The seventies has been characterized as a period when the United States underwent a “legitimacy crisis.” Major institutions that previously had been fairly immune to significant popular criticism lost the confidence of the American people. In The Confidence Gap: Business, Labor, and Government in the Public Mind, S. M. Lipset and W. Schneider point out that distrust of government rose from 24% in 1958 to 73% in 1980, and that between 1967 and 1971 confidence in leaders fell from 42% to 28%.1 Confidence in the executive branch fell from an average of 39 points in the mid-sixties to 15 in 1980. Confidence in all institutional leadership fell from 55% in 1966 to 23% in 1982. Antibusiness feeling grew enormously between 1965 and 1975. Belief in the social benefits of profits fell from 67% in 1965 to 41% in 1975. The favorability rating of business fell from 70% in the early sixties to 48% in 1975. Declines for specific industries were sharper, falling from 75% to 40% in some cases. An average of 65% of the population came to view business negatively (hold it in disdain, as the authors put it). The sense that business is fair fell from 70% in 1968 to 19% in 1981. The authors conclude that real events—political, economic, and social crises—account for this “legitimacy crisis,” this “deep and serious discontent” beneath the surface of American society. Those real events included revelations of corporate wrongdoing (price-fixing, bribery, the manufacture of unsafe products, deliberately harmful pollution), economic recessions accompanied by inflation that led to a dramatic rise in the price of goods and to major unemployment, revelations of unethical practices by government officials, highlighted by the disclosure in the Pentagon Papers of Lyndon Johnson’s lies during the Gulf of Tonkin incident and by Republican Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s downfall, a collapse of the legitimacy of the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal, which forced Richard Nixon out of office, and the disclosure of illegal practices by the nation’s intelligence agencies.
This sort of crisis has, we noted in the introduction, two kinds of effects. It can promote a regressive reaction, whereby more familiar and secure traditional social models and cultural representations are revived, or it can lead to a progressive attempt to construct new representational codes and social attitudes. We will look at this latter possibility in the next chapter. Here we will consider those films that evidence a more conservative turn in the popular imaginary. What we call “crisis films” articulate the sense of discontent in American culture during this time, while also offering compensatory models of redemptive leadership that are in some respects representational prototypes of the new conservative leaders of the eighties.
Crisis films (Jaws, Exorcist, The Godfather, Airport) generally operate on a high metaphoric level. The metaphor of catastrophe in such films permits anxieties to be avoided in their real form, but metaphor is itself a kind of aesthetic/psychological defense against threats to social ideals, a therapeutic turning away. It is through a deciphering of the metaphors by asking what they turn away from, therefore, that those symptomatically absent sources of anxiety can be deduced. Generally, they concern changes brought about by the movements of the sixties, feminism particularly. They also concern the threat to social authority and male paternalist power which the rebelliousness of sixties youth represented. Natural disaster in early seventies films is often a metaphor for the “immorality” and “disorders” of the late sixties, or for the “democratic distemper” which conservatives saw at work during the period. In crisis films, a stern paternalist male order is reimposed on such troubles. Thus, the conservative metaphors of many of these films can be read as harboring actual metonymic or contiguous connections with the social discourses of the period as well as with some of the crucial flows of desire and need that were subliminally shaping the social universe.
Furthermore, as the seventies progressed, crisis films acquired an additional meaning. With the decline of the economy, the increased threat of joblessness, and the reduction of income through inflation, the sense of a lack of confidence spread. If in the early seventies crisis films seem preoccupied with responding to and pacifying the feistiness of the sixties, by the mid-seventies they are more concerned with economic issues and with the negative psychological effects of back-to-back recessions. The mood of mid-seventies films is markedly less optimistic.
Crisis films are also symptomatic of the relationship between industrial changes and film ideology. They were among the first blockbuster hits of the early seventies, and they inspired the quest for the blockbuster as the dominant marketing trend of the era. The phenomenal success of The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and, later, Star Wars—all of which successively became the top box-office hits of all time—led Hollywood to concentrate on lucrative genre spectacles. In addition, between 1969 and 1972 the studios lost 500 million dollars, and the failure of films like Hopper’s The Last Movie and Fonda’s The Hired Hand signaled the eclipse of the “New Hollywood” brand of experimentation. Studios therefore focused on making fewer, more profitable movies rather than a large spread of films. To guarantee large box-office returns, we suggest, these films had to address broadly felt popular fantasies and fears. This probably explains in part the prevalence of family themes, as well as the concern with healing the “crisis of confidence” in government and business. The intersection of industrial strategy and social psychological change also influenced the style of the crisis films. Their form had to appeal to a large constituency; hence, they are characterized by classical realist narratives and representational codes (romance, male heroism, tension-release plots, simple unproblematic resolutions, etc.), which are made attractive to the burgeoning youth audience of the period by the use of high levels of physical shock effects and extreme narrative tension.
Disaster films were one of the most popular genre cycles of the early to mid seventies;2 they exhibit a return to more traditional generic conventions and depict a society in crisis attempting to solve its social and cultural problems through the ritualized legitimation of strong male leadership, the renewal of traditional moral values, and the regeneration of institutions like the patriarchal family. Yet disaster films are not unidimensionally conservative; they warn about the dangers of unrestrained corporate capitalism and show how the unchecked pursuit of profit leads to catastrophe. The critiques of the excesses of business, however, are usually moralistic, and the films advocate corporatist solutions whereby an elite of leaders, usually professionals or technocrats, enable groups of people to survive through coordinated, even obedient action.
The contemporary disaster cycle began in 1970. By 1976 four of the top twenty money earners of all time were disaster films—Airport, Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, and Earthquake3 Disaster films have a fairly simple narrative structure which moves from stability to disorder to a series of tests which select out a leader/savior and finally to transcendence of the disaster. They bring together a diverse group of characters whose personalities and foibles are sketched in quick, broad strokes, relying on familiar stereotypes. The ensemble usually represents a microcosm of American society and is often enclosed in a building or in some form of modern transportation that is threatened by catastrophe. The marks of their environment are usually luxury and modernity; advanced technology and communications systems are almost always on display. The films thus posit a predisaster norm of a patriarchal, capitalist, technological order in which everyone has a preordained place and function; the disaster coincides with the breakdown of this order.
The first film of the cycle, Airport (1970), concerns a bomb threat on an airplane. The airport is a conservative’s nightmare: nothing is working quite right, and the “democratic distemper” (i.e., demonstrators protesting noise levels) is interfering with the smooth and efficient management of the airport by professionals. In fact, one complainer meddles on the plane and allows the bomb, planted by a disgruntled unemployed worker, to go off. The worker’s problems are represented as his own fault, and the rescue is carried out by an individualist troubleshooting maintenance man who uses native know-how and determination to clear a runway so that the damaged plane can land. At the end, one of the triumphant crew, looking admiringly at the aircraft, says: “Remind me to send a thank-you note to Mr. Boeing.”
