Blockbuster Ideology: Steven Seagal and the Legacy of Action Cinema – Part 1

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 17, Issue 4 / April 2013 29 minutes (7185 words)


In addition to his service on the front lines of the film studies “Theory Wars,” Noël Carroll has also worked diligently as a philosopher of art in the broader field of cultural studies, and in A Philosophy of Mass Art, he conducts an impressive interrogation of what he diagnoses as a philosophical resistance to mass art. The relevance of his interrogation to issues facing contemporary film scholars will, of course, vary depending on the particular path of inquiry. It is the premise of this essay that the path on which the relevance is the most apposite is the interrogation of film studies’ philosophical resistance to action movies. [1] From the blogosphere to newspaper reviews to estimable academic publications, action movies have been denied access to the realm of “serious art” and demoted to the lowest rung of “mindless entertainment.” However, true to the spirit of their moniker, action movies have nevertheless fought tirelessly to earn their stripes, and over the years, have won over a handful of influential scholars who have succeeded in elucidating many of the pleasures of viewing and analyzing this much maligned brand of cinema. [2] In recent years, scholars have sought to utilize fashionable methodologies on call in the popular field of cultural studies, such as race/gender politics and ideological critique, in order to better understand the sociopolitical implications of action cinema. As noted by Carroll, the liberation offered by the “cultural studies intervention” [3] provided, in the form of ideological critique, “a universal premise to justify the employment of ideological criticism anywhere … with virtually no need for argument” (Carroll, 1998: 369). According to this logic, where all culture is ideological and one may thus scrutinize any aspect of it from an ideological vantage point, the scholar was supplied “with the philosophical wherewithal to go searching for ideology in places where no one heretofore believed that ideology existed” (Ibid). Thus, action cinema became an acceptable candidate for analysis in film and cultural studies (provisionary as the countenance may have initially been seeing how analysis was, and largely still is, restricted to how the narrative content of the film(s) is formed directly by the culture, with no consideration given to authorial intentionality on the grounds that the very nature of action cinema precludes such an artistic luxury as personal expression).

This is the analytical premise that provided the foundation for Stephen Prince’s influential interrogation of the political content of the popular American cinema of the 1980s, of which action movies made up the most significant portion. Prince asserts that the 1980s—by virtue of an increase in political self-awareness and the noticeable increase in prominence in both the media and everyday life of political discourse—showcased a surge in not just general, implicit political content, which had always been a mainstay in Hollywood productions seeking topicality and cultural relevance, but an increase in explicit political content. As he observes:

Hollywood films spoke to us about the conflicts in Central America (Under Fire [1983], Salvador [1986]), the need for a strong American military (Top Gun [1986], Iron Eagle [1986]), the Soviet menace (Red Dawn [1984], Rambo III [1988]), the use of anticommunism as a vehicle for domestic political repression (Daniel [1983]), the uncertain legacy of the political Left in American society (The Big Chill [1983], Running on Empty [1988]), the crisis of farm foreclosures (Country [1984], The River [1984]), the avarice of the world of high finance (Wall Street [1987]), and the social fragmentation and anomie afflicting diverse groups and breeding alienation, bitterness, and homicidal rage (River’s Edge [1986], Talk Radio [1988], Colors [1988]) … [Hollywood films of the 1980s] were tied so closely to the desires and anxieties of their audiences that they could not do otherwise than embody and refract the currents of social and political culture that helped define the era to which they belonged (Prince, 1992: 1).

Prior to, contemporaneous with, and in the years since Prince’s paradigmatic examination of 1980s Hollywood cinema, many scholars have traveled down the same critical avenues, frequently deploying the same fundamental (and fundamentally flawed) philosophical premises. The goal of what follows in this two-part essay is, in Part 1, to call attention to and debunk some of the leading fallacies hindering academic engagements with action cinema by mobilizing the fecund points of Carroll’s defense of mass art, with the ultimate end of assessing, in Part 2, the films of Steven Seagal as exemplary of the potential for action cinema to provide a forum for political comment that does not inherently stifle authorial expressivity or limit the potential for oppositional sentiment, thus establishing the credentials of action cinema as both genuine political filmmaking and genuine film art.

