Cultural Anthropology and the Movies An anthropologist may indeed go to the movies, but can he take anthropology with him? Are the parallels between aboriginal myth and American movies sufficiently close to warrant an anthropological study of a subject that has already received scrupulous treatment by legions of film critics, cinematologists, and associate professors of English?5 The daunting prospect of wading into the murky waters of film/literary criticism, where the real predators of academe prowl just beneath the surface, should discourage any reasonably sane anthropologist. Why risk a shark attack (to anticipate my later discussion of Jaws) when one can stick to the safe ground of one’s own arcane specialty — Arawak myth, Borneo ritual, Bedouin social organization, or whatever — and watch the big fish thrashing offshore in their feeding frenzy?
The problems raised in considering the possible contribution of anthropology to film studies are simply extreme instances of a general, divisive, and utterly serious debate now underway in the discipline of cultural anthropology. The debate centers on anthropology’s role in the modern (some would want to say “postmodern”) world, both within the university community and the wider (some would want to say “real”) world of everyday life, and is carried on amidst the ruins of a now outmoded, but still conventional image of anthropology.
The conventional image of cultural anthropology as the study of living museum pieces and other social oddities — lost tribes, South Sea islanders, Latin American peasants, quaint subcultures like the Amish and not-so-quaint subcultures like the Hell’s Angels — still burdens the field with an insupportable identity. As tribesmen become peasants and peasants the urban poor of the Third World, and as sociological and journalistic treatments of groups like the Amish and Hell’s Angels become more substantial and ethnographic, the cultural anthropologist’s role diminishes to stereotype. He becomes either the bespectacled and irrelevant old fool who plays a bit part in a B movie or TV drama, or his opposite: a swashbuckling adventurer in the manner of Indiana Jones. Either way, the anthropologist is shut off from the world around him and denied any voice in those forums for commentary and debate (television, newspapers, popular magazines) that monitor and perhaps even influence social trends and events. Since the death of Margaret Mead, cultural anthropology’s public presence has shrunk to negligible proportions, creating a crisis of professional identity among practitioners of the craft and effectively silencing their moral voice.
American anthropologists have reacted to this situation in three ways. The first has been simply to ignore the social climate and consequences of research and get on with the work at hand: counting beads on nineteenth century Oglala moccasins; measuring the daily caloric intake of !Kung Bushmen; deciphering the kinship terminology once used by the Crow; and thousands of other projects that consume the greater part of thousands of professional lives in the discipline. The second kind of reaction to our professional identity crisis is a frontal assault on the stigma of academic irrelevance: if the first sort of anthropologist busies himself with scholarly minutiae, the second rolls up his sleeves, goes into the field, sees what needs doing, and helps get it done. These are the applied or “development” anthropologists who work closely with national and international agencies, such as the Agency for International Development and the World Bank, to ameliorate some of the innumerable problems facing the burgeoning masses of the Third World.
A third response to the crisis in cultural anthropology, which I adopt here, involves a sharp departure from the classical and applied approaches. I propose to examine several recent popular movies from the perspective of cultural analysis, or anthropological semiotics. The basic idea of cultural analysis is that a group’s cultural productions — the whole diverse assemblage of its artifacts, speech, gesture, fashion, cuisine, architecture, art, literature, music, games, sports, television, and, of course, movies — form a system of meanings or interpretations individuals constantly and necessarily employ in leading their lives. “Leading their lives” is not the plodding activity the phrase might imply, for the point of cultural analysis is that movies, fashion, and the rest represent attempts to give form to an enigmatic and inchoate human identity, and in the process to resolve or suspend conceptual dilemmas that would otherwise make ordinary life impossible. Without those cultural productions, in short, there would be no human lives to lead, and the form or pattern inherent in the productions indicates just what sort of lives are led.
