Representations are as much a part of power as the actual occupation of institutions. Idealized self-representations (on the level of both the individual and the nation) help hold a society together; internalized, they guide thought and behavior in certain ways, while braking them from going in others. Cultural representations of male heroism, which fetishize male “power” and provide idealized objects for male behavior modeling, have been a traditional way of reproducing male dominance in the political, economic, and domestic spheres. That strategy is given a specifically conservative ideological inflection in the late seventies and early eighties.
By 1980, conservatism would be triumphant in the American political sphere; feminism would have been at least institutionally defused by the defeat of the ERA; civil rights for minorities would be under attack from the Right in the form of court decisions like the Bakke case; the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 would help revive a pre-Vietnam sense of patriotic jingoism and militarism; the New Right (a mixture of fundamentalist religion and conservative economic and military thinking) would through massive mail order campaigns have organized a powerful social bloc; well-financed conservative political action committees would have successfully dethroned liberal politicians like George McGovern and Frank Church; a Democratic president would have proved inept at handling domestic problems and foreign crises; recessionary inflation would have provoked a white middle class reaction against state taxation for social services and against affirmative action programs that gave scarce jobs to minorities; the truce between capital and labor of the New Deal era would be broken by a successful capitalist attack against unions like the Air Traffic Controllers; the shift of wealth and economic power away from the Northeast to the Sunbelt would mean a destruction of the membership base of the liberal industrial unions as well as an increase in the power of southern conservatism (signaled in a tepid manner by Carter, and more grossly by Bush and Reagan). By the early eighties, the failed hero of Midnight Cowboy would have become the beer-guzzling, wife-beating, “I’m jes’ happy to have a job” chump of Urban Cowboy. The country had changed.
The cultural terrain that led to the rise of conservatism was already being prepared in the mid to late seventies. Not that one caused the other; rather, both were part of the same general historical movement. We will argue here that the revival of the hero in Hollywood film of this period, after such heroes had been put in question in the liberal climate of the late sixties and the seventies, plays an important part in that cultural mobilization. The strong male hero allowed an affirmative vision to be deployed by conservatives of the sort that liberals seemed at this time incapable of generating. The American economic system is such (based on a “free” market of competing individuals) that only conservative ideals and methods could convincingly offer themselves as solutions to its ills. The liberals offered the state, taxes, affirmative action, and welfare generosity to a society suffering from price inflation, intense job shortages, and foreign competition. The liberal program emerged as in contradiction with American economic “reality,” that is, the real material constraints generated by an economy based on conservative principles of the market, cost-benefit efficiency, and competitive individualism. Thus, the situation of the New Deal, in which twenties conservative individualism had to be cured by thirties statism, was reversed; sixties and seventies statism would be cured by eighties conservative individualism.
We have argued that a yearning for redemptive leadership on the part of the white middle class is evident throughout the seventies in American culture. In the late seventies, images of strong heroes appear on the scene in apparent answer to that yearning. What is particularly noteworthy about these heroes, from Indiana Jones to Luke Skywalker, is that they often respond directly to the economic, political, sexual, and military issues that were the motivating sources of that psychological need. If representations in the psyche direct the person toward satisfactions that alleviate needs, these cultural representations respond to needs by guiding people toward certain social policy choices. More often than not those policy choices are conservative, and we will argue that the heroes of the late seventies and the eighties aided the triumph of conservative individualist models of social action during this time. The new hero is usually an individualist who combines three essential components of the contemporary conservative social agenda; he is a warrior, an entrepreneur, and a patriarch.
These three components are necessarily interdependent, both on the level of cultural representation and on the level of social policy. The new heroes are often entrepreneurs who buck government power and stand up to state tyranny. This scheme would be innocent enough if it were not advanced in a historical climate that witnessed a successful conservative revolution against the New Deal federal government whose rallying cry was “freedom to choose.” Conservatives complained of “excessive” state regulation and taxation of business, and as an alternative they proposed the unleashing of the “free market” in the hands of capitalist entrepreneurs who would generate enough wealth through their activities to make up for the loss in tax revenues. Tax cuts and a rollback of regulation would spur capital investment and unleash a new entrepreneurial spirit in America. The real agenda of this program, as we have argued, was to compensate for international competition, lower foreign wage rates, and reduced domestic profits by imposing a new sense of discipline on American workers and reducing their wages substantially. This could only be done if government protections were put aside and regulatory agencies were handed over to business—as indeed they were in the Reagan era.1
This war on Detroit was carried out in necessary conjunction with a war against leftist opponents of capitalism abroad, in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Conservatives argued for a transfer of funds from social spending like welfare (which only made workers and blacks immune to the harsh discipline of the “free” labor market) to military spending, a strategy which greatly enriched Ronald Reagan’s defense industry backers in southern California. It also aided the drive launched by these white men against nonwhites in the Third World who threatened to disturb white male world rule. Callousness and a return-to-the-jungle, survivalist mentality of the market in domestic matters were linked with brutality and murder in foreign affairs. The new conservative hero (both on the screen and off) thus combines entrepreneurial power with military power; he is also a warrior.
Finally, the new hero is often a patriarch, someone who dominates women. The conservative revolution was also a counterrevolution against feminism. It sought to return women to more traditional social roles, and it attempted to reimpose male discipline and control on women’s sexuality. If peasants were to be bombed, so were abortion clinics. But the new conservative economics also aided the anti-feminist drive. More women were subject to impoverishment as a result of the rollback of federal welfare programs. Poverty was “feminized” during this period. George Gilder, a conservative ideologue whose book Wealth and Poverty was adopted as a secular bible by the Reagan White House (copies were handed out to the staff), makes clear the interrelations between male entrepreneurial economic power and the redomestication of women. He argues that the unleashing of creative entrepreneurial economic energies depends on a reassertion of male sexual power and of male dominance in the family. “The male impulse to compete and the need to dominate affects all relations between the sexes.” Women must remain at home and serve as caretakers for the new entrepreneurs, who must fight like warriors all day in the jungle marketplace. It is in this image of the conservative male capitalist that one sees most cogently joined the three ingredients of the new hero—the warrior, the patriarch, and the entrepreneur. And it is also here that one notices the tendency toward authoritarianism and fascism in this particular form of conservative individualist social agenda. Gilder writes: “It is only individuals who can be original . . . , and material progress is ineluctably elitist.” Male domination over women in the family is the prototype for male rule over the social family, and male “freedom” to act without restraints as individualists is the seed out of which the imposition of an authoritarian will on society grows.2
This vision of society is clearly very primitivistic; it attempts to reduce social life to primary process thinking, that is, to the assertion of the power of natural instinct over rational arrangements. In many of the new hero films, metaphors of nature and primitivism abound, and the great enemy is often an image of extreme rationality, science, intellect, or technology. Nature is the primary metaphor in the hero films because the ideal of the free individualist which the hero seems to promote is itself based on the assumption that individualism is more “natural” than something like rational state planning, which is too distant from nature. The entrepreneurial individual is free precisely because he follows his “own” natural instincts, rather than rational imperatives which come from outside. The metaphor of nature implies interiority, the “private” self-identity of the individual as well as the self-regulating mechanism of the market. Left to itself, the market works naturally to maintain a healthy economy, one that tends to distribute wealth according to natural patterns, with more going to the more endowed and less to those who don’t deserve it. Similarly, according to the ideology, in nature the patriarchal family is intact, unbroken by the rootlessness of modern urban life. Women and children obey fathers; the race is pure; and life follows naturally ordained rhythms. Nature also justifies the warrior ideal of conservative social policy which is embodied in the new hero. In the primitive jungle of the market, the naturally superior win; distrust reigns because marketplace competition cuts both ways. The line “trust me” is a recurring motif of “movie brat” films for good reason.
