American Rust

rustbeltI sometimes like to try to get the feel of the prosperity of a US era from films and TV shows made at the time and about that time. Not the fantasy stuff, or things for kids generally or horror, but the consciously era-based ones that set out to create a feel.

This is not a science, just a bit of fun, and I am sure you could pick films to show the exact opposite if you preferred. But, if you are along for the ride, keep a log chart of the Dow handy and we can start with the rise of post-war America. As shown in the sophisticated comfortable modernism of the 1950s films Rear Window (54) and North by Northwest (59). Or the optimism and ease of Leave it to Beaver (57). A little staid perhaps, but things were just getting going.

By the 1960s the dreams and the economy were in full flight. In Breakfast at Tiffanys (61) the streets of New York could not be cleaner or more pleasant even if the well-dressed main characters were not in easy money. The peak for easy optimism was probably I Dream of Jeanie (65) based around the life of an astronaut with a wealthy modern existence with all the creature comforts. Major Nelson literally did not wish for more.

A couple more years of the good life and The Graduate (67) had Dustin Hoffman rebelling against commercial success and following his family into affluence. The sort of plot that has its natural home when all is good.

It was nice while it lasted. By the 1970s the economy was flat lining, the share market had the crash of 73, and menace of stagflation began. According to Serpico (73) the dirt was back on the streets of NY. Taxi Driver (76) followed in a similar vein for Robert De Niro, with Rocky (76) showing a very rundown and depressing Philadelphia.

Times were still bad in the early 1980s with the grungy crime fight of Hill Street Blues (81). The Blues Brothers (80), while mostly upbeat, opened with long minutes of depressing shots of Chicagos industrial rust belt.

Reagans morning in America and the bull run from 1982 brought back the optimism. By the mid 80s Top Gun (86) the US was back in the saddle, confident and clean. Miami Vice (84) saw a polished, highly affluent Miami with Italian sports cars and suits, huge fast boats and expensive drugs. Wall Street (87) caught the peak of the bull market, the cynicism, the money and excess.

The money was not gone in the 90s. However, compared to Miami Vice, Seinfeld (90) and Friends (94) set a more modest tone. Some were still doing very well in Beverley Hills 90210 (90) and Pretty Woman (90). 90210 could be said to have set the tone for more than a decade of shows set in prosperous places and prosperous times. From Melrose Place (92) right through to The O.C. (03) and Entourage (04).

Until the money, once again, just got a bit to much and there was nothing to do but rebel against it Graduate-style with Into the Wild (07).

America is now set to rust again. Crime will rise, cities will fall into disrepair. Poverty will spread and deepen. It will be written all over the news, the cities and the people. It is likely to linger for many years, colouring the way the next decade will be seen and remembered. I wonder what the films and TV of the coming years will show.

A mobilization of World War II proportions might just be able to avoid the worst of it, but there is not a hell of a lot that can be done to avoid some very serious pain, the worst of it borne by the poorest, as usual.

The really big positive from the Obama victory is that this time they just might be able to face it all with universal healthcare. I think that in terms of mitigating the effects of this recession for the average American, of more importance even than the successful execution of a monster stimulus package will be the extent to which the Obama administration can change the income distribution in the US through universal healthcare, tax and welfare changes.

Even if the US takes a monster hit it is still likely to be the worlds largest single country economy by a long way. It will have enough wealth for all its citizens to come through this just fine if it gets its new New Deal right. Lets hope they do.

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