The classical approach typically focuses on the culture of the native society considered as a small-scale, relatively stable, self-contained isolate, and not on the often bewildering conglomeration of cultural productions of a rapidly changing, multiethnic national state. As a consequence, the classical approach tends to treat culture as a sort of ideational baggage that furnishes the trousseaux in which a society wraps itself: the social group is simply there and casts about for convenient garments, in the form of cultural productions, to embellish itself. Cultural analysis denies this pat claim to priority of a pre-existing in situ “society,” and instead goes against the grain of common sense to assert that it is the ongoing struggle to adopt one version or another of the way things are that constitutes what we call a “society.” “Culture” is not just baggage; it is the stuff of experience — but, like baggage, it is always having to be sorted out.
Applied or development anthropology generally gives due importance to social transformation and intergroup relations, but then proceeds as though political and economic forces operated independently of ideational, cultural, or “symbolic” phenomena. There is probably no more specious distinction in modern anthropology than this “economic” vs. “symbolic” opposition, and insisting on it vitiates much of the work that applied anthropologists do on social change. Modern capitalist societies have so thoroughly interlinked the commodity value and ritual value of goods and services that it is meaningless to speak of separate social domains of the “economic” and the “symbolic.” Our tourism and entertainment industries have elevated the stodgy old Marxian notion of “fetishism of commodities” to the status of a global economic force; more billions go into those “diversions” than into groceries for Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis.
The anthropological implications of this inseparable link between supposedly distinct realms of experience came rushing in on me when I began seriously to consider popular movies as a major source of modern American mythology. Under the guise of studying the practical while disparaging “symbolic anthropologists” who concern themselves with “irrelevant” myth and ritual, applied anthropologists actually turn their backs on much of the on-the-ground daily activity they claim as their special subject.
A great deal of what people, in America as well as Europe and the Third World, spend their time and money on is highly ritualized and mythologized: food that conforms to particular tastes, and not simply to caloric and nutritional requirements; clothes that embody a particular fashion, and not just criteria of warmth and modesty (itself, of course, a highly cultural, mythologized notion); sexual partners who personify standards of beauty and not just convenient orifices; and so on to the television programs and movies that often consume hours of the day and provide the raw material for much discussion and play-acting.6 Ordinary people occupy themselves with these and other similarly fantastic, “symbolic” pursuits, and leave the determination of their caloric intake, the efficiency or inefficiency of their agricultural cooperative, and the legal technicalities of their group’s land claim to bureaucrats and applied anthropologists, who, if the truth were told, are not all that easy to distinguish when you are on the receiving end of their attentions.
“Real life” is a slippery notion that constantly seems on the verge of becoming “reel life.” This telling pun, one of innumerable gems to be found in Edmund Carpenter’s amusing yet profound book, Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!, runs through much of what follows and constitutes one of the main themes of this work. “America” is, interchangeably and inseparably, a political and economic titan and a “dream factory” that spews out, in addition to the mountains of consumer goods and armaments, the mannerisms, fashions, games, sports, magazines, television programs, and movies of The Dreamtime. And our Dreamtime, just as the Australian aborigines’, is so thoroughly a part of the fatefulness of life — of whom one loves and marries (and probably divorces), of how one coexists (is there any other term for it?) with one’s children, of whom one kills (or simply dutifully hates) in the name of God and Country, of what one does as daily toil, even of what one has for dinner — that it is impossible to segregate it from a supposedly objective, material reality. Consequently, the questions I pursue in the following chapters are concerned with how, and not whether, popular movies like Star Wars shape and transform our most fundamental values and most cherished truths. That, in brief, is the goal of this particular exercise in the cultural analysis of American life.
