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Donnelly, Ashley Minix.
Blank power :
b the social and political criticism of blank fiction and cinema
h [electronic resource] /
by Ashley Minix Donnelly.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 153 pages.
Dissertation (Ph.D.)--University of South Florida, 2008.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic dissertation) in PDF format.
ABSTRACT: This dissertation explores a style of literature known as "blank" fiction that became popular in the United States in the mid-1980s, focusing on its stark, limited form, its minimal plots, its focus on commodification, and its scenes of graphic violence. The author presents the argument that filmmakers were producing pieces of cinema during the same time period that are similar in both form and content to the works of blank fiction. These films are a part of a style she labels "blank" cinema. Blank fiction and cinema are politically charged and highly critical of the social and political situation in America during the time in which they are produced. The authors and filmmakers producing blank works interrogate issues of social irresponsibility, rampant consumerism, and the global domination of capitalist values. Blank artists frequently criticize the perpetuation of such issues by the dominating power of white, middle- and upper-class men. The serial killer figure is used by many to represent the "unexamined" threat of those in power. The use of popular culture references and marketing tags are ubiquitous in blank fiction and film, and it is through the use of such signs that blank artists show their audiences that the power of those that traditionally control cultural ideologies in America can be manipulated and controlled by anyone, thus giving power to those who may have traditionally felt powerless and submissive to the dominant ideologies of American culture.
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Advisor: Phillip J. Sipiora, Ph.D.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
Blank Power: The Social and Political Criticism of Blank Fiction and Cinema by Ashley Minix Donnelly A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement s for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Phillip J. Sipiora, Ph.D. Victor E. Peppard, Ph.D. Michael W. Clune, Ph.D. Margit Grieb, Ph.D. Date of Approval: November 7, 2008 Keywords: violence, serial killer commodification, Reagan, ideology Copyright 2008 Ashley M. Donnelly
Dedication For Mom and Dad and their love and suppo rt, for my amazing furry children and their unconditional affection, and for Mike who has made my life more wonderful than I could have ever imagined.
Acknowledgments In addition to my deep gratitude to my committee members for their time and effort, I would like thank Dr. Carol Watts and Dr. Esther Leslie at Birkbeck College, London: Dr. Watts for her introduc tion to Annesley and blank fiction and Dr. Leslie for her introduction to the Fr ankfurt School and directions to Londons best Marxist bookstore. I am also grateful to Dr. Ken M illard at the University of Edinburgh for the time and patience he o ffered as he got me started on this dissertation. I also must specifically thank Dr. Phillip Sipioras rogue cinema course, for without it, I never would have developed my interest in disturbing film. I also offer my thanks to Dr. Gregg Bachman at the University of Tampa who convinced me that there really were jobs available teaching things I love (like creepy cinema). And, finally, I must acknowledge Lee Davidson for her consistent leg work that helped me complete this project on time and Elisabeth Nevins Caswell for her magnificent knowledge of gramma r and MLA citations. Thank you!
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Chapter 1: Introduction 1 Signs of Power 2 Blankness, Violence, and Power 7 Project Overview 11 Chapter 2: Historical Context 17 Reagans America 17 Culture and the New Right 28 Chapter 3: Blankness 43 Blank Fiction 45 Less Than Zero 56 Blank Cinema 69 Full Metal Jacket 74 Chapter 4: The Serial Killer 89 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 99 American Psycho 111 Chapter 5: Conclusion 127 The Legacy of Blank Fiction and Cinema 128 Works Cited 142 Bibliography 150 About the Author End Page
ii Blank Power: The Social and Political Criticism of Blank Fiction and Cinema Ashley Minix Donnelly Abstract This dissertation explores a style of lit erature known as blank fiction that became popular in the United States in the mid-1980s, focusing on its stark, limited form, its minimal plots, its fo cus on commodification, and its scenes of graphic violence. The author presents the argument that filmmakers were producing pieces of cinema dur ing the same time period that are similar in both form and content to the works of blank fiction. These fi lms are a part of a style she labels blank cinema. Blank fiction and cinema are politically charged and highly critical of the social and political situation in America during the time in which they are produced. The authors and filmmakers pr oducing blank works interrogate issues of social irresponsibility, rampant c onsumerism, and the gl obal domination of capitalist values. Blank ar tists frequently criticize the perpetuation of such issues by the dominating power of white, middleand upper-class men. The serial killer figure is used by many to represent the unexamined threat of those in power. The use of popular culture references and marketing tags are ubiquitous in blank fiction and film, and it is through the use of such signs that blank artists show their audiences that the power of t hose that traditionally control cultural
iii ideologies in America can be manipulated and controlled by anyone, thus giving power to those who may have traditionally felt powerless and submissive to the dominant ideologies of American culture.
1 Chapter 1: Introduction The study of blank fiction and blank ci nema is crucial to the understanding of the discourse of power in contemporary U.S. culture. Blank novels and films, characterized by their simplistic plots, undeveloped characters, choppy narration, reliance on popular cultural references, and depictions of graphic sexuality and/or violence, are formulated to appear superficially (in the sense that they are a part of popular media with similar tones and pl ot lines) like the best-selling novels or Hollywood blockbusters of their Reagan-era time period. Critical examination, however, reveals that these works of fi ction and cinema mock the superficiality of the works on which they are based. The blank style incorporates the symbols and signs associated with mass culture in an attempt to manipulate the discourse of power, particularly through its representations of violence. The work that follows argues that t hough fiction is the only form of art that critics have thus far labeled as blank, there are filmmakers who produced works during the same time period that are sim ilar in both form and function and that these works should therefore be labeled as blank cinema. I also argue that these blank forms are representative of a moveme nt in the arts that began in the mid1980s that was specifically crit ical of the social and political situation of its time. I begin by discussing what I mean by the di scourse of power and signs of popular culture. Following my theoretical discussion, I offer a brief historical analysis of
2 the Reagan years in order to inform the arguments I make regarding blank arts social and political criticism. Finally, I present an in-depth ex ploration of four major works of blank fiction and film that will help explicate my overall argument. Signs of Power Power is a complicated term with endless connotations. For the purpose of this project, I will refer to power as that which implies the possession of ability to wield force, authority, or substantial in fluence. To have power means to have the ability to control. This control, how ever, need not necessarily be negative or oppressive. As Michel Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality power is as productive as it is repressive; it is multi-faceted and omnipresent. Power is everywhere and working in all directions (93). He criticizes the "juridicodiscursive" conception of pow er, arguing that not all power is intended to restrict or repress. As my discussion of ideol ogical discourse owes a great deal to Foucaults conception of the di scourse of sexuality, it is from his definition of power that I draw my own. What is most important to understand about power in relation to the study of contemporary forms of cultural expression is the relationship between power and ideology. Karl Marxs basic model for underst anding societal structures and human relations is the base and superstructure model. Fundamentally, the base represents the basic, economic platform on which a society is structured. The superstructure consists of laws, politi cs, and other ruling ideals that deal with
3 maintaining the basic economic structure. The superstructure also consists of concepts like religion, morals, ethics, and culture. Marx called the formations within the superstructure ideol ogy. According to Adam Roberts, ideology for Marx is defined as: false consciousness, a set of belie fs that obscured the truth of the economic basis of society and the violent oppression that capitalism necessarily entails. Various people believe various things: for instance that the fact that some people are rich and some people are poor is natural and inevitable; or that black people are inferior. The purpose of these beliefs, according to Marx, is to obscure the truth. People who believe these things are not going to challenge or even rec ognize the inequalities of wealth in society, and so are not going to want to change them. (19) Ideology, as it will be defined for the purpose of this work, is that set of beliefs, or way of seeing, which appears to us to be u niversal or natural but which is in fact the product of the specific power structures that co nstitute our society. It is a collection of beliefs held by a group that shape their actions. Ideological beliefs can be moral, ethical, political philosophical, or religious. Marxs concept of ideology has shaped many critical thinkers understanding of cultural ideology. This basic hypothesis has been refined and developed by critics over time, but understanding the fundamental defi nition is crucial to the reading of other critics like Louis Althusser, Theodor Adorno, Frederic Jameson, and Jean Baudrillard.
4 French critic Althussers contribution to the concept of ideology and power is important to discuss as it will inform my ow n critical response to the ideology of popular culture in general. Althusser rec ognizes what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses, or ISAs, t he types of ideals ingrained in subjects consciousness from birth and the types of ideals, like la ws, that infiltrate schools, politics, and cultural representations, which reinforc e the power of thos e controlling the economic structural base. The foundational concept of ISAs relate to the works of critics like Theodor Adorno, who atta cked mass culture on the grounds that it was used to control the ideology of t he masses. Jazz and Hollywood cinema, for example, products of the culture industry, held for Adorno the threat of escapist fantasy, which distracted citizens from recognizing their realities and working toward a better system. These escapi st fantasies are filled, arguably, with Althussers ISAs. Fredric Jameson, whose work on t he waning of affect and loss of historicity helps inform a large portion of this overall project, is typically wary of totalizing philosophies, but his conceptualiz ation of postmodernism, is, in effect, totalizing. He is usually seen as a Hegel ian Marxist, an inherito r of the traditions of Lukacs and Adorno and more or less hos tile to an Althusserian approach (Adams 16). However, Jameson does follow Althussers concepts on seeing ideology not just as false-consciousness, but as the structures of thought and feeling that define us as citizens of late capitalist society (36). Jameson, though typically hostile to the totalizing aspects of Althusserian Marxism, argues in his 1992 work, The Geopolitical Aesthetic that as citizens of late capitalist society,
5 our own concept of our ideological syst em is already soaked and saturated in ideology (2). Jamesons belief that as products of a system we are unable to fully act against the ideological system without being a part of it informs his theories of lack of critical distance and the waning of affect. For Jameson, it is impossible to function outside of the realm of the ideological from which we have developed, implying a systemat ic acceptance of Althusse rs ISAs. I argue that Jamesons view is unnecessarily negative a nd that blank art actually functions as a voice against ISAs, without the implication of being inherently ideologically supportive of the dominant base powers. French critic Jean Baudrillards work is in many ways aligned with Jamesons, in that Baudrillards work on the simulacrum is incorporated into Jamesons theory of the logic of pos tmodernism. Baudrillards concept of hyperreality is clearly echoed in Jamesons 1991 text. Understanding his approach to ideology will help develop my argument of blank arts approach to ideological manipulatio n. While Marx believed that production was the basis of social order, Baudrillard, in the 1960s, proposed the argument that consumption was actually the basis of social order. He argues that today its not just about controlling the codethe process of signification. The elite are not separated from the rabble by purchasing power al one, but by their exclusive access to signsand by being at the top end (Horro cks 61). This argument suggests that the initial base/superstruct ure model is outdated and t hat Jamesons branch model, in which he implies a relianc e on an economic base for modes and relations of production but a semiautonomous relationship with aspects like
6 culture and law, requires, to th e degree that it depends upon production, not consumption, updating as well. I believe that though the economic is foundational to the structure of a cult ures ideology, signs of power are not necessarily controlled by modes of produc tion but can in fact be manipulated by products of culture, like mainstream cinema. I argue, drawing upon Baudrillards theor y that power is related not to the use of signs but to their control, that the model we should now assume in late capitalist society is a cyclical model. Ba sing my concept on Marxs initial model and on Althussers concept of ISAs, I argue that whoever holds control over the production of signs of power is able to influence an overall superstructure of ideology. If, as Adorno suggests, the images on Hollywood screens of wealth and privilege are ther e to distract and to reinforce the image of power being held by few, and if, as Baudrillard suggests, being able to consume is not enough for true power, then who holds the power? The power lies in the production of signs. By trying to take control over the use of signs of power, blank artists represent a new ideal of power and a new model on which to base the production of ideology. It is the actual production of the works themselves, in their entirety, that produces affect and presents the public with the notion that both the superstructure and the base of contemporary culture can be altered by popular artists.
7 Blankness, Violence, and Power Blank fiction and cinema incorporate into their narratives an emphasis on actual, tangible signs of power. For example, Bret Easton Elliss and Jay McInerneys novels focus on individuals with inherited wealth and social status, whose privilege and prosperity enable them the purchasing power to display products, like their designer clothing or designer drugs habits, and engage in activities, like eating expensive meals at exclusive restaurants, that visually imply their social power. Stanley Kubricks character Joker in Full Metal Jacket stands out amongst his fellow soldiers because of his obviously advantageous intellect and education, both symbols of power. T he serial killers and perpetrators of violence in films like The Rivers Edge and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer display power through physical dominance. However, as Baudrillard suggests, simply displaying an ability to purchase or possess signs of power is not enough to actually control power in contemporar y late capitalism. What the authors and filmmakers of blank works produce thr ough their characters possession of such signs is art that is able to interr ogate those individuals who, through our systematic ideological conditi oning, seemingly control power. By showing us the madness of characters like Patri ck Bateman, as Ellis does in American Psycho he allows an entire audience of people to see that the superficial control of signs of power does not necessarily mean that those who possess those signs deserve
8 to maintain actual power. This exposur e to the madness of those with traditional means of power also shows audiences that writers, directors, and other artists whose intent is to address issues of so cial and political concern can themselves manipulate signs of power. This intent, at its most optimistic, could encourage social revolution and inspire those subjugat ed by traditional ideologies of power to address their concerns to the bas e of society and change the standard ISAs. Blank fiction and cinema, in additi on to their use and interrogation of tangible signs of power, reveal the controlling power of violence in culture. The controlling power of violence has transfo rmed over thousands of years from a divine right mandated by rule by the likes of emperors or kings over the lives and/or deaths of those they ruled to a systematic necessity of prolonging the life of the many and dictating t he death of few. Foucault argues that the West has undergone, since the classical age, a prof ound transformation of mechanisms of power from a sovereigns power over life and death to a new system of power over a right to death (136). This death, he suggests, that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life (136). He appl ies his concept of right to death using examples of the states ideas of warfar e, the death penalty, and suicide. This bio-power was without a question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the la tter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes (141) The binding of power and contro l over death, much like the power associated with
9 societys development and the discourse of sexuality, creates a structure in which the ultimately personal human experience of death becomes a part of a collective ideology. This collective i deology suggests control over death by those in power, which suggests that submission to such powers will make death both logical and potentially unavoidable. By claiming responsibility for the preservation of life, t he implication is then that there is some control over death. In terms of ISAs, from childhood, those in contempor ary American culture are taught ways to avoid accident, avoid illne ss, and avoid trauma. Our culture is obsessed with prevention, ce rtain that diseases, perversion, and accidents can be avoided or obliterated through law, order, and other forms of socially controlling power. Thus popular depictio ns of violence in culture become increasingly important. The omnipresence of violence in contemporary culture serves as a messenger that reinforces a collective i deology of the import ance of life over death. Images of violence, in a culture in which those in power seemingly have the ability to control death and preserve life, become further sharpened tools of didacticism. When the popular news media, which has become increasingly sensationalized and graphic over time, presents news of violence, the questions are always: Why did this happen? Who is responsible? and How could this be prevented? Killers are profiled and t heir reasons for murdering explained. Accidents are investigated to assign blame or identify mistakes. Images of war are, as they have always been, presented with bias and rationalization. Horror films become clichs: The victims are easily identified, the perpetrators explored,
10 deconstructed, and explained. Public reactions to crime and disaster are captured in sound bites, and Baudrillards theory of hyperreality, a reality in which the unreal of production replaces the rea lity of existence, seems unavoidable as the world becomes more media saturated and we standardized our reactions to and rationalizations for death. The mediation of disaster, for example, transfers the emotional and p sychological experience of those intimately involved in a tragedy to the masses. Although we may have not been present at a school shooting or at Ground Zero, the saturation of media images in our lives molded our response in a way that we would not have constructed it ten, twenty, or a hundred years ago. To see the reaction of those who were there, for example, may also arguably contribute to the way we construct our own responses to tragedy, even if this construction occurs only on a subconscious level. The hyperreality of depictions of violence affe cts our most basic, emotional responses to trauma. Blank art, however, interferes with t he notions that death is controllable, explicable, and best left to t hose with power. Blank ar t challenges notions of control and bio-power in general, presenting unusual de pictions of war, as Kubrick does with Full Metal Jacket ; exploring the reactions of humans to trauma, as Ellis does in both American Psycho and Less Than Zero ; interrogating the medias response to death, as McInerney does in Bright Lights, Big City ; and challenging the notion of the murderous Other as McNaughton does in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Blank fictions and films use of graphic violence takes control away from socially construc ted ideals of power and death and forces
11 audiences to confront their individual r eactions to the presence of violence in society. What I hope to prove with the follo wing project is that by taking control of the discourse of violence in their wo rk, blank artists are enabling audiences to confront the accepted forms of power that surround them, to see through the ideology of a right to death, and to c hallenge the unexami ned nature of those wielding power in the United States. Project Overview Human interest in understanding violence is universal. Theorists within the humanities, policymakers in governm ents around the world, and social scientists, for example, all attempt to explore the causality of violence, its attraction, and its impact on di fferent members of their society. To attempt to produce a new exploration of violence and cu lture is to enter into an already crowded academic arena, one in which great minds like Gandhi, Freud, and Foucault have already contributed groundbreaking ideas. The study of violence, however, is one that can continuously evolve and develop, and therefore new explorations of violence and culture must be produced. The discourse surrounding violence, like, according to Foucault, that surroundi ng sexuality, is one that represents the shifting power stru ctures of mainstream society. The way violence is presented wit hin a culture shows us what is acceptable, what is Other, what is threatening, and what is expected. The followin g chapters explore these concepts by identifying the use of vi olence in particular forms of American
12 literature and cinema from 1984 to roughly 1992. They discuss how violence is presented within this cultural context and for what purpose. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan first came to power, America was still dealing with the psychic damage that came with watching our troops fight a long, bloody, painful war on television. Vietnam Watergate, the Iran hostage situation, and the uncertain trailing off of the unify ing power of the Civil Rights Movement left citizens distrustful, demoralized, and, to some extent, apathe tic. The cure for our collective ills it seems, according to an examination of popular, cultural norms, came in the form of a happy, posit ive government headed by an ex-actor who was convinced that if Mikhail Gorbachev could simply see the U.S. suburbs by air, he would renounce communism. Patriotism reigned, and America was once again considering itself a nation of winners. As the Reagan era blossomed, so came the death of such movements as the punk scene and its associated violent art and demonstrative rage. In its place sprang a new kind of popular music rooted in technology and a new romanticism. The pop art world flourished, and films relied on classi c horror tropes and the angst of teen romance. Art in all forms became even more commodified,1 and money trumped social criticism when it came to artistic inspiration. The debate over the purity of artistic expression has, of course been heated for thousands of years, but as 1 Commodification or reification is essentially t he fetishization of products. In a capitalist society, nearly everything can be assigned a monetary or exchange value. Adam Schaff, in his 1980 text Alienation as a Social Phenomenon looks at commodification in late capitalism and offers this more precise explanation: In the system of commodity exchange, where everything, including people, their capabilities and talents, etcetera, becomes a commodity, there is a tendency, not only to treat everything as a commodity, i.e. as something which is bought and sold; but since things are commodities, there is also a tendency to endow everything with the nature of things, to reification.
