Samia Rahman's Top Ten PostWest Films
Much like Zayn Malik’s ‘shock’ departure from One Direction, one of the world’s least well-kept secrets is the unfailing power of American concerns to inform Hollywood’s film-making machine. This western bastion of cultural imperialism has long been able to spread its tentacles across the entire globe, cultivating our perceptions of beauty, success, justice and social convention. Hollywood celebrities are revered to the extent that when Paul Walker, star of the Fast and the Furious crime action franchise, was tragically killed in a car accident in 2013 (in true macabre irony the car in which Walker was a passenger was being driven very fast and very furiously), days before the death of anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, my trusty barometer of opinion within my social bubble, Facebook, was littered with laments from anguished teenagers in Pakistan offering prayers for the soul of their recently departed action hero. Guess who. One of the more absurd tragi- comic memes to emerge was Walker taking Mandela for a hair-rising spin in heaven. As if the actor was the one who could teach the statesman a thing or two.
Challenges to Hollywood have certainly existed in the form of Bollywood, Lollywood and Nollywood (see what just happened there?), yet domination is almost resolute. After all, US cinema needs to have a stock villain that it can cast as the inimical enemy of civilisation as we know it.Whether it is the Indian of the Western, the Japanese or Viet Cong of the war glory days or the Muslim of the terrorist-attack-era, the message is clear: It’s our way or the highway if we’re going to beat these enemies of our way of life who have absolutely nothing better to do than to attack western civilisation. PostWest films depict a threat to Western, read US, civilisation, and do little other than reinforce this message. The audience is slowly fed a disconnect that only serves to ramp up their pre-existing fears and prejudices. Film does not convey the ambiguity that real life affords us. It promotes the concept that absolute truth and absolute security is a tangible goal that can somehow be attained if only the hero manages to stop the bad guy. What results is a film-consuming society that is locked into an ever-perpetuating cycle of anxiety. And the plot twist? The terrifying prospect of a PostWest, apocalyptic, cataclysmic, end-of-days, eternal hell on earth as we know it. Essential viewing is the following top ten list of PostWest films to convince you that West is ultimately best. Right?
1. Trump: the movie (2016)
If there ever was a scenario that should render us fearful for the longevity of western civilisation, it is the glimmer of possibility that Donald Trump may one day be elected as President of the United States of America, Leader of the Free World. The 2016 parody film satirises Trump’s 1986 book: trump: the art of the Deal in a searing takedown of the Republican frontrunner that is both hilarious and, because of his political currency, terrifying. When Trump is not calling for a wall to be built along the border with Mexico or for immigration of Muslims into the US to be halted, he is flip-flopping on almost every issue that exists as he ploughs through interviews and rallies without scruple, skill or even logic. His watchword is that he wants to make America ‘great’ again. As empty as his rhetoric is, it seems to have captured the imagination of a slew of disenchanted voters, which is what makes him so dangerous. Director Ron Howard appears as himself in the film, which is set in 1988 and presented as an ‘autobiographical’ depiction starring the brilliant and inimitable Johnny Depp as Trump. He could not have known that Trump would by any stretch of the imagination be taken seriously in the Presidential nominations, but, as they say, truth is often stranger than fiction and as Steve Fraser writes in Salon.com: Trump ‘embodies that well-worn if still stinging observation about the country he hails from: that “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilisation”.’
2. Rollover (1981)
In the 1981 limp political thriller rollover, featuring woefully underwhelming performances by Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson, a PostWest nightmare is sketched out for horrified audiences to feast upon. Fonda’s character is the widow of a man who is murdered after discovering that the Saudis have a secret slush fund. This obscene amount of money will soon enable them to control the world’s economy due to the imminent and unforeseen collapse of global currency. Since 1974 when the A-rabs started putting up oil prices they have amassed millions. Up until now they have been good enough to put the money in US banks. That is all about to change and the audience is faced with the terrifying prospect that inordinate amounts of cash will be concentrated in the hands of such a small group – over which they have no control. Oh the irony! Conspiracy theories on the stockpiling of gold are ruthlessly mined as the capitalist, neo-liberal, free-market infrastructure upon which the free world is built, is brought to its knees. Long before the emergence of the ugly spectre of the Islamic extremist, the Arab was either an exotic curiosity or a desert- dwelling raghead and the orientalist stereotype is very much alive in rollover. A meeting with the Saudis sees Fonda venture to a traditional tent in the middle of the desert. Despite their immense wealth, the Arabs’ concept of civilisation is utterly at odds with that of the US, which is exactly why, dear audience, we must fear their supremacy.The ethos of the film is perfectly captured when Kristofferson’s character tells the Arabs: ‘You’re playing with the end of the world.’ To which they reply: ‘The end of the world as you know it.’
