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:

Goal Direction

Rules and Regulations
Systems of Meaning
Hierarchies of Value
Theories of Truth
Kingship, Knighthood

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.

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.

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: "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.

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.