Allegories of post-Fordism in 1970s New Hollywood: Countercultural combat films, conspiracy thrillers as genre-recycling Drehli Robnik



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Allegories of post-Fordism in 1970s New Hollywood: Countercultural combat films, conspiracy thrillers as genre-recycling
Drehli Robnik
in: Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, Noel King (Hg.): The Last Great American Picture Show. New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s. Amsterdam University Press 2004
This essay deals with some aspects of the New Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on non-canonized works among the war movies and conspiracy thrillers of that period, and on some related diagnostic, critical and historiographic discourses. One concern of this is how such accounts of New Hollywood, in the historically narrow sense of the term, can be related to our present media-cultural experience, and what meanings the films in question can be made to reveal in a retrospective, allegorizing approach – in short: how to remember New Hollywood circa 1970. The retrospective frameworks employed here are (fragments of) a genealogy of subjectivities and temporalities characteristic of post-Fordist social production (which is where issues of "flexibility" and "recycling" and arguments made by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri will come in), and the pre-history of today´s blockbuster-oriented American cinema – the one which we know as New Hollywood in a larger sense.
Hollywood´s crisis and the countercultural pressure: redefining purposeful action
In 1971, monogram film magazine published a dossier on contemporary Hollywood in which the latter's overproduction crisis was interpreted as a crisis of its cultural, ethical and aesthetic presuppositions – of the conceptions of narrative orientation and meaningful action underlying its products. Peter Lloyd saw Hollywood as being in "crisis and transition" and as blindly grasping at trends in the youth market, largely due to "the gradual collapse of the efficacy of the heroic individual in the American cinema".1 And Thomas Elsaesser pointed to massive differences between classical Hollywood´s "central protagonist with a cause, a goal, a purpose – in short, a motivation for action", and the "unmotivated hero" in recent films like Easy Rider (1969).2 The "crisis of motivation" became a key term in Elsaesser's 1975 diagnosis of the "pathos of failure" in American cinema during its contemporary transition from an "affirmative-consequential" conception of narrative action to an as yet undetermined mode. Referring mainly to New Hollywood's youth and road movies like Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Elsaesser wrote: "What the heroes bring to such films is the almost physical sense of inconsequential action, of pointlessness and uselessness, a radical scepticism, in short, about the American virtues of ambition, vision, drive."3
New Hollywood´s blocking of narrative goal-orientation was later summarised under the headlines negativity and nihilism by Chris Hugo. In his 1986 polemic retrospective view, Easy Rider again serves as the chief example for "the fashion for the supposed 'New Hollywood Cinema'" and its "beautiful loser" protagonists "who became, for a short period, the chief youth picture audience identification figures. They were the opposite to those characters in classic Hollywood pictures who found themselves able to take positive action in the world, because they showed a belief in the essential correctness of the dominant values that classic Hollywood cinema embraced." – "In general, the most frequent narrative strategy in Easy Rider could be summarised in terms of simply reversing the conventions of classic Hollywood from positive to negative. The central characters are passive, anti-social and goal-less."4
From a different perspective, Gilles Deleuze came to similar conclusions about 1970s New Hollywood (which he oddly subsumed under "post-war American cinema, outside Hollywood"). In 1983, he emphasized the failure of Hollywood´s action-oriented cinema to extricate itself other than negatively from its classical tradition. In Deleuze´s genea-logics of modern cinema, New Hollywood appeared as a dead end: to him, Altman´s "dispersive situations", the weak linkages between actions, perceptions and affects for instance in Scorsese, Easy Rider´s voyage form, detached from active and affective structures, or the no-win stories and loser heroes of Penn´s and Peckinpah´s neo-westerns were characteristic of a fundamental "crisis of the action-image" which coincided with the crisis of the "American Dream".5
In Deleuze´s latter formulation, a larger historical context in which to situate New Hollywood is invoked rather passingly. Elsaesser´s version of what one could call the "failure argument" indicates more specifically how to frame this critical moment of American cinema culturally and politically: to Elsaesser, the pathos of failure, as the predominant narrative stance of New Hollywood´s youth movies, reflects "the moral and emotional gestures of a defeated generation" and "the experience of a rebellion whose impulse towards change aborted".6 In the mid-1970s, New Hollywood´s inability to offer a narratively and ethically efficient substitute for the goal-oriented narratives and heroic subjectivities it had broken with could be read as a symptom of the defeat of the 1960s countercultures. But in the same period, a less pessimistic picture of this relationship was also possible: In an article on "New Hollywood Cinema" which in parts responded to Elsaesser´s critique of the pathos of failure, Steve Neale rated the impact of "the youth and students movement" and of "countercultures and ideologies generally" on Hollywood in more positive terms: "The very pressure of these groups and ideologies meant that the media had to 'give' at some point (even if this largely resulted in recuperation): Hollywood, certainly by the mid-1960´s, was the weakest point."7 While differing in their evaluations, both Elsaesser´s and Neale´s views imply that with Hollywood´s short-lived orientation towards the (broadly) countercultural value-system of educated urban youth audiences, there is more at stake than just the marketing task of finding entertainment formulas for a preferred target group.
