The Academy Awards
The New American Cinema
John Lewis, ed. £56.95/£18.95 Duke University Press
In four sections: Movies and Money; Cinema and Culture and lastly Independents
and independence this is thirteen essays from thirteen academics. Presumably
it had no descending hierarchy in mind, nor were they superstitious.
Funnily enough, the Academy in the old days justified itself as something
to be taken seriously by a kind of morality of standards. It was all bound
up with Religion. In the UK this dates back to the inception of our oldest
schools of learning and religious characters such as Wycliffe and a theocratic
approach. The process of evaluation of evidence grew with scientific rationalism
to mirror that of the courts: opposing opinion being assayed and the different
sides treated with impartiality. At some point the blindfold comes off
and the sword of truth (a metaphor borrowed from the New Testament) divides,
usually wrongly, but not in such a manner as to call the higher processes
(i.e. conveniently God's) into question. But it was all about money
Today's experience tells us that we can assume nothing with academic
credentials. Many fine people may work there but all manner of creatures
end up in colleges and universities, which are magnets for people with
no talent just as Childrens' Homes are magnets for abusers.
Several species of crackpot ideas and foul gibberish pervade the educational
institutions. Most people would hold up film theory as harbouring particularly
socially and intellectually useless notions with which we can have no
faith. What tends now to get put on offer is an unconscious hierarchy
of deranged standards as a prop for little more than laughable attempts
at self promotion.
Yes good old Money in the form of Box office gross is a common enough
determinant - even in the pretend egalitarian world of college professors - of
evaluative criteria, and surfaces throughout the book. With the first
paragraph of his own contribution, the editor of the collection, Jon Lewis
takes the trouble to illustrate (with some crocodile tears) an aspect
of film-making which he seems a little shocked by:
"The system stinks. It's fed by greed and ego...[Hollywood has]
been changing and always in the same direction, which is more about money
and much less about what movies are. I hate it, I hate it. But you can't
ignore it. As much as you keep reminding yourself with the mantra, "It's
all about the movies; it's about the movies," it's about
Joe Roth, Chairman Disney Film Division"
So not all about cuddly little fluffy bunnies then. Lewis' own contribution,
in its serious focus on the Corporate junk-bond financed leveraged mergers
and acquisition era of the 80s traces roots back to the intrigue surrounding
the combination of so-called Paramount decision (ostensibly to promote
free trade) and the Hollywood blacklist (to restrict filthy pinkos trading).
This is all pretty well-trodden ground by now. Cue Ronnie Reagan as the
front man for the Screen Actors Guild joining with management to implement
the ban against some of its members in the 50s, then cut to a flash forward
as he unleashes 'Reaganomics' fronting for much the same crew
With the second section what each author determines to be cultural currency
at times stretches into some far-fetched notions of value and relevance.
With the third: well in its idealism all our hopes lie.
The wisdom of illustrating his theories by choosing the first Rambo movie
as the 'locus classicus' of 'The Male Rampage Film'
is not clear to me in Fred Pfeil's essay of the same name in the
second section. His logic squirms uncomfortably, simply because 'First
Blood' doesn't particularly fit the bi-polar thesis he slavishly
tries to impose:
"...the mass audience for Hollywood product in the 1970s was offered
a choice between two kinds of anti-establishment film: a "left"
version, in which the protagonist uncovers an evil conspiracy of power
elites and is usually defeated and killed before he can publisize or contest
it in any effective way (Chinatown, 1974; The Parallax View, 1974); and
a "right" version, in which the established authorities are
so corrupt or impotent that they leave the hero no choice but to wage
his own war against the scum who threaten him, his family, and All That
Is Decent from below (Dirty Harry, 1972; Walking Tall, 1973). If so, Rambo;
First Blood was one of the first movies of the 80s to dream these two
sides or cycles together and thus to offer us the sight of a downscale,
deauthorized figure going native ...Stallone as canny proto-Indian "savage"..."