13 technology developed, so too did the reific ation of artistic expression, leading to visual, literary, and musical pieces dependent more upon duplication and mass production than on the individualistic endeavor of the artist. As theorists like Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard witnessed the seeming abolishment of critical discourse in cultur e, they decried the loss of af fect, citing technology, late capitalism, and the loss of originality as reasons for a populace immersed in hyperreality, alienated and forced to exist in a society surrounded by culture steeped in superficiality and depthlessness. The popular psychology concept of de-sensitization is frequently offer ed as an explanation for the increasing violence in film and television or as a wa y of excusing the rates of violent crime in American culture. It is th rough an examination of the po pularity of this idea that one could argue that society has decided t hat Jameson is correct: We are so divorced from centered selves and c onstructed ideas of subjectivity (the construction of the bourgeois ego) that it is nearly im possible for us to respond in an emotionally correct manner to st imuli. If one acce pts the theory of Jamesons waning of affect, then it is arguable that we need a constant barrage of high-impact stimuli in order to feel anything at all, and this progression is how cultural products lose thei r individual affect. Although much of the cult ure of the mid-1980s works well as a reflection of these theories, emerging alongside the fiction of Stephen King and the Freddie Kruger films was a style of fiction and a style of cinema that conflicts with the idea that all postmodern culture suffered from this waning of affect. The authors of what has now become known as blank fi ction (a stark, atonal style of writing
14 with minimal plots and excessive referenc es to popular culture), such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, and di rectors, whose films such as Full Metal Jacket and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer incorporate many of the same attributes of this style of fiction, were creating art that was sca thingly critical not just of the style of art being produced during this ti me period but also of the social, political, and economic forces that led to its production. These novels and films, I argue, are not like the other cultural products of the time, with the intention to stimulate and nothing more. Such novelists and filmmakers mock the shallow, tawdry style of their contemporarie s, but the subtext of their work is rich in an effort to tap into the political unc onscious, as Fredric Jameson names it, of its audience. The following chapters explore how authors and directors produce work that challenges the theory of the waning of affect in po stmodern culture. Ellis, for example, does so by using a literary st yle that openly mocks the rhetoric of the Reagan era with its use of catch phr ases, brand names, and reliance on empty signs. The content of his novels, like Less Than Zero and American Psycho explores the lives of those living the decadent lifestyle encouraged in Western late-market capitalism, interrogating the amorality2 of the characters and problematizing the readers ow n consumption and lack of ac tion. The violence of his characters is met with apathy all ar ound, by perpetrators and victims alike, forcing the notion of inappr opriate emotional response to the forefront of his 2 For the purpose of this project, I will use the terms amoral an d amorality to suggest a state between morality and immorality, implying a posit ion that neither consents to nor condones the actions of others. The concept of the amoral st ance that I will present is one that aims for a position of neutrality that m any might call apathetic.
15 work. The violence in Kubricks Full Metal Jacket does the same thing. In response to the onslaught of popular Viet nam War films that helped turn the war from a violent, devastating historical event into a geographically marginal conflict, a war flattened and emptied out to a basic layer of violence, mixed in with popular culture and TV (Roberts 132) Kubricks cinematic techniques create a film that emphasiz es humanity and then the i nhumane destruction of this humanity in war. His unusual approach to violence within this war film suggests criticism not just of the genre of war films but of the social response to the actual war in Reagans America. This point will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 3. Blank fiction novelists and their c ounterpoints in cinema make use of a particular kind of violent figure in their wo rk: the serial killer, whom I discuss in Chapter 4. The serial kill er gained celebrity status in 1980s culture, and artists, through works such as American Psycho and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were able to incorporate this figure of evil into their own work in order to criticize the unexamined nature of white, male power in America, as well as the nations apathy toward issues of social concern and the glorification of violence. In order to support the overall argument that bl ank fiction aims for a manipulation of signs and for a shift in power, I will prove that blank fiction and cinema are critically aware of their historical location, t hat they do not suffer from a loss of historicity, and that they can use their aw areness of their social, economic, and political situation to shape bo th the form and content of their work as a means of affecting the political unconscious of their audiences. This
16 argument is offered in a ccordance with Jamesons 1981 The Political Unconscious in which he emphasizes the impor tance of both form and content on a works political message, but it cont rasts with his concept of the waning of affect presented in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In Chapter 5, I will discuss the legacy of the work from this time period, identifying trends and new culturally icon ic works that borrow and stem from the groundbreaking work of the midto late1980s. I will explore how works such as Joyce Carol Oatess Zombie Sherman Alexies Indian Killer Michael Hanekes Funny Games and the Coen brothers interpretation of No Country for Old Men incorporate the blank style into their own personal styles and what social and political relevance this extension of bl ank work has in contemporary American fiction and cinema.
17 Chapter 2: Historical Context Reagans America Blank fiction and cinema began to em erge in 1984, amidst the beginning of the second term of Ronald Reagans presidential admini stration. In order to fully understand the social and political impact of blank art and its style in particular, it is crucial to understand the st ate of the United Stat es during this time period. In the following chapter, I will present an argument that explores why Reagan was able to ingratiate himself so thoroughly with the American populace and how the key issues of his presidency affected culture in the United States. In America, the 1980s were referr ed to as the Reagan Era even before Reagan left office in 1989. This dec ade, memorable and outstanding in the collective American psyche, saw econom ic reform and peacetime prosperity unseen for decades; a change-over from a manual, manufacturing stronghold in the workforce to computer-based, technol ogical jobs dominating the employment market; and the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Presiding over the countr y during all of these event s was President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was popular and well-loved by many, leaving office with a 70 percent approval rating (Pemberton xiv). Yet he also had many critics. People accused him of being a detached, superfi cial, and ineffective delegator who
18 focused on general ideas rather than specific details. Joseph Dewey, in his text Novels from Reagans America accuses Reagan of having plastered over the cracks of real life in the 1980s rather than having solved the nations problems and of presenting a fun, happy fiction to the American people rather than doing the work of a real politician. He argues that the Reagan Era began with the conviction that we had reached a critical point of exhaustionthat we needed a break, we needed to play (Dewey 9). De wey believes that the best way to understand Reagan is with the im age of a corporation in mind, one that offers a product used for escapist relaxation. The best way to approach Reagan, he postulates, is to say that: Reagan (like Disney imagineers or lik e any of the innovators of the postmodern novel) is profitably approached as a proprietor, a benevolent monomaniac who directed pleasure and coaxed happiness from a willing audience by creating a self-contained, structurally intricate totalized zone (Reagans America), an alternate world wholly apart from the press and confusion of the real world, not an illusion or a myth but rather a seductive world apart that we visited, whose immedi acy (like that of a theme park) we felt comfortably surrounding us, a fantastic-real that succeeded only with our full awareness of its ar tificiality, our complicity to accept that potently fraudulent zone as authenticor, more precisely, as authentic enough. (9)
19 In this quotation, Dewey, with an obvious debt to Baudrillards comments on Disneyland and America, compares Reagans America to a t heme park, arguing that Reagan, rather than being a politici an, was rather continuing his acting career whilst in office. His leadership helped America fantasize and temporarily escape its real problems, and it made the populace f eel good about themselves and their country through their suspension of disbelief. How did an ageing, storytelling, former Hollywood B-movie actor come to be the most powerful leader in the world? What did America need at the end of the 1970s that Ronald Reaga n provided? Although no precise answer can be found, the following points, derived from Reagan followers as well as his critics, offer a general consensus of key reas ons for Reagans initial 1980 election. Understanding the mindset of the country that embraced him will help shape an understanding of the voices of dissent in blank works. More than anything else, it seems, R eagans ability to ingratiate the voters and present them with his golden vision of America laid the foundation for his rise to political power. There are hundreds of books written about Ronald Reagan and his political administration, books that cover everything from his personal life to the finer points of Reaganomics, and many stress the indubitable appeal of his charismatic personality. A typical description of Americas reaction to the man sounds much like this: an America yearning for reassuranc e about its place in the world invested great faith in a Hollywo od actor turned politician and suspended judgment on his leadership in the hope that his promise
20 would be realized. At a time when Americans desperately wanted to believe again, Reagan presented himself as the political wizard whose spell made everyone feel good (Johnson 14). The many books written on this administr ation offer varying opinions of Reagans personality and his policies, but a surp rising number of authors agree on one thing: the value of Reagans vision of America and its future. Reagan worked hard during his campaign: to present a vision of Americawhat it had been, what it could be, what it would someday be again. It was a powerful and remarkably consistent vision [and] it resonated with the voters, for one simple reason: it was their vision too, a vision based on the traditions of our country and on the application of some fairly basic rules of common sense. That outlook, and the issues that comprised it, were the very essence of Ronald Reagan as a political leader (Meese 10). Reagans ability to communicate and connect with the public led to his moniker, The Great Communicator (Liebovich 127). His acting training and genuinely sincere manner enabled him to draw in his audience in an almost majestic way. Lou Cannon, in his biography of the president, Reagan said that quite simply, many of Reagans followers just liked to hear him talk (14). Whilst campaigning, instead of layi ng out a laundry list of promises, he described his vision of Americ as future (Pemberton 86):
21 Exuding sincerity as he read his skillf ully crafted speeches into the TV camera, Reagan brilliantly articulated and wove into a cohesive whole the amorphous fears and longings of millions of Americans. Just as Franklin D Roosevelt was the first president to master the trick of effective radio communicati on, so Reagan was the first to exploit television to t he fullest (Boyer 15). This feel good system was deceptively simp listic. Its roots went deep into the collective American mythology of our countrys ideological system, and By identifying himself and his policies with traditions, values and circumstances that had great appeal, Reagan guaranteed the popular ity of his administration (Dilys 17). Voters were drawn to his idealism, patriotism, and resolute anticommunism (Cannon 14). He declared in every speech his loyalty to five simple words: neighborhood, family, work peace and freedom (Boyer 109). In addition to his general vision of Americas future, Reagans platform held appeal for many voters, particularly white, middle-cla ss men, those who owned businesses, and those involved in defense. He attacked a ffirmative action on the grounds that it violated American principles of equal treatment of all i ndividuals (Pemberton 85), and he denounced the welfare state by in sinuating fraud, waste, and abuse. Indeed, Federal welfare problems have created a massive social problem, he insisted. Government cr eated a poverty trap that wreaks havoc on the very support system the poor most need to lift t hemselves out of povertythe family (Mills 19). He lobbied for tax cuts, parti cularly for the middle and upper classes, as well as for incentives for businesses. Furthermore, Internationally, Reagan
22 preached militant anticommuni sm. On the rhetorical plane, at any rate, he summoned America to an Armageddon struggl e against atheistic communism [and] to back up the tough talk he call ed foran gotmassive increases in military spending (Boyer 15). It appears as though Reagan was certain th at Americas problems were in existence merely as a result of poor leader ship and that with solid social policies, strong resolve, and good leadership, the c ountry would triumph. He believed The country and its basic values were as sound as ever. If our nation adopted proper policies [we] could reve rse the record of decline in both domestic and foreign affairs (Meese xv). Tr ying to pinpoint the political specifics of Reagans platform, beyond his patriotic, anticommunist rhetor ic, is extremely difficult. Researching his political cam paign uncovers a large void in place of detailed aspects on legisl ation and party views. Reagan entered into the 1980 president ial election able to exploit the failures and misgivings of the previous decades leadership. The scandal of Nixons administration made Reagans genial, sincere manner even more appealing. The disaster of the Vietnam War and Carters failures in the Iran hostage crisis made his call to restore Americas pride and public image the perfect antidote to the pain the country was feeling. His call for tax cuts, business incentives, and cuts in social program spending resounded like bells in the ears of Americans plagu ed by inflation and wides pread unemployment. It seemed to be agreed that image was crucial because we needed to see ourselves afresh. Getting rich was justifi ed because it left the nation better off.