3. Rising Sun (1993)
Culture clash mired in historical prejudice, the threat to US dominance by Japanese-controlled multinational corporations and corruption are the pervading themes of this American crime film based on a Michael Crichton novel. The seemingly straightforward case of a sex worker murdered by a client is complicated by the fact the crime took place in the office of a Japanese company. Such is the perceived gulf in understanding between the two cultures that it is deemed necessary to call upon the services of Sean Connery, an expert on Japanese affairs. Connery unearths a quagmire of murky dealings and underhand activity, with any hope of solving the case centring upon surveillance footage from the night of the murder. However, in what appears to be a warning by Crichton of the decline of the West in light of Japanese technological superiority, it is eventually discovered that the video has been digitally altered to protect powerful Japanese interests. The film conveys the stark message that technological advances in Japan are leaving the US trailing behind. The unthinkable consequence is that the Japanese are now able to manipulate what the world perceives to be reality, in order to gain dominance over the West. Rising Sun captured a low point in Japanese-US relations. The early 1990s saw the US government increasingly alarmed by the business machine that was proving so successful in Japan and casting its own efforts firmly in the shade. The fear of a PostWest future resounded, and is brought to the fore in rising sun.
4. The Road (2006)
According to post-apocalyptic films, civilisation is only skin-deep, subject to untold horrors should the existing status quo be skewered in any way. Films such as The Book of Eli and The Postman are ultimately a commentary on contemporary realities. Society’s preoccupations are laid bare and interrogated mercilessly as we stumble to perpetuate the technocratic agenda that brought about its own downfall. But what is the consequence? A post-apocalyptic world that brings out the worst in all but a chosen protagonist. The audience is invited to invest all hope in a solitary hero who defies mayhem and danger to restore humanity’s future. The Road depicts the cruel choices he must make in order to ensure his and his son’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world. An unnamed catastrophe has polluted all the land and rivers. Suicide is the preferred option for many who did not have the good fortune to perish. Others resort to cannibalism and banditry. Marauding gangs of desperate humans are a constant danger. Think Mad Max but much grimmer. You’ll leave the cinema thanking your lucky stars you live in a neo-liberal, right of centre, globalised mediocrity, sorry, I mean democracy.
5. Soylent Green (1973)
Extreme environmental catastrophe seems less unlikely with the passing of each year, and Hollywood certainly can’t be accused of ignoring this harbinger of high-octane action and sweeping cinematography. What’s more, in a triumph of both style and substance, marrying together climactic apocalypse with science fiction produces an eerily accurate barometer of the West’s concerns. Rising sea levels are the culprit in the ambitious but resoundingly average 1995 film Waterworld starring Kevin Costner, while the abrupt onset of an ice age wreaks untold havoc in the Day after tomorrow (2004). Don’t be fooled into thinking that such concerns are recent. Soylent Green, released in 1973, envisages a post-industrialist age in which overpopulation and pollution have decimated the earth’s resources. Survival is dependent on a substance that inspires the film title itself: Soylent Green, a nutritious plankton food believed to be sourced from the sea. It turns out that it actually comes from a rather more ghoulish source. Cannibalism rears its ugly head once more. The already industrialised West could well be sending a message to the developing world – slow down your growth rate... and your growing rate. Or we will use you as fodder for our own growth!
6. Red Dawn (1984)
Hollywood bogeymen come in various shapes and sizes but one evil spectre has consistently struck terror in the hearts of our anxiety-prone Western audiences. Fearing Soviet invasion of the free world may now be the stuff of folklore (excepting recent transgressions into Ukraine of course). Yet, for decades the Cold War caused sleepless nights for many as the dread of nuclear warfare seeped into the global population’s recurring dreams. Ironically, the US Congress accused Hollywood of being infiltrated by Communist sympathisers in the 1930s and 1940s, leading to the McCarthy witch-hunts and film industry hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Fast forward to 1984 and Patrick Swayze stars in an all-American war film in which Soviet occupation of the US creates the perfect climate for the onset of World War III. While the adults flail ineffectually in their efforts to combat the threat, a group of high school students organise themselves into a resistance group called the Wolverines in an effort to stave off the red scourge. Western hegemony can only be adequately defended and secured by the efforts of the young, exemplified by Swayze and his coming-of-age co-stars Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey.The fragility of Western hegemony is plain for all to see and only the energised youth are able to offer any hope of salvation. In the closing sequence of the film, the camera zooms in on a plaque that reads: ‘In the early days of World War III, guerrillas – mostly children – placed the names of their lost upon this rock.They fought here alone and gave up their lives, so “that this nation shall not perish from the earth”.’ The kids fought the PostWest horror to preserve our way of life, and the kids won.
7. Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
When it comes to female sexuality, Hollywood seems to have tied itself up in knots. The sexpot heroine has been fetishised, debated, decried and subverted for time immemorial but her role as a supporting act to our dear hero remains static. In a parallel universe it is the fertility of women that is strictly controlled and regulated, such is its anarchic potential. The Gileadan regime in the handmaid’s tale is a fascistic theocracy driven by religious extremism and a desire to control the female gender. Women find that they exist as mere vessels of reproduction in a regressive nightmare that puts the priorities of totalitarian rulers before the needs of the individual. Natasha Richardson offers an impressive performance as Kate in this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feted novel, which is written as an internal monologue. Her emotions must not be betrayed to the people around her who need to be convinced that her indoctrination is complete. Only the audience is permitted an insight into her innermost feelings. Attempting to escape the oppressive militaristic state, our protagonist’s husband is killed while her daughter escapes to an unknown fate. She is captured by the Gilead Border Guard and renamed Offered before being forced to train to become a handmaid and becomes the concubine of the Commander, tasked with bearing him and his wife a child. Forget Western ideals of gender equality and sexual liberation in the Free World, the alternative to secular Western liberalism is this misogynistic horror show.
8. Lives of the Bengal lancer (1935)
A classic stock villain saga courtesy of Hollywood is that of the Western. The heroes are of course the cowboys and the villains are undoubtedly the Indians. What’s more, the West owes everything to this perennial enemy. It is only because they were afforded the opportunity to wipe out the original inhabitants of the New World that the US was able to come into existence. But that’s an aside. Take the concept of the Western one step further and you come up with the Eastern Western. Lives of the Bengal lancer is a rousing adventure film that charts the defensive campaign of a band of British cavalrymen and high-ranking officers in the face of a native attack on their headquarters in Bengal. The film is well-known for the, albeit misquoted, line ‘We have ways of making you talk’. It is also notorious for the fascination it holds for fascist and far-right movements. In a moment of small talk candour in 1937, Adolf Hitler told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that he had watched the lives of a Bengal lancer about three times and counted it as one of his favourite films. He explained: ‘I like this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That is how a superior race must behave and the film is a compulsory viewing for the SS.’ The film was eventually re-made as a Western with, yes you guessed it – the British upper crust army officers recast as Cowboys and the members of the Bengal uprising the Indians.
9. Snowpiercer (2013)
If you’re wondering what a parable of Darwinian economic and political determinism looks like you might want to spend a couple of hours watching Snowpiercer. A perfect storm of globalisation, the South Korean production is based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, complete with an English-language cast. The audience can expect to hold its breath in suspense as well as suspend all notion of reality throughout this science- fiction thriller, which evolves into a stark commentary on hierarchical and dogmatic societies. Unlike the democratic vision of the American dream, the characters in this bleak story are allotted their place in a carefully constructed pecking order and any attempt to veer off track is violently suppressed. The backdrop is a cataclysmic environmental disaster triggered by an attempt to offset climate change. Survivors are assembled onto The Rattling Ark train to escape a second ice age and spend the next fifteen years navigating a barren land. Life on board the train is luxurious and opulent for a small elite who occupy the front section of the train but those condemned to the filthy, inhumane conditions in the last carriages endure a living hell. Resentment is rife and before long there is talk of revolution. An attempt to overthrow the powers that maintain the status quo through the use of brutality and intimidation is finally underway. Our villain is actually a rather complex character, the transport magnate Wilfred. He disregards all notions of justice and equality in favour of pursuit of a policy of the survival of the fittest. He echoes the philosophy of dictators of all hues, from communists to theocrats: ‘This train is a complete ecosystem, which must respect the balance. Air, water, food, people. Everything must be regulated. For this, it was sometimes necessary to use more radical solutions.’ Let us thank our lucky stars we live in the West where environmental disaster may be on the horizon, but we are Free to ignore the warnings!
10. Alien (1979) and Mars Attacks! (1996)
Possibly the most terrifying and horrific scene in film history has to be the macabre gore of an alien erupting from the chest of John Hurt in Ridley Scott’s spectacle of cinematography. A film that could easily be about workers on zero hours contracts who witness their jobs being wiped out by an uncontrollable techno-parasite, the take-home message is that democracy should never be rendered subservient to the greed of big business. Unbeknownst to the workers, it was the multinational corporations’ intention all along to dupe them into sacrificing their lives to bring home the alien they would later utilise for biological warfare. In the second film of the franchise, seventy years have passed during which Sigourney Weaver has been kept in a coma-like state. She wakes to be told by the corporation that they own her. The human colony residing in the alien-inhabited planet has abruptly ceased contact with Earth and an indebted Weaver is forced to return to the alien planet to find out why. Whether you think this is a film about the mutation of neo-liberal social order or, according to film critic Mark Kermode, a hetero-normative fear of male rape, the alien franchise will tap into the darkest recesses of anyone’s imagination. For some light relief and an antidote to the nightmares, treat yourself to a night in on the sofa watching mars attacks! A cult sci-fi parody, it turns the genre on its head, reportedly an A-list celebrity love-in that is actually a searing overload of 1990s anti- Hollywood cynicism. What more could you possibly expect from a Tim Burton film?