Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sylvester Stallone's Authorial Trespass

Found via the website Big Hollywood is this interview at Ain't It Cool News with Sylvester Stallone. Mr. Stallone has a new film coming out later this month (August 13th) entitled "The Expendables," and I am quite excited to see it, as I am a big fan of Mr. Stallone's work.

Some of it, anyway. I had a hard time getting through "Cobra," and "Driven," and "Over the Top."

But the "Rocky" movies (yes, all of them) are interesting and provocative commentaries on the times in which they were made, and on the ways in which modern men deal with the changes in the world around them, and to their own bodies. "Demolition Man" is a fantastic science fictional satire that seems eerily prescient with its "anything-bad-for-you-is-illegal"-except-Taco-Bell-which-won-the -"Franchise-Wars" given our current political climate (and it featured the great Wesley Snipes in a memorable hair color). Stallone also perfectly embodied another future lawman, the British comic book hero "Judge Dredd." Reading those British comics about a New York lawman of the future, it's clear the authors got their ideas about US culture from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies -- and Stallone plays that character beautifully. (I don't in any way mean to impugn the stories from 2000AD. I'm a big Dredd fan; the "Judge Death" story arc from 1980 is one of my all-time favorite comics stories, from anywhere in the world.) In the mediocre movie "Cop Land," Stallone gave the stand-out performance in a cast that included greats like Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick, and Robert De Niro.

And don't get me started on how much I love "Rhinestone," the country music comedy he made with Dolly Parton.


Stallone sings Drinkenstein! Total genius.

I even like that Stallone (allegedly) uses "performance-enhancing drugs." I think everyone should use performance-enhancing drugs, if they want to. It irritates the hell out of me that they're illegal.

So, yes, I'm a Stallone fan. Which is why I read with interest his Ain't it Cool interview. The short piece is actually Mr. Stallone answering questions submitted by Ain't it Cool users and is worth reading in full, but the last question in particular caught my attention:
Question: As I grow older one of the major things I enjoy about the 80’s action films are their high level of optimism about America and its place in the world. Whether it was Rambo 2, Rambo 3, Rocky 4, Red Dawn, etc. they made American’s feel invincible (and a bit cocky) but also proud of whom we are. The unbelievably ripped action heroes were a great physical manifestation of who we were as a nation. Post 9/11 I think many would love to feel that way again as we have transitioned from the great action heroes to action stars such as Matt Damon, Nic Cage, and Tom Cruise. All great actors but I can’t buy them as action heroes. Movies today seem to have the opposite effect and are focused too much on our flaws as nation and our failed foreign policy (Avatar, Green Zone). Do you feel this is simply because of the changing generations in Hollywood, a true reflection of the national temperature, or just an overall loss in optimism following the end of the American century that is reflected in the stories told on screen?

Stallone: Brain, Its 100 percent due to a transition into a different political climate than when the aforementioned films were done. That’s why it’s a minor miracle the last RAMBO would even be released, but I took a gamble there would be many people like you, who may not express themselves as clearly but really do desire to see an action film unfold that wreaks of pride and manly individualism that has unfortunately fallen out of vogue. I believe that everything is a cycle. And once again America will have its cinematic heroes reflect the incredible honor it is to be defending the most extraordinary country the planet has ever known. Just give it time, everything is a cycle.
The idea of authorial trespass fascinates me. Once an artist turns his/her vision loose on the world, it belongs to everyone. The readers or listeners or viewers should be allowed to make up their own minds about what they're taking in.

Too many people assume that "the artist" has some kind of magical power over his/her own work, and any opinion they have on that work is gospel. In fact, the artist's opinion matters only while s/he is creating the work in question. Once the artist has released it into the wild, his/her opinion is no more valid than anyone else's.

For instance, when J K Rowling revealed, a year after the last Harry Potter novel had been completed, that one of the characters in those books was gay, well, then, that character was gay.
The question was: Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?

JKR: My truthful answer to you... I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. [ovation.] ... Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent? But, he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that's how i always saw Dumbledore. In fact, recently I was in a script read through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying I knew a girl once, whose hair... [laughter]. I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, "Dumbledore's gay!" [laughter] "If I'd known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!"
That's a genuinely shitty thing for an artist to do. If a character is gay, then make the character gay. Don't play coy about it in the actual novels and then announce later that the character was gay all along. And if you are playing it coy in the books (I haven't read them so I don't know -- does this Dumbledore have a male roommate? Drink a lot of appletinis?) then certainly you had a valid artistic reason for doing so, correct?

You've just removed part of the fun of reading, or taking in any work of art, be it watching a film or listening to a song. The discussion with others over the meaning of it all. When the artist comes out and says, "I intended this," the discussion ends for most people.

