It’s Expendable


Bill Devane in Rolling Thunder, 1977


It’s possible that The Expendables could turn out to be a time capsule candidate for the early 21st century —meaning it may well be, in its way, as perfect a reflection of American psychosis as one could find.

In a sense I wanted to like it. I have an almost soft spot for Stallone, who began his film career in a softish porn exercise (now) called The Italian Stallion. When he made Rocky, it was an odd combination of forces that somehow coalesced to push a modest John Avildson boxing fairy tale into something more iconic. It may or may not be useful to ask how that happened, but for now lets just say the real break out for Stallone was Rambo. By the time of Rambo, all three of the first Rocky films had come out, and so had FIST and Paradise Alley. Now FIST isn’t at all unwatchable (almost but not totally) but both these films had exposed the deep limitations of Stallone as an actor. Never mind, the Rocky franchise was enough for Stallone to be an A-list star and then Rambo, First Blood.  However, there were two other films that happened in this period; Nighthawks and Cobra. Both are vaguely sadistic in a way devoid of irony or even purpose. Cobra, in fact, is a deeply malignant exercise in violence porn. Again, however, you see Stallone, in terms of career caretaking, unable to step outside the two franchises that have stayed with him for thirteen films.

Stallone’s sensibility, however, has remained constant. His aspirations for artistic greatness, and he has them, have always been cringe-inducing and so as a reflex he has taken on a kind of wispy thin self-mockery. Except it’s so wispy as to become its opposite all too often.  The so-called serious acting roles, Cop Land, are actually pretty dreadful.  However, one can argue that Rambo became a far more culturally influential franchise than Rocky, and that it defined a good deal of the Imperialist character of the ’80s United States. Rambo, as Douglas Kellner has pointed out, co-opted the surface of sixties radicalism and turned it into the militarist right-wing values of Reagan America. The health food obsessed loner, long hair, bandanna, and individualist ethos, as well as anti-military (but only its bureaucracy) the character of John Rambo evolved into exactly what the US (male white) public desired after Vietnam. Its worth noting  that the first Rambo film was set in the US, and the war Rambo waged was against a corrupt small town sheriff. In fact at the end, Rambo breaks down crying , expressing how there is no place for him, or other returning vets, in the US.  However, by the second Rambo film, all ambivalence had been removed. Rambo was the iconic Reagan era warrior, and as Kellner points out, much like the Chuck Norris character in the Missing in Action franchise. Both are brutish and inarticulate, and hyperviolent.

Now, there were a series of post Vietnam films, Cutter’s Way, Who’ll Stop the Rain, Rolling Thunder and Nightmoves, in which the collective angst of Vietnam and My Lai were clear shadowy backdrops, even if, as in Nightmoves, Vietnam is never mentioned. But these were films that existed in a moral twilight, a sense of doubt permeated all of them. Doubt about how the working class had been treated, at the dishonesty of the government, and doubt about the more abstract illusions of the American Dream.  With Rambo, certainly at least by the second in the series, the issue was not politics, but the damaged psyche of the white male in America. The resentments and the feelings of a masculine crisis, were exaggerated aspects of the narrative. Rambo was there to masculinize white working class men. The  feeling that white men were now victims, being preyed upon by feminism, foreigners in our own country, and weak government officials found a responsive audience in young and middle-aged white men. The 80s was the go-go stock market economy (worth a look at Wall St, in the context of the Rambo franchise) but the working class felt no affinity with guys in suits. The masculine ideal that was formed by gunfighters and Indian killers, by the heroes of westward expansion, was a man emotionally distant, more at home with other men and horses, and incapable of receiving love.  He was also self-reliant to the point of pathology. Throughout all of this, the US military was bombarding the country with its incessant propaganda for militaristic values of honor (sic) and patriotism. Again, Vietnam was a huge blow, and John Wayne had been partially displaced by Lt Calley. So, as Reagan destroyed public education, the resentment festered and the anti-intellectual tendencies already in place, seemed to spike. The military was both a way out of small town poverty but also a way to achieve a sense of self-importance.