But why movies? If “culture” as I have been describing it seems to be just about the whole ball of wax, encompassing what ecologists, Marxists, and assorted practical types wrongly try to distinguish from culture, then why single out movies for privileged treatment and not, say, the latest blip in the Leading Economic Indicators, or a few hundred hours of scintillating C-Span coverage of congressional debates, or, even staying within the general topic of “popular culture,” some other stereotypically “symbolic” phenomenon such as fashion, advertising, or comic books? I offer two reasons, neither likely to satisfy my more conventional colleagues. The first is simply the personal encounter with Star Wars I have already described. Going to a movie and seeing it as myth was for me a profoundly anthropological experience, different in content but not, perhaps, in kind from that déracinement anthropologists recently returned from the field often report in informal conversation with their fellows: it is the disorienting experience of the at-home and familiar become suddenly alien and vertiginous, like opening the door to your home and walking into a story by Kafka. One could really begin anywhere in the vast reservoir of popular culture and emerge with the same themes I find in movies; I simply chose to begin with movies. Having made them my starting point, however, I follow their characters — James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Chief Brody (of Jaws), and Elliott and E. T. — outside the theatre into highly diverse areas of social life: football games, rock concerts, tales of the Old West, the environmental movement, gender and sexuality, ethnic relations, and family life. A cultural analysis of movies must move outside its topic if it is to have any hope of identifying the system of meanings that make a particular movie a generative source of culture, as detailed in my discussion of cultural generativity in Chapter 3.
My second reason for making popular movies the subject of this work is less subjective than the first, but may strike you as even less plausible. Either by coincidence or fate, my interest in movies as myths that would lend themselves to an anthropological approach was kindled during the first years of the supergrosser era. Movies had been a fixture of American life for more than sixty years when I began thinking obsessively about Star Wars, but it was only with the release of Jaws in 1975 that a movie attracted so many people and made so much money that it became a social and economic phenomenon in itself. Jaws vastly surpassed previous box office hits, and came along just when movie moguls and media commentators had about concluded that the demon Television really would be the death of Film. Moreover, that movie was not just a flash-in-the-pan sensation, the unique product of a young director named Steven Spielberg. Jaws opened the floodgates for a rapid succession of action-packed, fantasy-based supergrossers, many superer and grosser than the last: Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Superman (I, II, III, IV); Star Wars; The Empire Strikes Back; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom; Return of the Jedi; E. T.; Rambo (I, II, III); Rocky (1. . .n, where “n” stands for “no end in sight”); Predator (I and a half, since II was sans-Arnie); Terminator (I and II); Batman (I and II); and on to a seemingly endless series of aliens, mutants, cyborgs and time cops.
America rediscovered movies in the mid-seventies, after a decade of bitter involvement in Viet Nam and domestic turmoil that tore apart families and communities. For the first time in years, Americans seemed to be moving in the same direction: toward movie theatres with the latest supergrosser on their marquees. Kids kept going to the movies; baby boomers left the barricades and headed there; and old folks (meaning those has-beens over forty), sensing they could once again enter their neighborhood theatres without being insulted by animated chipmunks or assaulted by sadistic orgies, went to see if the silver screen retained the magic they had found there during their youth. One phenomenal hit and box office record followed another. The era of the supergrosser truly had begun.
The sudden, staggering popularity of movies cannot be dismissed as a fluke. Whatever is behind it — and the causes are doubtlessly complex — it is now established that particular movies have tremendous mass appeal. The entire movie industry (or, as they say in southern California, “the Industry”) has geared itself to the supergrosser, to finding the right combination of big-name talent and script that will garner the Olympian gold of top ratings in Variety. And people go to see those movies, not because they are sheep, but because they expect to find something there, something worth seeing, something that genuinely recreates them. Movies are not just one genre of popular culture among others; they are at present its Main Vein, in Tom Wolfe’s phrase, distillations of American culture, myths of The Dreamtime. Future generations cannot but be impressed by the time and resources devoted to the movie industry in late twentieth century America; the phenomenon will appear as a unique efflorescence, an outpouring and summing up of the collective sentiment of a people — its eidos, if you will. The movie is to the twentieth century what the Gothic cathedral was to the thirteenth, and, to expand an analogy that must already appear outlandish to some, Spielberg and Lucas are our Michelangelo and Leonardo. Cultural anthropology, since it searches for what is most basic in the beliefs and expressions of a people, necessarily fixes on popular movies as keys to understanding American culture. And if the movie houses are where culture is happening, that is where cultural anthropologists must go, notebooks in hand (and, just perhaps, audio cassette recorders discreetly tucked in shoulder bags), to map out the framework of our cultural structure, to chart the American Dreamtime.