Airport celebrates both traditional individualism and the new corporatism. The welding together of the two is summed up in the reference to “Mr. Boeing,” a rhetorical gesture that personalizes the impersonal, bringing male individualism and the corporate system represented by the airport together. The purpose of this is to enlist allegiance for the subordination of personality to impersonal, functional corporate roles. The mentally troubled worker is depicted as being incapable of such an attitude; he insists on rebelling, though he is told by his wife, “Stop dreaming. Just hold onto the job.” The meddler-complainer is an analogously anticorporate anomaly who is responsible for the airport’s almost being shut down as the damaged plane is about to land. The audience is thus positioned to think negatively of such democratic-ecologistic meddling in the smooth running of things by corporate professionals.
The alternatives to wimpish whining and democratic meddling are the values of obedience and respect for male authority which guide the solution to the crisis. Petroni, the maintenance man, is the only one who is skilled enough to lead the runway rescue operation, which he runs in an authoritarian manner, defying effeminate experts and proper procedures alike. The rhetoric of class and sexuality in the film is striking. The airport manager’s handicap is a rich wife who attempts to run his life. An anomaly in comparison to his decidedly more cooperative female sidekick, she is predictably dumped by the end of the film. The airport’s salvation parallels a liberation from her thrall, as it does a decision by a stewardess not to get an abortion. Male sexual and social power, as much as an airplane, are at stake in the film, and middle-class family values prevail over the new sexual liberalism and over upper-class “decadence.”
The potential for social authoritarianism in this vision of order is indicative of the middle-class ethos of the film. The middle-class traditionally occupies a position of extreme vulnerability in a society characterized by a structural anxiety, the possibility that anyone might fall to the bottom. The constant threat of descent provokes this stratum to cling tenaciously to its material possessions, making it susceptible to arguments against taxation and affirmative action hiring, as we shall see happening later in the decade. It is also appealed to by authoritarian political models which guarantee its safety by enforcing discipline on workers and order on the economic market. The tremendous growth of this class sector in the boom period after the Second World War meant that by the seventies, a large number of Americans were part of this group—people who make between $15,000 and $40,000. This may account for the rhetoric of a film like Airport. It constructs a world of people at home with cocktail lounge Muzak, repressed sexuality, nice little old ladies, fireplace warmth, soap-opera decor, and moral oppositions instantiated in the difference between bright, unshadowed lighting in middle-class settings and underground darkness in working-class settings, where music from fifties horror films codes the world as one to be feared.
Airport closes with images of rejuvenation. It is sunny in the Midwest, and planes are landing safely. The troublesome protesters are gone, as is the troublesome worker. It is a golden moment for mid-American ideology. Corporations still look virtuous. The doubt, distrust, and skepticism that will characterize the seventies have yet to set in. Few later disaster films match the arrogance of this vision of American hope.
As the crisis in confidence intensified during the seventies, more was needed than a tough maintenance man to clear the runways. At this time, many people began turning to evangelical religion and born-again Christianity for relief from a world of disappointment, insecurity, and frustration that inflation and unemployment helped usher in. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) depicts a religious solution to corporate irresponsibility and failed secular leadership. A ship is overturned by a tidal wave because the corporate owners wanted to save money. A tough individualist priest, Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman), convinces a small group to follow him in a quest to find the top of the ship and salvation. They undergo numerous tests, and the weak (two women, most notably) fall by the wayside. In the end, Scott sacrifices himself to save the survivors.
One can determine what the projected fear and the real social threat underlying the film disaster are by turning inside out the solution proposed. That the narrative progress toward salvation valorizes the family, intergenerational harmony, respect for authority, faith, a return to traditional values, individualism, sacrifice, etc., would seem to suggest that the tidal wave is a metaphor for threats to those values and institutions—secularism, generational conflict, dissent, feminism, etc. None of these actual problems or threats is present on the screen, but their absence is made more significant by the presence of such strong antidotes.
The strongest antidotes are faith in one’s own personal salvation, proven through individual rather than collective effort, and obedience to strong leaders. Each of the group’s trials emphasizes individual rather than communal efforts. And it is the strong individualist leader who saves the pilgrims, not the standpat bureaucrat who advises waiting against striving. The film demonstrates the curious congruity between individualism, the Protestant religion, and the leadership principle in American capitalist culture. A sense of singularity fuels the entrepreneurial capitalist drive, and this is backed by a religion of personal salvation, part of which entails pleasing a patriarchal figure. The film thus mediates individualism with corporatist cohesion. Faith in oneself comes down to faith in one’s place in a sacred hierarchy. Subjective conviction links up with faith in objective structures of public authority. The film is thus a good example of how individualism can have extremely conservative forms, forms that seem patendy anti-individualist in that group loyalty takes precedence to rebellion or deviation. Poseidon is a lesson in how to choose to belong.
The film is noteworthy as well for the particular narrational rhetoric it employs and for the populist critique of capitalism it proposes. It is the first disaster film to sympathetically incorporate young people, and it clearly aims for a family effect. The family structure and the class background of the survivors suggest that the film is addressed to a traditionalist middle-class American audience, one that would be distrustful of the power of big business and susceptible to right-wing, religiously based authoritarian solutions. This audience is likely to be appealed to by more simple plot narratives. The narrative of stasis, crisis, and resolution is, moreover, a striking projection of a psychology of fear, disconfidence, and yearning for help. That the solution to this crisis is a strong male leader who inspires trust and self-reliance is an indicator of the extent to which the film transcodes actual psychological vectors which are prefigurative of future political realities.
The conventions of the disaster film crystalized into a readily recognizable and much discussed genre form with the appearance of Earthquake and The Towering Inferno in 1975. Both joined the list of most popular films of all time. Inferno, like Airport ‘79, concerns corruption in corporate capitalism at a time when the economy was inflicting hardship on people and corporations were revealed to be callous and unscrupulous. A fire erupts during a party at the opening of the world’s largest building. On a metaphoric level, it is as if the elements were punishing capitalist hubris, greed, and luxury. And indeed, responsibility for the fire lies with the building contractor who cut costs. As a solution, Inferno, like Airport, proposes an alliance between a lower middle class hero, a fireman (Steve McQueen), and an architect (Paul Newman) who is a member of the professional managerial class, that group of corporate executives whose power became increasingly solidified during this era. Throughout the rescue attempt, they exchange meaningful glances which establish their bond. In the end, they promise to discuss ways to prevent future disasters. The film thus suggests that the worst evils of the system can be cleaned up by heroic male authority figures. And, like other disaster films, it reinforces the sense that professional managers, the new corporate executive class, not traditional economic elites, are the rightful leaders of society.
