Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Targeting My Hard Drive

The latest find from the hard drive of my old 386, made possible by the efforts of cpratt, is the text of my first substantive contribution to the long since defunct, but once glorious Bad Subjects List. When we set up that public listserve in August, 1993, we had no idea how rapidly it would grow into a vibrant intellectual community. For my part, I figured that it would be very much like the conversations that members of the Production Team had been having with each other on our "Bad Editors" listserve since June, in which the presence of people whom Joe, Annalee, Steven and myself hadn't previously known created the critical distance necessary to sustain meaningful debate above and beyond the strictly procedural matters that later became the bread-and-butter of that internal listserve.

But I was totally wrong. Within days of the public Bad Subjects List's founding, the Production Team was circling the wagons, brought together by the sheer mass of outside opinions taking issue with our own. It was in this context that I composed this message, trying as I usually do to make connections between various contributors as diplomatically as possible, while still advancing my own point of view. As you can tell, we'd been discussing Hong Kong director John Woo's first American film, Hard Target:
Let's weave some thick textiles! For those who may have missed the start of this thread, Steven Rubio, who has been getting very excited about John Woo and Hong Kong cinema of late, enjoyed _Hard Target_, but seemed dissapointed in both Van Damme's performance and a certain slowing down/tempering of the Woo aethetic overall. _San Francisco Bay Guardian_ film critic Chuck Stephens, a devotee of Hong Kong cinema, took a similar line in his review of the movie.

Now, after having seen the movie I would like to take issue with their suggestion that Woo has suffered from his Hollywoodization. Or rather, I would like to take the debate surrounding _Hard Target_ as deliciously symptomatic of what happens when alternative culture afficionados get too caught up in asserting their taste preferences--usually by stating whether a given text is a 'sell-out' (=bad) or not (=good). When I saw _Hard Target_ I was amazed at how much--and Steven and Chuck are just two of the many people with whom I discusses the movie's merits--interesting stuff got left out of the descriptions of the movie I'd heard and read.

For one thing--Fassbinder's _Querelle_ eat your heart out--the film was unbelieveably homoerotic. As my friend Kim pointed out, Van Damme is sometimes posed leaning against walls exactly as your stereotypical young hustler might. As the film progresses we see more and more of his radically 'feminized' body as it gets sweatier and sweatier. Even more strikingly, death scenes are almost indistinguishable--and the shot of the character Van Clieff getting shot in the crotch from below by Van Damme's character is only the most obvious example--from the orgasm scenes one expects in pornography. I can't believe nobody mentioned this dimension of the movie to me!

Also glaringly absent in descriptions of _Hard Target_ were any meditations on the way it conflates various American hero genres like the Vietnam film--the bayous as seen from the helipcopter--and the Western--the horseriding sequences in the service of a message that, if not *anti*-american, is brutally pessimistic about the present-day U.S. (I was reminded of the scenes in Wim Wenders' _Until the End of the World_ in which a dessicated American infrastructure is shown to contrast with the high-tech glitz of near-future Europe). What about the political dimensions of the homeless' representation in the movie (they are hunted for sport)?

On another tack, how come nobody piqued my interest in the fact that this is yet another action film in which a non-American lead actor with a distinct accent fills in as the personification of American virtues? It struck me watching _Hard Target_ that such foreign leads would not have been able to perform the same function in earlier decades. And, since this thread began with a discussion of Van Damme's merits vis-a-vis Chow Yun Fat (the star of Woo's Hong Kong movies), it seems interesting to ponder the fact that it might not be that hard for Chow to become an American action hero after all, since accent is no longer an object. But maybe race still figures prominently here, since Van Damme and Schwarzenegger, 'tho very different-looking, *are* still white boys of sorts.

I could go on. The point I'm out to make here is that the endless discussion of whether John Woo had become a sell-out or not left no room in which to discuss these and other interesting issues surrounding the movie. While, being an alternative music fan myself, I can understand being disappointed/hurt when a favorite act/performer goes mainstream, I think that the politically efficacious thing for us to do is *not* to either lament or rationalize the move massward, but rather to explore the interesting issues that this move opens up, both textually and personally. Textually, we can open up interpretive cans of worms like I was doing above. Personally, we can try to go beyond having a feeling *about* this move toward the mainstream (or in John Woo's case, *our* particular American mainstream) and seek instead to dissect the cultural forces that produce that feeling. In other words, we can combine a deeper engagement with the text itself (made possible by devoting less time to mere value judgements) *with* a self-reflexive, self-critical engagement with our own response to that text, thereby going beyond the sort of criticism that does little more than state a taste preference. For as _Beavis and Butthead_ teaches us, the reduction of the world to a 'sucks'/'doesn't suck' dichotomy is not noted for fostering politically constructive debate.
I remain deeply indebted to the teaching of Beavis and Butthead. One of my fondest memories of Bad Subjects co-founder Joe Sartelle, with whom I eventually had a deeply traumatic falling out, is of me, him, and Annalee making the rounds in UC Berkeley's Campbell Hall putting out copies of our latest issue and taping up flyers announcing its arrival while making the Beavis-and-Butthead laugh to the point of absurdity. Ah, those were the days.

As far as John Woo goes, it's interesting to realize the way in which his films punctuated significant events in my life. I found about him in December, 1991, while in New York for my first MLA Convention, when my undergraduate friend Mike Berk took me and some other acquaintances out for a dinner in Chinatown, where I got inexplicably hammered, and then brought me along to a screening of Hard-Boiled, which I adored despite alternating between a desire to sleep and a desire to hurl.

On a more depressing note, I saw the excellent Face/Off on a smoggy June night in 1997 after taking codeine for my aching back and alternating between "old school" ephedrine-fueled Mini-Thins and albuterol inhaler puffs for my asthma. I hadn't eaten all day and then made the mistake of getting popcorn at the movie theater, which makes me agitated under the best of circumstances. By the time we got back to 617 Napa Street, I was feeling like the main character of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. So I decided to smoke, in the hope of taking the edge off my mood. When that didn't work, I poured myself a beer, hoping that alcohol would do the trick. Shortly thereafter, I passed out. Then I got up too quickly in my confusion and passed out again, hitting my head rather dramatically. The rest of the night was spent in the E.R., where the unfortunate combination of substances in my bloodstream made my test results look like the data from someone at Andy Warhol's Factory. Needless to say, I never took Mini-Thins again.

Finally, Woo's Mission Impossible II was playing on the Lufthansa flight I took from Frankfurt to Phoenix on the way back from my three-day trip to Austria back in October, 2001. I'd spent most of my time in Europe convinced that I was dying of anthrax -- my trip coincided perfectly with its seemingly exponential dispersion through the postal system -- when I was, in fact, merely having an allergic reaction to the wool turtlenecks I was wearing and the nut-laden Vollkorn bread I'd been eating like mad at my hotel's more-than-Continental breakfast buffet because I had no cash with which to buy other meals. On the plane, though, my lungs relaxed and, even though I hadn't bothered to get headphones, I thoroughly enjoyed the film's superb action scenes. I distinctly remember drifting in and out of sleep during the climactic motorcycle chase scenes on cliffs overlooking the ocean outside Sydney, Australia. Or maybe I just dreamed that. At any rate, the more I think about it, the more that John Woo's ouevre turns out to be an important "sticking point" in my post-undergraduate psychic topography.
Tags: archive, autobiography, bad subjects, film

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