I want to address the question of social pragmatics and subjectivities underlying New Hollywood´s images and narratives, i.e., the conception of purposeful action that gives cultural meaning to these movies and allows them to be placed in a larger historical framework. I suggest that by taking New Hollywood´s countercultural dimension, commodified as it may be, seriously and by slightly shifting the film references to less canonized productions, the familiar "failure narrative" about New Hollywood can be reworked into a historical success story. To put it less teleologically, I attempt to revisit the crisis of Hollywood´s action-image circa 1970 and to identify symptoms of the emergence of a new conceptualization of purposeful, productive action. What distinguishes American industrial cinema circa 1970 from earlier versions of a "new" or "post-classical" Hollywood8 is, to a large extent, its youth- and countercultural orientation. The latter´s negative gestures of refusal – a refusal (or inability) to perpetuate classical Hollywood´s affirmative-consequential narrative, generic and ethical norms of action, or a nihilism that "simply revers[es] the conventions of classic Hollywood practice from positive to negative", as Hugo put it9 – can be seen as preconditions of a positive, innovative moment.
Some concepts and perspectives suited to this kind of re-evaluation can be found in the genealogy of post-Fordism contained in Michael Hardt´s and Antonio Negri´s political theory of Empire. Hardt and Negri highlight a historical success of the 1960s youth and countercultures, in that these movements´ creativity in inventing new social subjectivities and standards of purposeful, productive action has been the driving force of capitalism´s shift away from Fordist discipline: "[...T]he 'merely cultural' experimentation had very profound political and economic effects. [...] The youth who refused the deadening repetition of the factory-society invented new forms of mobility and flexibility, new styles of living. [...] [T]he indexes of the value of the movements – mobility, flexibility, knowledge, communication, cooperation, the affective – would define the transformation of capitalist production in the subsequent decades."10
What follows is neither an attempt to annex New Hollywood to a history of anti-disciplinary resistance nor a contribution to a theory of countercultures.11 Rather, I will first of all employ flexibility and affectivity as key terms to highlight American cinema´s role in an overall culture-driven redefinition of capitalist production – of what counts as purposeful active behavior productive of meaning and value, as well as of the social production of subjectivity in Hardt´s and Negri´s sense. My notion of a New Hollywood that explores these pragmatics and ethics is connected to the Benjaminian understanding of the cinema as a mass-cultural "rehearsal" of modernization, and to Jonathan Beller´s provocative equation of cinema and capital as modes of producing and organising experience. As Beller claims in his Benjamin- and Deleuze-inflected argument, "cinema may be taken as a model for the many technologies which in effect take the machine off the assembly line and bring it to the body in order to mine it for labor power (value)." Cinema thus "functions as a kind of discipline and control akin to previous methods of socialization by either civil society or the labor process (e.g., Taylorization)"; it is "the potential cutting and splicing of all aspects of the world to meet the exigencies of flexible accumulation and to develop new affects."12 The formation of Empire´s post-Fordist regime of production – in which distinctions between economy and culture as well as between productive and unproductive labor become contingent13 – emphasizes cinema´s explorative role in processes of socialization as mediatization and capitalization. In Beller, "capital cinema" performs a "tapping of energies", a globalization of capital which is "less a geographical project and more a matter of capturing the interstitial activities and times between the already commodified endeavors of bodies. Every movement and every gesture is potentially productive of value."14
The first half of this chapter suggests a (retrospective) look at New Hollywood´s part in this redefinition and re-evaluation of productive action: along with the crisis and failures of motivated, goal-oriented and purposeful action, I demonstrate that the American cinema circa 1970 also reveals lines of flight pointing from disciplined pragmatics and subjectivities to flexible and affective ones. My examples come from a genre which usually makes one think of rigid discipline rather than of New Hollywood: the American war movie – rendered flexible in its encounter with the countercultures.
