols of America’s strength and power, were goliaths struck down

 by schoolboys flinging stones, be they Vietcong in black pajamas or

               crusading young reporters for the Washington Post.”

 – Lester Friedman (Friedman 2007, 7)

In 1978, two films attempted to come to grips with the indelible mark the Vietnam conflict had left on the American consciousness: Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Though radically different in their dialogue with the legacy of Vietnam, both films examine the trauma and alienation felt by the war’s veterans. Cimino and Ashby’s films were released to an America attempting to come to grips with the notion that U.S. involvement in Vietnam had unraveled an American mythology that arose at the end of World War II, what Wilbur W. Caldwell calls a “superiority-through-strength mythology” (Caldwell 2006, 125-126). These films, according to film journalist Peter Biskind, reopened “old wounds and inflamed passions long thought spent” (Biskind 2008). The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, however, were not the only films in dialogue with the legacy that Vietnam had left behind. A series of films that emerged during the 1970s, ones marketed as blockbuster entertainment or populist fair, can be reconfigured within the conversation that America was having with itself, a discourse on the disillusionment with a previous American war mythology, thought to have been punctured by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Chief among these films was George Lucas’ Star Wars (Twentieth Century Fox, 1977), a film that infused the memory of science fiction films of the 1950s with the honorable-warrior tropes contained in the films of Akira Kurosawa. Star Wars, however, was not the only late 1970s film that attempted a cinematic recovery of a heroic war mythology, devised anew for a generation wary of antiquated myths about America. As previous moments in film history have demonstrated, cinematic movements can be instrumental in reconstructing a nation’s image of itself. This reimaging of national myths has been realized through the repurposing of past genre codes, what Mikhail Bakhtin called “genre memory”: the remembering of past genre forms, infused with the resources of the immediate present, to provide a genre with a new orientation (Morson & Emerson, 1990). Many Hollywood films of the late 1970s exhibit a mode of genre memory in which classical genre films are evoked alongside the new formal approaches of 1960s and early 1970s and new advances in special effects. Released in late 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman is prime example of film used to cinematically recover a national mythology of the past for the context of the present.

In this article, I will discuss how Donner’s film repurposes past forms and genre codes in order to aid in the cinematic recovery of a hero mythology, one that stands in stark contrast to the themes present in the Vietnam narratives that emerged around the same time. I argue that Donner’s film exhibits what David A. Cook terms “allusionism”—“the practice of invoking the audience’s…awareness of film history”—a practice found in many genre films of the late 1970s and the 1980s, in order to bring into relief a new American mythology (Cook 2000, 284). A specific type of allusionism that Superman uses is what Cook calls“memorialization,” “an affectionate evocation of past genres through imitation and exaggeration…[combining] state-of-the-art special effects with the old action genres of the thirties and forties” (287). In this essay, I will contrast Superman with The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, to demonstrate how allusionism is used to engage with American myths in radically different ways.

 

The Anthem

Fig. 1 The opening credit sequence of Richard Donner’s Superman (left)(Warner Brothers, 1978) and the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (right)(MGM, 1968), an example of memorialization evidenced in Donner’s film.

According to Stephanie Slocum-Schaffer, 1970s “Americans developed a deeper, more thorough suspicion of the instruments of public life and a more profound disillusionment with the corruption and inefficiency of public institutions….All sources of authority became targets for distrust and mockery” (Schulman xv, xvi). In a 1975 national opinion survey, nearly seventy percent agreed with the following statement: “Over the last ten years, the country’s leaders have consistently lied to the [American] people” (Berkowitz 2006, 6). Superman can be read as a film that attempts to address this disillusionment and distrust, achieved through Donner’s use of memorialization embedded in the film form. My textual analysis of Superman’s opening (which I refer to as “the anthem) will highlight how Donner’s film engages with the post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era sense of disillusionment.

