Thursday, 24 February 2011

Costner's Folly in the Age of Aquarius

 
The nineties were the water decade. From the submarine turquoise of Nevermind’s front cover, to all those pop songs built around river and waterfall motifs, to the popularity of washy flanger and reverb FX in shoegaze (and grunge, trip-hop, Britpop, trance, dub-pop etc) the spirit of the decade – or its surface sound at least – was one of saturation and baggy, liberal fluidity. In no other decade would a novelty pop act have had the temerity to call itself simply: Aqua.





The water trend was in part a dialectical shift, a reaction to eighties muscularity (see Carl on this). The previous era had emphasised toughness, ambition, and achievement; the world of Thatcher/Reagan was still riven by rigid polarities and grid-like power vectors.

But when the nineties arrived, oceanic feeling descended. The big British cultural events of the period – Diana, Oasis, Blair – were all about loose, engulfing religiosity. Nebulous waves of collective hysteria were the new cultural norm. Sharp ideological edges were softened and blurred in the whirlpool of neoliberalism.

As such, the runaway success of Titanic in 1998 seems apt. But it pays to remember that the greatest filmic failure of the nineties was also a vast oceanic epic.



Where did Waterworld go wrong? Obviously partly because it wasn’t very good. But then neither was Titanic. Neither were the blockbuster sci-fi fantasy epics of the early noughties: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (both, astonishingly, released just six years after WW in 2001, both monstrously successful).

How did Waterworld fail to capture the aquatic zeitgeist? Perhaps it was a case of being late to the late-capitalist party. Put another way: maybe Costner’s folly bombed because it clung to a modernist oceanic ethos when it should have offered a postmodernist one. The nineties’ obsession with H2O had a lot to do with excess and profusion in an economic boom time. Water was expressive of a newly swamped consumer culture, and a climate of overflowing hedonism and alcoholic indulgence. So it doesn’t quite fit that in Waterworld’s flooded planet plants are rare commodities and the people are gasping for lack of “pure hydro”.

This emphasis on scarcity and barrenness was a misjudged throwback to the austerity of the mid-twentieth century. And with hindsight, WW seems to have more in common with the dystopias of post-war sci-fi than with the hypertrophied CGI monsters of the post-LotR era. Yet even a post-war work like Ballard’s Drowned World (an obvious analogue) had the prescience to see that the future lay in foregrounding themes of over-abundance. In Ballard’s book, plant and animal life has reclaimed the earth, and the artefacts of capitalism are abundantly collectable. Danger lies in the primitive pull exerted by the jungle of objects – both the man-made relics and the wild intrusions of the organic world.



But in contrast to the seductive too-muchness of the Ballardian drowned world, the world inhabited by Costner’s “Mariner” (natch) is an obverse of the classic Eliotic wasteland. The ocean is a desert. Animal life has largely vanished. Objects of the pre-disaster world are rarely encountered. A film this contradictory of market myths of plenty was always going to crash and burn, not least because it was itself a product positioned in the market, created in a spirit of extreme financial excess, its success judged solely on criteria of hype and sales.

Waterworld was a film of profound melancholy and failure, released in a year when the big mainstream hits struck notes of bland heroism and sunny optimism (Braveheart, GoldenEye, Apollo 13, Toy Story, Clueless). Perhaps this incongruous dysphoria is noteworthy in itself. Yet for all its bleakness, the film’s final disclosure is utopian. Unlike Titanic, which is actually quite a gothic, sinister film underneath all that suffocating (Celine) Dionysian schmaltz, Waterworld ends with biblical hopefulness and the rediscovery of “Dry Land”. As in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, fertility and the safeguarding of a child are achieved in a way that suggests a way out of the excessive-wasteland end of history nightmare. Waterworld’s nineties fable of profit and loss is at least interesting because of this basic commitment to imagining a far-flung future, even coming off the back of so much waterlogged meaninglessness.

9 comments:

W. Kasper said...

Interesting post (really did bring home the 'oceanic' angle of the 90s). There was also a huge backlash against Costner at the time - mainly because his ego ran rampant (which didn't seem to have affected Tom Cruise or James Cameron's careers that badly).

Waterworld's one of those films people are surprised to enjoy when they see it (it's reputation improved slightly with TV showings). The opposite to Dances With Wolves, which we were told to love, but left us severeley disappointed and is pretty much forgotten. If Waterworld was a 70s film, lots of people would be calling it a 'classic' now I reckon. There's far worse films given that title.

carl said...

yeah i agree...Waterworld's pretty good...i enjoyed it at the time anyway, not sure how it got the Kevin's Gate tag 'cept it cost a lot...also true re hubris/cameron..what a bout costner's other apocolypse movie of the nineties, The Postman? saw half of it on video years ago...might be worth a re watch...

W. Kasper said...

The Postman really is apalling - a messy melange of right-wing survivalism and liberal homilies. Mind you, I've found Costner one of the most unappealing stars of the past 20 years. I never got his success - apart from vaguely representing an 'interzone' between Reaganism and Clintonism. He managed to play 'both sides'as it were.

carl said...

yeah Costner's appeal is really odd. was he seen as a new-man antidote to stallone etc, a shift to the caring Clintonite nineties? I'll take your word re the postman

Waterworld however is A Good Film.

director was... kevin mcdonald right...?? was he australian...'cos Waterworld is kind of in a Mad Max salvage-punk tradition innit....

W. Kasper said...

That was the other thing about Kev - he did 'his' directors few favours! I even reckon he pushed Oliver Stone into total inanity (although JFK is bizarreley compulsive - despite its 'homosexual fascist conspiracy' conclusions).

Culla said...

Ultramarine - 90s band popular for a year or two on festival dance scene. They have a song called Seahorses, of course. hard to work out how there was anything remarkable about this lot in retrospect. Just come across as major label dance. They were in 80s outfit A Primary Industry and the switch to damp pastoral from frenetic strained post-punk perfectly illustrates the shift you mention

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztzM7t8M4_M

http://youtu.be/sMdDPuaHYVA

Alex Niven said...

I should have said something about the awesomeness of the opening clip (2nd vid above):

1) That monster sub-bass is fucking weird.

2) Something truly disorienting and subversive about this whole melting Universal logo sequence.

Alex Niven said...

And Carl - the director was Kevin Reynolds of Prince of Thieves/Dances With Wolves fame, though apparently Costner sacked him just before shooting finished.

All in all this Costner/Reynolds trajectory is pretty fascinating ...

carl said...

yeah i might have to revist dances with wolves... and the mini series of Native-american movies that followed it (black robe was the best.. a grim kind of counter-revisionist one i think...)

reynolds it seems (i've been googling)both co-wrote Red Dawn and directed Rapa Nui..so that's two different forms of apocalyptic fanatsy in their respective decades.. Communist invasion in the eighties and environmental collapse in the nineties...

i shudder at the thought of having to write soemthing on milius but he seems kind of unaviodable..esp in his celebration of the superman and Conan with Arnie and all that...