That The Towering Inferno succeeds in distinguishing a good brand of capitalism from a bad variety is suggested by the results of our audience survey. While 71% thought that the depiction of business in the film was realistic, 78% felt that the corrupt construction people represented one bad sector of capitalism rather than the way most big business operates, although there are significant distinctions within these figures. A greater percentage of those who make over $30,000 thought the depiction unreal, felt it referred only to one bad sector, and indicated the film had no effect on their positive opinion of business. Similarly, while 44% of those from working-class backgrounds thought the film’s villains represented the way all big business operates, only 12% of those from upper middle class backgrounds felt so. The figures were inverted for the one bad sector option; 89% of the upper middle class people chose that as opposed to 56% of the working-class participants. In addition, 29% of those surveyed said that the film reinforced a sense that business puts profit before human life, and 23% answered that the film initiated their suspicion of business.
The vision of hope offered by the disaster films is a response to troubled times, and the need for those conservative solutions is made to seem all the more pressing by the increasingly hopeless literality of the disaster metaphors. If Airport ends with an intact airplane, Poseidon leaves a boat overturned and a priest dead, while Inferno concludes with a burned-out skyscraper, and Earthquake leaves nothing standing. The metaphors of transcendent rebirth required a vision of a fearful and deadly material reality. But there is a psychological significance to this as well. It is as if, as the economic and political crises of the seventies deepened, an increasingly frustrated white middle class was wishing death on more people, imagining hotter conflagrations to consume class and moral enemies. There were more bodies around at the ends of the films, a literal sign, perhaps, of negative urges operating through the metaphors.
By 1975, plurivalent disaster films like Towering Inferno would articulate both the populist distrust of business which characterized the era and the conservative yearning for an alternative which such distrust necessarily generated. The confusion of liberal and conservative strains of thinking in the film is itself indicative of the crisis of confidence and the sense that no clear solution was at hand. The disaster metaphor is thus undecidable, both rhetorically and historically. Rhetorically, it welds a vision of transcendent or metaphoric redemption to a recalcitrantly literal metonym of social destruction, neither of which can be affirmed without the other. Historically, it articulates both a populist distrust of conservative institutions and yearnings that could only be satisfied by conservative solutions (at least in the existing social context). This undecidability of meaning is therefore indicative of a very real problem in American culture. The crises of a conservative economic and political structure generate distrust and desires for a better community. But the available lexicon of political, economic, and social possibilities limits what can be envisioned as an alternative. What stands in is what is most familiar, and a literalization of the metaphoric solutions—priest, fireman, etc.—indicates how important neighborly familiarity and traditional middle-class representational and institutional figures were becoming in the time of greatest crisis in the mid-seventies. And what is most familiar is, of course, the family.
The disaster films therefore provide therapeutic narratives, which enact crisis, then assuage it. At the same time, they point to desires for care and community which will, in American culture, be increasingly addressed by conservative and traditionalist ideals. For this reason, it is very important that the ethos of the disaster genre is markedly middle-aged, middle-level managerial, and mid-American. It seems directed to that middle class, which fears both big business and liberal urban modernity, and which clings to traditional values of home, self-reliance, and faith. The disaster film is in some respects the anxious imaginary of these people particularly, the world of Amway distributors, Rotarians, Masons, and the local Chamber of Commerce, the very white middle class Ronald Reagan would appeal to with his vision of an America of restored small-town life, folksy communities where friendly white businessmen and their wives could thrive without being bothered by big government or the urban poor and non-whites. This older, middle-class, middle-American world was particularly sensitive to the threats disaster films metaphorize—social critics, disgruntled workers, decadent rich people flouting traditional morality, corrupt capitalists, liberated sexuality, economic recession. The same fears and desires articulated in these films would be answered, beginning around 1978, in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and The Deer Hunter, which offered antidotes to disaster. What is projected negatively as anxiety in the disaster films of the early to mid seventies will appear positively beginning in 1978 as an affirmation of the traditional ideals of the American Way (Amway, for short).
Yet the films also enact a problem which cannot be resolved by conservative ideals. They accurately depict the negative consequences of the conservative economic policies which are inseparable from the traditionalist social structures which seem most to respond to the needs the films articulate. The films therefore point to an irresolvable dilemma or antinomy of conservative ideology in American culture. Conservative ideology most readily responds to the need for care and community because it celebrates family and patriarchal authority, yet it also regenerates the very problems which inspired that need in the first place. Thus, the films are both reactionary and radical, both a closing off of significant desires and a blueprint for the inevitable reopening of them.
Two of the major “crisis” films of the early seventies—The Exorcist and Jaws—can be read as metaphoric representations of anxieties generated by contemporary social movements like feminism and by the crisis in confidence in business and civic leadership. In The Exorcist, demonic possession is a metaphor for fears about independent women and female sexuality; the resolution offered reassures a threatened patriarchy that male paternalism will restore discipline and authority to an unruly post-sixties society. Jaws projects metaphoric fears of the dissolution of community and family as a result of the venality of business and the weakness of traditional authority figures, and depicts the passage to power of a patriarchal savior of the community who dispatches the threat and restores order.
The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin, was one of the most discussed media events of the decade.4 Its success accelerated the blockbuster phenomenon, and it helped spawn a genre cycle of occult horror films featuring demonic possession. The story concerns the possession of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), and the attempts of her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), to rid Regan of the demon. After consulting medical and psychiatric authorities, Chris calls in a priest, and an exorcism is performed. A parallel plot centers on one of the priests who performs the exorcism, Damien Karras (Jason Miller). His impoverished mother dies, and, overcome with guilt and religious doubts, he carries out the exorcism by sacrificing himself for the girl.
In The Exorcist, Chris’s husband has left her, and several scenes underscore the father’s absence. The demon’s arrival occurs as Chris lies alone in bed, working. She becomes increasingly incapable of coping with the crisis and eventually collapses. One of the film’s implicit messages, then, is the need for a father to protect and discipline women and children. Summing up the film’s sexist stereotypes, Ruth McCormick writes: “All the women—the wholesome, average young woman who turns into a hermaphrodite monster; the pseudosophisticated but basically vulnerable and hysterical mother; the innocuous, prep-school-girlish secretary; and Karras’ frail, dominate-through-guilt mother—are passive, helpless, and lost in a cruel world without male help and guidance.”5
The Exorcist can also be interpreted as an attack on independent feminine sexuality. Author William Blatty based his plot on the story of a fourteen-year-old boy, but transformed the protagonist into a young girl in his novel. During the final scenes of the film, she is strapped to the bed, and the images around her project phallic shadows of bedposts and other objects. Many feminists argued that these scenes promoted bondage and rape fantasies. Each of the scenes depicting Regan’s possession contain derogatory images of female sexuality. Cumulatively, they represent women’s sexuality as wild, uncontrollable, and dangerous, a depiction reminiscent of the ideology of witchcraft, which promoted the punishment of women for being too sexually active. This depiction, of course, is a male projection, a symptom of male sexual anxiety. The demonic possession can therefore be decoded as sexual aggression against men, and the exorcism can be interpreted as an attempt to repress a threatening female sexual power. Literally, of course, the problem is a woman with a man inside of her—a woman who behaves like a man. If she is a figure of a deviant power, she is also a figure of a confusion of sexual identity, an additional threat to a gender power system based on the absolute segregation of sexual traits.
