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This article was first published by Bright Lights Film Journal on January 16 2018 (http://brightlightsfilm.com/watch-it-again-society-brian-yuzna-1989/).

After nearly 30 years Society has become a perfect film for the age of Trump.

A withering satire on the American dream Yuzna’s film deserves to be rediscovered as one of the most odd, interesting and radical of American horrors. Hiding under the guise of a teen horror is an attack on the myth of the classless society, a (quite literal at times) peeling back of Reagan’s America in which growing inequality is dressed up in Hollywood gloss. Its message, that the rich operate a closed society in which they exploit the rest of America, has now become more relevant than ever.

As an outsider looking in America’s dedication to seeing itself as a classless society has often seemed a little absurd. From the UK, where class pretty much defines everything, the stratification of America in terms of class looks strangely familiar. Despite this a recurrent desire to define America as a society in which everyone is effectively middle class continues. Trump’s ascension is the story of man living off inherited wealth using rhetoric to de-class himself to appeal to disaffected, and often laid-off, manual workers. That this worked, despite the fact that he is exactly the type of asset stripper and outsourcer responsible for the economic status quo, demonstrates the power of myth in society. Whatever the particular niceties of Trump’s ability to make himself seem like a “regular guy” it’s a well-worn trope of American culture that he tapped into, one that turned against Hilary Clinton tainted, as she is, with the whiff of elitism.

This unwillingness to confront class divisions extends into American cinema, where the American dream is consistently reinforced and class is hardly ever a barrier for those who want to work hard. In many ways the Rocky franchise stands as the apotheosis of the myth of a culture in which everyone gets their shot at the title. Social mobility, we are repeatedly told, is available to all just as long as you work hard enough. The success of Stallone, and his 1980s rival Schwarzenegger, reinforced this myth as much as their films did – the self-created stars who through force of mind and body could transcend their poor origins to rise to the peak of Hollywood success.

For most, of course, this never happens. For every success there are numerous hard working people buying into the dream and never getting anywhere. In Society this exclusion from getting on is transformed into a world where the rich are not just different, they’re not human, and they literally feed off the poor.

Having made some waves in horror as producer of Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985) and From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986), both based on Lovecraft and both employing body horror, Yuzna took a decidedly left turn with his directorial debut – it’s truly a film like no-other. Yes, it supplies the body horror, ably created in all its sticky glory by Japanese effects expert Screaming Mad George, but it fuses it with teen movie, conspiracy thriller and absurdist comedy in a way that would make Dr Herbert West proud.

On the surface Society plays on recurrent adolescent fears of entering adulthood, especially in the realms of sexual relations. In many horror films, especially in the Slasher sub-genre, anxieties faced by the adolescent are dramatized; the killer, or monster, which must be conquered stands in for the desires/fears that need to be repressed for successful entry into the symbolic order. That the monster has a sexual ambiguity to it has been noted and extensively examined (particularly by Carol Clover). In many respects Society follows this formula as it centres on Billy Whitney (Billy Warlock[i]) a High School student. Billy is popular, has a cheerleader girlfriend, and has recently acquired a new Jeep Wrangler. However, and though he visits a re-assuring psychiatrist, a tape recording shared with him by a fellow student, Blanchard,  reasserts Billy’s belief that there is something wrong with his family and their friends and, by extension, the wider high-class society he is part of but feels alienated from. Through various scenarios Billy’s paranoia develops until all is revealed – he is really a fatted calf, raised to be sacrificed in the Shunting, an orgy of twisted bodies where normal people are absorbed by the higher ups – judges, politicians and business leaders. It’s a hysterical sequence that paints the ruling class as sexual perverts who prolong their, possibly eternal, existence by draining life from the poor.

Under the guise of a teen horror Yuzna manages to twist familiar genre tropes in service of his political message. The high class setting immediately sets Society apart from other teen horrors of the era as it eschews the everyday nature of most where-in, such as in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) and Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), the main characters are located in a ‘regular’ neighbourhood, remarkable only in its interchangeableness with those in other teen horrors or in the isolated teen-spaces such as the camp, as in Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980). Society is also different in having a male protagonist rather than the final-girl that features in most, if not all, 1980s teen horrors  – a male teen idol who, for many, could stand in for wholesome values. Society plays a subversive game with genre, moving the familiar context to one which appears aspirational, and tied to mainstream ideas of success. The Whitney household is a Beverley Hills mansion, pristine and white, overtly displaying the wealth and advantages Billy expects to inherit – however his alienation from this lifestyle is evident from the beginning and is also encapsulated in his appearance: dark-haired when the rest of the family are blonde, shorter than his sister and school colleagues (he is literally looked down on by this ideal, Aryan, family). “They don’t even look like me” he tells Dr Cleveland, but the difference also suggests a paranoia that the film plays on, editing being used to undermine Billy’s gaze, replacing disturbing images with those that are more normal and asking the audience to question the reality placed before them.

The opening of the film foregrounds this willingness to be subversive and to blur boundaries between reality and fantasy. A typical dream sequence occurs in which Billy, clutching the classic slasher weapon of the kitchen knife, walks scared through his own house, only to be confronted by his mother all the while a female voice sings a haunting rendition of the Eton Boating Song (reminiscent of the use of nursery rhymes in the Elm Street series and tying the film to old-world class structures). The film cuts to the psychiatrist’s office where Billy confides his feelings of fear and dread to Dr Cleveland. Billy takes an apple and bites, revealing worms within. It’s an obvious but still potent symbol of the corruption under the skin in this supposed Eden. Then, adding another surreal layer, it cuts to a flash-forward of the Shunting, allowing us to see merged body parts, covered in a sticky fluid with muted moans as the Eton Boating Song Resumes with a new re-written lyric;

Oh how we all get richer
Playing the rolling game
Only the poor get poorer
We feed off them all the same
Then we’ll all sing together
To society we’ll be true
Then we’ll all sing together
Society waits for you

This layering is disconcerting in its denial of familiar tropes and the missing context for the images. Billy we can presume is the protagonist, but his circumstances straddle an umheimlich situation, wealth familiar from various soap-operas, commercials and glossy magazines, juxtaposed with paranoia, anxiety and mutated bodies. The lighting and Dutch-angle of the opening sequence situate the film firmly in the horror genre, but the following shots disturb the reassurance any generic recognition might bring.

Society also takes the metaphorical desires and problems of other teen-horrors clear and makes them obvious. Halloween, in its first person prologue, hints at incestual desire as Michael Myers kills his half-naked older sister immediately after she has had sex with her boyfriend. Society deliberately places Billy’s sister Jenny as a figure of desire, both for Billy and the spectator, in a scene where she showers. However as it foregrounds this desire, it simultaneously undermines and perverts it by suggesting an unnatural and impossible configuration of body parts; Jenny’s torso appears twisted so that both her breasts and buttocks appear through the frosted glass. This highlights one issue, the amorphous bodies of the Shunters, and also implies an incestual element to the gaze. In Elm Street the sins of the parents, in their killing of child murderer Freddy Kruger, is played out on the bodies of the teenagers while their parents exist in incompetent denial. In Society the parents are the sin, a secret hidden in plain sight, their bodies the site of perversion and horror.

