In the late 1960s many Hollywood films, responding to social movements mobilized around the issues of civil rights, poverty, feminism, and militarism that were cresting at that time, articulated critiques of American values and institutions. They transcoded a growing sense of alienation from the dominant myths and ideals of U.S. society. Film served as both an instrument of social criticism and a vehicle for presenting favorable representations of alternative values and institutions. “New Hollywood” films like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider were important not only for their social content. Some subverted the traditional narrative and cinematic representational codes of Hollywood filmmaking. Many employed a disjunctive editing that undermined passive viewing (The Graduate, Point Blank), used experimental camera techniques as thematic correlates (Midnight Cowboy), mixed genres like slapstick and tragedy (Bonnie and Clyde), employed color as an ironic or critical rather than expressive correlate of meaning (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), broke down the classical narrative patterns that had dominated the 1950s and early 1960s (Little Big Man), introduced camera and editing techniques derived from television that significantly altered the pace and format of film (M*A*S*H), and undermined the mixture of blithe cynicism, complacent naivete, and strained optimism that characterized the Cold War period (in some respects, a “Restoration Period” in Hollywood).
These films provided audiences with a new set of representations for constructing the world, new figures of action, thought, and feeling for positing alternative phenomenal and social realities, sometimes apart from, sometimes within the interstices of the dominant social reality construction. These alternative representations and figures were as important as the new institutions and laws brought into being by the direct actions of blacks, students, and women in the streets and legislatures during the period. Even though the social movements themselves could be repressed or contravened, those new figures of social understanding and behavior would become a permanent part of American culture. Perhaps the most important of these representations was that of the self or subject in rebellion against conservative authority and social conformity. It was the figure that marked the end of the fifties ideal of functional selflessness. Related representations included that of the “Establishment” as a set of outdated conservative values, of the police as an enemy rather than a friend, of the patriarchal family as an institution for the oppression of women, of the liberal ideal of consensus as a cloak for white racial domination, of the government as the slave of economic interests, especially war industry interests, of foreign policy as a form of neoimperialism, of Third World liberation struggles as heroic, of the value of subjective experiences related to mysticism and drugs, of the importance of the preservation of nature, of sexuality as a rich terrain of possibility rather than as an evil to be repressed, and of capitalism as a form of enslavement instead of a realm of freedom. This transformation of the dominant representations which determined how the commonly held sense of social reality was constructed would have lasting, indeed permanent effects. It would be impossible to return unquestioningly to the imposed discipline of the fifties or to restore the conservative order of sexual and moral propriety that prevailed prior to the sixties. A radical alternative culture came into being, one immune to the sort of McCarthyite repression that had silenced the radical culture of the twenties and thirties, because the new radicalism was as critical of the Soviet Union as it was of the United States. And that meant that the impunity with which the business-government class had acted, especially overseas, could no longer be assumed without opposition. Resistance had become a staple of American culture.
The major movements of the sixties were the black struggle for civil rights, the struggle against the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, and the New Left student movement. The sixties were also characterized by a high level of disaffection on the part of white middle class youth from the values and ideals of fifties America, the world of suburban houses, corporate jobs, “straight” dress and behavior, sexual repression, and social conformity. These alienated and rebellious youth took to the roads, dropped out of school, started communes, grew long hair, listened to rock music, took drugs, and engaged in the creation of alternative lifestyles to those associated with the bourgeois “Establishment.” We will begin our consideration of the sixties by looking at the phenomenon of alienation from and rejection of the “American Dream.”
The American ideology which came to be rejected by so many during this period consisted of a set of codes for understanding the world and living in it that derived from American institutions and helped reproduce and legitimate them. Those codes provided an essentially metaphoric version of U.S. history and society. A metaphoric representation is one which replaces a real version of events or an accurate account of social reality with an elevated ideal. An understanding of the phenomenon of alienation from and rebellion against such ideals is therefore inseparable from an understanding of the representational strategies used to undermine such ideological idealizations.
Crucial among these representations is the individualist male hero, the ideal of the just American war, a righteous vision of U.S. history, and the frontier myth of expanding possibilities for achievement and wealth that are available to all. Many revisionist films criticize the myth of the traditional American hero through reconstructive representations that clash with the hitherto prevalent Hollywood conventions. For example, in Little Big Man, one of the most popular films of 1970, General Custer is portrayed as a megalomaniacal butcher who deserved his fate. The critical representational strategy of the film consists of adopting the position of the Native Americans and of depicting the U.S. soldiers from outside as the enemy. At a time when domestic opposition to the Vietnam War was on the rise, a number of satiric and tragic films like M*A*S*H and Johnny Got His Gun departed from the tradition of the just American war by representing war as something stupid and inhumane. The mythic representation of the frontier is undermined in films like Soldier Blue and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which depict it as brutal. And the traditional representation of the ladder of individual success open to all talents is revised in critical films like Midnight Cowboy and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?— a film based, like Johnny, on a Depression-era novel. The revival of thirties leftism is also signaled by three critical films by directors from the heyday of the social problem film—Dassin’s Uptight, Biberman’s Slaves, and Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here—all of whom had been blacklisted.
The development of new narrative strategies in a number of these films is inseparable from their critiques of the major tenets of the American imaginary. The theme of individual success, like that of the great American patriotic tradition, is based in a narrative form. It is a story that entails a character, a plot, and a conclusion. Similarly, American history is a narrative with good and bad characters projected over actual events that moves from a happy beginning (the Founding Fathers) to an even happier conclusion (the present, or if that doesn’t work, the future). The frequent use of discontinuous, reflexive, and interrupted narratives in these films is thus not only a playful formal device. It gets at the heart of the American imaginary, inasmuch as that is based in narratives (of individual success, of American history, and so on).
The fact that the American imaginary is inseparable from cultural representations implies that its critique is inseparable from formal and generic revisions. Consequently, that critique is frequently carried out at the level of image construction, camera technique, editing, generic mixing, and so on. Neoexpressionist camera techniques are used in many films (The Graduate, for example) to transcode a sense of disillusion with bourgeois life, to connote the then-prevalent existentialist philosophy of the fleetingness of existence, and to render cinematically the new Romantic ethos of experience (“living for the moment”). These films represent in a positive way an alternative world of pleasure usually excluded from the bourgeois narrative of what a good life should be, what it should “look” or “read” like. Other films go to the other end of the stylistic spectrum, using exaggerated realism or naturalism to portray poverty and suffering, things omitted from the classical narrative of American life which were brought to public attention by Michael Harrington’s The Other America in 1962. The hovel scenes in Midnight Cowboy are shot in a flat documentary style that contrasts with the expressive rendering of the young anti-hero’s disillusionment. In addition, the traditional generic conventions that were consubstantial with the period of uncritical dominance of the tenets of the American imaginary began to be undermined. Alienated youth rebelled against the separation of work from meaning and value or the hiding of suffering behind happy, conformist façades. These topics are rendered cinematically as the mixing or undermining of genres that had in the previous era helped stabilize the world by dividing it into segregated, discrete realms (melodrama for women, westerns for men, comedy in a realm apart from tragedy, and so on). Now, the walls between the genres come down, permitting a crossing of representational boundaries that disrespects the principles of social order. One could sum up all of these revisions by saying that they represent a shift away from a metaphoric construction of social reality toward a more metonymic construction. Rather than present elevated ideals which transcend the material reality they supposedly represent or endow with meaning, these films tend to wrench those ideals out of the transcendental air and anchor them firmly in the rather messy materiality of history.