The Rambo films from the start relied on a camera that fondled and caressed the  vascularity and muscles of Rambo, as well as his weaponry. Lt Calley has been left behind and replaced by Oliver North. The Rambo films idealized the male body, and identified it with the weapons it so expertly used.  However, no matter the heroics and talents of Rambo, there is always the shadow of Vietnam, of the war ‘we” lost, lost because “we didnt have the guts to finish it”. There is also in Stallone’s Rambo a masochistic side that must be hurt, must somehow be punished for not winning. It is a contradiction, and as such is only overcome (in each instance) by blowing up bigger things and more people.

So, we arrive at The Expendables. Directed by Stallone, it also stars Randy Coutoure, real life mixed martial artist, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, of WWF fame. There are cameos by Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and the film also stars former Rocky foe Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke, and Jet Li and Jason Statham. Just looking at the cast one might see a virtual road map of masculine over compensation and cultural resentments. But what is obvious here is that Stallone must employ “real” fighters and action guys—Couture and Austin, as well as, to some degree, Jet Li. Because one of the most startling realities of sitting watching this exercise in masculine worship is that both Stallone and Rourke have become increasingly grotesque figures,  due to cosmetic surgeries, if nothing else. Stallone was busted a few years back with a case of Jintropin…or HGH. His steroid use is clear (as it is with Arnold) and yet, for an American male public, the illusion of power is better than not having anything. Better than ambiguity. This is a culture that lives so totally in its illusions, in its fictional narratives, that details like cheek implants are unimportant. That Stallone’s eyebrows are firmly stuck in one position, is irrelevant so long as he is still buffed and shooting at “bad guys”. Another amusing note; the villain in this film is played by Eric Roberts, who recently got out of rehab for his marijuana addiction (whatever).  There is a dialectic here, see, and that is between the Hollywood actor and his insecurity about not actually being ‘real”, and the filmic narrative which is about hyper machismo and “realness”. In fact, the masculine bonhomie in this film is so leaden and lifeless, so cartoonish and strained, that it speaks to exactly how delirious and hungry is the audience for this stuff, that nobody cares. A society that semi consciously ‘knows’ that its master narrative isn’t “real” seems to be one for which an endless stream of this junk must be devoured.

Rourke simply has a funny hat and smokes a weird pipe and that’s enough. The man who has had so many cosmetic surgeries (as well as once riding his Harley as part of the Melrose motorcycle gang), that his search for masculinity (an absurd short-lived boxing career) has become an endless drag review of butch accoutrement. Then, Stallone, too, increasingly seems like a fashion model for hyper masculine detailing. The parading of these accoutrement takes up a quarter of the film. Harley’s, knives, tattoos, and of course guns. The emotional distance from women is expressed in two forms; Statham’s beating up a boyfriend of his ex’s…who of course gave her a black eye. And secondly, Stallone’s aw shucks Gary Cooper like flirtation with the beautiful daughter of the evil south American general.

There is essentially no story. None worth talking about. There is only the pumped up (literally and figuratively) masculinity of the action heroes. There is more cosmetic surgery and steroids in this film than maybe any other ever made. And then there is “age”. The flight from age. The age factor is really the auteur imprint behind all the rest of the tropes.  Willis, Arnold, Stallone, and Rourke; men in their sixties. None greying, and all fetishizing their presentation of self. Cigars, chains, guns and knives….motorcycles and of dyed hair. Hard bodies and frequent wardrobe changes. That they are almost all Republicans is worth considering, too. In any event, The Expendables is the logical conclusion to the fantasies sprung circa Iran/Contra. The Ollie North and John Poindexter, McFarlane and Ledeen. Reagan with colon cancer, but his “guys” were out there doing what had to be done. “Cowboys” they were. This is the feverish and sweaty palmed fantasies of Bill O’ Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. This is the lurid dreamscape of Sean Hannity as well as of George Dubya Bush. See, it’s about buying the boots and cowboy hat, about a tin of Copenhagen in the back pocket of my jeans, and about swagger. The fetid fantasies of a senile President leads inexorably to the racist cant of the Tea Party. The attacks on a black President, who just CANT be American…it’s not possible. If only Chuck Norris would go kick some Kenyan butt, I’m sure we could find the real birth certificate. These may be the exaggerated extremes, but lurking beneath this cartoon is the ever metastasizing  feelings of powerlessness and anger in the white working class male in the US.