The fluidity of the human body on display in Society differentiates it from earlier examples in the genre and is indicative of contemporary sexual politics, especially in light of the aids crisis during the 1980s. The Shunting sequence sees body parts swap place and people intertwine. Yuzna uses some of this for humour, Billy dad becoming a literal “Butt-head”, and some to push boundaries linked to sexual hysteria: the incest between Jenny and her mother, the gay kiss between Ferguson and Billy. Most pertinent is the emphasis on penetrability of the human body, especially the penetrative potential of the male anus, through which both Blanchard and Ferguson are killed. The merging of the human bodies that occur during the Shunting evokes the female body in several ways, not only in the representation of penetrability. Through a perverse eroticism is evident in Society, finding its apotheosis in the Shunting. Both objects of Billy’s desire, his sister and eventual love Clarissa, twist their bodies at the waist. The anus again becomes visible and accessible to the male. This homo-erotic anxiety pervades then throughout the film, initially played out on the bodies of women, then seen more obviously during the Shunting. It is Billy’s ability to avoid penetration, and his penetrating of Ferguson, that allows him to escape. This subverts his class role (as member of the under-class) but disavows the homo-sexual eroticism from earlier in the text.

The sexual anxieties that run through the film connect directly to the class rules of American society in which the majority are encouraged to live sexually “normal” lives of heterosexual monogamy. The upper orders are free to indulge their perversities safe in the knowledge that the Police will protect them, rounding Billy up in the film. Access to the higher sections of American society is prohibited too, Billy losing his High School election despite being the most popular student in School (which also costs him his girlfriend). All his entitlements are stripped away from him in the film as it becomes clear he is not one of “them”, his dream-life crumbling. Rounded up by the authorities Billy, and us, witness the Shunting, an orgy organised in honour of a Judge and attended by various figures from Washington in which Blanchard is drained of his nutrients. Finally Billy realises that he is adrift in a society he cannot enter and one that sees him as food, his paranoia is real – Society is designed to work against him. The end of the film leaves the status quo intact, the powers that support are to large to simply be undone by one man.

A flop on release in America (two years after production) Society found an audience in Europe where class divisions are more openly acknowledged. It deserves to be rediscovered in modern America as a radical departure from genre norms, but also as one the most searing critiques of the American Dream.

Works Cited

Clover, Carol (1993) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London: BFI Publishing.

[i] Warlock’s casting adds an intertextual meaning due to his role in The Days of Our Lives preceding Society. The long running soap-opera features the aspirational life-style satirized in Society.

Full disclosure: Cobra is not a good or interesting film in any of the traditional ways. It lacks narrative coherence; the story is bare to non-existent, and the performances are largely one-note. It is, however, a film that allows us to explore how the audience can be employed in the creation of meaning; in fact I’d go as far to suggest that the audience makes the film themselves due to it being a thoroughly disjointed film; the spectator becomes the main agent of meaning culling from their own understanding of genre, narrative and various intertexts in an act of creative spectatorship. In this it emerges as a key action text of the 1980s, telling us just how tuned into the genre action fans were.

To say that Cobra was critically unloved on its release would be something of an understatement. Nina Darnton, in The New York Times, suggested that the film was “disturbing for the violence it portrays” and showed “contempt for the most basic American values embodied in the concept of fair trial”. Sheila Benson, in the Los Angeles Times, cited the films “pretentious emptiness, its dumbness, it’s two-faced morality”. David Denby went even further titling his New York Magazine review “Poison”, and comparing Cobra to Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), citing the former’s lack of “the peculiar sad gravity that Clint Eastwood gave him.” None of this seemed to harm Cobra’s box office, with it gaining $49 million in the US alone (ww.boxofficemojo.com), and totalling $160 million worldwide (Fisher, 2016), helping to continue Stallone’s profitable run at the box-office (although it did show a significant drop from the less explicitly violent Rocky and Rambo films).

Revisiting the film now, one wonders why the reviewers were so worried as it’s such a disjointed and unbelievable film that its clearly addresses its audience in a self-conscious post-modern and shallow manner, to the point where it becomes sort of sub-Brechtian in its emptiness (although politically it’s about as far from Brecht as you can get in its continual celebration, and destruction, of consumer products). The critical comparisons to Dirty Harry are revealing as it’s in this that Cobra starts to come alive as a film, drawing much of it’s meaning from the earlier film series (it’s also notable that Dirty Harry was decried in similar ways on release). The opening of the film directly imitates the second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973), both culminating in the hero’s gun firing out of the screen at the audience (immediately breaking the fourth wall and puncturing any claims to an immersive experience). The conflict between Cobretti (Stallone) and his superiors is lifted almost directly from the Dirty Harry films, but is subverted somewhat by the casting of Andrew Robinson who played the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. Here, as Detective Monte, he continually challenges Cobretti – suggesting that the audience, upon recognition of Robinson’s distinctive face and voice should conclude that if that psycho thinks Cobretti is too violent, he must be heavier than Harry Callahan. Casting Reni Santini as Cobretti’s partner is a direct call-back to the almost identical role he played in Dirty Harry, both characters even being called Gonzales (the only discernible difference in the performances is a hat). The film sutures together the plots of the Dirty Harry films (excluding The Dead Pool, released in 1988) – the psychotic killer of Dirty Harry (now The Night Stalker), the fascist group from Magnum Force merges with the terrorist group of The Enforcer (James Fargo, 1976), with elements of the romantic relationship in Sudden Impact (the character of the turncoat cop Stalk in Cobra also looks very similar to unpleasant lesbian stereotype Ray in Sudden Impact (Clint Eastwood, 1983)). At this point the film is directly drawing from these films in a very knowing manner, clearly assuming that the audience knows the other texts – this knowledge functions as a series of narrative and characterisation short cuts. Exposition is barely required as the audience is already aware of how this narrative will play out – the opening action scene, in a supermarket, imitates similar Dirty Harry scenes, without requiring any sense of location or time – it is enough that a crime has occurred. Ritualistically we expect Cobretti to arrive and solve the problem, which he duly does, so no suspense or tension is created or necessary. It becomes a scene entirely designed to showcase how much dirtier Cobretti is than Harry (Cobretti wears his mirrored shades all the way through the scene; he pauses to sip from a Coors; his killer also has a bomb; he has his own catchphrase “You’re the disease, I’m the cure.”) Thus, the film works on a ritualistic and generic level, playing out exactly as expected in some ways, despite some particularly curious directional choices we’ll come to.

On an intertextual level it’s also worth discussing how the films’ studio backing primes the audience for the content. As both a product of The Cannon Group and Warner Brothers (as distributor) the studio logos that start the film suggest an uneasy nexus point between one studio known for cheap exploitation/action pictures and another with a rich history but also, during the 1980s, a skewing towards action films (Warner’s would in 1988, after all, give the world the dubious gift of Steven Seagal). Of course, the Warner link pulls straight back to Dirty Harry, whereas the Cannon group evokes the world of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and ultra-violent fayre like The Exterminator II (Mark Buntzman, 1984). Given the strength of the growing home-video market Cannon had become well-known, if not infamous, to audiences but the Warner Bros. logo gives the film a sheen of quality (original trailers trade on the Warner logo more than the Cannon connection).  It’s also one of the first 80s action films to be set at Christmas, beating Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to the punch. Not that the Christmas setting has much purpose, other than occasional pans over nativity scenes or Christmas trees incongruous to the sunny LA setting, perhaps left over from the previous years Cannon action ‘epic’ Invasion USA (Joseph Zito, 1985).

