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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]

From its early days cinema has showcased violence.

Whether it was boxing matches or recreations of historical events violence has been infused into the very nature of the medium. If we believe the old story about the Lumière Brothers scaring their Paris audience the beginning of Cinema was a violent act in itself. With this presentation of violence came politics. Perhaps it was the accessibility of cinema that made it open to more political interference than literature or theatre (although these were also messed with), the fear that the plebs, who wouldn’t/couldn’t read or understand high culture, would be corrupted by this new form. Early on movies were being banned for their violence, but sometimes the reasons were as much politically motivated as out of a ‘duty’ to protect the masses; in the US one early boxing film was banned on racial grounds, as it showed a black boxer beating a white boxer, undermining the ‘inherent’ superiority of the white race.

The dominant discourse on violence today remains rooted in the spurious effects debate. Every so often a film is seen to be the cause of society’s ills, or it offers the potential to corrupt and degrade. A cursory glance at the history of Hollywood film offers a list of titles that have been suggested as, but never proven to be, the inspiration for real acts of violence. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers, Scream, Child’s Play 3, not to mention the litany of 1980s Video Nasties have been implicated. But this debate fundamentally lacks an understanding of the complicated ways in which the audience experiences film violence. In this article I’ll outline some of those ways, in the hope that we can move the debate a little further from the purview of the Daily Mail.

Before, During, After

The paratext are the texts that surround and inform any individual text. Generally speaking we don’t watch movies in a vacuum, particularly now as we’re constantly bombarded with trailers, posters, websites and even trailers for trailers. These elements, also known as the Narrative Image, inform and mediate our responses to cinema, including how we understand the violence. In short our experience and understanding of film violence occurs before (paratext), during (spectating) and after the film (in the ways we remake the film in our memories, how they compare to other texts, etc). Beyond these paratextual elements are the social and political contexts that inform the text and our responses. To give a brief example most film students are forced to watch the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925). But the context of watching this in the 21st Century, in Europe, can’t match the context of post-revolutionary Russia, or interwar Britain where the film was banned. Our approach to the film is framed by these paratextual elements of expectation where a genre, title or star, can confirm or subvert.

Generic and narrative expectations are another major part of this experience, elements which are, by and large, set by the narrative image. The Western is a genre that depends on violence – the narrative is organised around the final shoot-out, the showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It would be ridiculous to watch a mainstream Western then and be surprised by the violence in the final scenes. The emotional response to such a moment is therefore conditioned by expectation. Films that muddy the generic/narrative waters generate different responses. Take the violence in Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006). The film is framed as a fairytale of sorts, in which a small girl (evoking characters like Alice), explores a world of fantastic creatures. Then a man has his face bashed in with a bottle. Nothing in the narrative/genre has suggested this event, the impact is greater.

These elements of genre/narrative and paratext also condition the modality of the films. Modality is the level of reality that we ascribe to a message. For instance the News has a higher modality than Tom and Jerry; one presents itself as a true representation of reality, the other is a cartoon in which impossible events occur. Films generally exist somewhere between these two extremes. A film that employs documentary style camera work conveys a higher modality than one that involves impossible CGI shots. Similarly the advertising of a film can stress fantastic or realistic elements. Early coverage for The Blair Witch Project presented the film as true, that the footage had been recovered. For those early audiences the film had a high modality, creating a different response to later viewers who watched is as part of the normal horror genre.

Elements of Film Violence

If our approach to film violence is conditioned before we even sit in the cinema what then of the films themselves? One cannot hope to fully elucidate the complexities of this in a short essay, but I can outline a few significant elements.

Prince (1998) breaks film violence down into three elements; the referential act, the stylistic encoding and the stylistic amplitude. The referential act is the act of violence that the film depicts. Our understanding of this is complicated in itself. Has the audience experienced this act themselves, or seen it before in other films and media? Each act of violence in a film is seen in comparison to other films and the real world. Increasingly the violence we see bears no resemblance to our life experience – our referent becomes other films. The stylistic encoding is how the referential act is depicted in the film, the shots used, the sound, etc. Take for comparison the finales of High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971). In High Noon the hero, Will Kane, shoots the villain Frank Miller with a single bullet. It takes 5 seconds of screen time and is shown in a single shot from where Kane stands, leaving Miller in the background. When Harry shoots Scorpio over 8 single shots are shown, taking just over a minute of screen time. When Scorpio is hot we see, from multiple angles, him thrown backwards, blood spurting from his body; the same referential act, encoding in two very different styles.

The final aspect, the Stylistic Amplitude, covers ideas of graphicness and duration of the encoded act. In essence the more graphic the depiction the greater the duration. The more of the violence we see the more significant it is in the film’s running time. As a general trend in Hollywood cinema more time is given over to violence in movies.

Positioning the Audience

As a final issue we need to consider how the film positions its audience in relation to the characters that enact violence. There are two positions available, one subjective (we watch/follow/align with a character(s)), the other objective (we are not aligned with anyone, we watch separate from the action). This makes a big difference in how we relate to a film. The subjective camera, using shots like point of view, implied point of view and over shoulder, invite us to partake in the violence. Narrative techniques, such as narration, further encourage our identification with characters and violence (a good example of this is Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)). The objective camera keeps us at a distance, although we still align with a protagonist through convention, leaving our involvement as less participatory.

In Conclusion

Moving the discussion about film violence away from the tabloid headlines and towards a technical understanding of cinema and its audience is essential if we’re ever to puzzle out how and why people watch violent films. If we can do that we may be able to finally kill off the histrionic exaggerations, with or without the use of a shotgun.

Works Cited

Prince, Stephen (1998) Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Austin: University of Texas Press

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