What was the invasion of Grenada, if not a nocturnal emission from the senile and Hollywood built brain of Reagan? It was all fantasy, too. Yet, Clint Eastwood, made a heroic story out of it in Heartbreak Ridge. Eastwood, a slightly more complex thinker than Stallone, at least accepted the Grenada story (and invasion) as slightly absurd, and shifted his focus to the character he played, a lifer in the Marines. So, the illusions only shifted a bit. Heartbreak Ridge came out in 1986. The trajectory from Iran/Contra and Rambo through Grenada to the Iraq invasion and finally 9-11 is to take a tour of the male psyche as it exists in the US. Now, ten years after 9-11 the culture industry continues to look for ways to recycle the same formula—the same masculinist compensation. But the economy sucks, unemployment is higher than its been since the great depression and rural america has replaced small farms with Meth labs. The obsessions with sports are tarnished with drug use (and in the case of the NFL, with a seemingly endless litany of brain damage) and corporate manipulation. Stallone, like a trained rat on amphetamine, steps up again, and again and again and again, his face stranger, less expressive (if that were possible) and his dye job more obvious, and recites from the American blue book of masculinity. And that masculinity is even more adrift than it was when the first Rambo came out.

The Expendables is frightening, in the way toothless old prostitutes, with rouged cheeks, are frightening. This film is bad dream, but one from which none of us seems able to awake.

John Steppling


5 responses to “It’s Expendable

  1. Very nice article, Mr. Steppling, and I’m surprised to be the first one to leave a comment about it. Besides a few typos and things, its only flaw is that I was able to clearly understand well over 50% of what you were saying. Are you slipping or did you purposely dumb this down because of the subject matter? I want nothing less than complete bafflement and the residual feeling that I’m a mental midget!

    The first Rambo film is actually titled, simply FIRST BLOOD (though later officially retitled RAMBO for airing on TV), based on the novel by David Morrell. When the film was released in 1982, many of my friends assumed at first that I was joking when I said I was going to see it because it was based on one of my favorite novels. Now, in my own defense, keep in mind that I read it when I was 12 years old, and have no idea how well it holds up after all these years. Me and a friend just adored the scene in the book when John Rambo (it softens it a little to hear his first name, doesn’t it?) escapes from the local jail early in the book in part by slashing the deputy sheriff(?) across the stomach with a straight edge razor, and the deputy, seeing his internal organs spilling out of his gut, frantically tries to push them back in. I can’t recall if that was visualized on screen, but it might have been, because I recall having the strange sensation that the film followed the book pretty faithfully and yet had no resemblance to the images of the book that were stored in my memory. In any case, FIRST BLOOD, like it or hate it, should be judged on its own merits, separate from the franchise it spawned. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff and, even though Stallone managed to gain “third billing,” as it were, credit as a screenwriter, his screenwriting contributions are suspect when they’re not solely credited to him (he fought hard for co-screenwriting credit beside Joe Eszterhas for F.I.S.T., which you mention in passing, but during its promotion in 1978, he felt guilty enough to confess that his contribution was, at best, about 5%).

    The most plastic surgery in the history of cinema thus far! I’m sure you’re correct, although it shouldn’t be too terribly long before it’s bested. I was tricked into believing that ROCKY BALBOA, the most recent entry in the ROCKY franchise, was actually surprisingly good (based on, I believe, Harvey’s daughter’s incorrect premonition / funny feeling, as well as a published review by, I think, Roger Ebert, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Manohla Dargis). In fact, it was quite terrible, but he (Stallone) took lots of effort to hide the non-human quality that most face work produces, though he was unable to do it entirely. I thought it would have been appropriate to show some photos of Stallone with the awful creation of his elder face, and went to Google images to find some and post a link. But in doing so, I was struck this time by how much I’ve grown used to the plastic surgery look, and couldn’t find an example that really made me gasp the way it used to.