The opening narration sets the tone for the film, but also a premise from which the subsequent action is contextualised to make sense;

In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes and 250 rapes a day.

With this, delivered in Stallone’s familiar drawl, the justification of all the violence that subsequently occurs is drawn (ironically Cobretti kills way more people than The Night Stalker manages). It’s worth noting that during 1986 there was an upswing in homicide (Wilkerson, 1987) but also that Cobra draws no attention to causes – the film exists in a Manichean universe in which archetypes, far removed from reality, battle.

After the voice-over opening and before the first action sequence the first of several montages plays out which are directed in an almost surreal manner, bearing more comparison to the work of Eisenstein in the juxtaposition of images than in a typical Stallone/Rocky training sequence. These contextless disconnected images of men clashing axes together, tattoos, graffiti and a motorbike are intercut rapidly giving the audience all the introduction to the films far-right group they’ll ever get or need (their politics almost subliminally suggested through their skull and axe logo). But of course, the audience needs no more introduction, it’s enough that these people exist to be opposed. A second montage, in which both Cobretti and The Night Stalker search for murder witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen), set to Robert Tepper’s Angel of the City, cuts between protagonist and antagonist and Ingrid during a bizarre fashion shoot in which she drapes herself around various robotic creations – it introduces some almost avant-garde imagery into proceedings for no discernible purpose.  Ingrid’s career, as a model, indicates her purpose in the film – beautiful object, nothing more.

From here the film proceeds much as one would expect, it just seems to lack many of the elements of character and dialogue any competently made Hollywood movie would have. Much of this relates to the disputed direction of the film, with some claiming that Stallone directed the film himself (when he wasn’t busy off set consummating his recent marriage to Nielsen). He certainly wrote the film (as much as it has a script) ditching any part of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling on which it is nominally based. It also has a troubled post-production with numerous cuts being made to secure an R-rating and to increase showings, removing around 30 minutes of material. Although this editing creates numerous continuity errors it plays into the audience’s ownership of the narrative, making them work to film in the gaps and the cuts remove the superfluous elements that the audience knows anyway.

And then there’s the hero, Stallone’s Marion Cobretti first-named, one assumes, in tribute to John Wayne (at one-point Stallone spins his semi-automatic Colt, with cobra picture on the grip, round his finger despite the fact this would, in all likelihood, result in him shooting himself). Even by Stallone’s standards his performance is low key, a sleepy re-tread of previous performances marked only by his continued wearing of gloves and innovative way of eating pizza (watch it, it’s very odd). Cobra exists purely as a series of attitudes, instead of a performance per se. The romance, between Cobra and key witness Ingrid), is particularly pallid but is part of where the film extends out from film and into Stallone’s real life – the fact that they were married in real life creates the sense that they’re a couple, so small details such as chemistry or interplay are moot. Similarly, the serial killing, far-right leaning, villain is played by Brian Thompson who bears a resemblance to Stallone’s great box-office rival Arnold Schwarzenegger (who himself was, for a time, dogged by rumours of far-right leanings and an admiration for Hitler (Left, 2003)). Again, the lack of characterisation is subverted through the casting, reaching into Stallone’s own life as a short-cut.

Scratch away at Cobra and one finds various palimpsests – the Dirty Harry films, Stallone’s own life and career, the Cannon imprint – and these are essential for understanding the film’s popularity. On its own it’s an incoherent piece, but as an intertextual construction it starts to make a certain amount of sense. It is Stallone’s life and career up to that point culminating on screen, taking aim at one of his direct progenitors while jabbing at the current competition. It remains, in most respects, quite a bad film but it’s one that highlights how the audience can be engaged beyond the text itself to create narrative and meaning – it’s a film that operates in the audience’s understanding of narrative and archetypes, allowing such niceties as character and plot development to be dismissed.

 

Works Cited

Darnton, Nina (1986) Film: Sylvester Stallone as Policeman, in Cobra. The New York Times. May 24.

Benson, Sheila (1986) Move Review: The ‘Cobra’ That Saves L.a. Los Angeles Times. May 24.

Denby, David (1986) Poison. New York Magazine. June 9.

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=cobra.htm [accessed 13/06/18]

Fisher, Kieran (2016) Cobra at 30: saluting a Stallone action treat. [online] http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/movies/cobra/40861/cobra-at-30-saluting-a-stallone-80s-action-treat [accessed 13/06/2018]

Wilkerson, Isabel (1987) URBAN HOMICIDE RATES IN U.S. UP SHARPLY IN 1986. The New York Times [online]. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/15/us/urban-homicide-rates-in-us-up-sharply-in-1986.html [accessed 15/06/2018]

Left, Sarah (2003) Arnie Denies Admiring Hitler. The Guardian. 3 October. [online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/oct/03/usa.sarahleft [accessed 14.06.2018]

Coming soon from Cinephiles Press – He Disagreed with Something that Ate Him, a critical reading of Timothy Dalton’s two Bond films The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987) and Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989).

Press Release Info:

He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him analyses the two James Bond films starring Timothy Dalton made in 1987 and 1989. Critically overlooked and often seen as a misstep for the series the author argues that both films are a unique contribution to the series and form an important dialogue with the rest of the franchise.

By placing the films within the context of the Bond series and the works of Ian Fleming, Cary Edwards argues that The Living Daylights and, in particular, Licence to Kill, are a radical attempt to return Bond to his literary origins, while aiming the film franchise towards a more adult audience.

 

This paper was originally presented to London Film & Media 2011, and published in The London Film and Media Reader 1.

The Vigilante Thriller

This essay considers the condemnatory and heavily ideological critical reactions to a cycle of US vigilante thrillers from the 1970s. The cycle includes Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971), The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). A common accusation was that the films were ‘fascist’, made by ‘fascists’, or liable to encourage ‘fascism’ in the film audience. This was not a label that was necessarily rejected by all the film-makers – certainly Sam Peckinpah enjoyed baiting reviewers and interviewers with a series of abrasive, and often, contradictory statements – but the consistency of this criticism highlights an anxiety in the critical reactions about the meanings of these films and, on closer inspection, the meanings of the violence they portray.