Superman opens with a black and white shot of curtains drawn across the screen, recalling the curtains of a cinema palace of the 1920s and 1930s. Here, Donner employs the film’s first use of memorialization, a visual nod to the age and durability of the Superman mythology, exactly forty-years-old at the time of the film’s release. The curtains part to reveal a screen displaying “June 1938,” in the type-face indicative of that era. The title fades to reveal an edition of Action Comics. A child’s hand reaches into frame and opens the comic, and the child’s voice-over narration begins: “In the decade of the 1930s, even the great city of Metropolis was not spared the ravages of world wide depression.” It was in June of 1938 that the character created by animators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first appeared in the first edition of Action Comics. In this prologue sequence it is made clear that it is an engagement with the comic book medium that provides the starting point for Donner to reimagine the superhero film for a post-Vietnam generation.

In the herculean credit sequence that follows, it is the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold that provides a salient inter-text. The camera pans up from the Daily Planet building, shown in black and white (recalling the television serial from the 1950s), towards the moon in the sky above. The camera floats past the moon into outer space, leaving the screen blank. The dark screen is soon filled by blue credit titles that appear to fly through space to the foreground of the frame, pausing briefly, and then leaving the frame through the fourth-wall, as if pulled away by cosmic energy. John Williams’ score that accompanies these opening titles begins with a rise in tempo, creating an anticipation for the revelation of the film’s title. The black background of the title sequence is slowly filled with stars that rush towards the background of the frame, as if the viewer is traveling at light speed to the furthest reaches of space. When Williams’ score reaches a crescendo, the all too familiar Superman insignia is finally realized onscreen. The title “Superman” appears, and the film’s anthem begins.

Superman proclaims, later in the film, that he has come to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way,” and as such John William’s score, introduced in the film’s opening credit sequence can be read as an anthem of the America that Superman represents in the film. How the score operates as an anthem rests on how Williams employs and violates long-held principles of Classic Hollywood film composing. In her analysis of classical Hollywood film scores, Claudia Gorbman lists seven principles that governed the use of non-diegetic music: “1) the technical apparatus of non-diegetic music must not be visible, 2) music is not meant to be heard consciously, 3) soundtrack music may set specific moods and emphasize particular emotions suggested in the narrative, 4) music gives referential and narrative cues…supplying formal demarcations and establishing settings and characters…, 5) music provides formal and rhythmic continuity…,6)…music aids in the construction of formal and narrative unity, and 7) a given film score may violate any of the principles above, providing the violation is at the service of other principles” (Reay 2004, 33). While Williams’ score sets “specific moods”, provides “referential cues”, and “aids in the construction of formal and narrative unity”, it violates the first two principles; the score is highly visible, and it is the intention of Williams’ and Donner that the score be heard consciously.[1]

The heavy use of brass instruments in the construction of what can be considered the “hero motif” owes much to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s reliance on the same orchestral section (Kalinak 2003, 21). If one were to examine Korngold’s scores for Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, Warner Brothers, 1938) we find the brass instruments articulating a theme for the hero of these films. This practice is present in the work of many of Korngold’s cohorts, notably in Max Steiner’s score for The Adventures of Don Juan (Vincent Sherman, Warner Brothers, 1948).[2] The influence of Korngold and others demonstrates the use of genre memory present in Williams’ score from Superman (and Star Wars as well); the score remembers the music of Classical Hollywood, an era that had fallen out of favor during the 1960s, and repurposes this approach to film scoring to speak to the concerns on the present generation. This connection also further illustrates the film’s use of memorialization. The score evokes the scores of Korngold and others composers of that generation, relying on audience familiarity with the films of the past, in order to present something unique and relevant to the emerging blockbuster entertainment.

Shifting away briefly from Superman, the music of The Deer Hunter and Coming Home are used to speak to post-Vietnam American disillusionment in a wholly different way. The Deer Hunter opens with Stanley Myers “Cavatina,” performed on a classical guitar by John Christopher Williams (no relation to Superman’s composer) and with a scale progression that suggests Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” This delicate piece, also known as “He was Beautiful,” underscores the autumnal mood felt through much of the film, in particular in the scenes that follow the homecoming of Robert De Niro’s veteran character, Mike Vronsky. Coming Home, by contrast, does not contain scored music. Rather, the soundtrack is composed of previously released popular music from the Vietnam era, suggesting that, as David James writes, “the invasion [of Vietnam] and rock and roll are intertwined so thoroughly” that the rock music of era inarguable operates as both a soundtrack for those who fought the war and for those who demonstrated against it (James 1990, 80). Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was,” the song that ends the film, can be read as rock culture’s requiem for the Vietnam generation, coming at the end of a soundtrack that features songs by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Simon and Garfunkel. Both the music of The Deer Hunter and Coming Home invites the audience to mourn, whereas the music of Superman signals epiphany and resurrection.

