Friday, 25 November 2011

Marx Hard

I'm about to not only suck the fun out of one of the most beloved and accomplished American action films ever made, but also suggest the all-American money making machine that is Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) is actually thinly veiled communist propaganda. Sorry about that.

I've always thought that Die Hard made a nice parallel to the works of Karl Marx. It is a story about a working class hero who, along with many other innocents, is thrust into peril by a battle between capitalists. Our hero then has to rise up, quite literally, and overthrow (or indeed throw over) one such capitalist and as he falls to the floor his bag of money splits distributing his wealth to the working men and women below.

Whenever I've talked about this half-baked theory it's always been something of a semi-joke. I mean this is Die Hard, the seminal representation of American might against euro-trash nancies made during a period of immense western greed. Yet having read over some of Marx's writings I couldn't help but notice that the similarities are shared right down to the fine details. Let me attempt to sum up Marx's ideas in a woefully inadequate word count:

Marx believed that the driving force of humanity was to make ourselves better through the application of hard work, or labour. Yet with the rise of capitalism humankind was forced to abandon working for self betterment and instead made to sell its labour to help feed the economy. While those that owned the industrial complexes, factories and businesses (the bourgeoisie) reaped the financial benefits those that were selling off their labour (the proletariat) were left with just enough to survive and a lifetime of making other people richer. This, Marx argues, perverted the very thing that defined humanity. The proletariat, therefore, found themselves in a de-humanising downward cycle, while the bourgeoisie just got richer and richer.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

I'm a New York cop. I got a six-month backlog on New York scumbags I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just pick up and go that easy.” John McCLane, chatting with Argyle and a giant stuffed bear.

John McClane is very much a definitive proletarian. Although the Police can be seen in some respects as part of the authority controlled by the bourgeoisie, in the fantasy of film the cop is a heroic, noble profession, normally driven by a natural instinct for liberty even if pursuing it breaks the laws set by the ruling power. In that respect, the movie cop is a revolutionary character.

Yet McClane talks about his work as if it's a desk job, stripped of all its nobility and purpose and reduced to nothing more than a pile of paperwork. McClane is somewhat tired, as if life has rung the drive out of him then thrown him to the sink with the other dried flannels. He is also out of place in the world of money and technology he finds himself in.

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Cute toy” John McClane, confused by touch screen

Nakatomi plaza is a gleaming monument that celebrates financial gain. Models of worldwide projects (the detrimental effects on indigenous populations are explicitly referenced later on in the film) while the luxurious offices are filled with burgeoning capitalists, who are in most cases proletariat hoping to chum up to those in power. We'll get to that in a moment.

When McClane is faced with this strange soulless world he is immediately confused, disorientated and then, to kick him when he is down, has his nose rubbed in the fact that he is of a lower status by Ellis, the typical hairy, money grabbing, coke-faced dick monkey (my words, not Marx's). And in front of McClane's wife no less. Ah, the wife...

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

No matter the consequences, no matter what it did to our marriage, you had to take this opportunity” John McClane, digging a hole for himself.

The McClane marriage is a mess. Driven by the desire for a career, Holly changes her name, takes the kids and moves states to the sunny horizons of California, leaving John wallowing in the filthy crime-ridden streets of New York. The requirement to earn money has driven this family apart and exposes McClanes inadequacy as a romantic (a skill not able to produce any kind of commodity and therefore not developed), yet he cannot help but see that the seductive lure of capitalism may steal his wife faster than his insensitivity can drive her away. And that is when all hell breaks loose.

The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

You got some bad-ass perpetrators and they're here to stay” John McClane, stating the obvious.

Hans Gruber and his gang of mercenaries bust into Nakatomi Towers and, under the guise of politicised freedom fighters, attempt one of the most audacious corporate take-overs in history. I had trouble placing Gruber in Marx's writings at first but eventually I found a passage that summed him up.

