Tuesday, 15 February 2011

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.



Greyhoos said...

Wow. Speaking as an American that grew up & entered adulthood during the two decades in question, I'm flummoxed at who bang-on this is, as a summation.

And thankfully I didn't have to sit through Rocky IV to reach that conclusion.

David K Wayne said...

Great post - you beat me to about three seperate ones I had I mind!

There's also Terminators' Linda Hamilton of course - who goes from being the humble bewildered waitress in extraordinary circumstances, to being a mixture of Lyndon Larouche and Sarah Palin in the sequel. Cameron's apparent fetish for tall, butch, sweaty ladies in vests continues to this day. But I guess the (snort) "king of the world" (snort) demands nothing less.

This post also brought to mind the more unfunny (but bizarrely popular) comedies of the 80s. Big! Loud! Car chases that dragged on for ages, or endless jokes about big gun fetishes, with blasting soundtracks throughout. From Blues Brothers to Police Academy to Beverly Hills Cop 2.

Phil Knight said...

Excellent post. Lots to get my teeth into here, but

i) I think "The Shootist" (the one John Wayne film everyone can love) is the apogee of the demise-of-the-real-American-hero.

ii) I think there's also a not-to-be-underrated element of cartoonishness regarding the celluloid muscularity of Schwarzenegger etc., which ties into Morris Berman's recent post about American culture's real selling point being its childishness (because humans are genetically/culturally programmed to respond to children). As with the extended Alien pursuit -it's reminiscent of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, where Jerry is always just wriggling out of Tom's clutches.

iii) I wish it were true that belief in endless growth into infinity was confined to the free-market Right, but as someone who has found it just as difficult to convince Marxists/Trotskyites of the real consequences of Peak Oil (no more industry, no more modernity, no more of the mass entertainment spectacle that we analyse here), I'm forced to conclude, a la Spengler, that's it's a Western cultural archetype that tends to inform all our moral-political ideas.

David K Wayne said...

It's funny that in adulthood I ended up preferring The Thing to Alien - probably because workplace/economic anxieties overtake the biological/sexual anxieties that come with adolescence.

Carpenter's film looks like a dire warning of the consequences of neoliberalism, and seems more resonant than it did in 1982 (especially with the scorched-earth hubris of 'tough, decisive' leadership represented by Kurt Russel).

Phil Knight said...

Yes, but The Thing is quite cartoon-y as well isn't it?

I really like Berman's idea of the USA being an Empire of Children, as it seems to explain the compulsive but vaguely soiling aspect of so much popular culture, mainly American, but also British and European too. Even the "subversive" stuff, our stuff seems to fit in this schema.

I do want to write about this, but haven't got the idea fleshed out enough yet. The Beastie Boys and The Simpsons loom large in my mind as absolutely key moments when rebellion disguised as childishness became indistinguishable from simple childish rebellion.

So neoliberalism and opposition to neoliberalism are all part of this same ravenous world-eating pop culture of infantilisation.

I think the thing that disturbs me is that I'm starting to suspect that the only way out of it is to reject ALL of it, the "good" stuff and the bad.

Simply, all popular culture is (or may be) bad for you.


David K Wayne said...

And of course there's Spielberg, Michael Jackson and the whole 'child within' (Oprah etc) malarkey too. Every successful politician appealed to that in a way since the 70s.

carl said...

if cartoony's your thing...come and live in Japan!

Phil Knight said...


Well one argument about Japan is that under American rule (Douglas MacArthur) it absorbed and reconstituted US values more than any other nation (except perhaps Korea).

I've spent a few days in both Japan and Korea (and good Lord, do they not like each other), but I didn't really absorb enough to give an authoritative opinion.

@ Wayne

Yes, Michael Jackson is the absolute avatar of the Empire Of Children, indeed he is The Emperor Of Children (in more ways than one, obviously), and so he's the starting point of any investigation on this matter.

Plus, his best album, "Bad", is at the very peak of neoliberal child-morality i.e. he was "bad" like a naughty schoolboy, not like a black witch or ghetto mutha. So, yes, MJ and Spielberg are where this critique should begin.

David K Wayne said...

There's downright paedophilic themes in a lot of Spielberg. Lots of enchanting 'special friends' that his various innocents shouldn't tell mum and dad/the superego about (whether its ET or Oskar Schindler), unspoken bonds that just are. And the sight of big hairy Robin Williams cavorting with the lost boys was just creepy and awkward.

Jacko tried hard to enact Peter Pan, but ended up its mirror image: Dracula. Like the economic ideology he represented so much.

Phil Knight said...

Yeah, well there's lots of interactions here that I haven't really figured out yet.

I mean, Jackson has for a long time been felt at a gut level to embody all the contradictions of neoliberalism, and I think the instinct here is correct, but I still think that nobody has yet got a real handle on him.

My own opinion is that he embodied all the delusions that are innate to current Western society, and these go beyond neoliberalism (which to me is basically a provisional ideology that attempts to deny the reality of a long-term socio-economic-cultural decline) and is related to our fear of death, which I think John Gray has been addressing recently (though I fundamentally disagree with his worldview).

I'm not sure how the paedophile aspects relate to this, except as a kind of inevitable offshoot i.e. without a genuinely life-enhancing worldview is this kind of perversion inevitable?

David K Wayne said...

It's interesting that you fundamentally disagree with John Gray's worldview - I saw him as a kind of mid-market, petit bourgeois wannabe Spengler in a lot of ways.

BTW got a perfect image for your Jackson post (nothing dodgy!). I'll email it.

David K Wayne said...

PS. Fear of death, and delusions therein:

Kubrick famously dismissed Schindler's List as a film about people who lived, when the holocaust was ostensibly about people who died.

Phil Knight said...

Well, Gray is ultimately a man of his time in his complete rejection of metaphysics - he'll disagree with the likes of Dawkins in terms of methodology but not in fundamental worldview. And Dawkins is such an easy target, really....

Spengler was much more subtle on this point - he saw materialsim and spiritualism as simply alternating poles in the waxing and waning of a culture - neither could be "right" or "wrong".

Gray thinks he's clever in rejecting the possibility of an afterlife, when the real truth is that we cannot know what happens after death, only make presumptions (if we're so minded).

Also, he only ever seems to believe the worst reports of any non-western non-capitalist system, and applies this as confirmation of his belief in human folly, when the real evidence is often much less suggestive.

That said, he's still better than 99% of current Western thinkers. Although that's not (really) a complement...

David K Wayne said...

Well, it's a sign of our declining intellectual culture that Gray's listed as 'philosophy', as I doubt he would have made that shelf 40 years ago. Digestible chunks of debunk (without metaphysics) is what sells. The whole "I'm an atheist! Ain't that radical!" scene doesn't realise how it's met with widespread indifference outside media/political circles.

Gray's dismissal of planned economies/societies is probably informed by his early prejudices as a cheerleader for Thatcherism (which was of course very 'planned' despite its claims). He's positively tongue-tied when it comes to poorer nations that rejected neoliberalism, and are somewhat healthier for it.

parody center said...

Carl, bodybuilders on steroids usually don't have such impressive dicks. Partly because the muscle mass makes even a decent dick disproportionately small. You can already see in the Schwarzie photo above, that it's no deepthroat material.

I think at defloration you should aim for skinnier types, sometimes even sweet puppy types like Matthew Broderick hold a surprise in their pants.