23 Cutting aid to the poor was humane because welfare hurt initiative (Mills 13). The threat of communist power and the in crease in terror attacks on American interests meant that Reagans call for increased military spending made the populace feel safe again: Reagans principled stance was that of a resolute and proud nation which would reverse the dangerous weaknesses and unpreparedness of the Carter admini stration. America would again walk tall in the world. This was a favourite Reagan theme in the presidential campaign of 1980. In par t, it was an attempt to exploit the frustrations and resentments at a decade in which the United States had lost a war, in which the presidency had been discredited and in which there was a general sense of malaise and decline (Boyer 17). Reagans economic platform is one, if not the only, aspect of his 1980 campaign platform that can be discuss ed in grounded detail. His economic proposals were based on supply-side economics: Supply-side proponents advocated a huge cut in marginal income taxes, embodied in legislation sponsored by Representative Jack Kemp (Rep., N.Y.) and Senator Willia m V. Roth Jr. (Rep., Del.) that would cut personal taxes 80 percent over three years. Supply-side activists had deep faith in the dynamics of capitalism and in the self-regulating power of the free marketplace. Some supply-siders believed that the dramatic tax cut would so unleash the power
24 inherent in the capitalist economy that it would quickly lead to an increase in tax revenue (Pemberton 96). This economic boom of R eaganomics, as his economic plan became known, sparked a renewed love of spending in the moneyed classes in America. It also left a legacy known as Reagans revenge, plaguing the George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton presidencies with huge budget and trade defic its. Reagan, however, achieved what he wanted, which was an ups urge of consumer-related bliss in the shape of a nicely packaged, relatively qui ck (albeit flimsy and te mporary) fix to the countrys stagnated economy: The Reagan administration c onquered the inflation half of stagflation at the cost of the deepest recession since the 1930s. The subsequent recovery after 1982 covered up a number of problems [including] the record budget and trade deficits; an unprecedented increase in consum ption expenditures and a decline in savings; a tragic deferral of infrastructure maintenance; the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy with a consequent growth of a two-tiered wage system; and grow th of an underclass of poor trapped inside the lowest wage sect ors of the economy or pushed outside the economy, frequently hun gry and homeless (Wilber 7). The blame for what many see as the negative results of many of his economic policies cannot solely be placed on his administration, but rather, as economists suggest, the decisions made had their roots in the U.S. economic history of the previous twenty years, in the unwillingness to deal with these
25 changes in the 1970s, and in the unwillingne ss to admit their existence in the 1980s (Wilber 7). And though many argue that his economic decisions were problematic in the long term, Reagans ec onomic plans, like his rhetoric in general, inspired confidence in a large portion of the American populace. Arguably, the political and econo mic platform on which Reagan campaigned in 1980 could have been used by any Republican candidate, not because of the specific legislation on which Reagan cam paigned, but rather because what Reagan was doing was offe ring policies that the democratic governments before him had not been willing or able to offer the American public: On the list of reasons for Ronal d Reagans triumph in 1980, the economic mess of the 1970s probably stands at the top. This mess was no mere reflection of the intellectual or personal weaknesses of Reagans predecessors. It repres ented a long-term crisis of our economic system the United St ates enjoyed economic growth with little inflation for most of th e 1950s and 1960s due to uniquely favourable, temporary circum stances. Changes in these circumstances in the late s and early s led to the slower growth, higher unemployment and fast er inflation of [the 1970s and early 1980s]. Reaganomics [rested] on a shallow view of the crisis of the 1970s, one which scapego ats and misrepresents the complex role of government in the economy; and it [offered] only solutions that look worse t han the problems did (Ackerman x).
26 What brought Reagan to power was hi s ability to inspire the American people. He exploited the depression and insecurities left behind by previous administrations and came along at just the right time to help the nation out of its melancholy. A true patriot and animat ed storyteller, Reagan had the populace believing that America really was the best place in the world and that all of its problems could be made better thr ough his positive leadership: In embracing Reagan, millions of citizens were also embracing a vision of America that seemed increasingly jeopardized by social change, economic transformation, and world upheaval. To give up on Reagan would have been to give up on the vision, and few were prepared to do so (Boyer 17). The 1984 summer Olympics were symbolic of this hard-pressed desire to maintain domestic patriotism. After the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow games, the 1984 games in Los Angeles prov ed a frenzy of jingoistic, American ethnocentrism. Emerging from a recession and fuelled by heightening Cold War tensions, flag-waving citizens wore thei r countrys colors and reveled in the expensive, capitalist extravaganza that the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted on the grounds of chauvinistic sentim ents and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United St ates (Burns). America, cheered on by the Gipper, was a nation of winners once again. The bl ank artists of this same decade were able to mimic Reagans positivism and his structured rhetor ic and challenge the very issues that so many of the na tion were desperate to accept as true.
27 Reagans military stance wa s particularly important to the psyche of the nation, and blank works are able to exploit his military rhetoric, as I will discuss in Chapter 3. Although foreign policy was tr icky for the Reagan administration after Kennedys Bay of Pigs, the war in Viet nam, and Carters Iranian hostage crisis, staunch anti-communism fuelled public approval for his Star Wars program, the bombing of Libya, and the invasion of Gr enada. This war in Grenada, sparked by fears that communist-backed parties we re collaborating to build an airstrip on the tiny island nation, led the United States (and the powerhouses of Jamaica and Barbados) to invade the islands and fr ee it from its new leadership under Maurice Bishop. The invasion began at 5:00 a.m. on October 25, 1983, and continued for several days. The total number of American troops reached some 7,000, along with 300 troops from the OECS. The invading forces encountered about 1,500 Grenadian soldiers and about 700 Cubans, most of whom were construction workers. Approximately 100 lives were lost. The maneuver, which disturbed even Margaret Thatcher ( 331), with whom the United States had been in ideological synch ever since she arrived in office, nonetheless won widespread domestic approval. The in vasion occurred two days after the bombing of the Beirut barracks of U.S. Marines and was the first major operation conducted by the U.S. military since t he Vietnam War, rendering its symbolic significance far greater than any spin rela ted to national security. The United States had finally won a military maneuver after Vietnam, and it made us all feel better.
28 On the home front, Reagan was waging another war. The war on drugs, which officially began in 1986, featured Nancy Reagan, who traveled the country telling teenagers to Just Say No. The ja rgon of her campaign mimicked the rest of the rhetoric of the Reagan era in its dismissive, superficial simplicity, addressing the symptoms of a social pr oblem with no direct contact with or discussion of its roots. The jargon of this period is particularly noteworthy, in that it is fully incorporated in the blank st yle and used to mock the overly simplistic answers that the Reagan administration was offering to difficult social problems. The crown jewel of Reagans time in o ffice was, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mikhail Gorbachev, leading a nation mired in economic difficulties, officially retreated from the arms race and, making several concessions to the United States and its Allies, began the processes that ended the Cold War in 1989. The leader of the communist superpow er rejected a race for world arms domination in favor of focusing on feedi ng and supporting the basic needs of his countrymen, which allowed Reagan to leav e office with his belief in American ideology unchallenged. Blank artists, however, produced work that forces audiences to question this same idealism. Culture and the New Right Before offering an in depth explorati on of blank fiction works, it is important to define the cult ural situation from which these works emerged. The Reagan and Thatcher administrations brought forth what scholars now call the new right era, a movement away from social democracy and a shift toward a
29 reliance on market forces rather t han government involvement in social structures and a foundat ional belief in the strength of a unified national image, Americanness in Reagans case, Englishne ss in Thatchers (During 12). This Thatcherism, as Stuart Hall has identif ied it, or Reaganism, as it can be defined for the purposes of this work, was founded on an inherent contradiction: To suggest that market forces rather than a centralized governmental force dictate a nations social structures invites transnational relationships and opens a country to both outside influences and the pr oblems of class struggle that would inevitably occur as the gap between rich and poor widened. Yet both administrations consistently hailed t he notion of a unified national appearance that scorned division and otherness in all forms, both internally (in terms of racial identity, sexual or ientation, or intellectual difference) and externally (ethnicity and cultural practice): New right appeals to popular values can be seen as an attempt to overcome this tension. In particular, the new right gives the family extraordinary value and an aura just because a society organized by market forces is one in whic h economic life expectations are particularly insecure. In t he same way, a homogenous image of national culture is celebrated and enforced to counter the dangers posed by the increasingly global nature of economic exchanges and wielding national economic divides (During 13). Encouraging and securing the faade of national unity despite the obviously divisive nature of their economic decision s, the supported cultur al expressions of
30 Reaganism and Thatcherism included depictions of hard working family life (in the US often oriented towards active Judeo-Christianity), organized through traditional family roles (During 13) and emphasized the threat of otherness present in those outside of this tradition. In a period following decades of fighting for womens liberation and civi l rights, this new era of cultural identification incorporated a significant shift in popular culture that centered on white, middleclass values and unapologetically incor porated the oppression of women, the working class, and people of color. As this work progresses and my di scussion of blank works becomes more involved, it is notable to remember that t he goal of the followin g chapters is not to suggest that there were no controversial, socially conscious American artists during the Reagan era beyond those specific ones explored in detail here. Art has always had the power to be dissiden t, and always will, and in every culture, there are remarkable men and women whose wo rk is powerfully critical of their society. In the 1980s, Cindy She rman was producing photographic art questioning the role of women in society, and Toni Morrison wrote Beloved, a literary masterpiece with the power to change conceptualizations of race relations. David Lynchs Blue Velvet is a film unsurpassed in its unique take on the deviance that exists beneath a bl and, suburban faade, and Spike Lees Do the Right Thing to this day sparks discussions about cultural attitudes toward race. The birth of the hip-hop movem ent in the late 1980s was an enormous accomplishment for black artists and an amazing response to the appalling treatment of inner-city populations and African Amer icans during Reagans drug
31 war years. What my work explores in particular, however, are popular arts (specifically, popular fiction and cinema) that are socially/politically subversive and scathingly critical but still able to function within mainstream culture. The focus of this work, as stated previously, is the fiction and f ilm of the 1980s that incorporated the superficial appearance of popular works but manipulated the material, producing a depth of criticism t hat the works on which it is modeled did not possess. There were many individual artists striving to make their voices heard above the rabble of typical cultural products, but none were truly able to band together to create t he kind of force that had exist ed in previous decades. The strength of bourgeois, commerc ialized art in all forms was an overwhelming force in Reagans America. A fter 1984, America, unlike in previous decades when it could boast the Harlem Renaissance or t he counter-culture hippie movement, lacked a strong cultural movement that wa s both socially and political responsible and powerful enough to gain widespr ead engagement and appreciation. American culture was quickly Reaganized, and commodification and selling power began to drive the cultural i ndustry more than ever before. An air of patriotism was not all that Reagan brought out in the American public. The 1980 inauguration ushered in a new era of opulence. Money was fashionable again, it seemed, and extravagance was expected. With the newly emerging technology sector booming, the young were experiencing unprecedented wealth. As the two-tiered wage system grew, and the discrepancy between the classes became more staggering and appalling, t he wealthy got wealthier, and with
32 Reagans optimism as their collectiv e mantra, the moneyed classes proudly displayed their status. This new status -based culture stood in stark contrast to the punk scene that was so popular in the late 1970s. When Reagan came to power in 1980, the American punk scene was in its prime. Young artists were working together to produce music, art, and literature that railed against the establishment. The California punk scene emerged with adolescents raging against the status quo of their suburban, middle-class parents. T he D.C. punk scene fought conformity, racism, and blandness. The New York punks st ruggled with artistic emptiness and commercialism. For many, drugs, sex, and violence were expressions of pent-up hostility and rage at the social and polit ical systems. For others, these acts represented disaffected youth searching for stimulation in what they saw as a banal world that alienated difference. The straight-edge mo vement, born from the hardcore punk movement, incorporated the ideals of the punk movement but expressed its dissatisfaction through abs tinence from alc ohol, drugs, and promiscuous sex. All of t hese expressions came from the same place, however, and as disturbing and different as this scene was to many in mainstream society, its popularity grew and its ideol ogy was widespread (Rachman). The punk movement was born as the positive energy of the Civil Rights Movement deteriorated. The folk art movements associated with the anti-war movement, the Black Arts Movement, and the political art of groups like the Black Panthers, as well as other socially consci ous art, lost their popular momentum as Disco was popularized and the economic pressures of the midto late-1970s
33 dominated American collective psyche. Punks rallied, creating a powerful force that came from individuals and independent arti sts. Records were made by adolescent rockers staying up all night with copy machines and Elmers glue, putting jackets together by hand, as the boys from Minor Threat spent hours doing. Performers like Black Flag and Bad Brains, writers like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, and visual artists like Jami e Reid and Winston Smith commandeered vacant spaces, parents houses, and low-re nt diners to take their art to the people. Themes of angst and rage at subur bia, motifs of physical violence and fighting, and a deep devotion to invention and independence characterized this deeply complex scene. It was a subversive movement that quickly gained a large following, very much like the subv ersive movements from which it was born. But by 1984, as most early punk artists agree, the movement was no longer the same. The independence and en ergy was gone, and its music, art, and literature were becoming commercialized (Rachman). Mass culture in America, due to the bi rth of new forms of technology, from hand-held video cameras to VCRs and improved stereo equipment, became even more susceptible to fast produc tion and widespread di stribution. The specific problems associated with such ex tremes of production will be discussed further subsequently, but immediately, one must consider the link between a cultures politics and its forms of entertainment. T he punk movement died as America settled into a decade of social irresponsibility. The Reagan administration seemingly sco rned the poor and working classes for their lack of resourcefulness, and the wealthy of the country, to make a sweeping
34 generalization (as many economists have) followed suit. Welfare and poor social reform left thousands homeless, but social concern ebbed. Strong social and political messages seemed to disappear from popular culture. Television shows like Dynasty and Dallas however, grew in popularity. The phrase living well is the best revenge, an idiom that was once a slogan for the disaffected after World War I who chos e to live the good life as a way of healing their traumatic wounds had gone from being associated with the anguished withdrawal of postwar hedonists to being tied to the raucous elite of Reagan supporters. Rather than having to do with wreaking revenge on a world that has exposed moral ideals as illusions, the slogan now implied revenge on the poor, who were considered undeserving (Silverman 192). Popular culture lost any socially con scious edge it may have had in inflationfocused years and now represented pure, unadulterated American opulence. The following chapters aim to discuss how the blank arts movement works against the superficiality of its time period. Other theorists hav e, of course, long discussed the problems associated with mass cultures influence, and for well over fifty years, they have explored t he issues associated with, in particular, popular film. In Adornos st udies of film and American culture, he once remarked that he seldom came out of a cinema without feeling that he had been made that little bit more stupid (Witkin 135). Adornos criticisms of popular culture are based primarily in a Marxist reading of how elements of popular culture affect the
35 populace. In his book Adorno on Popular Culture Robert Witkin examines Adornos investigation of American cinema and television, highlighting his concern with the pseudo-rea lism of film (137). The use of everyday objects, places, and people in films removes these th ings from their no rmative position in ones lifeworld, reifying them.3 Thus, What was once real now partakes of a pseudo-reality that manifests as the sir en appeal of the fetish object (Witkin 137). Adorno noticed how the onscreen everyday, with its conceptualized image perfected and shining on screen, drew in its audience in a new way: The appeal of the Hollywood phantas magoria is a powerful one. Millions have been drawn to the box office, attracted by stars who have been manufactured with even rows of teeth, flawless complexions, formless features, a nd with the pupils of their eyes enlarged by belladonna. The characters portrayedgangsters, sweet heroines, bitch heroines, avenging cowboysare rigid stereotypes and the plots of t he film dramas are standardized clich-forms that deliver calculated and predetermined messages (137). It is these predetermined messages that most distress Adorno, particularly with regard to the bourgeois, the middle majority of American culture: 3 Reification is the transformation of a person, process or abstract concept into a thing, and this thingification was part of Marxs diagnosis of t he ills of society. Marx noted the ways in which, under capitalism, human powers and creativities seemed to escape human control and take on lives of their own. These estranged or ali enated forces can come to dominate and oppress human existence, just as things themselvesc ommodities and objectsbecome treated as if they were important, or even more important than people (Roberts 39).
