Rambo agonistes

As well as macho wish-fulfilment, US cinema of the 1980s offered plenty of films that questioned ideas of heroism and masculinity.

Brad Stevens
Updated:

from our May 2013 issue

The Sicilian (1987)

The Sicilian (1987)

It is often suggested that whereas adventurous adult cinema flourished in 1970s America, the following decade was dominated by crude right-wing fantasies: Top Gun, the Rambo, Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future and Die Hard series, and so on. But the 1980s also produced a group of films radically opposed to the tendencies that characterised the period’s biggest hits.

Most of these films were box-office failures – but they were addressing not mass audiences but those left behind by the wave of conservative reassurance associated with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. America’s leftist filmmakers were clearly determined to interrogate 1980s Hollywood’s two main obsessions: the hero as guarantor of patriarchal/imperialist values; and, intimately related to this, the redemptive power of masculinity. Other distinguished films did appear during this period, but most of the significant titles fall neatly into two categories:

1. Films that explore the problem of the hero: Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), The Year of the Dragon (1985) and The Sicilian (1987); Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981); Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981); Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985); Abel Ferrara’s Cat Chaser (1989); entries in the serial-killer cycle such as Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), Richard Tuggle’s Tightrope (1984), Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) and James B. Harris’s Cop (1987); and several films peripherally belonging to that cycle, including Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and Joe Dante’s The ’Burbs (1988).

2. Films that critique masculinity. All the above titles could fit just as easily into this category, but masculinity is specifically the focus of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1983), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), James Toback’s Love and Money (1982), De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983), Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America (1983), Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985), Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987), Sam Shepard’s Far North (1988), Monte Hellman’s Iguana (1988), three films specifically about masculinity’s consequences for women – Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1981), Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1983), Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye (1986) – and five comedies: Jerry Lewis’s Smorgasbord (1981), Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987), Blake Edwards’s Skin Deep (1989) and Arthur Penn’s Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989).

In those films belonging to the first category, the hero – viewed so unproblematically by Spielberg, Stallone and Lucas – is subjected to extensive criticism, his attempts to fight injustice ending disastrously, his decisive actions taken too late or in the name of the wrong cause, his assumption that there is a clear distinction between himself and the ostensible villain undermined, his right to assume the heroic role called into question (“Aren’t you the ‘good’ man?” Batty asks Deckard in Blade Runner).

Cutter’s Way focuses on a hero who lacks both context and object, his dilemma imbricated with that crisis of confidence in American values engendered by the Vietnam war. Cutter’s climactic charge on a white horse links him explicitly with the westerner, American culture’s heroic archetype, but does so in a way that undermines both past ideal and present reality.

These films present masculinity as monstrous, narcissistic, absurd, neurotic, conformist, delusional, immature, excessive

This connection is also made by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in which Dennis Hopper’s obsessional police lieutenant and the cannibal family he is pursuing are associated with western iconography and Vietnam is again a reference point, the family having taken refuge in an Alamo-themed amusement park that one of them suggests converting into ’Nam Land. But the key titles are Heaven’s Gate and The Sicilian, which tentatively suggest that a viable solution to the problem of ‘heroic individualism’ just might be found in some form of collective activity; needless to say, they were commercial and critical disasters. 

In all 40 of these films, masculinity is presented as monstrous, narcissistic, absurd, neurotic, conformist, delusional, immature, excessive and haunted by the fear that it is indistinguishable from its gay/female opposite, frequently taking its inherent negativity to a logical conclusion by annihilating itself and everything around it. The apocalyptic finales of The Entity, Scarface, Mishima, Day of the Dead, Fool for Love, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, White of the Eye and Penn & Teller Get Killed are especially eloquent on this last point, as are Cutter’s Way and Cop, both of which end abruptly with cuts to black after their protagonists fire guns at the camera/audience.

One need only compare Martin Brest’s blockbuster Beverly Hills Cop (1984) with the barely released Smorgasbord to see what 1980s audiences required where representations of the male body were concerned: in the one film, Eddie Murphy moves effortlessly across spaces he dominates and controls, much as he dominates and controls less masculine men; in the other, Jerry Lewis is unable to successfully negotiate even the most neutral spaces, his humiliation compounded by a series of assured and confident men who regard his failures with contempt (but whom we are never asked to find admirable).

Lewis’s problem is identical to the one encountered by so many males in these critiques of masculinity: that of the body out of control, a body that can never be strong enough, attractive enough or disciplined enough to compensate for its owner’s insecurities. Lack of control is also central to the problematic hero narratives, whose central characters prove incapable of controlling events, other people or even themselves.

What seems most impressive about these films is how coherently they function as a group. And one reason they deserve re-evaluation is that, while good work is still occasionally being done in US cinema, there is no longer a coherent oppositional movement of this kind. Instead we have ‘indie’ directors whose attitude of postmodern superiority (towards values, viewers, characters and cinematic codes) is, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from mainstream Hollywood’s.

Consider Bill Murray, whom Andrew Britton once described as radiating an “incorrigibly cynical insouciance” in relation to the ‘Reaganite entertainment’ in which he participated. But Murray imported this persona into collaborations with auteurs – Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola – whose output has far more in common with, say, Ghost Busters (1984) – that model of 80s reaction – than it does with the radical texts described here.

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