No Limits To Growth
Watching the Alien quadrilogy again recently I was struck primarily by the shift in tone between Alien, easily the best of the four and Cameron’s Aliens, a film that now feels horribly dated in a way the first one doesn’t.
The most striking distinction, the ways in which they seem very much films of their respective decades is in the shift from Alien’s dramatic naturalism to Aliens’ heavy handed, All-American myth-making. Alien also boasts an extravagantly great cast (Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto together at last!) and what seems to be a lot of loosely improvised dialogue and character work on the part of the actors. There are all kinds of tensions among the crew, tensions of class and gender, tensions of hierarchy and role, lots of overlapping dialogue, the camera and lighting unfussy. Compared to what comes next Alien almost feels like Altman-in-space, a low-key set of reflections on the dynamics of having an Alien on board.
In Alien Ripley’s survival is arbitrary, she’s not an especially heroic or tough character, none of them are. In Aliens she has become an action hero (ine). This shift, from a complex, “downbeat” Seventies realism through to a hyped up and remorseless, but also ultimately dumbed down and reductive spectacularism can be directly traced through a couple of film series that span the two decades/ develop through the Eighties. Aliens, the increasingly ludicrous pretension of the Rocky movies, the shift from the relatively credible First Blood to the Rambo films, from Saturday Night Fever to Staying Alive for example (clearly Stallone is a key figure in all this*.)
The Seventies, as I’ve mentioned before, is a kind of killing-ground for the mythical figures of American Film, and also a period in which the great post-war stars themselves died or stepped out of the limelight to wither with as much dignity as possible. The sense of an ending, of terminal decline, of an unbreachable limit reached, informs many of the films of the time, the frontier spirit has died (the endless number of elegiac westerns that kill off Oldies, from the Wild Bunch to Ulzana’s Raid) and what remains of American rugged individualism or crusading small town decency is hopelessly outmatched by the power of Government and the shadowy and nefarious institutions who really run things ( The Parallax View, Twilight’s Last Gleaming etc).
America looked like it was on the ropes in the 70’s taking a beating from the Japs, the Arabs, The Ruskies, but it is going to bounce back stronger than ever. The new era demands new heroes, not the doomed, all-to-human anti-heroes of the Seventies but larger than life figures who can re-mythologize the country, not just men of especial fortitude, tenacity or courage but something more akin to the superhero.
This is where steroids come in, and not metaphorically. The shift to the more-than-human figure of the action hero, most significantly in the figures of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, is untenable without them. Anabolic steroids may well have been used in sport from the Fifties onward as part of the Cold War’s jockeying for Olympic supremacy and in bodybuilding from the Sixties but it’s only really in the Seventies with Schwarzenegger’s arrival (and the documentary Pumping Iron) that superhuman size seems to become not just attainable but desirable. In 1975, when the film came out, Schwarzenegger’s attitude, one which he’s subsequently distanced himself from, was: do anything to win no matter how underhand or disloyal, break the pain barrier, focus remorselessly on your goal. His sheer size and unrelenting self-discipline along with his immigrant background and his refusal to ever come second serve to identify him as the kind of new-man America needs.
If there are two drugs that can convince you that you have superhuman powers, they must be coke and steroids. This is the American ego reborn. Even those who critique the system are not immune to its seductive power. A look at Bruce Springsteen’s album covers from the Seventies and the Eighties, most superficially at least in their shift from black and white to colour, or even Springsteen himself, from greasy and pale on the cover of Darkness to bulging muscles and a Ramboesque headband circa Born in the USA is revealing. As is the contrast between the opening sequences of Schrader’s Blue Collar and American Gigolo: even if the content is in some ways “critical” in American Gigolo** the affective identification with the juiced up, coke-bright sheen of the Eighties new Can-do ism and hyper-individualism is clear. Big, bold, brash, hedonistic, ever-ready.
Steroids are crucially there in sport too: bigger hitters in Baseball, faster sprinters in the Olympics, harder tacklers in the NFL. Huge, even more cartoon-y bodies in the WWF. Records tumble, revenues soar, the upward curve is always maintained. In Eighties' film the muscle-bound are the big money-earners with a repeated and systemic focus on their bodies as spectacle. The films themselves get bigger and more importantly, longer. Cameron’s Terminator in some ways sets the template for cinematic hypertrophy. Watching the act of sheer self-importance that is the vastly unnecessary Aliens’ directors cut again the endlessly, inexhaustibly extending peril for Ripley/Newt becomes both comical and boring ( Oh no! Now it’s grabbed her boot! Now Newt’s being sucked toward the air-hatch! This has been going on SO LONG!)
Of course one of the reasons steroids continue to be demonized, and their pandemic use consequently hidden, is precisely because admitting to it undermines a core late capitalist belief, that there is an infinite transcendent capacity to the will that can surmount all obstacles. Schwarzenegger is the living proof that there are no limits to growth as the Seventies had feared. Will is absolute, will can drive forward a kind of spontaneous mutation, in a sense Late Capitalism believes in Creative Evolution, it is the mystical and holy soul of America that produces such transcendental miracles as Schwarzenegger’s biceps and Carl Lewis’ Olympic victory. The film that best sums this up is of course Rocky Four, a celluloid embarrassment of world-historical proportions. The Russian takes drugs and trains in a high-tech lab while Rocky is all-natural, primitive even, partaking of some holy All American over-soul that guarantees his success. This victory is a work of Spirit, not massive gonad-shrivelling doses of synthetic testosterone. The magical thinking, the fantasy, must be maintained.
The legitimate question as to what extent the economy of the U.S. directly ran on coke and steroids in the Eighties and Nineties and continues to do so is best left to the as yet unformulated practices of Narco-economics. Though the equally compelling question of how these drugs synergized with the politics and popular culture of the time, what they added to the aesthetic, the look and feel of that mysterious decade also brims with possibilities.
There is also a class correlation between steroid and coke use: the majority of steroid users, at least in the US, tend to be college educated, non-professional body builders who use it for cosmetic purposes, buff and super-confident chasing down the next “opportunity”. The two great middle-class drug revolutions: the Sixties and the Eighties. Acid, weed, free love, the commune, versus coke, steroids, porn-star performance fucking , the condo.
*Let’s not be too hard on Sly, he has made a couple of decent films.
** Maybe the remake of Breathless is the great 80’s movie from a purely visual standpoint.