The Incitements of Pop Culture: A Conversation with Peter Biskind




CULTURAL CRITIC AND FILM HISTORIAN Peter Biskind is probably best known for his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-’N’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, which chronicled the professional achievements and personal hedonism of American maverick filmmakers of the 1970s. But Biskind’s previous study of Hollywood cinema, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (1983), was a work of historically informed criticism that aimed to make sense of the decade through an analysis of B-movie Westerns and science fiction, as well as more prestigious films like Giant (1956) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Biskind has extended the historical reach of his research with his new book, The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great For Extremism, which tackles the politics and popular culture of the more-or-less present. As its subtitle suggests, the book addresses a wide range of topics, including Game of Thrones (2011–), The Dark Knight (2008), Avatar (2009), President Trump, and what the author calls “extreme culture.”

Biskind corresponded with LARB while on the road supporting his new book.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: When did your vision for The Sky Is Falling come into focus — your sense that the nation’s public life was becoming extreme around the same time that our pop culture was consumed with zombies, vampires, and visions of apocalypse? Was there a single film or event that triggered your interest in this topic?

PETER BISKIND: Extremism has been dominating both our politics and our pop culture for a long time. I started writing the book midway into Obama’s first term, around 2010. I remember being skeptical of Obama’s Panglossian belief that the chasm between Democrats and Republicans could be bridged by goodwill and better communication. When the Tea Party–inflected Republican right stonewalled most of his initiatives, I wasn’t surprised.

2010 was the year The Walking Dead first aired. It has been enormously popular, but I don’t want to single out that series, because I was struck by the extent to which shows with superheroes and supernatural elements were flooding the market. True Blood first aired in 2008, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer had premiered in 1997. The first X-Men movie was released in 2000. Batman Begins was released in 2005. 24, with its rogue agent, Jack Bauer, first aired in 2001.

My first book, Seeing Is Believing, had been about studio films of the 1950s as delivery vehicles for postwar bipartisan consensus culture. It was evident that, since then, mainstream culture had polarized into right and left. I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look.

How does the causality work here? Did the extreme pop culture drive the breakdown of the political mainstream — that body of shared assumptions and standards — or did the politics drive the crazy movies and TV shows?

I think it worked both ways. It’s difficult to untangle cause and effect here. The way I like to put it is that pop culture incites and enhances developments in the political realm. If you’re entertained by a steady diet of vigilante shows, for example, then when a president comes along who disregards the rule of law or takes it into his own hands, rather than being outraged, you will find it ho-hum. We’ve seen this a thousand times. It’s already been normalized in film and television.

There is a long tradition of intellectuals, with mixed success, trying to make ideological sense of pop culture. Your book mentions one of the earliest exemplars, Robert Warshow. Who are some thinkers you admire? Who sharpened your own wits for cultural analysis?

Hard to say. Warshow was certainly one. I suppose also critics like James Agee and Dwight Macdonald, as well as the writers clustered around the Partisan Review before it lurched right — Alfred Kazin et al. I’m a child of the 1960s, when it was obligatory to read Lukács and Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, which I dutifully did. There’s a wonderful book, largely forgotten, by Barbara Deming, called Running Away From Myself, which was very useful. I should add that there are a lot of smart critics writing daily and weekly in magazines and newspapers today, like Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker and Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in The New York Times, from whom I often pick up ideas.

Let me take what may be an atypical example here. You write repeatedly about Christopher Nolan — director of the Dark Knight films (2005–2012), Inception (2010), Dunkirk (2017), and others — as a maker of right-wing movies that extol revenge, vigilantes, Ayn Rand–style heroes, and a bitter kind of übermensch justice. What if it turned out that Nolan was a liberal or moderate in his political life and that the people who worked on those films were predominantly on the center or left? That is, does a movie reflect the conscious politics of those who make it, or is ideology more elusive and complex?

It wouldn’t be surprising that Nolan might make films to the right of his stated beliefs. Conscious intent is only one factor. There are lots of other things that influence the ideology of movies and TV series, ranging from the rules of the genre in which a director or showrunner is working, to the demands of the corporate entity that’s producing, to the source material on which they are based. Nolan based The Dark Knight trilogy on the comics of Frank Miller, a vocal and self-professed reactionary. Shows often incorporate both right and left elements because they don’t want to lose half their audience. This allows each side to claim them as their own. The Matrix (1999) is a prime example of a left-wing movie appropriated by the right.

