Sunday, November 24, 2013

Film and Dynamic Masculinity

In a previous post, I discussed concrete ideals of masculinity that were derived from biology and social constructs. I thought, however, that a good approach might be to think about archetypal masculinity. Or rather, certain ideals that connect to a sort of essential and natural masculine. Gareth Hill writes in his book, Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche about the differences between the static and the dynamic masculine. This book tends toward a psychological analysis of masculinity, nevertheless it is interesting and it also can be applicable to action film. So here are some of the the buzzwords Hill attaches to the Dynamic and Static Masculine:

Dynamic:
Initiative
Goal Direction
Grandiosity
Linearity
Technology
Heroism

Static:
Order
Rules and Regulations
Systems of Meaning
Hierarchies of Value
Theories of Truth
Standards
Kingship, Knighthood
Persona


In a lot of ways it seems the action hero falls under the Dynamic masculine and yet there is a kind of underlying acknowledgement of the static, in that the hero is working to maintain or restore "order, truth, meaning, values" etc. Or rather, most films start with the protagonist utilizing the dynamic masculine and concluding in a static masculine state once that battle has been fought, the woman rescued and order restored. The source of these ideals is what is so compelling. Again, there is the question of a socially constructed ideal versus one that is biological. Perhaps there is a merging of both. This is a topic worth examining at greater length and with certain action films.


Source:
Hill, Gareth: Masculine and Feminine: The Natural Flow of Opposites in the Psyche

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Film and Physicality

A silly and entertaining fight scene from They Live.
Movies would be unwatchable if nothing happened in them. So, as a rule, a film requires action; even if it isn't an action film, tension and conflict are necessary aspects. In the case of the action film, conflict is the main theme. Action movie conflict consists not of arguments but actual physical confrontation. Sequences such as these require plenty of images of the male body in action. These displays of masculinity are reflective of a certain idealized maleness that has held sway throughout the ages. Theorist R.W. Connell suggests that "mass culture generally assumes there is a fixed, true masculinity beneath the ebb and flow of daily life--[there is talk of] 'real men', the 'natural man', the 'deep masculine." This embedded masculinity "is almost always thought to proceed from men's bodies... either the body drives and directs action or [it] sets limits to action."

Certainly the bodies in action films do both. They propel the narrative by going out and seeking confrontations or responding in kind to the aggression of other male bodies. There is also the unstated limits of male activity in action film. By and large, men in these films are not going to display weakness or emotion. Many sociobiologists "[theorize] that men's bodies are the bearers of a natural masculinity produced by the evolutionary pressures that have borne down upon the human stock. [That] masculine genes [lend] tendencies to aggression, competitiveness, political power, hierarchy, territoriality, promiscuity and forming men's clubs." Further, "masculine gender is a certain feel to the skin, certain muscular shapes and tensions, certain postures and ways of moving, certain possibilities in sex."

Indeed roughness and muscularity, 'aggression', 'competitiveness' and 'territoriality' are major players in action films. According to Connell, men have a kind of physical status which they use to assert domination, yet this physical status is primarily learned and that men would be better suited to jettison antiquated notions of masculinity as being a purely bodily or aggression based state. Except masculinity cannot primarily be a social construct. Without it, there would be no historical narrative, or social constructs, for that matter. Certain stereotypically masculine traits like logic, reason and spatial acuity were necessary in the building of cities and societies. This isn't to suggest that women cannot possess any of these traits, but rather that historically men have had the opportunity to display them more readily. This, in itself, is problematic and returns to the question of men's physical status. Natural male dominance certainly prevented female advancement. More importantly, learned, imposed or inherent female passivity played a role in men becoming a dominant historical force.

It is likely that it isn't possible to separate masculinity from the male body. There are defining physical characteristics which in turn effect mental characteristics, personality and behavior. The action film showcases these in a manner that, to Connell, would be problematic. This masculinity, exaggerated though it may be, has a historical precedence. It cannot be ignored or simply relinquished as this behavior would be in opposition to thousands of years of learned or inherent masculine activity.

Source:
Connell, R.W. Masculinities

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Running Man and The Necessity of Heroism

The Running Man is a 1987 film directed by Paul Michael Glaser and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It takes place in L.A. in a dystopian future in which there is a police state; there is no art or music and money is banned. There are food and water shortages and the only source of pleasure is TV. All information that is produced for and shown on television has largely been altered in some way. The most popular game show is called The Running Man. Criminals are the contestants and the object of the game is that they must navigate a labyrinthine underground rink where they must fight to the death against Stalkers whose sole purpose is to hunt and kill them. The audience gets to select the Stalker they would prefer to kill the contestant in a formula that is rather like a grim American Idol.

This film is a convincing indictment of the vapidity of celebrity culture at the same time that it is an awesomely enjoyable action film. Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a military man who refuses to carry out an order that would kill civilians. As a result of a cover-up and altered videotape, Richards becomes first a prisoner and then later a contestant on the show. Many of the conventions of a Schwarzenegger film abound; he carries large metal pipes on his shoulders and rips up furniture and items that are bolted down with ease. There is a woman named Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) who he, first, in his desperation, kidnaps and then later, of course, protects. She, along with William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Harold Weiss (Marvin McIntyre), the two men whom Richards broke out of prison with, become contestants on the show after their capture.

This movie is concerned with futuristic criminal justice. The game is like a trial and the audience is the jury and freedom is the reward for those contestants who complete the game successfully. The contestants even have a "court appointed theatrical agent." Yet it is the Stalkers who are the most important. There is Subzero (Professor Toru Tanaka), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), Dynamo (Erland van Lidth), Fireball (Jim Brown) and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). They have and use all sorts of weapons, like chainsaws, razor sharp hockey sticks, flame throwers, and electricity to defeat the contestants. The Stalkers are major celebrities and the fans of the show throw themselves at them and place bets on their performance.

The host of the Running Man is Damon Killian (Richard Dawkins). It must be said that Dawkins was made for this role, given his years of game show hosting experience. He clearly has a sense of humor about the nature of his work because he is pitch perfect as the villainous and slimy Killian. There is also an awareness of the general gawdy pomp of game shows. The Running Man features glitzy dancers that are reminiscent of the early 80s dance show, Solid Gold. The blending of bad choreography and violence is seamless and awful. More importantly, the audience is portrayed as just as awful as the dancers and host in that they are shown nearly ecstatic over the violence and mayhem featured on the show. They cheer when contestants are murdered as they perceive this as the deserved punishment for the criminals. At the same time, they seem to be unaware of the savage and awful nature of their behavior. More importantly, they are unaware that many of the images on the game show have been altered to suit its narrative.

Schwarzenegger's Richards, then, is the necessary replacement for the pseudo-heroics of the Stalkers. In each scenario with each Stalker, Richard's defeats them with ease. They are no competition for him, especially when he divests them of their weapons. The audience is against Richards until they witness the cowardly nature of Dynamo. Without his electrical weaponry he is reduced to sniveling and whining, shouting, "Cut to commercial! I don't have any power!" Richards spares him and the audience begins placing bets on Richards to win. There's only one Stalker who is serious about the game and that is Captain Freedom (which has to be the most American stage name ever). Jesse Ventura is at his over the top best in this role. Captain Freedom is retired and works as the show's commentator. He's so muscular, he looks peculiar in the white turtleneck and blue blazer host's uniform. It is odd to see Ventura not baring his muscles, but in a way he does bare them as he appears to burst out of his clothing in the same way that he delivers his rapid fire manic lines. Anyway, Captain Freedom is enraged when Killian decides to digitally alter the conclusion of the game by making it appear that Captain Freedom came out of retirement to fight and ultimately defeat Richards. He insists that he will fight him in real life, shouting that The Running Man is a "sport of death and honor."

Honor is the key point here. The major premise of the film isn't necessarily that media corrupts and controls the populace (although that is indeed a minor premise) but rather that people are desperate for heroes and celebrities and athletes often play that role. When Richards defeats the Stalkers, destroys Killian and clears his name, he becomes the hero. The audience celebrates and chants his name. Nothing in their horrible existence has been altered by Richards' victory but the suggestion is that it might be, now that justice and honor and truth have prevailed. Furthermore, Richards is so courageous that his bravery seems to rub off on people. Amber, who begin the game cowardly and fearful, ends up displaying a great deal of courage and also plays a pivotal role in allowing the truth about the game show to be revealed.