36 Adorno dismissed Hollywood films as instances (in the superstructure) of the repressive economic conditions of capitalist America (the base): it di dnt matter which film we might cite, as far as Adorno was concerned they were all part of a malign culture industry designed to fool the masses with empty dreams into ignoring the misery of their circumstances (Roberts 30). The reification of objects on screen, the carefully constructed messages that encourage conformation to a controlling system of capitalism, and the use of culture as a means of escape rather than education all reinforce the bourgeois state of alienation within a capitali st system. The masses respond to the pseudo-realism of film in a dependent and authoritarian-submissive waythat is, an audience consisting of alienated memb ers of late-capitalist systems look to films (and television) to reinforce thei r way of life (Witkin 139). Thus, the alienated tenets of bourgeois de cency, enshrined in filmic clichs, [assumes] an authoritarian relationship to individual s in whom traits of dependency and conformity were continuously reinforc ed by cultural goods (138). Those members of late-capitalist systems (not only Americans but also those aspiring to live the American, capitalist, consumerist lifestyle) are looking to film and its realistic portrayal of ever yday life (and what is actual pseudo-reality according to Adorno) to reinforce what they expe rience as the reification of everyday objects and the commodification of culture. This creates not just acceptance but adoration of the U.S. soci o-political system and makes its citizens more
37 submissive to the cycle of consumerism. The escapist fantasy of dominating ideology prospered in popular culture as never before. While punk rock faded and the aggressi ve punk style of the downtown fiction of Kathy Acker and her cont emporaries moved past its prime, the synthesizer-based music of the New Romant ic movement prospereda sign of a new phase of culture in the postmodern era.4 Although obviously unrelated to fiction and film, the synthesizer stands as a symbol for issues of the hyperreality and simulacrum that I wil l argue blank works contest. The synthesizer, an electronic instrument capabl e of producing a variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencie s, is generally shaped like a keyboard and used in music to produce the sounds of other instruments, like a drum set or a string quartet. This machine is a representation of the types of cultural phenomena that were emergi ng after 1945 and were beginn ing to truly dominate the arts in the 1980s. J ean Baudrillards 1981 text, Simulacrum and Simulacra explores postmodern societys relianc e on the image of an object and that images symbolic representati on, rather than the true meani ng of the object itself: It is no longer a question of imitati on, nor of reduplic ation, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is an operation to deter ever y real process by its operational double, a metastable, pr ogrammatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. A hyperreal henceforth sheltered from the
38 imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for t he orbital recurrence of models and the simulated generati on of difference (2-3). Although based in criticism of postm odern communication technology, his overall theory is that rea lity no longer emits signs which guarantee its existence. Signs now construct the real as simula tions (Horrocks 103). The synthesizer, then, is an example of musicians reproducing hyperreal music, rather than artists producing genuine, original mu sic themselves. For Fredric Jameson, a critic who has throughout his career been wedded to one particular version of a surface-depth modelthe Freudian-Marxist political unconscious where the surface of the text refers to the hi dden depth, the content of historythis represents the most striking developm ent in postmodernism (Adams 127). Baudrillards notion of t he simulacrums command of postmodern culture, and Jamesons focus on the loss of historicity (and how this loss is exacerbated by the culture of the simu lacra), are well-known (t hough contested) points of postmodern theory. James on decries the loss of historicity and the loss of perception of that which is real (replac ed by Baudrillards hyperreal) and declares that such cultural movements have led to a new depthlessness or a certain emptying out of significance, a flattening (126) of culture. Using specific references to the visual arts, Jameson explicates his definition of this new depthlessness and its causation of what he i dentifies as a waning of affect. In his most well-known example of this phenomenon, he juxtaposes Vincent Van Goghs painting A Pair of Boots and Andy Warhols screen print Diamond Dust
39 Shoes (6). Van Goghs work, he argues, draws the whole absent world and earth into revelation around itself, along with the heavy tr ead of the peasant woman, the loneliness of t he field path, the hut in the clearing, the worn and broken instruments of labor in the furrows and at the hearth (8 ). The painting, Jameson argues, in line with his discussi on of Heideggers discussion of the same piece, can be taken as a clue or a symptom for some va ster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth (8). The Van Gogh work represents artistry that lacks alienation and speaks in context with social responsibility and emotional depth. In contrast, Jameson discusses Warhols screen print of shoes: Andy Warhols Diamond Dust Shoes evidently no longer speaks to us with any of the immediacy of Van Goghs footgear; indeed, I am tempted to say that it does not really speak to us at all. Nothing in this painting organizes even a mini mal place for the viewer. We are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense, perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms (9). With these visual examples as a foundation, Jameson introduces his concept of the waning of affect, s uggesting that works like Warhols and the alienation and cultural depthlessness that they repres ent, are in fact visual representations of the end of t he bourgeois ego in postmodern culture: The end of the bourgeois ego, or m onad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of t hat egowhat I have been calling the waning of affect. But it m eans the end of much morethe end,
40 for example, of style, in the sense of the unique and the personal, the end of the distinctive brush stroke (as symbolized by the emergent primary of mechanical repr esentation). As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liber ation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling (15). The suggestion then becomes ev ident that without a center ed self to do any kind of feeling, or an ego through which one responds specifically to art, art and culture no longer have any affect, and that to respond at all, humans require increased stimulation, both in psychol ogical and literal terms. Popular understanding of this theory has simplifie d it and given it such monikers as desensitization. It is used to expl ain increased violence on television, shortened television programming, and an overwhelming barrage of visual images on individual screens of video games, news programming, and the like. If responsibility and depth of emotional response are in fact removed from culture, depthless, inane, hyperreal cult ure can easily dominate that culture. Looking at the best-selling popular writers and films of the 1980s supports this idea. Novels by Tom Clancy, Daniel le Steele, and Stephen King dominated the best-seller lists of the midto late-1980s. ET: The Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, Annie, Rambo II, Platoon, Top Gun, and Fatal Attraction were among the blockbuster films of the era. The top-grossing works of fiction and film of the
41 decade in particular provide solid examples of the cultural condition of Reagans America. Recent critics, such as Alan Nadel, agree. In his 1997 Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Films of President Reagans American he opines that cinema triumphs over economics as the primary producer of social realities (13).5 Looking back at the to p popular visual arts, films, books, and albums of the decade, one can easily see how Adorno, Nadel, and corresponding theorists would read t he popular culture of the decade as support for a superficial, placid, utterl y commercialized social system. What these works have in common is their formulaic, superficial representations of a culture dominated by economic forces. They support both Jamesons and Baudrillards theories in their loss of hi storicity and loss of focus on concepts of individual ego. All of these forms of entertainment are steeped in tropes of a capitalist system of social control: cl ear ideas of black and white based on a moneyed class system, solid control of law ov er the individual, glorification of the wealthy, and stress on superficial visual s, including special effects and outward appearance in general. The Vietnam films, in particular, exemplify Jamesons concern of the loss of hist oricity (as will be discussed in Chapter 3). Reagan-era U.S. popular culture very obviously sustains the preceding theories of postmodernism. I will identify, however, the cultural forces at work within mainstream culture that contradict t hese theories. There are, of course, movements within U.S. culture that are consistently dissident and work ing against control of the 5 Although these arguments address primarily Hollywood cinema, Adornos thesis and Nadels argument can easily be applied to television, popular fiction, and even music, as Adornos discussions of jazz suggest.
42 superficial. But in 1984, there emerged writers and filmmakers who were able to infiltrate mainstream popul ar culture and very publicly and very clearly produce art that was not subject to depthlessness, the waning of affect, or the loss of historicity. These writ ers and filmmakers produced art that denounced the social and political issues that arose duri ng the Reagan administration and created memorable works that go against these theories of postmodern criticism while attempting to shift control of the signs of cultural power.
43 Chapter 3: Blankness Shock value and graphic violence have long been a part of the American literary tradition, and the novels of blank fiction owe a great deal to their literary past, drawing from authors such as Richard Wright who, in 1940, published Native Son a compelling depiction of Chicag os Bigger Thomas and a call for socialist action in America. The novel was shocking, with coarse language and depictions of sexual and physical violence, all intended to moti vate a complacent audience and ignite passion in American readers against the injustice faced by their fellow citizens. In the 1950s, B eat authors like Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs followed this tradition as well, adding obscenity and drug use to the list of tools used for fictional dissidence. In the mid-1960s, urban realist authors such as Hubert Selby Jr. produced works like Last Exit to Brooklyn a sexually explicit, graphically violent text. A colorful (but su rprisingly positive) 1966 book review, summed up the work by saying Last Exit to Brooklyn is a disgusting book. There is no other word for it. It deals in violence, pain, cruelty, and perversion, and certain of its pictures hang in the mind: broken, bleeding figures; sailors, drunks, whores raped or beaten up for fun, for the sake of something to do (Wood 25).
44 A great deal has been written about this pi ece of literature, largely due to the debate in Britain over its obscenity, but also because of its honest, detailed descriptions of violence and pain, as well as mental and physical anguish; Selby spares no graphic detail nor horrifying element in his descriptions. One is subjected to a constant barrage of t he grotesque all the way through the book. Moreover, Selby seems at once obsessi vely involved in and ironically detached from the world which he is creating (W ertime 154). A hermeneutic of indifference is created by this technique, lending to the urban realists cultural criticism of capitalist detachment. Although blank fiction does draw upon urban realisms tradition of violence, works such as Selbys are more closely related to the art and literary scene of Manhattans Lower East Side from t he mid-1970s to midto late-1980s. Robert Siegels 1989 Suburban Ambush: Downtown Wr iting and the Fiction of Insurgency is the first critical work to identif y and explore the style of fiction that has come to be called, among other things, downtown fiction. He offers close readings of the work of Kathy Acker, Ron Kolm, Lynne Tillman, Joel Rose, and many others, identifying their political and artistic motivations and focusing on the insurgent nature of their work. Siegels text is clearly devoted to authors and a movement in the arts that remains tied to the ideology of the late-1960s and 1970sgritty, urban, working-class, angst-f ueled protest art. The work of such artists remains, like Wrights Native Son and Selbys Last Exit transparently ideological, clearly working toward bri nging the oppression of those suffering in the economic and social systems of America to light. It is from this tradition that
45 what has now become known as blank fictio n emerged. Yet it is also from this tradition of the minimal, graphic, worki ng-class novel that blank fiction has departed. What follows is a discussion of the definition of blank fiction, an exploration of how it differs so remarkably from the liter ary tradition from which it evolved, and an explication of the move ment through a close analysis of one of its first novels, Bret Easton Elliss Less Than Zero Blank Fiction In order to understand blank fi ction, it is helpful to look at it with regard to the minimalist fiction of the late 1970s and early 1980s due to the close proximity of the publishing periods and the fa ct that their styles both diverge in a somewhat similar manner from the other postmodern fiction of the time by wellknown authors like Don DeLillo and T homas Pynchon. In his 1991 article Minimalist Fiction as Low Postmodernism: Mass Culture and the Search for History, Philip E. Simmons describes minimalism (with key authors such as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason) as abandoning the experimental ethic of high postmodern writers [like Pynchon, Barth and Barthelme], rejecting linguistic flight and ont ological self-questioning in favor of a willed simplicity which honors the ordinary (49). Blank fiction also works in a simpler, more ordinary language, but it maintains its experimental spirit and ontological self-questioning. Whereas minimalist fiction deals with ordinary, working class and middle class characters , (50) blank fiction favors more
46 extraordinary characters of upperor upper-middle class backgrounds. The main factor binding these two forms of writing t ogether is their similar reliance on brand names, their references to popular produc ts by their designers. Both depend on reference to mass culture and consumer goods, and both create their historical and sociological reference points through the use of such devices. The characters of minimalist fiction drink bottl ed Pepsi as a luxury, for example, or eat at locally specific diners. The characters of blank fiction eat at Spago or at a luncheon prepared by Wolfgang Puck. Blank fiction, similar in many ways from the works upon which it draws, is however a unique movement, standing in stark contrast from other literar y movements of its time. My work will build upon the initia l works of those who have begun research into the blank movement. The first comp rehensive work to discuss what actually constitutes blank fiction is James Annesleys Blank Fictions (1998). Elizabeth Young and Gr aham Caveneys 1992 Shopping in Space: Essays on American Blank Fiction Generation offers critical explorat ion of various blank texts, but Annesley is the first to compr ehensively attempt to theorize what brings them all together, though he, Young, and Graham cover similar artists, including Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Dennis Cooper, and Tama Janowitz. Annesleys arguments look specifically at literature from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s and center on t he theory that issues related to commodification tie blank fiction together. Exploring issues of commodification is important not only as a way of understandi ng the economic aspects of a late capitalist system but also as a way of understanding the social impact that this
47 economic system has on the populace. Anne sley states that the reading of blank fiction requires an interpretation of the meaning of commodification, as analysis that both facilitates a contex tual understanding of these texts and produces a range of concerns that fit al ongside the priorities of the narratives themselves (6). He suggests that a focus on the category of the commodity provides a way of interpreting blank fict ion in terms that combine a strong sense of the significance of both period and place with a wider perspective on contemporary capitalist struct ures (7). Annesley also suggests that by using the commodity as a central focus, blank fict ion provides a base for understanding the psyche of its characters. The characters are often depicted as alienated,6 the Marxist theory that sees humans in capi talist society estranged from their work, their communities, and their companions. This focus also ties together the other qualities that blank fiction texts have in common, including a strong emphasis on extreme violence, graphi c sexuality and deviance, drugs, and what Annesley refers to as decadence (2). The decadent behavior of blank fiction, I argue, is a motif that shows how the characters f unction without the constraint of popular moral codes of traditional American ideol ogies. In his discussion of decadence, Annesley states that the fictional worlds these texts represent seem clouded by millennial anxieties and touched by the violent, destructive and decadent currents of what has been described as the apoc alypse culture of the late 20th century 6 Alienated man is an abstraction because he has lo st touch with all human specificity. He has been reduced to performing undifferentiated work on humanly indistinguishable objects among people deprived of their human variety and compa ssion. There is little that remains of his relations to his activity, product and fellows which enables us to grasp the peculiar qualities of his species. Consequently, Marx feels he can speak of this life as the abstract existence of man as a mere workman who may therefore fall from his filled void into the absolute void. Alienated man is estranged from everything (Ollman 134-135).
48 (108). This point is a potential expl anation for the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades many novels of this movement. This decadence, however, is used in contrast to th e ways novels like Douglas Couplands Generation X and Rick Moodys Garden State and Purple America portray their slacker generation characters cowering in apocalyptic fear and apathy. The novels of blank fiction concentr ate on American youth (teen-, twenty-, and thirty-somethings), typically found in urban settings (108). Their literary style is particularly significant, in that rat her than focusing on dense plots, elaborate styles, and political subjects that provide the material for writers such as Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and Norman Maile r, these fictions seem determined to adapt a looser approach. They prefer blank, atonal perspectives and fragile, glossy visions (108). The writing can often appear bare, as though there is not quite enough written on the page. This fiction gives one a sense that it is demanding analysis, even on the first read, that whatever message the pages offer actually remains unwritten. The emphasis of blank fiction on things such as brand names and popular culture can give one the impression that the text is being written in codethat the texts emphasis lies behind the labels. The depth hidden below the superficiality of the te xt is fascinating; it has a way of conceptualizing contemporary conditions an d turns the process of saying a little into the act of disclosing a lot (10).7 The minimal use of language makes each word seem a kind of root metaphor, as though the individual words or brief phrases are symbolic of an ideological syst em. For example, the phrase people 7 It has been referred to as beer commercial writing by its critics.
49 are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles begins the novel Less Than Zero and is repeated throughout the novel. This simple line suggests the cultural emptiness of Clays hometown and the a lienation of the characters. A more verbose passage would detract from the starkness and in sightful nature of this single phrase. Jay McInerneys 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City serves as an excellent example of this deceptively simplistic pros e style. Written in second person, with an unnamed you (as the narrator is to be henceforth referred) as narrator, this novel stands out amongst other early pieces of blank fiction because of this unusual narrative approach. Brian Richardson, in his article The Poetics and Politics of Second Person Narration, suggest s that writing from this point of view, a technique first developed in the 1950s but still not widely used, is arguably the most important technical adv ance in fictional narrative since the introduction of stream of consciousness (311). Second-person narration can potentially be used as just an alternative way of writing a first-person narrative, but McInerney uses the technique to c onvey ideas that first-person narration could not convey as succinctly. The firs t few lines of the novel exemplify this point: You are not the kind of guy who woul d be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here y ou are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, altho ugh the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreaker or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if
50 you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it mi ght not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already (1). Second-person narration here introduces the na rrator in a way that firstor thirdperson would struggle with doi ng. In seven lines, McInerney has introduced the main character, appealed for empathy fr om the reader for this character (appealing to you suggests camar aderie and understanding), and suggested the complication of his narrators persona lity, particularly revealing a mind in flux. The narrative you is especially effe ctive in disclosing the sense of intimate unfamiliarity present in the cocaine-c harged brain of McI nerneys anti-hero (Richardson 327). These opening lines imm ediately alert the reader to the fact that this deceptively simple novel des erves close observation; the layering of thought and voices alludes to the many levels of the 182-page work. Authors of blank fictio n are profoundly aware of their time and place, and their heavy usage of references to the pr oducts, the personalities, and the places that characterize late twentieth-century American life exemplifies this awareness (Annesley 6). The problem with the heavy dependence upon popular reference, however, is that it can often be wrongly in terpreted as fiction that is merely a reflection of its time, u nable therefore to offer comment upon the world it represents, when, in fact, social commentar y is precisely its raison dtre. This misunderstanding can be detrimental to how the texts are read and received.