Which Movies? But which movies should anthropologists head for, which primitive temples will they visit in Dreamtime America, assuming they are even prepared to go along with my argument up to now? This is one of two critical questions that must be asked in broaching the possibility that some movies are like the origin myths of native peoples. The other question is a major theoretical issue engaged throughout this work: What counts as “myth” and what is myth’s place in the world of human experience? In the next two chapters and the subsequent topical essays, I confront that issue by adopting a broadly construed notion of “myth” as the principal dynamic of culture and, therefore, the very content of experience. For now, though, the first question is more pressing: How do you get started at a cultural analysis of movies? How do you know which movies to put on your list? Where, as anthropology thesis supervisors are fond of asking, will you do your field work?
Because this work is really a scouting expedition, an attempt to move cultural anthropology into areas it has left largely unexplored, I want to be quite conservative in this business of selecting particular movies for extensive analysis. I do not discount the mythic content of any popular movie, and in fact am convinced that a mature cultural analysis would encompass film (or Film) as a whole. But for the present it is best to proceed cautiously, focusing on only a few of those movies that, on the basis of one or two simple criteria, are decidedly “mythic.” The litmus test I use here for a movie’s mythic content is simply: “Could this be happening to me, or to someone I know?” Is the world described in the movie sufficiently like my own that I can picture myself inhabiting it? Are the action and plot closely enough related to my life that I can view the movie as a dramatization of what I do, or might be doing in the near future? In applying this test, I have identified (no cinematological breakthrough here!) two general types of movie that I would count as unquestionably mythic: the space opera and the incredible adventure (but not, quite yet, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). It is convenient to lump these under a generic category of “fantasy movies,” and contrast that category with another in which the mythic content is more subtle and ambiguous: “people movies.”
The element of fantasy is critical here, for it provides a natural link between at least one type of movie and myth, which we conventionally regard and describe as fantastic. A number of recent movies invite their audiences to inhabit, for a brief two hours, The Dreamtime, a cinematic alcheringa in which larger-than-life, nonhuman or superhuman beings perform feats and have experiences outside the realm of possibility in everyday life. These movies create settings, characters, and, in the audience, states of mind that belong to another realm. For me the best example of this fantasy genre is the movie, now trilogy, that started me thinking about all this: the space opera Star Wars. It evokes the classic, “once upon a time. . .” of fairy tale with its introductory, “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . .” The viewer experiences immediate displacement in time and space with this evocation of a world (or worlds) where the human presence is hemmed in and shaped by unearthly beings of every description.
Although science fiction movies have been a fixture of theatre fare since the early fifties, it is the generic space opera or space fantasy set partly or wholly in space that interests me here.7 Apart from early Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, the modern space opera began with the 1968 release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and appeared, after Stanley Kubrick’s tour de force, to be dead in its tracks, exhausted by the master’s consummate first such work. Nine years later, however, George Lucas and Star Wars revived the genre with that movie’s spectacular success. Following the golden path charted by Star Wars, a spate of movies has explored or, more often, exploited the format of space fantasy. A partial list would include Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century, Alien(s), and Star Trek (like the Rocky movies, another 1. . .n series).