The Graduate (1967), one of the first alienation films, is the story of a college graduate who rejects his parents’ upper-class career track, has an affair with a much older woman, and finally flees with her daughter. Images of immersion in water suggest the claustrophobia of the bourgeois world, the cloying sense of its hypocrisy and emptiness, which many young people of the time were experiencing. And the career advice Ben (Dustin Hoffman) receives—“Plastics”—sums up what many young people of the era thought of the fifties world of their parents and of the career imperatives of the American Dream—that they were crass and artificial. Directed by Mike Nichols, The Graduate was a key alienation film of the period and was also the biggest box-office success of the late sixties. It was innovative in style, relying on imported French New Wave techniques—jump cuts, long takes with handheld cameras, tight close-ups—to render the experience of alienation from the American ideal of material success. Though weighted down by Christian imagery (Ben uses a cross to fight for his beloved Elayne) and a traditionalist romantic conclusion, the film nonetheless expanded the lexicon of the American cinema through editing and music primarily. In the credit sequence, Ben’s air of passivity as he is carried along an airport conveyor belt while a loudspeaker issues recorded instructions is reinforced by Simon and Garfunkel’s song “The Sounds of Silence.” The music and the imagery suggest he is a cipher in a world of mass conformity and social control, the mode of being alienated young people claimed a technological and technocratic society was imposing on them. The film’s critique is also executed through editing. Nonrealist transitions permit Ben to walk out of one space (his parents’ outdoor pool) and into another quite different one (the hotel room where he carries on his affair), thus establishing contiguous links that suggest the interchangeability of upper-class luxury and cynical adultery. The metonymic leveling of the metaphoric idealization of bourgeois success is realized fully at the end when the escaping young couple ride a common bus to freedom and leave behind their parents’ wealth.
In the other great rebellion film of 1967, Bonnie and Clyde, the story of two young Depression-era outlaws who are ultimately murdered by the police, images of imprisonment and confinement (the bars of a bed which represent the constraints a young woman feels in her working-class world) are juxtaposed to images of the open fields of nature to establish a simple trajectory of escape. Contrasts in visual texture and tempo code the escape as one from confinement and fragmentation to openness and continuity. Throughout the film, images of open fields, single tone colors, an expansive camera frame for exterior shots, and jaunty banjo music suggest liberation from the tight focus shots in small-town settings. While the young rebels are associated with brown earth, blue sky, freedom of movement, and dynamic music, the figures of Establishment authority are represented negatively in association with bleak, whitewashed prison settings and images of urban confinement. The film thus evokes the romanticism that was prevalent in the late sixties, which counterposed nature as a realm of freedom and equality to the authoritarianism of the Establishment. The style of the film is itself romantic. Close-ups are used expressively; the model of classically linear narrative is scuttled in favor of a more episodic mode of storytelling; color is used symbolically; and the frame functions to create significant still images of the interrelations between the protagonists and nature (the outlaw car set in a field at night). If metaphoric representational forms rely on codes to supply the meaning for the images, Bonnie and Clyde is metonymic to the extent that it enacts a process of decoding, of breaking down traditional meaning structures, by displaying the literal or material underpinning of the encoded metaphoric ideals. The traditional ideal of the good Texas Ranger is undermined when he is shown to be a cruel and cynical man who torments injured prisoners and cold-bloodedly kills the outlaws. Moreover, the film transgresses the boundaries that maintain generic propriety and unity by mixing several different modes, from comedy to slapstick to tragedy. The generic code is broken, as is the traditional code of the idealized hero. Neither Bonnie nor Clyde is isolated as a superior individual; indeed, it is the somewhat tragic interrelationship of the two that is probably the most metonymic feature of the film. They exist in contiguous association, common victims of a very brutal material reality.
Yet both The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde evidence the limitations of the sixties version of alienated white middle class rebellion. The alternatives posed to bourgeois conformity frequently took the form of a search for more personal, self-fulfilling experiences. The self (“doing one’s own thing”) became a criterion of authenticity, and in many ways this representation cohered perfectly with traditional American individualism. The subjective and expressive style of The Graduate (frequent point of view shots, meaning-laden similes—parents = fish in a bowl) thus correlates with the personalist alternative the film proposes. While the film positively affirms a refusal of work which was available at least to some at the time, it also portends the seventies social idiom of white professional class self-complacency (quiche, chablis, and hot tubbing). The radical gesture of Bonnie and Clyde is plagued by a similar limitation. It offers a permanent code-breaking as an alternative to passive suffering; yet, just as it is in the nature of this picaresque narrative style never to be able to terminate in any image of success (thus to become a domestic melodrama), so also it is in the nature of the social alternative of picaresque decoding never to be capable of offering the suffering “Okies” or displaced farmers of the Depression anything but a transient image of folk heroism (more Marx brothers than Marx). It is indicative of the prematurity of this social vision that it confines itself to thumbing its nose at the “Establishment” and complaining of the institutional violence of the law. In some respects, this also was a shortcoming of the rebellious and alienated white middle class side of the sixties.
Alienation from the “American Dream” assumed its most striking form during the period in the hippie counterculture. Founded on the values of a return to nature, of the virtue of preindustrial social forms like the commune, of the need to liberate oneself from “straight” behavior, especially regarding sexuality, of the ideal of a simple and more authentic life experience, usually gained with the aid of drugs, the counterculture seemed for a time to be in the process of constituting a genuine and permanent alternative to bourgeois life. But the effort was itself dependent on a well-fueled capitalist economy, which began to fizzle out in 1970, and dropping out soon gave way to caving in. Law school followed a quick shave and haircut for many former hippies.
Easy Rider (1968) was produced by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson’s BBS company, which also was responsible for other alienation classics of the time like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971). The story of two motorcycle-riding hippies who travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans to sell drugs and who are murdered by rural rednecks in the end, the film turned a small budget into a large profit and helped launch the “New Hollywood” of more “personal” and artistic independent films. It is in this film that the ambivalent ideology of sixties individualism is most evident. Such individualism is usually male and highly narcissistic. Consequently, the ride into nature which the bikers undertake is both a metaphor for the escape from urban oppression into the freedom of self-discovery and a synecdoche for male narcissistic regression to a warm, comforting maternal environment in the face of the constraints of modern mass life (signaled by the metal structures that seem to be devouring the bikers in a scene just before their death). Women are noticeably marginalized in the film; they appear as compliant sexual partners, prostitutes, or devoted wives. Moreover, although the hippie quest permits a critique of small-town southern provincialism, it is also essentially aimed toward an ideal of freedom that is highly traditional. Indeed, it recalls the Jeffersonian yeoman ideal of small rural capitalism. For example, at one point the bikers are compared to cowboys shoeing a horse in a medium shot which includes both within the frame. In a certain sense, the bikers’ ride is as much into the past as it is into the heartland.