Hippies at war: explorations of flexibility in M*A*S*H, The Dirty Dozen and Kelly´s Heroes
There is one American war movie which is generally considered to be a New Hollywood classic. Anticipating the noisy dispersiveness of situations and the crumbling of linear narratives in Robert Altman´s later work, M*A*S*H (1969) seems to plainly confirm the failure argument put forward by Elsaesser, Hugo or Deleuze. However, it is only from the vantage point of disciplined storytelling and behavior that the narrative stuttering and idle motion in M*A*S*H, its protagonists´ digressive escapades and extravagant self-fashioning appear as symptoms of nihilism or collapse. Pauline Kael´s review of the film offered a different interpretation, in terms that seem to echo and reverse some of the later New Hollywood criticism in advance: "The movie isn´t naive, but it isn´t nihilistic, either." – "[I]t´s hip but it isn´t hopeless."15 The soldier protagonists´ "[a]dolescent pride in skills and games – in mixing a Martini or in devising a fishing lure or in golfing", all those micro-actions which would be written off as meaningless, disturbing or at best ornamental within a classical narrative economy of the genre, were seen by Kael as manifesting a new pragmatic orientation: "[P]eople who are loose and profane and have some empathy – people who can joke about anything – can function, and maybe even do something useful, in what may appear to be insane circumstances."16 In M*A*S*H, the possibility of useful, productive action and of a socially functioning sense of self depends on the protagonist´s playful culturalization of work routine and undisciplined communication under conditions of industrialized warfare. Sight and Sound´s reviewer of M*A*S*H also hinted at the very usefulness of integrating jocularity and profanity into the military labor process and drew from the film a lesson in flexibilization: "[..I]f there´s one moral that can safely be drawn from the succession of gags and incidents which provide the film´s sprawling narrative structure, it´s that inflexible attitudes to war (chauvinistic, religious, bureaucratic or heroic) lead straight to the strait-jacket."17
Following Jeanine Basinger´s historical "anatomy" of the American "World War II combat film", one can place M*A*S*H (a "service comedy" set in the Korean War rather than an outright combat film) at the culmination point of the narrative abstractions, revisions and sometimes parodic inversions which Hollywood´s war movie genre underwent in the late 1960s. Two of the films which Basinger subsumes under that period´s revisonist "dirty group movies" warrant a closer look in the context of my flexibilization argument in relation to New Hollywood. Seen from Basinger´s genre-formalist point of view, Robert Aldrich´s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Brian G. Hutton´s Kelly´s Heroes (1970), the former a major box-office success, exemplify the popularity during the 1960s of the war movie´s "commando raid" variant which highlights attack missions carried out by small, specialized "maverick units" in World War II.18
In The Dirty Dozen, a US Army major (Lee Marvin) is ordered to train twelve soldiers, who have been sentenced to death or long prison terms as criminals, for a special mission: in exchange for suspension of their sentences, they are to raid a chateau used as a brothel by the German military and kill as many generals as they can. Basinger emphasizes the "dirtiness" of these skilled combat workers and interprets their training process and the tricks they play on the US military establishment in terms which reflect, at the level of genre, the notion of Hollywood´s action-image in crisis. Pointing to the negativity of the film´s goal-orientation in contrast to traditional combat film ethics, she reads The Dirty Dozen as being about criminal tendencies put to work inside the system, about fudging its rules and "playing dirty".19 Sight and Sound´s reviewer of The Dirty Dozen saw the film as displaying many "surface elements of more honest war films, but without the accompanying moral justification. The effect is arguably less a broadening of scope for the entertainment film than a devaluation of useful currency."20 These accounts are versions of the failure argument: they invoke the "devaluation" of genre´s meaning-making capacities, or at best a "subversion" of the genre, which Basinger links to anti-Vietnam war sentiments strong among Hollywood´s youth audiences, thus acknowledging the countercultural impact on late 1960s American cinema.