Situated somewhere between these space operas and incredible adventures of an earthly nature are fantasy movies that develop the theme of extraterrestrial contact. The modern classic and holder of the number one spot on the supergrosser list, E. T., released in 1982, exemplifies this group. The movie is set in real life, but the incredible adventure that befalls its characters is a visitation by an extraterrestrial. Elliott and his family are leading stereotypically normal lives (southern Californian suburban life being modern culture’s Everyman), when the outlandish literally lands on top of them. Fantasy is a critical element in what follows and, as I discuss in Chapter 7, clearly links E. T. with The Dreamtime tradition of American movies.8
Space operas and their hybrid form, extraterrestrial movies, share Dreamtime billing with incredible adventure movies featuring real/reel-life supermen. James Bond and Indiana Jones are flesh-and-blood characters who do not spend most of their lives in space (although Bond, in Moonraker, makes it aboard the space shuttle), nor do they have to confront those bug-eyed monsters from the recesses of the galaxy. Nevertheless, Bond and Jones, in their fRenétic, cliff-hanging adventures, inhabit a world more like a comic strip than any that we mere mortals experience. No one lives in their world; it is an artful (or at least, considering its box office appeal, crafty) construction of an imaginary realm in which certain human abilities — to handle machines, engage in combat, escape from mortal danger — are pushed well beyond the limits of everyday life. Because they are at once compelling and systematic exaggerations of human experience, James Bond and Indiana Jones thrillers offer their audiences what I would identify as myth’s distinctive contribution to life: the opportunity to enter a world of virtual experience and to do, vicariously, the undoable.
But whatever the formal, cinematological characteristics of James Bond movies may be, the most important thing about those movies from the perspective of cultural analysis is that James Bond is indisputably the Hero of Our Age, a literary and cinematic character of unprecedented appeal and staying power. If they hope to join him at the pinnacle of popular culture, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and even Rambo and Rocky, those beefy sensations of the eighties, will have to hang in there for decades, starring in movie after movie and, when their human actors/avatars begin to get long of tooth and heavy of paunch, will have to shuck those mortal forms for fresh new bodies if they are to preserve their heroic cinematic presence. Will a new, young Roger Moore-type stand-in replace Sly in Rocky 12? Not likely, and there would surely not be a Timothy Dalton waiting in the wings if the ersatz-Moore began to lose a step in the ring with Apollo Creed’s grandson. As the most popular of popular movies, in terms of number of films, years in the theatres, and, that old reliable American yardstick, box office, James Bond epics are an ideal starting place for the cultural anthropologist attempting to ply his eccentric trade in the highly specialized, tinseled world of film studies. I have, therefore, chosen Bond movies as the Ur-mythe of this study, beginning the topical essays with a cultural analysis of Bond and tying into it the subsequent essays on Star Wars, Jaws, and E. T. In this way I hope to achieve a comprehensive treatment of that highly variegated and mercurial entity, American culture.
There remain two types of fantasy movie as I am loosely defining that genre: horror and animal movies. You will discover that horror movies, considering their prominence in popular culture, receive far less attention here than they deserve. I attempt only a broad assessment of some of their thematic properties in Chapter 7, where I discuss the relationship between E. T. and another Spielberg film that features houseguests who are not quite so loveable as E. T.: Poltergeist. That movie is, admittedly, rather a special case, far removed from the slasher sleaze of Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street, 1 to a zillion) and Jason (Halloween, also 1 to a zillion), and it would be incorrect to make general statements about the horror film just on the basis of themes I might discern in Poltergeist. Horror movies demand extensive treatment, for they have become a fixture of modern culture (along with Stephen King’s supergrosser novels that have served as the basis for several of these terrifying and grotesque films). The prominence of novels and movies like The Shining, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Carrie, It, Misery, and all the other shrieker/slasher epics that pour from our publishing houses and movie studios should alert us to a disturbing yet fundamental aspect of that phenomenon, itself wholly mythic, we gloss as America: the insistence on finding, at the heart of domestic life, a dark, malevolent presence — the Death Force — always ready to assert itself and transform daily experience into a waking nightmare.9
Set in the everyday world, the horror movie introduces malignant supernatural forces, which often take human form and proceed to wreak havoc in the domestic and social spheres. The plot inevitably revolves around victims’ attempts to escape, and perhaps destroy, the malignant being. If one discounts the many creature features and vampire movies of the fifties that still sustain late night television (discounts them for reasons I detail in discussing Poltergeist in Chapter 7), the horror film in its modern form can be dated from Roman Polanski’s 1968 box office sensation, Rosemary’s Baby. Incubi and succubi of that macabre work soon spread through Hollywood, and spawned The Exorcist, Omen (1. . .n), Halloween (1. . .n), Friday the Thirteenth (1. . . n), Nightmare on Elm Street (1. . .n), and on and on into the dark night of the theatre and the tormented consciousness of Dreamtime America. Apart from their “shock value” (a glib, useless notion for any cultural analysis), what is to account for the phenomenal popularity and staying power of these grotesque and violent films? What is it about life as it is lived in America today that endows these movies with a timeliness and resonance that show no sign of abating? These are precisely the questions a cultural anthropologist must ask of the seemingly frivolous material of popular culture.