The exception does not prove a rule. Later Pfiel takes all the Rambo films
to be the same thing, yet the fact is the first Rambo movie is qualitatively
different from the sequels. His theorizing is meaningless. Leaving aside
the fact that the hero does contest in an effective way and that he has
no family, First Blood (1982) was directed by Ted Kotcheff, with writing
credits David Morrell (who wrote the novel) and Michael Kozoll.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) was directed by George P. Cosmatos with writing
credits for Kevin Jarre (story) and Sylvester Stallone. Rambo III (1988)
was directed by our own Peter MacDonald with writing credits Sheldon Lettich,
Sylvester Stallone (the source is www.imdb.com).
It would seem to me that Sly cleverly took the brand name (you feel like
reminding Pheil that Rambo isn't real) and started writing according
to a more commercial logic to fit with the prevailing winds.
All the films bearing the Rambo brand are tainted because of old Ronnie
again, who happened to mention his admiration for one of the later films
and how he would like to adopt some of the character's approach to
foreign policy/murdering people. It could be that Reagan 'thought'
this one up himself, but it is more likely that his speech writers (and/or
campaign managers) were trying to appeal to the bloodlust of their imaginary
Joe Six-pack voter. The stupid amount of attention given to it probably
diverted media attention away from the litany of crimes being committed
by Oliver North and the gang.
The first movie starts on about Agent Orange and how it slowly killed
Rambo's black buddy from The Nam, the main character spends most
of the time shooting at the Cops and the National Guard and at the end
of the movie our tough hero breaks down blubbering about the mind shattering
horrors of war - but Pfeil casually places it along side the bally-ho
of Reagan's re-election in the mid-80s, saying he will analyse it
later, but never gets around to explaining the contradiction in terms
of his argument. The sources cited for his line of thought are sparse
and clearly not up-to-date. He is just prejudiced against Rambo - first
he feigns intellectual detachment then promises intelligent analysis,
later just referring to the film as 'obnoxious' (p 172).
In the early 80s when a spate of violent action adventures were successfully
mass-marketed they were ignored by academia who criticised their audience
as trash watching gratuitous trash which would numb their minds and make
them violent. Eventually feeling left out and never ones to miss out on
self-indulgence, gratuitous trash suddenly became suitable for pseudo-intellectualisation
and we had all these bores going on about semiotics in Terminator and
feminist theory in Alien 2.
On the more comfortable subject of Die Hard Pheil starts to provide us
with a Greimasian rectangle (a wee diagram). Presumably you print it out
on acetate and hang it over the screen while you're watching the
movie. We'll leave him to it.
But the premium grade film theory gibberish is purveyed by Tania Modleski.
Her essay "a Rose Is a Rose?" demolishes the terms surely and
purely in its opening line:
"If there ever was a purely masculine genre, it is surely the war
So what about the brilliance of Larissa Shepitko's "The Ascent."
Modleski's first footnote states that she is for hire while boasting
about some huge endowment she has just received. Now we know what she
is we can haggle about the price.
To make things surely and purely preposterous the article is predicated
on a quote from Gilbert Adair which she thinks is a 'thoughtful critique'
(here's that surely again):
"It is surely time that film-makers learned that the meticulous detailed
aping of an atrocity is an atrocity; that the hyper-realistic depiction
of an obscenity cannot avoid being contaminated with that obscenity; and
that the unmediated representation of violence constitutes in itself an
act of violence against the spectator."
Yes the map is the territory. Modleski then goes on to do what she and
Gilbert find so distasteful in others - meticulous detailed aping.
Let me commit an act of violence by quoting her:
"Thus, since "being there" has so far been out of the question
for women (who are prohibited from combat), their authority on any issue
related to war is discredited from the outset, and insofar as they may
be inclined to question or oppose war (except in and on the terms granted
them by men), they find themselves consigned to the ranks of the always
This type of perversity enhances the victimisation of women and she is
factually wrong on a prohibition against women being in combat. Pathetically
so, although the article is about 'Vietnam films' it escapes
her notice that many women fought and died in the NVA; similarly Russian
armed forces contained women - indeed perhaps the most symbolic act
of World War 2 was the planting of the Soviet flag on the Reichstag building:
an act bravely completed by a female Soviet soldier.