Clearly what is at stake in this social policy as well as in this social psychology is the issue of boundaries—boundaries around property, the home or family, and the individual self. Those boundaries, like the metaphor of nature, designate an interior realm which is self-identical or proper to itself, in no way dependent on or related to anything or anyone else. This psychology is noticeably pathological but also extremely powerful. Indeed, it derives from a need for power and control. White middle class males in particular, after having been out of control for so long in the seventies for all the reasons we have elaborated, were probably ready by 1978 to respond to images of renewed power, and what those images offered was a means of psychologically attaining control over a threatening environment. The high degree of representational power in the new hero films (most are fantasies characterized by extremely dynamic metaphoric images bearing little relation to an accurate or metonymic picture of the world) permitted a difficult material reality to be overcome. Threatened boundaries could be reestablished through the use of representations whose extremely high level of formal resolution marked out a distance between the self and the world and offered a sense of a private representational power that aided the realignment of male sexual identity. Not that these films appealed to males exclusively, but they do offer predominantly male idealizations. Like mental representations which accomplish a similar task on an individual level, these highly developed cultural representations allowed a boundary to be erected which severed a sense of emotional connectedness with the world. The world could no longer threaten or harm if it was kept at bay. Indeed, that separation enabled the placing of the world and of others in a purely objective position, one that permitted manipulation. That severing of metonymic connections and that objectification may account for the use of the term “meanness mania” to describe this era. In studying the new hero films, therefore, we will be concerned both with their social references and with the way their representational dynamics function to secure a psychological disposition appropriate to the conservative white middle class political bloc which came to dominate the country in the eighties.
Like all cultural events, the revival of the hero after a long period of anti-heroism has a history. We have noticed its negative preparation in crisis films of the seventies. It is prepared for more positively in the films of Sam Peckinpah and John Milius.
Peckinpah is a transitional figure who links traditional American individualism with the new ideological heroes of the late seventies. More populist in orientation, Peckinpah favors common types, lone men who stand up to adversity with taciturn good humor or who rebel against the authority of large institutions, including business. Yet in his films as well can be found an edge of reactionary resentment which takes violent forms. Peckinpah’s early seventies heroes are more concerned with the disappearance of the past and with their own status in a changing, modernizing world than with fighting communism or with keeping an urban underclass in its place. Nevertheless, his individualism is elitist, and it is informed by a belief in the greater sexual power of the heroic individual that is in keeping with the sexual psychology we outlined above. In Cross of Iron (1977), for example, the hero is an elite Nazi soldier whose enemy is an effeminate, aristocratic officer. While the film is in some ways critical of war (it opens with a quote from Bertolt Brecht), it is also a potentially fascist anthem to elite warriors. The Peckinpah film that points most clearly forward toward the later ideological heroes of the conservative revolution is Convoy (1978), in which Kris Kristofferson plays a trucker who rebels against state authority, represented by the police, and leads a convoy in protest against government policy. The trucker is a populist individualist who speaks out against big institutions that curtail freedom. As usual, the populist ideology cuts two ways. The convoy of truckers voice quasi-radical resentment against big corporations and big government, and they act in concert to save a black buddy, but they are also organized as a group under a single great leader in a structure with recognizable right-wing features.
Peckinpah’s truckers indicate the influence of economic realities on the figure of the hero as he emerges from the anti-heroic era of the late sixties and early seventies. But John Milius’s films of the mid and late seventies are better indicators of the conservative character of the new heroes. In Dillinger (1973), for example, the authoritarian gangster hero voices opposition to the New Deal and beats up women. His major concern is that his elite outlaw force be perceived as superior to all others. In The Wind and the Lion (1975), the story of a Berber chief who kidnaps an American woman and her children, Milius eulogizes the passing of the era of great robber barons and ballsy leaders like Teddy Roosevelt. The film celebrates U.S. imperialism, and it suggests that force is the only way to conduct foreign policy, a conservative theme of the era. The style of these films is congruent with the ideology of radical individualism in that it promotes awe at the majestic power of nature and of the warrior leader. Awe is the correlative of the political attitude of obedience superior individual leaders must inspire and require if they are to succeed. Moreover, the style draws attention to the level of representation itself, which is highly resolved and in color tone qualitatively superior to an image that merely records an objective reality. We have argued that the ability to separate out from the world of primary caretakers requires a capacity for mental representation which permits the child to retain an image of the caretaker even in its absence. A too radical separation, of the sort prescribed by a conservative patriarchal gender socialization system, will give rise to hypertropic mental representations that are detached entirely from any contact with the real world—or with the mother who prevents the child from attaining a patriarchal male identity. They do not so much represent as stand in for, and one could compare this to the structure of metaphor as we have described it. The metaphoric comic book imagery of Wind and the Lion is significantly most hypertropic at those moments when the young boy is gazing in awe at the Berber chieftain who serves as his paternal identification. When the chieftain kills off lepers who have kidnapped the boy and his mother, or escapes on horseback from heavily armed Germans, the scenes are shot from the boy’s point of view in a slow motion that emphasizes the almost superhuman quality of the action. The film dramatizes the process of identification as an internalization of idealized representations of the father which permit a separation from the mother. The exaggerated quality of the representations points to the excessive nature of that separation, its possible source in an anxiety over attachment to femininity. To be identified as a man is to be purged entirely of the maternal, and the hypertropic representations of Milius’s individualist hero are themselves means of accomplishing that identification.
It is in Milius’s next film, Big Wednesday (1978), that the principles of the coming conservative revolution find one of their first explicit cinematic articulations. Set in a golden age prior to Vietnam and the sixties, it concerns three surfers who are always on the lookout for the big wave which will allow them to prove their manhood. They react negatively to modernity as the sixties unfold; of urban riots, one remarks, “People don’t know what’s good for them.” (Strong leaders? the police?) The boys weather the storms of progress with only a few scars (caused, of course, by untrustworthy women), and the film ends with a celebration of their elite surfing power and of the sanctity of male bonding. Shot in a bombastic style that emphasizes the primitive power of the sea, the film resembles Wind in that its representational surface correlates with the themes of male individuation, the rejection of women, and individual superiority. Hypertropic imagery exercises a cognitive separation as the lusty boys are elevated above the world around them and become true fascist “knights.” The more contemporary conservative agenda of the film is signaled in a subplot concerning a friend of the boys, a small businessman, who builds a surfboard business from scratch into a thriving concern until “taxes” do him in and he is reduced to nothing. In this 1978 anthem to right-wing male herodom the material motivation of the cultural mobilization is strikingly evident.
