Snake Plissken & the Emergence of American Cynicism in Film

Throughout the history of American cinema in the 20th Century film narratives served as a decent reflection of where the general public consensus stood in regard to America’s domestic or foreign affairs.  Westerns in particular played a vital role in being able to encapsulate the nation’s mood, and broaden it by promoting a nostalgic wanting for the country’s simpler, if largely mythical, frontier past. 

Although the initial tone of this cultural molding was done in favor of the American ideal by the likes of John Ford and Michael Curtiz, the impact of Vietnam, the collapse of President Johnson’s Great Society, and the near universal betrayal felt by the nation through the Watergate scandal, all worked together to gradually shift the tone in the public consciousness, and as a result, the movie narrative right along with it.  John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape from New York is the culminating product of this trend, set in a dystopian American in the not too distant future (1997), the once heralded ideals of lawfulness, respect and responsibility in governance has vanished, leaving less than a handful of individuals who still embody the true rugged sense of American virtue.

Escape from New York |

The film begins by introducing the audience to the events that have led up to the dire world America has found itself in.  In 1988, the crime rate has risen by 400% (no doubt an allusion to the growing crime rate seen in American urban centers in the 1970s), and Manhattan island, of the once great city of New York, has been turned into a maximum security prison to keep the dangerous forces of society at bay.  Left to roam on their own in the streets of Manhattan, the thugs, murderers, and crazies, forge a Hobbesean social order in their own image, which while confined, is ultimately without constraints. 

The central plot of the movie is a symbolic parallel of the disillusionment Americans have been experiencing towards their government for the better part of the preceding decades, and what happens when the authorities responsible for creating such an environment find themselves at the receding side of the contempt they have created. 

In the film, the President of the United States is forced to crash land in the Manhattan prison-state after his plane is hijacked by the anti-government terrorist group National Liberation Front, from which point on he is left at the mercy of the criminals running the area (primarily the self-appointed Duke of New York).  Both of these casual events are brought about from the policies the President himself either enacted or was associated with through the system that helped foster it.  Therefore, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for the man, a message Carpenter may have intended on the grounds that he opted to keep the character nameless throughout the plot, leaving him to be the ideal bureaucratic representation of any and every administrative and legislative figure of the 1960s and 1970s.  Instead, the protagonist is the rogue fugitive Snake Plissken, whose role in trying to save the President is one of staunch reluctance brought on through outright entrapment by the state authorities; a strong nod to the fuming Vietnam draft generation.

Here are the changes planned for the Escape from New York remake - Blastr

Whereas in the past the heroes of cinema, in particular Westerns, fully displayed a sense of idealist fervor towards protecting and living up to the quasi-mythical notion of what America is and ought to be, Plissken shows no such romantic illusions.  The sub-plot of having to rescue the President in time for him to attend a summit with the USSR and China to divulge information on nuclear fusion, vaguely explained as vital for “the survival of the human race,” is treated with utter disinterest by Plissken who sees his own personal survival as being of far greater importance than the political quarreling between despots. 

This general mood is a clear indication of the cynicism the American public had been feeling about its government, and the breakdown of the American myth in cinema signaled an end to “the sanctioning of ‘cowboy’ or vigilante-style actions by public officials and covert operatives who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to ‘to do what a man’s gotta do.’”[1]  However, rather than disappear completely, the envoy of the American spirit was simply transferred from the national scale to the disgruntled individual, which is what Plissken’s character is meant to signify.  He was a war hero, turned criminal in a country that is probably unrecognizable to him from the one he once fought for, and possibly once believed in.  Hence, the old nostalgia characteristic of the Western is still present, but the prospect for hope in the future has been extinguished.

Snake Plissken is easily recognized by every character he happens to run into on his rescue mission in New York, often being met with the bemused statement, “I heard you were dead.”  To which he once tellingly responds, “I am.”  If Plissken is meant to be the stand-in for the American public at large in the midst of a corrupt, disengaged social order, than as the remaining glow of what was once the shining light of American values, the aforementioned greeting takes on a highly pessimistic overtone.  “In a healthy society the political and cultural leaders are able to repair and renew that myth by articulating new ideas, initiating strong action in response to crisis, or merely projecting an image of heroic leadership.”[2] 

But in the dystopian society Escape from New York depicts, the political leadership is not so much portrayed as too tyrannical to project a heroic image, but too impotent to even attempt it.  The President is easily kidnapped, and his life is held at the will of the lowest sectors of society, and even with all the vast resources of the nation unable to do anything about it; this is not an image of a power that has over-asserted its might, but the measly shadow of a tamed and defanged creature.  The fate of the country and the world is at stake and the people (or person, in Plissken’s case) are too disillusioned to give a damn. 

The final conversation Plissken has with the President after rescuing him is the most revealing, as Plissken asks him, “We did get you out.  A lot of people died in the process.  How do you feel about that?”  Coming from Plissken this sort of curiosity is interesting, because it shows that behind the cynicism and lost hope there is still at least a memory of a former ideal, when such things may have seemed to matter.  Of course, the President’s response of mindless political rhetoric only works to further cement the disgust Plissken has for the public figures running the country.  A sentiment many Americans in 1981 would have easily identified with.

