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Friday, April 18, 2008

 

Rambow

The marketing for the movie Son of Rambow - the tagline 'Finally, an action hero we can all relate to', and quotes the the effect that it's the funniest British film since Hot Fuzz - should not put you off going to see it just because it sounds like a slapstick action film. It's nothing of the kind. The comparison to Hot Fuzz can be ignored, to begin with; most of us in the UK are aware, by now, of the marketing habit of saying any British comedy is the funniest film since, well, the last successful British comedy, however unlike the compared movies are. But it's the presentation of it as an action film that's really off-base: Son of Rambow is a sweet, perceptive, whimsical and humane portrait of childhood that's extremely touching as well as enjoyable, and while I wouldn't have gone to see it based on the posters if a friend of mine hadn't suggested a social outing, I would have missed out on something special. Go see it.

The story is a fairly simple one. Will is a boy raised by a widowed mother in a community of Plymouth Brethren, inhabiting the same town as more ordinary boys but insulated against all of their experiences, until one day he is rather forcibly befriended by the school naughty boy, Lee. Lee has been loaned a video camera by his older brother for the purposes of pirating movies on at the local cinema, but his real ambition is to make a movie of his own, and, finding Will naively cooperative, casts him as stuntman. The crucial discovery happens early on in their friendship: left alone in Lee's workroom, Will sees the entirety of Rambo: First Blood as it copies from one tape to another. Never having been exposed to so much an an educational documentary before, Will is struck to the core, and, filled with new fantasies, persuades Lee to take on his idea for a movie called 'Son of Rambow' (Will's misspelling, as presumably he missed the credits), and between these two lonely boys, an exuberant writer-director team begins to form in defiance of family and convention.

Now, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had some stuff to say about Sylvester Stallone; Rambo and his descendants are a fascinating species.

Rambo is an odd beast indeed. The basic image, a grimy-faced man with a rag tied round his head against a background of fireballs, is familiar to everyone, but the original story bears repeating. John Rambo is a veteran of the Vietnam war, who comes to a small town with the aim of finding his old comrade Delmar. Everyone else in their unit is already dead, and Rambo, who would appear to be without family, makes it to Delmar's home in the hopes of finding his last friend - only to be told by Delmar's mother that Delmar, too, is dead, eaten up by Agent-Orange-induced cancer. Walking disconsolately through the town with some idea of finding a place to eat, Rambo is picked up by Will Teasle, the petty tyrant sheriff, who takes exception to Rambo's scruffiness and drives him to the edge of town, warning him not to come back. Offended, Rambo steps back towards the town, at which point Teasle arrests him for vagrancy, ships him back to the town jail, and puts him through an intimidating process of fire-hosing and dry-shaving. Flashing back to captivity and torture by the Viet Cong, Rambo panicks, fights his way out, steals a motorbike and drives off into the woods, where he holes up, shooting everybody who tries to come and arrest him. There he remains for most of the movie, until his old commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, comes and talks him down.

One intriguing thing about the movie is that you can pinpoint the exact moment when the cinematic seventies turned into the eighties: grungy Rambo drags his Bickle-lite tail through the town, lost in a seventies malaise, until he escapes on a motorbike into an action rampage. As the motorbike flies over the train tracks in the first of numerous stunts, you can almost see cinema taking that same leap. Big-budget action galore is beyond those tracks.

This, though, does not account for the film's odd inconsistency. Who is Rambo a victim of? At the start of the film, the answer seems obvious: the authorities of his nation, who poisoned his friend with carcinogens, left him to wander penniless down the highways and finally victimised him for showing, with his raggedy poverty, just how badly he'd been let down by his nation. But famously, when Rambo weeps at the end to an ambivalent Trautman, the blame moves elsewhere: 'Somebody wouldn't let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me and spitting! ... In the field we had a code of honour! ... Back here's there's nothing! ... Back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!' His rant is a bit incoherent, perhaps fittingly for a man who clearly should be in a psychiatric ward being treated for PTSD rather than at the Fort Bragg Trautman offers him. But the war protesters, who nobody's mentioned before, suddenly leap into the frame. Rambo desperate at his unemployment is perfectly consistent - he's indigent right from the start - but suddenly there's a swipe at the anti-war lobby that comes out of nowhere. The movie shifts from blaming the right wing to blaming the left.* And in subsequent sequels, the possibility of war being, you know, a bad idea, has completely vanished: it's all triumphal march music, big guns and bigger explosions. It's all lovely, lovely violence from here onward.