If you don't believe me, go back and read the audience's reaction to Ms. Rowling's revelation.

[ovation]

Dumbledore is gay now. Mystery gone. One more reason not to read the Harry Potter books. (And for crying out loud I'm not anti-gay. I'm anti-authorial trespass.)

Or, how about Robert Redford claiming that Dan Quayle misinterpreted a film in which he starred, "The Candidate"?
Paulson: And you mention “The Candidate.” You had to be more than a little surprised to hear Dan Quayle say he modeled himself after you in that film.

Redford: That scared me for the country. I thought if he, if he — if that was his model, then he really missed the point.

Paulson: And we see so much of that. We had Bruce Springsteen having to demand that the Republicans stop using “Born in the U.S.A.” because, as he pointed out, this is not a patriotic ballad.

Redford: No.

Paulson: And there seems to be kind of a surface-level reaction from politicians, a certain art, wanting to latch on to it. And yet the message of “The Candidate” is something that no politician would embrace. I understand that, that — for those who haven't seen it, it has to do with an idealistic young man who says what he believes in as long as he's not likely to win. And then things change.

Redford: The fundamental theme of the movie was to take a hard look at, at how we get people elected in this country. And that was what the real point of the movie was. The other was the characters to embody that theme, and, and the, the — kind of the Faustian bargain that people make going into politics, when they think, "I can be — I can maintain my integrity. I can maintain a level of truth.” But they have no idea what happens when you enter the political system. It's so full of compromise, and now more than ever — insidious, devious stuff to, to — rather than tell the people the truth, to keep it from the people while appearing to be truthful. So that, that kind of thing was what we were trying to say in the movie, that the only thing that matters is winning. And so — this character gets sucked into that. And it was about how we get people elected in this country, and we were answering it by saying, "Unfortunately, it's too much by cosmetics, not enough by substance."
Not only is Mr. Redford suggesting that there is only one way to interpret "The Candidate" (which is a great film, by the way), but that there is only one acceptable reaction to it.

Why couldn't Mr. Quayle have seen the film and been inspired to change that system the film criticizes?

But okay, I don't want to spend any more time even appearing to defend Dan Quayle of all people, so I'll move on.

With his film "Avatar," director James Cameron committed authorial trespass just about as often as he could. Check this from the New York Times:
Q. Have you gotten any criticism that the film might be perceived as anti-American?

A. It’s something that I’ve anticipated the possibility of because people will misinterpret things in certain ways. You can almost count on people misinterpreting things. The film is definitely not anti-American. It’s not anti-human either. My perception of the film is that the N’avi represent that sort of aspirational part of ourselves that wants to be better, that wants to respect nature. And the humans in the movie represent the more venal versions of ourselves, the banality of evil that comes with corporate decisions that are made out of remove of the consequences.
Emphasis added, because here, Mr. Cameron is stating plainly that any interpretation of the film that he made that does not comport with his own intentions is a misinterpretation. Think about that for a second.

The artist is saying that if, for any reason whatsoever, you come away from a viewing of his film thinking something other than what he had in mind, you are wrong.

And that is the real problem with authorial trespass. It exposes the insecurity of the artist involved. No, the problem with your interpretation couldn't possibly be that I didn't convey myself in a truly meaningful way -- the problem is with you, the viewer.

You're misinterpreting it!

And this is James Freaking Cameron saying this. Creator of the first two "Terminator" films. "Aliens." "True Lies." Quite possibly the best filmmaker in the world. Certainly one of the most powerful. And even he is saying that if you just don't get me, well, frankly, that bothers me enough that I'm going to insult you.

Do you think Christopher Nolan is going to start talking about the meaning of "Inception"? Did he ever do that with "Memento"?

Does David Lynch do interviews in which he explains what he meant by the masturbation scene in "Mulholland Drive"?

Once you put your work out into the world, have enough confidence in it to let it stand on its own.

This is why I find it particularly ironic that the "tough guy" actor Sylvester Stallone would commit authorial trespass on his films in this way, particularly his "Rambo" films, which I agree are four of the most interesting "war" movies of the last thirty years. In particular the first two, which are stinging indictments of the American government's treatment of its war veterans, and as such far more effective than more critically lauded films like "The Deer Hunter" and "Platoon."

Take for instance the first film in the series, "First Blood." John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran, trained with special forces, and as such, he is a walking weapon. Now out of the military, Rambo wants only to be left alone. Yet when he arrives in a small town in Washington, looking for a friend of his from his old Special Forces unit who has, unknown to Rambo, died of cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure. The sheriff drives Rambo out of town because he's a "drifter," and the sheriff doesn't like drifters. There follows more harassment of Rambo until finally Rambo is forced to fight back, escaping from the police and running into the woods where he uses his Special Forces training to fight off the police and, eventually, the National Guard.