While it is an exemplary sixties film, Easy Rider is also a good indicator of why much of what seemed radical in the hippie counterculture blended so easily with mainstream capitalist culture in the seventies. The most telling example of this tendency is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a best-selling novel of the time which became a major film in 1976. A romantic celebration of inspired male individualism and rebellion, it projects onto women responsibility for curtailing the great male’s quest, and the solution offered to this misogynist vision of castration is flight to nature. In Easy Rider, similarly, nature is portrayed as a Utopian space of narcissistic self-fulfillment. This narcissistic vision is coupled with paranoia or distrust regarding everything that curtails male desire, and indeed, the bikers are divided psychologically between the paranoid Billy (Dennis Hopper) and the narcissistic Wyatt (Peter Fonda). As in Bonnie and Clyde, the only solution to the quandary of having to live in a world of constraint while seeking a regressed “freedom” of maternal bonding is tragedy. Metaphorically, nature can be a mother (especially when suffused with rock music), but literally, all open roads lead eventually to modern cities, and the motorcycle that makes one natural and free is itself a modern technological device, not a horse. It is because this insistent literality cannot be transcended that the transcendent quest must end with death and a whine of self-pity. Politically, the film suffers from a similar conundrum. It is critical of a certain America, but it can also be read as merely enacting the fundamental principle of capitalist America—the freedom of the market, which is in some respects metaphorized as the freedom of the open road. The primary complaint against America in the film is that it is not American enough.
Late sixties “alienation and rebellion” films like Easy Rider are thus dominated by tropes of pathos and deviation. The camera is frequently in close-up, or else the lone individual is isolated in the frame against overcoded shots of natural settings. Narratively, the hero’s life progresses along a path away from normality rather than toward its discovery or restoration. By positioning the primary characters within order initially and developing them away from it, the films suggest a deficit, a poverty within normal life. They also suggest the constructedness of such normality, its basis in variable conventions. It is perhaps a drawback of the available lexicon for constructing alternative modes of social perception, alternative norms and social ideals, that few films exploit the theme of conventionality by positing alternative social constructs. Instead, most point to nature, an other which is outside civil society as the site of a new world. The films are dominated by metaphors which establish equivalences between nature and behavior counter to patriarchal, mainstream conformist, or legal norms.
The nature metaphors are part of a larger romantic rhetoric that characterizes the era. In film, this romanticism takes the form of eliciting empathy and identification with characters rather than situations, with pathic rather than ethical dilemmas. The assumption of the point of view of the primary characters places the audience outside the law of normal institutions in each case. But this potentially radical or critical gesture is undermined in certain instances by a pathic or emotive subjective focus which prevents a contextual understanding of the situation of the characters. Nature is that which is supposedly without history, at least in ideology, and the myth-quest of Easy Rider particularly is resolutely ahistorical. Bonnie and Clyde most successfully incorporates an ethical perspective, especially in such scenes as the encounter between the wounded outlaws and the impoverished Okies. The camera assumes an overhead position and neutralizes the pathos of the scene by incorporating the Okies into the frame. The suffering of the outlaws is implicitly compared with another sort of suffering—the everyday experience of the poor farmers. To a certain extent, then, the film undercuts its own premise, which is to depict the outlaws in such a way as to generate an uncustomary identification with those who break rather than maintain civil order. By suggesting a broader span of suffering, the film undermines the pathic empathy which directs audience identification toward Bonnie and Clyde.
Something similar occurs in the famous death scene, which shifts from empathetic identification (the outlaws sharing an apple in their car) to a distanced ethical consideration of the event of their murder by faceless law officers who hide behind a bush. The juxtaposition of empathy and distance (slow-motion shots of the bodies being pulverized by bullets) heightens the sense of mechanical brutality. It is an ethical rather than a pathic rhetorical strategy, a matter of the creation of meaning through contrast, situation, and context rather than character identification. The rhetoric of death in Easy Rider, on the other hand, evokes identification with the primary character through his rather significant absence from the final frames. One only sees his motorcycle flying through the air and exploding. The camera pulls up and away into the heavens, reinforcing the meaning that he has been transmuted by death into something higher, mystical, and natural. He and the camera quite literally transcend, and the audience is invited to participate empathetically in this aggrandizement of the suffering and beset male. In this case, pathos displaces ethics. Yet at their best, the alienation films of the late sixties combine both in effective social critique. For example, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? evokes identification with an exploited young woman who tries to win a dance contest in the thirties. Having lost everything, she asks a fellow participant to shoot her. The pathic identification is linked to a critique of the capitalist system of competition which is allegorized in the dance contest. Similarly, in Midnight Cowboy the concluding pathic evocation of empathy with the death of a poor bum on a bus to Florida is indissociable from a broad context which includes critical depictions of upper-class decadence and rural oppression.
While hippie romanticism can be conservative, it also helped spawn the ecology movement, legislation to protect the environment, and the rediscovery of natural agriculture and foods. In its benign progressive forms, the counterculture became a culture of alternative values based in nature that led eventually to such important later social movements as the antinuclear campaigns of the late seventies and Greenpeace. In light of the value of “nature,” some of the more negative aspects of conservative capitalist life came into focus—toxic waste, pollution, etc.—and became objects of social opposition. Thus, hippie romanticism was not univocal. Even though its inflection in Easy Rider is male individualist and narcissistic, it also gave rise to a mental health movement which questioned the prevailing definitions of psychological normality, emphasized the psychological costs of living in a capitalist society, and promoted ideals of self-expression as a way of gaining mental health. The very important subjective psychology movement of the seventies (the so-called “culture of narcissism”) derives from the counterculture’s emphasis on expressivity. Although it was often limited to white professionals, that movement pointed toward the necessity of a focus on issues of mental health in any progressive vision of social reconstruction.
We have concentrated on films celebrating the values of alienation and rebellion, but many films of the era cast both the counterculture and the new hip rebelliousness in a somewhat more critical light. Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) and Paul Mazursky’s Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1970), for example, criticized the alternative lifestyles of the new sexual revolution. And films like Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) depicted the countercultural use of drugs negatively. Penn’s film also suggested the fragility of the communal experience. By 1971, the dark side of the counterculture would be revealed for many in Gimme Shelter, the film of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont which culminated in violent death. Film itself contributed to the standardization of the counterculture. The “capturing” of the experience of Woodstock, the major commercial “happening” of the late sixties, in a film of 1970 was also a freezing of the supposed spontaneity of the occasion. What could be filmed and commercialized was to a certain extent already inimical to the countercultural rejection of bourgeois values in favor of more noncommercial and natural ideals. To be “counter” cultural was to place oneself at odds with the mainstream of American culture, and while taking advantage of so commercial a form as the rock concert or the rock movie could help spread the countercultural message, it also necessarily contradicted the essential values of the counterculture.
More than the counterculture, the feminist, black, and student movements would have a lasting impact on U.S. society. The feminist and black movements in particular gained ends (affirmative action, for example) which would become objects of great debate and struggle in the seventies and eighties, as white male conservatives counterattacked against the inroads made on their traditional prerogatives and power. The student movement would give rise to a radical Left culture that would make protest, opposition, and contestation legitimate parts of modern American life. At the same time, the gay and lesbian movement and the movement for sexual liberation would transform accepted structures of sexual relations in the culture and create alternatives to heterosexual patriarchy. Except in independent films made by participants in the various struggles, these movements are not represented with tremendous accuracy in Hollywood films of the time.
