If you haven’t noticed, we’re all doing blogs now. Mine’s the Dellamorte Dugout, where I will talk about the great pitchers and catchers of Yor. Sadly, Yor features no actual baseball, and I don’t truck with the rumors surrounding Reb Brown. Don’t truck with them at all. I think my great focus will be on the films I watch, but you never know. There may be naked pictures of the cast of A Different World in there too. Kadeem Hardison fans… get ready.
RED MEAT CITY
It’s easy to point to the musical and the western as dead genres. The fact that both are resurrected at least once or twice a year now proves that they are anomalous. Even if you compare this year’s Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to any handful from the fifties, the disparities are self-evident. People like Budd Boeticher or Anthony Mann weren’t trying to do anything close to reinventing the damned genre. They were the genre. They were trying fill double bills either as headliners or second features, and that may be the greatest change. Films are now events, not just what people do on the weekends, they don’t drop their kids off at programmers in the same way – even if a film like Alvin and the Chimpmunks may be used as a mall babysitter.
Sadly, with the release of last year’s Live Free or Die Hard, it’s fair to call the R rated action picture as antiquated as those other genres.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? A little over forty years ago a little film came out called Bonnie and Clyde. It featured Hollywood cinema’s most graphic depiction of violence to date (granted, that’s not including grindhouse classics like Blood Feast, which may have had as much an influence as Breathless and the Vietnam War on some level). The system passed it, and opened up the door for violence to be portrayed writ large by the system. Of course the next great milestone is The Wild Bunch, which sprayed blood across the screen in such visceral terms that the “clutch chest and fall over” routine was now passé. There are landmarks of violence from the 70’s, with A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, and The Godfather notable entries in the canon of classy violence, but with the R or X rating, genre pictures had a button to push that was – in its way – as cheap and easy to reproduce as nudity.
The great signifier, as much as the Blaxploitation films that trafficked in both, was Death Wish - the beginning of Charles Bronson’s descent into genre work – as it showed average people killing with extreme prejudice, while Dirty Harry and its sequels can also be a great signifier.
Cut to the Eighties. Genre films were being assimilated by the majors, One of Paramount’s guiltiest cash machines was the Friday the Thirteenth films, while Cannon films carved out a corner for both ninja films and Chuck Norris films. Action films had not been defined as we may do today, they were still in a transition period, with (oddly enough) Steven Spielberg one of the major directors of the genre with Raiders of the Lost Ark. To a certain extent Sylvester Stallone helped form this genre with First Blood and Nighthawks. But what is currently defined as 80’s action is best represented by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Commando. Raw Deal. Predator. The Running Man. These are the violent films that said that gunplay from a strong man was where it’s at. Chuck Norris – he who came from Karate – would follow the lead, and go as much with heavy artillery as he would a roundhouse kick. And Stallone took the character of John Rambo in First Blood - screaming about he just wanted to be treated like a hero, or at least a normal person for having survived the horrors of Vietnam – to its avenging angel, sent back in to finally be able to win. That the Vietnamese were supported by the Russians (in the film) made it all the neater. All enemies, past or current, cold or otherwise, were to fall prey to his wrath.
This brings up an interesting parallel. The Second World War – where America “won” the war – was followed cinematically by the Noir genre, to which most of its protagonists (calling them heroes seems unfair) were often veterans. This pursued a much darker terrain, as the toll of killing on the educated man (and vets took up the offers of the G.I. Bill) was weighed in existential terms. Though most Vietnam movies either are solemn or give lip service to the fact that America “lost,” what came about in the 1980’s can mostly be seen as wish-fulfillment fantasy for the veterans. Instead of presenting violence in realistic terms, these films offered cinematic happy endings to their war, and celebrated (for better or worse) vigilante justice. The culture of Reagan’s America offered a number of such candy-coated fantasies, and the box office returned in kind. Schwarzenegger was continually successful; Stallone applied the lessons of Rambo to Rocky, and violence became fetishized. Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson shortly thereafter joined the playing field, both of whom tried to humanize their ubermensches before succumbing to their infallibility. It was Red Meat City. But, with the drive-in dying, the low budgeteers could not compete with the studios making the exact same movies with less money, and so competition dried up, the release schedule was slightly less crowded, and the demand for excess grew.
Even in the Clinton era, there were still red meat action films, but they became bigger. More expensive. Cliffhanger, Eraser, etc, while the genre quickly separated itself from the big studio action films and the modern B Picture, with Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme working for the studios and given a number of attempts at elevating themselves into higher budgeted films.
