The Situationist has an interesting report on how two feel-good movies, Rocky Balboa and The Pursuit of Happyness, are selling the American Dream, or promoting the idea of individual will and choice over our social environment. Specifically in this case, the website argues that central to both movies is the idea that:-

Laws, we’ve been told, particularly since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office, should facilitate choice “ placing the individual in charge, making the consumer sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to the person, while minimizing the role of the collectivist, paternalistic, and intermeddling regulator or social program.”

And as it says, “We have an insatiable appetite for such stories, in part because they tell us what we want to hear: anyone in this country can go from the bottom to the top.”

The website makes a good case explaining a host of other factors which can explain an individual’s success which have nothing to do with individual choice but that are deeply engrained in the individual’s environment. Nevertheless a key reason why we go to the movies is because we want to see something inspirational. It’s a big reason why Hollywood is called the Dream Factory.

Ever watched the UK detective series A Touch of Frost or Inspector Morse? These are great programs, but their atmosphere, music, characters and pace — not to mention the weather — all convey a maudlin and depressed tone. Crimes get committed, they get solved, but still there’s no optimism, no relief. Life is dreary. It’s a British outlook on life.

The dialogue proceeds at a slow and measured pace. By contrast, Americans like to fill space, they don’t like emptiness. American conversations proceed quickly, and importantly towards a conclusion. None of this wallowing in self-pity.

Movies such as Rocky and Happyness are popular culture but their themes are deep and appealing. As The Situationist points out both have very strong philosophical themes. The fact that they may be couched in some pretty direct or non-philosophical language doesn’t diminish their significance.

For example, Rocky and the Boxing Commissioner – as The Situationist describes – engage in some quick verbal repartees over rights and the Bill of Rights. And Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness talks about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

And it’s all about the can-do attitude of America. As Gardner says, “You want something? Go get it. Period.”

Of course, it’s not always that simple. But movies like novels should be permitted some poetic license. They don’t deal with just facts. They exaggerate and hyperbolize. It’s how they make their point. If they are too close to reality they become documentaries.

But perhaps the biggest situational factor the The Situationist itself overlooks, and which films like Rocky no doubt do much to reinforce, is that they play a part in popular culture in removing the social stigma of failure. This surely is the source of much dynamism in American economic and creative life, while the presence of such stigma does much to drown the creative energies of older European cultures.

The question The Situationist authors pose is whether the post-Reagan legislative framework, while emphasising choice and markets, which the films protagonists also reflect, overly diminishes the dispositional factors which can dominate the process of success or failure over individual effort and skill.

But the original Rocky film, according to Wikipedia, was a so-called sleeper hit, itself an exemplar of the American dream with real-life mirroring its own art. Stallone, an unknown, wrote the film. It was made for $1.2 million in 28 days, and grossed $117 million, won three Oscars, including best picture, and created five sequels. Certainly, the success of those last five could be classified as situational. But the first? That’s another story.

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