In this way arose feudal socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core, but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”

The feudal socialist is a throw-back to the aristocracy that suffered in the formation of the new economy system. They often attack the bourgeoisie but under the guise of a more noble pursuit, in many cases pretending to fight for the proletariat. It's obvious Gruber is from a family used to luxury and, to some degree, pomposity. Yet just as obviously he is in a position requiring quick cash, rather than money earned or inherited. He does this under the pretence of a revolutionary group attempting to free political prisoners and as Holly points out, for all his posturing he is just a common thief.

Importantly this highlights the desire to attain status. Both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are classifications that denote the capacity for political action, yet between those bookends sit those trying to attain status.  These are the people that, unable to attain any real shift in meaningful political power, instead attempt to merely appear more important through the acquisition of money and some small authority. This can be seen in the staff at Nakatomi towers, as mentioned earlier, but is studied in greater detail in the law enforcement offices on the streets below.

Special Agents Johnson and Johnson have acquired the most status. They are of course beholden to the same laws as everyone else and no doubt will have a superior of their own to give them shit, so they revel in the authority over the rest of the ground crews their status permits. Strutting around in their suits they order city engineers to cut off the power to whole blocks and smugly put down the efforts of both McClane and the rest of the Police force.

Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson is a man desperate for status. Constantly aghast at the damage to bourgeoisie property and ready to suck up to the agents at every possible turn, he is a pathetic creature so devoid of soul that he now looks to how he can improve his lot in life by distancing himself from the proletariat and snuggling up to those whom seem more important than he. He is the dehumanised cog in the capitalist machine that Marx feared the workers would turn into.

At the other end of the scale is Sgt. Al Powell. This man is who John McClane used to be. Bright, enthusiastic, optimistic, possibly naïve. With a new baby on the way he is ready to settle down into his job behind a desk, making money to support his family (not yet divided by the pressures of selling labour) and gradually become absorbed into the machine the way Dwayne no doubt was. Luckily for him, McClane eventually shows him the necessity for decisive action.

The bourgeoisie... in all these battles... sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus to drag it into the political arena... it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” John McClane, dead man's jumper.

Using weapons and explosives pilfered from the invading money-grabbers McClane scurries through the dirty metal service tunnels that spread through the building like veins and lurks in the maintenance rooms reserved for workers, subverting their segregative function and using them instead as tools to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Joining forces with the true members of the proletariat (Powell and Holly) McClane seeks to destroy the very foundations essential to the survival of the bourgeoisie.

The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society... They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna fuckin' cook you, and I'm gonna fucking eat you! ” John McClane, fucking someone's shit up.

Marx saw the only way to abolish the bourgeoisie was to not only tear down its foundations but ensure no minority took back control. Thereby distribution of wealth and power was essential. Gruber's stolen money is flung into the night sky to float to the waiting emergency services below.

Wealth successfully distributed.

Those that chose to pursue status right to the end are either humiliated (or "butt-fucked on national TV"), or incinerated in a ball of fire. And what of Gruber? He is felled by a rolex watch, perhaps the ultimate symbol of eighties greed and an overt message that the commodities capitalists fetishise are the very things that will cause their undoing.

Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”... Marx's sentiments exactly.

I'm unsure as to whether Roderick Thorp, the writer of the book the film was based on, screen writer Steven De Souza or Director John McTiernan had any major left-wing ideals but then that's not really the point of this piece. Whether Die Hard is or isn't a reflection of Marx's communist manifesto is irrelevant. What is important is that it highlights quite why Die Hard is such a critically acclaimed film. For all its blood and thunder, it is a densely layered piece offering rewards for those willing to look for them.

