U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film

U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film

by Stephen Lee Naish


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U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film by Stephen Lee Naish

U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film collects together the published essays of Stephen Lee Naish, into a narrative that explores the political and humanistic elements of modern cinema. With the rise of digital technology and the excessive use of CGI currently overwhelming cinema, realism and humanity have been dispensed with in favor of spectacle and illusion. It is the goal of U.ESS.AY to find within modern cinema contents that address the cultural and political landscape

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782793786
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Pages: 97
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Lee Naish grew up in Leicester, UK but now lives in Ontario, Canada were he writes about film, politics and popular culture and the places were they converge. His writing has appeared in numerous journals and periodicals.

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Politics and Humanity in American Film

By Stephen Lee Naish

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2013 Stephen Lee Naish
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-378-6


Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger and US Foreign Policy

During the 1980s American jingoism was at its most potent, due largely to the flexing of political and economic muscles against the Soviet Union during the last decade of the Cold War, when America was fast becoming the unmistakable winner of the long running conflict. After a deep recession in the early eighties, the American economy bounced back with persistent growth throughout the decade, and its dominance of popular culture, film, television, music and produce spread worldwide. America was thought to be the shining beacon and template of democracy and economic stability throughout the world. In Hollywood, producers and studios fell over themselves to provide the clearest and most robust outlook of American power. Action films, the decade's definitive film genre, portrayed American film stars as bulletproof, muscle-enhanced avenging angels. The decade's two main action stars who were most representative of this era were Austrian-born, former Mr. Universe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the son of Italian immigrants, Sylvester Stallone. Both were living embodiments of the American Dream, raising themselves from humble beginnings to conquer the entertainment industry and later, in Schwarzenegger's case, the political landscape. America's attitude towards foreign countries and its own foreign policy was echoed in eighties action movies like Stallone's Rambo Trilogy (1982, 1985, 1988) and Schwarzenegger's Commando (1986) and Predator (1987). The suave assertion of these films was that despite various violent interventions against its perceived enemies, America remained irreproachable and its actions legitimate under the circumstance of foreigners gone rogue. In these narratives, America had to be the player to put everyone right.

In the film Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays retired Delta Force operative Colonel John Matrix. Matrix and his teenage daughter Jenny live a secluded, peaceful life in the mountain ranges of California. That peace is shattered when Matrix's former superior General Franklyn Kirby arrives by helicopter and informs him that his old military unit has been killed off one by one. Kirby leaves Matrix with two commandos as protection. As soon as Kirby's helicopter is out of sight Matrix is attacked by hidden mercenaries. Easily dispensing with the two commandos, the group of mercenaries kidnap Jenny. Matrix gives chase, but is overcome and shot with a tranquilizer by one of his former-commando-buddies-turned-traitor, Bennett (Vernon Wells). When he awakes in chains, his captor is revealed to be Arius (Dan Hedaya), the former dictator of fictional South American country Val Verde, who Matrix once helped to overthrow in a coup and in his place installed the country's new leader President Velasco (itself a possible reference to José María Velasco Ibarra, five times president of Ecuador, or Juan Francisco Velasco Alvarado, the left-wing General and President of Peru who lead a bloodless military coup to overthrow Fernando Belaúnde Terry in 1968). With Matrix's daughter in captivity, Arius blackmails him into assassinating President Velasco in order for Arius to return to power in a proposed military coup. Matrix reluctantly agrees to travel to Val Verde and kill the President. Arius deems it a fitting punishment that Matrix should have to destroy the regime he helped to create, and mockingly reminds Matrix of his friendship with Velasco, and the honorific of 'hero of the revolution' bestowed upon Matrix after the coup. However, in true action hero fashion, just as he has boards the plane for Val Verde, Matrix kills his chaperone, and jumps from the plane as it is taking off. With 11 hours before the plane arrives in Val Verde, Matrix sets about trying to find his daughter and kill former-dictator Arius.

There is little need to continue the narrative beyond this point. This being a 1980s American action film it is obvious that Matrix succeeds in his mission to rescue his daughter and dispense with the bad guys in an indiscriminately violent fashion (entire military units of Arius army are dispassionately slaughtered, while Matrix murders Arius henchmen with classic one-liners). This is typical of American action films of the Republican Reagan and Bush administrations. The excessive use of indiscriminate force on screen reflects a broader self-justification for an invasive and domineering Foreign Policy in reality. The Reagan administration's own doctrine orchestrated and supported uprisings against countries that had fallen under the spell of the communist Soviet Union. The Reagan Doctrine was designed to weaken the global influence of the Soviet Union and to heighten the dominance of America during the Cold War. Hollywood action films appear to have become the Republicans' propaganda machine of choice.

