Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chaos By Design: the Action Revenge Fantasy

Here's an excerpt from Volume Two of The Blood Poets, to follow-up SMK's somewhat humbling praise!

Go ahead—Make my day.

  —Harry Callaghan, Sudden Impact

If, as Dirty Harry Callaghan said (in Clint Eastwood’s sleazy Sudden Impact) “Revenge is the oldest motivation known to mankind,” then for the action movie, it may just be the oldest and most trusty plot-device there is. The “blood thriller,” from The Big Heat to Die Hard, has been one of Hollywood’s favourite staples of entertainment, partially because, apart from the opportunity such films provide for explosive action, the Revenge Fantasy exploits a basic (male) desire of audiences to “get dirty.” The Revenge Fantasy assumed its modern guise roughly in the early ’70s, with Dirty Harry, Walking Tall and, most crucially of all, Death Wish. Both Dirty Harry and Walking Tall were police thrillers in which the battle for justice (as in The Big Heat) became just a little too personal to constitute orthodox police work; these films were so popular that they started a spate of renegade-cop movies that has become, for the ’90s moviegoer, familiar to the point of contempt. From Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman, all the way up to Arnold Swarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves, Nicholas Cage, etc., etc., it’s hard to think of an American leading man who hasn’t at some point in his career played the maverick lawman with a tendency to take things personally. Many of the top box office stars of the day have even made a career out of variations on just such a stereotype. Anger is perhaps the easiest thing of all for an actor to play effectively, while revenge fantasies are almost invariably popular with audiences, as the tough, brutal but “sensitive” (sic!) lawman is both flattering to the “orgastically impotent” male ego, and arousing to female libidos. All in all, playing cops on a revenge mission is the easiest possible route to fame and fortune that an actor could hope for. (It’s also his best way to stay in business once he’s made it—witness Eastwood’s seemingly endless, progressively more lacksadaisical, returns to the genre, despite the fact that it’s depressingly plain to everyone that he’s “too old for this shit.”)

The fact that a personal incentive on the part of the lawman is essential to the tawdry, relentless intensity of the cop thriller (as distinct from the ordinary police drama) may have led to the idea—on the part of movie producers—of doing away with “the line of duty” and highlighting the personal element, thereby accentuating the hitherto incidental violence, to the extent that it became the whole raison d’être of the film. At which point, Hollywood came up with the revenge fantasy, not as simply another twist on the action film (and much less as a psychological drama), but as a new (sub)genre in itself. 

Pauline Kael (in her review of Magnum Force, “Killing Time,” in Reeling, pg. 251-2) summed it up pretty succinctly: 

The killing is totally realistic—hideously, graphically so—yet since it’s without emotion it has no impact on us. We feel nothing towards the victims; we have no empathy when they get it, and no memory of them afterward. As soon as one person gets it, we’re ready for the next. The scenes of carnage are big blowouts—parties for the audience to gasp at in surprise and pleasure... the writers and the directors no longer create different emotional tones for the deaths of good and bad characters. The fundamental mechanism of melodrama has broken down.


American movies were in the process not only of mythologizing the past but of romanticizing the present also (and, more covertly, shaping the future), imposing these old traditional black-and-white values that never really existed (or at least, never worked) on an increasingly confused, morally ambivalent, and all-too gray society. In the Wasteland of the late 20th century, the only values that really served to reassure us were the values of the movies (being, after all the collective fantasies of the masses).
Kael writes on this subject extensively in her essay, “The Street Western” (in Reeling, pg. 284-88), commenting that, 

the Western cowboy hero hasn’t disappeared; he’s moved from the mythological purity of wide-open spaces into the corrupt modern cities and towns (Dirty Harry), and on paved streets he’s an inflammatory figure... The street Western is a corruption of the Western, an attempt to apply the Western’s mythology to actual problems—and since it doesn’t apply, the movies (and other forms of pop culture, and politics, too) fabricate situations that are just like those in Westerns so that the mythology will apply... The moral set-up of this street Western is a direct carry-over from the myths of wide-open spaces. No matter how high the odds against him, the virtuous man wins out. He can be trusted with his fists, his stick, and his gun because he has absolute knowledge of innocence and guilt... the hero could never mistakenly injure an innocent person, or the whole structure of the morality play would collapse.

Kael also observes how, in the midst of all this ambivalence and confusion (between fantasy and fact, as well as black and white), the apparent social need for order/justice in America came somehow—in movies at least—to be all mixed up with the more emotional desire for revenge/blood. 

Maybe, during all those years of watching Westerns, though we didn’t believe in them we wanted to. The child in us wanted to, and maybe the Westerns softened us up for the primitivism in the guise of realism... Breaking a few arms has a basic demagogue appeal; it makes audiences feel that there is a direct, fast way to solve problems... When the nostalgic dream morality of cowboy movies is imposed on an actual modern town, it becomes a demand for bloodletting... The visceral impact of this... makes one know how crowds must feel when they’re being swayed by demagogues.

The reason for this might well be related to the national sense of insecurity, shame and anger over the Vietnam war, though of course such generalizations always beg the question of the chicken or the egg (or more specifically, did the war create the rage or the rage the war?). The feelings of frustration and impotence at the government for “losing” the war was then, perversely but igeniously, redirected at the American people itself (who were the glue to the government’s rubber?). Specifically, at the youth and the counterculture, as being, on the one hand responsible (through their lack of support for the war) for the defeat, and, on the other hand, as constituting a new problem, a new form of subversion (different but essentially related to that of Communism), a new enemy to be found, this time at home. Hence the desire for revenge (against the Vietnamese)—which was itself a potential social rebellion—was channelled (in part through movies) into a collective sense of fear and distrust, of strangeness (namely the “drop-out” or “subversive”), and thereby converted into a supposed call for order, discipline, conformity, etc. The war, as such, was “brought home,” and the revolution turned against itself (the war became a domestic, cultural war against crime, drugs, subversion, etc.). In the meantime, the soldier himself, trained, dispatched and finally recalled from Vietnam (a soldier without a war), became the misfit; and, in a sense (because he was a reminder of America’s shame), the enemy also. If this all seems unnecessarily confused then that only goes to reflect—I think—the level of confusion in the American psyche at the time, and the manner in which this psyche attempted, and continues to attempt, to exorcise, rehabilate or just plain destroy its demons, through the popular mythology of the movies.


SM Kovalinsky said...

Jake: Thanks once again for posting your material. Truly, you have written a history of film text, with all the psychological and cultural implications woven throughout. It is fascinating and enlightening reading, and I am honored to have you as an author on this site.

SM Kovalinsky said...

Jake: Further thoughts: I think you have correctly described the confusion within the American collective psyche regarding violence and anger, a confusion which remains to this day. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts regarding some of the current action/violent films, and the response to the Iraq war and to the Israel-Hamas dilemma. I think there is a thread connecting them.

Jason (Jake) Horsley said...

it would be interesting - for me too! Alas I am ensconsed in new book and other labors of love, but I will continue to post excerpts here that seem relevant.

Under New Influence