Much has been written about this; much more still needs to be written. But there is a second question in play: What do these conceptions reveal about the vision and imaginings of the white United States at the time? One way of getting to this might be to ask: Who are the white characters in Wolfen?
We have the wealthy developer killed (along with his wife and bodyguard) in the first scene. In this character, we are given a tidy summation of the impotent and self-serving guilt of affluent whites towards urban poverty. He is first seen (through the eyes of a Wolfen) at the urban renewal groundbreaking, the spectacle of which is nearly parodic: white politicians in suits and ceremonial hard hats throwing lumps of dirt with golden shovels at the start of yet another round of "urban renewal." This is the type of project that, even by 1981, had acquired the feel of the quixotic—the deterioration of the inner city had been in full swing for two decades and there seemed to be no possibility of stopping it, despite the politicians' assurances that each new attempt would be the one to turn the tide. Later, after his murder, we are treated to a tour of his penthouse, complete with furniture so tacky it can only belong to someone very wealthy. The decor includes silver, reflecting, floor to ceiling blinds covering the panoramic NYC views, a model of the revitalization project in perfect, clean, white plaster (and, of course, a wolf-skin rug.) The developer was deeply distressed by the situation in the South Bronx; at the same time, he would never turn down the opportunity to make a couple of bucks off it.
A second white character we're given is the biologist named Ferguson (played by Tom Noonan) who identifies the mysterious wolf hair from the crime scene. Ferguson is the first person in the movie to explain to us that the wolves and Native Americans lived unencumbered lives and were, basically, very similar beings. He is a different archetype, the other side of the developer's coin: a nerdy scientist, living in a city and yet bemoaning the evils of technology and progress, consumed with adulation of the wild and of wolves. He is the stereotypical New Homesteader (people who move to the American West in order to find some kind of pastoral paradise they've convinced themselves must exist out there),[open endnotes in new window] long before that phrase came into common use. Where the developer sees the progressive vision of (white) civilization overcoming the wilderness, Ferguson fetishizes the wild as something greater than himself, some repository of deeper meaning that is being tragically destroyed. In one scene we see him watching film clips of wolves and detailing the amazing abilities of the animal: "Jaw pressure: 1,500 pounds per square inch, pulverizing bones as big as baseball bats…Maximum speed forty miles per hour." If the developer gives us self-serving guilt, then Ferguson allows us a vision of sad, impotent guilt.
The film clips end, unavoidably, with footage of wolves being shot from helicopters and held up as trophies. The message is clear: We are killing them. We! And, thus, only we can save them. This is guilt as empowerment. Guilt as a method of feeling good about ourselves: it's up to us (white culture) to go off and solve all the damn problems in the world. Again. (It is not a coincidence that the early framings of these habits of thought, by Slotkin and others, took place in the context of the Vietnam War; it is perhaps significant that they have not been more pronounced or visible during our current conflagrations.)
The final white character worth pausing on is detective Dewey Wilson. He is, like all most good cop and horror-movie detectives of his era, a down-and-out, blue collar alcoholic, trying not all that hard to recover from some tragedy or another. He's dangerous. He's unpredictable. He's a loose cannon. And yes, he has, like they all do, that dead-eyed, desperate desire for something more; more spiritual, more real, closer to the bone. Something closer, perhaps, to that authentic thing that he once was, before he fell into the gutter and became aware of the world. And where will he find that thing? In a descent into the wild. A descent into the violent. A journey in which it becomes clear what he (and the audience) has been looking for all along: the heart of darkness, that totemistic move to the boundaries of civilization, the earthy, the deadly, the larger, deeper, darker (skinned) world. A journey taken, in this movie, into the new horror and wilderness of the inner city.
Seen from afar, is there not some tragic element in all of this? In the traps, the paradoxes, the desperation of the white consciousness? Perhaps pathetic? And yet terrifying in its consequences. What strange and unhappy people these must be, one is tempted to think, these characters and the audience that sees itself represented in them, whose fantasies seem to consist of denigrating and fearing exactly the thing that they yearn for. Who end up, through these deluded fantasies, these pathologies, wreaking havoc on the world.
The comedian Chris Rock had a bit he used to do about the group of people that have had it the worst in U.S. history: the Native Americans. African Americans, Rock explained, have suffered, while the Native Americans (Indians) have simply been annihilated. "I have seen a fucking polar bear riding a tricycle in my life," he proclaimed, "but I've never seen an Indian family just chilling out at Red Lobster." It was a joke that always got a great laugh, and it was a joke aimed at the white United States, one intended to remind us that the different races are not all equally responsible for the country's sins, and have borne them differently.
There have been moments in which mainstream white U.S. culture seems to have begun to think about grappling with its position and history. This grappling has not always been clearly articulated, and its expressions have not always been even noble or decent ones; they have usually pronounced themselves through fear, guilt, nightmares, and easy, frictionless morality plays. Wolfen is emblematic of this tradition, and of a particular historical moment. The destruction forced onto the Native Americans, the issues of the history of slavery and Civil Rights, the validity of the melting-pot metaphor: these were issues still on the public mind when the movie was made. There was at least some vague uneasiness on the part of white culture with the way in which it achieved its ascendency. There was some awareness of what AIM was, some awareness of Peltier. There was Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. There was the revisionist Western film, there was a Black Panther Party, Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," the battles over the Bicentennial celebration.