This is also one of the few Schwarzenegger films in which there is the suggestion that one of his characters is actually a sexual being. To start, he spends much of the movie in a form fitting, futuristic yellow and grey catsuit. In a strange way, the uniform hides his physique. He seems smaller and streamlined. Though in the earlier part of the film, his massive body was on display. Despite Schwarzenegger's almost feminizing attire during the latter half of the film, the sexual tension between Amber and Ben is obvious.  It comes to a head in a scene near the conclusion, when Ben suggestively asks Amber where she hid the tape that held the true footage concerning Ben's military experiences. Later, when they are victorious, Ben sweeps her in his arms and they embrace passionately. In this way, The Running Man presents an entirely new version of Schwarzeneggerian heroics while upholding the standards of previous films.

Bad Boys and Prison Masculinity

"Don't be such a pussy." This is what Mick O'Brien (Sean Penn) says to convince his reluctant friend Carl Brennen (Alan Ruck) to continue with their plan to rob some drug dealers as a means to make quick money and gain respect. This statement and O'Brien's overall foolhardiness lead to a bad conclusion in the 1983 Rick Rosenthal film, Bad Boys. This film often feels like a much darker The Warriors, in that it focuses on a youthful masculinity with little to no outlet for expression. The difference is that Bad Boys is set in Chicago rather than New York and it feels more like a cautionary tale, as O'Brien's forays into the criminal world lead him to a juvenile detention center. What follows is an examination of the ways masculinity is performed in a prison setting.

During O'Brien's sentencing, the judge describes him as a sociopath. His behavior is undoubtedly antisocial, but he doesn't really fit the profile. His cellmate and friend, Horowitz (Eric Gurry) does however-- he is superficially charming, glib, highly intelligent, despises boredom and isolation and doesn't seem to have much remorse for the crimes he has committed. It is reasonable to see why O'Brien might be mistaken for a sociopath. He was raised in an unstable environment wherein a specific type of masculinity is the norm. Any showcase of weakness or emotion is perceived as effeminate or weak. Once he is imprisoned, the need to be as tough is possible is a necessity. A prisoner likely has to perform sociopathy in order to survive.

Much is made of the gang mentality in this film. There are the gangs and gang activity that lead the young men into prison and then the gangs within the prison system. In this prison (as in all prisons), there is a hierarchy. The alphas are Viking Lofgren (Clancy Brown) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush). They assign each inmate's job for the week, get access to the best supplies and also enjoy beating up whomever gets in their way. It is very apparent that all these men have is their street credibility, their toughness. Most of them are illiterate, poor and have very few options outside of the criminal realm.

O'Brien's street smarts work well for him inside. He begins to make a name for himself inside after he beats Lofgren and Tweety with a pillowcase filled with soda cans and becomes the leader in the prison. That is until Paco Moreno (Esai Morales), O'Brien's enemy from the outside ends up in the same prison. Undoubtedly, O'Brien and Morales have a huge confrontation at the end of the film. And it is long and violent and bloody. Though O'Brien walks away, having decided against killing Morales, Bad Boys doesn't neatly wrap up with O'Brien being rehabilitated and changing his life. It only shows him returning to his cell. The suggestion is that the specific type of masculinity that exists and is taught within prisons doesn't easily translate to a life outside.

The compelling aspect of this film is the way in which it presents the emotional awkwardness of young men. Any showcase of sensitivity in the prison, either through artistic expression or otherwise, is met with derision. When O'Brien receives upsetting news about his girlfriend, he says he "feels like crying," but does not.  Emotional pain is channeled through violence. In a way, the prison becomes a metaphor for trapped emotions as it is only when O'Brien is momentarily out of the prison that he breaks down. It is worth noting that the very idea that any emotion or hesitation is equated with effeminacy is what lead O'Brien to prison to begin with; and, that within the prison walls, the only acceptable way to express any emotion is rage which leads to violence which leads to a longer sentence.





Death Wish and the Mythology of Defensive Masculinity

The 1974 Michael Winner film, Death Wish is best described as brutal or raw. Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is an architect and liberal who lives in New York with his wife. He has a married daughter who lives in the city as well. His values are thrown into chaos when street punks break into his house, murder his wife and rape his daughter. The police can't seem to find the criminals, though they really aren't making much of an effort. Horrified and helpless, Kersey returns to work. His boss, sensing that Kersey needs to get out of the city, sends him to Tucson for an assignment. There, the pacifist Kersey gets up close to gun culture. He meets Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a man who has contracted Kersey's work in building a development. Aimes is also a gun owner who encourages and celebrates a kind of wild west code. He gives Kersey a gun as a parting gift for his work. This gift is in dangerous combination with the ideas of vigilantism that are already forming in Kersey's mind. Before his trip to Tuscon, he thwarted an attempted mugging by smacking the assailant in the face with a sock stuffed with two rolls of quarters. Afterwards, he is shown in his apartment in a state of manic euphoria, swinging the quarters wildly in the air until the sock breaks open and spills the quarters on the floor.

Kersey has not mourned his loss but rather throws himself into work. Now that he has a gun, he begins to wander the streets at night, alone, in dangerous places. New York of the 70s was economically struggling and crime rates were stratospheric. As a result, it doesn't take long before Kersey has shot and killed about six people. This movie is an examination of a dormant and defensive masculinity suddenly awakened. An important scene occurs between Paul and his son-in-law Jack Toby (Stephen Keats) in which they discuss crime and defense:

Paul Kersey: Nothing to do but cut and run, huh? What else? What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don't defense us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.
Jack Toby: We're not pioneers anymore.
Paul Kersey: What are we, Jack?
Jack Toby: What do you mean?
Paul Kersey: I mean, if we're not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition of fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?
Jack Toby: Civilized?
Paul Kersey: No.

Kersey refutes the idea that the only recourse is to allow a criminal element to take over the streets. Instead, he becomes the force for revenge. Though this film is incredibly violent and often seems like a series of scenes in which Bronson goes around shooting people, there appears to be a deeper message. Bronson's unusual features and stoicism reveal a great deal. Death Wish is ultimately about an inability to grieve. Kersey never cries and he never rages. His only emotional display comes after he commits a violent act- as in the scene after the quarter attack and the scene following his first kill when he suffers a panic attack and vomits. The only other emotion that he is capable of displaying is grim acceptance. Masculinity and emotion, or the lack thereof, seem to be problematic here. Kersey's only outlet is through violence. If that is the case, then perhaps the underlying message of the film is not that vigilantism is ideal, but rather that all of the violence, the crime and the resultant vigilantism are due to a kind of frozen emotional state on the part of men, wherein grief, rage, anger, frustration are only expressed through aggression.

What is most interesting about the conversation between Kersey and his son-in-law is the suggestion that defense is an "old American custom." That is to say that this specific type of violence seems to be wholly American. Kersey's trip to Arizona is a kind of return to the roots of American violence, it represents Kersey's embrace of frontier justice. There is an adoration of weaponry in the United States not found anywhere else. This film focuses on that idea briefly, of a love of guns being handed down generationally. Kersey even suggests that the gun is an extension of the penis; a point Aimes does not refute, but rather seems proud of or in agreement with the idea. Aimes also compares New York City to Tucson saying that if New Yorkers defended themselves as Tucsonians do, crime rates would drop. In Kersey's altered state, this idea seems reasonable.

The frightening thing about this film is that it never presents an alternative for Kersey. Kersey becomes a kind of anonymous folk hero. So much so that the police are loathe to charge him of a crime when they discover he is the vigilante for fear that he will influence the public even more. The decision is made to kick Kersey out of New York. Kersey making an old West metaphor of the situation, jokes that they want him out by sundown. Perhaps with this mindset motivating him, he heads West to Chicago where it is made clear that he will be a vigilante there as well. Kersey's condition seems to be static, in that his life has been hopelessly altered by crime, he is unable or unwilling to grieve or face up to this fact and, further, that avenging this crime repeatedly through the killing of other criminals offers a kind of temporary peace. In many ways, this film indicates that violence is throughly entrenched or ingrained in American culture and that there isn't a way out of that entrenchment.