Indeed, the feminist movement was greeted by more opposition than support in Hollywood. Films like Such Good Friends (1971), The Happy Ending (1969), and The Rain People (1969) portray women attempting independence and failing, while Up the Sandbox (1972) is an overt attack on feminism. One possible reason for this phenomenon is that while most men (and men controlled the film industry) could be liberal regarding civil rights or war, it was more difficult for them to embrace a movement which saw them as oppressors and which questioned their most ingrained psychological dispositions regarding sexual identity. One major exception within Hollywood was Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), the story of a housewife who has an affair in rebellion against her brutish husband, an opportunistic social climber. Tina (Carrie Snodgrass) is not presented as a figure of female strength, and her husband is so exaggeratedly reprehensible that her departure seems less motivated by feminist principle than by simple repulsion. The film thus risks making patriarchal domination seem the work of a few bad eggs. In addition, like later women’s films, the exit from patriarchy has to pass by way of a sexual affair which if anything merely repositions Tina as the passive victim of men. The equation of liberation with the attainment of orgasm would remain in effect down through later films like Coming Home (1978). Tina’s dilemma is in some ways symptomatic of the incipient character of feminism at the time. A strong women’s community had not yet developed, and support groups were not yet available to help women like Tina out of brutal marriages. It is an additional comment on that early stage of development that the film was directed by a man (Frank Perry). Women filmmakers were not yet being trained in large enough numbers and had not yet made their way into Hollywood with sufficient power to make an impact on the dominant representations of women.
Yet women were working in the independent sector, and one of the most critical independent films about women was Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1971). Loden plays a working-class housewife who leaves her family and becomes involved with a petty criminal after being refused work in a sweatshop. He is killed in a robbery. Alone, she is sexually assaulted by a man and then incorporated into a drunken group of revelers. The film ends bleakly with a shot of her sad face as she sits mourning in the midst of celebration. The film marks a radical departure from the idealizing style of Hollywood film production. It focuses on an ordinary and inarticulate underclass woman who is in no way heroized. The style of the film is remarkably unedifying and nonillusionist. No attempt is made to stage events; characters speak as they would in real life on that social level; and the metonymic narrative ends nonclimactically, merely drifting off, like the main character’s life.
To say that Hollywood did not noticeably further the feminist movement at this time would be an understatement. The movement was perhaps still too new, its slogans and ideas still too limited to educated groups and not yet sufficiently popular with a broad public. Most audiences still seemed to accept the traditional idea of woman’s secondary social role, and those who were struggling against that idea were obliged to shout louder in order to be heard at all. “Feminists” were easily recognizable as women who deliberately flouted traditional behavior and dress, refusing to wear makeup or to shave legs. The ideas of feminism thus were positioned in what appeared to be a minoritarian space, inapplicable to the rest of the female population, let alone to the male population. In addition, unlike the black movement, which could base itself in longstanding organizations like the NAACP or the more recent Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the feminist movement favored small groups. Indeed, for many feminists, who saw feminism as a critique not only of the content of patriarchal society but also of its organizational forms, such coordination was antithetical to feminist ideals of equality, democracy, and participation. Moreover, while the black movement benefited from the support of northern liberals and from the training of its leaders—those like Martin Luther King who were churchmen especially—in public speaking, the feminist movement had to develop its own forms and agendas in a universally hostile male environment, and its leaders did not have the sort of institutional training and support that an organization like the church provided blacks. By the end of the sixties, however, it was clear that feminism was becoming a permanent part, indeed a very revolutionary part, of the American cultural scene, and Hollywood, if it did not like the idea, at least indicated its importance by reacting to it with a mixture of hesitation and outright hostility.
The mainstream black movement of the sixties was liberal and reformist. Leaders like King sought change within the existing system, using nonviolent tactics. By the late sixties, a younger, more revolutionary black movement had also come into being, associated with leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton and with organizations like the Black Panthers, whose armed revolutionary public image contrasted with the much less violent reality of their community work in schools and food centers for children. The revolutionary blacks refused to work with whites for reform; they saw black oppression as being too deep to be ameliorated by voting rights or welfare checks. Many argued that it was inseparable from capitalism, while others, who argued for “black nationalism,” sought to revive the black African cultural heritage and to make an alternative black nation. The differences between the liberals and the radicals is dramatized in Uptight (1968), a remake of Ford’s The Informer, in which blacks debate whether or not to work with white liberals. One radical tells a white: “If you want to help us, send us some guns.” Another voices the nationalist and separatist black position regarding whites: “No people are more nonviolent than blacks. Whitey is the mother of violence.” Surprisingly, perhaps, it is this more radical outlook that makes its way into film at the time.
From the forties to the sixties, in films like Pinky, The Defiant Ones, and Raisin in the Sun, Hollywood had demonstrated liberal attitudes toward the cause of black liberation. Occasionally, black filmmakers like Ivan Dixon, whose Nothing but a Man in 1962 was one of the first (post-World War II) films to examine black life from a black perspective, could gain access to the mode of cinematic production, but for the most part, it was Hollywood liberals like William Wyler (The Liberation of L. B. Jones) and Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) who portrayed black life sympathetically. The late sixties saw the appearance of a new generation of young white and black radical filmmakers like Robert Downey, whose Putney Swope is a send-up of advertising from a black perspective, and Melvin Van Peebles, whose Watermelon Man satirizes white racism by depicting a white man who wakes up one day to find he is black and who eventually becomes a black nationalist. Black films by blacks are distinguished by their cinematic and thematic radicalism. Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song (1971), for example, sets the tone of the time by being dedicated to the “Brothers and Sisters Who Have Had Enough of the Man.” It uses the metaphor of the black male sexual performer in a club frequented by whites to make its case that blacks need to cease being subservient to whites. Sweetback begins as an unassuming man, but by the end he is a revolutionary. His complicity in black oppression is signaled by the fact that he is at one point handcuffed to a policeman who beats up a young black radical after a demonstration. Sweetback’s moment of conversion comes when he decides to attack the policeman and defend the radical. Songs throughout the film act as an ironic chorus exhorting him to action: “We’re talking revolution, Sweetback. I want to get off these knees.” The film thus draws on the emerging discourse of black revolutionary thinking at the time, and it translates it into a cinematic practice that is itself quite radical, resorting to discontinuous narration, unconventional editing and camera angles, overexposed color techniques, overlap images, and split screens to convey a sense of Sweetback’s departure from the conservative realism of black passivity into a more disruptive and revolutionary attitude. The represented reality is literally transformed in conjunction with the character.
Ivan Dixon was responsible for one of the most radical film statements of the era—The Spook Who Sat by the Door (based on the novel by Sam Greenlee). It is probably an indicator of changing political times that when it appeared in 1973 it was received with widespread criticism for depicting black youths who take up arms against the National Guard. Later critiques have focused on its sexist portrayals of women. The story concerns a black man who is trained by the CIA, but who quits when he learns his job will be to “sit by the door” as a receptionist. He returns to Chicago, where he uses his new skills to train youth gangs to be revolutionaries, and they engage in armed warfare against whites. It is a sobering and angry film, one that was not likely to please either white or black liberal audiences (though it was also taken to task in the Panther newspaper). It is significant for arguing that white liberalism has its limits at a time when that had not yet become evident. Affirmative action is shown to be a token gesture. Perhaps its most radical— and troubling—rhetorical move is to equate the black cause with that of Third World revolutionary movements and to suggest that blacks need to use the weapons of the enemy against the enemy—fight force with force. Spook thus places itself far beyond the scope of liberalism, the belief that oppression can be lifted through a negotiated harmony of interests. By dramatizing (indeed merely documenting) the violent nature of white oppression, the film argues for the necessity of much more radical forms of structural change.
A plot summary makes Spook sound simplistic, but it is an astute rhetorical exercise. Its political analysis is presented dramatically, rather than being argued discursively. Moreover, complexities of plot prevent its politics from being reduced to an unproblematic formula. The hero loses his family and friends as a result of his radicalism. His actions are portrayed as in contradiction with his ideals, and the contradictions create tensions that are absent from other radical films. Nor is the film unidimensional or unironic. The black guerrillas soon learn that black brothers are working as National Guard troops, and they, along with the whites, must be killed if the war is to go on. This adds a tragic dimension to the uprising that defuses the possibility of simplistic self-righteousness and communicates a palpable sense of social and historical contradiction.