From Mass Art to Reaganite Entertainment

When it comes to attacks on mass art, Carroll identifies four arguments that have served for over a century as the main sources of ammunition for scholars across disciplines. The arguments are the massification argument, the passivity argument, the freedom argument, and the formula argument, all of which have their own unique premises but which also share many underlying principles. A short survey of these arguments, filtered especially for their relevance to an analysis of action cinema, will help to provide a context for the more specific engagements with the work of contemporary film scholars that will follow. [4] The first argument, the massification argument, contends that action cinema is “an impersonal product produced for mass consumption,” whereas genuine film art “is created by artists possessed of a personal vision” (Carroll, 1998: 17). Moreover, it is allegedly in the very nature of action cinema to appeal to the “lowest level of taste, intelligibility, and sensitivity,” eventually and inevitably contributing to the destruction of art by forcing genuine film art to stoop to the (allegedly low) level at which action cinema operates, “thereby indirectly promoting even more aesthetic awfulness” (Ibid: 24).

The second argument, the passivity argument, contends that genuine film art must be difficult to comprehend and must require effort on the part of the spectator to understand and appreciate the aesthetic and thematic components of the artwork. Action cinema, on the other hand, can allegedly be enjoyed with little effort, and the passive ease with which the spectator can “turn their brain off” and enjoy action cinema signals, reminiscent of the massification argument’s eschatological fervor, a “catastrophic blow to culture,” for, if we substitute action cinema for genuine film art, “we will become passive spectators such that our human powers will diminish either by being left dormant or by deteriorating outright” (Ibid: 37). As Carroll points out, this “cultural alarm, replete with predictions of the decline of civilization, is common coin” (Ibid) among those who deride action cinema, and indeed, this premise serves as the raison d’être of the freedom argument, which builds on the passivity argument by raising the stakes on the eschatology front, asserting that, as feared by T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer:

[Action cinema] leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond with the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence, the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality. The stunting of the mass media consumer’s power of imagination and spontaneity does not have to be traced back to any psychological mechanisms; he must ascribe the loss of those attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves, especially to the most characteristic of them [i.e. the action film]. They are so designed that quickness, powers of observation, and experience are undeniably needed to apprehend them at all; yet sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush [of the action]. Even though the effort required for his response is semi-automatic, no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie—by its images, gestures, and words—that they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during its screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react automatically (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1990: 126-127).

The most “philosophically fortified” of the four arguments in Carroll’s estimation, the formula argument, is built around two connected theories of art alleged to contribute to the misrecognition of “pseudo art” as genuine art. The “technical theory” of art is the theory that art is essentially a craft, and the “representational theory” of art is that art is specifically the craft of arousing emotions in the spectator (Carroll, 1998: 49-51). The wager of the formula argument is that the very notion of art-as-craft is the problem, and that any art that is craft-like—involving, for example, the primary put on ends rather than means, thus devaluing the “artistic process,” which is in pseudo art split by a sharp delineation between the planning stage, where the craftsperson determines the end, and the execution stage, where the craftsperson mechanically goes through the stages of production en route to the predetermined end—is therefore not genuine art. This distinction is made by delineating between the calculated selection of standard devices and formulas designed “to elicit an intended, pre-ordained response from audiences” (Ibid: 58), the province of pseudo art, and the ethereal effort of the singular artist to make definite or determinate an “initial inchoate though suggestive feeling into an articulate emotion” (Ibid: 60), the marker of genuine art. Thus, just as the freedom argument extended the premise of the passivity argument, the formula argument subsumes and extends both the massification argument—with its premium on individual artistic expression rather than mechanical and massified craftsmanship—and the freedom argument—with its conception of the spectator as a virtual lobotomite—contributing to its formidable philosophical fortification.

These various arguments, in various combinations and with varying emphasis, are ubiquitous in academic engagements with action cinema, the most assiduous distillation in film studies courtesy of the scholarship of Andrew Britton and Robin Wood, two friends and colleagues each of whose scholarly sensibilities not surprisingly mirrored the other’s. [5] The basic premise put forth in their work is that the 1980s saw “the massive, and almost exclusive, predominance of a type of filmmaking which, during the 1970s, did not rule out the possibility of more interesting, contradictory, and disturbing work” (Britton, 2009: 97-98). Wood takes the baton from Britton on this point, conceding that action films can be pleasurable but, relying on the passivity argument, contending that “the finer pleasures are those we have to work for” (Wood, 2003: 146). What Britton and Wood found so troubling, in the eschatological spirit of the massification argument and the Marxist spirit of the freedom argument, was that the placebos (e.g.Jaws [1975] and Star Wars [1977]) were being mistaken for the real thing (e.g. Heaven’s Gate [1980] and Blade Runner [1982]), and neither scholar knew how to bring the passive masses inundated by their formulaic pseudo art crafted by the Hollywood assembly line back to the reality of genuine film art, which alone has the power to inspire revolutionary thought and action as a counter to Reaganite Entertainment’s preoccupation with reassurance and inoculation for the sake of upholding the repressive status quo.