The bondage-pedophilia images also play on male sexual fantasies of the helpless girl-child, and Regan’s tantrums evoke images of the naughty child who needs punishment. Throughout the film, the girl behaves like an exorbitant brat. At the conclusion of the exorcism, she sits on the bed in the pose of a temptress, and Karras beats her until she submits to his power by crying out and becoming a good little girl again. The final scene in particular highlights this point. Regan is again a sweet and submissive girl, returned to a state of innocence. She smiles at a priest, looks at his clerical collar, impulsively kisses him and runs off, a perfect example of devoted submission to patriarchal authority. Chris, too, once so independent and sassy, is restrained, chastened, and ready to become a doting mother once again. Both are returned to their “normal” roles; the spirit of feminism and of independent female sexuality has been exorcised.
Camera rhetoric and scene composition work to the benefit of the patriarchal and irrationalist ideology of the film. The exorcist is positioned opposite an icon of the demon in an early scene, and his large shadow is projected against the house the demon occupies in another, connoting his power. The mother, on the other hand, is shot from a high camera angle when she enters the house, suggesting her lack of power in relation to the demon upstairs. And when she is attacked by the girl-demon in the bedroom and flung on the floor, the camera assumes her low position as an armoire hurls itself across the room toward her, connoting her powerlessness. The incapacity of science is signaled by the juxtaposition of off-putting images of surgery with scenes of Karras saying mass in a peaceful, pious environment. The contrast suggests that “evil” is impervious to rational solutions.
The Exorcist mystifies the social origins of suffering, and it puts liberal reformism and rational science in doubt by depicting “evil” as something immune to existing institutional remedies. The demon survives, despite its exorcism. In a conservative vein, the film thus seems to posit the irreducibility of “evil.” The metaphysical pessimism of this and later satanic conspiracy films reproduces the worldview of reactionary social forces like evangelical-fundamentalist Christianity which were at this time beginning to become powerful. As in this film, in evangelicism Satan is often projected onto real social groups like feminists, communists, homosexuals, or whoever else threatens the holy order of monogamous reproduction.
The Exorcist is also interesting historically for depicting the susceptibility of patriarchy to the threat posed by feminism and sexual liberation. From this perspective, the ideology of the film can be turned inside out, like a glove. Once that is done, once the internal stitches of the seams that hold the glove together are delineated, the polarities that define the film’s value system (possession/faith, female hysteria/male power, science/dutiful obedience, etc.) become equally reversible. Seen as a symptom of male anxiety and fear of the sort provoked in the early seventies by feminism’s challenge to male domination, the film itself comes to seem like a kind of hysteria, a shrieking, rageful, “possessed” act of male representational violence against women. As in paranoia in which the characteristics of the external enemy are merely projections of internal psychological features of the paranoid subject, in the film the negative characteristics of the two female characters—violent rage, uncontrollable sexual desire, helplessness, weakness—can be read as externalized projections of male psychology as it confronts and reacts to feminism. A diagnostic reading of the film would suggest that at this moment in history it is clearly men who are feeling at once rageful and weak, violent because rendered helpless by the feminist attack on male privilege. That privilege was traditionally accompanied by a positioning of women as caretaking mothers, which implied a male reliance on female care and a certain male vulnerability. The abandonment of that role by women would thus produce tremendous pain, a sense of weakness, and rage against the perpetrator. We suggest that this equation probably has something to do with the representational violence the film mobilizes against women.
Thus, the central metaphor of the film constructs a representational world that assuages the feminist threat to male psychological integrity, an integrity founded on the positioning of women in passive social roles. Like all ideological artifacts, however, the film displays the literal basis of its metaphor, its roots in material and social concerns. The women literally become passive in the end, and this passivity retroactively recodes the metaphoric possession as the opposite of passivity, as indeed a threatening excess of female activity. The narrative resolution provides the key for understanding the motivation of the narrative metaphor. Moreover, the narration is dual, and the relations between the two strands become clear in the light of this reading. The second narrative concerns Karras’s feelings of doubt and guilt regarding the death of his mother. A violence against the mother, implied by guilt, thus lies under the more metaphoric violence against women in general in the narrative. The symbolic murder of the mother parallels the subordination of the independent woman. In both instances, power over the man is reversed.
Like The Exorcist, Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg, depicts a society weakened internally by a loosening of traditional institutions and values and a failure of traditional authorities; those critical weaknesses that undermine society and threaten its integrity are projected onto an evil that only appears to come from outside. Like disaster films, Jaws deals with economic corruption, the failure of traditional leadership, and the way the integrity of a community is at first threatened, and then restored. After a number of people are killed by a shark, the town’s sheriff, Brody, sets out with a seaman and a scientist and eventually kills it.6 Although the overt villains of the film are the small town’s economic elite, who put profit before safety, the crisis around which the film’s thematics revolve has to do with sexuality, manhood, and leadership. Critics noted the sexual dimension of the phallic shark (and the movie poster played to this perception). But the shark is less the sign of male sexuality than the sign of what goes wrong when the male sex is not fulfilling its duty of patriarchal leadership. Brody is the crucial figure in this scenario. He is at first inept, bureaucratic, and weak. He submits to the cover-up fostered by the town’s business elite. His weakness as a leader is reinforced by his ties to his wife and to female sexuality. At one point, an attempted seduction by his wife which distracts him from his duties is linked with a threat to his own child. At another point, her attentions immediately precede a shark attack that results in a child’s death. If economic venality corrupts leadership, then an excessively independent female sexuality undermines male public action and responsibility. Indeed, the shark’s first attack is on a girl who has just seduced a boy into going skinny-dipping with her. As she runs toward the ocean, shedding clothes, she leaves behind the palings that connote the strictures and boundaries of civil society. Her transgressively independent sexuality is suitably rewarded.
When Brody’s family is first presented, the palings metaphor reappears, this time as a latticework fence protecting his wife and child. Thus, it signals male protection as well as sexual control within the family form. It is associated with the law of the father (quite literally, since Brody is a policeman), that which protects the family from threats that lie beyond the pale, so to speak. Independent feminine sexuality seems to bring about a threat to the community that is aggravated by a failure of leadership. The solution is to restore male leadership and to refuse female sexuality by privileging male socialization and initiation rites. To accomplish his task, Brody must sever himself from the cloying intimacy and domesticity associated with his wife. Indeed, as the three men prepare to set out on the hunt, Brody and his wife are shot in a foreground close-up, connoting intimacy, while in the background the two other men bustle about boisterously. The demarcation between the male public world of the hunt and the female domestic sphere is clear. Later, the men will compare shark scars, and Brody will peer down into his pants, looking for his own and not finding one. The initiation ritual is complete when at a moment of weakness Brody seeks to call home to his wife and the old fisherman Quint severs the umbilical radio cord. Only then does the reborn patriarch emerge.