Who am I?

 In his famous essay on the Superman myth, Umberto Eco notes that the superhuman character, whose powers are matched by his humanity, has been a “constant of popular imagination” (Eco 1972, 14). What sets the mythic characters, such as Superman, apart from the heroic characters of Romantic and Modernist literature is the predictability behind the heroism; heroic acts by characters in many novels of the 19th and 20th century are a part of a character transformation process—the call of the heroic act is initially refused, whereas the heroic acts of Superman (and other mythic figures) are not seen as an interruption to how we previously perceived the character (15). This predictably is the result of the mythic figure embodying a universal ideal. Richard Hofstader wrote “it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one” (Hofstader 1997, 35), and Superman, in Donner’s film and in earlier forms, embodies, as a universal ideal, an American mythology rooted in notions of American exceptionalism; Superman is being the national ideology rather than having the ideology. On the surface, this would appear to cast Superman as a two-dimensional character, a person upon whom the spectators cannot project themselves. His appeal to the audience according to Eco, however, is that he exists in two forms, one that is highly recognizable and another that is ordinary to the point of invisibility (Eco 1972, 21). Eco’s observations are seen to play out in Donner’s film, contributing to two important components of the film’s cinematic recovery of a past mythology: the theme of the outsider and a reconsideration of  American exceptionalism.

In the documentary Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1998), J. Holberman observes that the creation of the Superman character in 1938 was largely informed by the Jewish immigrant experience in the early twentieth century. Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were the sons of Jewish immigrants (from Lithuania and Holland respectively), and the immigrant experience, the feeling of being an outsider despite deliberate, conscious efforts to assimilate into a predominately white Protestant society, has a distinct presence in the story of Clark Kent/Superman. Holberman notes that “Superman is discovered [by the Kents] like Moses in the bulrushes, he is an immigrant….[In his adult life] he has his identity as a mild-mannered intellectual, but underneath he is the man of steel, [and] I think that is a very suggestive Jewish fantasy. It’s almost as if he is passing all the time.”[1] In this regard, Superman argues “that all one needs is a gentile demeanor to hide in plain sight.”[2]

This reading of Superman appears to entertain old notions of American identity, placing Donner’s film at odds with a contemporary understanding of national identity. Matt Yockey, however, writes that the “cultural familiarity” with the superhero relies on the superhero’s instability, an “assertion of the plurality essential to a postmodern American identity” (Yockey 2009). This idea puts the theme of the outsider at a convergence with the repurposed notion of American exceptionalism; the outsider (in this case Kal-El) may find him or herself in a position where they have to surrender their original identity through some level of conformity (as seen with Clark Kent), and yet the exceptional American citizen emerges through the outsider revealing his true self (the revealing of Superman in the film’s second act).  The superhero/comic book hero film, in this sense, provides an interesting site to examine how notions of American exceptionalism are culturally negotiated.

It is important to note that Superman reveals the theme of the outsider in both a rural and an urban setting throughout the film, achieving the same effect in both places. The rural, where “the human” Clark Kent originates from, is often associated with the frontier, the place that served as a laboratory for the American mythology of violence as a justification for reaching benevolent goals, according to Wilber W. Caldwell, fueling a broader mythology of superiority through strength (Caldwell 2006, 125-126). Though the mythology of superiority through strength has a distinct presence in Donner’s film, and in earlier incarnations of the Superman legend, it is the absence of violence in Superman’s actions that contributes to the new mythology presented in Donner’s film. Furthermore, the fact that this non-violent mythology of strength is demonstrated to America by an outsider not only contributes to the outsider theme but it is also indicative of the changes to the American social landscape brought about by the anti-war movement and civil rights movement of the 1960s, a challenge to the dominant mythology of superiority-through-strength present in the 1950s. The 1950s superiority-through-strength mythology, which also can be viewed as a 1950s form of American exceptionalism, is remembered in Donner’s film through evoking the memory of earlier screen adaptations of the Superman legend and then challenged with the new concerns of the post-Vietnam generation.