Rambo is one of a number of cinematic attempts to grapple with the loss of the Vietnam war, and part of his charm is that he performs a not-uncommon sleight-of-hand: tactically, he changes sides. Going into the woods, he lives in rags and manufactures traps to outwit an enemy stronger both in numbers and technology, which is to say, he fights like Charlie. Faced with unbeatable tactics, some fiction writers simply appropriated them, and Rambo is not the only character to do so; most famously, George Lucas's heroes in Star Wars occupy a similarly guerilla position. The trope of Vietnam veterans bringing Vietnam home with them, or being unable to leave that dark psychological jungle, is a tremendous social tale, but rather than the re-enlisted hero of Apocalypse Now or the harrowed suicide of The Deerhunter, Rambo tackles up like an aggressor taking the enemy's tactics for his own, rather than like a victim reenacting his trauma: he's a way for audiences to sort of win the war, by playing at being the side that actually did win.

Rambo also embodies an idea well known in pre-World War Two Germany: we could have won if we hadn't been stabbed in the back. Rambo's side lost the war. How could that be, when he's clearly such a fighting machine? An unspecified betrayal is the only possible explanation. In the book, Trautman is a cold, distant technocrat, the kind of person who would betray a foot soldier, but that's not acceptable in the film; it has to be unspecified, because reality won't provide an explanation for why such men as Rambo lost - such men as Rambo don't actually exist. Venerable though the myth is, soldiers are not generally supermen, and governments do not generally abandon winnable wars. It looks bad if you do that. Governments abandon wars because they look like they can't be won, and it's not because they don't appreciate just how tough the boys in the field are. But that's the only explanation, the only way, ultimately, to renconcile Rambo's impossible manhood with the fact that the Vietnam War was, in fact, lost. Somebody betrayed somebody; it's just not quite clear who.

Politically, in short, the film is something of a mixed message. I'd recommend Susan Faludi's excellent discussion of it in Stiffed; Faludi points out that the book upon which the film was based portrayed Rambo as a far less innocent man, unable to restrain his own violence, locked in a battle with Teasle - but a Teasle who is himself a war veteran, who finds in Rambo a mirroring of his own darker self, while Trautman remains a cold and rear-echelon figure. The script went through innumerable changes, every man who came to it - and they were all men - seeing something different in Rambo, most of them turning in scripts insufficiently feelgood for the studios, until Sylvester Stallone, preoccupied with father-son issues since a dreadful childhood under the thumb of his violently abusive father, stepped in and turned it into a story of the innocently wronged young man, caught between the bad father (Teasle) and the good (Trautman). It's also worth noting that, in the original ending planned for the movie Rambo dies. I'm serious: he dies. He puts a gun in Trautman's hand, lines it up on himself and pulls the trigger. Rambo declares that Trautman created him, and thus can destroy him, which is to say, he forces Trautman to acknowledge some kind of responsibility for what Rambo has become - but, as I've said earlier, the idea of being trained into a superman is one that some films are extremely attached to. For Trautman to take responsibility for his creation going haywire once the task for which has has been trained is ended, we would have to acknowledge that the training is flawed, that it doesn't anticipate every possible future contingency, and that would spoil the whole fantasy. Rambo's suicide is much more plausible for someone having a psychological breakdown, but test screen audiences absolutely hated it, and the alternative ending was tacked on instead - which may go some way towards explaining why the ending feels so odd. Instead of suicidal madness, we get garbled redemption. It was a long way from the book, but it worked like catnip.