Although the critical writings are an important reaction to the texts, discourse analysis reveals a series of inconsistencies and contradictions in their assumptions about the ways in which a film can be watched. Rather than relying on these critical responses alone to guide us in terms of spectator reaction, we should instead be analysing what Ellis terms the ‘narrative image’,

“an idea of the film [that] is widely circulated and promoted … the cinema industry’s anticipatory reply to the question ‘what is this film like?’” 1

It is important to investigate how this element of para-text fixes, or aims to fix, the spectator’s experience, since the narrative image is also essential in fixing the modality of the film text. Following Hodge and Tripp, ‘modality’ is being used here in the sense that it “concerns the reality attributed to a message.”2

This has specific implications for the reception of film violence, and it is the understanding of violence that I wish to concentrate on in this essay. These distinctions were missed by contemporary critics, who ignored the concept of modality, tended to see film violence as a singular issue, and recycled basic tropes about the effect that film violence might have on the audience. Despite the consistency of the critical reaction to these films, the narrative image of each film suggests a range of spectator positions. The desire to elide these films on the part of contemporary critics, on the other hand, signals a wish to simplify the spectator experience and ignores the shifting relationship that a spectator can have in relation to several connected but different texts.

Critical Reactions: The Politics of Violence

Even a cursory glance at the American and British popular press reaction to these films reveals two central concerns, both of which are linked to the possible effect of the films on the audience and the wider implications for society. The first concern, highlighted more by the American critics than the British, is the suggestion that these films convey and promote a fascist sensibility. The second concern, which is present on both sides of the Atlantic, concerns the portrayal of violence. This is often linked to a perceived increase in the amount of violence being portrayed in film, the explicitness of the violence, and the sense that the films in question encourage the spectator in turn to be violent.

Pauline Kael’s critical reaction to the films exemplifies the general tone of the reviews. For Kael, Straw Dogs is a “fascist work of art”3 that presents the “triumph of a superior man”. Dirty Harry is a “right wing fantasy” that attacks “liberal values” and draws out the “fascist potential” of its genre4. The French Connection, for its part, features “the latest model sadistic cop”5. Gareth Epps draws wider conclusions from Straw Dogs, The French Connection and Dirty Harry such as

“it has been obvious for a long time that American filmmakers are unable to deal with the politics of the left in any recognizable way”6 .

These films, he suggests, are symptomatic of a wider right-wing tendency in Hollywood. He adds that “recent American films have begun to show a frightening sophistication in at least one area of politics – the half-world of sadism and authoritarianism which is the breeding ground of the fascist mentality”. The accusation that the films are characterised by ‘fascist’ ideology betrays an anxiety in the reviewers towards the shifting political landscape in America through the 1960s and into the 1970s.

The effects of the Vietnam War on the collective American consciousness cannot, of course, be ignored. However the shifts in civil rights movements, crime and policing are also important here. The elements that were picked out from these films and directly linked to fascism included the representations of masculinity, race and violence. From a didactic point of view, however – and many of these reviews and reactions were written in a didactic mode – there is a recurrent flaw, namely an inability to define exactly what fascism is. Its recurrent use as a blanket term in reaction to these films shows a remarkable inconsistency in its application, and also a sense that the word is being used as a short-cut, a way of marking a text as unacceptable, with no underlying understand of the word and its political/philosophical application.

Critical Reactions: Violence and Spectatorship

If fascism is one recurrent way of condemning these films, the other anxiety that emerges is the meanings and implications of violence in the films. As has been noted elsewhere, the depiction of violence in American cinema changed radically in the 1960s and 70s. There are various reasons for this, including the influence of non-American films, and the eventual dissolution of the Hays code. More important perhaps was the shift in the representation of violence on television where, from the shooting of LeeHarvey Oswald by Jack Ruby to the reports from the front line in Vietnam, violence was being shown more often and more explicitly.

Of course this form of violence, presented in news programmes, has an inherently high modality despite its mediated nature. In this atmosphere of a shifting depiction of violence, combined with a greater perception of violence in society through rising crime rates and civil unrest, the implications of watching – and more importantly enjoying – film violence became a point of anxiety for contemporary critics. The reviews of Taxi Driver generally avoided the same ideological criticism as the other films and one wonders if this is linked to the potential audience for such a film. Kael suggests, in reviewing The French Connection, that

“Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen”7.

It is clear that a strain of elitism has entered the critical reaction here.

The New York Times felt the need to send reporter Judy Klemesrud to a theatre to gauge reaction to Death Wish, asking “What do they see in ‘Death Wish’?”. Klemesrud interviewed audience members and “Three mental health professionals” in the course of her quest.8 I think it’s important here to highlight the suggested opposition in that headline – “they” are clearly not “us”, “us” referring to those sophisticated enough to read the New York Times. Across many reviews and articles on both sides of the Atlantic there is a clear fear concerning the possible impact of a text on a supposedly less sophisticated audience.

These reactions were not without their contradictions. Charles Barr, for instance, noted the differences between the British critical reaction to Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971). 9 His conclusion, that the reaction differed because of the way in which violence was presented by each film – for example, by the use of telephoto lenses in Straw Dogs compared to the use of wide angle lenses in A Clockwork Orange – signals the inconsistency in the criticism of films marked as violent.

Stylistic distinctions are then critical, Barr argues, for understanding the ways in which the films operate: Minute-for-minute, A Clockwork Orange contains more instances of violence than Straw Dogs, but Straw Dogs does not allow the spectator the luxury of remaining distant through the use of the wide-angle lens. The fear of what Straw Dogs implied for cinema and the audience nonetheless moved thirteen British critics to write to The Times to decry the film’s certification, expressing their “revulsion” at the film and its marketing.10 In other reactions we see a clear perceived link between the film text and possible audience reaction (The Guardian, for example, felt strongly enough to send a reporter to New York to examine how Death Wish was inspiring American traditions of gun ownership).

The underlying fear in many of the critical reactions was that the audience, having watched the film, would themselves become vigilantes. That the critics themselves didn’t burst out of auditoria and beat up some muggers seems to have escaped their attention. Moving away from the discourse concerning the supposed effects of film violence we also encounter an inconsistency among critics to accurately differentiate between different types of violence, an inability to recognise the difference between the nature of the act being represented, and the method of its representation.

Modality and Narrative Image

The elision that the contemporary critics made between these films ignores the importance of the narrative image in conditioning the modality of the spectator’s engagement. Even if we acknowledge the polysemic nature of film texts and their para-texts, dominant themes from the marketing of the films suggest ways in which the spectator is primed to watch and respond to a text. The narrative image tells us the frame of mind in which a spectator receives a film; this in turn suggests a level of modality in which the spectator will receive the film violence. To suggest that all film violence can be measured the same way is to ignore the differing modalities of films. In short, not all film violence is equal.

The decision the spectator makes about whether to watch a film will often rest on several factors. One of the key elements is the marketing and promotional material of the film. When examining these for each film we see that they suggest several different ways in which to receive and understand the violence of the films, something typically ignored by the critics. We may thus conceive of the spectator as having a personal and private relationship with a film that takes place within the cinema, but we should also acknowledge that the spectator’s experience of the film begins with several para-textual factors that help condition their subsequent experience.

Take, for instance, the use of violence in the poster imagery for the films. Straw Dogs, whose central image is a close-up of Dustin Hoffman with one lens of his glasses broken, signals violence, but also the effect of violence on the protagonist. The French Connection uses a still of ‘Popeye’ Doyle shooting a suspect in the back as its main image. Dirty Harry concentrates on the persona of Clint Eastwood (but also the duality between the two main characters), while Death Wish uses the image of Charles Bronson. Taxi Driver’s central image, of a lost and isolated Travis Bickle posed in front of a New York street scene locates an alienated figure in a world of degradation.