Attitudes and actions of the sort portrayed in Sweetback and Spook provoked the ruling white males of the United States to make certain concessions. Often those concessions took the form of infusions of liberal money into ghetto communities. This did little to change the general structure of inequality, which for blacks remained both racial and economic. Blacks were not only socially excluded but also more economically oppressed on the whole. Moreover, the new black leaders who were accepted into the white establishment belonged to the black bourgeoisie and believed in the fundamental values of capitalism. Their induction did not pose a serious threat to the system that kept less entitled fellow blacks under the heel of well-to-do whites. The cooptation of the mainstream black movement coincided with the violent repression of radical blacks by the police, who hounded the Panthers and occasionally murdered their leaders (Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago, for example). Hollywood was in step with these developments. Black radicalism would be argued against in numerous “black” films of the early seventies, from Shaft to Claudine, and mainstream liberal attitudes toward blacks would be privileged in sentimental films like Sounder. Yet all of this should not be read as simple cooptation. The process of mobilization and conciliation takes movements to higher levels than before; blacks “made gains,” as liberals put it, even though the structures of oppression remained intact. What this means is that the demands would necessarily be higher the next time around, when the inegalitarian structure becomes either too obviously evident once again or else too painful to bear.
The movement for which the sixties is perhaps most notorious historically was the “student movement” against the war in Vietnam. With the black and feminist movements, this one contributed to a ripping apart of the consensus which had characterized American life since the fifties. Students refused to serve, and their opposition to governmental authority spread to include university administrators, the police, and such other figures of the “Establishment” as businessmen. Arguably, this movement forced a president out of office and obliged the government to end the war. Its tactics were generally nonviolent, although after the police riot against demonstrators in Chicago in 1968, the methods came to include violent direct action. The movement had always included a strong anticapitalist component, especially in the critique of the “military industrial complex” which was seen as responsible for the war. With the shift to violent methods came as well a sharpening of the anticapitalist position into a revolutionary one which drew on such foreign examples as Mao in China and Che Guevara in Latin America. The “New Left” reintroduced a radical outlook into American culture and for a time at least made the business of making four-fifths of the people work and fight wars so that one-fifth could enjoy themselves and live in peace more difficult.
Hollywood made an effort to exploit the phenomenon, but the results were not terribly successful. The Strawberry Statement (1970) and Wild in the Streets (1968) were lame attempts to capture an aura, but the first, the story of a student who becomes radicalized, came out little better than a dull high school play, and the second, the story of a revolution by youth against adults, was extreme enough to seem farcical. It took those who were directly engaged in the movements to make cinematic statements that accurately reflected their motivations and ideals. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) was a major statement of the radical position. It depicts the coming to political consciousness of an apolitical news cameraman. This trajectory is rendered as a move from fiction to documentary in the narrative, as if the character’s conversion consisted of a departure from a fictional universe and entry into a more real world. By the end, the movie consists almost entirely of documentary footage which was shot during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Relying on methods established by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and the neorealists, Wexler attempts to demystify the Hollywood conventions of dramatic action and character. Such metaphoric narrative conventions as romance and adventure are muted, and the characters behave like ordinary people who happen to have wandered in front of a camera. The purpose of these devices is to force the audience to identify less with the adventure or the hero and to think more about the documentary events. Yet the price paid for this strategy is an emotionally flat drama. The main character may move from behind the cool medium of his camera and become more involved, but the cool intellectual rendering of the story allows the audience to watch without becoming emotionally engaged. Nevertheless, the film stands as the summation of an era, for it records the process of political enlightenment that was the sixties. And it brings together the three major movements that demarcate the decade—black radicalism, in the story of the main character’s journey into the black ghetto, feminism, in the story of a poor Appalachian woman he befriends, and the student antiwar movement, in the documentary depiction of the protests of 1968.
Perhaps the headiest issue of the day among white student radicals was revolution. The Weather Underground actually set about the task and blew itself up in the process. The promotion of revolution in film was only slightly more successful. The Revolutionary (1970) views like a good sermon on all the available revolutionary positions of the era, from Leninism to anarchism. The more popular Billy Jack (1971) elicits audience sympathy for righteous violence against oppressors, but its dramatic setting—a small rural town—precludes deriving any broader political lessons. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) brings to the issue a modernist style of the sort that characterizes much late sixties radical filmmaking, and in so doing it suggests that changes in perception and representation are integral to the new political consciousness. The narrative of the meeting between a young male revolutionary who has shot a policeman and a hippie woman who is on her way to work for a wealthy businessman is intercut with nonnarrative segments that enact fantasies and transform reality (thousands of hippies copulating in the desert, for example). The two protagonists argue the merits of countercultural pacifism and political radicalism, and each is modified by the other. The young man decides to return to face justice, while she, having argued the pacifist position, fantasizes the destruction of her boss’s home (and with it of American consumer culture) upon hearing of his shooting by the police.
Like Spook, Zabriskie Point suggests that the peace of civil society is a false one; it conceals an institutional violence. An inegalitarian civil society declares violence to be criminal and thereby legitimates its own covert and implicit violence. What Antonioni suggests is that revolutionary violence merely holds a mirror up to the society against which it is directed. But the film also draws attention to a major drawback in the radical political gesture Antonioni seems to advocate. At the time, no popular movement was available to serve as a mass base for revolutionary action. Consequently, fantasies of individual or small group political action found credit with the New Left. A political model that privileges violent interventions over the building of mass movements finds its corollary in the modernist cinematic strategy of the film. That strategy touches on surface perceptions without attempting to get at the unconscious processes which are the root of ideology. Similarly, the political strategy it enacts (the destruction of consumer culture) is itself directed at the surface of capitalist life—consumerism—and not at the root system of production and workplace exploitation which underlies it like a repressed unconscious. Modernism in politics as in film suffers from being too attentive to surface forms at the expense of invisible structures, perceptual patterns at the expense of unconscious processes, be they psychological or social.
No single lesson can be drawn from this. The weakness of the political movements of the sixties, their quick disappearance as publicly organized movements after 1970 and their failure to translate radicalism into an idiom acceptable to a broad mass of people, probably owes something to an excessive reliance on the sort of youthful, explosive, pyrotechnic antinomianism whose shortcomings are evident in Zabriskie. While many radicals sought to establish contacts with American workers in the early seventies, for the most part the New Left situated mainstream America as an other with whom there could be no compromise. Rather than attempt to forge new modes of life for the mass of people, radicals separated themselves from that world to engage in revolutionary violence whose rationale could not be made evident to people without relying on such contaminated instruments of capitalist culture as the media. Moralistic self-righteousness was indeed self-defeating. Nevertheless, the New Left reintroduced a long-repressed radical spirit into U.S. culture and made possible many grassroots movements which militated for change throughout the seventies and eighties, around such issues as the environment, the workplace, nuclear energy, and war. It was also, with the counterculture, feminism, and black radicalism, responsible for one other major event of the seventies. With its economic security threatened by recession in the early seventies, the white middle class began to turn sour and intolerant. And there began what is one of the most remarkable outcomes of the sixties—the reaction against it.