In Conan the Barbarian (1982), it is more submerged, although the values it provokes are amply on display. A conservative fantasy projection, the world of Conan is a jungle where no one can be trusted and where one must fight to survive. Other people are either bonded allies who act as satellites to the male individual’s will or violent enemies who threaten one’s existence. In the plot, Conan’s parents are killed by an evil necromancer; Conan is sold into slavery, but grows up to find the necromancer, kill him, and free the people the necromancer held in thrall. Another way of describing what we are characterizing as the need in conservative male socialization to adopt representations of the father and to purge traits of the mother is to speak of castration. The boy, in order to avoid feeling castrated, that is, being a woman, must compensate by internalizing exaggerated, even fetishistic representations of male power. We mention this because Conan is full of castration imagery. Phallic power seems to be at stake in the struggle between Conan and the necromancer. Conan wins by hacking off the necromancer’s head with the broken stump of the sword his father made and which the necromancer used to behead Conan’s mother. One senses a sexual anxiety—a fear of impotence, femininity, or castration—underlying all of this; hence the almost hysterical counteraffirmation of macho power as an antidote. Bully men are still only half-grown baby boys underneath. Moreover, the necromancer’s high priest is distinctly gay, and the priest’s followers are hippieish and effeminate. They engage in a swarming sexual orgy in which no one seems to belong to anyone else, and eat a cannabalistic stew containing severed hands. To be dominated or part of a collective, rather than “free” as an individualist, is to lose one’s masculinity; to be a right-wing small businessman in loincloth is to be sexually potent. If Milius’s film underscores the sexual anxiety underlying conservative individualist social thinking, it also points to the pervasive theme of resentment against government control. The tyrants of the loincloth hero films are icons of a state power which can only be represented as unjustly domineering. And indeed, from a right-wing business perspective, excessive federal government was the real evil of the modern era, second if at all only to the Soviet Union, that other emblem of a state gone out of control.
While Peckinpah articulates the populist individualist resentment against class or power elites, Milius articulates the rootless, nostalgic conservatism of the petit bourgeois, the lower middle class sector whose lack of a stable class or economic fix motivates an anxious yearning for stable order, simpler times, and a powerful authority to dispel the multiple fantasy threats that are the paranoid projections of economic and social insecurity. Deprived of a secure populist ground, this ideology compensates for its instability by projecting exaggerated images of male power and by idealizing its past. Whereas Peckinpah asserts an aggressive male individualism that is dynamic, rebellious, and resentful of power (thus displaying some of the potentially radical components of populism), Milius demonstrates the regressive and passive side of conservative ideology, the longing for maternal security even as it yearns for representations of a powerful male figure to provide a stable identity. Conan is saved ultimately not by a man but by an idealized woman.
There is a continuity between Milius’s romantic individualist films of the mid-seventies and the more fantastic films of the later period. As romance or fantasy, both carry out a rejection of the constraints of social reality, a representational dynamic appropriate, we suggest, to the ideology of individualism. The celebration of the individual hero is also an inflation of subjective power over objective reality or over society’s collective limitations (the tyrant state). There is in consequence a tendency in the hero films toward styles that deny history or ignore contemporary reality. The inflation of the individualist’s subjective power seems to be carried out through a hypertropic representational form which is itself antisocial, in the sense that the images draw attention to themselves and are not merely transparent representatives of an external reality. They are more metaphoric than metonymic, tropes of substitution not connection. The depreciation of social realism, the inflation of romantic style, and the escalation into heroic fantasies of power are the aesthetic or representational correlates of the social theory of conservative individualism.
During this time a number of conservative stars (Eastwood, Norris, Stallone) parlayed success at the box office into power in the industry, and the films they wrote, produced, or directed generally espoused the new right-wing values of the era. All the films feature the stars as strong heroes who save the United States from invasion, provide leadership to threatened communities, or obliterate underclass threats to white middle-class life. Norris’s and Stallone’s films are particularly integral to the new culture of conservatism. In Stallone’s Rocky IV, the ex-working-class hero stands up for the consumer society and wins against a Soviet mechanical man. The usual nature metaphors (wood chopping, mountain climbing) supply the needed index for distinguishing the good American from the overly technological Russian who, nevertheless, converts to the creed of “for me”-ness and himself rebels against his masters before being drubbed into submission by his natural superior. The film suggests the strong link between middle-class ownership and the ideology of the self. Property is a confirmation of the individual self inasmuch as goods are gotten through one’s own effort, one’s own faith in oneself. But resident in this ideal is a violent reality: an individualized society is one in which people necessarily compete rather than cooperate. So it is that one of Stallone’s characters remarks, “We’re the warriors, and without some war to fight, the warriors might as well be dead.” Bring on the night.
Norris initially made a name for himself by translating the Bruce Lee martial arts film craze into an American idiom. But Lee films like Fists of Fury contain a class dimension that is absent in Norris’s films; Lee plays a member of a working-class family whose members are killed off by a corrupt boss, and the significant battle scenes are between workers and the boss’s goons. In contrast, Norris in films like An Eye for an Eye (1981) and Code of Silence (1985) tends to play resentful loner cops who buck authority in order to go after aristocratic drug dealers, demonstrating the curious mixture of antiauthoritarian individualism and extremely conservative law and order moralism that characterizes the populist American male. Norris is also featured in Invasion U.S.A. (1985), a movie produced by Cannon Films, which made a cottage industry out of right-wing hero films during the early eighties. The movie is distinguished by a sadistic style of violence and a rhetoric of neofascism. In it Norris plays a gator-wrestling redneck retired from the CIA who is called upon as the only one capable of saving the country from a terrorist invasion, led by a Russian. Constitutional freedoms are presented as weakening America (“they are their own worst enemy”), and the terrorists are so bad they turn Americans against themselves, “and even worse, against authority.” Leaders are necessary, the film argues, because without them groups would be disorganized and undisciplined. During this era, such right-wing thinking was linked to the exercise of state terrorism against leftists in the form of torture or disappearances, and the film contains several scenes of sadism. This is the extreme of the distancing, separating, and objectifying procedure which establishes the individualist’s identity. Purged of socialized female traits such as empathy, attachment, and dependence (Norris’s hero, of course, lives alone), the individualist becomes hyperbolically independent, detached, and unempathetic. Torture is the logical consequence of conservative socialization, the true face of extreme individualism.
The hero revival films were among the most popular of the late seventies and early eighties. Star Wars was the leader in 1978, The Empre Strikes Back in 1980, and Return of the Jedi in 1983. Rocky II was third in box-office gross in 1979; Rocky III was second in 1982; and Rocky IV was third in 1985. Raiders of the Lost Ark led the take in 1981, while Indiana Jones was second in 1984. And the one conservative Superman film, the second, finished second in gross in 1981. All of this is not to say that the era was dominated by conservative hero-revival fare. Liberal films were also extremely popular: 9 to 5 was fourth in 1981, while Tootsie was second in 1983, followed by War Games at number four and Superman 3 at number five. Yet one should also bear in mind that the conservative hero films grossed much more than the liberal ones, with the exception of E.T. (1982), though, as we shall argue, the sentimentalism of the film is in some ways in curious conjunction with the ideology of the hero films.
George Lucas’s Star Wars series has clear roots in the sort of nostalgic populism we noted in Peckinpah, but the series also espouses values of individualism, elite leadership, and freedom from state control which are congruent with the principles of the new conservatives of the eighties.