The Essence of Action or/as the Essence of Cinema?

If there is a single major obstacle hindering a straightforward translation of Carroll’s defense of mass art to a defense of action cinema, it is the way he rhetorically constructs a picture of a resistance to the cinema that has not been of concern for nearly a century. When discussing the alleged lack of artistic merit in mass art products, of which the cinema is a subsidiary, he will hold up something such as Citizen Kane (1941) as an example to the contrary, as if to say, “If Citizen Kane counts as genuine art, then the cinema should be accepted as a valid artistic medium,” thus adding a certain respectability to mass art. But as far as film studies is concerned, the battle for the cinema’s legitimacy was won long ago, and going through the intellectual motions at this level of generality can potentially obscure the fact that this battle is being restaged, albeit on a smaller scale, within the film studies institution and cannot be taken for granted. Less a war for independence of the kind Carroll conjured up via rhetorical necromancy, the battle being fought in film studies today is closer to a civil war, pitting film studies brother against film studies brother, sister scholar against sister scholar, in what resembles nothing so much as class warfare. In the expansive terrain of mass art, Citizen Kane is just a choice example; in the far more narrow artistic scope of just the cinema, Citizen Kane is a prime candidate for the peak of artistic excellence, a work of such distinction that no film by and/or featuring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Steven Seagal could ever hope to match, much less exceed, its virtuosity. The scales need to be adjusted when moving from Carroll’s large-scale discussion of mass art to the relatively small-scale discussion of the cinema, and having done so, the devastating irony is in the way the balance of power is inverted. The minority revolutionaries like Britton, Wood, and Prince—patting themselves on the back while nobly railing against the “dominant ideology” (or, translated for the sake of the film studies lexicon, the “blockbuster ideology”) just as the disenfranchised activists of the 1960s and 1970s railed against The Man—have helped to establish an academic class system, with the critical bourgeoisie excoriating the lowly action cinema, which is the exclusive province of the critical proletariat. In the microcosm of academic film studies, Citizen Kane bears the distinction of the highest of the high art, while action movies live a hand-to-mouth existence at the bottom of the food chain, their hopes for consideration in vaunted academic publications depending on the charity of the bourgeois scholar looking only to use them for their potential political ramifications, of which there is no room for variance seeing how the political framework (Britton’s influential notion of “Reaganite Entertainment”) has already been formulated in a self-serving fashion that condemns them from the start so as to preserve the repressive status quo of the cinematic hierarchy. [6]

This is the prerogative informing the work of Britton, Wood, and Prince, but what is significant about their work is how their condescending taxonomies are evaluative rather than descriptive, a cardinal sin in theorizing yet one countenanced wholesale by film studies. Showing blatant disregard for the transitive property, such scholarship tries to have it both ways by arguing that film is art but that action films are not art, and such attempts to shirk the transitive property are invariably prone to collapsing under the weight of the attendant hypocrisy. Britton, for example, is one of the most insightful and inspiring champions of classical Hollywood cinema, his passion for the era so great that he was compelled, in a lucid critique of David Bordwell’s “philosophy of the pigeonhole” vis-à-vis his influential conceptualization of classical Hollywood storytelling, to rail against Bordwell’s portrait of Hollywood’s celebrated initiation of film noir in the 1940s as correspondingly “non-classical.”

Mr. Bordwell appraises the loathsome heretical object with icy contempt for some moments, pondering the most efficient method of attack, and then opts boldly for a vicious surprise-assault on its exposed ontologicals: speaking ex-cathedra, he issues a Declaration of Total Oblivion whereby the object shall be deemed henceforth to have no finite existence (Britton, 2009: 447).