A reconsideration of the meaning of American exceptionalism aids the recovery of the American hero myth in Donner’s film. My reading of Superman considers two different understandings of American exceptionalism. On the one hand, the superiority-through-strength mythology is an important component of any discussion of the dominant mode of American exceptionalism pre-Vietnam War/post-World War II, in particular during the 1950s when the Superman television serials were popular. On the other hand, while some aspects of this variant of American exceptionalism are retained in Donner’s film, a new consideration of American exceptionalism (one which resulted from the humbling experience of Vietnam and Watergate) had to be incorporated into the recovered mythology in Donner’s film. This revised form of American exceptionalism lends itself to Seymour Martin Lipset’s characterization of American exceptionalism as the rejection of “the idea of rigid hereditary classes” (Lipset, 1996, 113), combined with the notion of public service as “the supreme test of citizenship and adherence to the national will” (20). Both Donner’s Superman, and earlier versions of Superman, hold Superman’s deeds as “the supreme test of citizenship and adherence to the national will” being meet on an astonishing level. What distinguishes Donner’s film is that it relies on audience awareness of national failure (the Vietnam War), in contrast to the national success of halting Nazism and fascism (World War II), memories still fresh in the minds of those who first encountered the 1950s Superman television series. The mythology presented in Donner’s film is forced to contend with a collective shame and trauma, examined the same year in The Deer Hunter and Coming Home

Fig.2 “The United States Treasury Department presents…The Adventures of Superman,” so began each episode of The Adventures of Superman (ABC network, 1952-1958).

Fig.2 “The United States Treasury Department presents…The Adventures of Superman,” so began each episode of The Adventures of Superman (ABC network, 1952-1958).

The dominant variant of American exceptionalism during the 1950s provides another way of reading the memorialization and recovery of mythology in Donner’s film. The Superman television serial, featuring George Reeves in the title role, exhibits the prevailing interpretation of 1950s American exceptionalism par excellence. For one, the television series received direct funding from the United States Treasury Department and openly and proudly declared this relationship with the U.S. government during the opening credit title sequence of each episode (fig.2). The opening of each episode states that Superman has come to earth to stand for “truth, justice, and the American way,” casting his super-human abilities and capacity for humanity as uniquely American in nature. Superman is shown during these titles standing atop a miniature planet earth, at one point morphing (through the use of dissolve) into Clark Kent, whom the narrator describes as “mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper,” then morphing back into Superman, standing in front of an American flag, completely unfurled and blowing in full glory. Donner’s film, by contrast, is forced to contend with the distrust of government and authority figures, whereas the George Reeves series never conceives how such this mistrust is possible. 

In The Adventures of Superman, the George Reeves character serves as the physical manifestation of that ideology. Superman in this series is what E.J. Hobsbawm would characterize as an icon of a proto-nationalism, an embodiment of the “consciousness of belonging or having belonged to a lasting political entity” (Hobsbawm 1990, 73); Superman represents a form of American nationalism that feels so far removed from the real experience of an ordinary American and yet, at the same time, feels so familiar as a result of popular culture (46). This form of national iconography raises a question that arises within Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation as an “imagined community”: why does there exist such a strong attachment to the “invention of…imaginations” that we call the nation-state? (Anderson 1983, 141) The rejoinder in Donner’s film is its tacit acknowledgement that ideas of American exceptionalism have changed since the 1950s serial. Cinema is also a privileged site position to deconstruct notions of nationalism and provide an answer to the Anderson’s question. Superman, The Deer Hunter, and Coming Home each present different challenges to the notion of American exceptionalism, ones which bring into relief a discourse on what American cinema of the 1970s has to teach about that decade.