    This feeds into my theory / idea for a story about imprinting. You know, the, I’m pretty sure, well-accepted psychological phenomenon of having an “imprint” of what we find to be sexually desirous based on circumstances when we were young (not thought to include sexual orientation, as far as I know, just physical attributes of the gender you’re attracted to). I can actually recall some of the instances that led me to be attracted to men who have some of the physical attributes that Harvey has, and I’ve always been suspect of conventional ideals of beauty — that is, the modern conventional attraction to thin but buxom tanned babes is due to such pervasive marketing of images of thin, buxom tanned babes that huge numbers get that “imprinted” as their sexual desire. In Rubens’s day, they liked’em a little more plump, and other cultures have their own predominating images of beauty (or used to before globalization). These days, obvious plastic surgery, well done or awful, is establishing a distinct look and is becoming widespread. Therefore, it follows that, eventually, the Obvious Plastic Surgery Look (OPSL) is going to make an imprint on many children growing up today. That is, they will grow up and actively seek women or men who have the OPSL as sexual companions. Our instinct right now might be to say, “Eww,” or to laugh, because, come on, it IS a pretty funny idea. But I’m firmly convinced that it will be a real phenomenon, even if only among a small minority. And the sad result may not be the fact of it in and of itself, but that plastic surgery might improve to the point that the OPSL that we have today will be a thing of the past. So if a child is getting the OPSL sexually imprinted today, by the time he or she grows up and becomes sexually active, the current OPSL may become obsolete, thus rendering the OPSL imprint as something impossible to find and they’ll never have total satisfaction of attaining someone with their physical ideal. I guess that means that, right now, it may be wise, or at least kind, to create hard- or softcore porn images with models who have the OPSL, so that the generations who have it imprinted will have some visual stimulation to arouse them, rather than a fading but persistent memory. Just a thought.

    Perhaps these future sexually active individuals will have to settle for movies like THE EXPENDABLES to wallow in imagery that turns them on. As for me, thank God that there will be plenty of people who can’t afford the surgery. That in and of itself will probably be why I’ll never be attracted to rich men.

  2. Thank you, Johns, for the provocative work.
    The last part of Mr. Topping’s comment here brought to mind one of the first films my husband made called “I Am Not a Freak”, about people with really grotesque physical anomalies. One factoid from film which has really stuck with me was how a woman from Texas, born with two vaginas, had children from both of them. The ideal of beauty that is pushed by media has more of an impact on the fantasies about the masturbation fantasies of men (and some women!) than anything that exists in the “real world” I suspect, which is as the expression goes, more polymorphously perverse than we on the dreamcoasts could ever know.
    As for the “real” world, Mr. Steppling’s reading history through a movie camera lens is adept. There have been iconic male/female images in every generation going back to prehistory, but because of mass reproduction, these images are increasingly stylized and fetishized. They mark the passage of decades…eras become ever shorter.
    The predatory relationship of the film & TV industry towards its market accentuates this effect. If you’re going to hunt bear, you need to know its habits and haunts. Anyone who works in the TV/movie marketing business has read the advertising briefs that explain this (in a totally cynical way of course). So it’s no accident that every script, every film, every television show produced for the mass market is a coded picture of what’s out there in the world of desiring. Reading these images becomes even more important than looking at them.

  3. Very interesting and sharp comments from Topping and Rita.

    Rita touches on something I’ve thought for a while, and that is how increasingly today’s images of beauty (or sexual appeal) are governed by their use as masturbation aids. At least images of female beauty. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue has always struck me as airbrushed and photoshopped in a way that de-humanizes the models. Gone is any sense of smell or quality of genuine humaness — replaced by something distant and almost robotic. Those woman are not for fantasies about sex (in all its complexity) but for the most direct use as Pavolvian aids to masturbation. This leads us to John Topping’s observation about the OPSL — which is somehow part of this same fabric of conditioned reflexive erotic response. The erotic has become the masturbatory — suggesting an ever more atomized population, more and more cut off from (as Benjamin had it) authentic experience. The obsession with plastic surgery is easy to document. Find, for example, the entertainment section of Huffington Post (or wherever you wish) and you see a preponderance of articles about fake breasts, botox, and, with exhibitionism. The endless lists of ‘sex tapes’ speaks to this. Again, in what way do these function for the public? The current generation is more and more pornographic in its tastes, and it appears (to me at least) ever more fearful of actual physical contact. This also speaks to the marketing of fear in this society. Sex is scary, medically dangerous, and by extension the feelings of desire and love have taken on a robotic quality as well. A safe self enclosed act of private release.

    Coupled to this is the infantilizing of the culture. The obsession with youth has spilled over into a fixation and fetishizing of pre-pubescent models of beauty. How all this hangs together is worthy of some thought. But certainly if the masculine ideal is now to be found in the disfigured action-dolls of The Expendables, we are on the cusp of something quite insane. I would add one other thought, here. And that is that the acceptance of male plastic surgery is somehow linked to the emphasis on “professionalism” — by which I mean, there is something going on under all this that says, ‘well, they are actors, and its their job to look young and buff, and so its a professional choice’.