And yet, “speaking ex-cathedra,” Britton has no qualms about appraising the “loathsome heretical object” known as Reaganite Entertainment and arguing that its defining feature is its “highly ritualized and formulaic character” (Ibid: 99), which indicates a solipsistic drive that did not open up space for greater filmmaking savvy in the deepening of generic conventions as one might have hoped, but rather, resulted in the “total exhaustion and reduction to banality” (Ibid: 153) of the cherished conventions of American cinema. To validate this (ignorantly dismissive and intolerably redundant) charge, Britton opts for the familiar rhetorical maneuver of juxtaposing one set of films with another.

It should be obvious, for example, that the kind of relation which links Friday the 13th [1980] and The Burning [1981], or The Poseidon Adventure [1972] and The Towering Inferno [1974], or Porky’s [1982] and Zapped! [1982], is very different from that between, say, Rebecca [1940] and Undercurrent [1946]. As “persecuted wife” melodramas these two films have much in common, and Vincente Minnelli’s debts to Alfred Hitchcock … can be minutely itemized, but what we are primarily aware of is significant variation, inflection, and development. If Rebecca is, almost explicitly, Minnelli’s point of departure, the work influenced is utterly different in meaning, tone, and movement … [whereas] the variations [in Reaganite Entertainment], if that is the word, are mechanical … “Genre,” in fact, seems an entirely inappropriate word to describe the disaster movie or post- Star Wars science fiction … [because] it is apparent that the conventions of genre exist in a productive relationship to the essential conflicts and contradictions of a culture: that is, they are both determined as conventions by those conflicts while also acting as a medium in which cultural contradiction can be articulated, dramatized, worked through. The conventions of Reaganite Entertainment exhibit the very opposite of such a relationship. They function, rather, to inhibit articulation (Ibid: 99).

The persuasiveness of this passage hinges on the surface relation of the sets and the hope that no reader will be critical enough, either due to solidarity or a lack of intellectual discernment (in a perverse reliance on the passivity argument), to penetrate the surface of the argument and reveal the close-minded ignorance and hypocrisy of the picture being painted. Employing phrases like “it should be obvious” and including the reader in the prose as when he identifies “what we are primarily aware of” when assessing the films in question, Britton’s very methodology relies on the passivity argument holding sway, counting on the fact that nobody will point out that the very same differences in “meaning, tone, and movement,” those infuriatingly nebulous qualities action movies are always alleged to be lacking, could just as easily be found when assessing Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) in relation to Commando (1985), Die Hard (1988) in relation to Under Siege (1992), Raw Deal (1986) in relation to Marked for Death (1990), and any number of other action dyads provided scholars are actually willing to give the films a chance [7]. As astutely elucidated by Leland Poague:

The real distinction to be made, the distinction upon which the validity of film criticism and study may be said to rest, is not between passive and active films but between passive and active viewers—viewers who differ not in the operation of their perceptual and other cognitive processes per se, but in their willingness to put those processes to vigorous use, to engage films with them, and to set representations of films against and with representations of the world in the full richness of interplay which is connoted by the notion of interpretation … Only if that capacity for action is in some sense independent of the films we see is there any possibility [for film studies] … Were it absolutely true that certain film styles automatically or tyrannically invoke identical responses in every individual, then there would be no need for education and criticism (Poague in Cadbury and Poague, 1982: xvii-xviii).

Moving from Britton to Prince is to move to a far more “philosophically fortified” position. Prince’s first and most basic premise, that the Hollywood films of the 1980s contained explicit political content, is uncontroversial (indeed, incontrovertible). The second premise is more polemical and thus more problematic, positing that Hollywood films are necessarily ambiguous because of “their need to appeal to wide and diverse segments of the public,” a necessity which always leads to films that “violate or contradict or mute the logic of a straightforward presentation of sets of social values or political frameworks or positions” (Prince, 1992: 2-3). This assertion has shades of the massification argument and the inability of the expression-inclined artist, for all of his/her good intentions, to successfully convey personal emotions and beliefs in such an allegedly stifling artistic environment. Adding to the problem here, Prince conflates genre cinema with national cinema, upping the ante from Britton’s perspective and arguing that, more than just a branch of American cinema, it is American cinema as a whole that is the problem, alleging that the classical Hollywood style of linear storytelling and character-centered narratives adhering to set generic “formulas” is incompatible with genuine political filmmaking [8].