This cultural questioning is the source of the film's visual interest in fractured framing, mirroring, and questions of vision. From the first, we are presented with shots of the faces of the white characters broken up by objects in the foreground and oddly reflected in mirrors. We are also continually confronted with the question of how things are seen, from the many shots from the Wolfen's point of view, to a wide variety of shots in which the vision of (generally white) characters is filtered in a number of ways. This fracturing of the white personality and questioning of what it means to see the world through white eyes (particularly as opposed to the vision of the powerful and pure, but uncivilized, Wolfen) are issues the film is interested in exploring.
This ability of the dominant culture to question its position in a serious way has nearly vanished, despite all of our current talk about "white privilege." The moments of unease along these lines that still pop up occasionally in the United States tend to be so ingrained and exhausted that they've lost all meaning, or they fall prey to the culture of irony, which says that the most that can be done about anything is to mock it. The aforementioned Avatar is an example of the former. It’s a lukewarm and sanctimonious parable about the treatment of the Native American, so morally vacuous and shot through with internal contradiction that it becomes little more than sentiment and nostalgia. Spielberg's Lincoln functions in the same vein: its basic view of the history of slavery as an evil which was purely and nobly overcome, rather than as a historical circumstance that in some way determined today's society. The approach to race on South Park is an example of the opposite, ironic, pole. There the basic assumption is that we all know how terrible everything used to be and often still is, and the great thing now is that we can all laugh it.
The point here is not that white Americans should live in a state of constant guilt and remorse. The point is that perhaps the most tragic aspect of U.S. culture is its tendency to see itself as supreme and inevitable. We see this in current treatments of the issue of race, which assert that we have basically overcome the problem, which you would realize if you would just stop whining. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," says our Chief Justice, "is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." We see it in the U.S. vision of U.S. democracy as the necessary endpoint for civilization. We see it in the notion that our economic model provides us with nothing but answers. (Have a problem? Look for market solutions. Look for efficiency. Look for the power of statistics.) We see it in the bland confidence that U.S. culture has in its own power, its own rightness, its ability to solve any problem.
In the main, these are habits of historical white thought that have percolated through the national vision. That is, they are the habits of thought of the historical winner. They are the habits of thought of the people who have succeeded in the democracy, and been enriched by the economic system. They are the beliefs of the segment of the culture that has never been a minority. Ultimately, they are habits that reflect a deepening failure of the imagination: they preclude the notion that there are alternatives out there.
And as these habits of thought have become more and more and more widely accepted, we have seen a shifting in our conceptions of history: away from the idea that it might be necessary to deal with the implications of how we got to the position we now hold, and towards the idea that it's inevitable that the Native Americans and the minorities and the other historical losers will eventually come to see the benefits of joining our cultural dream.
Here is the end of the movie: Wolfen: Wilson and Neff (the police psychologist), become trapped by the Wolfen in the penthouse apartment of the rich developer. (To ask how the Wolfen climbed — flew? — to this height would be to deny the film the absurd beauty of its vision.) Wilson has his gun drawn. They circle him and snarl. We have reached the moment when our protagonist is at last at the center of the heart of darkness. The film gives us a sequence that flashes back and forth between close-ups of Wilson's eyes and the eyes of one of the Wolfen. Their vision becomes united. Wilson lowers his gun and sets about destroying the model of the development project. He smashes it to lovingly filmed, slow-motion bits. In 1981, this is still a gesture that is possible. We white conquerors will try to stop our mad development and spare you natural creatures from destruction. And yet we cannot stop it, cannot stop the creation of penthouses and our development projects. We are caught in our own traps. We cannot be cleansed. We are being driven mad. The Wolfen understand. Wilson, in return, comes to understand the vast, ineradicable force of nature, and through that encounter he is in cleansed. The fracturing of his personality is repaired by this encounter with the wild. The film ends with shots the Wolfen running through the streets of New York City. It is the system, the history, which is the problem; the wilderness, the natural spirit, can still be imagined as transcendent. (The fate of the black urban poor upon whom the Wolfen prey is unclear. There is only room here for so much awareness.)
It is a closing gesture of recrimination and impotence, of self-doubt; it is a gesture that both intentionally and unintentionally, as a self-conscious eco-drama and a mid-rate horror film, begins to wrestle with the tangled lines of the cultural imagination.
Is such a gesture is possible now, in a country in which incarceration rates are six times higher for blacks than for whites, in which poverty rates for the Native American population are two and a half times higher than that of the white population, in which life expectancy correlates exactly with race? Perhaps it is. Perhaps the possibilities of recriminating imagination that produced Wolfen have not faded. Perhaps this is all alarmism, and films do not change, things are no worse (or better) than they were. We have our Twelve Years A Slave, after all. Or perhaps our Django Unchained.
But, looking around at the cultural assumptions of our day, at the way the affluent white United States imposes its dreams on the world and then moves on from those dreams, keeping just ahead, letting everyone else trail behind, never thinking about those dreams, simply assuming its own inevitability, I'm reminded of another line from Chris Rock: