23 August 2010

Ground Culture

“The trick is not minding”—G. Gordon Liddy, holding his hand over a flame, quoted in All the President’s Men.

Somehow, the sentence “I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the 1980s” sounds depressing. In truth, growing up there was excruciating. The economy in my town was centered on education. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it bred a smugness which rendered my childhood a minimalist dystopia in which pop culture had to be consumed surreptitiously, just the same as candy bars. Most of the kids my age there had the shared experience of being monitored and judged based on the ratio of hours spent practicing and studying against hours spent in front of the television, assuming there was a television in the house. Growing up in Amherst felt like living in a can of spinach, and transgressions were not punished with physical abuse, but with a frigid disapproval handed down from the Commonwealth’s Puritan founders and mixed with all the humor of the Swiss-German dairy farmers my mother was descended from. Relief came in the unbounded joy of watching the rest of the world funneled through MTV, HBO, and CNN. True, they had the disadvantage of being completely full of shit, but they also offered vogueing, glitter-clad women in high heels, Live Aid, Yo! MTV Raps, 120 Minutes, Club MTV, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Rocky sequels, the Reagan Administration (which, despite its long periods of dullness, fit easily into this programming schedule), and movie promos which led to hitch-hiking trips to the four-screen cineplex in neighboring Hadley, Massachusetts.

I would like to say that movie aesthetics were defined for me by an auteur-based cinema of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and the French New Wave, but the truth is that I carry the mark of Simpson/Bruckheimer, Golan/Globus, and Kassar/Vajna much more than the mark of any name directors. The legacy of these super-producers is a bafflingly embarrassing array of films that trail American culture like skunk spray. Despite the indisputable weaknesses of their films as drama, there is no denying the endurance of their work. In a very real way their movies collectively represent the cinematic iconography of their decade. Picture for even an instant Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, or lesser stars like Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jennifer Beals, and you are very likely conjuring an image from one of the movies that came from these production mills, humming a synthesizer refrain against your better judgment, and questioning the decisions that have brought you to this moment in your life. Their movies reached a cultural saturation level that broke through the unacknowledged media embargo of Western Massachusetts and, in the moment, made the world bearable—and in the long term, bizarre.


“Losers are boring.”—Don Simpson

Jerry Bruckheimer met Don Simpson when they were young executives at Paramount in the late 1970s. They witnessed the juggernaut that was Saturday Night Fever, both the movie and the soundtrack, fell in love with its success and never let the world forget it. Their 1980s output consisted of American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Days of Thunder. A number of men—and no women—are credited as directors and writers on these films, but their narratives are clearly dictated by the men whose names appear in the credits, third from the end.

If you don’t recognize the list of films above you can identify one before the credits are through just by going through this checklist: Open with the Paramount logo, fade to a sunrise, which gives way to a montage of the main character doing whatever it is that makes him special (busting a criminal; flying a jet; waking up naked, in the Philippines, with a tequila hangover). In Top Gun (1986), by the ten-minute mark, we find out that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), despite his talents as an aviator, lacks discipline—he nearly engages with a North Korean jet fighter during a mission over the Indian Ocean, barely avoiding an international incident. Soon after, Stinger (Maverick’s commander, played by James Tolkan, a character actor who made a living in the 1980s by snapping the line You’ve got a real attitude problem, kid!) dresses down Maverick and his radio-man, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), before sending them off to the Navy’s top flight school. Why are these fuck-ups being promoted? Because they’re just that good.

Once he arrives, Maverick is paired with two older authority figures, against whom he rebels. One is a woman, an instructor named Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), and the other is a commander named Mike “Viper” Metcalf (Tom Skerritt). Charlie will spar/flirt (splirt?) with Maverick in class until their relationship becomes romantic, at which point she will reveal a vulnerability that neuters her role as an obstacle—she is now a victim of Maverick’s chaotic sexual energy (an energy which Tom Cruise would display ever more chaotically in the years that followed). Viper will resist Maverick’s charisma and humiliate him by getting the flight team to outmaneuver him in the sky, thus demonstrating the vulnerability of his showboating. The two men remain at a standoff until a crisis (Goose’s death in a doomed mission) forces Maverick to submit to Viper’s training. A montage at the end of the second act demonstrates Maverick’s progress. Limp scenes follow, anti-climax threatens, Maverick leads the recruits in an engagement with Soviets fighters and emerges triumphant. He accepts expressions of admiration from Viper and Iceman (Val Kilmer, Maverick’s rival—“You can be my wingman any time”) and from all the other aviators in his class. Charlie finally seduces him. Freeze frame, cue the “Danger Zone” theme song, fade out.

Despite the presence of white stars front and center in most of the Simpson-Bruckheimer films, race and gender formed a central subtext to their stories. The progressive breakthroughs of the 1960s were referred to obliquely through the presence of female and black instructors, friends and cops (usually captains angry about getting their asses “chewed out”). But, with the exceptions of Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Beals, no black men or women of any color were cast as leads. Even then, stereotypes and boundaries were enforced. Murphy was used to crack jokes and teach uptight white cops how to ignore the rules and get away with it. He is the only Simpson-Bruckheimer hero never to be paired with a love interest. Alex Owens, Beals’s character in Flashdance, has an older male mentor (Michael Nouri) who becomes her lover. Like Maverick, she learns that she will need help to get into the academy. Unlike Maverick, she will also need to sleep with the right man to succeed.

This casual sexism might be more compelling if it were not only a single remove from the S&M rituals of the other Simpson-Bruckheimer movies’ male stars. An Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder are all dramatizations of men forcing each other into submission in a thinly sublimated expression of sexual frustration. The mise-en-scène of these films, with their wall-to-wall semi-naked men (or masculinized women) and pounding dance music, make them at once a powerful extension of disco culture (alleged to be long dead at the time) and a reactionary movement against it, externalized through the conservative nature of the plots and the conventional cultural assumptions of an audience that couldn’t have bought tickets faster.

The amiable jingoism of Simpson and Bruckheimer was so repellent to the lefty atmosphere of my town that it inadvertently made these movies seem rebellious, and in turn bred a cult of the winner, which led to frightening humiliation in every forum available. From battle-of-the-bands contests, to mathletes, to the local quiz show, the tenor of competition was nasty, petty, and small. The one-upmanship was witless, and you couldn’t help noticing that there weren’t any women lining up to sleep with you after you displayed your mastery in some domain of geekery. This fact of life was exacerbated by the lack of credible mentors in Amherst’s five-college area. Yes, almost everybody had an advanced degree, and there were even some famous thinkers around, but ultimately, when I was a teenager, the only practical advice I got from adults was “think about how much worse it would be if you were retarded” and “don’t listen to your father.” It didn’t matter whether the people who said those things to me had Ph.D.’s or not.

It wasn’t until 1996, when Don Simpson died, from a heart attack, on the toilet, weighing nearly three hundred pounds, with a $10,000 per week prescription drug habit and a bill to Heidi Fleiss that rivaled Charlie Sheen’s, that it became clear to me that winners are as thin on the ground as they are thick in the air in Top Gun.


“If you make an American film with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a budget of less than $5 million, you must be an idiot to lose money.”—Menahem Golan

In 1979, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus acquired a mid-level distribution company called Cannon Films and turned it into one of the two premiere independent production companies specializing in action-revenge-fantasy films. The other was Carolco, headed by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. By the end of the next decade the two companies would, between them, produce Hercules, Missing in Action, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, Cobra, Over the Top, the Death Wish sequels, Masters of the Universe, Cyborg—all from Cannon—and Angel Heart, Red Heat, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Cliffhanger, Showgirls, and the Rambo and Terminator series (Carolco). Each company was built by outsiders—Kassar and Vajna were from Beirut and Budapest, respectively—who believed in developing genre pieces as cheaply as possible, promoting them to within an inch of their lives, and then making a profit from foreign distribution and television sales before the movies opened. The scheme worked beautifully for many years, until the budgets started to spiral and the public appetite for action films dried up, briefly, in the early 1990s. While they lasted, Cannon and Carolco succeeded not least because both understood that the dark side of the Simpson-Bruckheimer ode to victory was the bitter pursuit of revenge, and that nothing inspired bloodlust quite like the 1960s legacies of civil rights and Vietnam.

Most observers have noticed the sharp cultural divide between films made about the Vietnam War after the fall of Saigon. On the one hand there are the Oscar-nominated critical reassessments (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) and on the other, the profit-drenched pictures which focused on re-fighting the war with a different result. This divergence obscures the special place of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), which got the ball rolling in both directions. Ostensibly a film about the war’s unique brutality and its effects on a group of steel workers, The Deer Hunter was also the first major hit to use the POW/MIA storyline in which a veteran returns to rescue his deserted buddies. That film’s massive success helped to teach Hollywood that backlash jingoism would play. The disaster of Cimino’s follow-up, Heaven’s Gate, solidified the industry’s new conventional wisdom: Big-budget pictures made specifically for adults weren’t viable. This shift, coupled with the continuing success of the vigilante/renegade cop movies of the 1970s (the Dirty Harry sequels, the original Death Wish), insured that there would be generations of new cinematic anti-heroes/stalkers and that very few of them would be made for more than $5 million—at least not at first.

Of the Cannon-catalogue examples cited above, the most representative are Missing in Action and Cobra. The former is both the peak of Chuck Norris’s career—made for $2.5 million, it grossed over $22.5 million worldwide—and the bottom feeder of post-Vietnam revisionism (yes, even more than Missing in Action II: The Beginning and Braddock: Missing in Action III, which at least had the decency to gross only twice their budgets and remain largely unseen since their releases).

In Missing in Action (1984), Norris plays retired Marine Colonel Jim Braddock, a vet haunted by his memories of the war. Like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, we find him in a hotel room waking from a combat nightmare. In this case, his vision climaxes when he commits suicide by leaping from a Montagnard hooch with a live grenade in each hand. Awake, he’s soon contacted by the US State Department to investigate American soldiers still being held in Southeast Asia. Once there, Braddock finds a map to a shadowy place in the jungle, enlists an old army buddy (M. Emmet Walsh) with a boat to get him there, where he discovers a slave labor camp populated by POWs and defended by communist Chinese troops. After much mayhem, Braddock, carrying an emaciated soldier cradled in his arms, escapes with the bulk of the prisoners in time to crash a summit between the US Secretary of State and the Vietnamese government. Freeze-frame, cue music, and out.

If Dirty Harry is the prototypical cop fantasy, in which a super-cop breaks the rules of law enforcement in pursuit of a homicidal lunatic, then Cobra (1986) is the genre’s final residue. Unlike the earlier film, which, as performed by Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, managed to find dimension in the psyche of its lead character, Cobra tries to combine the “renegade cop, out for justice” narrative of the earlier film with the triumphalism of the Rocky sequels, and ends up negating both. Marion “Cobra” Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a Los Angeles super-cop who is called in whenever the police have no recourse but to shoot first and never ask questions. Like Simpson and Bruckheimer, Golan/Globus preferred opening sequences shot at magic hour. Cobra gives us a weirdly threatening and strangely cold Southern California sunset (not unlike the New York dusk that opens Death Wish) under which a motorcycle riding, trench-coated creep drives into the parking lot of a grocery store, parks in a handicapped spot, walks in, shoots up the place, and takes hostages.

When the cops arrive, they find that negotiation with this criminal psychopath doesn’t work. They are forced to “call in the Cobra,” who arrives in a solid black 1950 Ford Mercury bearing the license plate “AWSOM 50” and seatbelts designed for an F-14 fighter jet. Stallone’s “Cobra” Cobretti wears black motorcycle boots and aviator sunglasses, chews on a match, and carries a pearl-handled gun with a cobra-design inlay tucked into his pants just above his crotch. This trick of unveiling the protagonist in bits and pieces was one Stallone and his director, George P. Cosmatos, had used before, in Rambo: First Blood Part II. In doing so, they revealed a weakness for body oil and mist that became a visual hallmark of the decade. 

A shootout with the gunman follows, in which Cobretti takes cover behind large, elaborate Pepsi, Coors, and Mountain Dew displays. The sequence ends when Cobretti kills the villain with a huge knife he also carries. Golan or Globus or Stallone or Cosmatos thought to cast Andy Robinson, who played the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry, as a milquetoast detective who is Cobretti’s superior, thereby underlining the right-wing audience’s suspicion that criminals and civil-libertarian bureaucrats are one and the same.

As with the Simpson/Bruckheimer movies, both of these films proceed from the assumption that special, talented individuals (winners) are worthy of cinematic treatment. The difference has to do with the order of their luck. In the world of Golan/Globus (and Kassar/Vajna) the superman is a failure, defeated by the collusion of weaker men, and must be roused from lethargy and cynicism to regain the victory that was denied him the first time around. Rambo, Braddock, Kyle Reese of the original Terminator, and the Terminator himself in subsequent installments, all fit this profile. In the Cannon Group/Carolco universe there is no need for a mentor—all of their heroes’ obstacles are external and therefore, mercifully, not worthy of reflection. The righteousness of their goals is never questioned.

It is this certainty that is most reminiscent of the Reagan administration: Cobretti, Braddock, Dirty Harry Callahan, Paul Kerse (Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish) John Rambo, and Rocky Balboa all ignore the rules as surely as Maverick, Axel Foley, and Alex Owens do, but for first group the rules are set by characters who are clearly liberal in their politics and naïve in their nuanced assumptions about good and evil. As president, Reagan used language that evoked simple sentiments. In reference to aid to the Contras: “We cannot turn away from them, for the struggle here is not Right versus Left; it is right versus wrong.” This is the kind of writing that could fit easily next to “You’re the disease, I’m the cure” (Cobretti on criminals), “All we want is for our country to love us as much as we love it” (Rambo on Vietnam veterans), and “I’ll be back” (the Terminator, in general). The right-wing loved these films and even incorporated them into their talking points. When Reagan emerged from a screening of Rambo: First Blood Part II, he announced that next time he’d know what to do when an American was taken hostage.

With so much in common on the level of politics and vengeful motivation, the most telling distinction between Missing in Action and Cobra (and the one that would signal the future for their parent company) was in their budgets. Cobra was made for $25 million, and failed at the box office. It was followed by disasters like Over the Top and Masters of the Universe, films that bombed in part because their budgets grew beyond the $5 million target Golan/Globus prized, in part because they sucked. As their budgets increased, Golan/Globus films got more moronic. That’s part of their legacy to the film industry and American culture.


“For better or worse, MTV sort of bridges the whole country together almost like the BBC does in England.”—Joey Ramone

Across the board, low-budget action films would become victims of their own success once their stars began demanding higher quotes (salaries) as they aged out of their roles. Still, these pictures formed vital reference points in the imaginary blueprint that I had for my life, in no small part because the videos that accompanied their promotional blitzes hammered them into my consciousness. Really, you didn’t have to watch these movies at all to be affected by them. Their stories were so easily communicated that they could be reduced to three- or four-minute clips and sent through the megaphone that was MTV in its first incarnation.

To say that MTV was a network dedicated exclusively to commercials is to diminish its credibility only slightly. The channel’s programming schedule encompassed videos, movie trailers, frequent ads for Stridex, Oxy 10, and Alfonso’s Breakin’ Board, and a news program on which authority was derived from the self-serious manner of its anchor, Kurt Loder, the only on-air personality over thirty, and probably the only one who could write his own copy. The shows’ visuals referenced old media (the opening of news breaks featured typewriter tiles crashing towards the screen, spelling out “MTV News”) and the focus of coverage was simultaneously global in its scope and provincial in its perspective. That was one of the things that made it so appealing to me. Having never lived farther than thirty miles from where I was born, it wasn’t easy to grasp the finer points of global politics, but it was easy to understand the appeal of pop music.

The topic of discussion on the channel was immaterial. It could be the slow break-up of Duran Duran, the destruction of the Space Shuttle, or the apartheid government in South Africa. The news itself revolved around how it affected the personal lives of pop stars and the music industry. Duran Duran would form rival factions with successive movie tie-ins (A View to a Kill, American Anthem), the Space Shuttle would inspire songs of tribute (“Ron’s Piece,” by Jean Michel Jarre), and musicians who played South African venues would be informally blacklisted until their careers could be reassessed, typically (as in the case of Freddie Mercury of Queen) after they were dead.

In this way the channel was less the Rolling Stone Television that it pretended to be—no William Greider, Lester Bangs, or Greil Marcus here—than it was an extension of the 24-hour news drone that CNN had pioneered and a precursor to the agenda-pushing Fox News bullies that would follow in the next decade. But instead of championing a political orthodoxy, MTV promulgated an aesthetic dogmatism that easily appropriated symbolism of both the Right and Left and reduced it to a consumer choice. After an afternoon spent watching MTV you could be forgiven for believing that Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev spent most of their time in the same city; that Amnesty International was a corporate partner with MTV and Doritos; that Kenny Loggins, Michael Sembello, and Robert Tepper were important musicians on the same level as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones; or that one day this MTV Beach Party might move to your house or mine.

This homogenizing of political and pop culture defined its decade and in retrospect it seems inevitable that Paramount (Simpson/Bruckheimer’s home studio) and MTV would be bought by the same parent company, Viacom. The balanced assault of uplift and marketing propelled both of them ever forward toward a pop culture hegemony, right up until MTV stopped programming videos, Simpson dropped dead, Carolco and Cannon Films went belly-up, and pornography became easily accessible to anyone with a computer, anywhere, at any time.

Well, this is a moment through which we have passed, a decade in which an omni-directional media organ (movies, the music industry, television, Music Television) could dictate the national mood to an eager public. The big bad media that scared my parents so much twenty-five years ago isn’t visible enough to scare people anymore. The record industry’s loss of control over its format (and thus its content) has destroyed the idea of the long-playing record, the lack of an actual object to purchase has destroyed the PMRC insanity that used to take up space on CNN, and TiVo, Netflix, and streaming video have cast doubt on the true worth of TV ad space. Today the mainstream media giants are such despised dinosaurs that you can almost feel sorry for them as their ratings sag and their power is usurped by burrowing mammals of the web. But their crippling raises the uncomfortable question of what comes next.

In the short term we are left with a memory of consensus to which the establishment stubbornly clings. If anything, the events have become bigger. Million-selling artists (the most mainstream of the mainstream) and big-budget movies have not gone away, but now recording contracts are reserved for those artists who can move a million units; Avatar, the highest grossing movie in cinema history, has made its impression based primarily on its 3D gimmickry and on its promotion as a unique cinematic spectacle designed for theatrical viewing, with tickets costing more than usual, opening worldwide on a single day. The unprecedented nature of its production, promotion, and distribution make it either a view of the future, the last gasp of an old industry, the latest reactionary stunt pulled by the movie industry in the face of an evolving media world, or all three.

Free distribution on YouTube, Facebook, and other social network sites has created a DIY movement so cacophonous that one could spend hours a day browsing the web and still have no idea where the center of the culture lies, and if the media universe keeps expanding at the current rate, that question may seem as silly as asking where the center of the literal universe is. The answer is everywhere and nowhere—“everywhere” has been added to the “nowhere” of my 1980s Amherst.

The legacy of Simpson/Bruckheimer, Golan/Globus, and Kassar/Vajna functions as the sarcophagus of a received wisdom which has ceased to live but still animates the zombified Right in modern political debate. The 1980s sloganeering that suggested that “the government that governs best is the government that governs least,” the assumption that a few trained American soldiers are capable of subduing an entire nation of “bad guys,” and the insistence that virtuous intentions justify insane action, formed the intellectual substance of the Right then and has lingered long enough to form the emotional core of its rhetoric today. Regressive tax policies, the invasion of Iraq, and the entire sad phenomenon of the George W. Bush Administration (to say nothing of the Sarah Palin show that is its direct extension) have all been wrapped in the same cultural assumptions that these producers used to sell their product to the world thirty years ago.

As the age of the 1980s action film fades into quaintness, I can’t help but notice the irony that the only film of the genre to achieve any kind of prescience is the Fox-produced Robocop (1987). With its vision of a privatized police force run by a corrupt and inefficient multi-national corporation, patrolling a decaying Detroit, this film alone predicted the destruction of the US automakers and their city, the crony capitalism of Dick Cheney/Halliburton/KBR, and the advent of private military firms like Blackwater. As a new decade unfolds and the old Right works itself into apoplectic rage over its decline, it might be best for them to remember Robocop’s friendly advice to the kids watching at home: “Stay out of trouble.”

Image: Cobra (d. George P. Cosmatos, US, 1986)

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