In Lucas’s early films—THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973)—the mixed political possibilities of libertarianism are evident. THX is an individualist quest set in a futuristic totalitarian society which has overtones of both right-wing dictatorship and communist egalitarianism (see 9.1). Graffiti is a more communitarian movie, but it also implicitly privileges one superior heroic individual, and the community is bound together by a paternalist figure—the DJ Wolfman Jack—a secular deity who, like the Force, unites the disparate individuals in a quasi-higher mode of being. The film is set in presixties Southern California, and it is infused with a sense of a world about to fall. In keeping with the sentimental evocation of a past golden community, the young hero longs for an older woman who remains inaccessible. It is a story of failed sexual maturation, and it ends appropriately with a nostalgic review of the futures of the young kids which suggests that the earlier, pre-pubescent period was better. The threat of modernity provokes in this instance a desire for a restoration of an earlier state of union with a maternal and gratifying source of care. And what this evokes, of course, is an anxiety over separation and loss. That maternal union is lost, and the problem is how to accept that loss through the development of mature mental representational patterns. The regressive character of the film, its indulgence in a fairly gratifying fantasy, suggests that Lucas’s films will not be distinguished by such representations. While this will provoke both increasing nostalgia or longing and increasingly fantastic attempts to attain the fused security the lost maternal union used to provide, it also will give rise to extremely gratifying cinematic experiences, since part of that process of psychological compensation will consist of heightened representational effects which in themselves fulfill the psychological need.
The Star Wars series is probably the most popular film series of all time in part for this very reason. The representational dynamics are appropriate to the story of the rise of a young man from humble origins to the discovery that he is in fact a knight, to quests which prove his manhood and power. The films pit “good” rebels against the “evil” Empire, which is controlled by a demonic Emperor and a former Jedi knight, Darth Vader, who has fallen prey to the “dark side of the Force . . . anger, fear, and aggression.” In Star Wars (1977), the first film of the series, Vader pursues Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who has secret information about the Empire’s new death ship that can destroy planets. Luke (Mark Hamill) joins her forces when he discovers that Empire troops killed his foster parents. He receives training in Jedi knighthood from Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and they hire an adventurous merchant and smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), to transport them to the Princess’s planet. The group eventually rescues the princess and destroys the Empire Death Star as it is about to destroy the home planet of the republican freedom fighters.
The rhetoric of the film promotes individualism against the state, nature against technology, authenticity against artifice, faith and feeling against science and rationality, agrarian values against urban modernity, etc. The Empire represents the destruction of an agrarian trade-based market economy; it disturbs the natural order of the patriarchal family; and it breaks down the simple ground of faith that binds small “republican” communities together. It is also associated with technology, artificiality, urban life, and facelessness. The film thus displays the ingredients of the dominant American conservative ideology that makes U.S. culture so resistant to urban-based, rational socialist ideals. In that ideology, such socialism will appear as a faceless threat, a state bureaucracy of tyrannic control against which must be mobilized a combination of agrarian, spiritualist, and patriarchal values. The threat can only ultimately be defeated by that ideal that is most at stake in this ideological conflict—freedom. And the symbol of freedom is the male individual. It is significant, therefore, that Han Solo is a small capitalist entrepreneur who outruns the state’s police ships. More important, the hero of the epic—Luke Skywalker—is a figure of individual freedom who brings together all of the ideological motifs, from the agrarian to the spiritualist, that undergird the ideology we are analyzing. The peculiar alliance between the antistatist, antirational individualism of that conservative ideology and an ideology of corporatist discipline, authority, and elitism also emerges in his character.
Luke Skywalker is the son of an elite Jedi knight who proves himself a natural warrior and leader. His name suggests spiritual transcendence as well as the western movie hero myth. He is also in touch with a cosmic spiritual force that is a source of power and that makes elite military leadership seem natural, almost divinely sanctioned, thus legitimating the rule of supposedly superior white males in a vision of elitist corporatism. The notion of a naturally chosen elite leadership coheres with a kind of corporatist social organization in right-wing thinking. But Luke is also a champion of freedom against tyranny. Thus, his figure combines both traditional conservative (elitist) and newer (libertarian individualist) motifs.
The combination of ideological motifs is evident also in the dually regressive structure—historical and naturalist—of the narrative. Star Wars’ myth cites the code of the heroic period of the birth of capitalism when the great struggle was for mercantile “freedom” against feudal “tyranny.” It is significant in this regard that Darth Vader is a “lord,” that Luke is a “knight,” that the enemy is “Empire,” and that the rebels are “republicans.” The discourse of early capitalism’s war against feudalism is transcoded and allied with the terminology of capitalism’s just war against Nazism and its Cold War against Soviet communism. The Empire troops are referred to as “Imperial Storm Troopers”; they look both Germanic and Slavic, and their generals wear World War II Soviet uniforms. All in white and all the same size, the troopers represent collectivization and massification, what conservatives fear and project onto socialism. Luke, on the other hand, is an individualist, a hero born to be distinguished from others.
The return to the historical roots of capitalism coincides with a return to its ideological roots in the concept of nature. The rural family scenes are endowed with an aura of simple virtue, while the city is depicted as a site of vice where monsters gamble, kill, and listen to jazz. Moreover, salvation lies in trusting one’s natural instincts and in ignoring reason. In the key battle scene, when Luke is attacking the Death Star he turns off his computer and trusts his instincts to hit the target, using skills he learned in his rural home. The romanticism of feeling and submission to irrational “force” thus intersects the agrarian and naturalist ideology of the film.
The antirationalist romanticism tends to reinforce values of submission to duty and reverence for authority, and it is also related to the pro-freemarket sentiments of contemporary conservatism. Natural forces prevail in the free market; the trouble with urban liberals and rationalist socialists is that they try consciously to control nature too much. Their “imperial” planning interferes with the natural arrangement of things (the “Force”). It is better to trust, as Luke does, what is (super-) natural, what is outside one’s conscious control, the irrational force of nature, with quiet obedience and a sense of duty.
The individual leader is also naturally selected, someone with privileged access to the ground of natural power and authority that allows born leaders to emerge spontaneously (without having to bother with democracy). The authority of that ground is linked to the idea that nature is unarticulated; it is an incarnation rather than a representation, a revealed truth rather than an artificial act of figuration, a matter of feeling, not thought. This “republican” elitist political philosophy is, of course, extremely antidemocratic. And that attitude is embodied in the way subordinates to the elite are represented in the film. They are either robots or dumb beasts, most of whom cannot speak.3
But the film also inadvertently questions its own grounding metaphor. The authority of the ideology of individualist elitism depends on the metaphor of nature being taken for a literal expression, something that is in no way contaminated by the artificial rhetoric associated with urban culture. Yet especially in the later films, that which must be controlled for the Jedi knight to attain his destiny is also natural—aggression. In some respects, the villains are bad because they have not learned to control nature. The shift in the function of the figure of nature—first as a sign of goodness, then of evil-draws attention to its figurality or artificiality. It is a trope of artificial comparison, not an expression of an unarticulated incarnation or revealed truth, a figure that takes on different meanings in different narrative situations rather than the instantiation of an inherent or natural meaning. The figure of nature is chosen by conservatives because it suggests inherence and authority, what is pre-figural and self-evidently true, something that stands before and outside all discourse and negotiation. Yet its self-contradictory use in this film suggests that such terms are always rhetorical figures, the products of discourse rather than primordial truths which underlie discourse. That the elite individual stands out only in differential comparison to the mass, and that the figure of nature which sanctions his selection changes meaning in order to differentiate him from those who cannot control nature, suggests that the ground of the ideology is put in question by the very rhetorical equation that establishes it. What becomes clear is that such ideology depends on rhetorical tropes like metaphor whose figural character must be overlooked in order for the ideology to operate successfully.
