Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld

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9781890626174: Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld

While the movies of Frank Capra once celebrated the triumph of good over evil, George Bailey has given way to Hannibal Lecter, who through raw power and bold creativity lives "beyond good and evil." Professor Hibbs follows the trajectory of evil in American film and television, linking it to the spread of nihilism-a state of spiritual impoverishment and shrunken aspirations to which, both Tocqueville and Nietzsche warned, democracies are especially susceptible. The most recent product of Hollywood's fascination with evil is the comic nihilism of Seinfeld, in which the distinctively American pursuit of happiness is endlessly frustrated by dark forces beyond our understanding or control.

Professor Hibbs probes the themes and artistry of the landmark works of the cinematic quest for evil. A series of grisly films from The Exorcist to Cape Fear and Silence of the Lambs reveals a preoccupation with the power of evil. When evil ceases to terrify, it becomes banal, producing a comic view of the meaninglessness of life (Forrest Gump, Natural Born Killers, Titanic, The Simpsons). Seinfeld and Trainspotting represent nihilism's last stage, but not the last word, and Professor Hibbs considers how classical ideals-partially recovered in recent comedy (Pulp Fiction) and film noir (L.A. Confidential, Seven)-might point the way out of nihilism.

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From the Publisher:

Thomas S. Hibbs is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. A native of Washington, D.C., he received his B.A. from the University of Dallas and his Ph.D. from Notre Dame. Professor Hibbs has authored two scholarly books on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and has published numerous essays on medieval philosophy, contemporary ethics, and popular culture. He lives in Hudson, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The following passage comes from chapter three, "The Banality of Evil," and immediately follows a discussion of Forrest Gump.

Natural Born Killers

The romantic model of goodness, on display clearly in Forrest Gump, surfaces even in the work of Oliver Stone?the most unlikely of places. His Natural Born Killers depicts the cross-country murder spree of Mickey and Malory, products of dysfunctional families who achieve fame and national notoriety when the media turn them into cultural icons. In the film's reconstruction of Malory's youth, she stars in a sitcom, complete with a laugh-track, entitled "I Love Malory." Her father, played by Rodney Dangerfield, verbally abuses wife and children and has lost all sexual interest in his wife, but finds his daughter irresistible. Mickey, himself abused and scarred indelibly by having witnessed his father's suicide, becomes Malory's liberator. He arrives at the house to deliver a huge sack of bloody red meat and is quickly taken with Malory. He soon returns to liberate Malory by killing her parents, and their romantic journey of indiscriminate violence begins.

The "I Love Malory" sequence traces evil not just to the nuclear family, but to our fascination with celebrity. In some of the film's most discordant juxtapositions, Stone alternates between contemporary scenes of violence and scenes of people from the 1950s sitting comfortably in living rooms watching television. The seeds of the current media celebration of evil were present even in that era of apparent innocence. Americans have such a flimsy sense of self that they derive their identity from television and worship its stars.

Featured on the television show American Maniacs, Mickey and Malory become television icons. Their adoring public is mesmerized by footage of their destruction; teenagers think Mickey and Malory are cool. The liberal principles of human dignity recede before the power of celebrity, an amoral force. Of course, the kids concede, "mass murder is wrong . . . we respect human life," but if "we were serial killers, we'd want to be just like" Mickey and Malory. After the duo are captured and go on trial, fans congregate outside the courthouse, one of them carrying a sign that reads "Kill me, Mickey." To the strains of "I'm In With the In Crowd," Wayne Gayle, host of American Maniacs, begins a live, nationally-broadcast interview with Mickey. When Gayle informs him that the only murderer to have received higher ratings was Manson, a resigned Mickey admits, "It's pretty hard to beat the king."

The broadcast provokes a riot in the jail and affords Mickey an opportunity to escape. Accompanied by Gayle and his camera, he begins wiping out the prison staff. Gayle eventually joins in, killing a policeman, and gushes about his newfound sense of liberation. Mickey and Malory are reunited, and in an act that concisely expresses the simplistic morality of the film, they kill Gayle, saying he was just part of the problem.

The film is most successful in its stylistic elements. It employs unusual and disorienting camera angles, alternates between color and black and white, and uses a remarkable variety of musical genres, from the predictable hard rock to country ballads, love songs, and even opera. (A slow motion shot of a knife, hurled by Mickey at one of his first victims, flies through a plate glass window and into the body of the victim to opera.) The overt and ample use of the aesthetics of evil puts the audience at a certain distance from the murder and mayhem of the film. As critics have noted, Stone lets the viewer know he is making a comedy, but what sort of comedy remains unclear.

In fact, the film is torn between moralism and the pure comedy of evil; in the end, Stone cannot decide whether he is a preacher or a comedian. He wants to achieve clarity about the nature of evil in our time, especially about its intimate connection with the media. In this, Stone reiterates the neoconservative criticism of Hollywood and the media for cultivating villains by raising them to the status of celebrities. The problem with Stone's approach is that it is a dead end. There is nothing independent of Hollywood, since it has already reconfigured society in its own image. This is the Romantic corollary to Forrest Gump's pristine innocence: wherever civilization and artifice dominate, we lose our natural goodness and become evil. In Killers, no one is human; all are media inventions. In his interview with Gayle, Mickey claims we have all done something that merits serious punishment?no one is innocent.

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