Whether it is left-wing, homoerotic, satirical or just plain thrilling, It will always be a masterpiece of American cinema. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Total Cults Podcast #19: Collector's Edition

Join Trick and Gogol for this very special collector's edition, director's cut, extended podcast. In 3D. Except it's not extended, or particularly special. CLICK THE TITLE to get the MP3. I know we've been a bit vague about this in the past, then we got all good doing the easy YouTube versions, but CLICK THE TITLE. It's there. Waiting for you.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Total Cults Podcast #18: Alternate Versions

A moment of explanation about this week's podcast, which is a gripping journey into the world of alternate versions of movies. Here's the explanation: CLICK THE TITLE ABOVE TO DOWNLOAD THE MP3. The YouTube version will be along in due course, but the podcast is already awaiting you behind the title directly above. In previous weeks when we haven't had the YouTube version up, we've had a couple of puzzled emails asking why there was a blurb and apparently no podcast. It's there already, waiting for you. Gogol and Trick examine their favourite alternate versions and director's cuts, trying not to just bang on about the same things they always do. See how they fare!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Gogol's Triple Bills: Relatively Tame Genre Movies with Unexpected and Bizarre Non-Consensual Sex Scenes

Non-consensual sex on film is deeply problematic and one that requires serious consideration by both those committing it to film and those who consume it. However this article is not looking at the act itself, or the implications on gender representation it has, rather how these three films place the scenes into their narrative with a devil-may-care approach to tone and logic. How appalling the acts on display are take second place to an overwhelming sense of bewilderment at the process of decision making that lead to these creative choices. So take a deep breath, there will be alcohol rub for your soul on the way out.

1.  The New Barbarians (Enzo Castellari, 1983)

After Mad Max power-slid his interceptor into the brains of movie-going audiences, while at the same time displaying a template for an inherently cost-effective genre, there was a surge of copy-cat productions that flooded the market. The Italians, not one to pass up a chance to jump on the armour-plated bandwagon, cranked out some beauts of their own. The New Barbarians is a fine example of such a work.

In a post-apocalyptic wasteland a nomadic tribe of survivors are hounded by the oppressive Templars; a well organised and equipped fanatical religious order. Standing between the two is Scorpion, a rugged anti-hero with a cool super-charged car and shoulder pads. The film features some car chases, nice explosions, some relatively convincing splatter and the added bonus of Fred Williamson in golden armour, blowing up peoples heads with his explosive arrows. Y'know, the usual stuff.

Towards the end of the second act Scorpion is captured by the Templars and strung up in the desert on display. The leader of the Templars spouts his rhetoric as he gets ready to torture Scorpion into giving up his futile resistance. It's a fairly familiar scene and plods along without any real surprise...

Right up until Scorpion is sodomized.

Yep, the bad guy rapes the hero in front of everyone. Now Scorpion is by no means as iconic as, say, Han Solo, but narratively speaking this is the equivalent of Vader deciding against carbonate and feeling up Han while Chewie buried his face in his paws instead.

Scorpion is rescued and the third act plays out just as conventionally as the rest of the film. The scene in question has no bearing on anything before or after it and tends to leave you thinking whether you might have just imagined it.

2.  Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (William Dear, 1982)

Before Fred Ward took Remo Williams on an adventure, he took Lyle Swann; a motocross ace trying to beat a speed record, on an adventure of his own. During his record attempt Swann is accidentally sent back through time and into the Wild West. Once a band of outlaws spy his “mechanical horse” they pursue him across the desert until he takes refuge in a run-down town. There isn't a naughty word spoken and what little violence there is is nothing worse than you'd see at a Wild West show. All in all it's a fairly harmless piece of fluff, at least it is to start with.

I must say my spider-sense should have started tingling early on in the film. As Swann finds himself lost, though not yet aware he has been sent back in time, he decides to go for a bit of naked swimming in a nearby stream. As he does he is observed by Claire, a local woman who eventually ends up hiding him. It's all fairly tasteful and great care is taken to obscure Swann's rude bits.  Swann leaves the bike and approaches his clothes. A full skinny-dipping scene and not a single moment of nudity, surely thats your PG secured... right?

Just as you think you're out of the mine-field, however, they decide to throw in a full frontal shot of Fred as he dries himself. Now the shot is brief and from a distance so that the, how shall we say, “detail” is quite difficult make out.

I convinced myself I must have been mistaken and carried on with the film. By the time Swann arrives in town I was noticing a distinct lack of both production value and drama. Aside from the above blip this was playing out like a feature length episode of Knight Rider, or some other vehicle based American show from the 80's, and my interest was beginning to wane.