The reason, I would suspect, can partly be seen in Son of Rambow, an altogether more coherent story. Will, our little hero, is in fact a lovely kid: affectionate, amiable and trusting, he is not at all a violent or aggressive boy. But, hanging from a boat up in the rafters, he watches Rambo enthralled, and as Trautman delivers his strictures about how, if Teasle sends two hundred men against Rambo, he'll need a good supply of body bags, Will's response is an awe-struck whisper: 'Two hundred men...!' And home he runs in wild excitement, brandishing a makeshift gun, fighting with scarecrows and flexing his thin little arms in a dream of musclebound glory.

Immediately he launches into an elaborate Rambo-fantasy, but one that places himself squarely at the centre of the action: he is the son of Rambo, preparing to rescue his dad from the clutches of a conveniently vague enemy - the scarecrow he crashed into during his flight home. Will's own dad is, of course, dead, but the film is smart enough not to labour that point; Will's fantasy is a triumph of innocent ego, preferring the splendid if absent father of Rambo over the potential stepfatherhood of the well-meaning but dull and repressive Brother Joshua, a member of the Brethren extending a tentative courtship to Will's pretty mother. Will's preference for Rambo is an act of lively self-preservation: the Rambo-father allows him to celebrate himself, to be spectacular and proud, instead of the constrained and dutiful Christian Joshua wants to guide him into being. Will, in fact, has taken advantage of his own youth, happily missed any political ramifications of the film and seen squarely into its main selling point: if you're a bored or discomfited boy, it would be really, really cool to be like Rambo.

But Rambo isn't just a child's fantasy: there's something about him that's also classically adolescent. Raising Cain: protecting the emotional life of boys, an outstanding study by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, has some notable comments on boyish violence:

In boys the motivation for aggression is more 'defensive' rather than offensive or predatory. The aggression that boys display is usually in response to a perceived threat or a reaction to frustration or disappointment. Violent boys are not testosterone-laden beasts, as some would suggest; they are vulnerable, psychologically cornered individuals who would use aggression to protect themselves...

Boys often don't know or won't admit what it is that makes them angry. This is the flip side of their difficulty in reading emotional cues from others. Because of their emotional miseducation, boys are often unaware of teh source or intensity of their bottled-up anger. As a result, they are prone to engage in explosive outburts or direct their violence towards a 'neutral' target - usually a person who is not the real source of the anger...

Boys who do not have well-developed psychological resources for managing their feelings tend to be vulnerable to emotional pain. They are not adept at recognising or coping with anxiety and sadness - feelings that often accompany close human relationships - so they must be vigilant in protecting themselves. When they do feel emotional pain, it is often intensely acute - like a hammer slamming a thumb - and accompanied by a howl of anger and a lashing out at the most convenient target.


Rambo's flaming passage through the first film is not unlike this. Consider it from his perspective: he was minding his own business when some bastard started getting in his face, and drove him into lashing out. The desperation with which he does so out has horrendous consequences: now he's in even more trouble. 'I didn't do anything!' he wails from the rock-face, or, as he comments slightly more accurately later, 'They drew first blood.' Of course, he has done quite a bit by this time, but what he means is clear: he didn't do anything to begin the conflict that ended with him lashing out so violently; anything he does once it's begun is justified by the initial aggression of his enemies. As any schoolkid can say, 'They started it.' Provoked and unable to control his fear, he has driven himself into impossible position - but oh, how defiantly he occupies it, until even his enemies are moved to grudging recognition of his strength, his skill, his cornered heroism. Rambo's story cuts to the quick, not because it has anything clear to say about the Vietnam war, but because in Rambo, there is a frantic Everyboy who doesn't understand why everyone is so mad at him when all he ever wanted was to be left alone, who can't accept that, however justified his anger, people aren't necessarily supportive of how he acted on it. Provoked and retaliatory, virile and frightened, Rambo is not just the simple superman of a childhood like Will's, but also the angry adolescence of every boy who ever feels he's been punished unfairly.

It's this, ultimately, that fudges over the political rockiness, so to speak, of Rambo. Its politics can afford to be incoherent, because they're not actually the point. Who remembers that Rocky or Rambo began as blue-collar down-and-outs? The spectacle overwhelms the background: Will's wide-eyed whisper says it all. Two hundred men! Rocky is a considerably better film than Rambo, in terms of artistic unity, but in both cases, if you look at the sequels, it's clearly the bombast rather than the alienation that carried the day, with studios at least, and, given that the movies made money, with audiences as well.