Carroll sagaciously calls attention to the way many of the proponents of the four arguments against mass art had ulterior motives, specifically the veneration of “modernist” or “avant-garde” art. Prince’s work here (and indeed, Britton’s and Wood’s work, as well) is revisionist in the sense that it is trying to go back and cordon off certain sections of the cinema from the domain of genuine film art analogous to the way R.G. Collingwood, Carroll’s chosen paradigm case of the formula argument, tried to elevate modernist poetics at the expense of most of the art of the past (Carroll, 1998: 63). As Carroll points out:

By excluding the formulaic from the domain of art proper, Collingwood is, in effect, denying that a great deal of past art that we heretofore regarded as art proper is art properly so called. In the art of different cultures and the art of our own culture in periods past, a premium has often been placed on attempting to abide by traditional paradigms assiduously. Such art has often demanded rigorous adherence to traditionally established rules of composition. Is it plausible to discount the history of art so radically? Can a conception of art that discounts most of the art of the past be convincing? (Ibid)

Appealing to a notion of revisionism, a film scholar sympathetic to this position vis-à-vis action cinema could argue that it is no longer a surprise that much of what had previously qualified as film art is now being disqualified. But, as Carroll shrewdly asks, “on what grounds should we accept such a radical revision of the conception of art?” (Ibid) Carroll alleges that Collingwood is committed to carving out a space for modernist poetics, leading him to operate under the misguided idealist assumption that genuine art should eschew the formulaic.

But even if the ideal of the artist as demiurge, creating a repertory of forms ex nihilo, captured the artistic imagination at one point in art history, why should the ideal of one moment in the history of art be elevated to the criterion of art proper? Surely this is an instance of revisionist overkill, even if it is motivated by the thoroughly respectable aim of providing a way in which to appreciate modernist masterpieces” (Ibid).

In sum, the rhetorical move made by scholars like Collingwood, Britton, Wood, and Prince is to venerate the minority by denigrating the majority, Collingwood due to his allegiance to modernism, and Britton, Wood, and Prince due to their disdain for “Hegemonic Hollywood.” In what is perhaps the most incisive analysis of the Hollywood blockbuster phenomenon to date in the film studies literature, Tom Shone perspicaciously defends the tradition and its qualification for art status while rejecting the revisionism of Britton, Wood, and Prince.

The story we have been told … has it that the seventies, far from being the golden age of the blockbuster, were the golden age of the American art house, cut down in its prime when the age of the blockbuster dawned at the end of it. In the early seventies, we weren’t supposed to be queuing up to watch über-schlock like Love Story [1970] and Airport [1970], we were supposed to be huddling in respectfully small numbers around films like The Last Movie [1971] and The Last Picture Show [1971] and wondering if their titles would come true when studio squares caught on and busted us. We weren’t supposed to be forging such mass megahits as The Exorcist [1973] and The Sting [1973], we were supposed to be comparing notes on whether Robert Altman or Arthur Penn had more artfully disabused us of our expectations as a mass audience, and as for Jaws and Star Wars, they weren’t supposed to emerge from a crowded field of a dozen other blockbusters, they were supposed to rear up and bite everyone on the ass from out of nowhere. This certainly is the story we were told by Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which ends with the great auteurs of the seventies numb with shock at their Judas-like betrayal by Lucas in 1977 … This is, if you like, the “Magic Bullet” theory of modern film history: the conviction, shared by almost everyone … that all it took was a single shot from Lucas’s laser cannons to bring down the Camelot that was American film in the seventies (Shone, 2004: 9).

Shone goes on to point out how such apocalyptic premises as have long aided anti-mass art scholars and especially anti-action movie scholars are often in conflict with the facts of history. The warnings against action movies become comical, worrying for “the poor moviegoer, twitching and spasming in their seat, as their overstimulated lobes receive their instructions from the blockbuster power grid” (Ibid: 60), the freedom argument taken to an untenably hyperbolic extreme. The main problem with “death of film” arguments, as Shone shrewdly observes, is that “they have an uncanny ability to resemble accounts of the birth of film,” where the heraldic visionaries built a medium that thrived on “sensation and show,” the early products of which were, “by definition, action movies” (Ibid: 61). Charting the birth of film—from the early Nickelodeons to Griffith’s fast-paced chase films finally to DeMille’s epics (for which the term blockbuster is no doubt apt)—unmistakably parallels the birth of the “official” blockbuster following the demolition of the Hollywood studio system and the Production Code, from free-spirited experimental films like Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) to violent and action-packed chase films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Bullitt (1968) and finally to epics like The Towering Inferno and big budget spectaculars like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It had only taken about two decades for the pioneering filmmakers at the turn of the 20th Century “to discover speed, for speed to give way to size, size to spectacle, hype to hoopla” (Ibid: 62), and it took about the same period of time following the demise of the studio era and the abolishment of the Production Code for Hollywood to rediscover such wonders.