Turning to the Vietnam War films of 1978, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home offer different positions on American exceptionalism in contrast to Donner’s film, though the theme of the outsider, embodied in the veteran characters, has a distinct presence in these films. Coming Home contains a clear indictment of the mythology of superiority-through-strength, with its overtly critical stance on the Vietnam War. The Deer Hunter acts as an examination of the nature of masculinity and a reconsideration of the Western and American frontier mythology, and critiques American exceptionalism in slightly more ambiguous terms, though it is no less suspicious of the superiority-through-strength mythology.[1] The Deer Hunter, according to John Hellman, inverts the Western genre conventions to critically examine a mythology perpetuated in support of the war effort in Vietnam, a mythology believed to have contributed to collective trauma experienced by America in the wake of that war (Hellmann, 1982, 420). The veteran characters of both films are outsiders who serve as vehicles for both films’ critique of American exceptionalism. The veterans in these films are either shunned by the society that sent to war or are unable reconnect with that society, feeling as alien in American society as Superman. The clear difference between these Vietnam War films and Donner’s film, however, is that these Vietnam War films make no attempt to propose a new American mythology in the wake of the legacy of Vietnam; there is an overriding pessimism towards the idea that America can recover from a series of events that demystified American exceptionalism, and the outsiders are either a product of this demystification or their status as outsiders becomes even more entrenched by it.

Why are you?

Films, according to Peter C. Rollins, can act as historical documents, “for films register the feelings and attitudes of the periods in which they are made” (Rollins 1998, 250). Superman, The Deer Hunter, and Coming Home are no exception, despite exhibiting different interpretations of the attitudes of the period. Superman, like the Vietnam War films of the era, drew upon previous genre forms in order to provide a unique statement for the time of release, a film that Douglas Gomery has characterized as a “cross pollinated” blockbuster (Gomery 2005, 242). As we have seen in the opening credit sequence, the film attempted to signal an arrival of a post-Vietnam renewal of idealism, a cinematic recovery of a past American mythology reconfigured for the generation that endured the Vietnam War and the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies. It is when Superman first reveals himself to the city of Metropolis, nearly half-way into the film, that the breadth of this hero mythology is revealed to the spectator through evoking previous genre forms.

A string of disaster films appearing in the 1970s provides an inter-text for Donner to establish a new genre form and present a new American mythology. The Poseidon Adventure (Twentieth Century Fox, 1972), The Towering Inferno (Warner Brothers, 1974), and Earthquake (Universal Pictures, 1974) were seen as both spectacle and a metaphor for a society, once thought to be unbreakable, being torn apart by the forces of nature, revealing a deep-seated fear that American society was more fragile and combustible than it was previously lead to believe. During Superman’s second act, Lois Lane finds herself in a near death experience: a helicopter accident atop the roof of the Daily Planet building results in Lane dangling off the edge of the building, slowly losing her grip on a seat belt, the only thing holding her back from certain death. The imagery in this scene recalls scenes from disaster pictures, and when Superman inevitably flies to her rescue, the dominant metaphor of the disaster films is rendered obsolete; the towering edifice symbolizing wealth and power, a mask over underlying human fragility though it may be, is shown as unable to impede the power of pure American heroism. 

The disaster film, according to Peter Lev, has always been a stable motif of Hollywood cinema, but the string of disaster films in the early 1970s, however, directly correlated to the “malaise” America found itself in during the era of Vietnam and Watergate (Lev 2000, 41). Curiously, Lev places Spielberg’s Jaws (Universal Pictures, 1975) amongst these disaster films, noting that what Spielberg’s film shares with Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure is an initial outrage against corporate or political negligence (Amity’s mayor, motivated by greed, allowing the beaches to remain open despite the presence of a shark) that is soon subsumed by survival instincts and “physical combat…which, moreover, fits easily within the genre expectations of the audience” (47). This same pattern can be read in Superman and its use of disaster film genre codes. The carelessness of the Daily Planet’s helipad crew, which contributes to the perilous situation that Lois finds herself in before being rescued by Superman, is never taken into consideration; Superman does not admonish Lois, the pilot, or any Daily Planet employees for failing to notice the cable that was too close to the helicopter’s landing skids. Instead, he advises the rooftop crew that the pilot is in need of medical assistance and advises Lois that flying is still “statistically the safest way to travel.” The focus remains, in this scene and in subsequent scenes chronicling Superman’s deeds, on the heroic acts rather than the underlying cause behind the situations that Superman remedies; the master plan of a jewel thief that Superman apprehends in a following scene is never revealed, nor is the reason behind the engine malfunction on Air Force One, which Superman helps fly to safety (and incidentally we never see how Frisky the cat becomes stuck in the tree. We are only happy to see Superman rescue it and return it to a young girl).