The alternative to the dangerous female world of threateningly independent sexuality is the all-male group. Male bonding is carried out stylistically as well as through plot and theme. When one significant male walks off silently alone (Brody after being slapped by an angry mother; Quint in rejection from the town meeting), another significant male watches his back for several extended moments. The camera assumes the position of his gaze, and in each case the audience is placed in the position of sympathetically identifying with the rejected male. This device establishes both the importance of the lone male, through the duration of the shot and the centering value it accords him in the frame, and a community of male bonding through the admiration from the other male that the lingering camera signifies. The audience is alerted to the importance of the bond between the three heroic men, as well as the singular significance of each.
Thus, while the film offers a corporate liberal critique of small-business venality and promotes the interests of a technocratic class of professional managers against that of the old Chamber of Commerce sector, it is also important historically as a major response to the crisis feminism and independent feminine sexuality were posing for traditional patriarchal values and institutions. The power of the Father/Leader needs to be reasserted, the film seems to say, and indeed it soon would be in U.S. society.
The film also demonstrates how the public and the private institutions of society reciprocally legitimate each other through the analogical comparison of one to the other. Leadership of communities by males is legitimated by establishing a parallel between the community and the patriarchal family, just as the patriarchal family derives its model from the royalist tradition of public order. Indeed, the cross-fertilization of the two social models is particularly strong in Jaws, since the shark poses a dual threat to community and family. What is noteworthy from a deconstructive perspective in this analogical or metaphoric exchange of traits between family and polis is its reversibility. The use of one category as a metaphor for another institution-family patriarchy for community leadership—is designed to accomplish an idealization, a sense of the meaningfulness and therefore necessity and universal importance of that institution. Yet the very vehicle of that metaphor implies literal metonymic connections which cannot be closed off and which interfere with the ideal the metaphor promotes. All meaning rests on associations, the creation of relations between terms. But this implies as well that all meaning is unstable, because nothing prevents further associations from being possible, other meanings from being created. This is especially true of meanings which rest on the exclusion or subordination of one term by another. For instance, patriarchal power in Jaws clearly is meaningful only inasmuch as it excludes and subordinates woman. She means something which must be external to patriarchy, if it is to mean what it pretends to mean. The idealizing patriarchal meaning deconstructs at those moments when literal material connections back to woman emerge. This is especially clear during the metaphoric quest for the shark, a quintessentially male, public adventure, severed entirely from female-dominated family life. Yet that quest cannot do without certain literal motifs of sexual power and potency. Brody’s literal glance into his pants in search of the missing phallus establishes a metonymic connection which both enables and disables the sexual metaphor of the quest. For the quest doesn’t make sense except as a confirmation of manhood, that is, as the ability to perform with women. Woman is always there, in other words, as threatening perhaps as the shark. The literal associations deprive the patriarchal metaphor of its idealizing pretensions, but more important, they suggest that the literal and the metaphoric might be reversible. The metaphoric ideal of patriarchal public order might be nothing more than an illegitimate transfer of material interests into cultural idealizations which have become self-evident assumptions, constantly replicated in the field of representation and psychology with the aid of artifacts like Jaws. All in the family indeed.
Like the disaster films of the same era, these crisis films are hinges between periods of major cultural activity. They mark the running down of the sixties, the transmutation of radical energies into fearful reactions, as economic and political events removed the secure ground that permitted the radical critiques to thrive. Even as these films articulate a withdrawal to imaginary models of redemptive violence and leadership, they also point forward to the next historical period when those models would be realized in concrete form. Their rhetorical strategy of evoking crisis only to heal it is something more, therefore, than an invitation to audiences to indulge in fantasies of destruction. It is also indicative of an actual change in the cultural representations, the figures which construct the world in a certain way, providing psychological security, a feeling of integrity with the world around one. The films indicate the loss of a certain object constancy, a stability of mental representations which regulate the internal world and which are borrowed or internalized from the culture and from the institutions of society. They point therefore to the close relationship between psychological integrity and the stability of social institutions, and inversely, by carrying out a restoration of social institutional order on the level of psychological representation, they also point to the power of cultural representation in preparing and enabling institutional change. The films both depict the imaginary return of redemptive representations of order and pave the way for an actual restoration by directing the representations which code the communal construction of a common sense of social reality in a conservative direction. Not that the viewing of crisis films accounts for the conservative political triumphs of the late seventies. Rather, the films enact the collapse of representational security which was itself a factor in that turn of events, and they representationally construct institutional solutions. Audiences made representations of crisis popular because disasters on the level of communally held representations had occurred which disturbed the security that derives from such representations. The films transcode the crisis of representation, the undermining of confidence and security, but they also provide the new representations which will have a socially therapeutic effect a few years later. The narrative of crisis in these films, therefore, is itself an enactment of what would occur historically. The leader was on his way—if only in people’s minds.
Yet in one way, these apparently successful exercises in ideology were themselves counterideological. Conservative cultural or cinematic texts invariably contain a fissure line that troubles the apparently victorious ideology of the text. Ideological antidotes always point out disease even as they try to remedy it or, as in the case of some film representations, try to pretend it doesn’t exist. The success of the ideological operation is always a testament to failure, since ideological representations would not be necessary if indeed there were no trouble in the system, if indeed all’s right, as ideology claims, in the world. Jaws and the other crisis films are interesting because they depict patriarchy as on the defensive. Father could no longer claim to know best if he had to argue his position.
One lesson of the crisis of order and patriarchy is that political authority and male sexual and social power are interconnected and interdependent in a patriarchal society. Therefore, the failure of legitimate leadership articulated in disaster films frequently appears as a crisis of male power over women and in the family. This dual crisis seems to be felt most acutely in recent American history by the economic sector most vulnerable to the kinds of economic recessions that have plagued the country during this period—the competitive as opposed to the corporate sector. The ideal self-image of this petit bourgeois sector is the small father-run family business, which survives on a mixture of irrational blood loyalty and brutally rational marketplace calculation.
The values, ideals, and figures of the small-business ideology are most saliently on display at this time in the films of Francis Coppola. Coppola initially confronted the social crises directly in realist styles, but as time passed he turned to more romantic and expressionist forms, compensating for the sense of loss engendered by the crises of the family, of the economy, and of public leadership through increasingly aestheticist fantasies and regressive genre forms. We shall argue that the ideology mobilized in his films as a response to crisis is authoritarian, petit bourgeois (small-business based), and neopatriarchal, and that with time, that ideology has assumed more overtly rightist forms.
From You’re a Big Boy Now (1967) and The Rain People (1969) to Rumble Fish (1983) and Cotton Club (1984), Coppola’s films display an inability to come to terms with the crisis of patriarchy initiated by feminism. You’re a Big Boy Now poses an ideal girl against a “bad” girl and argues that its hero is better off choosing the good one. The traditionalist attitudes of the film do not bode well for a happy marriage with feminism, and indeed, Coppola’s next “auteur” film, The Rain People, carries out a covert attack on feminism. A pregnant wife suddenly leaves home and drives across country, fleeing from the responsibility of motherhood and marriage, and intent, it seems, on getting an abortion. Her bad experiences at trying to be a “liberated” sexual vamp lead her in the end to decide to rejoin her husband, a bossy Italian patriarch named Vinnie (a nice autobiographical touch). The theme of failed “liberation” is enunciated through the style and structure of the movie. The narrative forms a closure that suggests inescapability; the spaces in which the significant actions occur are oppressively closed; and the tone of the images, as of the story, is one of a sad, nostalgic sentimentality that makes the past seem a dream to be cherished and home life an ideal to be preserved. In other words, the style and structure of the movie also advocate its conservative politics.
