More Notes on Genre and the Virus of Sentimentality




It is an ongoing topic, the virus of sentimentality and how it intersects with narrative in today’s cultural output.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut of a couple years back was Gone Baby Gone, and it came as something of a shock in the sense that it was so good.  Based on the overrated Dennis Lehane  novel of the same name, Gone Baby Gone was a hard- edged piece of Boston noir and featured terrific performances from Ed Harris and Amy Ryan.  It was pure genre, in the sense that the architecture of plot was never upended and the conventions of such pulp storytelling were closely adhered to. Still, by casting Casey Affleck, an off-kilter sort of actor, and asking him to play against type (a topic to which I will return below) the film had a resonance and the sentimental tropes were forgiven because one felt they were oddly kept (purposely) in the background.  It also featured a very taught and smart script.

Affleck’s new film The Town, is also based on a pulp novel and also set in Boston. Why is it so inferior? First, instead of Casey, we have Ben.  Affleck as an actor has always seemed a tad slow-witted (which is why he was so funny in Shakespeare in Love) and a bit stilted.  But his performance is hardly a problem. The real problem is in the rest of the casting, which reads like a who’s who of industry heat at the moment (Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner). These are all “good” actors (well, not Lively) but to somehow stuff them all into what is designed as a modest noir crime film somehow tosses the whole thing out of balance. Lively may be terrible, but she is actually the least culpable of destroying this film.  She (or “Gossip Girl”) is simply doing what any agent would suggest to her….stretch and find something a bit more challenging.  So, voila, she plays an oxycontin /coke whore hoody chick…and shows cleavage and too much make-up and a decent enough Boston accent. She is bad, but not awful.  Still, one wonders if she can really transfer to the big screen. There is something too flat in her eyes, too blank – and she may end up the female Don Johnson of this era. In any event, Hamm is fine….though he isn’t asked to do much. In “Mad Men” his withholding of emotion and that sense of smarts buried beneath the surface is quite compelling and he has a certain grace and a huge dose of masculine gravitas. Here he plays the FBI guy chasing Affleck. Whatever. He is okay.

Renner (who was the ONLY thing I at all liked about Hurt Locker) is rather astonishingly good. He has a wired pent-up edge and a certain vertigo in all his movements that make us want to watch him more each time he appears.  He also is one of those actors blessed with preternatural timing. He is a bit like Cagney crossed with Joe Pesci.  But then we come to the deal breaker in terms of casting; Rebecca Hall. The RADA brit (now gal pal to Sam Mendes) simply has that snarky look buried behind those big moist eyes.  Whenever she and Affleck had a scene I felt like warning too dumb Ben, man, don’t trust this bitch. I don’t know if she can shed that quality, but her prettiness is mixed with an over-ripe squishy quality, and combined with this very mannered acting, the result is unsettling.  The performance is “good”; in the sense Meryl Streep is always good. But its not even for a nano second surprising.  Her face is always a made face. Her performance is never spontaneous and her sense of “common” is condescending.

The best few moments in the entire film belong to Chris Cooper as Affleck’s bank robber dad, now doing time in Walpole. It’s simply spellbinding.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking of any number of other films that questioned how genre works.  No Country for Old Men, Animal Kindgom, or even some of those post Vietnam noirs like Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop the Rain. And these reflections on genre led me to think on the way sentimentality creeps into almost all Hollywood studio films.

A film like Animal Kingdom (or A Prophet) could be categorized as genre, but really, they aren’t at all, by virtue of simply up-ending all the conventions.  No Country fails because, finally, Cormac McCarthy probably cant be translated to the screen, and what the Coen Bros. end up with is art house genre. Meaning, I think, just a dash too much pretentiousness.


Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson and Caroll O'Conner in John Boorman's Point Blank