My own answers to these difficult questions are incorporated, in abbreviated form, in the section of Chapter 7 that deals with what I regard as a critical paradox of modern popular film: how Steven Spielberg, probably the major cinematic genius of our time, could create within a brief two years and using basically the same settings, two movies as profoundly different as E. T. and Poltergeist. Either we credit Spielberg with a mind of impossible diversity, or we look beneath the surface of the movies to discover what the loveable E. T. has in common with the vengeful spirits of Poltergeist. In the process of comparing them, of doing a cultural analysis rather than merely running on about individual creativity and biography, something of the nature of American life will emerge that sustains and binds together, in a fashion itself macabre, the sentimentality of E. T. and the horror and revulsion of Poltergeist.
The genre of animal movies presents another kind of internal discontinuity, which undermines once again the easy assumption that popular movies, being superficial themselves, admit of only a superficial analysis. Like the jarring contrast between E. T. and Poltergeist, the large corpus of animal movies embraces diametrically opposed themes: the animal-friend and the animal-killer. Animal-friend movies eulogize animals and our relations with them; animal-killer movies depict animals as dangers to life and community that must be hunted down and destroyed.
This remarkable polarity in the representation of animals in popular movies must be interpreted in the context of our species’ ancient ties with them. Since its beginnings (and actually well before), Homo sapiens has exercised its developing sapience by contemplating its ties to the somewhat similar, somewhat different animals in its environment. As I discuss in the following chapter, anthropology, that “science of humanity,” imitated its subject by launching its own career with studies of the conceptual uses to which “primitive man” put his growing knowledge of animals. Those studies described representations of human-animal ties as examples of totemism. Much of the history of cultural anthropology can be read in what various theorists, from E. B. Tylor to Claude Lévi-Strauss, have had to say about this protean but critical concept. In this work I contend that popular culture carries on in the best “primitive” tradition by continually postulating and attempting to resolve the complexities of the human-animal relationship.
Our modern totemism, far from being a relic of the dead past, is a fundamental force in cultural processes now actively shaping our lives, for the simple reason that our relations with animals have undergone major changes during the past decades of (sub)urbanization. Farms have disappeared, and with them have gone the experiences and memories of growing up around an assortment of animals. A tandem process has been the diminution of the family, with children appearing later in the lives of a conjugal pair (itself an increasingly imaginative and problematic entity) and in numbers well below the replacement level of urban populations. Into this double void have stepped a wide array of animals or animal-like figures, principally, of course, pets (dogs and cats) which have effectively taken the place of children in many “families,” but also including such diverse characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Garfield the Cat, anonymous but valorized dolphins and whales, zoo creatures, and — my primary concern in what follows — the phenomenon of Jaws, the book/movies that alone have created a little universe of representations of animals that make our modern totemism as vital as any that inspired the myths of a bona fide, “primitive” society.
