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The Year in Movies: Somewhere Over the ‘Rambo’

Moviegoers need a rest from the latest trend: Reach out and grip someone.

Chuck Norris, INVASION USA

Chuck Norris heavily armed and looking for his ememies in a scene from the film 'Invasion USA', 1985.

Cannon Films/Getty

In Invasion U.S.A., a Chuck Norris picture, a group of foreign pinko terrorists cruises into Small Town, America, where families are trimming their Christmas trees. What follows is sort of an anticommunist How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

“Supper is ready!” calls Mom to her brood, but the work’s not quite done, and it’s no time for food. “Can the star go up, please?” a wee thing implores. “After dinner,” says Dad, and he tugs her indoors. But the lass won’t be swayed: in a second or three, she sneaks out of the house and climbs up that old tree. She pops on the star, then she smiles at her work; the Commies observe, and they give her a smirk. They take out their rocket launch, Uzis and pistols; “Buenas noches, you capitalist pig-dogs,” one whistles. In an instant, that home is a fiery hell, and the Commies start wasting the neighbors as well. Here’s Dad, he’s in flames, rat-tat-tat goes the gun. Here come Fido and Junior, rat-tat, this is fun! Now no one’s alive who can come out and play: O, where is the man who will blow them away?

Kind of makes you angry, that scene. For the rest of Invasion U.S.A. — and you can substitute Code of Silence, or Rambo, or Commando — we don’t just want Chuck to kill those guys, we want him to hurt them. We want to see their look of terror when they know the end has come, to hear Chuck announce, “It’s time to die,” and then blow them to that Big Red Collective in the sky. We might not respect the filmmakers’ talents, but we’re feeling what they want us to feel; we’re gripped.

It’s a worn-out adjective, gripping, but easy to use. I resorted to it myself this year to evoke, in a word, my labored breathing and tightened muscles at some second-rate melodrama. I got quoted in the ads, too: “Gripping!” sells pictures. So do “Wrenching!” and “Searing!” and my favorite, “Riveting!” (as in, “I was riveted to the screen!” — a gruesome, Friday the 13th kind of metaphor that’s commonplace now). But I doubt I’ll use the word again as praise. There are some folks you just don’t want gripping you, and places you just don’t want gripped.

Sure, all art is manipulative, and it would be naive — and dumb — to suggest that a movie should never, in the memorable words of Neil Gabler, “get down on its hands and knees and grab you by the lapels.” Take a classic like Jaws, which tweaks you, fakes you out, immerses you in summery sensations and then clamps down hard. Its visceral techniques seemed fresh in 1975, and so did its director, Steven Spielberg. But its spawn has been grim; in 1985, Hollywood teems with sharks less talented. From Rambo to Goonies, from Code of Silence to Cocoon, the filmmakers give us no choice: prepare ye to be gripped.

The critic David Thomson asserts that Alfred Hitchcock conducted an audacious experiment in Psycho: he regarded the viewer as a sequence of buttons to be pushed. No more an individual, no longer free to think, the sucker could be made to drool on cue. Hitchcock’s strategy was the product of his curdled world view, his unyielding sense of original sin, but his techniques have been co-opted by hack directors and marketing men. These boys, now in top slots at the studios, want nothing left to chance — they want responses to their pictures programmed. And where Hitchcock and Spielberg will float like butterflies and sting like bees, their mimics just pummel the shit out of you. What’s remarkable today is that the public demands to be assaulted: Make me laugh, make me cry, make me scream, give me a roller-coaster ride, give me a hard-on, do it to me.

Rambo does it to you, to put it blandly, and it’s the second-biggest moneymaker of 1985 — what you call hell, Sly Stallone calls $150 million domestic. Incessant paramilitary action is the New Wave in Hollywood, and automatic weapons are its surfboards. The war movies open with a massacre (of good guys) and close with a massacre (of bad guys): in between they sprinkle killings like chocolate chips. Bon appétit. The he-man drops a zinger — “Go ahead, make my day,” “It’s time to die!” or (in the case of Stallone) a resolute “Fockkk You!” — and then shoots. How far we’ve come from the days when Pauline Kael, in her review of The French Connection, feared that movies would amount to little more than “jolts for jocks.” Now The French Connection looks like a character study; we’re pathetically grateful for whatever bits of humor, good acting and style the filmmakers deign to pitch in. With a coarsened aesthetic comes coarsened politics: you don’t hear a lot about the brotherhood of man. Right-wing paranoids are hipsters; the liberals are retro or, worse yet, psycho. Some breezy souls think it’s square to get uptight about this sharpen-your-arrows-and-paint-your-face world view; Rambo and its ilk, they argue, are just big-screen videogames. But you have to be fairly obtuse (or perverse) to separate the national addiction to being gripped from its approach to the issues of the day. People are eager to be led, to work off their aggression through leaders who’ll talk about battling the commies and bashing the street scum. There’s an impatience with complexity, a willful simple-mindedness — a subordination of thought to knee-jerk emotions. And the current cinema both caters to and nurtures it.