Although we know nothing solid of the fictional country of Val Verde, its use as a stereotypical South American template speaks volumes about American ignorance towards its southern neighbors and the desires of its peoples (the short glimpse of Val Verde is that of a typically poor and rundown market district patrolled by armed army officers, in the background we see posters of Arius with red crosses scrawled over his face). Although we assume that the former dictator Arius was not a popular or democratically elected leader (the fact that he wants to take the country back by force and has kidnapped Matrix's daughter to do so would seem to support this), we can safely draw the conclusion that Arius was hugely unpopular with the American government. So unpopular in fact that they authorized a delta force unit to help overthrow Arius and install a puppet leader who was friendly to American interests. This echoes all too much America's history of intrusive Foreign Policy and its attempts to remove from power democratically elected or popular leaders.

The most obvious examples of this from Latin America and South America are that of Cuba and Chile. Cuba was drawn into revolution from 1953 to 1959. The populist movement was led by the charismatic outspoken lawyer turned revolutionary Fidel Castro, against the tyrannical US-backed Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro was hugely popular with the Cuban people who had suffered great hardship and exploitation under Batista's iron rule. Their land had been pillaged by American corporations and capitalist greed, as well by the hedonistic tourists who lapped up the cheap booze and took advantage of the rampant prostitution and gambling. Cuba was seen as a playground for the exploitative elite. All this changed when the revolution was victorious. Castro swept into power with social programmes and land reforms which nationalized all foreign owned property within the first year in power, a move which brought into effect a trade embargo, which remains to this day, put in place by America against Cuba. Since the revolution, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has attempted, unsuccessfully, over six hundred times to dispense with Castro in the most ingenious ways (exploding cigars) and has trained anti-Castro operatives to engage in acts of dissent and even full scale invasions, most famously the American backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

In Chile, the democratically elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende shot himself in the head in 1973 as a US backed coup swept through the country, the foundations of which had been laid earlier by the Richard Nixon/ Henry Kissinger administration just prior to Nixon's election victory in 1970. The desire to keep communist influence at bay was of upmost importance during the Cold War. Although a figure such as Fidel Castro never rose to power democratically or through electoral politics as such, his popularity with the majority of Cuban people was enough to give him and his revolution legitimacy in the eyes of Cuba, its neighbors and the world. Salvador Allende was a different case altogether. His democratic election win was seen by the people of Chile as a step towards taking a truly independent path that would allow them to construct their own future. American interference in Chile's political system meant that the military action to overthrow Allende left the country to be ruled by a junta, lead by the fascistic Dictator General Pinochet, who after gaining power banned all left-wing parties and literature, and instigated a regime of terror that led to a total number of torture victims of approximately 40,018, including 3065 killed for political reasons.

Hollywood would like its audience to believe that its depiction of foreign intervention by the US government is righteous. By using tired clichéd caricatures of bogus dictators, Hollywood paints a picture that it is acceptable to remove these supposed despots from power by force, and put a more moderate figurehead in their place. In reality, this is rarely the case. As for Arnold Schwarzenegger, during the more liberal Clinton years, Schwarzenegger's image softened somewhat, allowing or perhaps pushing him into starring in comedies such as Junior (1994) and Jingle all the Way (1996) as well as action movie parodies like Last Action Hero (1993). The return of the Republican Party in 2000 with the narrow election victory of George W Bush saw Schwarzenegger revisit harder game with science fiction/action film End of Days (1999) and horror movie The Sixth Day (2000), and of course his third outing as the Terminator in Terminator: Rise of the Machines (2003). By this point, however, Schwarzenegger's acting days were coming to an end, yet his turn towards politics was perhaps the best performance of his career. Merging his past characters' repertoire of catchy one-liners and his own charming personality, Schwarzenegger was elected to the role/position of the Republican Governor of California on November 17, 2003. In a way the conservative political path Schwarzenegger took was obvious. His films celebrated patriotism and gleefully indulged in violence towards outsiders, even though at some points in conservative American politics his immigrant status would have been one of the targets. In an address to the Republican Convention in 2004 he stated: "To think that a once scrawny boy from Austria could grow up to become Governor of the State of California and then stand here – and stand here in Madison Square Garden and speak on behalf of the President of the United States. That is an immigrant's dream! It's the American dream." Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived, breathed, served and, on film at least, he has fought for America's position in the world.

Published in The Fear of Monkeys, April 2013

The Night-time Metropolis on Film

In daylight, the cities we inhabit take on a very different function and feel to that of night-time. At sunrise, the city becomes a place of labour and socialization, of culture and community. The constant movement of raucous transportation and talkative commuters offers a distraction to the surroundings and an immersion into the frantic flow of the city. Our senses become numbed by the intense over-stimulation that the squeal of subway trains, the hum of tall buildings, the exhaust fumes of continuous traffic and the hustle that crowds of people provide. When we return to the relative quiet of our homes, we are left emotionally raw, wired and bruised, yet eager to return and face it again. When the night descends and the workers, students, and commuters leave the city behind, another breed of inhabitants emerge into the darkness. People who were perhaps there all along during the daytime hours, but so blurred into the background noise as to be invisible. The city at night is an altered state where the flashing and changing advertisement displays, which were are only glimpsed in the daylight, now buzz and shine their neon glow menacingly onto the street below. In film, the night-time metropolis is deemed to be malevolent and sinful, a place where nothing good could ever happen. In the films Collateral (2004), Cosmopolis (2012), and Drive (2011) the normal inhabitants of the city disappear and are replaced by sinister misfits and degenerates. The vibrant mood and fast pace of the city by day is traded at night for unhurried and deliberate menace and violence.