Politically, this is a shame, because in the triumphal march, any lessons that can be learned from their stories, beyond the lesson that it's good to be physically tough, get lost. Rambo and Rocky are both disenfranchised Americans. Rocky is broke, hopeless, a blue-collar man with no working community or strong union to give him a place. Potentially a valuable citizen - not especially intelligent, but decent, compassionate and hard-working - he has no place to put himself to use, and is instead adrift, a virtual beggar until random chance lands an opportunity in his lap. Rambo, who does his best to be mannerly and friendly at the beginning, was sent out to fight in an ill-conceived war that killed all of his friends, dropped back in America with mental illness burgeoning in the wake of such trauma, and, jobless and without a community, is reduced to wandering the roads, unable even to pass peacefully through a town without some redneck despot deploying the powers of the law to harass him. Both of them have good reason to be pissed off. And both of them fight.

Neither of them, though, fight the real source of their problems. Their problems are too nebulous. They live in a country that's screwing them over; how do you fight a country, all on your own? So instead, they take out their anger. Rocky does it legimtately in the boxing ring, Rambo does it criminally, slaughtering small-town cops who vary from total jerks to well-meaning jobsworths, but both of them take their baffled rage and turn it to violent ends. And at this point, something interesting happens.

Both Rocky and Rambo are, at the start, lost Americans, men whom America has failed. But once they've been violent enough, an alchemy takes place. They create a fire and forge themselves in it: they're good at violence. So good, in fact, that they transform, somehow, from losers to winners. And once they're winners, the film industry awards them with narrative medals: sequels in which they become, not the betrayed sons of America, but its masculine idols. So virile are they in their striking out that society changes sides on them: We didn't represent you, but now you've demonstrated your usefulness, you can represent us. As symbols, of course; nothing more. It doesn't happen this way in real life: nobody said, 'Wow, Mr McVeigh, you've got some great bomb-planting skills! How about working for the CIA?' People who lash out wind up in prison. But lash out in a movie, and you become something else: a symbol of manhood so forceful that the society awash in men of your kind takes you to its movie-going heart. Both Rocky and Rambo, in their first movies, fight battles that are essentially arbitrary: a boxing match that Rocky gets by virtual lottery rather than by struggling up the ranks, and a desperate rampage against men who have triggered a deeper-seated trauma they didn't personally create. But that doesn't matter. It's the battling that's important, not the reason for the battle. Having shown they can battle, they're sent out as ambassadors. Rather than addressing what's actually bothering them, the fictional America they inhabit does the capitalist thing: it hires them.

In terms of roles, this is something of a Horatio Alger myth: be good enough, and one day, even though you start at the bottom of the heap, you'll be placed on top by a benevolent authority. Neither Rocky nor Rambo, Rambo in particular, get self-determination or independence by their achievements: instead, they are co-opted by the country that initially betrayed them, on the logic of if-you-can't-beat-em-employ-em. Rocky and Rambo have legitimate gripes, even if they can't quite articulate them, but they also have unique selling points that are altogether more palatable. The violence of their struggle is more fun than the social disasters that have forced them to struggle in the first place, so the result is that they're heroised rather than helped, appropriated, like the Viet Cong tactics, in movies that determinedly celebrate virility as an alternative to thought, as if manhood was entirely physical and the right kind of authority will always recognise you in the end.

This is a myth of redemptive violence with no Tiamat to defeat. The cruel deity that entraps Rambo and Rocky is not the people they strike out against; that deity is too hard even to identify, never mind defeat. For one thing, a big part of their problem is their isolation, but heroes are supposed to be isolated; reintegrating back into society would be less lonely for them, but less spectacular. In the absence of a proper Tiamat, our heroes respond like unhappy boys, striking out at targets because they're reachable rather than because they're appropriate. And in so doing, the violence becomes self-justifying: rather than being necessary to defeat evil, it becomes an end in itself. Be violent enough, and you will be a hero, because violence is what heroes do. This is the mythos of an angry and confused kid, rather than a shining moral exemplar, but it seems to do its job.