In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Luke undergoes a ritual of initiation into Jedi knighthood and confronts Darth Vader, who cuts off Luke’s hand in combat. He is taught the mysteries of the order by Yoda, a dwarfish Jedi master. The episodes emphasize the irrationalist and romanticist basis of the films’ ideology. Yoda teaches a prereflexive faith, and reflection or intellectual activity—with its propensity for criticism—is antithetical to romantic sentiment and faith. He is childlike in shape, and this embodies a desire for regression to a world of preoedipal symbiosis, prior to the complex world of adult responsibility. Yoda’s cave is a fantasy space, outside of social reality, a figure for a regressed world of childhood, where all one’s male narcissism can be fulfilled, all one’s wishes answered. Yoda imparts to Luke the power to alter and control the objective world through thoughts. This omnipotence of mental processes is related to the fantastic representational dynamics of the films, which are themselves antidotes to a fear of castration (Luke’s severed hand), or more generally, a fear of an uncontrollable adult world of negotiation, sacrifice, and compromise where male childhood narcissism must give way to a more interactive and dialogic psychic orientation, one capable of tolerating loss without resentment or a sense of “castration,” of a diminution of power.
In Return of the Jedi (1983) Luke completes his rite of passage, finally acts as a knight, and defeats the Emperor. He also saves his father, Vader, from the dark side of the Force. In this film, evil is associated with materiality and sexuality (in the figure of Jabba the Hut), while good is given the added meanings of ascesis, discipline, and self-control. Luke’s Jedi robe is markedly monastic, and he is separated from sexuality altogether by discovering that his potential romantic partner—Leia—is his sister. Thus, a relationship emerges between the spiritualist and elitist ideology of the film and a repulsion from the material world that could be traced to the protestant Christian ethic of capitalism. This separation of realms is reinforced by the recognition that, in this world of boys’ struggles against tyrannical paternal figures, the mother and all that she represents in regard to socialization (care, empathy, etc.) are absent. Heroic marketplace individualism and male militarism require a purgation of that maternal or feminine sphere, a sphere associated with materiality and sexuality, as well as with the tempering of male violence. It is for this reason, perhaps, that conservatives so often justify their worldview with spiritualist and idealist ideologies.
Thus, the Star Wars films put on display the internal psychological and interpersonal circuits that give rise to such public institutions, policies, and values as aggressive male individualism, the privileging of “masculine” attributes of competition and domination in the market, and the patriarchal scheme of power inheritance, whereby male socialization seems “naturally” to lead to the rightful assumption of social power by men. The seemingly personal biography of the hero is a template for the institutionalized values that sustain patriarchal capitalism, inasmuch as that social system is predicated on male individualism as its operative principle. The narrative of training for knighthood and privilege is a temporalization of the founding structures of patriarchy. The films suggest why the patriarchal family is indissociable from the capitalist principles of individualism and of freedom (which should not be confused with democracy and equality). In that family form, the authority of the father (first represented in the films by Vader and later by the Emperor) evokes rebellion in the son, simply because the internalization of the image of the father as the basis for forming a masculine identity (rendered literally in the film as Luke’s adoption of his father’s Jedi role and his acquisition of his father’s laser sword-phallus) implies a conflict with the actual limiting power of the father. This is why conservatism always is a peculiar combination of authoritarianism and rebelliousness, the exercise of discipline and the refusal of any communal constraint on individual “freedom.” The male child’s rebellion takes individualist and individualizing forms; that is, the assertion of one’s own power aids separation from the primary caretaker (usually the mother in the patriarchal family) and the adoption of a masculine sexual identity. It therefore also consists of attempts to differentiate from the way women are represented in the patriarchal family as passive, dependent, and subservient. The internalization of the representations of paternal power by boys thus occurs in ways conducive to the requirements of capitalism and of conservative political institutions, that is, to a social philosophy of constant male individualist deviation from the threat posed by the paternal instance of the state or the threat of engulfment in an undifferentiated mass signaled by the metonymic connections of communal relations and responsibilities.
Yet the Star Wars series shows as well how this process of patriarchal reproduction rests on an irreducible anxiety. That anxiety is the result of a fear of feminine sexuality and of the threat to male sexual identity it represents. The films swerve away into the past, as well as into the regressed world of fantasies of mental power and into the fantasy of elite privilege. But the series also swerves away from women, and because women are so absent, one can only deduce this anxiety from the form of the films. If male sexual identity hinges on the ability to construct mental representations, that retain the mother as a metaphoric image which also distances her literally, in these films, that ability assumes hypertropic forms. Not only are the films themselves about the ability to develop mental power (Luke’s training by Yoda), but their form is an exercise of such power. If representation is a way of attaining individuation, then it is fitting in these exaggeratedly individualist films which deal so much with sexual power struggles with paternal figures that the representational style is itself so hypertropic and idealizing. Normal events are endowed with transcendental significance by martial music; ordinary people are represented as infused with spiritual power in the action sequences; the images are highly resolved, full of nonrealist detail and color, and shot in a way that heightens a sense of being apart, separated out from the world of mundane events. The idealization of the male individual as a separate and privileged agent is accompanied by an idealization of formal visual properties, which signals a sort of mental power appropriate to a male who wishes to deny the material power of the mother, to separate himself out from communal connections, and to align himself with the paternal instance of power in the patriarchal family. Yet that idealization is excessive, a sign of an anxiety that troubles the resolution of the crisis of sexual identity. Indeed, as in genres, the repetitive character of the series (no doubt in part due to opportunism but also planned before the films were successful) testifies to an inability to resolve that anxiety. What the films demonstrate, however, is that it could never be fully alleviated. For it is in the nature of patriarchal socialization (the turning away from the maternal and the literal toward the paternal and the metaphorically ideal) to be structured in such a way that male sexual identity is always precarious, founded as it is on an assertion of prerogatives that are not natural and that in fact must deny the reality of a rather large body of material nature.
Like the realist hero films, the Star Wars series point to two elements of American culture that help explain the failure of liberalism and the success of conservativism during this period: the power of heroic male individualism as a cultural representation that resonates with the way men are socialized or constructed as subjects in a capitalist society, and the ease with which the state (either the liberal government or the socialist state), because it represents the curtailment of individual self-control and freedom, can be turned into a figure of evil. The films are successful ideologically in fact precisely because their conservativism is “revolutionary” rather than passive. The ideology is one of rebellion against power and domination. The films point forward in a dynamic mode, and conservatism during this period was so successful for precisely this reason. It gave people something to fight against (the state) and something to fight for (“freedom”) at a time when recession was making people feel passive, frustrated, and constrained by forces beyond their control.
To that extent, Star Wars is the paradigmatic conservative movie series of the period because it also makes conservatism revolutionary. It presents a conservative past (both temporally as a prior, premodern era and morally as a set of simpler, more “natural” values and institutions) as something to be fought for in the present and future. And it associates that agenda with dynamic self-assertion and simple self-trust of the sort needed to help people transcend the mid-seventies malaise of economic recession, military defeat, and distrust of leadership. The films also project a model of a corporatist social structure that includes all groups—women, blacks, small-businessmen, leader-executives, the military, even “Third World” people (the Ewoks)—in a fantasy of renewed consensus after the discord of the sixties and early seventies. This model, emerging as a compensatory reaction to the mid-seventies dissensus, seems to transcode the new conservative discourse of social reunification both domestically and as a foreign policy necessity.