51 The use of violence, for example, is often misinterpreted as a comment upon actual violence: Overlooking the basic distinction between art and reality, too many commentators have confused the signi ficance of representations of murder with the meaning of actual murders. What these arguments fail to appreciate is that the rela tionship between a literary image of violence and violence itself is at best tenuous and at worst non existent (12). Rather than being read as ironic and metaphoric, the violence of blank fiction is often misinterpreted as superfluous or unnecessarily pornographic. The authors of such novels rely on irony and context to ensure that their use of graphic violence is necessary and critical and load ed with criticism aimed at those that have dismissed postmodern literature as la cking affect, like Jameson, or those who focus simply on the superficial level of violence, like Michelle Warner does in her article The Development of the Psycho-Social Cannibal in the Fiction of Bret Easton Ellis, an article that scans t he literal behavior of Elliss deviant characters. A major difficulty in discussing blank fiction is the large amount of criticism aimed at it by those assuming it to be as superficial as it initially appears or confuse it with the entertain ment fiction it often parodi es. Critics call it an MTV style, shallow, and typical of a culture of consumption. Josephine Hendin, in her article Fictions of Acquisition s, suggests that McInerneys Bright Lights, Big City compresses the novel of manners to an upscale ad, and Elliss Less Than Zero
52 reduces the novel of initiation to the equi valent of snuff-porn still (225). The difficulty of dealing with such charges of in significance, however, actually ties into Annesleys analysis that the center point that brings these works together is the theme of commodification and the superfici ality of commodity culture. Many critics like Hendin or Peter Fresse are ta king these works at face value, at first superficial glance, not under standing the depth of meani ng that exists beyond the minimal plot and language. Some show concern that novels that choose to comment upon their own time in history lack critical distance. Because the fictions form and critical commentar y are bound together (the language and structure of the style support the critical nature of the works), some critics have difficulty removing the novels from their context and analyzing them separately, believing that because they are unable to do this, the novels must thus be of little critical value and can therefore be dism issed as superficial works of popular culture. Peter Freese suggests, in his ar ticle Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero: Entropy in the MTV Novel?, that traditi onal literary critics are easily tempted to dismiss the laconically understated firstperson narration of novels like Elliss Less Than Zero as just another example of pervasive triviality and cultural decay (71). Some might argue, as Jameson does, that such cultural commentary, because of its immediate in volvement in the surrounding culture, may be disarmed and reabsorbed by a syst em of which [it] might well be considered a part, since [it] c an achieve no distance from it ( Postmodernism 49). Blank fiction, however, with its concent ration on form and subtext, suggests a keen awareness of historicit y as opposed to the contempor ary works it parodies.
53 As will be discussed in detail subsequently, the style of blank fiction mocks the rhetoric of the Reagan Era, proving t he argument that this movement is not simply pastiche but able to bypass any limitations of critical distance. When investigating the critic al elements of blank fictio n, it is important to look beyond Annesleys foundational ar guments, which, though cogent and admirable, do not venture past discussions of the economic. In order to explore the full extent of this move ments social and political insights, one must look at the issue of blankness itself, beginning wi th the position of t he majority of the narrators/protagonists of blank fiction. A vast majority of the fictions protagonists are white males, mostly of middle-cla ss standing. The emphasis in blank works on white, middle-class males is key in understanding how the works aim their criticism at the heart of power control in America. In Ross Chamberss essay The Unexamined, he discusses blank categories of people: There are plenty of unmarked categories (maleness, heterosexuality, and middle class ness being obvious ones), but whiteness is perhaps the primar y unmarked and so unexamined lets say blankcategory. Like other unmarked categories, it has a touchstone quality of the normal, against which the members of marked categories are measured, and, of course, found deviant, that is, wanting (189). Although many central figures in blank fiction are white, heterosexual, middleclass males, there are others, homosexu als, for example, who would fall into the marked category of Chamberss account. Yet in blank fiction, these others
54 still fall into the category of unexamined, because, in keeping with Annesleys theme of commodification and late c apitalism, they have enough money and social power to be excluded from the marked category. That is to say, they remain at arms length from external questioning, as we ll as from internal doubt all of the main characters of blank fict ion are relatively free from struggle with regard to their ethnic, sexual, or other demographic identitie s. They are not struggling with external ident ity issues, nor are they st ruggling for social equality or acceptance, as the oppressed characters of urban realism or punk fiction so often do. The identification of many of the main characters is actually quite blank as well, in that it is not personalized The blankness and interchangeable nature of the characters is often em phasized in these works. In Less Than Zero for example, Clay is often confused as to whom he has slept wit h and with whom he has not, and in American Psycho Patrick Bateman is frequently mistaken for a number of his colleagues, as th ey all look the same. There is very little character development in blank fiction beyond w hat occurs as the texts progress. Character pasts are not dictat ed for audience understanding, and their personalities are often one-dimensional. It is a st yle full of masked people. In the following sections, I will discuss how th is specific characteristic of blank fiction is a particularly effective means of political criticism for the Reagan administration. The masked characters of blank fiction and those surrounding them appear devoid of emotionor their em otional responses seem somehow
55 inappropriate. The language is emotiona lly barren, though anxiety and desire tend to creep into most of these texts. The emotions that do occur within the texts are symptoms of those immersed in a late-capitalis t society, and therefore it is surprising that Annesley did not discuss this concept in his argument. These emotions are primarily anxiety, anger and greed in various forms: anxiety stemming from the competition and uncer tainty of a capitalist market, anger coming from constant competition (the need to compete or fail), and greed from a system in which desire for more has no end. The use of such emotional responses, though similar to that wh ich appears in both urban realism and minimalist fiction, is not used in an obvious, didactic way in order to shock the reader but in a humorous, parodic way that mocks the popular notion of the waning of affect. The inappropriate emot ional response is not suggestive of abuse of power but instead relates to everyone, both perpet rators and victims alike, in the culture of the texts. Th is emphasis on emotional response will be explicated in the following analysis of Less Than Zero The novels of blank fiction may seem at first read, to be of little or no political consequence, as the characters never overtly voice political views and the characters engage in activities that challenge notions of traditional morality, but it is the politics of t hese novels, beyond their particular style, that binds them together. These are novels that, in their understated and minimalist ways, comment on issues such as the une xamined white, upper-middle class of America through their portrayals of mem bers of this group murdering, raping, prostituting themselves, taking and selling drugs, and other criminal or immoral
56 behavior. They also mock the concept of desensitization of the American public to violence. These texts are able to represent their own place and time, yet comment on it critically through the us e of irony and the use of the absurd. These factors give the authors the critical distance they need in order to make social criticisms of a world of which many would argue their texts are simply a part. What follows is an analysis of Bret Easton Elliss Less Than Zero an analysis used to explicate the gener al ideas discussed previously. Less Than Zero Turn out the TV, No one will suspect it. Then your mother wont detect it, So your father wont know. They think that I got no respect, But every film means less than zero. Elvis Costello Less than Zero Ronald Reagans rise to power was, as discussed in Chapter 2, facilitated by his ability to inspire the Amer ican people. His speeches expressed romanticism and his political moves; wi nning a war in Gr anada, for example, helped develop a cult of denial and idealis m. His reign was slogan-filled; from the trickle-down effect to just say no, most middleand upper-class
57 Americans, through their support of the leader seemed to revel in the simplistic political rhetoric that matched the brand name, cons umer-labeled culture that blossomed during t he Reagan Era. Emerging during this jargon-filled era of popular delusion was a style of writing that has become known as blank fiction. The style, beginning in 1984 with Brett Easton Elliss Less Than Zero and Jay McInerneys Bright Lights, Big City mimics the simplistic, jargon-filled langu age of its time, but in contrast to the glamour and sheen that typified much of 1980s American cultur e, blank fiction stands out through its atonal style, stark narratives, shocking content, and angry, bitter characters. What this chapter and ov erall project will argue is that writers like Ellis have used this particular form of literature to comm ent on and criticize various social and political issues t hat were often ignored during the 1980s. Using Less Than Zero as the model, I will show how th e style of this literature is both a vehicle for criticism and a form of political criticism in itself. The style of the novel is blank with limited plot, undeveloped characterizations, unemotional language, fr equent references to drugs and sex, and an undercurrent of violence. As Annesley argues, Ellis tends to eschew clear references to fixed times and places in favor of an approach that locates its events in an empty and eternal present (90). Ellis also fills the novel with labels, referring to items and places by their titl es, rather than through descriptions or general terms. For example, Clay ( Less Than Zero s narrator) has a psychiatrist that drives a SL and hi s friends eat at Spago. Ellis does not substantiate his reference, nor explain them or ex pand upon them. As Annesley points out,
58 in the absence of adjectives, qualifying phrases and points of reference, a crucial emphasis is placed on commercial names like Neiman-Marcus, Jerry Magnin, and Camp Beverly Hills ( 92). These loaded references and the sparseness of the writing style made Less Than Zero stand out even in a period of plentiful postmodern texts whose authors (like Martin Amis, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie) are concerned with pastiche and the superficiality of postmodernism. Many critics dismissed this novel at the time of its publication by arguing that Ellis had just taken excerpts from his own adolescence on the West Coast and tried to pass them off as a nov el. Ellis, twenty-one years old at the time of publication, may have been a victim of his youth. As Nicki Sahlin argues, in her article But this Road Doesnt Go Anywhere: The Existential Dilemma in Less Than Zero , one might wonder whether an i dentical first novel by a middleaged author might not have received more cr edit for its art and fewer accusations of artifice (24). But regardless of why Elliss novel was disregarded, the fact remains that, as discussed previously, blank fiction in general is for the most part ignored by critics and academics, with the exception of wr iters such as Elizabeth Young, James Annesley, and Nicki Sahlin. Although openly criticized or simply overlooked, Less Than Zero is an important novel. This section will examine Elliss work with reference to its time of emergence and will explain why this particular blank novel (one of the very first of its kind) deserves much more attention than it has ever received. An emphasis on image, appearance, and surface is a key theme in Less Than Zero and, generally speaking, a common theme in postmodern fiction, or
59 rather, the fiction of postmodernity. Jameson discusses how the postmodern age has seen movement away from parody in the arts to what he calls pastiche, that is, parody without substance. Pastic he, he argues, is inseparable from the period of late capitalism8 in which our market curr ently functions: Pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction with a whole historically original consumers appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and spectacles (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plutos concept ion of the simulacrum, the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in extraordinary phrase, that in it the image has become the final form of commodity reification (18). Pastiche may also occur inadvertently thr ough a lack of critical distance, when an artist attempting to mock through emulation finds himself simply repeating that which he is attempting to mock, produci ng a piece of art too similar to the problem, and the irony is lost. For ex ample, a writer that publishers a horror novel in an attempt to parody the desensitization of culture may produce a piece of work that is too similar to the works he is criticizing to seem ironic or didactic. 8 See Ernest Mandels three phases of capitalism in his book Late Capitalism, from 1978.
60 (This concept will be further explored.) Importantly, pastiche represents a lack of the moral hierarchy that remains the key to successful parody. Parody implies a sense of ethical standards that which mocks being of higher morals or better standards than its chosen subject of ridicu le. Parody orders things, suggesting the division between such things as high and low art. With pastiche, no such moral order is suggested, and a litany of subjects and objects can be mimicked with no regard for standards or hierarchical divisions. Jamesons argument that pastiche is an inextricable product of late capitalism suggests that authors like Ellis, who are writing in the late capitalist period and whose subject matter revolves around the consumer culture of this period, are in danger of being unable to obtain critical dist ance, and therefore, their wo rk may fall victim to the ineffectiveness of pastiche. Less Than Zero is a text flooded with signs, or as James Annesley refers to them (as being one and the same), l abels (84). Some might argue that through his excessive use of labels and the dependency of the text on a readers knowledge of contemporary cu lture, Elliss first novel is merely pastiche, an attempt to parody the state of postmodern existence in Los Angeles that fails to parody but rather shows itself to be as s hallow and insubstantial as that which it tries to mock. Annesley addresses this problem. He believes that Elliss incorporation of contemporar y references and commodity culture (labels) actually helps to portray a layer of depth in soci ety that seems completely superficial: Though, in some respects, a novel like Less Than Zero can seem empty and uncontextualised, a narrative told, like MTV, in an
61 abstract continuous present, the pres ence of this range of cultural markers gives the novel a very concrete context. The language of the text discloses a specific re lationship with the time, space and society of the mid 1980s West C oast America. Instead of regarding the presence of this range of mass cultural reference points as a measure of the novels banality and an index of its weightlessness, these allusions can be interpreted as elements that root the text firmly to a precise material situation. (91) Essentially, Annesley is arguing that t he use of contemporary references works to symbolize a greater layer of depth below the surface, that t hey are, in some way, hieroglyphs that help the reader decipher the hidden messages that pass between the characters by way of magaz ine titles and band reviews. It is an interesting argument, but operating only on one level. To say that Ellis believes that using phrases like Neiman-Marcus and The Face as code for something more substantial is misleading. Annesley is trying to create a layer of substantial depth that simply does not ex ist. He is completely ig noring the possibility that Elliss labels are purposefully empty si gns, mocking simulacra, and that Ellis is using irony in order to maintain the critical distance necessary to ensure his text is effective social commentary. That Ellis does not elucidate or elaborate on these seemingly off-hand allusions to c onsumer culture makes his awareness of the shallowness of contempor ary culture all the more ev ident. Ellis has created a way of criticizing the shallowness of objectification, showing a world in which nearly everything (people, places, and objects) begin and end with their
62 consumer names or physical appearances. A great deal of detail and painstaking phraseology has been put into Less Than Zero to show the extent of postmodern depthlessness. Ellis emphasizes his interrogation of the shallowness of objectification further through his undeveloped characterizations; for exam ple, they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to w onder if I look exactly like them ( Less Than Zero 140). Ellis also shows us the lack of communication in the characters lives, with scenes such as this one between Cl ay, our narrator, and his mother: You look unhappy, she says real s uddenly. Im not, I tell her. You look unhappy, she says, more quietly this time. She touches her hair, bleached, blondish, again. You do too, I say, hoping that she wont say anything else. She doesnt say anything else until shes finished her third glass of wine and poured her fourth. How was the party? Okay (11). Beyond labels and intense lack of communication, Ellis also reiterates his understanding of the commodifi cation of modern culture in several ways. The novel is full of quotations emphasizing appearance, such as youre a very beautiful boy and thats all that matter s (163). Julians prostitution and his wasted youth are dismissed entirely by his pimp and his clients, as they see him as simply a beautiful boy. Ellis also emphasizes the importance of appearance to the main characters themselves, not just in terms of market usage, but
63 detailing even Clays parents attempts at keeping their youthful image up to scratch: My father looks pretty healthy if y ou dont look at him for too long. Hes completely tan and has had a hai r transplant in Palm Springs, two weeks ago, and he has pretty much a full head of blondish hair. He also has had his face lifted (34). These references to casual reconstructive surgery echo blank fictions emphasis on superficiality and the interchan geable nature of its characters. What makes Less Than Zero particularly outstanding is that Ellis goes one step beyond condemnation of the superficiality of postmodernism and illuminates the void that lies beyond it. His style is particularly illustra tive, the book almost entirely implicit, entirely elsewhere. The text is s light, attenuated, a performance version of the frail, depleted lives it depi cts (40). Elizabet h Young, in her 1992 text Shopping in Space: Essays on Americas Blank Fiction Generation supports this concept, arguing that Ellis suggests the awful emptiness of human disposability and meaningle ssness, the misanthropia that licks daily at our consciousness (29). It is Elliss emphas is on the void beyond appearances that exposes the heart of the books criticism. His emphasis on the void is developed th rough the setting of the novel in addition to the way in which he has written it. In Less Than Zero Ellis uses the sheen of Hollywood in contrast to the desert that surrou nds it. Desert imagery pervades the book, offering a sharp contra st to the swimming pool and tanning bed lifestyle of Clays fellow characters. The howling winds wreak havoc in the
64 hills, the stifling heat makes for an uncomfortable Christmas, and roaming coyotes are always a threat. Clay oft en feels unnerved by these threats of nature, these feelings of insecurity symbo lic of his vulnerability to the world of nothingness that surrounds him. In this text, considerable em phasis is given to the word nothing, which often translates as nothingness (27). Clay, living on the edge of the desert, surrounded by wild, untamed emptiness, is also standing on the verge of a void in cu lture. What exists below the shine of commodities, the nothingness, the missing symbols beyond the simulacrathis void is the key theme in the perfectly titled Less Than Zero Discovering the presence of this void in the novel is important, but exploring what it is (in the sense that a lack of something is often something significant) is also crucial. And, like all blank fiction, the focus in Less than Zero is on the otherness of those within the city limits, not on the traditional idea of natural otherness or the strangeness of that which is outside the unexamined tradition. Most blank fiction tends to focus on t he emptiness of its characters lives, and Elliss Less Than Zero is a clear example of such a focus. The disaffected youth in the story, Clay in particular, ar e on the verge of this emptiness, trying desperately to avoid their feelings of empt iness. They seek constant stimulation and pleasure to stay afloat. The char acters are consumed by boredom, by apathetic dissatisfaction. They are fru strated and powerless. They are unable to see that their desires can never be fulfilled (Young 33). Through drugs, random sexual encounters, ri sk behaviors, and, in some ca ses, such as Muriels anorexia, self-destruction, the characters seem to be searching for something.
