McDaniel College professor Bryn Upton's first book "Hollywood and the End of the Cold War" tackles the relationship between Hollywood films and the themes surrounding the end of the Cold War. The book looks at the changing depictions of characters, including superheroes and spies from the Cold War to the post-9/11 landscape. Upton will host a lecture about the topic Thursday, Sept. 25. The Times caught up with Upton to discuss James Bond, Nirvana and Superman.
Q: How did the idea for the book first come about?
A: About three years ago, I was watching "The Bourne Identity," and it started to occur to me that the Jason Bourne character is sort of a modern upgrade to the James Bond character. There's an update in the structure and style, but these are both government agent assassins. What I started to realize is they were coming from very different directions. Where James Bond was very much working for Queen and country, Jason Bourne was trying to get away from that life. James Bond — and I'm thinking more of classic Bond, like Connery Bond, because they completely change Bond after the Bourne movies come out — there was no backstory, no history, he just showed up fully formed. Bourne spends these entire movies chasing down his history. I just started getting at the idea of what's different between Bond and Bourne and why might that be. What I really started to understand is that Bond is very much a Cold War character and Bourne is very much a version of that character for a post-Cold War audience.
Q: From that idea, where did you go next?
A: What academics do when you have a really interesting idea, you write a paper about it. I took it to the Pop Culture Association and American Culture Association National Conference and gave that paper. The woman who runs that division, Cynthia Miller, sent me a note asking if I had ever thought of turning this idea into a book. I told her I would take the summer to think about this. I knew I couldn't just do a book on superspies, so I had to think about the other genres that react to the end of the Cold War, and that's when I stumbled on superheroes. I pulled together a few other topics including disaster films and coming of age movies and I made an outline.
Q: What was the process of writing like?
A. I didn't schedule any other projects for the summer. You know, there's this great myth that professors somehow get summers off. We don't. Since I'm a night person, I would sit down at the end of the evening after the kids have gone to bed, around 9 o'clock, and I would work from 9 to 2 in the morning. I put myself on a schedule, trying to knock off 1,200 words and watch two films every day for six days a week until the summer was over. By the end of summer, I had 90,000 words and a reasonable first draft.
Q: What is the value of combining film and history?
A. It's based on something I've been doing in classes for years, which is try to find a common language between myself and my students. If you've been out of school for at least five years, music is no longer a common language. Television isn't a common language anymore, but movies are big enough and franchises are big enough that they penetrate. If I ask our students if they'd ever heard a song by bands I listened to in college, like Nirvana or REM, I'll get one or two hands, but if I ask who has seen "Captain America," everyone's hands go up.
Q: What is it about film that seems to be so universal?
A. I can show someone a film that's 20 years old, and even if the film is a little dated, they still respond to film the same way. For instance, with clips I'll be using tomorrow from the Batman films, I can show people the differences between the portrayal of the Joker in "The Dark Knight" and the first "Batman" film and we can talk about what he means and what he stands for. The point isn't so much that the filmmakers are setting out to write a character who would be a beautiful allegory to Osama bin Laden or whatever, but these things become so endemic to our culture that when you are making a film or writing a story, the ideas are already out there and they'll make their way into the film.
Q: How did you select the films to write about?
A. Some of it was just my own memory of movies. I definitely went on the Internet to find out what some of the popular films were and who was selling tickets. I would ask friends and colleagues. I watched more than 200 movies for this project. I didn't use everything I watched, but I wanted to make sure if I was going to talk about a film, I watched it again, even if I didn't care for it. I had no desire to ever watch "Red Dawn" ever again, and now I've probably watched it six times because I can use it for so much. There are about 230 films that at least get mentioned in the book. We're definitely modern heavy, there are some classic films from the '40s, '50s, '60s that get mentions, but the longer narratives are more modern.
Q: What is it about the end of the Cold War that reverberates in pop culture?
A. The Cold War had a huge impact on American culture, but then it just went away. It leaves, maybe not a full vacuum, but it does leave a space. A structured absence. I want to talk about that and discuss it with my students, but they weren't alive for the Cold War, so when I try to explain Cold War paranoia to them, I got to film. I can use film to show different aspects of Cold War paranoia, from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to the brilliant 1960 Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters are Due on Twilight Street." At first, they think, this has to be over the top, and yes it is a dramatization, but people were that afraid of things back then. Those students, and this is even starting to age out, who are old enough to remember the first few months after 9/11, can remember the paranoia and panic surrounding Muslims that Americans went through.
Q: Who is the intended audience for the book?
A. It's a short book, but hopefully people who enjoy movies and want to think about things more deeply can pick it up. I try to leave jargon out of it, and have it at a level people can understand. As I see it, most of my job as a college professor is translating from academic speech to teenager speech. I think that's the greatest strength I have is finding those commonalities, so everyone understands what everyone else is saying.
Q: What will you discuss at the event?
A. I'll talk about the shift from the Cold War era and how it manifests itself in these films, and I'll be using clips from "Batman" and "The Dark Knight" to help explain that shift. In my research, remakes, as ham-handed as they can be sometimes, can be a huge help to me, because you can see the choices that are made. So there's a "Day the Earth Stood Still" in 1951 and a "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with Keanu Reeves from a couple years ago. In the first film, it's very clear that what they're talking about it is the concept that we now have technology that can really damage the world. We have two superpowers that can kill a lot of people, and that's something we need to take very seriously and responsibly. The new "Day the Earth Stood Still" has an environmental message that we're going to kill the planet, and if we don't take that seriously, aliens are going to come take care of us.
Q: What causes those change in themes?
A. In the old days, it was always the big guys with the heavy eastern-European accents, and that started to go away, because that trope didn't make sense anymore. We suddenly found ourselves fighting asteroids and meteors and volcanoes. In 1997, we had two volcano movies come out, and in three years, we had two asteroid and two volcano movies. We still want that apocalyptic sense that the whole world could end, because that trope for a film is still dramatically compelling. It heightens drama, but nobody is going to buy nukes from the Russians anymore. Now there are a lot of themes, and we're moving toward an environmental theme in a lot of films. In the original "Superman," the destruction of Krypton, it was the political hubris of not listening to scientists that caused the planet's downfall. In "Man of Steel" it was the gross overuse of environmental resources that killed the environment, and that's why Krypton isn't here anymore. It's the same story, but those tweaks tell you what people are thinking about.
Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: Author Talk: Hollywood and the End of the Cold War
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25
Where: Room 108 Hill Hall, McDaniel College, 2 College Hill Road, Westminster
For more information: Visit http://www.mcdaniel.edu or call 410-848-7000.