The Dirty Dozen´s disruption of the moral and disciplinary norms underlying the narrative motivation and orientation of action in classical war movies might, however, be seen as negative preconditions for an exploration of new use values with respect to purposeful, productive action. Such a perspective brings to the fore a creative (as opposed to merely "subversive") dimension of the film´s address to – broadly defined – countercultural and anti-establishment audience positions. If, to quote once more from Sight and Sound´s review, in The Dirty Dozen "no effort is spared in establishing this assortment of recalcitrants, morons and psychopaths as a bunch of likeable characters, and the more they work as a team the more likeable they become", then the important point about this "unholy teamwork" (as Basinger puts it) is just that it is teamwork.21
Much of the narrative goal-orientation of Aldrich´s film as well as of its humourous and spectacular appeal is derived from the broadly displayed training process, especially its tactics of forging a team-identity alternative to the strategies of the military establishment.22 The unusual training methods of Lee Marvin´s character explore and mine the usefulness of subjectivities, energies and types of behavior which would be wasted by the rationality of the Army´s disciplinary labor regime. With its stress on unconventional (not just duty-based) motivation for the trainees and on their special, highly flexible skills at "project-oriented work", the concept of purposeful action underlying the film points towards a new, post-Fordist economy with its normalization of flexible social subjectivities.23 What we can see anticipated in the film is the cohesive team-spirit and self-management of "professional subcultures" in performing non-routine tasks (to use the language of the "cultural turn" in post-1970 management theories), a system of production based on the "social capital" of affective labor, tacit knowledge and undisciplined communication (to put it in terms of recent Marxist work on post-Fordism).24
Understood as an index of a new productivity and sociality, the very dirtyness of the dozen is an aspect of the culturalization of team labor as well as of the film´s address to anti-establishment sensibilities within its audience. The key moment in the trainees´ self and collective team differentiation is when they proudly refuse to wash and shave with cold water and prefer to remain dirty and grow beards instead. When one of Marvin´s superiors threatens to have the dirty dozen bathed and shaved against their will, the scene is reminiscent of a late 1960s cliché (referenced, for instance, in Easy Rider) about the way representatives of hegemonic culture and social discipline would want to treat hairy, filthy hippies if given the chance. With its display of the soldiers´ rock-band type looks as a trademark of the film´s spectacle-values, this scene is one of the moments which might situate The Dirty Dozen in a closer connection to New Hollywood´s early youth movies than its generic affiliation would seem to warrant.25 While Ed Guerrero perceives a certain "black power" sentiment expressed by a scene during the commando raid, in which African-American football-star turned actor Jim Brown scores high in throwing hand grenades into ventilator shafts to blow up German officers26, I think that The Dirty Dozen addressed countercultural attitudes and aesthetic preferences mainly in rather general terms of an undisciplined pop lifestyle. This is also shown by the film´s featurette Operation Dirty Dozen (1967), in which – according to descriptions on the Internet Movie Database – Aldrich´s cast goes on another special mission, visiting Swinging London´s pubs and dance clubs during a break in the film´s shooting. "So we have this advertisement which emphasizes the mod scene of London", commented an IMDB user in 2001, "But this is most strange: essentially the Beatles and the new drug culture (strictly anti-war) are being used to promote a pro-war film!" Already in 1967, the Sight and Sound reviewer of The Dirty Dozen had been astonished by the fact that this war film "can appeal to hawks and doves alike".27