Animal movies of every variety, from animated cartoon fantasy to incredible adventures of real/reel-life characters, have flooded our theatres since Walt Disney produced his first Mickey Mouse drawings in 1927. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dumbo, and Bambi share the billing with a menagerie of naturalistic collies, cats, stallions, deer, falcons, and other even less plausible candidates for intelligence and altruism (but so far no paramecia). Either animated animal characters are invested with stereotypical human identities (Dumbo, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp), or actual flesh-and-blood animals are supplied with syrupy human voice-overs (Milo and Otis) and involved in plots (using that term loosely!) that reveal their own deep emotions and perceptions. With few exceptions, animal movies explore one of two opposed themes, friendship and hostility, or, framed in terms of the semiotic dimensions introduced in Chapter 3, kinship and ethnicity. As ideal stereotypes (with the possible exception of a few very clever chimps and parrots, they can never speak for themselves), animals lend themselves to representations of our most basic feelings toward other people. And since we do not have to stand on ceremony with animals in quite the way we do with people — although the ground rules there are changing rapidly — we can invite pets into our homes and even beds while consigning their biological siblings and cousins to animal “shelters” and slaughterhouses. The symbolic fallout of these erratic behaviors is to be found in movies, where our complex and uncertain relations with other people are dramatically explored in terms of our relations with animals.
A very interesting thing about animal movies is that there is a sharp temporal break between the two types I have identified, with animal-friend movies predominating during what might be called the “Disney period” of 1927 – 1975 and animal-killer movies from 1975 onward. The year 1975 is critical in a study of animal movies, for it marks the release of Jaws. I have chosen to focus exclusively on Jaws (really, the Jaws quartet) in Chapter 6 because the movie represents a fundamental change in the usual cinematic rendering of animals, a change that I think can be tied to important aspects of our cultural identity. Jaws in one mighty bite dispatched the dominant genre of animal-friend movies and ushered in a wave of horrific cinematic creatures. The happy view of animals presented for so long in the Disney movies has given ground to a far more somber view, and this transformation must be examined in detail.10
Why the sudden popularity of animal-killer movies in the seventies and eighties? Why did American audiences grow tired of weeping with Bambi when the cruel hunter shoots his mother and instead become aroused by the tension and blood lust of the hunt for the Great White Shark? Like my earlier questions about the popularity of Star Wars characters, James Bond, and E. T., this one demands an answer that will make some sense of the apparent nonsense of popular movies. This kind of problem is the acid test for cultural analysis. Either movies just come and go, driven by vague “market forces” or “fad,” and fickle audiences choose according to their whimsy (which would vitiate any possible cultural analysis of popular film), or there is some connection between movies as cultural productions and the culture that produces them. Jaws is an ideal topic for sorting through this fundamental issue, since it represents a novel departure from earlier animal movies that has altered the course of popular cinema. In Chapter 6, I attempt to identify the source and meaning of cinematic innovation in Jaws and to relate the movie(s) to a deep ambivalence that runs through American attitudes toward animals, an ambivalence that is the heart and soul of myth and its Dreamtime events.
In selecting this improbable collection for analysis — James Bond movies, Star Wars, E. T., and Jaws — I have kept to a distinction that, if not very high-powered from the standpoint of film criticism, has proved useful in making anthropological sense of the cinematic domain of popular culture. That is the distinction between fantasy movies and people movies. Unlike the several genres of fantasy movies I have outlined, people movies do not happen in space or have an animal “star,” and the people in people movies are not Bondesque caricatures of the folks down the block. They do not sprout fangs when the moon is full or tear the flesh from their faces in front of bathroom mirrors (a charming scene from Poltergeist). People movies are about people, who lead dramatized but recognizable lives and who behave for all the world as you and I might if we were only more like Robert Redford or Meryl Streep. Woody Allen’s bitter comedies, the spate of “relevant” movies about women (An Unmarried Woman, The Turning Point, and even The Color Purple), Robert Altman’s cinematic ethnographies (Nashville, The Wedding) are all people movies, and I therefore leave them and others like them out of consideration in what follows. For present purposes, with cultural anthropology just beginning to direct its ambitious analytical program at popular film, it seems important to examine movies that conform to fairly conventional notions of “myth.”