Thursday, November 7, 2013

Marathon Man: The Everyman Action Hero

While the action hero of the 1980s was often a police officer, military man and the like, a popular theme of the 1970s film was that of a regular man thrust into an extraordinary and dangerous situation. The 1976 John Schlesinger film, Marathon Man is one such example. In it, Dustin Hoffman plays a man named Thomas (often referred to by his nickname, Babe) who is a graduate student attending Columbia University and also training to run a marathon. Unfortunately, he becomes the target of a vicious, exiled Nazi named Szell (Laurence Olivier) because Szell assumes that he knows the whereabouts of some stolen jewels.  Szell comes to this conclusion because Babe's brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is a member of a mysterious U.S. government group known as "the Division" and he was the last person in possession of the diamonds. Once Doc, who refuses to give any information about them is murdered by Szell, Szell goes after Babe in a desperate attempt to recover the treasure.

A bad combination.
This film includes a scene that utilises dentistry as torture-- and that to great effect. Szell is both a Nazi and a dentist (a horrible combination) and uses his drill and a dental pick to rip through Babe's sensitive teeth and gums. "Is it safe?" he calmly asks over and over again to a bewildered and terrified Babe. The compelling aspect of this film is the way in which Babe evolves. Babe is a man who has his reality upended in that he realizes that he knows nothing about the real lives of the people he cares about and, as a result, is forced to deal with grave danger. Hoffman was the perfect choice for this role because of his everyman quality. He is rather average and unremarkable. He's short, not particularly strong or muscular, his voice has a meek and droning quality. It is exciting to watch him escape Szell and his awful dental tools and his marathon training comes to good use when he is pursued by Janeway (William Devane), a corrupt Division agent.

For the record, I don't like Dustin Hoffman at all. He's one of those regular guy actors that everyone loves (Jimmy Stewart is an example from another era) that really annoys me. I can't even really explain it, I'm just repelled by him. I think maybe it's the self-awareness he has vis-a-vis his regular guy status. Also, a movie star should have something remarkable about them. I don't mean great physical beauty or anything-- just something compelling. I don't see anything really compelling in Dustin Hoffman. Which is why I think this movie is so great. Despite my lukewarm feelings for Dustin Hoffman, I can watch this movie over and over again. It's just that good. I don't mind that he's in it because the point is that it's the story of an average guy in an above average situation. In fact, it is his averageness that makes the movie work.

Hoffman's presence in Marathon Man makes clear that this is a film concerned with the survival instinct. Babe is an intellectual, a man seemingly uncomfortable with asserting himself or dealing with confrontation who is forced to fight for his life. In many ways, this sort of action film is much more challenging than later films as it maintains a realistic tone all while showing scenes of incredible violence and danger. More to the point, the protagonist is shown  to be greatly affected by these incidents. The action hero of the 80s is unfazed by all that occurs around him. He dodges bullets and explosions without expression or makes a joke of them. Babe is clearly shaken by the events he has experienced and it is his emotional transformation that makes this film.



Cobra: Action Film as Conservative Propaganda

The 1986 Sylvester Stallone film, Cobra is essentially one hour and thirty minutes of pro Reagan conservative era propaganda. Reagan's photo is even featured prominently in one of the scenes.  The narrative follows thusly: L.A. has descended into a nightmarish haven for lawlessness and corruption, a place where crime goes unpunished because lawyers work to get criminals off and back on the streets. Stallone plays the titular character, a cop who has reached his limit as far as this is concerned. Though he is a police officer, he is seemingly above the law. He even states in the film's conclusion that "this is where the law stops and I start." Cobra's attitude is vital given that there is a gang terrorizing L.A. This gang is headed by a hulking man called the Night Stalker (Brian Thompson). Their primary activities are killing people and then later meeting in abandoned warehouses to beat axes and shovels together while chanting about the New World order. The members of this gang are very aware that the scales of justice are tipped in their favor. However, they make a major error when a women named Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) witnesses one of their murders, escapes and ends up in protective custody. Cobra is the cop who is protecting her and, as mentioned before, he gives zero fucks about the law.

Like Commando, this is a film about a modern-day knight. Ingrid, a statuesque model, is the damsel-in-distress. Cobra becomes her nurturer and protector, although in a somewhat unknightly manner, he does end up becoming sexually involved with her. The scenes preceding their introduction feature some of the most aggressively 80s moments ever captured on film. Ingrid is modeling in sparkly, spangled 80s clothing while a synth-heavy soundtrack plays. Her posing is interrupted by a montage of the gang chanting and committing criminal monstrosities. This montage is vital too, not just from a stylistic standpoint, but because it reveals a very specific vision of L.A. In this blending of imagery the glamour and corruption of the city becomes obvious. Since glamour itself is often false or illusory the suggestion is that the corruption shown represents the real L.A.

Too much man?
Cobra is one of the few 80s films in which great size and muscularity are conflated with corruption and evil. When Ingrid sees the Night Stalker standing in the street, with his arms at his side and chest heaving, she is instantly terrified. Thompson, in this role, looks almost like a Cro-Magnon man, his jaw is heavily pronounced and he seems to have a surplus of testosterone which contributes to his bestial appearance. Compared to Thompson, the well-muscled Stallone appears rather small. The suggestion might be that there is a delicate balance of masculinity. Cobra possesses the right amount which makes him courageous and nurturing, whereas the Night Stalker's is in overdrive, which leads to violence and insanity. Cobra, too, seems to represent an old-fashioned kind of masculinity. He drives a 1950 Mercury and even on his day off he keeps the neighborhood toughs in line. Specifically, he roughs up some members of an Hispanic gang who have been hassling him and encourages them to "clean up their act."

The final scene in Cobra occurs where seemingly all 80s films have their dramatic conclusion, in a warehouse that is curiously empty, but is, at the same time, active and with working machinery. The Night Stalker and Cobra battle it out, Ingrid cowers in the corner in terror at the display of aggressive and violent manliness. Cobra kills the Night Stalker by hoisting him into the air and depositing him onto a large hook which then carries him away writhing and screaming into the fire of the warehouse?, foundry?.  Impalement is used in this film, too, as a necessary method for the destruction of the villain. Once the Night Stalker is gone, Ingrid and Cobra embrace and they ride off on Cobra's motorcycle. Cobra has restored order and a normal, regular masculinity holds sway.

Cobra presents all criminals as hopelessly corrupt and unable to be rehabilitated. Cobra and other police officers must be tough and merciless to defeat all the forces working against them, specifically the law and, as presented in the film, a biased and liberal media. The early image of the photograph of Reagan presiding over the police office is telling. President Reagan was notoriously tough on crime and enacted legislation called the "Comprehensive Crime Control Act" which led to tougher sentencing of criminals. He also appointed conservative judges and created the "War on Drugs." The legislation he created made it tougher for those who broke the law to be paroled. Cobra seemingly attempts to focus on the battle between liberal and conservative values as far as controlling crime is concerned, while clearly supporting a conservative agenda. In this film, the criminals are shown as very aware of their rights under the law, often taunting the cops by asserting that an arrest is meaningless. In a way, Cobra is incredibly contradictory--it can't seem to decide if criminality and liberalism are overtaking the land or if upright and conservative values are dominant. Most likely, it is a film about the process of a conservative clean up of a corrupt world.


Source:
Slate.com "No Mercy: Ronald Reagan's Tough Legal Legacy."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Commando: Schwarzenegger as Heroic Nurturer/Killing Machine

Since I've mentioned Commando in previous posts I feel it is necessary to give it its own write up. In part, because Commando is an incredibly masculine movie and is in keeping with the theme of this blog, but really, I am writing about it because it is awesome. This movie is beyond the beyond- there are heaving muscles, slimy bad guys- including one who is perpetually ensconced in a chain mail tee-shirt, there's Dan Hedaya playing a South American dictator...warlord...who knows?, and, of course, there's Arnold Schwarzenegger destroying shopping malls, blowing up things and killing people in new and exciting ways in an attempt to retrieve his kidnapped daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). This movie has it all. Also, it has some very pointed messages on the meaning of manhood in a specific time and place.