It is at this point the romantic subplot comes in, or so you might assume. While in town Claire takes him on a lovely tour showing him around her quaint home and as the cultural gulf twixt eras dissolve and their souls grow close Claire forces him to have sex with her at gunpoint.

Wait, what???

I would like to suggest the title of this film is changed to The Humiliation of Lyle Swann. And that's not all, oh my no. You see later on Swann finds out that Claire is his Great Grandmother! I can imagine the BBFC breakdown:

Time travel, Western, Adventure
Infrequent, mild
Infrequent, mild
Incestuous rape! INCESTUOUS RAPE!

3.  Black Belt Jones 2 (Tso Nam Lee, 1978)

Black Belt Jones 2 isn't exactly the most surprising movie to feature such a scene but is here due to its utterly baffling execution. 

This Jim Kelly vehicle has a distinct lack of decent fight scenes and, frankly, entertainment value in general. I'd made it half way and was considering turning it off when the scene in question occurred. A female character visits a gangland boss (who it is implied she had a previous relationship with) to convince him to let her current boyfriend off a debt (or something). The unpleasant fellow agrees but it is going to cost her dearly.

He stands her on a footrest and rips off her dress. We are then subjected to a sequence where we repeatedly cut between closeups of the woman's breasts and the mans bulging, ogling eyes. This little sequence well overstays its welcome and when it ends its something a relief.

Then the sexy saxophone music starts and you're immediately wishing for more shots of tits and eyes. As the horrendously sleazy and inappropriate music plays he manoeuvres her to the bed and proceeds to have sex with her. Well, he lays on top of her and kisses her shoulders, but we get the idea.

It is then that this inept and unpleasant scene becomes transcendental, bursting free of being a simple, unwanted bit of misogyny and taking flight into the world of the bewilderingly insane.

As the man ups his pace, we are suddenly treated to the intercutting of photographs of formula one racing cars and the sounds of their roaring engines and crowds cheering. I at first assumed this was a way of transitioning to a scene at a race track. Yet the following scene, and indeed the rest of the film, has nothing to do with racing.

I have shown this scene to a number of people well-versed in reading film and not one could find meaning in it. It remains something of an enigma and one that continues to challenge me. I have never recommended a film on the grounds of it having a scene such as this, but it is a truly baffling piece of cinema and the only reason I still own that film. You can pick it up in most pound shops and I believe it is up on youtube. But I must warn you, it contains frequent sweaty man, moderate boobage and is not recommended for anyone planning on having sex that week.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Total Cults Podcast #17: Titles

Trick and Gogol are horrified by the titles of the new Die Hard and 007 movies, and so begin a journey into titles. If you've liked the other 16 podcasts, odds are you'll like this one too.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Frankenstein is the Monster from Hell

Martin is attending a party. While the orchestra unfolds gentle waves of delicate music and a man in a quasi-Georgian outfit swoops between the guests balancing a tray of impossibly stacked gold-foil confectionaries Martin captures the gaze of the Countess. She snakes seductively across the ballroom floor and, with brazenness greater than one would expect from someone who spends so much time crafting such an elegant appearance, asks Martin softly the question he hoped she’d ask:

What are your favourite movie monsters?”

Martin tells her he favours the classics and enthusiastically lists those that have captured, and haunted, his imagination. Yet so enthusiastic is he that he refers to Frankenstein’s monster as merely “Frankenstein”. The faux par is compounded as a passing guest comments smugly that Frankenstein is the name of the creator, not the name of the monster and before Martin knows what is happening the Countess is looking at him like he’s got shit on his lip.

We’ve all been there.

Yet there is validity in referring to Frankenstein as one of your favourite monsters.

Christopher Lee's Dracula has, for me, become the iconic realisation of the literary monster, more so than Lugosi's. Yet the Hammer version of Frankenstein's monster has not burnt its image into my mind in the same way. It is easy to initially conclude that this is because each film presented us with a new monster, with not only different designs but entirely different conceptualisations.  The prime reason, however, that the monster was never as iconic as the Universal version was that Hammer films were less interested in assembling a monster, but in disassembling the creator.