Another important thing happened, that (like a murder at 1600) changed all the rules. Well, two things. Wire work, and John Woo. The latter informed action films from at least 1990 (Die Hard 2 straight ripped The Killer) until about 1998 or so. Hong Kong moved to America, and some people stuck while others floundered. As Stallone either hit or missed, and Arnie either joked up the joint or made expensive efforts, Universal tried to get it going with JCVD (isn’t it great how his initials combine both Jesus Christ and Venereal Disease?), and then Sony did, whilst Warner Brothers gave Seagal enough of a rope to hang himself with (“What does it take to change the essence of a man?”). At the same time Jackie Chan was able to score low budget repackagings with his Hong Kong work until he and Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li made themselves available stateside. When Jackie teamed with Brett Ratner and Chris Tucker, a box office success was born that offered little other fruits to Jackie (though they tried) but sequels.
With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie’s Angels – along with The Matrix for that matter – wire-work became fairly common in Hollywood, and so did hiring Yuen Woo-Ping and his associates. But with any fad, it came to pass. And Hollywood realized something. Making R rated action films limited the audience. Twelve years olds like seeing people kick ass, so why so much bloodshed? In a world where America is waging a war currently – with untold numbers dead unseen by the American populace – why condition its youngsters to see blood when people die? Why even bother having Bruce Willis say his signature line in Die Hard 4 if it makes the movie R rated? This also carried over to horror, where R rated efforts announce themselves as such. Why not? Why not make shitty horror movies that are PG-13? They’re still poopy, so why not make them available to the largest audience?
If – in the 80’s – violence offered a catharsis to those who suffered the slings and arrows of surviving Vietnam, currently much of the American population will have no such contact except through cinema, and so making films about violence with little palpable violence makes sense. If gore and the viscera was the result of people like Tom Savini surviving his tour of duty, it would take a draft to get America out of its insulation. For better or worse. And so cinema returns to a variant of the clutched chest death.
And so the R rated action movie has become a relic. It’s become cost prohibitive, even if Jason Bourne or James Bond can kill someone and (at least) make it palpable to protagonist. But this realism strikes as a revolt against the bloodless bloodshed that has become de rigueur. It’s modern for a character to actually feel bad about killing someone, which is also a response to our modern world, and to the 80’s action films.
And so I celebrate the mass bloodshed that litters Rambo. Because I’m glad it’s bloody, and I’m glad it’s completely and utterly ephemeral. I’ve missed those things. So much. Too bad that it’s anomalous.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE THE PREDICTION OF A MAN?
How She Move comes out, and if Paramount had marketed the fucker correctly, they might have had the weekend. But since the diminishing returns of the January Dance movie (which they started with Save the Last Dance), they hedged their betswith prints and will likely recoup on DVD. Then again, if it’s the “Number One film in America,” it just points out that teenagers like to watch people dancing, and I wouldn’t blame them. I will probably watch the film on DVD just to see if I can steal some moves (my guilty pleasures). Speaking of selling past their street date, Meet the Spartans offers the third January parody film in three years. After The Comebacks bombed, the question is: Does this do Epic Movie business or The Comebacks business? I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. Untraceable stars Diane Lane, who has spent nearly three decades being fuckable. That may sound rude, and if Miss Lane wishes to slap me, I’m all in favor of it. Though she’s married to Josh Brolin, and after his year, I wouldn’t want to mess with him. Still, it looks like junk for a January release, and it likely is.
So then there’s the Academy re-ups, with Michael Clayton and No Country hitting a ton more screens. This may prove renumerative, but for the most part, the multiplexes that are taking them in are looking to clean out the debris knowing that if it doesn’t work this week, next week they can easily be jettisoned. Juno is likely to get the strongest bounce. Coverfield got to $40 Million for the three day last weekend. A 60% drop would mean $16 Million. A 70% drop would mean $12. I’m going to split the difference.
Rambo didn’t get many press screenings. It seems that when Devin, Moriarty and myself went in December (along with a number of Internet journalists, surely plucked because they were likely to be sympathetic) it turned out to be one of the rare pre-release screenings for the film. I can understand that as old school journalists might not truck to this film like the Internet might, having grown up on Red Meat City. I am hoping there’s enough there to push it to the top, but the film might not have the muscle. At least there’s not much of worth opening against it.
So here’s my top five:
1. Rambo - $17.2 Million
2. Cloverfield - $13.6 Million
3. 27 Dresses - $13.5 Million
4. Meet the Spartans - $10.2 Million
5. Juno - $9.2 Million
Untraceable could chart over both the four and the five. But I’ve got guns and I’m sticking to them. Sunday will answer all your questions.