To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.
Dictators and cannibals. What do you think about on the Fourth of July? Apple pie?
It’s Independence Day week and I, along with my compatriots here at Film School Rejects, have been thinking about the American Dream. Well, for me, that and Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch. Independence meant responsibility. When we became the US of A, we took collective ownership of our actions. We became a society. How we struggle, by choice or systemic compulsion, is maddeningly both our individual burden and something we cannot individually change. Amirpour’s latest film takes on America and the intrinsic brutality that comes part and parcel with the dream. What if the American Dream is a dystopia?
We are a young country, and we have much to learn. Our past is stained and our present marred with great inaction. Human lives have been fed into the meat grinder in the name of the dream. But, that’s how the world works, right? Just one big meat grinder. Which is great so long as you’re the one turning the crank. It’s prideful and disgusting at the same time, how far we’ve come and how we got here. Where will we go? What will guide us?
All this explicitly American introspection is not so surprising given the time of year, but it’s becoming much more common in our day-to-day lives. We live in turbulent times. The world outside is falling apart. ISIS attacked Iran. North Korea tested, maybe, an ICBM. Nobody knows what’s happening with Syria. World War I history buffs are getting nervous. The world inside is not so great either. We’re considering replacing the Affordable Care Act with the American Healthcare Act. Nobody is sure what that means. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have potable water. Everybody seems pretty happy talking about violence against whoever they think needs it. Shit is sufficiently weird and tense. It feels mighty dark.
For all that, the question of whether or not the American Dream is dystopic extends further back than January of this year. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are bad people. That’s kind of the idea of a dystopia, right? A bunch of fairly decent individuals have collectively descended into the failure mode of something they never really had control of in the first place. The American Experiment is big. We’ve always been susceptible to the push-pull ideas of us and them, security and independence. Our country operates on winners and losers. And we are mean to the losers.
I spent my summer vacation playing in the pool with my kids, quality time with the missus, watching new-to-me 80s slasher flicks, catching up on my Cory Doctorow reading, and thinking about The Bad Batch. There’s a jet fuel made of cold brew weirdness steeping in this melon of mine. Capricious, exploitative violence with powerful collectivist action messaging casually remapping my brain all meshed up with the lucid dream of a gonzo filmmaker talking about the struggle I see inherent in our systems in America. All while living a very real American Dream, what with my paid summer vacation on the water with my kids and my wife. It’s very confusing. But, also, kind of American. Or, maybe that’s just nonsense because I’m mainlining so many conflicting inputs. I don’t know. Keep rolling. Now, that’s America.
The common take on the American Dream is a belief that we can overcome obstacles and realize our fullest potential through struggle and effort. It’s that struggle that worries me. Amirpour gives us her desert prison to explore the construction of modern America. The world of her film is very much meant to be a nearly-now sort of mirror world for reality. I read it as a lucid dream playing heavily with metaphor, as the mind does in dreams. This is our world, reduced to archetypes and champions for ideas and philosophies.
The Dream (Keanu Reeves) lives in Comfort, a city of squatters protected by a Great Wall of derelict shipping containers. All its citizens are just as incarcerated as Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), our POV character. The Dream, near as I can tell, is an ostracized engineer who read a farming wiki one time. His buddy Jimmy makes the dopest beats around. And, somewhen, he found himself a shipping container full of machine guns. He’s got that charismatic leader skill of being able to walk up to someone else’s work, laud their efforts with praise, and then somehow walk away with all the credit for having allowed it to happen.
When he asks Arlen what she wants, she replies that she just wants to be the solution for something. And I get that. I get that so badly that it hurts to think about it. When you’re lost and isolated and purposeless, the deepest desire of your soul is to just fit somewhere. Give me purpose. In those dark times, we’ll do anything for a purpose. Fortunately for Arlen, she’s already on a mission. But, you can tell that she feels that attraction.
The Dream’s purpose is the same as the lighted antennae of the angler fish. He resides in a mansion stocked with the finest things, surrounded by a well-armed army of pregnant women, and occasionally deigns to speak to the people. He shows them how to be The Dream. He tells them they are. He provides everything. Comfort is all bread and circuses surrounded by the hollow containers of all the shit we chase. Give the people drugs and raves, and they’ll keep dancing to the beat of whoever is pounding the drum. We’re so ready to be hypnotized by the dream. We want to believe in the promise of security, of belonging, of being understood.