To Modleski all 'Vietnam films' are intrinsically evil. Speaking
of Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July:
"Here we see an example of the commonplace phenomenon in Vietnam
films in which exploited people (in this instance, the prostitutes) are
further exploited by the films themselves for the symbolic value that
they hold for the hero. Thus do the films perpetuate the social and cultural
insensitivity that led to America's involvement in the war and the
atrocities committed there."
Imagine believing that someone acting the part of a prostitute in a film
is the same as a human catastrophe on the scale of the Vietnam war. Modleski's
pathetic revisions, with a slender grasp of reality are of no use to anyone:
male, female or somewhere in between. On this evidence she is only capable
of trying to infect other minds with imprecise thought delivered with
the insouciant arrogance of someone who has been getting away with it
for too long.
Christopher Sharrett's analysis of the reactionary responses to Stone's
JFK contains stimulating, well-researched material expressing legitimate
concern with America's 'Deep Politics' - the clandestine
institutional political culture:
"Garrison's investigation was roundly condemned not for legal
impropriety, but for its assertions about the legitimacy of the state.
Perhaps more important, this investigation (and those of many independent
researchers) ultimately forces us into a reassessment of some commonly
and blithely held assumptions about the political-economic order. Students
of this matter cannot help but intuit John Dewey's assertion that
government is but the shadow cast by business, thus assassinations, coups,
and other forms of political violence flow from economic assumptions.
Garrison's later writing placed the JFK assassination within the
context of the CIA support of coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, the Congo,
and elsewhere; this work, largely unknown to Stone's audience, stands
with the most important progressive indictments of the real dynamics of
contemporary state power as it serves specific class interests. Stone's
adaptation of Garrison's work prompted media commentators to suggest
that further conspiracy talk might push a nation already suffering a profound
legitimation crisis into catastrophe."
Sharrett was one of the consultants to the US Congress' House select
Committee on assassinations and is a much needed saner voice than some
of the psychobabble. It is a fair analysis of Stone's work. It frees
and opens up the implications - more is known now about the reality
of the US political culture and covert alliances of the early 60s - of
the dogged persistence of investigative journalists. That this should
find an expression in mass audience movies was too much for the majority
of commentators working for big business/the US press. And it is also
refreshing to see someone challenge the commonplace American waking dream
that the crimes associated with state power are so huge and entrenched
that they can only be taken as normality.
"...research shows that Shaw was far more than an international businessman
giving the odd tip to the CIA, nor was he merely the shadowy protector,
a la Monks in Oliver Twist, observing the Ferrie/Banister gang of young
anticommunist, anti-civil rights provocateurs, which is the main role
that the film ascribes to him. Cumulative study, including work done by
the Italian and Canadian media, suggests that Shaw worked for U.S. intelligence
since his service on the staff of General Charles Thrasher, deputy commander
of the Western theater of operations during World War II. There is compelling
evidence that Thrasher and Shaw were among the U.S. army officers and
other officials responsible for constructing Operation Paperclip, which
created the "rat lines" central to the migration of nazi military
brass, intelligence officials, and scientists, including Reinhard Gehlen,
who orchestrated the "Gehlen Org," a powerful arm of Western
intelligence within the eastern Bloc during the post war years; Klaus
Barbie, the notorious Butcher of Lyon; and Walter Dornberger and Wernher
von Braun, the scientists who pioneered the V-2 "buzz bomb"
ballistic missile at Peenemunde (murdering many slave laborers at the
Nordhausen concentration camp in the process) and became central to the
construction of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The "rat lines" project is chronicled in documentary filmmaker
Marcel Ophuls's Hotel Terminus (1988), among other sources. During
these operations, general Thrasher was simultaneously responsible for
the gratuitous murder of ordinary German POWs (mainly old men and boys)
while their officers actually became part of the U.S. state apparatus."
The title of the collection is now something of an anachronism. I wonder
if the 20th century will be romantically thought of as being dominated
by celluloid film which is now a medium no longer required. What effect
this will have on independent film makers, distribution cartels and the
whole junket marketing culture remains to be seen. The last few screenings
I have been to have been digital. Will people still want to meet in the
dark and watch a projection in complexes whose screens are getting smaller
as those at home get bigger?