This image for Taxi Driver places the spectator in a very different relationship to the violence of the text than the other posters. By not signalling the violence but concentrating on the alienation of the protagonist (in effect hiding the violence), the poster prepares us for a film where acts of violence, when they do occur, have greater weight. The casting of De Niro (still relatively unknown at this point and thus ‘absorbed’ by his role in the film), and the setting of the film in real areas of New York, confer a high modality.

This is reinforced by the presentation of the violence in the film. This is not expected in the same way as in an Eastwood or Bronson film, where violence is an inherent part of the experience. Indeed the marketing of both Dirty Harry and Death Wish so connects the characters to their actors as to create a direct intertextual link to their other films. In these circumstances film violence becomes a ritualised part of the cinematic experience. The French Connection, however, with its concentration on reality, linked to the oft-repeated information that the film was based on real events, suggests a higher modality for the film violence which it contains.

We are watching here a reproduction of real violence, not the heightened and stylised violence of an Eastwood or Bronson film. The ritualisation in Dirty Harry and Death Wish confers a lower modality on the violence, which has become part of the expected generic formula of the text, an inevitable and unsurprising element. Through its enigmatic title and ambiguous central image, on the other hand, Straw Dogs denies the spectator a secure sense of how violence will operate in the film.

Generic Contexts

The explicitness (or lack) of generic context creates other issues here. It has been noted, for instance, that both Dirty Harry and Death Wish bear relation to the Western film, in casting (the stars of both had previously appeared in successful Westerns), iconography and structure. Perhaps the relocation of the generic elements to a modern day location, stripping away the mythic trappings of the narrative, creates this discomfort around the violence.

The recognition of Western genre conventions in the narratives of Dirty Harry and Death Wish may confer a different level of modality than a film such as Taxi Driver, which has a less clear generic definition. The ritual of genre, the procession of structural and iconic elements, reminds the audience that what they are watching is a structured creation – when it runs true to form, the text offers much reassurance but little by way of surprise. This, I would propose, effectively lowers the modality.

Too often film violence is taken out of the context of reception. Film violence occurs within several frameworks, including the textual implications of narrative and genre. The narrative image of a film is explicit in its attempts to set up these elements for the spectator. Thus the debate about film violence should be embedded in not only the referential and aesthetic components of film violence, but also in analysis of the place that violence has within the contextual, paratextual and textual experience of the film. For contemporary critics of these films however, socio-political concerns of the day outweighed the specifics of the textual/para-textual experience.

Notes and References

1 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge, 1982, p. 30.

2 Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1986, p. 104.

3 Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies: The Essential Collection, from ‘69 to ’72, London: Marion Boyars, 1975, p. 398.

4 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 385.

5 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316

6 Gareth Epps, ‘Does Popeye Doyle Teach Us How to be Fascist?’, The New York Times, 22 May 1972, II:15, p. 1.

7 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316.

8 Judy Klemesrud, ‘What do they see in Death Wish?’, New York Times, 1 September 1974, II:1, p. 5.

9 Charles Barr, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics’, Screen, vol. 3 no. 2, 1972, p. 23.

10 Fergus Cashin, John Coleman, N. Hibbin, Margaret Hinxman, Derek Malcom, George Melly, T. Palmer, J. Plowright, Dilys Powell, David Robinson, John Russell Taylor, Arthur Thinkell, and Alexander Walker, ‘From Mr. Fergus Cashin and Others”, The Times, 17 December 1971.

First Presented at the American New Wave: A Retrospective, Bangor University, 4 July 2017

Within the latter three months of 1971 two of the most influential American Police Thrillers were released. One was to fit naturally into the aesthetic of New Hollywood and its creation echoed the narrative of auteur cinema and innovation that would define an era “of stylistic experimentation” (Langford 2010, 134). The other was directed by an old hand who started in Hollywood in the 1940s, was based on a script that several stars had circled and starred the then “world’s favourite movie star” (Life 1971). Although both films were financial successes, the critical reactions were polarised. Of the major US critics only Jay Cocks of Time (Jan, 1972) praised Dirty Harry (Lev 1999), whereas The French Connection was widely lauded and went on to win five academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

This paper will discuss the reactions and suggest that the critical establishment of the time misunderstood Dirty Harry due to its elements of classical form, ignoring its subversive representations and assuming a conservative spectating position, whereas they praised The French Connection for the technical proficiency, which allowed them to remain distant from the film’s narrative, observing the protagonist, rather than identifying with him.

The narrative of the Hollywood New Wave is one in which an auteur led cinema emerged from the ashes of the Studio System. Within this a new, younger, set of film-makers embraced techniques from outside of Classical Hollywood to infuse existing genres with new life. The French Connection sits happily within this. The director, William Friedkin, began his career in TV in Chicago making documentaries, moving into feature films during the 1960s with some critical, if not box-office, success. The French Connection seemed a radical departure from his two previous films, both adapted from stage plays, but his work in television and his commitment to researching the reality of Police work, by spending time on patrol with Eddie Egan (the inspiration for Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle), created a sense that The French Connection was a film rooted in reality. Indeed its story was loosely adapted from real events, chronicled in Robin Moore’s book of the same name and Friedkin worked closely with his cinematographer Owen Roizman in eschewing traditional lighting and blocking techniques to create a news-report aesthetic (Friedkin 2013, 161). The casting of relative unknowns in the main roles aided the mimetic quality of the film as did the film’s marketing. 20th Century Fox’s Press Book informed that “The French Connection… is a perfect example of the truism that reality is nearly always more dramatic and unpredictable than fiction.” The use of locations across New York (Webb 2014, 78), many of which were in poorer areas previously unseen in mainstream US film, added to this sense of reality. This was also brought to the representation of the main-character Doyle played by Gene Hackman (an actor unknown enough to be subsumed into the character), who is shown to be a racist, a boot fetishist, and an obsessive who ultimately fails to catch the chief criminal behind the film’s drug smuggling operation. If anything the film’s high modality allowed for this representation to be excused as, in the words of Life magazine’s Richard Schickel, it “comes closer to the real thing… than any other movie detective I’ve ever seen” (1971, 31). A theme that emerges when interrogating the critical reaction is that the violence and racism evident in The French Connection is excused, or justified, by its technical freshness, a freshness that connotes a high modality. By taking The French Connection as an accurate depiction of policing, the racism and brutality that Doyle displays can be justified by film-makers and spectators who can retain the critical distance of knowing that this is “how things are”.

When revisiting the opening of The French Connection one is struck by how discordant it is, both in the non-diegetic music that accompanies the titles and in the Marseille prologue which established the documentary style of the film. The prologue details a brutal assassination, a sequence to which the audience are un-aligned as the characters and action of the scene are mostly unconnected to the main plot. The victim, a Detective, is unidentified before his death, as is his killer Nicoli.  What is evident, however, is how Friedkin’s use of documentary style camera techniques keeps the spectator remote from the action. The following scene introduces us to Doyle and his partner Russo as they interrogate a black suspect – throughout point-of-view shots are avoided, with the camera taking positions distant from the action or behind windows and doorways. In this way the spectator remains distant, but also conscious of the supposed reality implied by the camera techniques.