Vernon Wells, punk rock warlord?
That time and place is the 1980s and Commando is an unbelievably 80s film. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a devoted single father who happens to be a retired Black ops Commando, hence the title of the film. He's an unstoppable killing machine who also manages to be a protector, nurturer and a kind of universal father figure to all females he encounters. This incongruity is evidenced in the opening sequence of the film, which shows Schwarzenegger doing burly, manly things like cutting down trees and then juxtaposes that with images of him and his daughter petting and feeding a faun or sitting at the table sharing a meal. This is to make clear that when things go wrong, Matrix will be tough or tender depending on the situation. And since this is an action movie, things go wrong pretty quickly. Once Jenny is kidnapped by Arius and his crew, Matrix goes wild. He jumps out of plane without a parachute, he kills with his bare hands (all while maintaining a sense of humor).

When he enlists the help of Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), a flight attendant, the nurturing nature of Matrix is evident. At first, she is terrified of him, but later she realizes that his intensity is only due to his desperation to retrieve his daughter. There is no sexual tension between Cindy and Matrix because Matrix is, of course, concerned only with finding Jenny. Yet he also is seemingly above sex. Matrix is the ultimate good guy. Though he may sometimes employ violent means, he only does so to rescue those in trouble. Matrix is masculine from a purely powerful and courageous standpoint. That he is presented as uninterested in sex further reveals his heroic nature. In many ways, Matrix is a modern day iteration of a knight.  Consider that "knighthood is a series of masculine performances,--saving ladies in distress, wearing armor, fighting with a lance" and it seems clear that Matrix is operating in a knight-like way. He takes on the role as a kind of guide and protector, even teaching Cindy to fly a plane. He is wholly good, whereas the bad guys in this film are thoroughly and irretrievably evil.

Speaking of bad guys, I'd like to focus a bit on Arius, Bennett and Cooke (Bill Duke). I've written about Sully (David Patrick Kelly) already so I think I'll leave him out of this one. Bennett is the metal mesh (armor worn by a corrupt knight, perhaps) vest wearer. He is a killing machine too, but he operates on the wrong side. Arius calls all the shots, while using a remarkably bad and very comical pseudo South American accent, while Bennett carries them out. They are the complete opposite of Matrix and they seem to thrive on being villains. Again, their presence in the film is uncomplicated. They are the enemy, the one the viewer is waiting for Matrix to come and destroy. As is common in films of this genre, they have no redeeming qualities. When Matrix does arrive, he kills them in the most over-the-top fashion imaginable. Arius, the leader, is lucky in that his death is pretty easy. He is simply shot by Matrix and then falls dramatically off a building. For Bennett, it is murder by metal pipe (lance). Matrix is so strong he rips a pipe from a wall and impales Bennett with it. It is impossible to ignore the sexual implications of this moment. Of course, Matrix eliminates any tension with a one-liner. Impalement seems to be the method of choice for Matrix, as he also uses it to kill Cooke-- punching him so hard he flies into the air and lands on the jutting points of broken wooden furniture. The asexual Matrix seems to get off using large phallus shaped objects to kill people.

The impalement imagery is interesting. The scenes in which the impalements occur are obviously throughly violent. They seem to be deliberately presented as a means for Matrix to channel his sexual energies. This is odd considering that Commando is clearly a film about protective masculinity. It's almost difficult to reconcile the contradictions running rampant through this film. However, the strange blend of incredible violence and nurturing in this film is curious, compelling and most importantly, endlessly entertaining.

Source:
Reeser, Todd. W. Masculinities in Theory

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Unconventional Man: A Consideration of David Patrick Kelly

An iconic moment in The Warriors.
In an earlier post, I mentioned the actor David Patrick Kelly and his propensity for portraying villains. In the 1970s, unconventional looking actors could still land leading roles. Walter Matthau's performance in The Taking of Pelham 123 is a good example. He is the hero of the film, but he's rather ornery, slightly goofy and he isn't particularly good looking. By the 1980s, heroism became linked with appearance. The 80s action hero looked the part essentially. He was symmetrical, muscular, square jawed and square headed. It was as if his physical perfection represented his character. Gone were the complexities of the 70s character, replaced with a simplistic, one-liner spouting, one dimensional tough guy. (This is not a criticism. The 80s action film works in a way few other action films of other eras do. They blend gleeful simplicity and violence into a formula that, while ridiculous, is nevertheless very enjoyable.) The only place for complexity and the unconventional in these films was in the role of the villain. Except in many cases the villains were one dimensional in opposition to the main character--all cartoonish evil instead of good. That said, I have to say that David Patrick Kelly took the role of villain to a whole other level. To start, he's a decent looking guy, but he lacked the attributes required of the 80s good guy. He wasn't tall, he wasn't very muscular and there is something about his face--it's menacing, dark, haunted--but also rather vital. This aspect of his appearance was the perfect foil to the rather uncomplicated physical presence of the protagonists.

Making sandwich eating look diabolical.
Still, there is likely more involved in his typecasting. But before I go on with that point, take a look at the similarity in these two images. I'm not sure if this is deliberate- a sort of harking back to Kelly's breakout role or if it is one of those weird film coincidences, but the image is the same. Well, except for Dennis Quaid sauntering up in the background in a casual sweater and slacks and the other casual diners and the fact that David Patrick Kelly isn't rocking a mullet or a bandana. Yet he's holding the sandwich at nearly the exact same point as the three bottles he banged together in The Warriors. He's also framed the same- in the far right corner of the screen. Maybe it is a way of suggesting visually that though he's got a respectable hair cut and plaid shirt he's still the same dangerous dude.

 It is interesting to consider the reasons someone like Kelly would be chosen for these roles and interesting to consider why the same visual cues reoccur. Since the meaning of masculinity is often not examined at length, these most rigid ideals of masculinity are simply accepted without question. The concept of maleness in the 1980s was placed in the physical realm, the hulking male physique a kind of conduit for the values of the day. Kelly was cast as criminals, weirdos, psychopaths and psychics. His characters were others in a world dominated by uncomplicated men. Their weirdness, their darkness were an affront to the norms of the day. More to the point, there is the sense of amorality to them. In The Warriors, Luther (Kelly) kills Cyrus because "he just likes doing things like that." In Commando, Kelly plays Sully, a criminal who drives a flashy car, wears even flashier clothes, harasses women and when rebuffed refers to them as "fucking whores." In the 80s film, it is only the villain, for the most part, who gets to be overtly sexual. Yet it is made evident that the villain's sexuality is excessive, abnormal and a threat. In Dreamscape, Kelly is a bad guy named Tommy Ray Glatman-- a man who can enter people's dreams and turn them into nightmares so frightening they lead to the death of the dreamer. Here we see unconventionality conflated with the otherworldly. In nearly every film, these characters were always killed by the hero or confined by him.

In these films, goodness and evil are clearly delineated. Furthermore, the very marginal nature of these characters against the upstanding main character is suggestive. They can never be normal, upright, upstanding so the only recourse for the good guy is the ultimate destruction of the bad guy. In Commando, John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) dispatches Sully by holding him up with one hand by his ankle and dropping him off a cliff. In this scene, Schwarzenegger's massive size is in direct comparison to the much smaller Kelly. There is no subtlety within this moment. It reveals that Sully, a true bad guy, is no physical match for the true goodness of Matrix.

David Patrick Kelly's villains were hopeless. There was no going back for them, they were joyously and irretrievably bad.  To his credit, Kelly was able to take on roles that in lesser hands might have rung false and was able to imbue them with spark, a feeling. At the same time, his villainous roles were an integral part of these films as they gave 80s action star a true enemy to deal with.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Full Metal Jacket and War-time Masculinity

Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is an unusual Vietnam war movie. It doesn't have the raw, gut wrenching emotion of Platoon, and though it is somewhat bizarre, it doesn't have the full psychological horror trippy-ness of Apocalypse Now. It is, in typical Kubrick fashion, a film that is hard to access, hard to connect with. It is distant, austere and odd. In some ways, it doesn't seem an authentic portrayal of war. The first part of the film documents the rigors of basic training and seems far more real than the scenes that take place in Vietnam. Those are the scenes I want to examine anyway as they are all about the creation of a specific masculine identity. There is a strange doubling (a theme Kubrick loves) attendant in basic training in that "the military [tries] to create a military form of masculinity, but masculinity has already inflected the creation of the institution of the military in the first place, as well as the desire to propagate that genre of masculinity." It's difficult to tell where masculinity begins and ends in this situation. In a way, men go off to military bases to become what they already know, to become what is so familiar to them from images of military men in movies and books.