The struggles and movements of the sixties began to provoke a conservative backlash by the early seventies. Polls indicated a change during this period toward more “conservatism” and toward more concern with material self-satisfaction. Whereas only 1% of the people listed national unity as a major concern in 1959, the figure had risen to 15% by 1971. Adults also registered a reduced sense of integration into the social structure, more anxiety accompanied by an increased search for intimacy, an increased concern about an uncertain future, and a move to less social, more personal and individuated integration and well-being.1 There seems to be a relation between the new conservatism and the onset of the first major economic recession of the period at the same time. But the social struggles of the sixties also took their toll, giving rise to a countertendency desirous of unity, order, and peace. The demolition in the sixties of the cultural representations essential to the traditional order seemed to lead to a search for alternative forms of representational security and ego-integrity. But the sixties' assault on traditional values also provoked a reassertio·1 of exaggerated versions of conservative ideals. The fearful retreat from the public world of disharmony and conflict was accompanied by a resuscitation of security-providing patriarchal representations. One finds evidence of the turn to personalism in the great popularity of Love Story (the top grossing picture of 1970) and of the desire for patriarchal unity in the success of right-wing police dramas like The French Connection, the Oscar winner in 1971, and Dirty Harry (1971), one of the most notorious films of the period.
Conservative films had been made during the late sixties. But on the whole, conservatives were then on the defensive, and the terrain of social struggle was determined by the insurgent liberal and radical social forces. The killing of student radicals at Kent State and Jackson State by National Guardsmen and police in 1971 marked a turning point in the limits of conservative tolerance for social revolt. By 1972, the Nixon counterrevolution was in full force, and the Nixon administration successfully mobilized conservative sentiments against young radicals, minorities, and feminists in the 1972 election by painting liberal Democrat George McGovern as the candidate of the three A’s—abortion, acid, and amnesty for draft resisters. A meaner, more cynical discourse began to emerge as the dominant mode of Hollywood film. In 1971 alone, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs articulate an antiliberal value system that portrays human life as predatory and animalistic, a jungle without altruism.
At stake in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is the law of the patriarchal family. In the late sixties, women were striking out for independence from male law in the home, and sexuality, long a secure domain of male power, became problematic. Straw Dogs sets the tone for the antifeminist counterrevolution of the seventies. The woman in the film is depicted as a treacherous sex kitten who betrays her “wimpy” husband, David, and entices men who finally rape her, an act she is portrayed as enjoying. In the final segment of the film, the same men attack their house, and she attempts to join them but is prevented from doing so by her husband, who is eventually transformed into a warrior who ultimately kills the attackers. His ascent to true manhood is associated with learning that liberal civility and law are useless against brute force, and that women need to be disciplined if they are not to go astray. At one point he calls out to his attackers that what they are doing is against the law, but of course his plea is ineffective. The local constable, whose ineffectually is signaled by his lame arm, ultimately hands power over to David, telling him he is “the law here now.” The benediction seems also to apply to the domestic sphere. David immediately tells his wife, “Do as you’re told,” and smiles beatifically. In the end, he separates out from her altogether and rides off into the night with another man, a sign of the homosocial origins of misogyny.
Peckinpah’s style earnestly expresses the ideal of male redemption through violence. The color tones suggest a dark nature of instinct and passion, and the violence has all the frenzy of a sexual encounter; indeed this is a telling feature for understanding its origins. Straw Dogs opens with a shot of children playing against gravestones, a scene reminiscent of the juxtaposition of innocence and violence that opens The Wild Bunch— children tormenting a scorpion with ants, then setting it on fire. Even the innocent harbor bestial desires and violent instincts, the film suggests. Straw Dogs, therefore, concerns regression, the falling back upon a supposedly more basic or natural reality of violence when social order breaks down. Yet the film can also be said to undermine or deconstruct its own premises.
David is educated in the process of the film. He learns to be violent, to regress from civility to bestiality, and to be a “man.” The film presents this metaphorically as a recognition of primordial realities (through the metaphors of primitive hunting devices), but it depicts the regression as a process of training or socialization, a random, contingent, and metonymic process, in other words. The constable’s benediction is the most telling evidence of the initiatory or artificially induced character of David’s learning experience. Moreover, his relation to his wife is characterized by a mixture of fear and dependence that situates his aggressive domination of her and his ultimate flight into the night with another man as further evidence of the social origins of this particular male “nature.” In the penultimate scene, David is about to be overwhelmed by one of the aggressors. He lies on his back, with the other man on top, an explicitly “feminine” pose. He is passive and helpless, and his wife has to save him with a shotgun blast. She stands at the top of the stairs, he at the bottom, a curious literal denial of all the film figuratively asserts. The passive male’s rage against woman is in fact an anger against dependence, against the possibility of being “on the bottom,” that is linked to fears of passivity in regard to other men in a competitive male world. Violence permits an escape from those feelings, as well as an overthrowing of female power and potential independence. What is really regressed to is an earlier stage of psychic development when women have power over men as their primary caretakers. That power must be purged in order for the man to acquire a patriarchally defined male identity. But male anxiety is not limited to an abreaction of earlier experiences of female power, a metaphor of a narcissistic, atemporal simultaneity or fusion. It also concerns female sexuality. When David’s wife almost leaves to join the other men, she displays the origin of male sexual anxiety in a female sexuality which is not ultimately beholden to male power, which, like the literal metonymic associations that trouble self-idealizing metaphors, can “go astray.” Violence also cures this threat to impropriety.
Straw Dogs evokes these tensions between female independence and male dependence, impropriety and domination, and it seems to resolve them. But the metaphoric resolution which establishes a pure identity by transcending all metonymic ties and feminine links displays its own failure. It depends upon the exclusion of woman altogether, yet “woman” can never be purged from male identity. The restored family at the end seems an all-male one. The woman is absent, ejected from this metaphoric Utopia of male self-identity in which sexual difference and the possibility of dependence and sexual indeterminacy represented by the metonymic connection to the woman are excised. Yet a tension persists between the metaphoric ideal, with its singular, proper, absolute meaning or identity, and a metonymic literality that characterizes that ideal identity as differential, material, and relational, dependent still on the position of the woman. The woman has been replaced by another man, who occupies the “wife’s” position in the passenger seat of the car and who, because he is slightly retarded, weak, and “effeminate” (he has long hair), is a more ideal partner, one more likely to allay male anxieties. This metaphoric substitution excludes woman literally while retaining her figural place, and the self-identity of male power shows itself to be dependent on a metonymic connection, an other which provides a boundary for the self. The film thus displays how male identity can only be metaphoric, which is to say artificial and contingent, the effect of a rhetorical construction whose purpose is to permit a nonrecognition of the very real, material constituents of that identity.
The process of regression to a more brutal or primitive nature in these films is related to the different processes of representation. Such regression implies that the world of civility consists of signifiers without any meaning in themselves; they are contingent and variable, and their real truth resides in the realm of nature which lies hidden behind them, just as meaning lies behind the empirical signifiers in metaphor (eagle = “freedom”). To privilege the regression to a truer nature is in some respects to fulfill the structure of metaphor, to move back to a truer meaning behind ultimately meaningless images. The difference between a liberal or radical outlook and this conservative one is that the former sees what passes as “nature” as itself a product or effect of that seemingly meaningless level of representation. What conservatives posit as nature is merely an illusion created by a metaphoric representational structure which creates the sense of a hidden meaning, a true identity, a fundamental stratum behind historical contingency. The liberal and radical attitudes accept the realm of metonymic contingency, the possibility that meaning is not determinate, identity not fixed, as the only one that exists and consequently see the social world posited by such rhetoric as malleable and indeterminate.