To support the revisionist history of film offered by Britton, Wood, and Prince is to disqualify the 50 years of Hollywood cinema that are, for most scholars (including the three aforementioned), home to many of the greatest cinematic artworks ever produced. Is anyone in film studies really prepared to discount the films of Griffith and DeMille as genuine film art? Is there a scholar out there convinced that neither Ben-Hur (1959) nor Spartacus (1960) deserve critical acclaim due to their massive scale and the centrality of action in their respective narratives? Is Britton prepared to disqualify classical Hollywood cinema from the realm of genuine film art on the grounds that it was formulaic and serviced the dominant ideology promulgated by such entities as the Legion of Decency and the House Un-American Activities Committee? Again, Shone proves perspicuous, calling attention to the fact that what is at issue is a critical double standard.

The critical traffic only goes one way: critics get to excoriate Jaws and Star Wars for failing to live up to the exalted standards set by Apocalypse Now [1979] or The Godfather [1972], but nobody ever says of Five Easy Pieces, “Great, as good a chamber-piece on the disintegration of the American family as could be imagined, but it could have done with an aerial dogfight or two.” We’re all too scared of being kicked out of film class [but] now we know better: if it’s historical precedent you’re after, it doesn’t come much better than the origin of the medium … Spielberg and Lucas didn’t betray cinema at all: they plugged it back into the grid, returning the medium to its roots … the screams that greeted Jaws in the theater floating back to the screams that first greeted Empire State Express [1896], whose speed-freak instincts whip and blur into those of Star Wars (Ibid: 63-64).

Assuming no one in the film studies community is prepared to disqualify the era of the medium’s creation or the golden age of the Hollywood studio era from the realm of genuine film art, the question then becomes: Why is film studies nevertheless content to drive down this hypocritical one-way street of “high art” and “superior taste” where the art status of the cinema has been irrationally reactionary and revisionist, supported by those who are seated so high on their thrones of superior taste as to be entirely incapable of even seeing that which they so casually dismiss as “mindless entertainment”?

Politics in Action

Seeing how Britton’s and Wood’s respective work was more in the form of a prolegomenon and less a rigorously constructed theoretical edifice, this last portion will be concerned with elaborating a few more points regarding the specific notion of genuine political filmmaking constructed by Prince, in whose work the DNA of Britton’s and Wood’s influential scholarship is unmistakable. To reiterate, the main problem with Prince’s position is, with shades of Collingwood, that his conception of genuine political filmmaking is far too narrow, excluding much of what has long counted as political filmmaking for the self-serving purpose of elevating independent American cinema and especially experimental international cinema to a higher plane of respectability. Dividing the 1980s up for inspection, Prince roughly sketches three cycles in the political cinema of the era, that of the Cold War film, the Latin America film, and the Vietnam film. [9] The Cold War film is the most offensive to Prince’s taste, for it is at once aesthetically the most formulaic and politically the most affrontingly simplified and irresponsible (Prince, 1992: 49-81), while he alleges that the Vietnam film sheepishly tried to avoid political commitment by either focusing on the mythological/metaphysical “essence” of human psychology and behavior, as in Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (1987), or by going down to a level beneath both metaphysics and politics to the everyday grunts and the effects the war had on their personal lives, as in The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986) (Ibid: 115-151). It is only the Latin America film that Prince grants respectability and appreciation, and not just for its explicit politics, for the Cold War film also tended to be explicitly political, but for its explicitly critical politics, aligning himself with Britton’s and Wood’s scholarly insurgency.

