The new age of American angst

Critics have hailed Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon, as a masterpiece of the recession and economic crisis. Photo / AP
Critics have hailed Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon, as a masterpiece of the recession and economic crisis. Photo / AP

By any standards, watching Jeff Nichols' much-lauded film Take Shelter is a haunting experience.

Its central character, Curtis LaForche, a working-class Midwesterner trying to hold on to his family, job and sanity in rural Ohio, is increasingly plagued by apocalyptic dreams that seem to be leaching into the real world.

The audience watches LaForche's life and world fall apart in a film that is soaked with both supernatural imagery and the everyday American problems of losing a job and being unable to afford healthcare for your family.

The film vibrates with uncertainty and foreboding for the end of the American way of life. Critics have hailed it as a masterpiece of the great recession and the economic crisis.

Nor is the film alone in revealing the impact of the recession on almost every cultural aspect of modern life in the new US age of anxiety.

With headline jobless levels stuck at 9 per cent - and the real figure much higher - and almost 50 million people living in poverty, no wonder there is a cultural angst.

A sense of the end times is also apparent in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion, where super-intelligent apes and killer microbes respectively are poised to wipe out mankind.

Yet doom and gloom is not the only cultural response to the recession. There is evidence of a renewed longing for the certainties of the 1950s and 60s when - in the popular mind at least - solid jobs were plentiful, US factories made products exported around the world and the suburban dream had white-picket fences, not foreclosure signs.

From high-street fashion to retro trends in cocktails to the renewed popularity of facial hair for men there is a cultural longing to look back and ignore hardships.

The influence of the hit show Mad Men, set in an early 1960s New York advertising agency, is almost impossible to overstate. It's chauvinistic masculine central character, Don Draper, has become a cultural symbol.

The curvaceous figure of Joan Holloway has changed modern visions of female beauty. The series' journey into a simpler, more solid "Golden Age" is not alone.

It has been followed by shows like Pan Am, which celebrates and glamourises the life of air stewardesses in the 1960s, when flying was a far cry from today's crowded hell.

Remakes of classic TV shows such as Mr Ed, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Bewitched are in the works, also harking back to simpler times.

"There is a tendency among television storytellers to look to the past when current times are tough. Audiences need to be removed from contemporary settings to provide them a way to, in a sense, relocate from reality," said Professor Jeff McCall, a popular culture expert at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

It is not just TV shows seeking an escape to a happier past.

The Cleveland Institute of Art is showing an exhibition called Masters of Abstraction featuring mid-century artists Robert Mangold, Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski. All painted highly abstract, often Op Art, pieces celebrated for their cheerful, bold, bright colours and lack of social context.

"It is completely optimistic art," said gallery director Bruce Checefsky. The show's opening was a huge success with Checefsky describing it as perhaps his most popular in the last decade. He has a simple explanation.

"The outlook is so grim that people are looking back to the 60s and this art when there was at least a sense of optimism. It was staggering the amount of people coming through and I think it reflected those trends," he said.

Much of the "golden age" that is being yearned for is mythical. The 1950s and 60s may have been a time of economic advances but it was also a period of deep sexism, homophobia and racism, all on display in Don Draper.

"I am not sure Mad Men or the Draper character depict a 'better' time," said Professor Dann Pierce, a communications expert at the University of Portland, Oregon.

McCall agreed: "The 1960s were actually turbulent in many ways, including a cold war, the Cuban missile crisis, political assassinations, urban riots and Vietnam. It is not necessarily a time we should long to revisit."

But not every cultural reaction to hard times is escapism. Another way is to tackle the problems. Today bankers and big business are the villains in films and TV shows. Just as communists and Soviet spies were the bad guys during the Cold War and terrorists were the enemy during the 1990s and 2000s, now it is the high lords of finance who are taking the cultural hits.

From Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which brought back the 1980s demon figure of Gordon Gekko, to Margin Call this year, the finance industry's role in the crisis is being examined and, usually, a harsh judgment is being passed.

The list of films from the last couple years is long and includes The International, where the enemy is a bank, to comedies such as The Other Guys and Despicable Me where offhand jokes skewer banks and bankers even in children's films.

Music has also got in on the act. Rappers like Young Jeezy have sung about the recession, as has Neil Young. Of course, there is precedence for all of this. The Great Depression, far worse than today's economic woes, also had a profound impact on cultural life. Bing Crosby's hit song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? reflected the devastating impact of the crisis on ordinary lives, as did an explosive growth in blues music.

In literature, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath explored the hard times of the poor and out of work. At the same time there was escapism in an explosion of exuberant jazz culture and the emergence in 1938 of the figure of Superman, who no doubt symbolised both a yearning for happy simplicity and a desperate desire for an All-American hero to rescue the country.

There was also nostalgia for simpler times in the form of the immense popularity of Western films and radio shows, like The Lone Ranger, in which heroes were easily identifiable, problems were solved with a quick fight and villains easily identified and vanquished.

One crucial difference, however, was that during the 1930s there was strong government sponsorship of the arts via the New Deal. Huge sums of money flowed into the pockets of jobless painters, sculptors, writers, musicians and poets in a bid to create work at a time of immense hardship.

But it also was a genuine effort at encouraging, or saving, cultural expression. Organisations including the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers' Project and the Federal Music Project were all set up in the late 1930s.

The current economic tough times have no equivalent.

While billions of dollars have poured into banking bailouts and help for the car industry, there has been no meaningful effort at state help for arts funding, nor is there much public appetite for one. Arts organisations struggle for money more than ever before.

A National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report found that because so much cash was now coming in from rich individuals, rather than government, it was skewed to a wealthy, white audience: mostly funding large museums, opera and symphony orchestras.

Enduring images from the Great Depression

We will have to wait to see if the US downturn produces anything to rival the cultural achievements to come out of the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck's masterful tale of the poor Joad family's flight from dust bowl Oklahoma won a Pulitzer prize after it was published in 1939. John Ford's film version was made just a year later and it remains an American classic.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
The song was written in 1931 by Yip Harburg, a socialist whose small business went bust after the 1929 Wall St crash. The best-known version was sung by Bing Crosby and it became an anthem of the Great Depression.

Migrant mother
The grim black-and-white 1936 picture by Dorothea Lange of stern-faced mother and migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson, surrounded by her children, became emblematic of the Depression's impact on poor workers. Lange took the picture while working for the government and documenting rural poverty.

Detroit murals by Diego Rivera
Mexican muralist genius and communist Diego Rivera was commissioned to create a series of 27 fresco panels between 1932 and 1933 in the Detroit Institute of Art. His work paid tribute to the industrial city's tough labour force and its factory landscape.

The comic book hero Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster played out against the Great Depression. The public longed for a saviour who was impervious to harm and with superhuman strength.


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