The other major conservative films of 1971—Dirty Harry and The French Connection—were crime dramas. These “law and order” thrillers transcoded the discourse of the campaign against crime and drugs waged by Nixon and Agnew in the early seventies. They are also vehicles for conservative counterattacks against the liberalism that many conservatives blamed for the crisis in domestic order brought about by the sixties. Both films contest the liberal theories of criminal justice, exemplified in the Miranda decision, that gave more rights to criminal suspects and curtailed the powers of the police. In this vision, liberal criminal justice is unjust because it prevents good cops from doing their job, and it lets criminals go free to commit more crimes. Cops are portrayed as heroes whose zeal to protect the innocent and society is misinterpreted as brutality by liberals. Like Straw Dogs and Clockwork Orange, these films portray conservatism as a regression to primary process thinking, to a privileging of force and instinct over civil procedure. Unsub-limated drives such as competition and domination are presented as more fundamental than such liberal civil modes as negotiation, mediation, and cooperation—all connective or metonymic ways of proceeding which encroach upon the firmly boundaried identities that conservative metaphors establish.
In The French Connection, a tough cop named Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) manages to crack a heroin smuggling operation, but all the criminals are let go in the end for lack of evidence. The suggestion is that liberals are responsible for the failure of the system, while the individualist cop is a better solution. The film is metaphoric to the extent that it presumes certain axioms that are not open to negotiation; the narrative obliges the audience to agree with the premises of the film because there are no spaces where reflection is possible. The cop reacts instinctively to the “problem” of crime (which, significantly, has not yet been committed), and the audience is given little time to do anything but react with equal rapidity to his actions, thus assuming guilt without judicial process. This is made clear in the famous chase scene. The subjective camera lodged in Popeye’s car identifies the audience with his point of view in a way that works against reflection on the motivations and consequences of his actions. The audience’s desires are manipulated into supporting a restoration of order or the achievement of the goal of catching the criminal, no matter what the cost in life or liberty (and Popeye almost does harm a number of people during the chase). When he finally does kill the hit man (unnecessarily; he could just as easily have wounded the disarmed man), the audience is prepared to desire the release of tension that ensues. Police brutality is thus legitimated stylistically.2
A more overt and articulated statement against the sixties in general and against liberal criminal justice in particular is made in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry. Liberalism in crime prevention is outrightly condemned, and the evil figure in the film is a fanatical and “effeminate” killer named Scorpio who is associated with peace symbols, long hair, and other countercultural paraphernalia. The rhetorical procedure of this film is to position the audience as being knowledgeable of the criminal’s guilt, then to show liberals letting him go after Harry has risked his life to capture him. When Scorpio kills again, the audience knows that Harry’s only choice is to sidestep the liberal criminal system and use force. The style of the film is designed to produce both repulsion and idealization (two conjoined attitudes that reappear in a number of conservative films). It mixes naturalistic representations of violence and brutality (a raped adolescent girl being removed from a hole in the ground where she has been allowed to suffocate) with monumentalizing celebrations of white male individualist power (Harry standing alone against the sky overlooking the city like a Hobbesian sovereign). The representational mix is significant because such metaphoric idealization (which establishes Harry’s higher meaning as a savior while separating him from the mass) is often a means of turning away from or denying something threatening or repulsive. In this case, the idealization is of extremely “male” traits such as aggressivity, toughness, lack of affect, and individualism. What is repulsive is “feminine” or, worse, indeterminate. Scorpio is associated with gays (“My, that’s a big one,” he remarks of Harry’s gun, after Harry has mistaken a gay for Scorpio), and he is depicted as whining, weak, and very un-“manly.” What this suggests is that male-defined ideals of conservative law and order are bound up with the representational dynamics that construct male sexual identity. Metaphoric male idealization comes down to an insecurity in males over the determinacy of sexual identity, over being a “man” and not being confused with a “woman,” an insecurity associated with representational patterns that are metonymic, that is, that break down male boundaries and male identity by establishing empathetic connections with people or differential relations between supposedly hermetic realms. Because Scorpio represents such a breakdown, he must be eliminated.
But the breakdown is operative as well within the identity that is secured by Scorpio’s annulment, and this is the deconstructive significance of the film. Both Harry and Popeye are metaphoric idealizations, but they are also marked by lower middle class characteristics and ties, metonymic connections which detract from their ideal meaning or identity by anchoring them in a material universe. The metaphoric idealization works by isolating Harry from his environment, creating distances between subject and object which define the contours or boundaries of the subject’s identity, reducing the metonymic interference of empathy and “effeminacy,” and creating a sense of freedom through the metaphoric transcendence of social ties. Women and liberals represent external ties which constrain freedom, curtail natural impulses, and contravene the subjective will of the hero. Freedom necessarily assumes the form of idealization, a narcissistic exaggeration of one’s own rights, a privileging of one’s own will over that of others, and a separation from social ties. It has to deny the metonymic or contextual reality of social relations and communal responsibilities. The most obvious emblem of this magnification is Harry’s handgun, “the most powerful handgun in the world.”
Yet all such idealizations deconstruct, and the deconstruction of these lower middle class idealizations is particularly pathetic. Popeye envies the expensive dinner of the mafioso he is tailing, giving voice to petit bourgeois resentment against ostentatious wealth. Harry worries that a doctor will cut his pants, because they cost so much. It is in these marginal moments that the material values of the films inhere. The idealization denies context, but it requires a context of fallen materiality, something it transcends, if it is to have meaning. Harry seems to transcend material everyday life, and his metaphoric meaning for audiences particularly resides in his ability to overcome everyday constraints. But he is also the victim of those very (metonymic) constraints. This undecidability is irreducible, and it is what gives films like Dirty Harry their tremendous ideological resonance. Contextual or metonymic connections anchor the metaphoric figure of the hero/detective in a social reality that situates him as a common person, a link in a series or chain of equality. The ideologizing isolation of him is a way of attempting to overcome that metonymic seriality. Neither one of these terms can exist without the other; nor can they be separated into a decidable opposition which declares the meaning of the film to be one of the terms alone. Harry takes on meaning for audiences through his transcendence of his middle-class context, but he has no meaning except as part of that context. This problem is a common representational dilemma of conservative films during this period. The ideological strategy of conservatism is to isolate a hero from social contexts and to idealize him. This is why nature will be such an important metaphor for conservatives; it is the symbol of all that is not constrained by liberal civility. (Both Harry and Popeye experience their redemptive apotheoses outside the city, in a version of nature.) But in order to be plausible representations, conservative idealizations or metaphors must invoke the reality they address, the economic constraints on self-worth for which they serve as therapeutic antidotes. Ideology is always double and undecidable in this way. Harry’s pants are as important as his handgun.