The antifeminism of Rain People carries over into the very popular Godfather films (first in gross in 1972, fifth in 1975). The “saga” chronicles the history of a mafia family as it develops from a moment of security, harmony, and power at the beginning of the first film to a point of dissolution at the end of the second. The first film depicts the rise to power of a young mafia don, Michael Corleone (A1 Pacino), who earns his right to rule through displays of vicious violence. The second film concerns the falling apart of his family and his empire. The films are strikingly multivalent. They can be read as transcoding the mid-seventies populist distrust of big, corporate institutions, and, in a sense, they are highly critical of capitalism and of its negative impact on traditional communities and on family life.
If the Godfather films lend themselves to a radical reading, they also provide insights into the conservative reaction to cultural modernization and to the increasing corporate dominance of American economic life.7 The economic theme closely parallels the antifeminist theme. Economic harmony in the first film seems indissociable from the positioning of women in a subsidiary position of care in relation to men, who are the primary economic agents. The two worlds are in fact carefully demarcated. Business takes place in dark interior rooms from which women are excluded. The camera work in these scenes is organic; it suggests unity and harmony, and the lighting is generally shadowy yet warm. As one of our students remarked, the dark rooms resemble a womb. Not accidentally, then, when the family business leaves its roots in Godfather II, becoming increasingly impersonal and corporatized ultimately to collapse, the women also display nontraditional, nonmaternal characteristics. The separation of male business from the female home in fact presupposes a strong connection between the two. The idealized, father-run, small business of the films is dependent on the empathy and care provided by women socialized to remain at home, out of the business jungle. If the market world is an arena of danger for men who are socialized to survive by ridding themselves of all “feminine” traits, such as empathy, the home world is their only haven. Confined to the domestic or family sphere, empathy easily becomes exaggerated and cloying, a sentimentality of blood loyalty which makes up for the lack of empathy in the external world. Thus, economics and sexual politics are closely intertwined. The conservative elegizing of the small-business world is inseparable from a nostalgia for the patriarchal family because the brutal, aggressive, and calculating emotional configurations of that world require a compensatory locus of care, one provided in traditional conservative socialization by women in the family.
Godfather I begins with an account of violence done to a young woman, and it concludes with an ejection of a woman from the inner male sphere of business and her positioning in a proper role as a caretaker of men. The two moments are profoundly related, for it is the threat of male violence in the public world that obliges women to submit to domestication. The price of protection is subservience. And the assumption of the feminine role of caretaker legitimates and helps reproduce the dichotomizing of gender roles, which results in the male assumption of the right to exercise violence in the public world—against each other and against women. A circle of cultural reproduction is formed by linking the beginning and ending of the film. But that circle doesn’t quite close. To understand why, it will be necessary to stress the importance of framing and scene composition to the elaboration of the film’s themes.
Cinematography, visual texture, and narrative structure operate the-matically in the film. The conservative themes—that brutality and the struggle for survival lie just beneath the surface of civilization and that strong leaders and firm order are therefore needed to prevent the chaos of nature from erupting—are highlighted formally in several ways. The film’s style is classical; that is, each segment is structured as a unity of establishing shots and stable shot transitions that suggests social order. Similarly, the frame compositions display a high level of organization and symmetry of disposition among elements which bolsters the political theme. For example, in one segment, the men of the family are in the foreground at a table, awaiting news of Michael’s assassination of their enemies. The telephone rings, and Sonny, the new Don, walks to the background to answer. He is positioned at the focal center of the frame; the others are arranged around him symmetrically. He is literally positioned as the new center of order in the social world. Likewise, when a horse’s head is put in the bed of a troublesome movie producer, the segment begins with a classical establishing shot of his house. The camera moves in like an intruder to the scene of ruthlessness and horror. The segment concludes with the same external establishing shot of the house, stylistically reinforcing the cruelty of the trick. Order frames the violence, making it seem part of nature and intimating that such horror and brutality are part of the fated order of things.
Many segments like these suggest that firm order is needed because the world is cruel. This, we would contend, is the significance of the famous final segment in which church scenes are ironically intercut with scenes of murder. Civilization merely covers over the brutality of nature, and the film works to elicit from the audience both exultation in the violence and admiration for Michael’s leaderly genius. In the ensuing scene, Michael confronts his brother’s betrayer, and because the man’s guilt is not prepared for in the narrative, this narrative surprise endows Michael with an air of intuitive genius similar to that lent the Godfather when, out of nowhere, he predicts exactly how enemies will attempt to kill Michael, as if recounting a law of nature.
Finally, color texture is used as a thematic correlative. The film is structured around an inside/outside opposition (family vs. world, especially) that is signaled initially by the difference between the intimate darkness of the family rooms, in which close-ups and orderly camera changes prevail, and the lit world outside, where medium and long shots predominate, suggesting less intimacy and less control over the environment. Michael first sits on the rim between the family house and the backyard wedding party, half in light, half in darkness. Eventually he moves into darkness and assumes command. The clarity, simplicity, and “orderliness” of his commands are coded chromatically in the Nevada scene when he tells his brother never to speak against the family in public. Michael is filmed against a blue carpet that fills the screen with a simple color that is as unambiguous as his words.
There is a male anxiety operating both thematically and stylistically in the film, and it originates in an inability to tolerate disorder, complexity, and ambiguity. Coppola flings so many symbols (candles, bierlike canopies, etc.) at the world that it is as though he fears it might not have any meaning or order. And, of course, the yearning for a great leader like the Don or Michael is evidence of a similar anxiety. All such metaphoric meaning schemes can be deconstructed, simply because it is in the nature of such anxiety, as we have argued, both to turn away from the source of anxiety and, in turning, inadvertently to point to the source. For example, at the end Michael’s wife, Kay, stands in the foreground, a rather large figure filling half of the frame. In the background, in the center of the frame, is a door leading to Michael’s room, where he stands, after having been honored as Godfather by his men. Framed by the door, Michael is idealized in a metaphoric portrait. The door is then closed, and the woman/wife/mother is shut out. The gesture of separation establishes the prevailing opposition of the film between the inside of the men’s world and the outside of the women’s world. But what is presented as an effect of male superiority and self-identity (the necessity of keeping women out) is in fact its cause, and the cinematography signals this inadvertently. The literal cause of the film’s metaphoric aggrandizement of the man is fear of woman, of being mistaken for a woman (passive, nonviolent, dependent, etc.). That fear is also a fear of a representational form like metonymy that would reveal the metaphoric male ideal to be constituted through real material connections with and dependencies on a powerful woman. The final image executes an anxious, violent exclusion of the woman because, as the mother all men first identify with and upon whom men are dependent as children, she is in fact potentially threatening and powerful. In the concluding image, the cause (fear of woman’s power) is inverted into an effect of the very male pathology that fear in fact generated (exclusion of woman from the male world because of her weakness). The woman’s exclusion is made to appear a result of male self-empowerment and independence.
