Visions of the Apocalypse

Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema by Wheeler Winston Dixon

by Kirsty Fairclough

5 January 2004


Blow Up

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Visions of the Apocalypse explores American cinema and its fascination with spectacles of destruction, while simultaneously commenting on the ways in which Hollywood has created a culture of sameness where conformity rules.

The book’s main argument is twofold and emerges from the view that Hollywood’s grip on the film industry is inherently negative. Dixon discusses issues ranging from the limitations on copyright for the benefit of conglomerates and the disappearance of industrial films, to corporate culture and its treatment of its workers. This is placed alongside direct analysis of recent Hollywood films and its fascination with images of destruction.

cover art

Visions of the Apocalypse

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema

(Wallflower Press)

This may appear like a rather disparate set of topics but the chapters sit well together and make for an illuminating read. The book covers a wide range of topics held together by the belief that cinema continually reflects our preoccupation with our own destruction. It is organised into four main sections and begins with “The Tyranny of Images,” in which Dixon posits that while cinema naturally reflects the current political and social climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain and hold audiences’ attention. He focuses upon our freedom from choice whilst condemning economics as the driving force behind cinema’s digitization.

The book aims to examine the destructive character of media imperialism and begins as a potted history of Hollywood’s global domination peppered with a conviction that corporate culture routinely masks its true intentions. Dixon discusses DVD region encoding as a pertinent example of something that limits viewer choice without publicly admitting it. He also discusses the mega-power of conglomerates and the dominance of images in contemporary culture. Star Wars is used as the benchmark for contemporary cinema, hallmarking an endless procession of pre-fabricated blockbusters, No one has any time for history in the cinematic marketplace, argues Dixon. It is a quick fix, effects-driven product that is relentlessly churned out.

These are not new issues, and initially, one wonders how Dixon is able to connect them. But any concern is unfounded as he adroitly links these crucial concerns to cinema’s obsession with destruction, the biblical apocalypse and the political and social climate post- September 11 through textual analysis of spectacles of destruction within a range of films. Dixon examines the jingoistic nature of Hollywood cinema, which consistently promotes a culture of fear after September 11, and provides an overview of politically motivated events in the history of Hollywood cinema. The investigation of Communist infiltration in the 1940s and subsequent 1950s blacklisting is intertwined with a discussion of contemporary paranoia and surveillance in a mainstream Western culture where artificial consensus is established through the mechanics of conglomerisation and dissent is banished to the margins of social discourse.

Dixon’s knowledge of film is evident; he offers the reader insights into films that have been long forgotten as well as contemporary Hollywood fare. September 11 is marked out as the defining moment in American cinema and Dixon argues that a corresponding shift to the political right in the US and Europe is reflected in cinema with films such as We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down and Hart’s War.

At once a meditation on all that is wrong with contemporary cinema and a comment on the political climate, the book argues that we have always been fascinated with our own destruction and it is only now that we can realise it on screen. The book concludes with the pertinent and solemn observation: “The cinema of the 21st century makes our most violent dreams of self-destruction simultaneously mundane and yet instantly attainable.”

This is the essence of an intellectually challenging text, one which is markedly different than many film studies books in that it combines theory, politics and philosophical musings in an engaging and attention-grabbing manner in spite of the sombre subject matter. Lucid and eloquent and a relatively easy read for those unaccustomed to film academia, Dixon’s knowledge and reasoned argument provide an intelligent and endlessly fascinating examination of some of the key issues that face us as we confront an increasingly insecure future.

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