Dirty Harry was not a significantly popular film, at least in regard to box-office receipts. Its sequels would fare much better. Our audience survey also suggests that it wasn’t successful in winning large segments of the population over to its viewpoint: 77% of our sample felt Harry’s methods were the wrong way to deal with crime, and 73% felt that the D.A. represented necessary constitutional protections as opposed to unnecessary red tape. While 40% perceived Harry as a rebel against American society, a significant 68% characterized him as a reactionary. It may be important as well that nearly 30% of our sample had not seen the film, though some of these no-views may be due to the age of the film. While our survey suggests that many viewers rejected the film’s vision of the world, we should also note that in our oral interviews we encountered a number of people who fully held the position of the film, and in a number of cases where people disagreed with the solution to crime, they nonetheless confessed to buying in temporarily to the action format and the plot premises of the film. This splitting of the ego between a reserved judgment and participation in the spectacle characterizes a number of audience response patterns to different films. It suggests that the popularity of right-wing films is not necessarily a testament to the prevalence of right-wing opinions in the film audiences. But it also points to the possibility of false consciousness and of unconscious influences. It is noteworthy, for example, that 79% of those polled also support stronger punishment for criminals.
French Connection and Dirty Harry are reactionary films, yet they also contain immanent critiques of American society. To be able to proclaim their right-wing solutions, they must inadvertently describe a disintegrating society which is incapable of finding real solutions to its fundamental problems of economic, political, and social inequality. The films depict the failure of liberal solutions to the problems of crime and poverty generated by capitalism. More accurately than liberal films, they portray the real exercise of force that underlies seemingly apolitical problems like crime. Right-wing films in certain ways portray the harsh truth of a society which must rely on authoritarian and repressive police force, generally directed overwhelmingly at minorities, in order to avoid coming undone as a result of its structural imbalances.
Dirty Harry and French Connection show right-wing conservatism to be isomorphic or specular. That is, it projects its own animus into the world, seeing there only what it itself is. Against Scorpio’s seemingly warrantless violence, Harry musters an equally unrestrained and irresponsible violence. The first is deemed the cause of the second within the film’s ideological scenario, but in fact the film can be read in such a way that it intimates that the first is merely a projection of the second. The primary process of conservative violence is projected in an inverted form into the world and perceived as an external threat, but in fact that violence emerges from right-wing conservative social principles themselves. It is not surprising then that in both films, two men are pitted against each other, and that each pair entails an inversion of traits—Popeye’s streetwise populism vs. the heroin smuggler’s aristocratic mannerisms, Harry’s toughness vs. Scorpio’s effeminacy. For these films are essentially about rightists gazing into mirrors. Mirrors can only give back what is projected, and what right-wing conservatives project is the motivating energy of their own social ideal—force, violence, and a disregard for law. Both Harry and Popeye are characterized by a rather resentful attitude toward legal restraint which makes them mirror images of their opponents. Thus, these detectives foreshadow the images of rightist putschism that distinguish later films of the era, which will argue against rational, liberal, legal processes in favor of the exercise of personalized force.
In 1971, American culture was still very much a contested terrain. It would be a mistake to assume that the appearance of films reacting against the sixties constituted a full-fledged capitulation on the part of Hollywood to an emerging conservative movement. Just as 1968 witnessed the popularity of such right-wing fare as The Green Berets, so also in 1971, radical films continued to make a strong showing. For example, though few films of the era can be said to dealpartically with issues of class, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange might be read as an exception. It concerns a working-class adolescent whose criminal predilections are cured by state controllers using behavior modification. But Alex, deprived of his criminal instincts, is soon victimized by all those he himself victimized, and he attempts suicide. The failed attempt destroys his new, reformed conditioning, and he reverts to his previous criminal nature. The film is complicated ideologically, and it pivots on an irony that can be read either as debunking statist attempts at reform in favor of a recalcitrant working-class reality or as delineating a rather nasty and brutish human nature behind all of society’s pretensions to civility. The latter possibility—the fatedness of evil and the unredeemability of a violent human character, a theme evident in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that was also a favorite of popular literature during the period—is suggested by the seeming inevitability or clockwork character of Alex’s encounters with his former victims. Even good, “normal” people who live in a house called “Home” are portrayed as capable of a violence equal to Alex’s “abnormal” behavior. The style appropriate to this debunking of the illusions of liberal civil society is satiric and ironic. Alex’s bestiality is emphasized through the speeded-up shooting of an orgy, while his violent acts are choreographed in a slow motion that renders them aesthetic. At one cut, the camera lingers on an ornate design while classical music plays; it then descends to a derelict theater, where a gang is performing a gang rape. The ironic juxtaposition of high culture and low entertainment demolishes the myth of bourgeois civilization signified by the music and the setting. But all of these elements of the film are available for an alternate reading that would argue that the film depicts a working-class anger against wealth and privilege that cannot be quelled. When Alex stares at the camera at the end, fantasizing about “ultra-violence” as a state reformer attempts to use him to gain publicity, the sense conveyed is that this is one working-class lad who will not be “saved” quite so easily.
These two thematic strains—the fatedness of evil, the recalcitrance of working-class anger and violence—demarcate the semantic tension at the core of the film, a tension that can be described rhetorically. The idea of endemic violence is presented through a predominantly metaphoric rhetoric that suggests an implicit order in the world that transcends the contingencies of history. Such order is spatial rather than temporal; it denies social and historical differences in favor of analogies that establish metahistorical or ideal semantic identities. Thus, Alex’s violent fantasies cut across historical boundaries and posit a basic violent identity of human nature. Metaphor enables the theme of a natural basis to society because a metaphor consists of an evident vehicle or image and a hidden tenor or meaning, and this structure implies a truth (nature) lying behind a meaningless appearance (society). The highly metaphoric form of the film easily accommodates the idea of a violent nature underlying civility. Most notably, the narrative is structured as a repetition of events; the camera situates action within extremely ordered spatial compositions; and the temporal pacing is choreographed as a slow unfolding of conclusions determined in advance. The overall impression is of a world of order, regularity, and proportion which possesses the rigidity of an unchanging nature. Against this backdrop, the criminal acts of the working-class youths take on the aura of disruptions of an inherent meaning, a random metonymic displacement by improper associations (Beethoven juxtaposed to musical numbers like “Singin’ in the Rain” in Alex’s repertoire of favorite hits). Metonymy, the representational form which emphasizes the artificiality, contingency, indeterminacy, and displaceability of putatively eternal or natural meanings, takes on a radical connotation in this context. Alex represents a metonymic possibility by stealing the signs of bourgeois propriety (classical music) as much as the signs of bourgeois property. His cultural juxtapositions and genre mixings represent a transgression of a cultural order in which everything has its place and its boundary. He thus displays the ungrounded character of bourgeois culture, and this is as threatening to a system based on cultural hierarchies as any theft of property.
Thus, the film cuts two ways—toward a theme of violence in human nature that cuts across class lines, and toward a theme of the rhetorical contingency of signs of cultural class differences. But it is the latter which ultimately seems the more powerful. The theme of violent nature is sustained by a narrative repetition that creates a sense of unchanging sameness, yet that narrative is inescapably temporal, and this anchors the idea of nature in social and historical contingency. The ironic ending seems to establish Alex as a sign of a violence that cannot be redeemed, making him a metaphor of human nature, but it also no less portrays him as a metonymic sign of that radical contingency within society which is the recalcitrant anger of those society exploits.
Despite the appearance of a critical, even radical, film like Clockwork Orange, 1971 nevertheless signaled a new development in Hollywood culture. Films like Dirty Harry, French Connection, and Straw Dogs were only the beginning. Very soon, films promoting conservative positions on the family, sexuality, unions, human nature, crime, war, politics, and society as a whole would crowd the Hollywood screen. At the same time, in courts and in Congress, conservative forces would mount a decade-long counterattack against New Deal liberalism and New Left radicalism that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. In the next chapter, we will examine some of the major early seventies films that articulate the values and ideals of this growing conservative countermovement.