Of course, lots of people love these movies for their tongue-in-cheek tackiness — it’s the Eighties, after all, and irony is mainstream. But irony doesn’t neutralize a work’s message. These films take a regressive, fantasy-land urge — to go back and win the Vietnam War, to knock off an entire population instead of accepting our losses and learning from them — and spin it into a “gripping” nationalist myth. Does anyone buy this cotton-brained revisionism? Well, the sad truth is that a lot of people get their politics from movies — our president, for instance, who invoked the name of Rambo in the aftermath of the TWA hostage crisis. If that has nothing to do with politics, I’ll eat my army helmet.

This emotional demagoguery goes far beyond politics, and it isn’t confined to rock-’em, sock-’em action pictures. Plenty of directors want to fold us all together into one gooey lump of humanity, as if movies could, at best, capture some of the excitement of rock concerts. Who has the energy to fight these things off? Take Cocoon: here’s a tender, generous comedy-fantasy set in an old folks’ home; here’s physical rejuvenation courtesy of cute extraterrestrials; here’s geezers whisked off in a saucer; here’s Opie’s valentine to Aunt Bee. But the feelgood movie of 1985 sits like Mexican food in the stomach. The only reason these old folks get happy is their renewed physical strength; and the only reason they’ve got that is a close encounter of the third kind. If I were over seventy, I imagine I’d be upset over the lack of options Cocoon suggests — if anything, it sort of makes the case for euthanasia. But it’s rather sweet on that score: Come, Grandpa and Grandma, you too can touch aliens, you too can join the Spielberg Generation.

Even the great Spielberg has joined the Spielberg Generation — he has begun to imitate, even parody, himself. In Goonies he tooled an empty, mechanical thrill machine, a roller coaster, a fun house, a scrambler, a Tilt-a-Whirl, a log flume — everything but a movie. (A friend was pissed off that he hadn’t gotten wet.) At least Spielberg’s Back to the Future, the year’s biggest hit (directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and David Gale) had some clever gags and an intriguing twist on the Oedipus complex — unfortunately in a tame, conventional package. The other kiddie sci-fi pictures bombed outright: Weird Science, Real Genius, My Science Project, D.A.R.Y.L., Explorers and so on. Stinkeroo, too, were more earthbound teen-sex comedies, the ones about gawky guys, beautiful bimbos and the “nice” girl next door who always escorts the hero to the land of True Love. The marketing guys ordered more and more teen pix — “We’ve got ’em by the balls!” they cried. But the audience’s boredom was swift and deadly. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat: no more teen pix.

What did people turn out for? They flocked to Susan Seidelman’s pleasant, dawdling Desperately Seeking Susan, which made a dumb-dumb sitcom plot look pretty and hip and gave Madonna a chance to strut her stuff; and to its antithesis, After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s gripping (oops) but finally repetitive vision of SoHo (and sexual freedom) as a yuppie’s Walpurgisnacht. They went to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which proved (a) that Woody can still be funny and (b) that he can’t really stomach being funny, since comedy is at best a narcotic — an escape from the awfulness of life. Some went to “grown-up” movies like Kiss of the Spider Woman, Wetherby, Dance with a Stranger, Plenty and Twice in a Lifetime, which all make a good case for Peter Pan. Most, it appears, stayed home and watched The Terminator on their VCRs.

There were a few Hollywood films that didn’t put a hammerlock on viewers: they courted ambiguity, and they left you with your head. Their relative success at the box office (none bombed, and a few were big hits) suggests that some folks are tired of the hard sell. And that, ultimately, is the only weapon for change. That, and standing up in Rocky IV, when Apollo Creed gets beaten to death in the ring by a Soviet Goliath, and hollering, “Yo! Stallone! Get off my face!”