In contrast to similar movies like Deathwish, which explore the widespread cynicism prevalent in America in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York leaves the viewer with no foreseeable remedy for the decadent situation.  In fact, judging by the act of sabotage by Plissken against the President’s urgent message to the other superpowers of the world, the message Carpenter appears to be trying to convey is that although things are bad now, things will get worse, with no prospect of recapturing the optimism of a bygone era.  No doubt resonating fears in the audience of an imminent last man scenario, where the cherished ideals of yesterday are not just fading away, but ultimately not worth fighting for. 

[1] Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation, p. 651.

[2] Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, p.626.

Exploring Violence in America

“Why is violence so rampant in American society?”  That is the question I often hear expressed concerning the apparent brutality that exists within the American psyche, especially in comparison to its equally economically developed first world countries.  It is a particularly difficult question to address as its phrasing seems to demand a conclusive answer on a topic that is ripe for hasty generalizations and personal biases on the part of the individuals interested enough to even tackle the issue.

I think that it needs to be remembered how the U.S. is not really one cultural block, as much as a collection of various (often contrasting) cultural sentiments.  By which I mean, it would be a mistake to think of any one cultural expression/norm as a reflection of the American mindset (and one should be weary of any public figure who insists otherwise), because the propensity by which any such cultural expression dominates will by necessity vary greatly between different geographic areas in a country whose landmass spans from one ocean to another.  For example, sociopolitical beliefs and preferences will diverge greatly between Americans living in California, Texas, Vermont, and Michigan.  Moreover, even within these contrasting states it is not unusual to find enclaves of population whose cultural mindset is contrasting enough to make them seem like foreigners to each other (i.e. the cultural difference between San Fransisco, CA and Sacramento, CA, or Odessa, TX and Austin, TX, is prominent enough despite both of the paired cities being located within the same states).  Given all of this, it is possible that the perceived violence attributed to the United States as a whole might simply be the result of a few concentrated areas of violent activity fostering the impression of a more hostile society, which may not be altogether warranted.

Though an appealing hypothesis, it still fails to account for the fact that the U.S. actually does have a higher rate of violent activity, even after one factors in populations size and population diversity.  The undeniable truth is that, on average, we are a more violent country than a great deal of other first world countries.  One can even go further by saying that the mindset of the United States appears to regard a certain form of social turbulence as culturally healthy, in ways that other similarly developed countries do not.  This is actually not as absurd of a position to take on the matter as one might initially think.

The United States, for the majority of its history as an independent country, was composed of uncharted–essentially lawless, since sitting laws could not always be enforced–territories.  Essentially, the image of the wild west is a reality that is barely only a little over a century old in a large segment of the American population.  And although these areas have by now been modernized and incorporated under the rule of enforced law, in many ways the appeal of the rugged, self-governing gunslinger has remained ingrained in the romantic sentiments of many people (including people who have no realistic interest in emulating such a harsh reality).

This is possibly best characterized in the popular prominence of a gun culture in many sectors of American society (a very unique feature amongst first world democracies).  Whichever side of the debate you fall on (either favoring more gun regulation or less), it is undeniable that there exists within many segments of the U.S. public a distinct self-identity with one’s right to carry firearms, as well as firearms in general.  As someone living in the South, this is not at all surprising considering how the mere possession of guns for a long period of time beneath–and west of–the Mason-Dixon Line made you the law in a local region.  This mindset that unless the individual retains the right to–if the occasion demands it–keep order and safety by any and every means possible (including firearms), the common citizenry is put into a disadvantaged position to combat against lawless disorder, is still seen as particularly relevant in the eyes of many Americans (whether the alleged perpetrators are common criminals or overreaching governing authorities).  And it is within the context of this mindset that the appeal of identifying with the vocal gun culture resonates with so many Americans.

But is the influence of this gun culture a contributing factor in the proclivity for violence often identified with American society?  I personally see no clear answer to this question, as it’s highly dependent on one’s presupposed opinion on the matter.  My goal on stating the above isn’t to find a solution or compromising in the gun regulation debate, it is to point out that–within the context of a generalized American society–violence is not always categorized with malicious tendencies.  In fact, a prominent premise among advocates for less gun regulation is the claim that it is necessary for good and law-abiding members of society to use violence to protect themselves from the same society’s bad and lawbreaking members (this is also a mainstay theme in most Hollywood action movie plots).  Thus, one could argue that this lack of a reflexive repulsion towards violence amongst many Americans (this includes both those for and against more gun control)–where the act of resorting to violence is more often than not valued in accordance to the consequences it brings, rather than its adherence to an ethical principle–goes far in fostering to the rest of the world an impression of the U.S. having a rampantly violent culture.

“But why on earth would you want to leave such an impression?”  Would be the follow-up question I imagine being voiced from those residing outside the U.S. border.  The only truthful response I can give to this is that, as a collective culture, Americans don’t really care what impression they leave on the rest of the world.  Because there exists another, complimentary, mindset within most of U.S. society–and I’m speaking as a naturalized American, who matured through his adolescence in America, and went through the American education system–which is:  As the United States of America, we are the standard by which we judge the world, not the other way around; for no other reason than that we are the United States of America.

So, if the rest of the world judges us as violent (justifiably or not), we’ll simply claim it’s a testament to our nation’s individualism, without losing a moment’s worth of sleep over it.  Come to think of it, that’s probably the same response we would give to explain our abysmal test scores in comparison to the rest of the world.  Well, at least we’re consistent.