While official ideology clearly inspired the popular Cold War films, it did not represent the universe of discourse. The cinema of the 1980s was not univocal. It did not speak with a unified ideological voice, nor was it inevitably reflective of the contours of a core ideology. The Latin America films demonstrate that filmmakers working either independently or for the major studios could step outside the Cold War framework, depart from the assumptions held by the Reagan administration, and attempt to criticize them while constructing commercially appealing narratives. If Cold War thought is a genre possessing its own familiar conventions and formulas … it may not be coincidental that the Latin America films operated outside the confines of generic filmmaking in the construction of their images and narratives. Rejecting the assumptions of Cold War thought may have compelled a rejection of genre (Prince, 1992: 109).

Taking a step forward from Britton, whose claims of a completely barren cinematic landscape are heavy on polemics and light on convincing evidence, Prince here is at least acknowledging that there was not just one single movie blob known as Reaganite Entertainment trudging through the theaters in the 1980s. However, the price to be paid for Prince’s acknowledgment of cinematic diversity is a split between two kinds of political filmmaking: Bad political filmmaking—unified by a patriotic faith in the strength and moral character of the U.S. and an emphasis on righteous action taken by the protagonists in defense of American values, of which the action films of Stallone and Schwarzenegger are exemplary—and good political filmmaking—unified by a rejection of U.S. foreign policy and an emphasis on righteous action taken by the protagonist in defense of the “little guy” against American imperialism, of which European or Third World cinema efforts are exemplary in contrast to the intrinsically and inevitably compromised American efforts—a split that is far more ideological than strictly theoretical. [10]

Returning to Carroll, Prince is here relying on a clause of the freedom argument.

It is important [for Prince] to articulate the possibility of a space outside the realm of [blockbuster ideology] … Genuine art, with its claims to aesthetic autonomy, represents an attempted revolt against the clutches of [blockbuster ideology]. Aesthetic autonomism is a gesture in the direction of affirming that there is the social possibility of living outside the nexus of [blockbuster ideology] … However … genuine art inevitably fails to break free entirely from the conditions of [blockbuster ideology]. Nevertheless, in making the attempt to break away … the genuine work of art at least provides us with a picture of the central struggle within [Hollywood] … Thus, genuine art is not conceived to be autonomous … what is important is that it aspires to autonomy, though this aspiration always inevitably fails to be realized completely (Carroll, 1998: 71-72).

If, for the proponent of the freedom argument, genuine art is “a monad of society, a microcosm that represents a truth about the social whole by exemplifying an awareness of the possibility of opposition” to the dominant ideology, then the Latin America film is Prince’s monad of Hollywood, aspiring to political autonomy which inevitably fails to be realized due to the limitations alleged to be inherent in American action cinema under the tyranny of the blockbuster ideology.

[The Latin America films] stay firmly within the American film tradition of linear, character-centered narratives and naturalistic imagery rather than employing the dialectical, self-conscious, and analytic cinematic forms of politically committed European and Third World filmmakers. This stylistic commitment, in turn, imposed limitations upon the political discourse these films could offer (Prince, 1992: 109).

There exist many suitable counter examples in the diverse history of action cinema to Prince’s polemical claims (as well as to the hastily reactionary and desperately revisionist elitism of academic film studies in general). The desperate desire to keep action movies out of the realm of genuine film art has led to unacceptable theoretical contradictions that have yet to even be acknowledged by the scholarly bourgeoisie, who have therefore not surprisingly made no effort to rectify the terminological and intellectual imbroglio in which scholarship on action cinema has on the whole been stuck. It is therefore with more than just a hint of irony that the site on which all of the issues that have been discussed thus far are quintessentially embodied is the filmography of Steven Seagal, perhaps the most critically reviled and trivialized figure in this most critically reviled and trivialized of cinematic domains.

Part 2


1 To clarify, the arguments against mass art that Carroll seeks to refute are “philosophical” insofar as they all “rely on some conception of the essential features of mass art. That is, they attempt to show that mass art is never art, or that it is always bad art as a matter of necessity—as a matter of the very nature of mass art” (Carroll, 1998: 5). This is equally true of the arguments against action movies with which this essay will engage, and they will be refuted along similar lines.