Prizzi’s Honor. From Richard Condon’s novel comes a true black comedy (100 percent sentimentality-free), a sly blend of The Godfather and The Honeymooners. “I didn’t get married so my wife could go on working,” says its hero, Charley (Jack Nicholson), but the line sounds peculiar when the man is a hired killer and his wife is his competition. In the course of the film, they cut people down in cold blood and ultimately turn on each other; you’re left with a vision of marriage (and genuine emotional ties) in which the wife loads her gun in the bathroom while the husband lays his knife beside his pillow. “Do I marry her? Do I ice her? What?” asks Charley, and the choice is tough. Prizzi’s Honor subverts courtship, marriage, family loyalties and religion. It’s the year’s best film by a crooked mile, directed with wry solemnity by John Huston and acted with bravura by Nicholson (a homicidal Ed Norton), Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston.

Lost in America. Albert Brooks’ brilliant comic odyssey, in which a yuppie (Brooks) gets fired from his advertising job and bullies his mousy wife (Julie Hagerty) into selling their worldly goods, buying a Winnebago and setting out to find America — to “touch Indians.” The pompous but big hearted Brooks is both the hero and goat of all his work: he wants to dazzle and appall you simultaneously. And damned if he doesn’t. Lost in America becomes a hilarious antitravelogue, the tale of a man too concerned with projecting his own romantic fantasies on the land to notice what’s really there. Yet the satire is deeply sympathetic, even touching — as in his previous films, Real Life and Modern Romance, Brooks understands the deep, disruptive element of the greatest comedies, and the sadness from which they spring.

Witness. Peter Weir’s delicately woven, wide-eyed thriller views familiar macho cop-movie rituals from an Amish child’s perspective. Set in a rigidly separatist Amish community, the film asks (as the Amish ask) how one can live in a degenerate society without being of it, and comes up with no answers, no reconciliation. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling — funny, romantic, mystical and harsh. And the country does wonders for Harrison Ford: one expects Indiana Jones and meets, instead, a human being.

Sweet Dreams. A draggy, badly structured biopic of Patsy Cline (Jessica Lange) that’s bored by its typical biopic big moments: the first record, the Grand Ole Opry, the “meaning” of the music. Instead, it’s about the relationship of an ornery hell-raiser (Ed Harris) and a vital, earthy woman — a maltreated wife who doesn’t go under. It’s Stand By Your Man But Don’t Take No Shit, full of brawling, infidelity and more honest-to-Gawd affection than any ten other love stories. You don’t expect emotional realism in this kind of movie; you do expect a fabulous performance by Jessica Lange, and she surpasses expectations. Here is the soul of Cline’s music — raw, full-bodied and immeasurably moving.

Blood Simple. Okay, this one’s manipulative as hell, but in the vein of Jaws — it makes you love having the rug pulled out from under you. It’s a black comedy of missed connections: no one but the audience ever knows what’s going on, and as the people grow more paranoid, the blood flows as lavishly as marinade at a Texas barbecue. Blood Simple was directed by Joel Coen and written by him and his brother, Ethan; they shot it with money from numerous small financiers, and it was distributed by Circle Releasing Corporation, one of several small outfits that have begun to commission their own modest projects. This could be the future for directors who don’t want a lot of itchy marketing men fiddling with their work. And as long as they can meet their payrolls …

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. You’re going to think I’m nutso to take this over well-meaning dreck like Twice in a Lifetime or Eleni or A Chorus Line, and I have one response: I know you are but what am I. This is a visionary comedy, a lunatic odyssey spun out of childish delight and childish malice. Pee-wee is an obnoxious little bugger — a high-camp Buster Keaton — but time after time he scores. With his bicycle and bric-a-brac and tiny shaved-and-painted longhaired chihuahua, Speck, he’s the model user of American technology, grotesque and kitschy and unashamed. Directed with dash by Tim Burton, Peewee’s Big Adventure is a marvel of mushrooming tackiness.

Re-Animator. Stuart Gordon’s hilariously yucko mad-scientist movie concerns a young man (Jeffrey Combs) who gives life (sort of) to dead tissue. It’s a splatter flick, all right, but it’s also a genuine farce — full of devious asides, worst-possible-moment entrances and shriekingly gory sight gags. The special effects (including a peel-back-the-forehead brain autopsy and a large intestine that unravels and strangles someone) suggest a punchy third-year med student’s irreverence for the body; one thinks of Joe Orton’s Loot or the film A Private Function.

I mention Re-Animator in part because a television critic who had wet dreams over Rambo (“What a movie! The action is nonstop!”) called it “the most repulsive film I have ever seen.” That’s a hoot, since the gore in Re-Animator is so outlandish that it’s hard to take seriously, whereas the coarse and ugly-spirited Rambo is hard to laugh off. And for gross-me-out close-ups, I’ll take a brain operation to Stallone’s heaving pectorals any day. Here’s to more Re-Animators, and to a smarter, classier cinema, where heads get lopped off only on the screen.

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