Go see Son of Rambow. It's an altogether more decent film than its father.

*Incidentally, that story about anti-war protesters spitting on veterans? Not true. In fact, a lying lying lie, put out by the right wing to bolster their stabbed-in-the-back narrative. What actually happened, according to a study by sociologist and Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke, (as quoted in Susan Faludi's Stiffed) was that any aggressing on returning soldiers that took place was done by veterans of World War II, who were angry that the Vietnam vets weren't returning in triumph like they were. They weren't calling them baby-killers, they were calling them losers. Then it became convenient to use that image to blame the left wing for something that was actually done by the right. Evidently fantasies of glory are far more important to some people than the actual soldiers who get hacked up to fulfil them. I'd like to say something sufficiently outraged about this, but words fail me.

Comments:
Okay, you've sold me. I wasn't going to see Son of Rambow, but now I want to.
 
Yeah, it surprised me. I expected something like one of those Arnold Schwarzenegger kiddie comedies; actually, it was a lot subtler and sweeter - as well as funnier.
 
I get the feeling that while I like Rambo more than you do, our feelings for it stem from having pretty much the same views on it.

I was trying to think of an example to disprove your assertion that when someone breaks the law as flagrantly as they do when Stallone plays them, real America crucifies them whereas fictional America hires them... but the best I could do was Kevin Mitnick. And archetypally speaking, he's less a brutal barbarian than a dark wizard, so the Oliver North Action Movie would distrust him from the get.
 
Well, school shooters leap to mind: young men who, for one reason or another, consider themselves pushed too far, grab guns and kill lots of people. Those guys tend to get called the death of civilisation. I'm not sure what 'crucifying' someone involves - do you mean making media villains of them? Or just sending them to prison? In any case, murder tends to get you jailed, Rambo or not.

I don't know if there's an exact analogy, because I can't think of any cases of actual war veterans declaring war on civilians - or at least, not in America. Veterans are vulnerable to mental illnesses, but, with the exception of personality disorders, which aren't combat-caused, mentally ill people in general are statistically less violent than the mentally well. Veterans are not getting the care they need right now, (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7357909.stm, for instance) but I haven't heard of any of them aiming guns at anyone but themselves. The fact that vets are killing themselves at a rate of eighteen a day, and the US government not treating this as a national crisis that deserves tremendous resources and, perhaps, a rethink on the whole wantonly-sending-them-out-to-be-destroyed policy, suggests a certain tendency to regard such people as expendable. It's crucifixion by neglect rather than by vilification, but it's still disgraceful.

But then, the character of Rambo is a fantasy soldier rather than a real soldier, so the military aspect isn't entirely applicable. I think there was a case of an ex-soldier in Russia who holed up in the woods and shot anyone who came near, but I can't remember his name off-hand - my boyfriend told me the story, and he's not here to ask just now... I'll try to find some information on him if BF can remember the name. What I do recall, from the story, was that the man was eventually killed by a sniper. Which is pretty much what you'd expect, if someone wouldn't stop shooting at you.
 
he was minding his own business when some bastard started getting in his face, and drove him into lashing out. The desperation with which he does so out has horrendous consequences: now he's in even more trouble. 'I didn't do anything!' he wails from the rock-face,

This is also a recurring theme for Marvel Comics' Incredible Hulk -- especially in phases where he doesn't revert to human form, his cry of "Hulk Smash!" is often preceded by "stupid humans won't leave Hulk alone!" (When he does revert, that gets replaced by Banner's "you wouldn't like me when I'm angry".)
 
Thank you for this! I noticed the shift from left wing to right wing in the first Rambo movie, but I'd always been confused as to why. It's so incoherent, politically. Though I suppose there are a lot of people whose view of life makes no more ideological sense--humans reacting "inconsistently" or "illogically" is our wont.

Be violent enough, and you will be a hero, because violence is what heroes do.

This this this. A sadly all-too-common unacknowledged assumption that you and Bellatrys and possibly Fred Clark have discussed before. Strength/masculinity/violence/heroism get conflated into one thing, when really they aren't at all, and that does a great disservice to real people trying to navigate their own real non-cinematic lives.
 
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