Thursday, January 22, 2015

the mind is the best weapon

(Before I get to Rambo tonight, there's this: earlier tonight in Media Theory and Criticism class, I got to talk about Groundhog Day. Went down a list of what our instructor calls Classic Hollywood Cinema criteria, matched up Groundhog Day to each one. Then, there were some followup questions--is it a Marxist film? is it a feminist film? something about Freudian psychoanalysis, something about class... and a few others--and the answers were easy. I told my instructor about this blog (or the first year of it, anyway) after class. He wants to read some entries. I'll have to figure out some good ones. Anyway, that's one more class I've included Groundhog Day in.)

In Rambo and the Dalai Lama, Gordon Fellman (1998) calls Rambo "the personalization of war, the reduction of it to its pure elements of men facing each other in all their anger, toughness, power, confusion, and fear" (p. 108). Fellman, in writing about First Blood, details the scene in which Rambo does not defend his ragged appearance to the local police. "...Rambo says nothing in his own defense. Acting as if he owes words to no one or as if he does not know how to use words or as if they are not effective in tight situations anyway..." (p. 109). That last bit is important because, yes, John Rambo is a man of action, not of words, even though he does say today's titular line to Murdock. Rambo is not only a man of action, though; he is a symbol for all men of action, a symbol for the very notion that actions speak louder than words, that force is perhaps the best way to get anything done. "Gone is the chance of mutual understanding," Fellman continues. Then, later: "A soldier is schooled in not explaining himself... To explain himself would be to acknowledge the possibility of misunderstanding, the chance that force is not the way to manage human encounter" (p. 110).

Force. American force. Masculine force. Still dealing with First Blood, Susan Jeffords in "The Reagan Hero: Rambo" suggests a couple notable point regarding masculinity in the film. Jeffords compares the physical form of Rambo to Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehey); Rambo's body is lean, muscular while Teasle's is, well, not. Jeffords argues: "Brian Dennehey was an excellent choice to play the part of Teasle, making Rambo's judge and opponent the possessor of a corpulent male body, which in its weakness and lack of stamina and self-assured fullness represents all that Rambo sets out to defeat" (p. 142). (Murdock is not as corpulent as Teasle but he has the lazy physicality of a guy who is little more than a bureaucrat, a guy who lies about his Vietnam experience to the one guy who he should know will know better.) How, though, is Rambo fighting this decaying masculinity? Is he fighting decaying masculinity?

In my cultural artifact speech about the character of Rambo just over five years ago, I equated the character of John Rambo to American Hegemony. Coming off the loss of Vietnam, he is a damaged creature in David Morrell's novel and the film adaptation of the same. (He is actually much more damaged in the novel, a near psychopathic killer who cannot survive the events of the novel.) But Americans embraced the character and his violence. With this film, Rambo becomes something more jingoist than contrary. But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

Jeffords argues--again, regarding First Blood--

If, this film argues, the masculine body is to be reclaimed, it will have to be done, not simply by reclaiming some value or usefulness for that body (for example, its serviceability in time of war), but by rejecting the corpulent body altogether, showing its uselessness and destructiveness even in time of peace. (p. 142)

And, this turns political in Jeffords, not just in my own argumentation about hegemony. She argues, referencing An Officer and a Gentleman as comparison:

The very plot of the film--how a no-good, flip, useless, and soft male body is changed into a triumphant, resilient, and determined heterosexual hard body--narrates the transformations promised by the Reagan presidency. The softened, pampered, and ill-trained male body will become, for the Reagan imaginary, the body of the Carter presidency, the body that was unable to defend its own country/its town/its values against outsiders. (ibid)

Rambo is the American male, as exemplified by the mythological cowboy--keep in mind, of course, that President Reagan has, as an actor, played a cowboy and was still, arguably, playing the cowboy as President--masculinity as primal force. Teasle and then Murdock--these are not men in the strictest cinematic sense. Not in any way that it counts, anyway. They've got the parts, sure, but do they know how to use them? Rambo wields guns, knives, and makeshift weapons he creates with his own hands to penetrate and injure the policemen of Hope, Washington. He knows how to use--and Clover (1992) would agree with this characterization, for sure--his phallic weapons. Jeffords (1994) hones in on the fact that we don't actually see any of Rambo's victims in First Blood actually die. "...the film requires that Rambo not kill these deputies," she argues, "first, because it would be difficult to maintain his characterization as a victim if he became a successful killer; and second, because helpless, screaming men far more effectively portray the consequences of a weakened masculinity than silent corpses do" (p. 143). Bergeson (2006) compares Rambo to Don Quixote, both men being "cultural icons of national decline." He argues that what he calls the "ideal/reality gap... at the heart of Don Quixote and the Rambo films may actually have a geopolitical origin in the early moments of hegemonic decline" (p. 57). This gap between what we believe we are and what we actually are, essentially, leave identities in question. The American male is something... new if American status as a world power is on the decline. To prove his masculinity--or for the nation to prove its power--he must lash out; it must lash out. Don Quixote and John Rambo both, Bergeson argues, are "actors acting on the basis of a hegemonic code, which is what chivalry is, when the material base of that hegemonic dominance is dissipating" (p. 58). Rambo's films (and Don Quizote's exploits) must be "about senseless violence to those who carry the code... and to all the other collateral otehrs who get in the way of the dated moral code, forcing reality to meet its needs" (ibid). That is to say, Rambo's victims in First Blood may be cops, his victims in Rambo: First Blood Part II may be Russians and Vietnamese, and more Russians in Rambo III and Burmese in Rambo, but these designations are arbitrary. Rambo--America--simply needs someone to kill. Convenience dictates that it be whoever we are actually fighting (at least after that initial burst of violence in First Blood), or whoever qualifies as an "evil" regime in the case of the Burmese in the fourth film, but really, it doesn't matter. The American male is slaughtering the foreigners, the scary Other. Like a bully reclaiming his dominance after an absence from the playground, the choice of victim (enemy) is arbitrary as long as it demonstrates our strength, our masculinity, our hegemony.

Works Cited

Bergeson, A.J. (2006). The Depth of Shallow Culture: The High Art of Shoes, Movies, Novels, Monsters, and Toys. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fellman, G. (1998). Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Jeffords, S. (1994). The Reagan hero Rambo. In R. Eberwein (Ed.), The War Film, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 140-154.

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