In The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) Peter Cushing provides a fairly conventional portrayal of Victor Frankenstein. He is a man of ambition and scientific skill convinced of the benefits he intends to bring to mankind. Yet so absorbed with the benefits is he that he can't see the horrors he must unleash to achieve them.  For the most part, Frankenstein is as sympathetic a character as the pitiful creature he creates.  As we see his gradual descent into villainy we want to reach into the screen and shake him back to morality.  Alas, the moment he sacrifices an innocent women to his creature is the moment he is lost to us, falling into the role of villain entirely.

This struggle between ambition and evil permeates the next three sequels. As the Doctor dodges capture and execution to continue his unconventional medical experiments he openly displays a desire to advance medical science and compassion for his 'patients', yet equally displays callousness, a skill for manipulation and at times a complete disconnect with humanity.  Yet it is possible to argue that the disconnect with humanity is the objectivity a scientist this ambitious would need.  This is what makes Doctor Frankenstein such an engaging and layered character.  He is so brilliant and so utterly dedicated that you want him to get a grip and apply himself to more ethical pursuits.  But just as you reach out to try and rescue some hint of humanity, he sweeps your legs away with an act so monstrous even Dracula would be embarrassed to hang out with him.

By the time we get to Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (Terence Fisher, 1969) Victor Frankenstein has escaped capture by mounting a full-blown home invasion, blackmailing and manipulating a local Doctor and his wife into not only hiding him from the law but aiding him in his experiments.  There are absolutely no redeeming qualities in Frankenstein as he takes on the role of villain entirely, going as far to adopt the role of monster when he rapes the Doctor's wife.

In Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher, 1974), Cushing's final portrayal, we find a seemingly mellow Victor in a prison for the criminally insane.  A former inmate, he has used his considerable aptitude for manipulation to take over the asylum.  He uses this position, however, to simply (or seemingly) treat the other inmates.   This, alongside the nefarious company he is forced to keep (psychotic killers, sadistic wardens and the prison director who sexually abuses not only the female prisoners but his own daughter), puts Victor in the unusual position of being the morally superior one.

Even when we eventually find he has been up to his usual tricks, it is the Frankenstein of old: caught between ambition and compassion, he is passionate and desperate to prove to the world he can save those who have passed on regardless of the boundaries he must cross.

The monster he creates is possibly one of the most sympathetic, yet is also one of the most successful. One begins to wonder that if Victor finally succeeded then the legitimisation of his work would allow him to leave behind the illegitimate practices that got him there. Yet, once again, the moment you start to see things from his side he reminds you of how appallingly monstrous he actually is. After revealing quite how manipulative he has been, he tops it all by suggesting the one entirely innocent character (the aforementioned abused daughter of the prison director) be forced to 'mate' with the monster.

What an inhuman, misogynist shit.

As you'd expect it all goes pretty badly for him and his creation is rather graphically pulled to pieces before his horrible intentions are realised.   Yet Frankenstein simply wipes down his hands and smugly theorises how he will improve the process next time round. We leave him having escaped scott-free with a whole asylum full of fresh 'donors' that no-one will miss.  As the last of Hammer's Frankenstein films we never get to see him stand trial for his crimes.  Unlike most monsters, this son-of-a-bitch has got away with it.

Cushing's Frankenstein is a unique incarnation. His gaunt body and unnaturally protrusive cheekbones presents a vision as iconic as any foam latex and face-paint creature put on screen. And whereas most monsters keep coming back to wreck more havoc, his creations are dead and buried by the time the credits roll. It is he, a human bereft of any supernatural ability, that returns for more.  A skinny scientist mingling with the princes of darkness, brutish serial killers and dream demons in the horror halls of fame while his many monstrous creations look in through the windows.

So the next time someone tries to smugly correct you, you can tell them to brush up on their Hammer because in these films, Frankenstein is both creator and monster.