These techniques are particularly evident during the car chase in which Doyle pursues Nicoli who has hijacked an elevated train. For many this sequence has become celebrated not only for its technical proficiency but also because some of the filming took place for “real”, unplanned and without permission (Friedkin 2013, 179). This creates a simultaneous closeness and distance; while the film maintains its high modality (although the car chase is fiction) the narrative of its filming adds to the spectating experience. In affect the effort to create a realistic film draws attention to its construction. The overall effect is of a film that appears different to Classical conventions, however I would suggest that the technical elements of the film hide what is, in many ways, a conservative narrative.

The nature of threat in The French Connection is represented as externalised and other. The very unfamiliarity of its technique and representation of New York is distancing to a mainstream audience, its locations unfamiliar and its procedural elements oblique. The film’s antagonist, Charnier, is represented as a binary opposite to Doyle – he is urbane where Doyle is uncouth and boorish; Charnier is bringing drugs into America, suggesting the threat is primarily an externalised one. The French Connection continually pushes the problems of crime away, indeed the nature of Doyle himself is alienating – so much as to make identification with him difficult – something enhanced by the lack of subjective camera techniques. During the car-chase, for example, we only once see Doyle’s point of view; mostly the camera is mounted on the car’s bumper, with reaction shots of Doyle shot from outside the car. This distance creates a safe area in which the spectator, or critic, can appreciate the technical proficiency of the film while not being asked to identify or support some of Doyle’s morally problematic actions. Due to the lack of identification an element of social critique can be assumed, allowing the spectator to see Doyle as a representation, rather than as a person with whom they can align. This is confirmed by the ending which fails to resolve the narrative in a typical way, displaying text to explain that the main narrative has remained unresolved, and that Doyle’s character’s arc is also incomplete.

Dirty Harry, on the other hand, has the look and feel of a Classical Hollywood text that attempts to hide its construction from the audience, by creating a realistic diegesis. It’s creation certainly had a more traditional narrative being a star vehicle directed by Don Siegel who had started in film-making with Warner Brothers in the 1930s (Siegel 1993, 35). A star vehicle, Eastwood’s importance was reflected in the marketing, in which his gun-toting image predominated. No doubt for some critics this was already an issue – the 1967 US release of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was financially successful but often criticised for their perceived level of violence, “wooden” performances, cheap production values and their very validity as Westerns (Frayling 1998, 121-123).

Given that Dirty Harry was produced in a seemingly mainstream manner (despite Eastwood’s independence through his own production company Malpaso Productions) it would suggest a traditional subject position. However this ignores several important features – most particularly how it interrogates the spectatorship process and how it draws parallels between its protagonist and antagonist. Most of the reviews are based on an assumption that Callahan is a right wing figure and that the killer, Scorpio, represents the counter-culture. However several times the text queries these assumptions, and presents alternate readings that subvert surface ideas.

The opening of Dirty Harry immediately signals a desire to make the spectator conscious of their manipulation and places the film within a generic tradition by linking back to the Western. The San Francisco Police Memorial board shown as the films’ opening shot starts in 1878, during the frontier period. This ties the film to the Western (something enhanced by Eastwood’s presence) and simultaneously places the film in a mythic tradition, rather than one that reaches for realism. As the image dissolves through a Police Star to a low angle staring up at Scorpio and his rifle several associations are made; one that Scorpio is aiming at the Police (their bodies are metaphorically in the line of fire); or that the violence that Scorpio represents is deeply tied to the Police themselves. The film then cuts to Scorpio’s point of view and a voyeuristic, and indeed scopophilic, gaze is assumed. Initially the film-makers are willing to place their audience in a position that is both comfortable and uncomfortable in which the gaze is aimed towards a traditional image of desire (a young woman in a swim suit) immediately disrupted by the violence that ensues. The next scene introduces Callahan, eyes covered by sunglasses and the emphasis on point-of-view is re-iterated as he climbs to the spot where Scorpio was shooting from. This parallel continues throughout the film in which both Scorpio and Callahan are seen to be spying on the world around them, and indulging their gazes. During one pursuit of a suspect Callahan is taken to be a Peeping-Tom as he spies on “Hot Mary”; later on stake-out he spies on a naked young woman, and her guests, in her apartment commenting to himself “You owe it to yourself to live a little Harry.” That both cop and killer indulge in violent and voyeuristic behaviour is made clear suggesting a closeness between the two, which only diverges through the targets of their gaze.

The critics’ identification of Scorpio as a hippy skews the film towards one in which a figure of the establishment, Callahan, kills a figure of the counter-culture. However this ignores several details. Although Scorpio has long hair his clothing only comes to match counter-culture clichés in the final third of the film – previously he has dressed conservatively. He also shows proficiency with a sniper rifle and a submachine gun, indicative of military training (as are his highly shined military boots). This suggests to us that Scorpio, rather than a hippy, is actually a returning Vietnam veteran, a suggestion backed by director Siegel (Siegel 1993, 370). Scorpio is a mix of signifiers: Siegel cast Andy Robinson because he had the “face of a choir-boy” (Don Siegel quoted in The Dirty Harry DVD Collection (2009)) and would subvert ideas about what killers looked like. I would go further and suggest the Scorpio exists as a composite of several notorious killers from the 1970s, most obviously the San Francisco-based Zodiac killer who sent letters taunting the police, but also campus shooter Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. Also contradicting the idea that Scorpio is a counter culture figure is his desire to kill black people, young people and homosexuals – cornerstones of the civil rights movement. As Pierre Greenfield suggests,

Scorpio is the true redneck. “My next victim will be a Catholic priest or a nigger,” is the last sentence of his ransom demand. His kidnap victim is the very Catholic sounding Anne-Marie Deakin. She is fourteen” (Greenfield 1976, 36)

Parallel with this is the representation of Callahan himself and although he does demonstrate some racist behaviour, this is counterpointed in several way. We may argue that Callahan’s gaze is resolutely heteronormative (as opposed to Scorpio’s) however, the assumption that he is simply a right wing figure is undermined. He himself has long hair, and is chided about it by his superior. During the telephone chase he is propositioned by a gay-man, who identifies as Alice. Although this moment is not a particularly forward thinking representation of homosexuality, it is important as Alice sees Callahan as a reasonable target for his advances – in effect that Callahan’s heterosexuality is not obvious to everyone. Callahan’s use of violence and love of high powered guns is parodied later in the same scene as Scorpio remarks on the Magnum .44, “My, that’s a big one” which draws comparison with Scorpio’s own use of high powered weaponry and acknowledges the absurdity of the Magnum and the phallic obsession that lies behind the choice of such a weapon, and the genre itself. Callahan’s relationship to race is also discussed within the film. Many critiques seized on the race of the bank robbers that Callahan shoots after his lunch is interrupted, but they also miss the relationship that Callahan has to the black doctor in the next scene (they grew up together in a mixed race neighbourhood) or the fact that the film shows the reaction of the mother of the murdered black boy (who lived in the same neighbourhood Callahan grew up in (Street 2016, 75)). These elements do not necessarily excuse or justify racist behaviours, but they do suggest that the depiction is more complex than first discussed. Another key element is Eastwood’s position within the diegesis. During 1971 two other Eastwood films were released, Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled, the former directed by Eastwood himself, the latter by Siegel. Each film examines the Eastwood persona, both working to undermine the dominant male character that most critics took Eastwood to represent. During the bank heist Callahan strides in front of a cinema showing Play Misty, acknowledging the constructed nature of his image, as do the film’s self-reflective moments when the meanings behind Callahan’s nickname are addressed.