In our survey, given a choice of meanings for what the heroes stood for in the first film in the series, 57% chose “being true to oneself” while 17% felt they promoted American values like individual freedom and capitalism. 53% chose to see the Empire as an embodiment of “evil,” as opposed to 24% who saw it representing right-wing dictators or 12% who saw it representing communism. In our oral interviews, the most common description was that the heroes represented the “underdog” in a struggle against “big institutions” or “imperialism” or “dictators.” Several people compared the heroes to the American revolutionaries in their fight for independence, and for some this description carried more contemporaneous patriotic meaning, in the sense that it meant a struggle between American “democracy” and communism or a call for the United States to stop letting itself be “bullied by other countries.” Nevertheless, others said the heroes represented freedom of thought and self-determination, and the word used most often for the Empire was “tyranny.” On the whole, the highest percentage of the survey sample (30%) felt the film represented liberal values, yet, as so often in this survey, people also seemed to hold several quite distinct political positions at once. For example, when asked if the film supported the conservative ideal of peace through strength, 54% said yes, and 74% thought the heroes more resembled conservative “freedom fighters” than leftist revolutionaries, yet 67% also felt the film supported the liberal idea of political self-determination “even as say in Nicaragua.” But, once again, it should be noted that a much larger percentage of conservatives than liberals (76% as opposed to 46%) chose the conservative ideal as a meaning, while the largest number of liberals (43%) felt the film promoted liberal values on the whole.
Star Wars seems to be a neutral enough adventure story in some respects to evoke a variety of responses. The struggle against tyranny does to a certain extent transcend political demarcations. Yet, we would still maintain that in the historical context of the late seventies the privileged meaning of the film (“being true to oneself”) was likely to fuel a conservative rather than a liberal political and social agenda. For at that time what conservatives were promoting was an individualist ethic which equated self-fulfillment with capital accumulation, and as conservatives succeed in the eighties in imposing that agenda and that ethic on U.S. society, “being true to oneself” would come increasingly to mean “going for it” and “saving one’s own hide.”
The series is politcally significant in one other way. It demonstrates why the capitalist principle of freedom is incompatible with democracy. That principle emphasizes individualist will over social cooperation of the sort democracy presupposes. Democracy is a matter of negotiation, the curtailment of one’s own will for the sake of respecting the will and needs of others. Freedom is a principle of self-assertion, regardless of its effects on others. The capitalist version of freedom is particularly antisocial, since it assumes that capitalists have the right to do what they want regardless of the social consequences. The films also depict how the capitalist ideal of individualist freedom tends to become a leadership principle. The singular individual is validated for leadership by virtue of being singular, separated out from and thus elevated above the democratic mass. Patriarchy, which promotes a male socialization that occurs as a separating out or a singularization of the self, thus hinges with a paternalist political form. Freedom and fascism, as the rise of conservatism in the eighties demonstrated, are thus understandably found in frequent alliance during this era. The Reagan war to restore “freedom” (the right of male capitalists to accumulate wealth and power) to the United States was often on the side of a war to impose authoritarian regimes. We will examine this question further in the next section.
Lucas belongs to a group of young filmmakers who in the seventies were labeled “movie brats”—Coppola, Spielberg, Milius, Schrader, De Palma, Cimino, and Scorsese. During this period several of them acquired tremendous power in Hollywood as a result of successful films like The Godfather, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the exception of Spielberg, whose work is liberal in character, and Scorsese, whose sensibility is more film buffish and technical than ideological, they on the whole promote conservative ideas in their films. Milius, as we have noted, is an overt neofascist; Schrader and De Palma are sexual reactionaries; Cimino and Coppola seem to advocate a white male leadership principle in films like The Deer Hunter and (as we shall see) Apocalypse Now. What is interesting is that, Milius aside, these directors do not see themselves as being political. In this they are very American, for American culture is characterized by the belief that its values are “pre-political.” Indeed, avoiding contamination by artificial, urban politics is one of these values. Such contamination characterizes the “sophisticates,” a term Coppola and Reagan both use to describe liberal intellectuals. The conservatism of many of these filmmakers is pre-political in this sense; it is not articulated in recognizably Left or Right discursive forms. And inasmuch as it is occasionally populist, its political valence is indeterminate. It contains elements that are potentially either Left radical or Right radical.
That duality is striking in Cimino’s films. Heaven’s Gate (1980), a legendary disaster for United Artists, is a story of immigrant farmers struggling against cattle barons in the late nineteenth century. The choice of characters and of historical setting avoids more politically valorized urban industrial class struggles of a later era. The combined immigrant and agrarian motifs suggest the rooted homogeneity of ethnic communities, which is capable of generating fairly conservative values. Yet the film takes the side of the popular masses against ruling economic elites, and a woman leads the fight at one point. Thus, a more radical possibility exists within the same ethnic, populist ideology. (It is probably worth noting that Cimino made The Year of the Dragon, a film that provoked praise by radicals as well as denunciation for its affirmative representations of bovine patriotism and sexist violence, as well as its questionable images of Asian-Americans as gangsters,4 and that he has said he would like to do a remake of Ayn Rand’s reactionary celebration of conservative individualism, The Fountainhead.)
The taken-for-granted or pre-political values these filmmakers hold are predominantly conservative in part because they favor individualist solutions to public problems, and such solutions usually implicitly work against liberal statist or socialist alternatives. We have noted how, in hero-revival films, the heroic male individual is invariably posed against figures of public state authority. The hero’s freedom consists of being his own leader, and the defeat of an impersonal, unjust state authority creates a need for a more genuine, just, and authentic leadership that only the male individual can provide. The individual can do so because liberal bureaucratic institutions are either inefficient or misdirected. They rely on artificial means rather than on the natural intuitions of the genius leader. In this way, the pre-political principle of individualism contains the seeds of a political leadership principle. For individualism is founded on the notion that one’s own private intuitions are sufficient for social action. They take precedence over negotiation, bureaucratic procedure, and democratic processes. In its extreme form self-leadership becomes so intolerant of interference from others, of the democratic need to share decision-making or to negotiate policy, of the curtailment of its will by “tyranny,” that it assumes the form of authoritarianism, of leadership over others. This development is usually presumed to be benign, since the self-leader is also a self-lover, a narcissist who believes others will respect his decisions as much as he does. Moreover, the leader becomes a mirror for all the “individuals” in the society, someone who mediates the reality of mass society with the fantasy of individual distinction. In its rightist forms, the leadership principle is thus associated with the ideal of society as an organic whole, a corporate order where all obey a leader unquestioningly because they venerate him. And they venerate him because they venerate themselves as individualists in him. What is striking about Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, for example, is that Hitler is portrayed not as a cold, impersonal tyrant, but as a beloved individual leader and father who draws people together in a community in which all alienation is overcome. The alienation and impersonality of modern democratic urban life dissolve into a neoagrarian ideal of community where personal ties, among people in the community and between them and the leader, replace the cold bureaucratic ties of impersonal liberal state forms. Thus, in this way, the seemingly apolitical principle of individualism can produce a highly political social structure of leadership. It is for this reason, perhaps, that many of the values espoused by the contemporary Right in the United States so much resemble Nazi ideology. The Republican platform of the early eighties sounded like a translation of “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche,” even though the free market ideology of individual freedom seemed at odds with fascist statism. What it really opposed was liberal statism, and in its place it espoused an authoritarian use of the state to restore a conservative order.
