Monday 25 October 2010

The Apocalyptic Underclass

A Boy and His Dog (1975), although never a hit, was somewhat influential in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world. Directed by L.Q. Jones (a character actor mainly known for his Peckinpah lowlifes), it has obvious echoes in Mad Max, not least in its post- technological inversion of the western (although some 70s westerns share motifs). Featuring a young Don Johnson as Vic, who 'scouts' a post-nuclear wasteland with the help of his telepathic dog Blood, it depicts a world where young men and boys (no-one lives long here) fight a war of all against all for food and women. Guns are the only guarantor of trade, and dogs are the smartest guys in the room. 

The 70s was the decade when various apocalyptic scenarios went mainstream. The disaster movie cycle (Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, various Airports, and any number of films where nature strikes back) modified the premise of the previous decade's On The Beach, with superstars as elites facing overwhelming disaster, attempting to survive it assisted by professional expertise. Along with the nightmare scenarios, the basic pleasure was waiting to see who made it to the end ("Ooh Robert Vaughn's dead! Will Fred Astaire survive?"). There was also novelty in the Grim Reaper not selecting victims according to status.

However, with their use of spectacular effects and all-star casts, the 'event' disaster movie had its low budget mirror image (often the case with 70s genres). The lewder, cruder apocalyptic scenarios of George A. Romero, Roger Corman or other 'exploitation' productions rarely featured elite characters or superstar experts who could eventually save the day. This time, the stories were largely told on the level of worn-down working stiffs, or indeed a dangerous 'underclass' excluded from labour value. Mirrored in their budgetary differences, these conflicting perspectives were a matter of class. The economic relations and emotional connections of bigger budget disasters were put aside to favour raw survival. With victims played by c-list actors, individual deaths were granted less dramatic significance. With stagflation, mass lay-offs and energy crises moving many urban areas towards 'post-apocalyptic' conditions, faith in technical expertise and organisation wasn't an option at the grindhouse (like the one still open for business in A Boy and His Dog, showing porn loops and old westerns). Nor did these films affirm family bonds in their traditional sense.

A Boy and His Dog generated fierce feminist criticism for its sexual politics. 70s cinema's obsession with rape has been discussed here, and this film is no exception in its disturbing attitude to women (also present in Harlan Ellison's original stories*). The figure of 'woman' - teenage Quilla June - is posited between a suffocating, (literally) sterile social conservatism and the most brutal form of post-capitalism, with women  the ultimate commodity - producer or product. Underground, women are reproduction machines in a grotesque version of Republican ideals (anticipating The Handmaid's Tale). Outside, women hide away for their own safety - hence the need for 'his dog' to sniff them out in exchange for food. Both 'societies' being caricatures of what each fears in the other; Quilla June's 'choice' is between a patriarchal prison of automated duty, or a feral 'me' generation of violent sexual predators. Much criticism focussed on her character willingly trading on these misogynist negations. Without giving away spoilers, family and 'love' are revealed as meaningless when pit against crude, ugly necessity.

Like so much of 70s cinema, it opens up stark polarisations without easy resolution. The idea of the repressive, family-driven small town vs. the lawless post-industrial wasteland still informs American political discourse (and has increasing traction in Europe too). In their youth, both Vic and Quilla June are little more than bewildered adjuncts of their respective worlds, fuelled by illusions of power and escape. The film was released in the dying days of Fordism, and more than its explanatory nuclear war, the film's anxieties fixate on masculinity as an unruly surplus, with women as its economic and/or biological battleground. This theme is now common to 'apocalyptic' scenarios, and not just in film. Although the big budget 'event' disaster has since returned to re-affirm family values, the supposed 'underclass' despair of A Boy and His Dog  - and similar low-budget 70s catastrophes - has disseminated into popular culture more pervasively than the gentrified, containable nightmares of Irwin Allen.

*Later - unfilmed - stories of Vic and Blood feature radioactive zombies, and a lot more 'survivor guilt'. Ellison's stories, like Romero's films, were deeply influenced by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - the urtext for innumerable novels, comics, films, TV shows and games since the 70s.

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