  4. Hey howdy hi! Back for more!

    I don’t think that the de-humanization of airbrushed models is lost on the masses, or in any case, not on a sizable chunk of said masses (at least one mass). Hence the popularity of “amateur” porn. My own favorite porn site has a rotating gallery of 95% amateurs, but every now and then a professional photo is thrown in. My reaction is always the same — whether the guy is my “type” or not, the phoniness of the situation is so intrinsic and obvious that it’s always a turn off (or at least never a turn on).

    I happened to watch PLASTIC DISASTERS last night, a DVD of a 2006 HBO documentary. Very frightening, and lest I ever change my mind about plastic surgery, I need only remember the experience of watching it. This was not about eyebrow-raising* cosmetic results like the new scary face of Burt Reynolds, but botched jobs that were physically debilitating, deforming, and life-threatening. One doctor explained that, because of the explosion of popularity of plastic surgery coupled with the amount of money one pours into the surgery, a lot of doctors have gone into the business who really don’t have the proper training to do it correctly. Additionally, some places are practically plastic surgery factories, and one doctor or “doctor” will have to do 10 or 12 operations a day in order to meet the (self-imposed) financial quota; as a result, they do them as quickly as possible and it’s easy to get sloppy and careless (stomach liposuction can easily pierce an intestine or lung if the surgeon isn’t very careful). The reason plastic surgery was invented was for soldiers in the trenches who peeked up out of the trench and got shot in the face but lived through it, so that they could function without being social outcasts for the rest of their lives (being shot in the face can produce various unexpected and shocking reconfigurations). Incidentally, the “plastic” part of plastic surgery is from the definition of plastic as “capable of being molded or modeled.” The substance we know as “plastic” does not necessarily enter the picture.
    * (I meant the kind of raised eyebrows when you spot something dubious, not the permanently-surprised raised-eyebrows that are a common result of plastic surgery.)

    My mother long ago joined the cavalcade of plastic surgery enthusiasts, and fortunately for her, she found an excellent doctor who did the wrinkle-erasing job without changing how her face looks/ed. (Harvey likes to tell about a celebrity-studded New Year’s Eve party we were invited to every year in New York wherein it appeared that half the women there went to the same plastic surgeon and were practically indistinguishable from one another.) My mother recently told me about being at the dentist and having work done on her teeth that caused intense pain or discomfort despite any Novocaine. The assistant remarked, “Wow, Mrs. Topping, most people can’t stand this procedure, but you’re just lying there so calm and patient. You’re really amazing.” What she didn’t reveal to the dental assistant was that she had a botox injection in her forehead, so she was just as unhappy as an ordinary patient gets, but the pain didn’t “read” on her face.

    My sister got a boob job, but the silicone implants got off track and started sliding down and caused her intense pain. It really seems to me that surgery of any kind, plastic or otherwise, should be a last resort, only when all else fails or if your life is on the line. I very nonchalantly had vocal chord surgery in 2000 or 2001 for a collapsed vocal chord by supposedly the best such specialist in the field. My voice was supposed to be back to normal within a couple of weeks, but it took more like a couple of years, and with a lot of help help from the second-best specialist in the field (the “best” doctor couldn’t tell that my voice was in worse shape than before the surgery).

    Plastic surgery as a professional choice is a tough one, because our youth-obsessed culture genuinely demands it from our movie stars. But on the other hand, it permeates the profession at all levels of income and success. Doesn’t anyone want to play an older person? Don’t grandmother and grandfather characters get written into scripts? Why, you can make damn good money being the butt of an age joke, just by being yourself! The irony is that, if they do get the role of an elderly person, actors and actresses who spend untold sums to look as young as possible will then have to spend untold hours getting aged by the make-up department. [background sound effect: wah wah wah WAAAAAAAAH]

  5. I remember being hit by the similarities in attitudes this country has towards a naked woman for example, and a bacon double cheeseburger. Both are marketed the same way. Both play on the same puritanical trauma. Same goes for an ice cream commercial or any other “decadant” treat….snickers bars, fried chicken, titties, etc..

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