The role that journalism plays in Superman contributes to the film’s reconsideration of an American mythology, in that it evokes the memory of journalists who brought an end to the Nixon presidency and who brought the horrors of the Vietnam War to public attention, in sharp contrast to Department of Defense propaganda. Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (Warner Brothers, 1976), released two years earlier, contains super heroes of it own. That there is a clear difference between the real “super heroes” in Pakula’s film and the fictional superhero of Donner’s film, speaks to the more conservative and reactionary tone of Superman. Woodward and Bernstein are pitted against a juggernaut of a foe but ultimately prevail by standing for “truth” and “justice”, even though “the American way” has lost its way. The journalists of Superman, however, are shown as impotent in the face of the evils that America faces. They are mere spectators with only the power to document these woes. It is only through the emergence of a character that offers a reconsideration of the superiority-through-strength mythology that these challenges can be met.

Fig. 3 The ending of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (United Artists, 1978)(left), the war hero in shame, and Richard Donner’s Superman (Warner Brothers, 1978)(right), the triumph hero directly addressing the spectator. 

Fig. 3 The ending of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (United Artists, 1978)(left), the war hero in shame, and Richard Donner’s Superman (Warner Brothers, 1978)(right), the triumph hero directly addressing the spectator. 

The Deer Hunter and Coming Home constitute a reworking of the veteran film, a sub-category of the war film, of which William Wyler’s World War II veteran film The Best Years of Our Lives (Samuel Goldwyn, 1946) is a stellar example. The critique of American war mythology in these films is reflected in how they contest and repurpose the mythology espoused by the earlier war films. Coming Home and The Deer Hunter draw parallels between the traumatized war veteran and an altered social landscape; the traumatized veteran is a discernable narrative device that embodies a nation coming to grips with the fact that it clearly parted with the ethos constructed in the wake of World War II. Through their absence of notions of heroism, both films ask the spectator to question whether America can call itself an exceptional nation when unexceptional acts have been committed in its name. Coming Home clearly indicts the war mythology promoted through Hollywood war cinema as contributing to the mass delusion that led to America losing its moral compass; in the final scene, the quadriplegic veteran Luke Martin tells a group of students, “I know some of you guys are going to look at the uniform…and you’re going to remember all the films…and the glory of other wars…and think about some vague patriotic feeling and go off and fight this turkey too.” This scene cross-cuts from shots of another veteran character, Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), the voice of the Hawks in the film, removing his uniform on a beach and rushing out towards the surf, apparently committing suicide (fig.3). One veteran confesses that he is no hero, while another veteran can no longer call himself a man (hero or otherwise).    

It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history.

 “Movies read or interpret the cultures in which they exist, just a beat behind the present tense of events.” – Helene Keys

 Levi-Strauss argued that a society creates mythologies when it is faced with contradictions to its culture; in myths, contradictions to one’s culture are resolved in an alternate universe through other narrative modes (Elsaesser 2002, 33). In the case of Superman, and surely the case of Star Wars as well, this contradiction came in the form of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and it is in the alternate universe of these films that the contradiction is resolved. In the proceeding decades, this observation is see to have remained intact. For example, the dominant post-Cold War/pre-9/11 mythology of American invincibility was sustained through films like Independence Day (Twentieth Century Fox, 1996) and Armageddon (Touchstone Pictures, 1998). At the same time, cinema remains a privileged site for challenging mythology (and sometimes the cultural contradictions as well). The mythology of an idyllic American suburbia is shattered in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1986) and Sam Mendes American Beauty (Dreamworks, 1999); the post-9/11 collective hero mythology is explicitly challenged in a World War II context in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (Dreamworks, 2006). The superhero/comic book films, also continues to challenge or affirm certain national myths and notions of national identity, often taking up contentious issues as their point of departure (the issue of torture and government surveillance in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight, for example). [1]