65 I argue that Clays and his friends liv es are riddled with fear of the nothingness that surrounds t hem. Rather than looking at Clay and his friends as trying to reawaken something within themselves, however, one might approach their youthful lives of decadence as means of trying to escape their eventual encounters with nothingness. Sahlin feels that Clay shares with his friends the symptom of having emotions so anaesthetized that it ta kes something extreme to interest him or reawaken his feeli ngs (36). When Clay accompanies his childhood friend Julian to an encounter arra nged by a pimp, he goes to watch his friend be sexually exploited by a john so that Julians drug debts are paid. Clay goes, driven by his need to see the worst (175). The characters obsession with the morbid and the sensational (snu ff films, pornography, and violent music lyrics, for example), even their fa scination with death (the frequency of references to death in Less Than Zero [is] perhaps fifty, roughly one every four pages ), seems a means of averting their eventual contact with the void that exists beyond the superficial. They seem drawn to mortality; they queue to view a dead body behind a shop, they watch snuff films, Clay collects news stories of murders and fatal accidents. In particular, Muriels fascination with Clays argyle sweater with a red patchIt looks as if you got stabbed or something. Please let me wear it, Muriel pl eads, touching the vest (Ellis Less Than Zero 73) serves as a metaphor for the characters attraction to their final demise. The characters are finding themselves sati sfied less and less with their superficial attempts at fulfillment. Drugs, sex, and consumerism are no longer enough to satiate them. Allowed to immerse t hemselves in the decadence of Hollywood
66 and capitalism from a very early age, Ellis s characters, even at the age of 18, are jaded, bored, and rest less, searching constantly for more stimulation. Clays drug-dealing friend Rip bruta lly sexually assaults a twelve-year-old girl and invites his friends to join him. He def ends his actions to Clay in the following exchange: Hey, dont look at me like Im some sort of scumbag or something. Im not. Its my voice trails off. Its what? Rip wants to know. Its I dont think its right. Whats right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it. But you dont need anything. Yo u have everything, I tell him. Rip looks at me. No. I dont. What? Theres a pa use and then I ask, Oh, shit, Rip, what dont you have? I dont have anything to lose (177). Clay remains an amoral witness to the sc ene, upset by the event but not willing to truly intervene. His disturbance in this scene is used to illustrate the void Ellis is trying to describe in Less Than Zero a morally barren, emotionally stunted chasm. The characters subconsciously r ealize that they have nothing to cling to beyond their materialistic existence. Thei r inability to fulfill successfully their desires through consumption means that they must either confront their
67 emotionally distant families, morally degenerated friends, and total lack of intimacy and support in their lives or die. Death, for most of them, seems the comfortable option. Less Than Zeros death theme is not repr esentative of a fear of death but representative of a way to avoid the pain of loss that accompanies the realization that cons umerism and total superficiality are not sustainable means of satisfaction.9 The vibrations of fear th at permeate the novel, especially through Clay and his attacks of extreme anxiety, beg the readers to look toward this void, confront it, and consider what lies beyond condem nation of todays commodified, consumer culture. Theorists like Adorno, Jameson, and Baudrillard concern themselves with the negative impacts of late capitalis m, yet they have a tendency to avoid discussion of the impact of the lack of emotional depth or intimacy between people who are products of postmodern culture. Elliss first novel is attempting to point to this area of concern and its lack of theoretical discussion through the characters fear of having to possibly address their emotional needs, suggesting that they would rather die. Although the urban realists and minimalist authors that came before Ellis present scenes of exploitation and encounters with the worst sides of human nature, Elliss work is different in that his work aims to show the other side of lifehis articulation of the cultural void draws attention to the idea that there is more to life than that void. Wh ereas other artists present horror and oppression and apathy as fatalistic symptoms of a cultural crisis, Ellis 9 Death, in general, is an important theme in the genre of blank fiction. In this novel, as in others, ( American Psycho in particular), death is viewed as a m eans of escaping an encounter with the pain of nothingness. Jay McInerney uses death in Bright Lights, Big City as a way of reflecting upon the superficiality of existence in consumer culture, and many blank fiction texts use characters reflections on death as a touchstone for reality versus the hyperreal.
68 presents these images a manner that, oddl y, suggests hope and perseverance. If Ellis is able to see through the depthlessness and find substance, then his work might encourage others to do the same. Elliss text was published at a time in history when American youth no longer had the punk rebellion of the 1970s to cling to as an outlet for early-adult angst, yet before the yuppieera of cocaine-enhanced, rabid consumerism of the midto late-eighties had fully taken hold of the under-30 gener ation. Elizabeth Young discusses this gap in her essay Vacant Possession: Ellis depicts [the characters in Less Than Zero ], we now see with hindsight, at a revealing interstice in the early eighties. They are still living the aimless, lightly decadent life of the post-punk teenager. There is, as yet, no m ention of the ra mpant ambition, teeth-grinding greed, remorseless self-improvement and much else that was eventually to characterize the next decade (27). The characters were created post-Vi etnam, post-Watergate, and post Iranhostage, when faith in government and es tablishment had been truly shaken. Less Than Zero was written at a time when one could no longer realistically paint youth as wild, disaffected, and nave, but it could not yet portray them as completely self-absorbed, money-hunting yuppets feeling the full force of Reaganomics. President Reagan succeeded in Granada in 1983, whereas those before him had failed in Vietnam and Iran. With this farcical military victory, Reagan was able to paint over the excruc iating pain that those military disasters had left behind. This simulacrum of success is a prime example of the superficial
69 style of feel-good government, as discu ssed previously, which was fully taking root in America in 1985. Ellis, in Less Than Zero illuminated the fear of those concerned with what lay beneath the sheen. Where many were quick to criticize its limited depth, few were willing to v enture one step further and talk about the dread of what might be lurki ng just below the surface. Less Than Zero led the way for others, yet the books that followed, though spectacular in their own ways, never articulated the fear so accura tely as Ellis did in his first book. Blank Cinema Emerging alongside the novels of blank fi ction, similar in both content and style, were works of ci nema that addressed the same social and political concerns. For the purpose of this project, I call these films blank cinema. Blank cinema is similar to blank fiction in its style, in that it usually has a minimalist plot; stark, graphi c depictions of sexuality, violence, and/or drug use; narrators who are a part of the unexam ined groups of Americans; characters who respond to events in emotionally inappropriate ways; and key characters devoting themselves to activities outside of a traditional moral code. The films, like the works of blank fiction, mimic the simplistic rhetor ic of the Reagan administration, masking the filmmakers sociopolitical criticism beneath limited plot lines, simplistic dialogue, and typically inexpensive, stark sets. Blank fiction parodies many styles of popular American culture, and blank cinema also uses popular American cultural styles as its parodic base. Tim
70 Hunters 1986 Rivers Edge for example, offers a sinister, bleak parody of the teenage angst movies of the period. In Rivers Edge a group of high school friends discover that one of their ow n has murdered his girlfriend. John presents his dead girlfriend to the group in a dispassionate, apathetic way. Asked why he killed her, he says it was because she was talking shit. The group responds in kind, more concerned with keeping him out of jail and scoring their next round of party drugs than wrest ling with the moral complications of the murder. The film has no true plot but follows the kids as they decide on an action plan and float in and out of school. Aside from one outburst of philosophical rage by the school counselor at the lack of respon se from the town to the girls death, the movie remains focused on a sense of amorality and self-centeredness. Drugs, sex, and violence are routine and commonplace, even for 12-year-old Tim, who eventually pulls a gun on his own brother. This example of blank cinema offers a vision of disaffected youth perpetuating violence and living in a system in which they can never succeed. Shot with heavy use of filters, the film is dark, highl ighted by grays and blues, and the setting, a town somewhere close to Portland, is kept anonymous and filmed at night and on overcast days, obscu ring specific references, creating an every town without the triteness of Main St reet or suburban middle America. At a time when films were focusing on the inno cence and frivolity of gangs of youths and the Goonies Stand By Me and Ferris Buellers Day Off were scoring at the box office, Rivers Edge does not allow for youthful i ndiscretion and redemption.
71 There is a key difference between blank cinema and other films that attempt to offer messages of social reform or social crit icism. For example, some may ask how some films, like Rivers Edge may be considered blank, while others with seemingly similar mess ages of social concern, like Boyz in the Hood (1991), should not be considered a part of the blank cinema movement. The answer lies in the films narrative present ation. Urban realism and the minimalist literary movement differ from blank ficti on in their use of subtext. The shocking violence of urban realism contrasts with that of blank fiction in that the characters of urban realism are typically both vict ims and perpetrators and their motives are clearly presented, whereas the perpetrators of blank fiction violence hack away with gleeful abandon, and their actions ar e never explained away by economic oppression or the need fo r social reform. Blank cinema and films like the Rivers Edge are shocking in their lack of a clear social call to arms and their seem ing apathy toward death, violence, and moral codes. Films like Boyz in the Hood use shock tactics to bring attention to Americas underclasses without the subt lety and emphasis on amorality that blank cinema offers. The characters, rather than reacting to a system of oppression, have chosen not to react. The way the films are constructed presents a vision of middle-class, white Americans accepting and perpetuating a system of commodification and objectificat ion as though it were their natural, patriotic duty. Rather t han the American Adam of tradi tional American literature, blank fiction and cinema have produced a st andard character that is the bastard offspring of Holden Caulfiel d and Norman Bates. In Rivers Edge rather than
72 producing a coming-of-age f ilm that shows a group of high school friends learning what it means to be just or loyal or strong, director Tim Hunter and screenwriter Neal Jimenez create characte rs whose major realization is that people are disposable and that accepting deviance cures family rifts. There is never any true differentiation between the childs doll that Tim drowns during the opening shot of the film, the murdered body of Johns girlfriend, and Fecks inflatable doll girlfriend that meets her demise at the end of the film, no grieving for the true human tragedy of the film, and no opportunity for redemption at the tales end. Whereas Hunters film offers a blank perspective on the youth films of the times, films such as Ken Russells 1984 Crimes of Passion exploit the decadent, lush lifestyles that were so prevalent in popular 1980s American culture on television shows like Dynasty and the popular fiction of Danielle Steele. In this film, audiences are exposed to the dark, se cret life of a prof essional, aspiring yuppie Joanna Crane, aka prostitute China Blue (oddly prophetic of Elliss 1991 American Psycho). Although this film, with its mu rderous plotline and relatively clear antagonist in the form of the psychotic Rev. S hayne, does not necessarily fit the exact definition of blank cinema, as outlined in this project, the moral ambiguity of its characters, its emphasis on graphic sexuality and violence, and its reluctance to explain the psychol ogical issues of the protagonist and antagonist make it a solid example of t he type of outsider filmmaking that was making use of a blank style in order to create entertainment as social commentary.
73 A lack of explanation for a characters otherness is a key component of blank cinema and fiction, a way of forci ng an audience to confront the deviance of those who seem normal. For example, Joanna/Chin a Blues character chooses to spend her evenings as a prostitu te, but not necessarily for the money, not to support a drug habit, nor for any of the other reasons typically used as tropes in American cinema to explain fe male deviant behavior. Director Ken Russell and screenwriter Barry Sandler do not spend expository time explaining a traumatic childhood or unus ual psychiatric disorder. Reverend Peter Shayne, though depicted as an alcoholic, rampages through the film on his psychotic mission to kill China Blue without ever ex plaining his motivation. Although clearly disturbed, his character is never ex plained as possessed or evil, and his otherness goes undefined. In contrast to the striking otherne ss of China Blue and Rev. Shayne, Bobby Grady appears to be the films repres entative for moral order. He is depicted as a kind of eve ryman: a suburban father in an unhappy marriage with cars, a mortgage, and a chall enging struggle to remain in his middle-class position. Grady, however, leav es his wife, seeks out the thrill of a prostitute, and then begins his own mission to save the life of the designer-byday/mistress-of-sex-fantasy-by-night wo man with whom he becomes obsessed. Like the suburban teens of David Lynchs Blue Velvet the representatives of American normalcy in this film are ar guably the most othered, leaving the audience floundering in its search for a stable moral position from which to observe the film. This destabilization of the audiences judgmental position is a
74 key component of blank cinema and will be analyzed in detail in Chapter 4 with a close look at John McNaughtons 1986 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer As Less Than Zero was used to explicate the key ideas of blank fiction, so an analysis of Stanley Kubricks Full Metal Jacket will be used next. Kubrick released Full Metal Jacket in 1987, following a long line of Vietnam films. His film, however, as will be explored in detail, criticizes not just the social and political ills of its time but also the ideological mani pulation of the war films it mocks. Full Metal Jacket I argue that the filmmakers of blank cinema parody popular genres of film in order to strike out at depictions of mainstream ideology in the United States. Cinema is a medium that reaches a va st array of audiences, and as discussed previously, it has proven itself as a perpetuator of late capitalist ideological systems for years. War film s, in particular, have typically worked as a form of propaganda, vilifying enemies, extolling the virtues of American soldiers, justifying the nature of wa rs, and selectively presenting a positive rhetoric of militarism into mainstream culture. World war heroes have made us cry and denounce the enemy for decades, and war films now attempt to humanize the American soldiers that currently represent a difficult war in the Middle East. The way a war film is presented, like all propaganda, moderates popular reaction to the event, and, as critics like William A dams suggest, many war films attempt to
75 re-historicize events in order to ch ange popular attitudes toward painful war memories. What blank artists like St anley Kubrick have done is use the basic form and tropes of popular war films but manipulate them with challenging protagonists and interrogative investigations of military ideals and the rhetoric of violence. This manipulation of style enables blank artists to use signs of power in cinema and attempt to put the control of these signs into the hands of those concerned with social responsibility and me ssages of humanity, rather than those concerned with a perpetuation of violence and status qu o attitudes of military power. It is notable that Stanley Kubrick released Full Metal Jacket in 1987, the same year that Hanoi Hilton Good Morning Vietnam and Hamburger Hill were released. Their release followed an extensive line of Vietnam-related films, including Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and Platoon (1986), during what many argue is a particularly jingoistic era in U.S. history dur ing the Cold War and Reagan s emphasis on American national pride. To release his blank film at the same time as these popular films is particularly powerful, as Kubrick wa s able to show a remarkably vast and varied audience a new take on military pow er. In Gaylyn Studlars and David Dessers article Never Having to Say Y oure Sorry: Rambos Rewriting of the Vietnam War, the authors offe r an in-depth look at the politics of certain rightwing cinematic depictions of the Vietnam War: History is what hurts, writes Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious It is what refuses desir e and sets the inexorable
76 limits to individual as well as collective praxis (102). The pain of history, its delimiting effect on action, is often seen as a political, a cultural, a national liability. T herefore, contempor ary history has been the subject of an ideological ba ttle which seeks to rewrite, to rehabilitate, controversial and ambiguous events through the use of symbols. One arena of on-going cultural concern in the United States is our involvement in Vi etnam. It seems clear that reconstituting an imagea memoryof Vietnam under the impetus of Reaganism appears to fu lfill an ideological mission. (9) Studlar and Desser argue that the loss of hi storicity, as Jameson would identify it, in war films, from a psychoana lytic point of view, enables us to luxuriate in the symptoms of a desperate ideological repr ession manifested in the inability to speak of or remember the painful past ( 16). While some critics, like Studlar and Desser, look toward such films as sym ptoms of a culture s repressed memory, others, like William Adams in his essa y Vietnam Screen Wars, argue that certain Vietnam films attemp t to rewrite the history of the conflict. The phrase rewriting of history on screen suggests production of films that are projecting alternative realities to those which actually occurred. For many, presenting films with positive outcomes helps alleviate the pain that negative histories leave in a cultural psyche. Adams claims that in some unflinchingly conservative Vietnam films of the 1980s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984), Uncommon Valor (1983), and the rabid
77 Hanoi Hilton (1987)the allegorical sign ificance of the war is revealed as a crisis of national will (161). Regardless of the degree to wh ich critics believe that history has been lost on screen in relation to this particular war, a ll can agree that facts and ideologies are repeatedly manipulated in such films, and they contain the same war-film tropes that have existed in every standard war film ever producedthe clear struggles between good and evil, the r edemption of true American heroes, a celebration of fraternal bond, and battle scenes that depi ct an anonymous other as enemy. Such tropes inevitably redeem, at least to some degree, the misdeeds of those depicted as immoral and reinforce the pos itive messages of war that the United States uses as rational for force. Blank art, however, does not suffer from this lack of historicity, and it is the knowledge of their particular place within culture that helps blank films use the signs of popular art to articulate their me ssage of the potential for new ideological concepts of power. Full Metal Jacket is a film that does not suffer from a lack of historicity. Ironically, one of the most famous promot ion posters for the film boasts that it is acclaimed by critics ar ound the world as the best war movie ever made, when, in fact, Kubricks Vietnam f ilm should be praised as the best antiwar movie ever made. Obviously inspir ed by the slew of films produced in previous years, Full Metal Jacket parodies such films as Platoon serving as a clear work of anti-war propaganda and an excellent exam ple of blank cinema. What follows is an exploration of this film that will show how it fits into the blank fiction movement and its various levels of socio-political criticism.