We have already noted the conjunction of individualism and hero-leader worship in several movie brat films, like The Godfather and Star Wars. It is particularly striking in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, in which Kurtz’s renegade behavior is in part motivated by his desire to be his own boss. We suggest a relationship between this and the small-business or petit bourgeois psychology, which sanctifies individualism and is usually as well connected with an orientation toward political models of authoritarian leadership. The film centers on Willard’s (Martin Sheen) successful pursuit of his assignment to assassinate Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an officer who has set up his own command in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Willard travels upriver in a patrol boat, encountering situations that portray different aspects of the war—from an Air Cavalry attack on a VC-controlled village to a USO show replete with Playboy bunnies to the accidental killing of peasants to a besieged and leaderless U.S. outpost. Finally, he arrives at Kurtz’s camp, a grotesque scene of severed heads, hanging bodies and servile natives. At this point, the degree of ritual escalates, and Willard is put through a process of initiation into Kurtz’s secrets. In the end, he slays Kurtz in juxtaposition to a ritual sacrifice of a bull by the natives.
The narrative focus is on Willard’s progressive identification with Kurtz’s power and ruthlessness and on his concomitant transformation into an effective warrior. The point is made through Willard’s increasing disgust with the ineptitude of the leaderless army and his admiration for Kurtz that Kurtz’s brand of authoritarian warrior leader is needed as a solution to the disarray of the war. The film translates all the metonymic contingency and complexity of actual history into a metaphoric quest narrative that resolves confusion and doubt into certainty and authority. And the resolution of that narrative coincides with Willard’s blending with Kurtz and with his assumption of Kurtz’s leadership position over the natives. In the beginning, Willard himself is a metaphor for the disarray of the American Army in Vietnam. He drinks, he cries, and his wounded hand suggests a symbolic castration. In his voice-over narration, he thinks of how tough the Vietnamese are in comparison. His inverted head later becomes significant in contrast to the Buddha’s upright head, perverted in the film into a metaphor of Asiatic ruthlessness, which connotes the uprightness and power he will acquire from Kurtz. At the end of the film, after Willard has rectified himself by undergoing an initiation into Kurtz’s mysteries, learning the truth of why it is necessary to kill ruthlessly in war, the two heads appear again, both upright, and merge. This signifies Willard’s acquisition of Kurtz’s power, his identification with him.
Willard has learned that one must identify with what the film describes as the Vietnamese way of killing without conscience. If Kurtz dons black greasepaint in order to kill one of Willard’s men, Willard dunks himself in a swamp and emerges black in order to kill Kurtz. Each symbolically assumes the color of what the army general at the beginning calls the “darker side” of humanity. And each also adopts the tactics (Kurtz’s hit and run) and weapons (Willard’s machete) of the native Vietnamese, thus enacting Kurtz’s supposition that we might have won the war if only we’d had “ten divisions of those men.” After the killing, Willard stands with half his face in light and half in darkness. He seems to have successfully combined the two sides of humanity as it is described in the film—the overly bureaucratic, rational, and conscientious West and the supposedly ruthless, irrational, and primitive East—into a warrior king. It is revealing, then, that Coppola originally wanted to end the film at the moment when Willard emerges from the room in which he kills Kurtz to find the natives bowing down to him as the new leader.
The film celebrates individualism, and its individualist theme is indisociable from the idea that there exist “right” leaders. Willard and Kurtz are posed against the army generals, who are characterized as an inefficient, bureaucratic “corporation.” Kurtz goes “for himself’ instead of joining the corporate ranks, and he becomes a leader. His natural intuitive genius is made evident by his decision to execute suspected spies, bypassing a trial. As a result, there are no more harmful leaks. Willard exhibits a similar disregard for liberal procedures and institutions, cutting through bureaucratic red tape at a gas depot with a show of individualist violence that produces immediate results. And when he simply executes a wounded peasant woman who was holding up the operation, he immediately feels closer to Kurtz.
The film thus privileges an individualist rebellion against liberalism, bureaucracy, and large corporate organizations that conjoins with the assumption that powerful individuals are natural leaders. That Milius wrote the original script for the film probably accounts in part for the quasi-fascist inflection of this conservative ideology in the film. But the film also displays the origin of this ideology in conservative male pathos. Kurtz complains of the generals at one point that they won’t even let flyers write “fuck” on their airplanes. Brando’s whine is appropriate for the idea, since it evokes a young boy’s resentment of the power of a disciplinary father. The escape from that power takes the form of its assumption, a self-modeling that rejects paternal (or, by implication, corporate or liberal bureaucratic) limitations in order to establish oneself as one’s own boss. It is interesting that Apocalypse enacts this scenario, since Willard is Kurtz’s son, who offs the old man only to don his crown.
The term “leadership principle” sounds rather frightening, but, as we have explained, it is a logical and natural derivative of the individualism that is endemic to American culture, and it usually assumes very benign forms because it is linked to paternalism, the principle of male care and family authority. The identification with the hero-leader is a rememoration of fathers, as well as an identification with oneself. Through the leadership principle the pleasure of narcissism is transposed onto a public figure who is the locus of one’s own pleasurable feelings about oneself. Fascism is a way of making people feel good through patriarchal political forms. It is also, of course, a way of rectifying class struggle in favor of capitalists and conservatives, but as a system in which most people participate as a mass voluntarily, it should not be confused with right-wing military putschism of the sort rampant in places like Chile and Turkey. What we are getting at is that the leadership principle can be found in very “fun” cultural artifacts, and the fun is part of the system of leadership. The combination of rememoration (harking back to a romanticized patriarchal past), narcissistic individualism, incipient authoritarian leadership, and fun is evident in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a film Spielberg directed for Lucas, who claimed full responsibility for the project.5 Indiana Jones is an individualist who struggles against his “competitor,” Belocq, for gold in South American jungles. Entrepreneurial risk, the film seems to say allegorically, is the source of wealth, not something as mundane as collective labor. In fact, groups of people are shown to be mindless in comparison to the individual entrepreneur. They function only by taking orders from the leader and acting as a mass.
In one scene, while Egyptian workers pick and shovel, Indy walks back and forth above them. They are shot against the sunset, and while only their upper torsos are visible, one can see his entire body. It is significant that they work manually while he provides intellectual management. This scene seems to constitute a metaphor of the division of labor between manual workers (who are spatially lower and non-white) and mental managers who stand above, directing things. The executive leader is a powerful, distinct individual; workers form an undifferentiated mass. The film thus points to the relation between entrepreneurial individualism and elitist corporatist leadership.
The distinguishing of the individual-leader and his association with such power fetishes as mountains (as in the opening shot) is significant. He is the source of power in this cinematic world, and his power is a mark of distinction. Distinction is always comparative, however. Something in its very constitution or coming-into-being detracts from its purity. For example, Indy is distinguished in comparison to non-white laborers, his male competitor, women, the government bureaucrats who hide the ark away in a huge, impersonal warehouse at the end, and himself. It is the last distinction which explains the others. Indy-as-adventurer is distinguished from Indy-as-archeology-professor. His change of roles is akin to the change Luke Skywalker undergoes in Star Wars in that it entails acquiring power and attaining a new public identity. The change is a direct rendering of the male sexual socialization process we have been describing as at the root of many of these male power films. The “feminine” role of passivity and weakness is sorted out from a truer, hidden role of “masculine” identification. The character of Indy dramatizes the segregation of a personality into different traits, one set of which become dominant. By the end of the film Indy is once again a professor, but now he is powerful, and a once-powerful woman leans dependently on his arm, a token of the difference that is the real constituent of his identity.