Private Pyle is not enjoying basic training.
The opening of the film starts with the standard procedure for new recruits--getting the regulation haircut. The camera zooms in on the faces of the men, they look serious; some frown, some look angry, others are nervous. This is a rite of passage, an entry into military life. What follows is the systematic erasure of identity beginning with the nicknames that Sgt Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) gives the privates. He doesn't allow them to select a name for themselves, rather he chooses names that are somewhat degrading, yet also reflective of each individual's physical or emotional characteristics. He also beats and punches the men who don't perform as he would like. One man, nicknamed Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) bears the brunt of Hartman's anger. Pyle is slightly overweight and slow to learn which causes problems for the rest of the privates once Hartman decides that they will be punished for every mistake Pyle makes.

Stress levels in this situation are high. Basic training is tough, there are obstacles to overcome (actual towering wooden contraptions that poor Private Pyle can't navigate). At the same time, Hartman is trying to merge man and gun through endless drill marching that features cadence calls in which the soldiers sing about their rifles while grabbing their crotches. Later, the rifle becomes a girlfriend to the men, when Hartman demands they give their rifles a girl's name and sleep with them in their bunks. All this activity is supposed to make these men into soldiers- to make them forget who they used to be.  Indeed, Pyle gets in a lot of trouble when he makes a mistake during a march. Hartman immediately accuses him of trying to be "different." To become a soldier, difference and individuality must be eliminated. There is very little freedom in the soldier's identity- especially during the time of the draft when half the men serving weren't there because they wanted to be, but rather because they were forced.

All this training does make some of the privates into good soldiers and it drives others insane. Kubrick seems to be saying something about the fragile nature of masculinity-- attempt to create it with too much force and violence and it will self-destruct.


Source:
Reeser, Todd W.,  Masculinities in Theory.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Limitations of Maleness

It is almost impossible to write about masculinity. It isn't done. Many would say that masculinity has been written about since the beginning of human existence. That all stories have largely been written by men, about men and their exploits. This perception seems erroneous, or, at the very least, lazy. Certainly, men have been the dominant force throughout history, but it might be wrong to assume that dominance is without its drawbacks.  Dominance, in itself,  might be limiting.  Consider the "paradox of masculinity-- that it is often perceived to be free, unlike femininity and its imagined constraints. [However, this] is an illusion of freedom, the illusion that masculinity itself can be defined as freedom, whereas in fact it is this very imagined freedom that insures subjugation and hides its own arbitrary functioning."

Really, there are only a few ways to be a man, or there are only a few ways to represent masculinity in the proper way. If anything, the action and crime film reveals this very limited spectrum of acceptable maleness. The violence inherent in them could be representative of a pushing against this construct (since there isn't anything else for men to do, why not take it as far as possible?) or it might simply be that scenes of explosions and car chases and fist fights are entertaining and make good movies. (And they do.) However, it's interesting that women always complain about how their gender are portrayed in movies as weak and one-dimensional, but men are often shown as strong and one-dimensional. The 70s film allowed men a little more depth, but by the 80s most men were flexing their muscles suggestively for the camera. When gender theorist Todd Reeser writes about masculinity, he insists that,"masculinity might be in crisis when many men in a given context feel tension with larger ideologies that dominate or begin to dominate that context." He suggests that "feminism in the 70s and 80s precipitated a crisis of masculinity."

He might be on to something. It could explain the way 80s film became so much about a pumped up masculinity. Certainly, by this time women were really invading the working world in numbers never before seen. A way to respond to this invasion would be by emphasizing physical difference via becoming an enormous, muscle bound man. Yet the action star of the 80s, in some ways, seems less masculine because of this behavior.  He's certainly far less complicated than the 70s star. He parades around in his form fitting clothes so that the world can see his physique. Sure, he's got guns, and knives and rocket launchers, but everything is about his body.  And everything is about the body with men. Men's brains are important, of course, but emphasis has always been placed on being big and strong. More importantly, male roles are concerned with providing and protecting-either their women, or their family or their country. Indeed, there is little that men can call their own if one eliminates all the responsibilities attendant in manhood.

Many of the films of these eras attempted to examine these responsibilities. In the next few posts, I will review some of the war films of 70s and 80s and see how masculinity is portrayed in them.


Source:
Reeser, Todd W. Masculinities in Theory

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Carl Weathers and the Problem of Black Masculinity

Most famous for his roles as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films and as Dillon in Predator, Carl Weathers had a moment in the 1980s. He even starred in his own action film that was so filled with action it had action in the title. That would be Action Jackson for those not in the know. Weathers was muscular and handsome. Really, his appearance was almost unreal. In his day, he looked something like a black Ken doll; which, I think, invites some closer consideration. He had the right look of an action star but he was the wrong color for the time. For the most part, black actors were sidekicks in action films, they were part of a duo as in the many buddy cop films of the 80s. Or, if they did star in their own action films, it was made evident that they weren't real action stars. Eddie Murphy's role in Beverly Hills Cop was more comedic than tough, thereby preserving the norm of the white action hero. It wasn't until the early 90s that black actors such as Wesley Snipes and, to some extent, Samuel L. Jackson got to carry an action film. Now, of course, Will Smith's action movies make millions, but again, there is the humor aspect that changes the whole tone of his image.

But to return to Weathers-- in the 80s, he never played a stereotype and was always a good guy (in his role as Creed, he went from being Rocky's opponent to being a friend)-- playing either boxers, cops or military men. Yet he was never able to be in the league of the major action stars of the day. He just didn't catch on. It could be argued that some action stars just didn't reach the pinnacle that others did. Certainly, Chuck Norris or Dolph Lundgren, who are famous in their own right, aren't in the same category as Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe the same set of circumstances kept Carl Weathers out of the top tier of action stars. Except he wasn't in the same set of circumstances. He starred in two of the blockbuster hits of the 80s. (Lundgren did play the villain Ivan Drago in Rocky V but that is precisely why I think his situation is different than Carl Weathers. Few action stars of this era rose to the top playing villains. The only actor who did that was Arnold Schwarzenegger with James Cameron's Terminator. However, it must be acknowledged that Schwarzenegger promptly reversed that performance by playing the reconditioned and no longer villainous terminator in Terminator II).

What likely kept Carl Weathers out of the mainstream was an unease surrounding black masculinity. It also didn't help that Action Jackson wasn't a very good film. In some ways, he made a career out of a stereotypical idea of blackness, in that black men are often considered only in terms of their bodies, their physicality. Yet he made a point of subverting that by playing stereotypically white roles- that of brave soldiers and cops. Though Weathers got his start playing criminals and thugs in blaxploitation films of the 70s (Bucktown and Friday Foster) he avoided those types of roles later in his career.

The Subtle Toughness of 70s Gangster Films

If anything, masculinity in the 70s film can be characterized as an open display of silent toughness. If that last sentence seems contradictory it's because it is. Certainly, violence occurs in these films, yet it is more the sense of unuttered menace in them that is suggestive. They have an atmosphere. So much so, that a film like, say, for example, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets or Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle seem to pulse, to vibrate with energy; the viewer can almost smell the desperate sweat of the characters or their cologne. Both of these films hint at violence. The occasional violence that does occur throughout is accented and made more intense by the threat of it, which seems to be in the air at all times.