The choice to film at familiar landmarks of San Francisco is key, and contrasts starkly to The French Connection. Siegel chose “monumental architectural landmarks from City Hall to Kezar Stadium, preferring wide open space (in expansive 2.35:1[1] Panavision)” (Webb 2014, 140), highlighting the very public nature of American violence. Dirty Harry refuses to suggest that crime and violence are not part and parcel of the urban experience, contrasted to Friedkin’s own shock at finding he could film so much of The French Connection close to his home (Friedkin 2013, 147). Dirty Harry also allows the civic structures to exist next to crime, with them often being used as the back-drop, or juxtaposed through comparison – San Francisco is a city in which strip clubs and playgrounds co-exist. Two separate scenes play out against religious imagery; one a large neon sign that declared “Jesus Saves”, the other the giant cross atop Mount Davidson – both are part of the film’s subversion of traditional American spaces – that offer neither shelter nor safety. As Joe Street discusses in detail, the choice of San Francisco is a culturally significant one as it acts as a nexus of several, contradictory, elements of American life. San Francisco was closely associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s but earlier than this, during the 1800s, it was home to “the largest vigilante movement in American history” (Street 2016, 57). During the 1960s the city was noted for its left-leaning administration, however then Mayor Alioto was “quite prepared to allow the SFPD tactical squad to use violent tactics to quell disturbances during the 1968-69 student strike” (Street 2016, 61). It is within these contradictions that Dirty Harry is set, starkly demonstrated as the film moves between public and private space suggesting a similarity between both that is absent in The French Connection in which the criminal activity is confined to the back streets of New York. In this Dirty Harry points to the contradictions of an urban environment that seeks to be inclusive but also safe. During the scenes in Kezar Stadium the camera moves away, via helicopter, from Callahan torturing Scorpio. The arena is a place of sanctioned violence during American Football games, but is transformed to a place where the violence is tantalisingly hidden and ambiguous. Here the spectator is asked whether they want to see this and whether the actions are justified, especially as we discover that his actions fail to save Scorpio’s victim, and initiate his release from custody. The closing moments see Callahan throw his badge away, a late change to the film (Siegel 1993, 375). Several commentators suggested a similarity to the ending of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) but failed to detail one key difference. In High Noon Will Kane leaves with his wife and the promise of a new life. Harry Callahan, a widower, leaves behind everything he knows with his badge, making the ending a bleak commentary on the possibility of solutions to America’s law and order problems.

In conclusion, this paper has explored how the contemporary critical reaction to The French Connection and Dirty Harry differed and has also posited that this is due to the differing formal aspects of the films, and that the reactions privileged form over content. Further, that the radical appearance of The French Connection, which simultaneously created a high modality and drew attention to its form, suggested to the critics that the film itself was representing something radical. In opposition the conservative formal elements of Dirty Harry and its clear genre roots masked the subversive and reflective elements in the text, which came to say something much more problematic – that the violent crime in America is rooted within itself, rather than coming from an external threat. By applying elements of intertext and acknowledging the complex relationship the spectator has to a film such as Dirty Harry, that employs Classical style knowingly, we can see how multiple readings and critiques become possible beyond those of the contemporary critics.

References

Cocks, Jay (1971) Chasing “Frog 1.” Time. 01 November [online]. Available at www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,905509,00.html [accessed 07 July 2009].

Cocks, Jay (1972) Outside Society. Time. 03 January [online]. Available at www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,879053,00.html [accessed 20 January 2009].

Crist, Judith (1971) Gripping and Gritty. New York Magazine. 25 October [online]. Available at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=_OICAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA3&source=gbs_toc&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed 27 June 2017].

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Frayling, Christopher (1998) Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys & Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I.B. Taurus.

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Greenfield, Pierre (1976) Dirty Dogs, Dirty Devils and Dirty Harry. The Velvet Light Trap. No1, Fall pp 34-37.

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Kael, Pauline (2000) Deeper into Movies. The Essential Kael Collection: From ’69 to ’72. London: Marion Boyars Publishing.

Langford, Barry (2010) Post-Classical Hollywood: Film Industry, Style and Ideology since 1945. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lev, Peter (1999) American Films of the 1970s: Conflicting Visions. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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Siegel, Don (1993) A Siegel Film: An Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber.

Street, Joe (2016) Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan and the Conservative Backlash. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Webb, Lawrence (2014) The Cinema of Urban Crisis: Seventies Films and the Reinvention of the City. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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The Dirty Harry DVD Collection (2009) USA: Warner Home Video

[1] As opposed to 1.85:1 for The French Connection.

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) has often been considered a difficult and controversial text. Central to this is the depiction of gender, specifically concerning the role of Amy (played by Susan George) and the double rape that she undergoes, and the suggestion that the film is a parable of male dominance wherein the central character, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), ascends to being a ‘real’ man via a violent siege against marauding Cornish locals. The tag-line, featured on several posters for the film, suggested this very reading;

The knock at the door meant the birth of a man and the death of seven others

Given the predominant view of the film as a story of male birth, or re-birth, a consideration of the psycho-sexual imagery seems relevant particularly considering the proliferation of such imagery throughout the film. Images of emasculation, castration and phallic power are consistently invoked and develop the theme of birth referred to in the advertising. Creed (1993) offers a suitable model for considering these images and I will refer to her work, and Julia Kriteva’s concept of abjection, to explore the meanings of the psycho-sexual imagery of Straw Dogs. I propose that Straw Dogs gives us a drama of identity crisis tied to anxieties about castration and phallic power which culminates in David Sumner’s rejection of home and decision to enter into the symbolic order having previously retreated from it. In addition to Creed I will also refer to the writings of American psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson in investigating the identity crisis which runs through the film. Before entering into the analysis proper it is worth outlining the validity of mapping Creed’s analysis onto Straw Dogs. Creed was writing about women in horror, whereas this film is more concerned with men. I am not claiming the character of Amy as an instance of the monstrous feminine, rather that the concepts that Creed deals with are applicable outside of films which deal centrally with the female monster. There is also some debate about the genre classification of Straw Dogs itself, whether it fits into the horror genre. Many of its contemporary reviewers typed it simply as a relocated western, though this surely has as much to do with the presence of Peckinpah as the film’s autuer as it does for any specific textual evidence. I would suggest that the film is a hybrid of several generic elements, including those of horror and bears comparison with another contemporary British set horror The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973); both concern the intrusion of an outsider into a closed community, and both make extensive use of sexual imagery. Whereas The Wicker Man deals with a conflict between Catholic and Pagan morality Straw Dogs is concerned with a breakdown in identity that precipitates a re-birth of the protagonist. In its use of a corrupt, parodic, family, the Heddens, Straw Dogs also invokes other horror films from the 1970s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Given the generic and thematic content of the film Creed seems a pertinent source for an analytical framework.

Castration & Emasculation

Castration and emasculation imagery runs through Straw Dogs from the earliest images of the film. It is immediately present in the gift given by Amy to David in the first moments, a large man-trap. As Creed points out “man-trap” is a phrase euphemistically used to refer to the vagina. The trap itself, with such jagged edges, invariably invokes the concept of the vagina-dentata. This image lurks throughout the film, opened up it takes a prominent place in the living room of the farm-house waiting to be closed in the siege where David makes use of it, enclosing it around an invader’s head (a clear image of castration). Beyond the image itself, the issue of ownership of the trap prompts questions about the relationship between David and Amy. It is given to David as a gift, one which he places in the home. We must for a moment consider what this means for the dynamic of their relationship. We may consider this an acquiescence on Amy’s part to David, offering him ownership of her genitalia. However the fact that it remains so threatening signifies her potential to castrate, one which remains until it is co-opted by David in the defence of the house. This immediately complicates the gender identity of David himself. The film consistently refers to David as a figure of impotence. Physically he is smaller than the local villagers. He is unable to drive an English car correctly (he cannot master the gear lever, another potentially phallic symbol). His sexual relationship with Amy is one of childishness and humour. Outside of the bedroom their relationship itself is one of tension. David is destructive, willful, and deeply narcissistic. When the local Vicar and his wife visit, David plays bagpipe music at full-volume (something he will repeat during the siege) and proceeds to alienate his guests, forcing them to leave. The reason for David to be in Cornwall is, ostensibly, to complete a mathematical work, however the dialogue suggests that he is running away, although it is not specific from what (an idea re-iterated in the film’s trailers). David’s behaviour is consistent with someone stuck in a preadult stage of development, a stage of weak identity. As Erikson outlines;

That many of our patients break down at an age which is properly considered more preadult than postadolescent is explained by the fact that often only an attempt to engage in intimate fellowship and competition or in sexual intimacy fully reveals the latent weakness of identity (1980, 134).

David’s manipulation of Amy, attempting to get her to engage with chess and other intellectual pursuits is also consistent with Erikson’s analysis of identity crisis;

For where an assured sense of identity is missing, even friendships and affairs become desperate attempts at delineating the fuzzy outlines of identity by mutual narcissistic mirroring (1980, 134).

And;

A sudden collapse of all capacity mutuality threatens, and a desperate wish ensues to start all over again, with a (quasideliberate) regression to a stage of basic bewilderment and rage such as only the very small child knows (1980, 135).

David’s identity is weak because it is not fully formed, revealed by his inability to form proper relationships (sexual or not). He has not yet taken his place within the symbolic order, rather he has run away from it and taken refuge in the farm-house or as I suggest, the womb that it represents. Given this, Amy takes on the appearance of a mother rather than a partner (Amy is, significantly, the only maternal figure in the film). The threat of castration is consistent with castration anxiety felt by the child. During the final siege it is Amy, not David, who will wield a phallic shot-gun in defence of the home, saving David’s life. Here Amy transfers from being a castrating mother to a phallic woman, embodying twin emasculating threats. Further images of emasculation surround David and other male characters in the film. A key moment occurs during the duck hunt (arranged so that Venner can approach Amy). Here David must be leant a gun, he lacks one of his one. When he does eventually kill a duck he holds it in his hands and its limp neck reflects his impotent and emasculated nature. Despite the lack of mothers, the film has a surfeit of fathers, however they are often shown to be symbolically emasculated themselves. The Major, who acts as the village’s law-man and patriarch, possess a limp. Tom Hedden is a drunk. Niles’ father is incapable of controlling his own son. Perhaps the most significant father figure in the film is an absent one; Amy’s. Much is made of the fact that the farm house is from Amy’s family, or more especially her father. When asked by David which of the chairs in the house was her fathers, she replies, “Every chair is my Daddy’s chair”. It places into crisis the ownership of the house and the presence of this father is a further emasculating force for David.

Re-Birth into the Symbolic Order

The symbolization of the womb as house/room/cellar or any other enclosed space is central to the horror film (Creed 1998, 55).

Straw Dogs acts as an exploration of the meaning of the womb, as both a secure and insecure place. It is linked to the concept of unheimlich, where something is familiar and uncanny at the same time, and its ability to “disturb identity and order” (Creed 1998, 54). As Creed identifies, Freud cites the womb phantasy as an occurrence of the unheimlich, a nexus of the familiar and unfamiliar. The womb is a place we both remember but can never know;

He (Freud) allocates a central place to the subject’s former ‘home’, the womb. The uncanny is that place which is ‘known of old, and long familiar’, the place from which the individual has become alienated through repression (Creed 1998, 54).

There is further potential for the home to be seen as the womb particularly in its passageways and entrances. The siege, when David’s crisis is brought to a head, plays on this imagery particularly. Earlier in the film, when Amy is raped and in other scenes, the thresholds to the house are seen as fluid. The rat-catcher’s ability to enter the house and kill the cat is an active demonstration of this. Also the penetration of the house by various gazes, be it the workmen or Janice and Bobby Hedden, shows it to be consistently invaded. What should we make of this? The rape of Amy and the sense of invasion suggests an elision between Amy and the house – they are both penetrated in various ways, some invited, some not. David’s sudden defence of it seems curious then, as he has so markedly failed to do so before. However it is the existence of Niles in the house that redraws the relationships and pushes David further along his identity crisis path. From here he takes the role of the castrating woman from Amy (freeing her to become the phallic woman later in the scene). He defends the home/womb and the childlike Niles within via a series of dentata like acts. The defence is focussed on the doorways and windows of the house. Knives and glass are used. Boiling oil, an invocation of abject fluid, is thrown out. Feet, hands and heads of the invaders are attacked, stabbed and engulfed. The blood, wounds, and death throughout the siege clearly invokes the abject. The nature of the home/womb as the site of this blood suggests fears of the abject mother; David has unnaturally returned to the comfort and safety of the womb space, he has subsequently attempted to assume the mantle of the castrating mother. The revealing of Amy as the phallic woman pushes David out – finally he is capable of being reborn. His closing exchange with Niles about not knowing the way home represents his final break with maternal authority and his entry into the symbolic order as a fully formed individual. Witness the final images of David, face covered in blood, an image of rebirth. Straw Dogs is a drama of the symbolic order. David’s rejection of his place in the order, and the identity crisis it precipitates, prompts the confusion and chaos that surrounds him. It can only be resolved by the violent ejection from the womb space he has attempted to return to in an attempt to reclaim safety from the world and the burdens placed upon him. The collection of emasculating imagery, emasculated characters and symbolic events that occur are the back drop which forces David to confront his own position and accept his true identity outside of the womb, apart from the mother and at the head of the symbolic order.

Works Cited

Creed, Barbera (1993) The Monstrous Feminine. Abingdon: Routledge

Erikson, Erik H. (1980) Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: WW Norton

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