But what is interesting from a deconstructive perspective is that the woman remains so large within the frame. We are shown the literal source of the film’s anxiety, the metonymic or material basis of its metaphoric idealization. The woman/mother’s power is literally displayed, even as it is figuratively denied. This tension between the figurative and the literal dimensions of meaning signals an aporia at the heart of male sexual identity. That identity is constituted as independence from woman, but it is dependent on woman to guarantee that independence. In the final image, the enlarged woman gazes down at the man in an illogical spatial arrangement. His empowerment is dependent on that gaze, that confirmation of his power. Excluded from the man’s world, the woman nevertheless has power quite literally over it. Without her confirming gaze, it would have no identity as that which is male, that which excludes woman, and that which elicits female adulation. But the gaze is more than adulatory; it is also maternal. For the metaphoric hero is literally a small man-child within the composition of the frame. Woman is needed as a larger-than-life ideal mother even as she is denied existence as a literal person. The independent male betrays his dependency and his relational connectedness, just as the metaphor which secures the ideal of independence and power betrays its anchoring in a metonymic literality that cannot be transcended. This reverses the hierarchy and polarity the film seeks to establish. And the possibilities opened up by this are highly indeterminate, for if such strong male identity and independence are in fact dependent on what they give out to be weak and effeminate, if the ideal meaning of the metaphor is produced by the sign or vehicle (the literal image of the woman) which was supposed to be a merely secondary transportation device for its true meaning, then no secure identity is possible which is not also intermediated and derived in a similar way. The literal and the figurative, the metonymic and the metaphoric, can no longer be distinguished in a hierachy that gives the latter in each case precedence over the former. And this is precisely why the film resorts to metaphoric representational forms, for, given all this, it is only through semantically overdetermined representations that this indeterminacy and undecidability can be overcome—at least apparently.
Coppola’s films always contain such confusions of tropological levels, and we contend that this relates to a desire, which is very much the one instantiated in this final image, to return to a fused state of non-separation from the mother, a narcissistic paradise of spatial static harmony into which no difference, no temporality, no indeterminacy intrudes. In such a state, the literal and the figural would be indistinguishable, for the difference from the object world that initiates the need to represent things in their absence would not yet have occurred. This is the significance of the fact that the final image resembles a portrait, a fixing of identity in a metaphoric fusion of image and meaning that seems exempt from all the contingencies of modernity.
This reading permits us now to reconsider the political and economic themes of the Godfather films, their evident tendency to hark back to a golden age of family unity and small-business integrity. Male narcissism informs both of these instances, as it does the implicitly authoritarian political values. Private male narcissism is exercised publicly as authoritarianism, a political form which resembles the metaphoric rhetorical form in that a spatial order (hierarchic, coded, determinate) displaces all metonymic dissonance, indeterminacy, and equality. All the differences that characterize modern, urban democracies dissolve into the will of the ruler. The seamless unity desired in narcissism means that these themes are found in every dimension of the films, from the sentimental blood ties which overcome the distance between people resulting from modernity and big business, resolving alienation into a fused corporate family, to the chiaroscuro that blurs distinctions and creates the aura of an old photograph throughout the films. Fittingly, the films themselves were fused into a narrative sequence for television, and it is structured as a nostalgic evocation through flashback of a golden age prior to the erosion of male leadership, the breakdown of family unity, and the introduction of indeterminacy into the fixed meaning that ended the first film. Like the flashbacks in film noir, which always occur in conjunction with the presence of powerful women, this narrative structure signals a flight from a threat, just as indeed the predominantly metaphoric rhetoric of the films points to an anxious turning away from something which must be kept absent.
Coppola’s other films, especially those of the late seventies and early eighties, provide further evidence of a psychology at odds with corporate modernity, troubled by feminism, and attracted to authoritarian patriarchal ideals. Harry Caul of The Conversation (1974) is a small businessman who seems powerless in the face of the large powerful corporation with which he contends. He ends up being partially responsible for the murder of the paternal corporate head by his deceitful wife. Apocalypse Now (1979) is an allegory of Vietnam that redeems the loss of war with a myth of rejuvenated male leadership. One from the Heart (1982) concerns a petit bourgeois couple who experiment in the new sexuality, then decide to reestablish a safe hearth. An attempt to revive the traditional studio musical, the film is shot in a pastel style that separates it entirely from historical actuality, while establishing a metaphoric medium purged of metonymic contamination. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (both 1983) are about young boys yearning for strong leaders, and both use expressionist techniques that replace reality with symbols and exaggerated representational surfaces. Finally, The Cotton Club (1985) is an oedipal fantasy in which a young man kills off papa for mama that is distinguished by representational forms which suggest a withdrawal from a potentially threatening world into a narcissistic and paranoid realm of private fantasy. As in Coppola’s other films, this is associated with the incursion of big capital into small business.
In these films, representation, politics, and psychology form a nexus. The psychoanalytic theory of object relations argues that the constitution of the self as an autonomous and differentiated entity occurs through representation. The child learns to represent the object world, and in so doing, it achieves a sense of separation from it. Clear and distinct representations of objects place them apart from the self and establish the boundaries that separate the self from the world. That world initially is defined by primary caretakers (especially mothers in a patriarchal society), and the child must learn to transcend its sense of undifferentiated fusion with such caretakers. By developing a capacity to represent them, the child poses them as objects and establishes a boundary between them and the self. These mental representations also provide a surrogate security or satisfaction that permits the child to live apart from caretakers, to function in their absence.