The city at night has held great appeal to filmmakers for decades. The use of the city as an ominous character within the film came to fruition in the seventies with films such as Taxi Driver (1977) and The Warriors (1979). In these two films the metropolis is a neon-lit cesspit where the threat of violence and paranoia lurks around every corner. The darkness reflects the internal struggle and conflicts of the characters, and this internal mood is projected externally to the cityscape. Moreover, capitalism itself has made the city an even more segregated environment. The monolithic glass skyscrapers, plush hotels, bars and restaurants that have risen up at alarming rates throughout the world reflect the glossy, flashing billboards that create an ever-changing and inconsistent landscape below. At night the wealthy and affluent population lock themselves within these ivory towers, behind bulletproof glass and many floors above street level. The young and successful fill the nightclubs and bars that muscular bouncers guard from undesirables. The streets are left to the underclass.

Collateral, directed by Michael Mann, defines the mechanisms of the working city. In the day, the sun shines brightly, a sense of restless energy and positivity is apparent. People are in constant transit. However, when Jamie Foxx's taxi driver, Max, heads towards downtown LA as dusk creeps in, a dark looming cloud hovers over the glimmering city, foretelling impending doom for Max and his passenger, a young female lawyer who gives Max her number as he drops her off downtown. That impending doom arrives in the form of Vincent (a silver haired Tom Cruise), a merciless hit man making five consecutive assassinations over the course of the night. Max is reluctantly dragged into the murder spree when Vincent's first hit does not go according to plan and the body of a lowlife criminal falls two stories from a shabby apartment block onto the top of Max's cab. The next few hours are spent in transit as Max ferries Vincent from hit to hit, until Max loses his cool, tosses Vincent's satchel containing his hit list over a bridge and crashes the cab just before the last hit. When Max discovers the last hit is the young female lawyer he took downtown earlier, he sets out to save her life and repent for facilitating Vincent's gruesome crimes. The Los Angeles that Vincent and Max encounter is a jungle of concrete and glass, a neon-lit hell. The menacing red glow of smog hangs over the inner city casting a deadly light over the inhabitants. From above, the city resembles an open wound, the streetlights and cars create an illusion of blood pumping through the veins of a vicious creature. It's obvious that Vincent would choose to make his hits at night, not only to cover his own crimes, but also because the lowlifes and informers he's contracted to kill only come out at night, along with the other degenerates of the city. As the night progresses Max attempts to disrupt Vincent's work and eventually stands up to Vincent as the daytime arrives. They face-off with Vincent dying from a bullet wound on the Los Angeles subway and he is left to ride the train towards the commuters who will soon be boarding. Max and his companion emerge from the darkness of the subway station into the blistering morning daylight.

Although the character of Driver (Ryan Gosling) in Drive is not a criminal as such, his association as a getaway driver for robberies is a night-time endeavour. Here the city is presented as a derelict sprawl; the landscape is expansive, with concrete, windowless warehouses and factories lining up along the dimly lit and deserted streets. Driver is a recluse in the same sense that Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver is a recluse. Like Bickle, Driver's interactions with people are awkward and guarded; he lives so much within his own mind that other people do not really register. Perhaps the city he inhabits is a bustling metropolis, but his world is so internal that the commotion of everyday life is not on his radar. When he does drop his guard and begins a friendship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio, he permits himself a weakness that will be eventually exploited. When Irene's husband returns from prison and is badly beaten by his former associates, Driver agrees to help with a robbery that will seal a debt and keep Irene and Benicio safe from harm. The robbery takes place during the daytime and goes horribly wrong (an example reiterating that criminals should only operate at night). Driver's accomplices get shot, although he makes it away with the bag of cash. Driver gets caught up in a criminal underworld that he doesn't understand and wants no part of. He intends to return the stolen money to the mob bosses, an honest move that the bosses can't comprehend. Unfortunately the only exit from the depths Driver has descended into is death. He is stabbed by the mob boss and takes the last moments of his life to drive the streets of LA whilst bleeding from his wounds.


Excerpted from U.ESS.AY by Stephen Lee Naish. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Lee Naish. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Are We Satisfied? 1

Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger and US Foreign Policy 5

The Night-time Metropolis on Film 11

How Dennis Hopper Conquered the American Century 17

The Easy Rider Paradox 23

Nobody Puts America in the Corner: Dirty Dancing and the End of Innocence 31

Mumblecore in Obama's America 37

Digital Socialism: How Mumblecore Filmmaking is Defying Capitalism 43

North Korea in Fiction and as Fiction 49

How to Make a Film in North Korea…If you had to 55

Reimagining Star Trek: The Motion Picture 61

Disaster Movies and the Collective Longing for Annihilation 67

Louder than War: Have Movies Fallen into the same Loudness Trap as Music? 73

Postscript: Home Movies: A Critique of a Disappearing Film and a Lingering Memory 79

Notes 88

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