Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cultural Tremors

This week I’ve been reading David J. Skal’s fantastically interesting book “The Monster Show” which examines the cultural history of horror. Although I’ve always known that films generally express social anxieties, after reading this book it has renewed my fervor for viewing movies through this lens of interpreting them as reflections of the climate of their era.

I just watched the 1990 classic Tremors and despite the fact that it’s a film starring Kevin Bacon and features Reba McEntire for god sake, I can’t help but notice some of the blatant cultural undertones which speak (albeit probably unintentionally) to the collective warfare consciousness of the early 90s in America. The film basically coincides with the US march into the Gulf War and upon consideration there are some intriguing elements to this flick which present an apt projection of the fears inculcating society. I can’t say that I’m an expert in the Gulf War, but from what little I do know, I find that the symbolically loaded connection is pretty fascinating.
Burt from Tremors 

Our heroic soldiers standing a militant watch

Actual Gulf War soldiers

Tremors is entirely set in a desert location, a familiar landscape to the soldiers in the Middle East. Our heroes are the hyper-American, beer drinking, working-class, cowboy hat-wearing, pick up truck driving everymen to which a high percentage of US soldiers could surely relate. Their southern accents echo that of a certain President spearheading the Gulf War. These characters are semioticaly coded as the all-American good-guy soldiers on duty fighting the loathsome unknown hellions.

The team's make-shift tank riding through the desert in Tremors
Actual tank riding through the desert in the Gulf War

Their weapons of choice are significantly war-related. Machine guns, explosives, bombs, make-shift tanks… all of these are employed to fight off the enemies. With a healthy dose of hootin’ and hollerin’ and yeehaws thrown in for good measure. The monsters in Tremors are the rulers of the underground. When these monsters, these terrifying ‘others’ are exploded, they reveal a bloody, fleshy mess – chillingly humanlike, which surely would be a recognized sight on the battlefield. Their territory is what lies beneath the surface of the earth – an interesting link to the Middle Eastern domination of oil , reading as an ideological battle of good (US army) vs evil (Middle Eastern foreigners).

Explosion in the desert in Tremors
Explosion in the desert in the Gulf War

I’m barely scratching the surface here (I haven’t even touched upon the whole creepy Freudian penetrating phallic symbol and vagina dentata imagery… not gonna go there) but I must say that I love the fact that even the most asinine of films can be interpreted as subtextually commenting on culture.  One of the reasons why I love movies, horror movies in particular, is that cinema is an amazing medium for not only creating a fun sense of fear, but also as a way of exploring our communal fears and anxieties society has as a whole.  Another thing that I think society in the 90s should have feared was Kevin Bacon’s horrendous hairstyle in that film. Yamma hamma.
That is a seriously bad hair style


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  2. "Make-shift tank...actual tank."

    Love it.