We forget what matters when we’re under the influence of the Dream. The Screamer (Giovanni Ribisi) wanders around camp shouting about the one thing we absolutely must never forget. But, that’s the only part he remembers. This isn’t a play on City Slickers One Thing secret to life. The Screamer probably had his thing figured out. He is what happens to us all the more we give away what’s uniquely us to pursue The Dream. In the harsh light of day, away from the light of the anglerfish, we don’t know what the hell is going on.
The Dream exploits our earnest desire to form a group. There are monsters out there. They are literally ready to eat us. They are the Bad Guys. They don’t want you. All your self-doubt and hyper-critical self-focus? They put those thoughts in your head. The Dream yawns its cavernous expanse and says “plenty of room in here, my friends.” They whisper sweetly, and we march right into the mouth of a monster. It’s warm. And, there are all these little morsels we can just snatch up for ourselves.
Miami Man (Jason Momoa), the weightlifting cannibal, is real. The Dream didn’t conjure him. But, they’re a necessary yin and yang to each other’s existence, don’t you think?
I don’t think he’s the leader of that fucked up nightmare fuel version of South Beach. I don’t think they have a leader. It’s a group of physically strong men and women who can take what they need for themselves. And that’s what they do. They are thoroughly independent. Each and everyone one of them.
If a charismatic, parasitic monster can prey on our deepest desires for security, perhaps it is better to go it our own. Be strong. Push back. Push back harder. Go full Conan the Barbarian, the pinnacle of the secure independent thinker. Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women. Yet a society of made up Conanized men and women leads to equally terrible outcomes. Complete independence is not good for us. We are just as easily hypnotized by the idea that because we have the ability to do something it gives us the right to do it. We fall really hard for the self-affirmation myth.
At the apex of the food chain, it is totally necessary to think you have earned the right and responsibility to make the hard decisions that only people like you can make. Otherwise, how could you emotionally handle all the chaos and tears and blood beneath you? Besides. It isn’t that you want to eat people. Well, you do. But, it’s only because people didn’t stop you. One of my favorite scenes ever is in The Last King of Scotland when Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin scolds James McAvoy’s character for not advising him properly. McAvoy says he did, in fact, mention this thing to him. Amin says earnestly: “But, you did not convince me.” If people can’t stop you, the blame is on them. In fact, your weakness, your failure, your inability to succeed is gross. Even when it’s them failing! Because you can’t perch atop the apex and fail.
The Dream and the Cannibal Weightlifters are a bit like the Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland. They sing a slightly different song, but at the end of the day, they’re gonna eat all the oysters. These are the poles we oscillate between in America. We believe it is our destiny to expand our way of life. I don’t want to say noblesse oblige because one thing we all agree on is that royalty can fuck right off, right? And yet, despite being a country literally founded on the idea of royalty as tyranny, we’re always very interested in the goings-on of royalty elsewhere. But, in a pop-culture sense. We’re like teens looking at magazines full of all the cultural sensations we want to be. And, royalty has money. Sweet, sweet money. Power. Influence. We aren’t going to let them tell us what to do because they were born to power, but you can be damn sure we’ve all wished we had been born in their place.
I’m always optimistic for America. Maybe that’s selection bias because it’s my country. I love it, and I want to see it accomplish great things. Despite that, we need to be mindful of how people describe their struggle. We need to be mindful of the unparalleled influence charismatic leaders can have on us. We need to be mindful of how easy it is to explain the suffering of others as their own fault. We are so terribly afraid to contemplate — I mean really thoroughly embrace the idea — that if things were very slightly different we could be in their place. For all my hard work and perseverance and considered overcoming obstacles, I am where I am because of luck. Pure, dumb luck.
What do we really want? We want to be the solution for something. Just like Arlen says. That much is undeniably true. We want to matter. The idea that luck could be the decider as to whether or not we find true purpose is terrifying. We want to make a difference because the indifference of others to our suffering is soul chilling. It’s the single thing that most consistently reminds me of the finiteness of life. It feels like death.
Independence Day is the day of the year we are compelled to remember that we have to take personal responsibility for the system we participate in keeping in place. That’s what it means to be your own country. We’ve set up a system that churns out winners and losers. Capitalism and democracy are the least loathsome choices for running a society. I don’t know how to fix that. But, I want to be the solution to something, small or big, that works to find a fix or a new process or system. It’s a complicated problem. It is full of just as many reasonable mutually exclusive differences of opinion as it is of monsters and chaos. The whole point of the American Experiment is to try to figure out something that works for everyone. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It needs to try to be better. It needs to be adaptable. I don’t know what it’s going to look like when we get there, but I want to try to find the way.