Films such as Bellman and True, the much neglected British bank robbery film, remain pure genre….but of a highly elevated kind. Same could be said for Point Blank, the Boorman classic from the 70s with Lee Marvin. These are both films, that in different ways, work consciously with the conventions of “crime” stories and emerge as almost fable-like achievements.  It is worth pondering exactly how this happens. In Point Blank, the surface fetishism of the culture are so finely rendered that one begins to feel that marinated-in  quality that often is felt in daily life if stuck in dense traffic on Beverly Blvd or the 605 freeway.  Also, Lee Marvin by that point in his career was iconic and allowed himself to move through the proceedings less as an actor than as pure presence.  There is a political backdrop to Point Blank (and certainly more overtly in a film like Cutter’s Way) that has to do with the atomized alienation of the populace. In The Town there is, instead, a liberal sort of slumming that creeps into both the script, the performances (some of them) and in the mise en scene. Affleck simply isn’t an intuitive director. He is workmanlike, and it begs the question who the actual auteur of Gone Baby Gone really was.
A Fritz Lang, or a Billy Wilder, are always aware, acutely, of the authority structure. They distrust it and they fear it. Affleck one would suspect never even thinks about such things. In Animal Kingdom, there is never any doubt about the various ways the society exploits and chews up people – on both sides of the criminal fence. The Coen brothers are a bit like Affleck, in the sense that they distance themselves from these realities, and if asked (even by themselves) to render such realities, they do it without resorting to real sweat and blood and tears.  It’s that faux classicism that masks a deeply bourgeois mind set.
In Gone Baby Gone, the performance of Casey Affleck offsets such shortcomings. He establishes himself from the start as against not just the other characters, but against the director as well. He is the lightning rod that helps us position ourselves in terms of  tweezing apart what matters in this confused moral landscape. This moral complexity, however, is mostly of Casey Affleck’s making, rather than director Ben.  In The Town, the moral landscape is absent. It’s not another apologia for the police state, it’s simply that those questions are kept out of the film. And again, part of this is casting. The film turns sentimental not through plot so much as through rendering a reductive universe in which the real history of Boston’s working class neighborhoods is seen as if on display in  a Disney Theme park. IF the world that is given us is one dimensional – in social terms at least – sentimentalizing will occur because ANY emotion will be disproportionate.
The universe of Bellman and True or Point Blank is one of pure irrationality, and everyone is a victim of it.  There is no room for the sentimental. Same in Winter’s Bone, the narrative is tied so closely to the social reality of the specific region, that even the characters resonate with the shared pain of their collective history.
It is as if in The Town, the ensemble cast is caught up in a rip tide created by the marketing arm of the studio – of maybe of all studios – and only Cooper (and to smaller degree Renner) manage to step away from the undertow and look at the proceedings as we, the audience, do.  The role of actor in today’s film is being re-drawn somehow.  It may relate to a surveillance society in which everyone is always caught in the gaze of the camera, or perhaps its simply a reality TV conditioned psychology at work, where the effects I describe are as much my fault as the actors.  It’s likely that both these forces, and others, are at work in this.  This brings us to the notion of “character” in film and theater today. This is a huge topic that would of necessity lead us back to Dante and Shakespeare, if not Sophocles and Homer.  Film has always trafficked in various short hands and codes. In films such as The Town, we find ourselves running smack up against the outer walls that contain what is left of the notion of traditional definitions of character. Its not the simplistic short hand of cartoons like The Blind Side (or any other of fifty films in the last three years) but of something more elusive.  Jon Hamm’s FBI agent walks through the film as if on loan from his TV show….and so he is. It’s not a cliché role, so much as a non-role. It’s barely a mannequin that we see up there on the screen. It’s only the most fragile of signifiers at work, in context, that gives us any idea about what this “character” is supposed to be doing. These signifiers have been learned through decades, now, of TV (and film).  We know when this happens, then this will follow. This is what this “character” must do – for he IS this sort of character.
One wonders if such reactions on the part of an audience translate further into our social selves. I suspect they do.  An era of reductive texting passing as communication and of constant recording of “reality” by various kinds of cameras, means just the sheer rapidity of these images and sounds have given us, even if we don’t want them, an endless semi-conscious loop that plays 24 hours a day.  We dream in signifiers now, I’m guessing.
In any event, The Town fails horribly to capture any sense of the fatalistic – in the way a Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop The Rain (or even a Nightmoves does, or certainly an Out of the Past) manage. That fatalistic dimension, what directors like Lang and Siodmak and Wilder and even Ford used as daily currency for the narrative they spun is now all but impossible to put on the screen. With films like Animal Kingdom we come close, and also in Winter’s Bone, but it’s a diluted version. Those films compensate in other ways; but the pure existential dread of directors like Boetticher or Tourneur or Lang or even  Aldrich seems gone.
Watch Point Blank again, and watch Marvin walk purposefully down the empty corridor, and hear those wingtips echo off the floor….. and think if such a scene is any longer possible.

John Steppling
Yucca Valley


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