These two films can be categorized as gangster films. They portray connected life in New York
and Boston respectively and were made in the same year (1973). Perhaps it is the shared release year that makes them feel similar. In no way am I inferring that the content is similar. It's not. It is simply that the energy is the same. The similarity lies, I think, in the sort of grasping quality these films have. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and (Johnny Boy) Robert DeNiro desperately want something. Charlie wishes to own a restaurant but also to quell a sense of questioning anxiety that he has concerning his place in New York, the world, the universe, whereas Johnny Boy wants to avoid responsibility but still live a kind of glamourous existence. Robert Mitchum's Eddie Coyle is an older man so his desires are smaller- to preserve his way of life, rather than stake a new claim. But the same feeling is present in these two films- the sense of uncontrolled desire. This is in keeping with a theme of all gangster films. The gangster is an outsider; but one that desperately wants to be an insider and will resort to crime to gain an approximation of an inside life.

Barry Keith Green writes about the history of the gangster film in his book Shadows of Doubt. To him, the "gangster films [of the 20s and 30s were] a cultural response to the closing of the frontier...its protagonists embraced a pioneer individualism placed in a contemporary setting." Moreover, he perceives that gangsters in film are "remarkably American in spirit for they were, at the same time, unethical businessman, a newer breed of Robber Barons seeking the American Dream amid the dangers and opportunities of the new urban wilderness." The same could be said of the 70s film gangster. They are business minded at the same time that they are criminal minded- they simply marry the two impulses to achieve a kind of imagined American ideal. A later Scorsese undertaking, the 1990 film Goodfellas explores this idea at greater length. It is a film that is primarily about materialism and consumerism. It celebrates all the gaudy accoutrements of the gangster life.

Yet in all these gangster films there is the sense of being trapped by the life or the things acquired by the life. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu quotes Karl Marx in his book Masculine Domination when he states that men are "dominated by their domination." These films seem to showcase that idea if it is taken that these three characters are acting on an ingrained ideal of manhood-- and all evidence suggests that they are. From Coyle's insistence that his wife remain a homemaker and that she also be forced out of the room to other quarters of the house when he handles business, to Charley's need to figure out a way to be a success, to Johnny Boy's endless accrual of debt and general freewheeling chaotic lifestyle which includes fancy clothes and girls. They're all men that see no other way, or rather, they can't imagine another way to be men. The treatment of homosexuals, women and blacks in Mean Streets and in The Friends of Eddie Coyle by these characters shows that they are very subconsciously aware of their status as men-- that what gender theorist Todd Reeser calls, "masculinity [as]...invisibility...as [a kind of] 'unmarked'...norm" which is in "opposition" to all these Others has occurred to and is cherished by them because they don't have anything else to fall back on.

Reeser, Todd W. Masculinities in Theory
Grant, Barry Keith. Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films
Bourdrieu, Pierre. Masculine Domination

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Action Hero or Sex Symbol: The Mystery of Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson is an anomaly. He is an action star, who, early on in his career, allowed himself to be sexualized. He was one of the few action stars of the 80s who had sex scenes in his films. Mickey Rourke was another actor who allowed himself to objectified in this way. Though this comparison may be inaccurate because Rourke stuck primarily to dramatic roles. Action stars of the 80s were never sex symbols. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis (to some extent) etc, used their bodies in film but in a purely action oriented realm, i.e. in killing, fighting or heading to kill and fight. This sort of behavior is expected and is perceived as a normal portrayal of maleness in film. In her book, Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in American Film, critic Joan Mellon asserts that the "ideal man of [films] is a violent one. To be sexual he has to be not only tall and strong but frequently brutal, promising to overwhelm a woman by physical force that was at once firm and tender." In films of earlier eras, sex was implied and never shown, yet the viewer still got the sense of the characters as sexual beings. Then in later films, actors such as Richard Gere and Michael Douglas starred in more pointedly sexual roles (though none took it as far as Rourke). But these actors aren't action stars. In the case of the 80s action hero, the height and strength and brute force are ever present, but they seldom if ever "overwhelm" women. In fact, they're seldom even near women. If they are, it is is in a rescuing or protective or, in some cases, teaching or training capacity.

Channeling his intensity into other things besides crime fighting.
Enter Mel Gibson to totally buck this trend. Perhaps he was able to do this because he wasn't very tall, was only sort of muscular and also had an ability to play emotional torment well. These displays of emotion could certainly be characterized as feminine, but in the Lethal Weapon films Riggs' tears were usually followed by someone being shot, punched, drowned or thrown off a building; or, as in the case of Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs' emotional vulnerability towards Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit) is promptly followed by rigorous sex in which Gibson is both "firm, tender" and also partially nude. More to the point, the year before Lethal Weapon 2, Gibson starred in an abysmal movie called Tequila Sunrise, in which he plays Mac Mckussic, a drug dealer who, according to a witness to his sexual exploits, "fucks like a world champion." It follows that if an action star is going to be sexual it must be made evident at every turn that they are also the best at sex.

Somehow Gibson managed to be both tough yet tender and be an 80s action star. Yet it is interesting that in the first two Lethal Weapon films, he never gets the girl. As if to reaffirm the idea that action stars can't fall in love, both his wife and Van Den Haas are killed. The latter event reminds Riggs of his previous loss and makes him even crazier which leads Lethal Weapon 2 to its violent conclusion. In this way, the film takes a risk in that it lets Gibson be sexual, but then promptly undermines that by returning him to his usual work-obsessed, crime-fighting, tough guy ways. Still, the vulnerability is naturally present in Gibson's face. There is a wildness to his eyes and a set to his mouth that is compelling. He became a sex symbol for women and someone men could admire. He also almost fell into the regular guy action hero category (a niche Bruce Willis basically owns) except somehow he wasn't- and this was owed to his intensity and the depth he possessed that most other action stars of the day lacked.



Source:
Mellon, Joan. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in American Film.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Warriors and Gang Masculinity

Director Walter Hill has said that every movie he has ever made, regardless of genre, has been a Western. His 1979 film, The Warriors could easily be categorized as such. It certainly has a flair for costuming reminiscent of Westerns- some of the gang members are dressed in bandanas and elaborate headdress. Also, the gangs in The Warriors maintain a wild west mentality- they shoot and fight each other over some of the most trivial events, such as invading another gang's turf, or for kicks, or for no reason at all. Yet the film is set far away from the west, in the urban underground of late 20th century New York City. This film showcases 70s New York at its grittiest. The subways and nearly every surface of the buildings shown are covered with graffiti, while the street gangs roam, terrorizing the residents of the city.

The main subject here is flamboyant, youthful masculinity. These gang members are flashy, some wear make up, robes, baseball uniforms, overalls, leather vests with nothing underneath and every other possible outfit combination imaginable. They find their identity within the group, they follow. Yet their ideas of control over turf are meaningless. There is one man named Cyrus (Roger Hill) who makes an attempt to become a leader of all the gangs. Unfortunately, he is killed before he can begin by Luther (David Patrick Kelly) a member of the Rogues gang. Incidentally, Kelly deserves special mention for his many portrayals of utterly villainous masculinity in late 70s and 80s film. Aside from The Warriors, his most notable roles have been as bad guys in such films as Commando, Dreamscape and 48 Hours.

There is the suggestion of the aimlessness of gang life in this film. The Warriors (the aforementioned leather vest wearing gang) get blamed for the murder of Cyrus and spend the duration of the film in a harried attempt to get back to the safety of their home turf on Coney Island, all the while being pursued by different gangs. Yet there are no other plot points, the film is simply, run, be chased and fight and then repeat. Furthermore, their whole purpose as gang members is to prove how manly they are and how much tougher they are than the other gangs. For example, Ajax (James Remar) spends much of the movie attempting to score with women, or prove that he can do so, or calling everyone else in the gang a "faggot" for avoiding fighting or sex.

The final scene does imply that at least one of the gang members sees the meaninglessness of being involved in a gang. Once the Warriors reach Coney Island, Swan (Michael Beck) surveys the scene and wonders why they've nearly killed themselves trying to defend the (in his mind) bleak setting. In this moment, Hill is showcasing the grim world of these young men. They have few options, their only means of forming an identity is within a group that has been brought up in the same hopeless environment. For them, image and protection of that image is most important. This film is interesting because it examines the ways young men attempt to assert their masculinity. Often, in The Warriors, it is done foolishly, in clumsy fights and awkward attempts at flirtation. The film ends with The Warriors being victorious over the Rogues but it isn't really evident what the spoils are.