78 Full Metal Jacket like other blank fiction films, clearly parodies the popular genre films of its time period. Kubricks use of ent irely constructed sets and his use of England as a base serve to exemplif y his abilities to mo ck the issues of historicity and hyperreality to which other films were falling victim. The film begins with the head-shaving ritual of new recruits at Parris Island and follows the young marines through their climactic battle in Hue, a solid basis for a traditional war film, though K ubrick avoids both the iss ue of jungle warfare and returning veterans, which had become (and remains) standard fare in other popular films. The entire mo vie, in fact, avoids jungl e scenes altogetherit was shot in England at Pinewood Studios and in military barracks. Some scenes of the ruined city of Hue were shot at a dockyard on the Isle of Dogs, London, which was scheduled for demolition. The ruins of Hue in the sniper and final nighttime scenes were shot at the Beckton Gasw orks in London's East End. Specific location scenes were either built at the st udios or improvised with local help. The rice paddy scene, for example, was shot along a Norfolk Broads canal. Footage of an actual graduation ceremony at Parri s Island was used in the film, with an insert from England added to it (I nternet Movie Data Base). Kubrick was clearly aware of and vo cal about his own position as a dictator of ideology with his film, a position of strength for a filmmaker making the argument that signs of power can be m anipulated and ideology can be shifted toward social responsibility. The sc enes related to Jokers position as a battlefield correspondent support this stanc e. The scenes in the marine papers conference room, for example, with Lt. Lo ckharts directives that the troops
79 paper contain more stories of bodies and victories and that terms must be changed for affect, such as In the future in place of search and destroy, substitute the phrase sweep and clear and can we make him [the confirmed kill] an officer? bring audience attention to the manipulation of facts and ideals. One of the key components of Full Metal Jackets blank construction is the duality of the Joker character. This duality emphasizes the amoral positioning of key blank characters and the open interrogation of signs and symbols of power. Jokers helmet, on which he wears a peace symbol and the marine mantra born to kill, is a foca l point of the film and presents a clear message of ideological manipulation. It is used with irony and spoken about lightly within the film itself, such as in the exchange between Joker and a colonel he meets on at a massacre site: Pogue Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor? Private Joker: A peace symbol, sir. Pogue Colonel: Where'd you get it? Private Joker: I don't remember, sir. Pogue Colonel: What is that youve got written on your helmet? Private Joker:
80 "Born to Kill," sir. Pogue Colonel: You write "Born to Kill" on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What's that suppos ed to be, some kind of sick joke? Private Joker: No, sir. Pogue Colonel: Youd better get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you. Private Joker: Yes, sir. Pogue Colonel: Now answer my question or you'll be standing tall before the man. Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir. Pogue Colonel: The what? Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir. Pogue Colonel:
81 Whose side are you on, son? Private Joker: Our side, sir. Pogue Colonel: Don't you love your country? Private Joker: Yes, sir. Pogue Colonel: Then how about getting with the program? Why don't you jump on the team and come on in for the big win? Private Joker: Yes, sir. Pogue Colonel: Son, all I've ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It's a hardball world, son. We've gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over. Private Joker: Aye-aye, sir. This particular scene emphasizes the social and political responsibility that blank cinema attempts to bestow upon its audience. Within these last four sentences, the movies ideological message related to the dehumanization of troops and the
82 unchecked spread of Western, capitalist power are su mmarized, and by bringing such complicated issues of power forward, it is arguable that certain ISAs of juridico-military power have been expos ed. Though short and humorous, this exchange not only highlights the duality of Jokers c haracterization, but the colonels last lines also emphasize Kubr icks anti-war, anti-military message: Son, all I've ever asked of my marines is that they obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here to he lp the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It's a hardball world, son. We've gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over . At this point in the film, the audience has only Joker with whom to ident ify (as the protagonist), and without a third party or other voice of omniscience, the audience is then forced to see the Pogue Colonels use of and under standing of power (in this instance, the power is America and its military enforcers) filtered through Jokers eyes. Joker observes the Colonels notions as illogical and problematic and, thus, so does the audience. Blank fiction and cinema are socially and politically pow erful media, and the blank film Full Metal Jacket enters into an arena of well-defined, welldefended popular ideology as a rogue mess enger of change. Presenting an antiwar stance through a parody of popular wa r films is brave and produces an incredibly powerful message. Kubrick c hooses to end the film with the remaining troops marching from their battle at Hue off into the darkness of Vietnam, singing the theme from the Mickey Mouse Club. Although some critics read this scene as a mourning of a loss of the soldiers innocence, the fact that Mickey Mouse is
83 referenced three times in the film, all at critical junctures (once before Pyle shoots Hartman, once duri ng the newsroom conference, and then again at the end of the film), suggests deeper, more important symbolism. For many people, Disney stands as a quintessentially American symbol, a symbol of fantasy, progress, and wealththe ultimate symbol of capitalist excess. To reference Disney so frequently in a war film immedi ately correlates the ideas of battle and capitalist excess, suggesting a relationship between the war and American ideology related to wealth and control, not justice or ideals of rightness, which suggests a strong anti-Vietnam message an d commentary on the motivations for Americas presence in Southeast Asia. Blank works are notable, as discu ssed, for their interrogation of commodification and issues of control in late capitalist society. To further investigate the suggestion of commodifi cation and control that the Disney symbolism brings to light in this movie, one must shift from the sing-song ending to the first part of the film at Parris Island. It is in Ma rine training that the young men of Full Metal Jacket are to become killing machines . Joker na rrates at the end of training that the recruits of Plat oon 3092 are salty. They are ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds. The dr ill instructors are pr oud to see that we are growing beyond their control. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear. The training section of the film intends to show how the men are broken down by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and rebuilt into Marine machines. The emphasis here is on t he dehumanization of these men.
84 This dehumanization is emphasized in the sequences inside the barracks during the drill, when a special lens was designed to keep every single soldier in focus. Stanley Kubrick intended that no one was special and they all had the same treatment (Internet Movie Database) The men are presented as cogs in a machine, and the individual character development is limited. Even the narrator/protagonist is limited to his nick name. Kubrick chooses to focus on the process and the issues related to training, rather than create individual heroes and scenes of fraternal camaraderie. This is most obvious at the end of the first part of the film. Having successfully comp leted training, all of the men graduate and are prepared to take their posts abroad. On their last night together, Private Pyle snaps and kills Sgt. Hartman and himself. The scene is quintessentially Kubrickian, with an overpowering use of sh adows, faces lit from below, and even parallel lines. The three men, Joker, Pyle, and Hartman, are together in the bathroom. The entire scene is colored in white, black, and muted shades of green. The three men are in their underwear with the e xception of Hartmans hat and Jokers pants and hat. The setting, the head, is a place where humans are at their most vulnerable, and Kubrick has his characters gathered there in a state of undress, further emphasizing their vu lnerability. Standing among rows of ordered toilets and the straight parallels t hat Kubrick likes so much, the trio is mismatched and odd. They are disordered. They are not machines, he shows us, but men. Humans. Hartmans hat and his barking tone are his attempts at presenting himself as a figure of power but in this scene, he loses control entirely as Pyle takes his life. Pyle then turns the gun on himself but spares
85 Joker after Joker appeals to his humani ty by calling him Leonard, his given name. Before the jump cut that leads to the second half of the film (in Vietnam) the red blood of the men stains the whit e tile room, an omen of the trauma to come. While many films attempt to justify the dehumaniz ing of troops by showing courage under fire and the creation of national heroes, Kubrick shows us damaged men, men that are not heroic and men that are not invincible. This exposure of the weakness of Am ericas defenders illuminates holes in the ISAs of military power, leavi ng a question in the minds of audiences, as blank art intends, as to who truly has or should have this particular power to affect the worlds conflict s. Blank art focuses on internal struggles against otherness and exposing the otherness of those who have been traditionally unexamined and unquestioned in their rights to power. K ubrick, in contrast to the dehumanization of the American troops, hum anizes the Vietnamese. Rather than creating a faceless Other in large-sca le battle scenes or scenes of godless atrocity faced by young, decent Americans Kubrick limits the battlefield scenes to two, both brief, both free of scowling, plotting enemies. The times the director does show Vietnamese faces, they are ei ther dead or under dure ss. They flee with their belongings, they dodge American machine gun fire, and they lie dead in mass graves. In one of the film s most shocking scenes, a young dead Vietcong soldier sits, dead, propped up lik e a rag doll amongst the American soldiers. Even the sniper that ca used so much death and pain for Jokers comrades is ultimately shown in a position of vulnerability as she begs for mercy, prays, and suffers an excrucia ting death. By avoiding the jungle and chaos of
86 battle scenes, Kubrick is able to shift the focus of other ness from the named Vietcong enemy to the in ternal otherness of traditi onally unexplored characters. Traditional military films like Brian De Palmas Casualties of War (1989) and similar films that attempt to show the internal struggle of soldiers in the shit, ultimately, unlike Full Metal Jacket fall back on traditional tropes of American war films and exalt a hero untouched by the evil around him, a true American who can, like young Chris, emerge Christ-like and vindicate the country for which he fights, such that In spite of all the pain, something like the American character, endures in the darkly charismatic, inverted heroes who suffered and ultimately survived the war (Adams 173). Kubrick, how ever, in the tradition of blank art, does not offer an American Adam able to extol the virtues of traditional good over evil. Private Joker is our presumed prot agonist. He narrates in voice-overs, and the film centers on his movements. He is a clear mem ber of the unexamined, a white, middle-class American youth, educated, and intelligent. His wit and ironic insights engage us, and his affection for Pyle and desire to protect Rafterman suggest that he could be the moral center of the film. Yet as t he film progresses, the audience is subjected to the ultimate position of amora lity that accompany the journeys of blank art protagonists. Joker participates in Pyles blanket party, for example, and though he recognizes t he darkness of those around himthe door gunners murder of unarmed farmers, fo r example, or the presence of the dead Vietcong soldierhe stands, like Clay in Less Than Zero as a passive witness. He does not interfere, and he does not redeem himself or his fellow Americans. In the climactic Hue City scene, Joker, the killer, stands
87 unprepared for his biggest challenge in the film; his choice to euthanize the young girl is fraught with indecision and, as spectators who have been offered only Joker as a moral center, the audien ce is forced to emphasize with his choice, whether or nor they agr ee with the one he has chosen. Blank cinema often employs atypical techniques of perspective that serve to intensify motifs of alienation, disc onnection, and confusion, which help further the underlying mission of blank art: shif ting traditional understandings of power through the control of popular symbols of power. The scene in Hue City is of particular importance to the discussion of Full Metal Jacket as a film of the blank cinema movement with the intent to shift ideals of power holding. There are only two scenes in the film in which the point of view shifts from third person to first person: the sniper scene and the making of Vietnam: the movie scene. Both are indicative of the social commentary of the film. The making of the movie scene shows the men speaking to a camera, offering their opinions and answering questions. Vietnam was the fi rst televised war, a war that made depictions of bloody, wounded soldiers commonplace in American living rooms and, arguably, a moment in time that hel ped shift American attitudes toward the need for immediate news. This meta-cinematic scene of a film being created during an active battle suggests the presenc e of the larger, civilian populace and their desire to consume images, to turn everything into entertainment. While some might argue that this is an off-hand gesture toward Western desensitization, or the waning of affect, it must be argued that for Kubrick to use this scene and to actually present this unspoken argument to the world at large,
88 he is directly arguing against a waning of a ffect. He is addressing this issue in a public forum, thereby contr adicting the concept of passive indifference. The sniper scene supports this argument. The sh ift in point of view from the soldiers to the person responsible for their death suggests an argument for audience responsibility. Rather t han watching the soldiers writhe in pain from a thirdperson camera point of view, Kubrick chooses to shift the camera point of view to the sniper, indicting the audience, in a manner of speaking, in the soldiers demise. We see them through her scope, we recognize the horror that will occur before they do, making us recognize our position of power. Kubrick is forcing his audience to consider their own responsibilit y for the events that affect the lives of young Americansa very clear anti-war message. Kubricks Full Metal Jacket though politically and soci ally important in its own right, serves as a clear example of the blank cinema movement that emerged at the same time as the blank fiction movement. The social and political criticism of these works of art is a remarkably important field of study that has gone unappreciated. Although blank fiction is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, the st udy of blank cinema could invite more interest from scholars concerned with recognizing the ar t forms emerging in the 1980s that contradict the dismissive ideologies of many postmodern critics.