The isolation of an individual, which leads to a sense of singularity and superiority, very clearly relates to male narcissism of the sort that motivates the desire to accumulate more than one needs in male-dominated capitalism. Such accumulation permits a freedom denied others, a narcissistic sense of total power that is an effect of exploitation but that comes metaleptically to justify it by substituting an effect for a cause. The economic and psychological are intertwined, and they are bound up with representation, the representation of oneself that one holds (as a singular individual) and the representation of the individual in a culture (as a natural leader because singular). Indeed, we would argue that the cultural question of representation is crucial to an understanding of the politics of the male leadership principle (both as an ideology and as a set of practices and institutions). In order for it to work, men must be represented in a certain way in the culture, as superior individuals who rise above the democratic mass (Kurtz, Michael Vronsky, Indy Jones, Luke Skywalker). And, as we have noted, this elevation of the superior individual male is frequently carried out through a stylistic elevation that blends synecdoche—the part standing in for the whole—with metaphor—the lifting of the literal or everyday into something more idealized or meaningful that stands in for it. While left-liberal films like 9 to 5, China Syndrome, and The Boys in Company C establish a chain of equivalence whereby each one can stand in for the other in the narrative, no one stands out as the natural leader of all, and all are connected contiguously or metonymically, rightist films obliterate the chain of democratic equivalence and subsume it to a vertical hierarchy whereby one element of the chain becomes a paradigm that stands in for all the rest as the leader-hero through metaphoric substitution. This political structure is carried out through cultural representations which secure legitimation for it. And those representations operate in much the same way. This is what we mean when we say the the representational dynamics of films like Apocalypse provide clues to the workings of right-wing politics in general, inasmuch as such politics are founded on notions of how communities should represent their interests in the political arena. These films advertise those politics using the same sorts of representational devices and assumptions (separation, substitution, subordination, exaltation) that define the politics.
A similar thing could be said regarding the very surface of representation, as we have noted, and this bears crucially on the sexual agenda of the leadership films. It is significant that Apocalypse, like Deer Hunter, resorts to a highly metaphoric style at those points where the hero-leader begins to separate out from a world charged with images of “effeminacy.”Apocalypse is also characterized by an allegorical and romantic form that fuses color, sound, and narrative into an apparent synthetic unity (the Wagnerian ideal), apparently an aesthetic correlative of the political theme of unity under a single leader. Allegory and metaphor are the aesthetic modes of transcendence, since the materiality of the worldly object is annulled and replaced by a higher, ideal or spiritual meaning. It is a fitting form for a politics of transcendence, whereby a strong leader overcomes worldly constraints through a supreme exercise of seer-like or intuitive mental ability that does not rely on worldly forms like language or discussion. In Michael Vronksy’s shamanic insight, in Kurtz’s warrior intuition, and in Luke’s mental power, one sees versions of the power of mental representation which establishes a boundary between the superior individual and the mass, which, like the mother, threatens to engulf the individual, to destroy his boundaries. It is noteworthy, then, that the films themselves are characterized by representational dynamics which seem to mimic that heightened mental power.
We have contended that this turning away both politically and formally from something threatening or constraining into a transcendental vision of leadership and mental power has its roots in sexuality. Apocalypse is laden with castration imagery for good reason. The question of the marginal representation of women in these films is therefore more important than the films want it to appear. Willard, the professional killer in Apocalypse, separates out increasingly from the “effeminate” regular army as he comes to identify more and more with the more masculine, powerful, and paternalist Kurtz. If Kurtz writes to his son instead of to his wife, Willard decides to return to Vietnam and to sacrifice his marriage. In Deer Hunter, Linda is a token whose attainment proves Michael’s superiority to the weaker Nick. In that film as well, male love constitutes a significant alternative to the female world, and it is not at all unimportant that only a jump-cut separates a homoerotic scene in a playground (in which Michael lies naked and prone next to Nick) from the battlefield in the film. It is in part the anxiety caused by that cut that provokes the aesthetic and political compensations (authoritarian, allegorical, and narcissistic) that characterize both films. The homoerotic bond between Kurtz and Willard or Michael and Nick can be maintained only by being denied. Violent assertiveness separates men from women, but it throws the men together, a situation as threatening as femininity to the male ideal of masculinity. The all-male club is necessarily homoerotic, but that homoeroticism must be denied if the criterion of membership—masculinity—is to be salvaged. It is perhaps for this reason that the weak must be purged in each film. Nick goes, as does Kurtz, sacrificed so that the stronger can survive and affirm heterosexual manhood.
The desire for separateness is related to the desire to dominate women. Yet such excessive assertions of independence betray a certain dependence. In Deer Hunter, Michael’s heroics must be validated by Linda at the end as she looks at him, confirming his grandeur. When Willard executes Kurtz, a silent Vietnamese woman watches, confirming his accession to leadership. These marginal moments are more telling than the grandstand “performances” of the men, because they suggest that the boys are acting, that they need something that only women can provide—a certain look or gaze that says they are what they pretend or would like to imagine they are. Male assertion (politically, economically, militarily) is a way of eliciting that gaze, but it is also a way of deflecting the male’s dependence on it.
The tendency toward authoritarianism in the small business or petit bourgeois social sector whose ideology permeates the work of rightist filmmakers like Milius and Coppola seems to derive from the competitive capitalist mode of the post-studio, “let’s make a deal” film industry, which fosters a psychology appropriate to its structure. Movie brat films frequently promote the paranoid, distrustful, aggressively competitive outlook of the industry where they were the fittest to survive. And their rise from movie brats to movie moguls is a material justification of an elitist leadership ideology. The strongest, those with the most savvy and will to succeed, do probably deserve to rule this knaves’ paradise. The system is such that expansive individualism does lead to power. Perhaps it should not be surprising that Coppola has demonstrated authoritarian tendencies in his work practices, or that he evidences a fascination with hero-leader films like Gance’s Napoleon.6 It is probably also telling that he and Lucas produced Schrader’s Mishima (1985), a film about a right-wing Japanese writer who committed suicide when his bid to overthrow modern Japan and to restore the samurai elite failed. The film is characterized by an aestheticization of its violent subject, a fastidious heightening of formal effects which points to the motivating source of the conservative male quest for a leader-father. It derives from fear, an anxiety at a felt lack in the world, as well as in oneself. What is missing in the world is a secure anchoring point for one’s sexual identity, and what is missing in the self is security-providing mental representations of the sort that would permit one to live in the world without the need for patriarchal leaders.
The hero films have a historical value in that they help explain why conservatism succeeded and liberalism failed in the late seventies and early eighties. If the hero films indicate how males are socialized under capitalism to be individualists, guided more by self-serving opportunism and a survivalist mentality than by altruism, then they also show why the Right appealed more to the popular imaginary than did liberals. It is a tautology of power that those most responsible for the misery of recession also benefit most from its effect on people, especially men. For recession induces desires for compensatory images of self-worth and self-empowerment, and desires that privilege the individual over the collective, a self-orientation over an other-orientation. And of course, such an orientation is more likely to be of use to a social philosophy based on individualism than to one linked to collective ideals. Thus, one could say that liberalism did not so much fail as find itself in an irresolvable quandary at this time. When capitalism makes survival a primary imperative, then it is the ideology of survivalism which is most likely to thrive.