The latter formulation relies on what obviously was a trope widely used in critics´ descriptions of the hybrid audience appeal of some New Hollywood war movies. Contemporary reviews of Franklin J. Schaffner´s war movie-biopic Patton – Lust for Glory, a big box-office hit in 1970, describe the film as "a far-out movie passing as square", aimed at "hawks" and "doves" alike by a "Hollywood now firmly entreched behind the youth barricades".28 Seen in this perspective, countercultural influences render a mass-market genre product flexible – instead of subverting it. And while Lloyd cited Patton as one of the films in which "insanity" had replaced heroism in cinematic constructions of individual agency29, Hollywood´s promotional discourse preferred to have such post-heroic insanity interpreted as a positive force of social innovation: "Patton was a rebel. Long before it became fashionable. He rebelled against the biggest. Eisenhower. Marshall. Montgomery. Against the establishment – and its ideas of warfare." To Robert B. Ray, this movie tagline exemplified a "free exchange of plots and motifs" between an ideologically conservative "Right cycle" and a counterculturally appealing "Left cycle" within what he retrospectively called the "'New' American Cinema" of the late 1960s and early 1970s.30
In 1970, the flexible management of countercultural elements within the war film´s generic framework allowed the ostentatious integration of hippie lifestyle into the narrative and spectacle-values of a World War II combat film. Set in France in 1944, Kelly´s Heroes centers its overtly anachronistic toying with drop-out fashion and rhetorics on Oddball, the long-haired, bearded commander of a US Army tank unit, played by Donald Sutherland (who also featured among the Dirty Dozen and the socially skilled jokers of M*A*S*H). The film stresses Oddball´s penchant for taking things easy, his habit of calling disturbances "negative waves" and his comrades "maaan" or "baby", his unit´s love for Oriental music, their commune life-style and souped up tanks. In carnivalizing the US war machine, Kelly´s Heroes also draws on contemporary pop styles other than hippie: the Hell´s Angels look which Oddball´s men display wearing captured SS uniform parts at the end, or the spinning of a would-be pop hit by Lalo Schifrin (performed by The Mike Curb Congregation) in several versions throughout the film. Compared to a canonized counterculturally oriented film like Easy Rider, these elements correspond to a rather broad, mainstream understanding of hippie and drop-out aesthetics: thus, ridiculing the long-haired in the eyes of the short-haired seems to be part of Kelly´s Heroes´audience address as much as is winking at the youth market. More importantly, the integration of countercultural elements into a combat film functions not just as a distraction from its narrative trajectory or as a subversion of the genre, but rather highlights the usefulness of playful creativity to the goal-orientation of its action. For instance, Oddball´s unit achieves a triumphant victory by staging a surprise tank attack as a near-psychedelic multi-media performance, with loud country music and custom-made shells containing pink (instead of Jimi Hendrix´s purple) haze fired at the Germans; the scene seems to anticipate the figuration of high-tech warfare as aesthetic spectacle in Apocalypse Now (1979) – though with a reversed evaluation, stressing success by innovation rather than the insanity of war.31
A similar point can be made with respect to Kelly´s Heroes´ relation to European genre (or rather: formula-based) cinema. In the context of New Hollywood´s often noted susceptibility to influences from European cinema of the 1960s, The Wild Bunch (1969) has become the standard example for the impact of the Italian western on American movies. Whereas Peckinpah´s western is usually held to intensify the violence and cynicism of Spaghetti westerns to the point of insanity and self-destruction, Kelly´s Heroes feeds its even more overt stylistic and narrative borrowings from Sergio Leone into a success story. With its more or less dirty group of GIs going AWOL and advancing into enemy territory to steal a gold treasure from the Germans for personal gain, the film transfers the plot-motif of treasure-hunting between the front-lines from the Civil War setting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) to World War II. While Kelly´s Heroes´ heist-plot can be regarded as a generic hybrid of combat and caper movie, the film quite explicitly acknowledges its debts to Leone: the scene in which the central gold-seeker trio Sutherland, Savalas and Clint Eastwood march to their confrontation with a German tank is a coarse allusion to the showdown (and to Ennio Morricone´s main-title theme) of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – the film which had propelled Eastwood to worldwide stardom four years before.
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