6 April 2019


Peter Biskind. The Sky is Falling; How Vampires, Zombies, Androids and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism. Allen Lane, 2018.

Nearly all of us have enjoyed our guilty pleasures of watching films and TV shows that depict the fantastic and suspend belief to an extent that was not as normal a few decades ago. It is not just supernatural beings that are increasingly depicted, such as vampires, zombies and witches with powers so outré as to be superhumans themselves.
Now there are aliens, genetically-modified humans, robots, cyborgs - in fact, if it can be modelled with computer graphics then it seems to be made into a TV series, mostly thanks to internet streaming companies and film studios seeking novel content for an increasingly sated audience.

Peter Biskind is an American cultural critic, film historian, journalist, and former executive editor of Premiere magazine from 1986 to 1996. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Paris Match, The Nation, The New York Times, The Times, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in film journals such as Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly. He has had several books published.

Coming from viewing the world via the medium of film and television, his book looks at a viewpoint that is disseminated from Hollywood to an audience that is global, especially in the age of the ubiquitous internet. Here we see that Biskind examines the recent output of the American show business industry in order to find out just what it is that has led us to the USA’s contemporary political landscape. 'Made America Great' is the none-too-subtle pointer to what type of extremism the author has in mind. Having said that, he also considers the impact of media upon those on the fringes of the left. He concludes by suggesting that the centre is prevailing again after a period in the wilderness.

This volume examines the message of popular US TV shows and films, dividing them into right-wing and left-wing according to the 'message'. If the show is sympathetic to the military, for example, then it is right-wing. If it is on the side of the oppressed natives then it is left-wing. Both of these are, according to the author, less desirable than the centre, which seems to be something from the 1950s. A period when, although many evils were still abroad, seemed better because people were less knowledgeable and informed about social ills, there was reasonable employment, wages were able to support families and so on. A world war had ended within living memory which must have made the material wealth of the following decade seem that much more appealing and generous.

Whilst there is always going to be a certain argument in favour of life imitating art, there were influences abroad that shaped events. The author seems to have forgotten about Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist ‘witch hunt’; something that deeply influenced Hollywood and still shapes Western politics to this day. His ‘centre’ is basically a short-lived phenomenon that happened for 30-40 years after World War II and was rapidly ditched when the likes of Milton Friedman taught what is now known by many titles such as Neoliberalism. The term ‘centre’ is also questionable as it still essentially bolsters a society where poverty, lack of affordable health care and homelessness are sizeable components. It also assumes that people’s reactions are shaped to a large extent by the bias in major feature films. There is also a somewhat breathless quality to Biskind’s narrative that makes reading it a little wearing. Having said that, his points made about the right-wing Christian media are interesting and apposite.

This book may appeal to some who consider social and media commentary to be important, although it is baffling in general who would benefit from reading what is, essentially, an overlong magazine opinion piece. There may be some merit in approaching opinion-forming media from a more scientific viewpoint, therefore subjecting it to a more rigorous examination that may also bear some fruit in the form of understanding just how people’s opinions are shaped by the putative tastemakers. -- Trevor Payne.

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