Under the Influence of: Romantic Fatalism
A Decade of Losing
Do you remember first time you watched the film Alien?1
For me it was in a car at the Island-Vue Drive-In with curly-haired Linda Ramos and her crew. And long before the xenomorph egg opened or the chest burst or the acid-for-blood, my friends and I sat too stunned to eat our cheeseburgers.2
Up until that showing of Alien space travel had looked clean and exciting. The future in outer space meant smart, fit people with perfect hair. The space age would be a vast improvement over the mundane, dirty world of right now. Be it Buck Rogers or 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek or Lost in Space or The Jetsons, our future as space travelers would be a real-life day-to-day version of the Seattle World’s Fair with its Space Needle and Monorail. The future would be EPCOT Center, but on Mars. But that night at the Island-Vue showed us something different: Working class shlubs who hated their thudding jobs trudged through space in a worn, dingy freighter. Bitter petty sniping. Machines breaking down.3
Remember when outer space meant drinking Tang?
Instead we got a robot filled with… Milk?
Somebody in Hollywood risked showing us the actual future -- just an extension of blue collar drudgery, but out among the stars. Nothing noble or exciting, just folks trading their lives to make a buck. That grim honesty gave the story an authority we’d never seen in science fiction films. We only swallowed the face hugger and the chest burster and the acid blood because Ridley Scott had shown us our future selves doing shitty jobs in the future as we suspected it would actually turn out.
The year before had shown us Capricorn One in which astronauts discovered that the space program was a hoax. Instead of returning from a faked moon landing mission they were to be murdered, and their deaths explained as a reentry-related disaster. All the guts and glory of the space race, it was a sham. Not that Capricorn One was alone. In most of the movies for a generation, we’d watched good guys lose.
From Rosemary’s Baby to Midnight Cowboy to Taxi Driver and China Town4 we’d seen people strive for a goal. An idealistic goal. They’d train and scheme, and then The Bad News Bears lost. Rocky lost. Tony Manero busted ass to win the dance contest, and wins, but the contest was rigged so he rejects the trophy. Let’s not forget a slew of horror films with let-down endings. Carrie killed everyone and died. The Omen kid killed his parents. The Rolf family was eaten by their house in Burnt Offerings. Pretty supermodel Alison Parker became a wizened, blind nun doomed to guard the gates to Hell.5
In every case, the hero fails to reach a noble goal, and must make the best of what he or she does achieve. The Bad News Bears get their mutual friendship, and a beer. Rocky gets Adrian. Tony gets Stephanie. Randle Patrick McMurphy gets a pillow over his brain-dead face.
In a world mired in the failure of Vietnam, the corruption of politics, the declining environment, and the failure of the Summer of Love6 in the late 60s and early 70s no one would buy the feel-good ending where the hero makes good.7 Audiences needed to see people strive and strive and fail, and still find some comforting take-away. The Flower Children were becoming the apathetic Me Generation of the 70s and would become the yuppies of the 80s.8
Thus “Romantic Fatalism” came into fashion. That’s what people call it now, romantic fatalism. When idealism fails, people need a fall-back. Whatever they’re left with, they need to put a positive spin on it.
Sure, there was Star Wars but that was kid stuff resurfacing for a new generation of idealists. Films like Star Wars were fun and joyous, but we knew they were wishful thinking. No, instead our hearts knew that outer space would look like the slow-moving, factory-in-space we saw in Alien. We might heed the call of a distress signal, but it would be a trap. We’d get a face full of face hugger. We were all expendable.
We can source all of this boo-hooing back to The Great Gatsby, also a 70s-era film9 in which everything clean and idealistic comes to naught. At least in Rocky and Saturday Night Fever all of the sturm and drang lead to two people bonding10, a tiny glimmer of progress toward maturation. In Gatsby it only led to the witnessing character’s retreat. And maybe this is a comment on Martin Heidegger’s dasein and how Nick Carraway should never have left the Midwest in the first place.
With Carraway fleeing the scene, and Big Chief heading back to his fishing grounds, and pretty Anne Welles hotfooting it back to New England — and Dorothy ditching the Emerald City for Kansas, people can relate. maybe the overall message was: Stay Home. Enjoy what you have. Stasis.
Whatever the case, I was raised a romantic fatalist. Maybe in time we all become one.
Big Brutal Halloween Quiz on Clocks & Guns Coming Soon. If You Want a Front-Row Seat…
Okay, I was saving this, but I shot my wad on the Rogan Experience so here goes…
And pizza and corn dogs and nachos and popcorn and French fries. The snack bar at a drive-in served a hundred kinds of fried everything, most of which could be “voided” and eaten by employees for free. The Island-Vue sat on a desert bluff overlooking the Columbia River, and during one intermission the snack bar was packed with customers. The grill was crowded with sizzling burger patties. The pizza oven was baking frozen pizzas. All in all, a noisy mob scene until something sprang up on the counter that separated us from the customers. A grey desert rat scampered the length of the snack bar. When out of countertop, the rat crossed the hot griddle by leaping from meat patty to meat patty. Its final leap landed it on the hot grill, where it screamed as it ran the last stretch. There it lay on its back screaming and waving its burned feet in the air. The crowd went silent as Linda used a pizza paddle to lift the poor animal and carry it out into the cold desert where it could die in relative peace. No one asked for a refund, but everyone left minus their food orders. That’s how we’d come into possession of vast armloads of waffle fries and hot dogs we’d normally cram into our faces during the late showing of films like Saturn 3 or Capricorn One.
You could argue that Alien is the equivalent of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but in outer space. A limited number of people trapped working in a claustrophobic setting. Everyone hopes for a big payday in the future. But the system is rigged to destroy them in service of a larger, secret goal. One-by-one they fall.
Not to mention They Shoot Horses, Don’t’ They? and Cabaret. Plus the not-so-good guys of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider.
A personal favorite is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a 1971 horror film where idealistic young people attempt to go back to the land, organic granola-style, and no-win nihilist spookiness ensues. Link to trailer here:
Check out Joan Didion’s scathing essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem.’ Link here: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/06/didion/
The holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life launched in 1946 to dismal reviews. A public reeling from the Depression and World War II wouldn’t accept Capra’s up-beat sugar-coated vision, and the movie failed. It wasn’t until 1974 when a clerk failed to renew the copyright, that the film fell into public domain. In a scenario identical to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the Capra film became instant low-cost content for television and played constantly until it emerged as a holiday classic.
Yes, these were real generational monikers. This cycle of idealism, burn-out and inauthentic capitalistic consumerism will likely repeat endlessly, which is why we eventually lapse into the wonderful warm crazy of Absurdist Existentialism – more on that soon.
In 1974, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
And Fight Club and Survivor and Choke…