The Vietnam War films that appeared at the end of the 1970s offer an interesting discourse on the cultural history of the decade when read alongside the Hollywood blockbusters released around the same time. War films entered a cycle where war mythology was critiqued in varying degrees and in varying ways. It would not be until the 1990s, when the memory of Vietnam had been buried, that war movies would be used to cinematically recover an early war mythology, repurposed as the “greatest generation” films (of which Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is an exemplar). By contrast, science-fiction/fantasy films that emerged during the 1970s were already equipped to cinematically recover American war mythology. There are three factors we can attribute to this. For one, fantasy stories already had a built-in faculty for resurrecting and reinforcing mythology (going back to Levi Strauss’ argument that contradictions to myths have been traditionally resolved in alternate universes). Second, the nostalgia evoked through memorialization and other techniques of allusionism conditioned audiences to more readily accept a repackaged American mythology. Lastly, in terms of economics and industry politics, fantasy films, in contrast to war movies, were seen as carrying a lower risk of opening “old wounds and inflaming passionslong thought spent” (Biskind 2008).

 

Works cited

 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983

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Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman: The Amazing Adventures of Superman.” Translated by Natalie Chilton. Diacritics. Vol. 2, No.1 (Spring 1972), pp. 14-22.

Elsaesser, Thomas. Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis. London: Arnold Publishing, 2002

Friedman, Lester D. “Introduction: Movies and the 1970s”. American Cinema of the 1970s. Editor Lester D. Friedman. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2007

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Hellmann, John. “Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now”. American Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Autumn 1982).

Hobsbawm, E.J. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990

Hofstader, Richard. “The Erosion of American National Interests”. Foreign Affairs. Septemeber/October 1997, Vol. 76, No.5, quoted in Prestowitz, Rogue Nation, 35.

James, David E. “Rock and Roll in Representations of the Invasion of Vietnam”. Representations. No. 29 (Winter 1990). Los Angeles: U of California P, 1990

MacDonald, Peter. “Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC and the Photography of Superman.” American Cinematographer. Vol 60, No. 1. January, 1979. URL: http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1308641071/geoffrey-unsworth-bsc-and-the-photography-of-superman

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Amazon Kindle Edition.

Lev, Peter. American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions. Austin: U of Texas P, 2000

Lipset, Seymour Martin. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: Norton & Company, 1996.

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Reay, Pauline. Music in Film: Soundtracks and Synergy. Short Cut series. NY: Wallflower Press, 2004

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Schaefer, Dennis and Larry Salvato. Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers. Berkeley: UC Press, 1984.

Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. MA: Da Capo Press, 2001

Yockey, Matt. “Secret Identities: The Superhero Simulacrum and the Nation”. Cineaction, No. 77, 2009. Web url: http://cineaction.ca/issue77sample.htm

 

Filmography

 

Ashby, Hal (1978). Coming Home. USA

Cimino, Michael (1978). The Deer Hunter. USA

Curtiz, Michael (1938). The Adventures of Robin Hood. USA

Curtiz, Michael (1935). Captain Blood. USA

Donner, Richard (1978). Superman. USA

Guillermin, John (1974). The Towering Inferno. USA

Kubrick, Stanley (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey. USA

Lucas, George (1977). Star Wars: A New Hope. USA

Neame, Ronald (1972). The Poseidon Adventure. USA

Pakula, Alan. (1976). All the Presidents Men. USA

Robson, Mark (1974). Earthquake. USA

Spielberg, Steven (1975). Jaws. USA

 

 

[1] For further reading, see J.M. Tyree’s “American Heroes” in the Spring 2009 (Vol. 62, No.3) issue of Film Quarterly

[1] The “God Bless America” scene that ends The Deer Hunter is the most salient example of this ambiguity, as it has produced multiple readings of the film’s stance on the Vietnam legacy. 

[1] Director Simcha Jacobovici. Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1998).

[2] Idib.

[1] In the documentary, “John Williams: Making the Score,” Donner notes that when he first viewed a cut of the film with the music score added, during the opening credits, “as [the title] ‘Superman’ came on the screen…if you listen carefully, the music speaks the word.” Url link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-3u5OLfnYw

[2] Incidentally, Richard Donner uses Steiner’s theme from The Adventures of Don Juan in his 1985 film The Goonies.