 John Rambo, the "drifter" Vietnam veteran, has done his "duty" to his country, and just wants to be left alone.

John Rambo, Vietnam veteran, is now in the wilderness fighting against representatives of the government he'd been fighting for just a few years before.

It's at this point that "First Blood" starts to get really interesting. Rambo is using guerrilla tactics against government agents who have been dispatched into the wilderness for reasons that remain murky to fight an enemy they don't completely understand. Mr. Stallone and Ted Kotcheff, the director, have flipped the story upside down on us.

John Rambo represents not only the veterans mistreated by the government, but the Vietnamese they'd been fighting.

At least, that's how I see it. And my opinion is just as valid as Mr. Stallone's

"Rambo: First Blood Part II" predated John Kerry's and John McCain's shameful treatment of Vietnam war widows with their Senate POW/MIA hearings by a couple of years. In that film, the very government that had spent much of the first film trying to kill Rambo now requires his services to return to Vietnam to take photos of possible Prisoner of War camps. In fact, the corrupt government officials in charge of the mission have absolutely no interest in finding out the truth of whether or not there are POWs there, and Rambo is abandoned in Vietnam after he finds the proof he'd supposedly been sent to find.

This is an astonishing stand for a mainstream action film to take. The US government is corrupt. It does not care for the men who supposedly fought for it. It's willing to abandon those men for the sake of political expediency.

Of course, Rambo single-handedly breaks the POWs out of the camp. He does this not for the sake of the government, but pointedly for the soldiers who have been used and abused by the government.

The Rambo films are about how the politicians who run the government let the citizens down. "Green Zone" and "Avatar" are nowhere nearly as good as any of the "Rambo" films, yet they're basically the same idea.

And I'm really not sure how much the "political climate" has changed. Kerry and McCain are still in the senate, after all. Rather disappointingly, Mr. Stallone supported John McCain's run for president in 2008.

That is what you call "irony."

My interpretation of all of Sylvester Stallone's films is just as valid as Mr. Stallone's, even if it might be a little off from his. These are great works of art, and should be puzzled over and discussed and turned over in all our minds. Mr. Stallone has done a disservice by trespassing on them like this.

But I'm still going to see "The Expendables" when it's released.

 I did a search for "The Expendables" images, and found this picture of former "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" star Charisma Carpenter. She's hot. She's also apparently one of the stars of the movie. She's probably only in it for a few minutes, but I'm posting her picture here anyway. Because she's hot.

John Rambo pic source.
Charisma Carpenter pic source.

5 comments:

A.Jaye said...

Thought I'd let on: Excellent post dude.

Here's a question though - is Viagra a performing enhancement drug?

Iced Borscht said...

OVER THE TOP did have the emotional Sammy Hagar title track on the soundtrack though.

Arm wrestling is fantastic.

shampoo said...

i don't know so much about rambo. but, it's shown that dumbledore is gay in one of the later books. the very least you can conclude is he and grindelwald were veeery close friends. but, things that go on in his youth cause dumbledore to be somewhat reticient about his personal life. before that, you really don't know enough to guess. as in... for all we know, he could be drinking appletinis.

Ricky Sprague said...

@A.Jaye, that means a lot, from you.

@Iced Borscht: My displeasure with "Over the Top" has absolutely nothing to do with Sammy Hagar's terrific song.

@shampoo: If Dumbledore is shown to be gay in the books themselves, then why did the audience give Ms. Rowling a standing ovation when she "revealed" that he was gay?

I guess I will not ever understand Harry Potter.

shampoo said...

i don't know really. i guess it's a read between the lines thing. but, they're teenagers and they hang out constantly and dumbledore is all he's the only one who understands me. they also write each other letters (even though they hang out constantly). they pose for photos with their arms around one another.

honestly, i don't remember when the announcement was in comparison to when i read the book. i have no idea why saying a fictional character is gay would get a standing ovation. particularly since the gay relationship he had was many years ago (if he has others, we know nothing of them) and the consequences from it were pretty horrifying.

personally, i think she could have let that go... as long as you get the idea these two guys are veerry close, that's good enough. i'm just saying, it's not totally out of left field for her to say that is all.

i guess one thing about harry potter is the books are finished and the movies are still going on so i think they're sending her to scripts trying to make sure they don't screw up continuity. although, dumbledore making a comment about some girl's hair seems insignificant, it's the time period that it happens, i think. several other things are going on in dumbledore's life in addition to being gay... he had some pretty severe family issues. all of this becomes significant during the last book.