All posts by Randy Friedman

Invasion Films Across Eras

In my RBA, I plan to compare invasion films of the 1950s and the 2000s and highlight the differences or similarities between films as cultural shifts or continuity across eras. One particular aspect of these films is a shift from “unknown” invaders to “known” invaders as a result of America understanding its enemy through globalization. Like in my TIC, I plan to organize my RBA by introducing different themes present in these films and showing if films of both eras represent or acknowledge these concepts.

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Alien Invasion!

I’m currently researching the various alien invasion films of the Cold War era and their role in serving as a replication of Cold War political anxieties and social disorder. My topic directly stems back to Cold War containment culture and the utilization of pop culture as a means to indirectly examine national discourse.

There are numerous perspectives and analyses of these alien invasion films. One prevailing belief is that alien invaders represent the possibility of Soviet invasion; given Cold War tensions, the possibility of nuclear war made this scenario all the more terrifying. This idea of direct invasion is also coupled with the invasion of Communism in the minds of Americans, as shown in various mind control-esque films. A different analysis stems from xenophobia of the era and the fear of individuals from the developing and third world immigrating to the United States; oftentimes, these films presented friendly aliens who seek to coexist with Americans, but are often driven out due to American aggression and lack of tolerance. This leads to another interpretation of these films: a critique of the militaristic state and violence of the United States; films that contain this idea feature the United States as the antagonist due to their aggression against friendly invaders, causing viewers to redefine who the “real dangerous aliens” are. Finally, alien invasion films often serve as an examination of social anxieties and contain relevant topics like gender roles, masculinity, familial and racial tensions, and conformity. In my RBA, I am possibly interested in exploring the negative effects of alien invasion films on viewers of the era in generating hysteria; while these films often served to critique the 1950s American way of life rather than create fear, I’m interested in researching the misconstrued interpretations of these films as a result of Cold War anxieties.

Cultural Commentary in Science Fiction

In the article, Sarantakes discusses an allegory of the nuclear bomb and its destructive abilities. In an episode titled “The Doomsday Machine,” the crew of the Enterprise is tasked with destroying what is described as a “giant, planet-destroying death machine” (Sarantakes 88). This “death machine” essentially parallels the nuclear bomb, which has the ability to inflict great destruction on Earth. Having already destroyed planets in the Star Trek world, the machine continues on its path, and the crew goes to great lengths and experiences loss (Commodore Matt Decker dies) to neutralize its threat. This serves as an allegory for containing nuclear weapons during the Cold War, as these nuclear weapons can essentially destroy its host planet, and great effort is required to stop this weapon from inflicting mass destruction. Therefore, Star Trek is able to paint a negative picture of nuclear bombs in citing the damage it creates if used.

It is often difficult to bluntly challenge prevailing political ideologies, as shown through the difficulty in tackling topics in Star Trek directly. Therefore, science fiction generates an opportunity to explore topics that parallel actual political/cultural ideologies through subbing out real-world events and ideas for fantasy. This allows viewers to form opinions about these detached topics without essentially generating their opinion on these topics’ real-world counterparts. Therefore, science fiction allows creators to help guide viewers towards certain beliefs through creating alternate examples that are exempt from the pre-conceived notions and beliefs of the viewers. The creators also do not face the backlash associated with discussing real-world topics directly.

The Twilight Zone serves as a good example of cultural critique. Not only does the show use allegories to discuss current events as in Star Trek, the show also distorts society to comment on the possible effects of certain social and cultural behaviors and practices on society.

“Threatened from above and within”

“Central cities, for many commentators, were spaces of blight, repositories of extreme cultures, classes and races, threatened from above and within” (Farish 141).

In Matthew Farish’s essay “Disaster and decentralization: American cities and the Cold War,” he points at many reasons for turmoil, instability, and degradation of American cities during the Cold War era. In the quote above, he highlights this overall concept of these cities being “threatened from above and within”; in his essay, he touches on threats from “above” being things like atomic bombs from foreign powers and threats from “within” being social instability and racial unrest. He uses this quote as a means to juxtapose and streamline many components of American cities that led to them being threatened; for example, he highlights their “central” nature as a means for foreign targeting, while also highlighting the “cultures, classes and races” of American cities that lead to turmoil within them. The fact that he places this sentence in the conclusion effectively allows him to resummarize and emphasize his argument after proving its many components.

Images of Hiroshima created the notion that a similar atrocity or destruction could happen to any American, centralized city; these images later carried over into works of Cold War pop culture that depicted cities like New York as constant targets and oftentimes as ruins caused by nuclear fallout. The image of the Twin Towers falling on 9/11 garners a similar reaction as that of the atomic bomb’s destruction on Hiroshima. This imagery lends the idea that any terrorist attack could hit a major American city, and average Americans became increasingly paranoid as a result. This possibility of terror and destruction also has carried over into pop culture as it did during the Cold War era, as many recent American films have detailed terrorists destroying or targeting American cities and plotting to kidnap or harm important American figures.

Quick Write: The problem of “perceived differences”

Something problematic I found from the reading was the re-institution of “perceived differences” in society brought about by post-9/11 society. Just as individuals straying from the white, middle-class ideal family during the Cold War were targeted, individuals and entire groups again were sought out and alienated based on physical, sexual, and religious factors they can’t control. The United States worked to cement itself as an ideal and model society during the Cold War, and many movements, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement, expanded the rights and liberties of individuals; however, this period of progress was greatly abandoned, and history now repeats itself as the beginning of the Cold War, where differences were made between individuals who did and did not stray from a societal model. Lugo emphasizes the creation of these “perceived differences” in stating that they “have been manufactured in the aftermath of 9/11 such that the very categories of ‘American’ and ‘un-American’ have been re-instituted and maintained as separate and distinct.

Cold War-era Ideas Echoed in “Borat”

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Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat (2008) not only evokes a Cold War-era importance of assimilating to “superior” American society and culture, but also highlights a continued divide between what is considered “American” and “un-American.” Cohen transforms himself into fictitious Borat Sagdiyev, a reporter from Kazakhstan who is tasked with discovering lessons, learnings, and secrets of the American way of life in order to share these new understandings with and better Kazakhstan. Cohen utilizes few actors and improvisation, as genuine interactions between real, unsuspecting Americans and Cohen’s Borat constitute the majority of the film.

The official title of Cohen’s film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, initially exposes a sense of American superiority and need to assimilate to American cultural practices. Through highlighting that “cultural learnings of America” would benefit Kazakhstan, and not the other way around, Cohen emphasizes the Cold War sentiment that the rest of the world should use the United States as a societal model. This parallel is further accomplished through Borat’s background as a citizen of a formerly communist country and his quest to exchange his background for American ideals and beliefs. In the film, Borat even attends lessons to learn the mannerisms of average Americans and accepts an invitation to learn proper dinner etiquette at a Southern family’s home in the hopes of assimilating to American practices. This family has no knowledge that Borat is in fact British Cohen, and they interpret Cohen’s foolish actions at the dinner to represent inferior cultural mannerisms of individuals from Kazakhstan, which again highlights a sense of American cultural superiority.

In another moment during Borat, average Americans have a negative reaction to what is perceived as “un-American.” At a rodeo, Cohen sings a fictitious rendition of the national anthem of Kazakhstan, something the American spectators believe is genuine. The audience reacts negatively through booing and cursing due to the foreignness of this anthem as opposed to the more widespread and culturally accepted American national anthem. Just as Americans during the Cold War were not receptive to things viewed as unpatriotic and sought to define what is “American” and “un-American,” average Americans shown in Borat continue to exemplify this attitude.