2 It should be noted for the sake of terminological clarity that, much like film noir, which can encompass such categories of the cinema as the gangster film, the heist film, the horror film, and melodrama, “action movies” is a similarly malleable label the definition of which is by no means a priori and must be qualified by the particular scholar. Scholars such as Yvonne Tasker (1993) and Susan Jeffords (1994) focused on the “musculinity” on display in the “hard body” films of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, while Geoff King (2000) examines “spectacular narratives” as opposed to “spectacular bodies.” Additionally, Neil King (1999) limits the scope to “cop action” while Tom Shone (2004) casts a much wider net in his discussion of “blockbusters.” In an effort to cover as much ground as possible, this essay will not limit itself by engaging in semantic quibbling and will instead work with the presuppositions inherent in each of the particular pieces of scholarship under consideration so as to highlight the general assumptions with which scholars have engaged much of what constitutes action cinema at its broadest and most inclusive.

3 This term is taken from Paul Bowman in his discussion of the impact of cultural studies across the humanities (2008: 182-184).

4 To be clear, Carroll is not concerned with “action movies” or anything of the sort in his text. His juxtaposition is between “mass art” and “genuine art,” each conceived differently by the different theorists with whom he engages in his text. All of his discussion points remain the same, but the juxtaposition between “action movies” and “genuine film art” is a translation of his terminology into the language of this particular essay.

5 The primary sources of theirs that will be under consideration here are Andrew Britton’s 1986 essay, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment” (2009: 97-154), and Robin Wood’s response to Britton’s essay, also from 1986, “Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era” (2003: 144-167). The entirety of their respective outputs was essentially a dialogue between one another, each clarifying and extending their own premises in relation to those espoused by the other, but nowhere in their extensive scholarship is their harmony (and influence on subsequent scholarship) more conspicuous than in their work on Hollywood in the 1980s.

6 Yvonne Tasker provides the first notable instance of a scholar calling attention to and critiquing this regrettable development in film studies (1993: 5-6, 107-108).

7 The most frustrating aspect about Britton’s merciless assault on Reaganite Entertainment is how it completely contradicts the admirable position he advanced in Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist (1984), one of the most perceptive, provocative, and theoretically sound star studies ever conducted and the relevance of which for similar studies of action stars is ironically in the way it opens up a space for the type of critical investigation Britton’s later work on Reaganite Entertainment tries to close off.

8 This, of course, presupposes that genuine political filmmaking must be critical and demiurgic, and the other side of the coin vis-à-vis Prince’s invocation of Brechtian theory is Dave Saunders’ invocation of Joseph Goebbels, who believed the efficacy of political art was not in calling attention to itself as politically charged and instead believed any political initiative to be conveyed through art “must be concealed with such cleverness and virtuosity that the person on whom this purpose is to be carried out doesn’t notice it at all” (Goebbels cited in Saunders, 2009: 84). And the fact that Saunders’ invocation of Goebbels was for the sake of an analysis of the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose films are quintessentially antipodal to Prince’s conceptualization of genuine political filmmaking in their valorization of the Right, their strict adherence to conventions of American genre filmmaking, and their enormous popularity and financial success, is not insignificant, for inasmuch as Goebbels theoretically opposes Brecht, so in many ways does Saunders theoretically oppose Prince.

9 While Prince’s work has been chosen for its important, exemplary place in the development of a critical orthodoxy regarding action cinema, Saunders’ study of Schwarzenegger (which covers much of the same ground) is far more equitable methodologically and represents as of this writing the most significant progress made in film studies apropos political readings of action films. Explicitly acknowledging his debt to Prince, Saunders modestly claims allegiance to the same “approach and rationale” (Saunders, 2009: 6) as which guided Prince, but his considerably more benevolent perspective regarding action cinema and his far greater command of the generic evolution and industrial/sociopolitical context in relation to the specific films under examination prove Saunders to be the more perceptive and useful of the two scholars, to the point where his text should absolutely serve as a new exemplar for future scholarship on action cinema.

10 Worst of all, Seagal is caught in a double-bind: Where action movies do not typically qualify as good political filmmaking according to the terms laid out by Prince, Seagal’s films, even though they do qualify on these terms, are still disqualified because they are action movies.


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Kyle Barrowman is a media and cinema studies lecturer in Chicago. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. He has published widely in and between film studies and philosophy, on subjects ranging from authorship, genre theory, and camera movement to skepticism, perfectionism, and ordinary language philosophy. His work is available at the website linked below.

Volume 17, Issue 4 / April 2013 Essays   action film