Die Hard and the Celebration of Average Masculinity

Bruce Willis' portrayal of John McClane in John McTiernan's 1988 film, Die Hard ushered in a new era for the action hero. McClane seems like a regular guy. He's sort of muscular, but not ripped and he even has the slightest hint of a gut. He seems like a man more likely to crack open a few beers rather than pump iron. Where many of the action heroes of the decade played bachelors, Willis' McClane is not. He's married (though his relationship is troubled) and he has kids. While the formula of the 80s action film is present in that the film concerns one man against seemingly insurmountable odds (also with a little interracial buddy cop action too, in the form of Reginald Veljohnson's character of Sgt. Al Powell whom McClane communicates with via police radio), the difference is that McClane is not superhuman. Which isn't to say that he isn't somewhat remarkable. He is the "fly in the ointment" for the mixed band of terrorists that take over the Nakatomi building. Yet his ability to defeat these men stems more from a dogged determination rather than unusual feats of strength. More importantly, he reveals vulnerability, something few 80s action heroes ever showed. During a moment in the film when it seems that he is giving up, he asks Al to find his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and then proceeds to become emotional when detailing to Al his love for her and his failings in the relationship.

In Die Hard McClane remains, despite or perhaps because of his shortcomings, a typical American hero. That he is pitted against a group of primarily European criminals is interesting. Alan Rickman does a stellar job as Hans Gruber, the German terrorist with the British accent. His acting performance is over-the-top and totally suited for the role, clearly he realized the inherent silliness of the character, which is really more caricature than anything. This film also seems to pointedly pit stereotypical American values against stereotypical European values. Consider the fight sequence between McClane and Carl (Alexander Godunov). Godunov was a dancer and it is evident in the balletic kicks and twirls he employs in this scene. Yet  McClane responds to Carl's graceful beating by bashing Carl's head against things and punching and kicking at him wildly. There is almost the sense of a kind of natural European elegance against American thick-headed clumsiness in this moment. Of course, none of that matters because McClane is victorious in the fight because Americans always have to win. Gruber makes a point of mentioning that during the films' climax, even referencing the habit of Americans to be eternally desirous of happy endings in movies. His statement, "You Americans all alike. Well, this time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly" is interrupted by McClane's reply, "Sky Cooper, asshole," which both corrects Gruber's mistake with the actress' name and also his mistaken belief that this particular scenario will end unhappily for the American John McClane.

Die Hard represents a return to a more average type action hero. That it references John Wayne (the most regular of regular guys) is telling. The fact that McClane's name rhymes with John Wayne's suggests that the two are being linked. More to the point, McClane is a realistic character. He isn't invincible, he can be harmed- he sustains both a gun shot wound in the arm and a serious injury to his bare feet when Gruber, after discovering McClane is only partially clothed, directs his henchmen to "shoot the glass." This weakness makes McClane rather like a 70s action star. Interestingly, this film seemed to set the tone for 90s action movies. The end of the 80s marked the beginning of the end of the domination of the genre by the huge action star.  By the mid 90s, action heroes had become less muscular and more realistic in appearance. The runaway success of Die Hard likely had something to do with that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gazing at Big Men: Objectification in the 80s

The most striking change in the films of the 1980s versus the 1970s was not the wardrobe of the actors/characters, but rather their physical appearance. As if to mirror the excesses of the decade, the 80s action star was swollen, buff, massive, almost cartoonish in appearance. In films such as Predator, Commando and Rambo the camera lingers over the muscular physiques of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. The camera objectifies, regardless of whether the subject is male or female, though much has been made of female objectification in film. The difference, here, is the way men on screen get to perform their objectification.  Critic Laura Mulvey refers to a kind of "looking [that is located] solely in relation to activity/passivity," specifically, that men "look" and women are the "object of the look." This is largely true and is a legacy of the patriarchy and certainly film has been a reflection of that, but an examination of any action film of the 80s turns that point upside down.

This, too, is what makes these films so unique. While they are performing and upholding a conservative Reagan era agenda, they also seem to be playing with these ideals, poking fun at them. Schwarzenegger, despite his Austrian origin, is American might writ large. In Commando, he carries trees that he felled himself on his shoulder like a modern day Paul Bunyan; later he rips seats out of cars, phone booths out of walls. In Predator, he wins a punching match with a seven foot alien.  This sort of strength is ridiculous, it's impossible. Attached to this strength is a kind of joviality. Schwarzenegger never loses his sense of humor, even when he kills. This seems in some way to be an intentional or unintentional jab at American wholesomeness--the American belief in the over-arching goodness in all that is American, no matter what is done in the name of patriotism and to whom.

More importantly, there is something almost silly about the kind of hyper-masculinity displayed in these films, and, I'd argue, these movies are, to use a Terminator 2 term, "self-aware" of their over-the-top aspects. Manliness is being celebrated in these films, but it is also being fetishized. These bodies are being used, to beat and bludgeon, yes, but they are still performing objects. Critic Steve Neale focuses on this idea in his essay "Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men in Mainstream Cinema," he asserts that these films treat "images of men" in three ways, by "identification, voyeuristic looking and fetishistic looking." Furthermore, he perceives that there are "erotic elements involved in the relations between the spectator and the male image [that must] be constantly...repressed and disavowed...[else] mainstream cinema would have to openly come to terms with male homosexuality." With this last point, I disagree. I think that the 80s film is so concerned with showcasing the right (in the conservative sense) kind of masculinity that the point is that the male viewer is to watch and admire these bodies and to aspire to become strong and brave in the same way. The characters are presented as courageous and tough- they are the ideal male.  In most of these films, they are so busy killing there is no time for sex. If anything, they seem asexual. This isn't to deny that some viewers may watch and get aroused by the characters, but that isn't the point. The bodies on display in the films are for use solely for their strength; they are essentially big machines.

These are purely physical beings, not mental. They don't have rich interior lives- they act, they react and that's it. This seems to be very similar to the way in which women are objectified--except these male bodies are used for strength, not sex and while they aren't always portrayed as particularly bright, they are still powerful.

Sources:
Mulvey, Laura. (1975). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" & "Afterthoughts...Inspired by Duel in the Sun." (1981).

Neale, Steve.  "Masculinity as Spectacle."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Intersection of Masculinity and Race

Striking Poses, Striking Difference
Though Walter Hill's 48 Hours was released in 1982 it still retains a rather late 70s feel. Jack Cates' (Nick Nolte) wardrobe has very nearly the same drab brown button down formality of Eastwood's Harry Callahan except Cates appears to be loosening up ever so slightly for the new era. He wears blazers, but no tie or sweater. His oxford shirt is unbuttoned at least to the second or third button. Instead of slacks, he wears fitted boot cut jeans and cowboy boots. He is casual yet still formal. When Cates and Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) are introduced in one of the earlier scenes in the film, it is evident that Cates is a little square on fashion. Hammond makes a point of correcting Cates' assumption that his suit cost $500 when in fact its price was close to $1000. Aside from differences concerning fashion, Cates and Hammond clash in other ways. One source of tension is that Cates is a cop who needs Hammond, a criminal, to help capture a fugitive named Ganz (James Remar). The primary cause of the friction, however, is racial- Cates is white and Hammond is black. It is clear from the outset that Cates is not too thrilled about black people, referring to Hammond first as "watermelon", "a charcoal-colored loser", a "spear-chucker" and then later breaking out the biggest racial slur of them all in a dramatic confrontation. Not only is Cates sporting a similar though modified look as Harry Callahan, he is also carrying over the racial attitudes of the previous era, using racial epithets with the same aplomb as Callahan.

Cates is slightly more open and relaxed than Callahan, however. In this way he ceases to be a 70s character and becomes more of an 80s one. Sure, he's tough and somewhat formal as evidenced by the blazer, but he has a swagger, a looseness. There is, from the outset, banter between Cates and Hammond that, as the film progresses, becomes friendly as opposed to hostile. Of course, this follows the true buddy cop (Hammond becomes an honorary cop in this film) movie formula. Certainly, 48 Hours can be credited with paving the way for a later and even more popular interracial buddy cop film, Lethal Weapon.


Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon was released just five years after 48 Hours but the mood couldn't be more different. Though they both take place in California, 48 Hours' San Francisco and Lethal Weapon's Los Angeles seem worlds apart. Where Cates and Hammond visit San Francisco's grimiest spots, Riggs and Murtaugh are searching for drug smugglers in the glitziest LA clubs. When Sgt. Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Sgt. Murtaugh (Danny Glover) meet, they, like Cates and Hammond, take an instant dislike to each other. This dislike isn't due to their racial differences, nor to different life experiences (they're both cops) but rather because Murtaugh perceives Riggs to be a loose cannon and Riggs fears Murtaugh is going to be a strictly by the book type of police officer.

If there is racial tension in this film it isn't expressed. In five years, open use of racial slurs in films had become frowned upon. There are, however, clear racial roles in this film. Though they share nearly equal screen time, somehow Gibson's Riggs seems like the main character, while Murtaugh is something of a satellite, an accessory. Though Murtaugh has been an officer longer, Riggs is characterized as braver and smarter. In one scene in a firing range, Riggs shows off his shooting skills by achieving a near impossible shot from a great distance, thereby making Murtaugh's impressive shooting seem lackluster by comparison. The point is made early on in the film as to whom is the most masculine. Murtaugh seems to accept this role without question, seemingly following Riggs' lead as the film progresses, though he is the older, more experienced cop. Nevertheless, these roles seem to suit both characters and they successfully fight crime while becoming partners and friends.

Both 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon focus on race, the latter more subtly than the former. Each film provides a showcase on the ways in which race and masculinity intersect. In 48 Hours, Murphy's Hammond is a jive talking criminal who revels in his ability to be infinitely cooler than Cates. Yet he is never portrayed as suitable competition in the masculinity department. He gets his moment to play cop in a redneck bar, but uses a slur to describe himself during the only moment where he truly gets to display an authentic masculinity. Alternatively, Glover's Murtaugh is an upstanding character, a family man and respected police officer who still cannot compete with Riggs' toughness, intensity, bravery and shooting skills. Hammond and Murtaugh both are much more formally dressed then their white counterparts, remaining in suits throughout the duration of both films. Yet in Hammond's case the suit is too flashy to garner respect, while Murtaugh's suit seems to suggest advancing age and irrelevance. No matter what they do or wear, they still don't quite measure up.  Curiously and rather contradictorily, these films likely played a role in lessening racial tensions at the same time that they play to the racial status quo.

Sartorial Seriousness in Seventies Cinema

A curious juxtaposition occurs in the 70s film. Many of these movies are rough and violent and often best described as gritty. Whether scenes occur in pool halls, rundown bars or sad looking diners they always appear bleak, dark and grim.  Regardless of the rough appearance of these places, the characters in them are usually dressed somewhat formally. Comparatively few 80s films can be characterized as gritty. Despite the violent or rough subject matter, there is a sleekness, a sheen, a stylized glamour to the 80s film. At the same time, wardrobe becomes decidedly more casual. Somehow this incongruity works and takes nothing away from the films and may, in fact, make them more compelling. These changes, I think, are more than just the natural progression and fluctuation of fashion but rather a visual representation of character and a specific type of maleness.

There is much more of the sense of seriousness in the 1970s film. Humor, in many of these movies is absent or occurs very rarely. Consider the craggy, angular toughness of Clint Eastwood's face in the Dirty Harry films or the drawn and melancholic visage of Robert Mitchum in Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle. These are faces that belong in drab suits and ties or in blazers and slacks. Also, there is a sense of the unflappable in these characters and their wardrobe choices. Eastwood's Harry Callahan appears neat and put together no matter how many bad guys he chases and captures. In the iconic "do you feel lucky, punk?" scene in the first film in the series, Callahan appears unfazed as he dodges bullets while successfully hitting his criminal targets, yet he is clearly bothered by the blood stains that appear on his slacks as a result of the shoot out. Callahan is the visual representation of order in an insane world. He appears in a chaotic and seemingly untenable situation and alone quickly dispatches the bad guys. He never raises his voice or changes expression, his is a robotic, authoritative neatness.

Alternatively, Mitchum's Coyle is always dressed in slacks and a jacket yet appears rumpled and worn down. He is a small town criminal facing a looming prison sentence. He almost appears to wear a uniform of failure and regret. Yet he is no less masculine than Callahan. He silently bears his fears and anxieties. Like Callahan, he makes no sudden movements, he is resigned and will defend himself but isn't going to make a show of it. Unlike Callahan, he does not engage in any physical violence, nor is he chased (though Callahan often seems above violence- he threatens it but is so intimidating crooks never rise to the challenge). Rather, things seem to happen to Coyle and he seemingly has no recourse to defend himself.

In these two films, seriousness, depth, power and the lack thereof are conveyed through clothing. Later examinations of other films from the 70s and 80s will attempt to connect clothing and character.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Predator Might be the Most Masculine Film Ever...

One of the earliest sequences of the 1987 John McTiernan film, Predator, is probably the most testosterone filled of any 80s action movie. Curiously, the intensity of this moment is ramped up through the use of the music of one of the most effete of the 50s rock-n-roll musicians: Little Richard. Long Tall Sally plays throughout the three-minute scene, the entirety of which is red lit - a kind of lighting which is often used in strip bars. There aren't any lingering shots of male bodies here, however, but rather close ups of the men's faces as they prepare to be dropped into the jungle. The camera rests on strong jaws, thick necks, square heads and cleft chins. The men cover their faces with camouflaging war paint. Jesse Ventura's Blaine dips snuff and offers it to his fellow soldiers. They all refuse which prompts him to insult their manhood, calling them "slack jaw faggots." He insists that the tobacco will make them "sexual Tyrannosaurs...like [him]" causing one of the men to suggest that Blaine perform a sexual act on the end of his rifle. After which, Blaine ejects tobacco juice on Dillon's (Carl Weathers) shoe. There is so much tension in this scene....the anxiety of men about to be dropped into a battlefield in which "they are on their own." They are leaving civilization behind and entering a world in which they are alone and are responsible for their own defense. They must protect themselves. So they are getting themselves psyched up for battle and much of that excitement seems to veer toward the sexual. There is a tinge of the homoerotic here, though it is not purposeful. Or rather, a misreading of the sexual energy in this scene could label it as such. Yet I perceive this moment in the film as something unabashedly male and more in the spirit of serious competition as to whom is the most masculine.

This film also focuses on men's spaces--the helicopters, the military offices and all the arenas of war. There are almost no women in it until much later when a Central American woman named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) is rescued by the soldiers. As much as the film is about men's spaces it is also concerned with men's bodies as these are on full display throughout later scenes. Predator features some of the most immense of the 80s actions stars- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers,  Jesse Ventura and Sonny Landham. Early on in the movie, Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and Dillon lock sweaty fists and arm wrestle in greeting. Later, in the jungle, these are the men who lead the smaller and weaker men; they are the true alphas. Finally, Dutch is shown to be the ultimate alpha. The only one to survive (along with Anna whom he rescues and protects) after the film transforms from action film to sci-fi/horror when the alien that kills everyone off in spectacular and gruesome fashion is introduced.

Interestingly, it is the return of the music of Little Richard in the latter part of the movie that is used to showcase the spectacular failure of the mission and also the failure of almost all of the men. Mac (Bill Duke) has been seemingly driven mad by the deaths of his fellow soldiers and attempts to kill the predator on his own. While pursuing it, he sings a part of the chorus of Long Tall Sally over and over until it is a chant, as if in an attempt to psych himself up just as the soldiers used the song in the beginning of the film. It is a compelling moment, not just because Duke is a remarkable actor, but because it is the moment that establishes that the destruction of the group that was once so united in strength is real.

It seems that the final message of this film is that only the biggest and manliest man is capable of defeating both worldly and otherworldly menaces. In all, this is a film that celebrates maleness at the same time that it almost eroticizes it. The sexual charge here isn't between men and woman but rather in the competition amongst men. The suggestion isn't that they are attracted to each other but must, at all costs, be bigger and better and tougher and stronger than each other and must at every turn prove that strength.