You mentioned your earlier book Seeing Is Believing, which looks at the B-movies of the 1950s. That world of old-style Westerns and Cold War Martians — and the mainstream consensus they express — seems impossibly distant from where we are right now, and must have seemed far away even when you wrote about it in the early ’80s. Was it significantly different for you — intellectually, emotionally — to write a book about the extremism of the 21st century, as the results of that extremism unfold all around us?

Not so different. The main thing I carried over from Seeing Is Believing is the methodology — that is, how shows carry or manifest ideology. The counters, so to speak, are the same, but the dynamics are different. For example, in the ’50s, the mainstream consensus was comprised of Cold War liberals and moderate Republicans whose agents — cops and docs, soldiers and scientists — fought with each other, but it was over means, not ends. They basically agreed on how American society should be organized. Now it’s open warfare. Cops and soldiers have moved right while scientists have moved left. Look at a film like Avatar, where they’re at each others’ throats.

Another difference is that even though The Sky Is Falling is about ideology in popular culture, recent events have shown that the Republicans and the far right no longer (and maybe never did) hold to an ideology other than naked opportunism in the pursuit of power — which, I suppose, is its own ideology, a kind of Ayn Rand–ism. One minute they’re touting family values and the next they’re supporting a president who trashes those values at every turn.

My sense of your politics is that you are at the very least generally left of center. How do you personally respond to the loss of both a cultural mainstream and the rise of radical versions of the right and left? Did we lose something important and valuable when the mid-20th-century categories frayed, or is this just a rough road to a better world?

That’s a good question. In some ways, the polarized cultural and political landscape we now live in makes me nostalgic for the old center, but over the course of the many decades when it held sway, it did a lot of damage, not to mention sowing the seeds of its own destruction. It presided over the Cold War and the arms race, which easily could have put an end to life on earth, and still might. McCarthyism and the witch hunt in Hollywood destroyed many reputations and careers. Poor Judge Kavanaugh wouldn’t be the first by any means. And let’s not forget Vietnam and Watergate. The mainstream consensus fostered an economy and value system dominated by the values of barely restrained monopoly capitalism, and punished dissenting opinions.

The prosperity enjoyed by postwar America blunted its worst effects for several generations, but now the chickens, so to speak, have come home to roost.

Not all the movies you wrote about in Seeing Is Believing were masterpieces. You clearly have a fondness for — or at least a sharp eye for analyzing — the more marginal products of American pop culture. But I wonder if the constant stream of zombies and vampires in recent film and television wore on you while you were working on The Sky Is Falling.

Well, I did watch many shows that I didn’t like. The most onerous viewing experience was watching six seasons of Lost. Because it was a network show, there were about 23 episodes a season. It was excruciating. But I do want to emphasize that my intent in grouping movies into categories that reflect their ideological affinities is not to pass value judgments on them. There are plenty of right-wing shows I enjoyed, like The Dark Knight movies and 24, as well as left-leaning shows I didn’t like. Game of Thrones, one of my favorites, is a centrist show, in my view. Lots go into these shows besides ideology, and many of them are well written, acted, and directed, regardless of their politics.

Your book looks at both television and movies. We are supposedly in a golden age for the former and a period of decline — or at least declining seriousness — for the latter, partly because of the way funding, distribution, and international markets work. Do any of the differences between TV and film matter for your purposes?

I have to confess — I guess it’s obvious — that what I’ve done in this book is sometimes called — somewhat derisively — “content analysis.” I say derisively because critics view this approach as largely ignoring a lot of elements that are constituent to visual media, such as cinematography, editing, performance, and so on, which taken together significantly shape “meaning.” So, for my purposes, even though TV is enjoying a golden age and movies are more or less in the shitter, that doesn’t make any difference in the way I approach them. And, as I said, I don’t intend my analyses of individual texts to imply aesthetic judgments. Once in a while I’ll throw in an adjective to praise or disparage something, but that’s not my primary aim.

I have some hope that movies will eventually recover from the superhero plague with which they are now infected. As soon as the Chinese and Russians become sated with caped crusaders, the market for that kind of product will collapse. The movie business is famously cyclical, and this cycle, with any luck, will eventually end.

As for the era of “peak TV” that we’re lucky enough to be living through, I find it fascinating and thrilling. It’s worldwide, and it will probably last for a while longer before the pursuit of profit ruins it. I have an article in the October Esquire that addresses the fortunes and future of TV. All I can say is, enjoy it while it lasts.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and the author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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