What matters for our analysis of Coppola is that representational distinction is crucial for male sexual identity. A power of mental representation, by establishing boundaries around the self and separating it from the object world, also secures an identity for the male child which distinguishes the child from the mother. (Remember the boundary marked literally by the door frame in the concluding image of Godfather I.) But if the male child fails to develop mental representations that permit separation and that establish boundaries, his sense of sexual identity will become confused. The ties of care and empathy with the mother (the first “object”) will come to appear as threats to his hermetic boundaries and to his identity. This failure appears most importantly at an early stage of psychic development in the failure to represent the mother in her absence. Incapable of providing himself with the security and care he takes from her presence through his own mental representations, the child experiences her absence and his inability to compensate for it as abandonment and loss. The resulting narcissistic wound leads to feelings of insecurity and to desires either to fuse with the maternal object or to withdraw entirely from an object world that is felt to be threatening and inconstant. Such withdrawal from the representation of objects leads to the development of compensatory private representations that are highly resolved and hypertropic. These hypertropic or exaggerated private representations overcome the confusion of boundaries that the early failure entailed by rejecting the object world altogether and thereby establishing extremely firm boundaries around the self which radically separate the self from that world and from the threat of empathetic ties to it. The stronger the needed boundaries the more powerful and developed are these private mental representations in distinction, differentiation, quality, etc. The extreme instance of such fantasies is schizophrenia. These representations tend therefore to replace public reality, which is metonymic, contingent, and indeterminate, with private meaning systems that are metaphoric, overdetermined, and fixed. The resulting security of boundaries helps reestablish a determinate sexual identity, since the object world associated with maternal inconstancy is left out of the picture. The final ingredient in this psycho-pathology is violence. The need to establish exaggerated boundaries through hypertropic representations is carried out aggressively, and that aggression is directed against the mother, who is experienced as being responsible for the initial abandonment, loss of object constancy, and failure of mental representation. If care is linked to metonymic ties that confuse the boundaries of identity, then its inverse—uncaring aggression—will be valorized as the means of salvaging sexual identity. In Coppola’s films and in patriarchal culture in general, the fixing of male sexual identity through idealizing metaphoric representations that establish firm boundaries will be linked to violence against women.
It is noteworthy that Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and Rumble Fish all end with images of lone males cut off from a world that cannot be trusted or that has proved threatening. In all four films, men either live separately from women in all-male groups or else violently reject women. In Rumble Fish, the explicit cause of the demise of the gangs whose virtues the film celebrates is women, and the boys live in a family which has been abandoned by the mother. The films are all characterized by an absence of clear representational boundaries, either between objects or between private fantasies and realist depictions. According to the psychoanalytic theory we are using, this would indicate an anxiety over sexual identity, a loss of object constancy which defines self boundaries that is played out aesthetically or representationally. Compensation for the loss of object constancy occurs both through a turn to authoritarian political forms which promise to secure objectival determinacy and through a turn to representational forms that are extremely developed and that fuse images and meanings in overdetermined symbols. In Rumble Fish, the Motorcycle Boy “reigns” (as graffiti constantly remind the viewer), and the gangs are looked back to nostalgically as a time when everyone was “loyal” and “organized.” Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is an authoritarian leader. Both films are stylized allegories in which expressionist images, heightened nonrealist effects, and symbols abound.
Each of the heros is also an individualist, since it is the purpose of the political model and of the representational form of each film to establish a boundary around the self, a sense of representational distinction between the self and the threatening, because inconstant, maternal object world. The individualist resists being “boxed in” (as the theme song of Rumble Fish puts it), and in all of the films figures representing limitations on the hero are overthrown or rejected. The leader is someone who brooks no limitation on a triumph of his will; he represents a conservative male desire to regress to a narcissistic state in which all desires are immediately satisfied, especially by the mother. The perfect fusion of command and execution in the leadership principle is a correlate of the perfect fusion of self and world, self and mother which the narcissistically wounded male child desires yet can never attain. The mother’s ineluctable difference, experienced as a loss of object constancy, thus motivates the rightist political thematics.
Restitution also occurs through the very formal properties of the films, which fuse signs and meanings into symbolic spatial unities that deny temporal difference. Authoritarianism appears as the desire to control the cinematic medium fully, to bend it to one’s private fantasy and will, to replace a threatening indeterminate depiction of historical or material objects with a highly privatized vision of meaning, to subsume metonymy to metaphor. Through representation, through surrogate control over the world of inconstant objects (especially female or maternal objects, the object relation that usually underlies all later ones), a sense of male sexual identity and power is achieved, and the sense of loss is overcome.
In Rumble Fish, for example, the highly metaphoric style of the film is a correlate of the kinds of mental representations which would compensate for instability in the male narcissist’s object world. It both distances the threatening maternal world of inconstant objects and restores its presence through a substitute medium, for the extremely developed representational surfaces of the film fulfill the same function as accurate representations of that lost object without being prey to any of its threatening contingency. The film’s representational dynamics stabilize a defective self-identity, and this representational strategy constitutes an ideal of fusion whose political analog is the hero-worshiping corporate gang. The representational fusion of world and will, image and meaning, is realized in the symbol of the fish, for example, the only color objects in this otherwise black and white film. Like the colored fish (which only the visionary, natural leader, The Motorcycle Boy, has the power to see), ordinary things are endowed with transcendental, highly metaphoric significance through the use of nonrealist camera angles, speeded-up film, and fantasy sequences, strategies that evoke an attitude of veneration parallel to that inspired by leaders, a sense of the mysterious, transcendental power or meaning in things. If the all-male group is a defense against women, so also is the representational form of the film, which, like the confusion of reality and stage performance at the end of Cotton Club, overcomes difference, and replaces an indeterminate public reality with a fused private fantasy of semantic overcoding in which no difference, no loss, no indeterminacy is possible.
All Coppola’s later films are highly metaphoric for this reason. They seem to neutralize the potential dissemination of meanings through random interpretive connections and material networks that are a consequence of the metonymic forms Coppola so carefully avoids. The streets of Harlem in Cotton Club, for example, will for this reason be rendered as a stage set whose artificiality is scarcely concealed, for such signs of artifice suggest this world is one of one’s own making, something, unlike the historical reality of Harlem, in one’s control. Private fantasy replaces public reality, but also the sub-sumption of the material historical world to one’s own magisterial meaning replaces a threatening possibility that this world might have a disturbingly separate objectivity or materiality, one marked by multiple indeterminate meanings of a sort that threaten the firm boundaries of identity. If this difference is the difference between authoritarianism and democracy, it is also the one between a conservative male sexual identity and a more liberal or radical concept of the innocuousness of sexual indeterminacy, as well as the difference between metaphoric and metonymic representational forms.
In Coppola’s films, then, one notices a combined desire for fusion and separation that has political, representational, and sexual components. Representational fusion (of image and meaning) permits a separation of metaphoric form from the constraints of reality, just as political fusion (in the fascist organization or all-male gang) separates the exalted male from worldly threats to his power. And a fusion of sexual identity waylays threats of indeterminacy by establishing a boundary that separates the “male” from the “female.”
Coppola’s films indicate the extent to which culture (that is, certain forms of representation) is essential to the kinds of conservative political and economic mobilizations that would occur in the seventies and eighties. They display the pathological representational forms that result when a world of stable and constant objects begins to collapse, as it did in the seventies for numerous vulnerable people. A desire for fusion with a security-providing object and a desire for withdrawal from a threateningly unpredictable object world (economic, political, social) result from such instability. Coppola’s films are crucially prefigurative because they record a breakdown of stable object relations inasmuch as such a breakdown is a failure of representation. They point toward the replacement of such lost stable relations with fantasies of semantic fusion and with retreats into compensatory, overcoded private representations. And indeed, this is what will occur in American culture as people withdraw from an unstable social world in search of increasingly hypertropic private fantasies of power over that world which provide a sense of fused unity with lost objects. Film and the other media (including that medium of representation which is most obviously effective—politics) will be important for supplying the representations that enable and enact these psychosocial processes.