IT STARTED in the decadent, fin-de siècle bohemian art worlds of Paris and London. Absinthe, a highly alcoholic drink originally developed as a medicine but by 1890 well known for its negative side effects, became the fashionable tipple for anyone who wished to advertise their propensity for behaving recklessly. It claimed many lives, which naturally means that, in today’s world of nihilistic exhibitionism, it is spoken of with reverence.
For many, ‘looking close to a tragic drug-fuelled early death’ is not a deterrent, the key word here being ‘looking’. The negative glamour attached to this nihilism is – like all glamour – a fantasy, and that’s the point. Nobody actually wants to die in this way but in a bored, decadent society it feels cool to look as if you might. The problem, particularly for young people, comes when the attraction to living dangerously is combined with a youthful sense of invulnerability. That is a toxic combination.
But nihilistic life-choices have been openly and unashamedly glamorised and approved of by the media for decades. The 1991 movie Thelma and Louise starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis was hailed by the liberal critics’ echo chamber as ‘an uncompromising validation of women’s experiences’ and a ‘neo-feminist road movie’. In 2016 it was selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.
As is well known, at the end of this supposedly uplifting piece of thoroughly modern art the two women who are being pursued by the police for multiple murders choose, rather than face justice, to commit suicide by driving over the edge of a cliff. Their car just happens to be a shiny, vintage Ford Thunderbird convertible, in a girlie shade of turquoise, so let’s not pretend that this is not glamorisation. The Utah location for this supposedly ‘climactic’ shot was chosen because it closely resembles the Grand Canyon, a place whose image adds its own veneer of glamour and mythology. But at that final moment the movie completely loses its nerve.
After showing the graceful ‘flight’ of the car in mid-air, the film lacks the honesty to show the grotesque and bloody reality of the decision that the two women have made. It chooses to put its hands over the audience’s eyes and shy away from depicting the horror and violence of their inevitable deaths in the graphic manner which has pretty well come to define modern Hollywood. No, on this occasion a notable exception is made, simply because the movie lacks the courage to tell the truth. The film freezes and fades to white just as the car starts its inevitable downward trajectory. At this moment it resembles a Disney children’s fantasy movie about a flying car.
That such a nihilistic fantasy, particularly one which is so cowardly that it chooses to look away at the moment of truth, could be regarded as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ stands as clear evidence of the extent to which negative and nihilistic fantasies have been glamorised by an artistic culture which is morally adrift.