89 Chapter 4: The Serial Killer In the blank fiction and cinema move ment, there is an emphasis on the unexamined character and a focus on the deviance of these characters actions and philosophies from the popul ar, traditional American moral ideology. In this traditional ideology, most adhere to the J udeo-Christian ethic of thou shalt not kill, the notion of fear or outrage in response to crimi nal acts, and, though we may not always follow it, the belief that as a culture we, as our Puritan forefathers before us, look out for our fellow communi ty members and deter criminal acts against them. The deviant protagonist of blank works is frequently offered without a foil, without someone following the traditional moral order with whom the audience might compare him/her and find him/her wanting ethically or morally. The deviant protagonist, like Clay in Less Than Zero or Joker in Full Metal Jacket emphasizes the lack of a moral c enter in blank fiction and film and the amoral subjectivity of the work itself. American popular culture typically str uggles with the idea of a lack of a moral center. Although our American society is extremely culturally diverse, we have basic collective concepts of accept ed normality, or what we label as normal or abnormal, right or wrong. Our justice system is based on these collective ideals. For exampl e, most of us would agree that murder is wrong, and serial killers are abnormal. When we see indications of anomalous
90 behavior in fellow citizens, particularly if this behavior is in any way threatening to us or those we care about, we seek ways of stopping or containing it. What we recognize as abnormal, we label as Other ; that which we attribute to being out with our collective moral code we consi der to be something that belongs to beings other than ourselves. In other wo rds, we, as normal citizens, do not commit heinous crimes, nor can we relate to those who do. In our contemporary U.S. culture, it is arguabl e that we unconsciously look for ways to confirm this ideology. We watch television shows on which those who commit crimes are referred to as perpetrators, criminals, and various other labels that reinforce the concept that these beings are Others, not everyday citizens. Watching films or TV shows that repress or exterminate the murderous Other not only justifies our system of beliefs but also makes us f eel safe and secure from that which we perceive as a threat. As Phil Simpson writes in his remarkable book on the serial killer in American fiction and film, Psycho Paths the horror genre can best be defined as that which depicts monsters fo r the purpose of disturbing, unsettling, and disorientating its consumers, often for the seemingly par adoxical purpose of reinforcing community identity (9). The Other serves, in all forms of fiction and film universally, as that which both deviates from and defines the norm. Most Hollywood or mainstream horro r films offer audiences a sense of security when they portray scenes in which the law prevails over the monster or killer and we see our concepts of right and wrong and good and evil reflected on screen. Within the culture industry, we expect and reward, through popular response, revenue, and marketing, the c onformity of commercial entertainment
91 that meets our aesthet ic expectations. Typically, got hic or horror films fulfill these expectations, offering easily distinguishable Others: Classic examples of Gothic literat ure deal with characters fears of the forbidden and their repression of unauthorized urges. They warn against extremes of pleasure and stimulation, which are seen to dull the capacity to reason, and encourage the transgression of social proprieties and moral laws. Archetypes of civilized society are used in the narrative to justify the condemnation of unacceptable acts, and likewise feed into our conception of reality (Helyer 726). Although in the gothic tradition the main characte r may be one struggling to contain both his good and evil sides, the didacticism of traditional gothic literature ensures that outsi de of the struggli ng protagonist exists a culture of jurisprudence and clearly expressed social and moral ideologies to which the good inside the man should aspire, a llowing the good to triumph over the deviant Other. In the mid 1980s, a new Other was making its way onto our screens: the serial killer. There are differing opinions as to why this phenomenon grew during this time. Some scholars, such as David Schmid in his book Natural Born Celebrities, suggest that the serial killer gave the populace a face for a new deluge of violent crime reporting that emerged as editorial standards dropped and news broadcasts competed for viewers of shows like Hard Copy Robert Conrath in his essay Serial Heroes: A Sociocultural Probing into Excessive
92 Consumption suggests that the serial killer achieved iconic status during the late 1980s because the killers extreme egocentrism paralleled the money-grubbing megalomaniacal likes of Donald Trump and Michael Milken (150). What I propose, however, is that horror films and novels used this new human monster figure as a way of expressing the fears of Americans who could not identify their source of anxiety during the Reagan Era. The serial killer, I argue, is not simply someone who evokes our fears of being kill ed, but he/she also makes us fear the Otherness within ourselves as a society and as individuals. The serial killer figure offered a manifestation of anxiety on which Americans could focus their insecurities during the midto late-1980s. During the 1980s, America was emerging from a recession, an oil crisis, and the overwhelming threat of nucl ear war. With Reagans government doing all it could to create a new, feel-good, capitalist ut opia, it was almost impossible for the nations common citizens to articulate t he source of the countrys underlying anxieties and fears. The Russians were weakening as a threat, communism had been contained, we won the war in Gr enada, and our president was enforcing positivism in a manner not seen in the United States in decades. America, citizens were being shown through popular media, was a great place to live, and we had no easily identifiable enemies anymore. Yet nations thrive on fear, as fears lead to conquest and serve as a way to distinguish clearly an us from a them. An Other on which to blame our unease gives us something external to fight and contain. But having these exte rnal fears supposedly diminished during in the late 1980s, we were forced to look inward for a mons ter to conquer. An
93 increase in American slasher, suspense, and horror movies, I argue, gave us superficial scapegoats to fear and monsters on which to blame our unease. The serial killer, in particular, gave us something real to fear within our own society. Yet this fear is not, simply, that we may be slaughtered in our beds by the quiet man next door. The fears provoked by seri al killer films are those fears we have about ourselves as human being s. If our anxieties c ould not be blamed on an external enemy, then they must originat e withinwithin our own country, thus within ourselves. Like the tradition of t he socially conscious gothic novels from which they came, serial killer novels and films suggest a presence of darkness within society. This is not a new idea and the revelation of the struggle within a single being between right and wrong is certainly not shocking. But what the serial killer works of the 1980s were able to do was allow Americans to shift their focus from a fear of foreign enemies and out sider threats to th e threat of that which lurked within their fellow citizens. The rhetoric of the New Right, as discussed previously, emphasized the import ance of national unity, a unity that required the alienation of those who differed from the ideals of a conservative nation, whether it be in an economic, sexual, or ethnic sense. Public reactions to the AIDS epidemic and homosexuals and the persecution of young African Americans as an answer to violent crime in urban areas are simply two examples of the kinds of attitudes that exemplif y this Othering and desire to eliminate difference. The serial killer represented difference amongst those striving for conformity.
94 The artists of this time period that were producing blank fiction and film were able to expand upon this new fascinat ion with the serial killer and exploit the new horror genre in the same manner that they were able to parody the various other popular genres discussed previously. The blank emphasis on undeveloped characterization, a lack of moral center, and an emphasis on internal otherness (without a moralizing external source) enable blank artists to use the serial killer figure for a more political purpose. Simpson argues that this invisible killer suits New Right rhetoric,10 which emphasizes the need for strong law-and-order social institutions to constrain mans fundamentally corrupt soul. But as earlier leftist and feminist critics discovered first, the same invisible killer concept is ambiguous enough that it can be used to level devastating critiques of the violence underlying traditional American values (136)/ Blank artists, whose political stat ements are steeped in leftist leanings, have capitalized on the serial killers natural blankness. In The Unexamined Chambers explores the unex amined nature of whiteness and the fact that its nature is unparadigmatic compared with all that is considered non-white. The focus of his essay is on the power whiteness possesses because it remains unexamined, in contrast to the paradigmatic nature of the non-white categories that invite exploration and scrutiny because of their very difference. Whiteness, he says, is not a classificatory ident ity but just the unexamined norm against 10 The serial killer figure has most recently been hi-jacked by the resurgence of the New Right rhetoric the United States is experienc ing as the war in Iraq wages. The Dexter phenomenon has created a superhero out of a vigilante serial killerthe murderer with a heart of gold and the best of intentions.
95 which such identities are defined, co mpared, and examined Whereas others may have group identities, white people as a group are just the unexamined. But there is more political strengt h in that than in all the iden tity politics in the world (197). Blank artists aim to interrogate this notion of power. The unexamined quality of whiteness and its alignment with power in Western cultures generally m eans that there is a void in art and popular culture where stereotypes or other figures intended for representational criticism should be. What Chambers seems to be suggesting is that if a culture treats white men in power as individuals, then dissent against their actions will generally be specific to the man. Whereas cultura lly we have had a traditionally easier time creating stereotyped bogeymen of various races and ethnicities, what America had been lacking was a figure in art and cu lture that served as a means to criticize this unexamined group as a whole; yet some began to formulate ways of doing this in their art in the mid-1980s. The serial killer figure in particular served as a cultural icon and a means for th is criticism. Dir ectors and writers use of the serial killer in U.S. popular culture of the 1980s began as a way of publicly exploring and criticizing the polit ical power of white men in America with a particular emphasis on the Reagan administration. Before examining the two keys works I will use to support this argument, Bret Easton Elliss 1991 novel American Psycho and John McNaughtons 1987 film Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer it will be helpful to look at a typical depiction of the serial killer in popular cultur e and then discuss how blank works contrast with more mainstream exam ples. Michael Manns 1986 Manhunter is based on
96 Thomas Harriss novel Red Dragon (the novel before his best-known 1991 novel Silence of the Lambs ). Using the tropes of traditional horror films, Manhunter is an excellent example of a late-1980s U.S. serial killer film that is saturated with phenomenological questions re lated to life in Reagans America, but one that, unlike blank novels or films, relies on ex isting ideological ideas of morality and justice. In Manhunter, Mann offers his audience three manifestations of evil lurking behind an unexamined face: the serial killers Red Dragon and Hannibal Lector and the character of FBI agent Will Graham. Red Dragon, the films primary villain, is on a murderous spree, killing and mutilating white, uppermiddle-class nuclear families. He is a serial killer not content to murder prostitutes or other vulnerable victims of the night. His victims are not killed out of retribution, nor are t hey murdered for the moralizing reasons often seen in slasher filmsthey are not teenagers fornic ating in the woods or drinking in deserted cemeteries. His role as white male killer is advanced to a level of debauchery beyond that of the typical white male killer in cinematic historyhe is not a gangster or a soldier or a hired a ssassin. He has not been bitten by a vampire or werewolf, and he is not posse ssed by aliens or demons. His are purely human acts. His victim s, rather than vulnerable creatures of the night or members of Americas under world, are symbolic of those living the American dream. By exposing the vulnerability of the privileged, as many horror films do, filmmakers working with serial killers are able to approach an audience with fears unassociated with those of their daily lives, forcing them to confront more
97 generalized anxieties about t he stability of their power and their control. His victims are, generally speaking, presented as innocent and unaware that they are being stalked. By invading their homes, Red Dragon is not only destroying their lives, he is destroying the sense of safety assumed by all Americans when they are tucked away in suburbia. His r each extends to the successful and the powerful (his victims are obviously wealthy) a clear reference to the vulnerability that all Americans have at the hand of t hose in positions of governmental power in the United States, not just the poor and struggling. Red Dragons crimes are unexpected and seemingly inexplicable and representative of the threat behind that which is unexamined and unknown. Ha nnibal Lector, the films secondary serial killer, is explained in the mo vie by FBI profiler Will Graham as being insane. Lector is locked safely inside of a cellhis captivity, plus his mental condition thus explained, renders him a neutered threat in the plot. His character, however, is not necessarily a representation of the threat of the unexamined by itself; Lector is actua lly used as a way of introducing Grahams capacity for evil. Graham, family man and sensitive, brooding genius who was responsible for catching serial killer Lector, realizes that he must go to Lector and seek his help in finding Red Dragon. In their first discussion in Lectors cell, Lector taunts Graham with t he phrase: You know why you caught me Will? You know why you caught me? The reason is we re just alike. In this scene the distinction between the serial killer Other and the man in the film with whom we are to identify as normal is blurred. Gr aham is able not only to understand Lector (and other murderers), he is able to ident ify with him and he shares some of the
98 same personal and intellectual characterist ics. This connection disables the audiences ability to judge and dismiss Lec tor as entirely Other and Graham as entirely safe. Grahams di smissal of Lector as insane offers some solace to the audience and allows them to formulate some sort of a distinction between the two, but by connecting the hero and villain in the film, the audience is shown how fine a line there is between normalcy and insanity and how pervasive evil is among members of the unex amined group of powerful, white men. Manhunter is similar to arts of the blank movement, with its focus on white characters deviance. In this film, Graham struggles with the realization that he is so closely tied to the Other, and we s ee him unable to rid himself of this disturbance even after he has eliminated Red Dragon. However, regardless of whether or not Graham is aware of and abhorred by his likeness to Lector, Mann ensures that his audience is not only alerted to the similarity but also very aware that this connection does not go away with the destruction of Red Dragonit remains within Graham even as he plays wi th his son during the sunset scene at the end of the film. The potential for ev il lurks, and Grahams son is a symbol that this menace will remain in future generations if it is not exposed and addressed. The film touches on many of the same i ssues as the two serial killer tales that follow, and it is an inte llectual step away from t he pastiche of exploitation films such as Natural Born Killers or the didactic lessons of Stephen Kings novels. The Oliver Stone film, which on a basic level appears to be critical of criminal celebrity, lacks the critical distance to achieve any true notion of
99 criticism. The film was incredibly popular, and its heavy emphasis on justice allowed Stone to offer closure and comfort to those seeking confirmation of the generalized ideology of judicial power and the punishment of deviance. And, though one may be tempted to read Will Grahams character as a deviant protagonist like those in blank art, his judicial training and reliance on protocol, and his keen awareness of his potential difference, make him much more similar to the reformed monster in a gothic horro r than an amoral figur e of ontological questioning like Clay or Joker. As a w hole, the film speaks to the unconscious social and political discomfort that m any possessed in American culture of the time, but it does not address t he problems as directly as t he serial killer works of the blank movement. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer To present the argument that the blank movements us e of the serial killer figure is an especially powerful tool for its social and political criticism, I will present a brief analysis of John McNaughtons Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), a clear example of blank cinem a. It is a cinematic work of phenomenological interrogation of a serial murderer. Now commonly referred to as a cult movie,11 the film evoked little serious crit icism from scholars. It is a 11 The term cult movie was coined by Danny Peary in his 1981 book Cult Movies, a text consisting of a series of essays regarding w hat Peary described as the 100 most representative examples of the cult film phenomenon. Peary defines cult films as special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed. He argues that, as opposed to most mainstream cinema, cult movies are born in contro versy, in arguments over quality, theme, talent
100 low-budget, technically simplistic work, but McNaughtons distinctive way of presenting his monstrous pr otagonist deserves much more critical attention than it has received. Henry is a film that creates more questions than it answers; it is a film that forces its audience to questi on not only its own concepts of ontology but also the entire socially constructed, Western system of what it means to be normal. McNaughton accomplishes this by keeping his film devoid of references to any construct of mo ral normalcy and therefore keeping his audience from being able to pass moral j udgment on the events of his film. In order to create this lack of moral normalcy, McNaughton removes several standard elements of the horror film from his movie. Henry is lacking several key tropes of standard horror genre films, but there are four cr ucial points worth noting specifically: There is no clear begi nning or ending to the narrative, there are no obvious reasons for Henrys choi ce of victims, there is no clear psychological explanation for his behavio r, and there is no foil or contrasting character to which Henry can be compared (most notably, there is no law enforcement character to contrast with our killer). Blank works do not fulfill the expectations of the genres that they parody. For example, in standard horror films, dr amatic tension is built through the narrative of the story. Typically an audience is startled by an initial murder, then introduced to the perpetrat or of the crimes, then engaged in a cat-and-mouse game between the killer and thos e trying to stop him (usually the monster or killer is masculine). The end of the film fo llows the defeat of the monster by law and other matters. Cultists believe they ar e among the blessed few who have discovered something in particular that the average moviegoe r and critic have missedthe something that makes the pictures extraordinary.
101 enforcement or its symbo lic representatives. In Henry however, we are not guided into the film and then surprised by a murder. The o pening of the films shows flashes of several brutally mu rdered corpses. We meet Henry at breakfast, in between murders. There is no dramatic tension in our introduction. The film continues without any real suspense other than, perhaps, who Henry might choose to kill next or how long we can go through the film without Otis doing something repulsive. There is no game of chase and no concern for Henrys capture. The f ilm does not have any closureit ends as it begins, following Henry through a murderous sp ree. We are dropped into his life unexpectedly just as we are dropped out of it, remini scent of the victims he claims throughout the film. Blank works also fail to offer the kind of closure most popular arts provide in terms of answering questions related to why crimes or violence have occurred. Victims of the murderous Other in gorefilled horror or common slasher films will often fall victim to the cr iminal for a reason; often the victim has a previous relationship with the killer or the victim fits into a specific profile to which a serial murderer is attracted. These reasons, of course never make the murder justifiable, but often they help the audienc e make sense of the violence. Even in the teen slasher film, we re cognize that the kids having sex or drinking in the woods will get it because they are doing something naughty in the dark. In Henry however, McNaughton goes to great l engths to show us how senseless and random violence can be. Steven A. Jones, McNaughtons co-scriptwriter for Henry suggests that the reason for the solid X rating that the film received from
102 the MPAA was because people want to belie ve that there arent random acts of violence out there. Well, the real Henry (i.e. Henry Lee Lucas, after whom McNaughtons and Joness character is m odeled) went seven years uncaptured. Scary but true. We gave out that mess age, and it was too emotionally disturbing (Hantke 10) for general audiences. Although all of Henrys murders in the film are apparently chosen at r andom (with the exception of Becky and Otis), there is one chilling scene in particular that demonstr ates his morally abject choices. We see Henry sitting in his car outside of the mall. Several women come out into the parking lot and he, as we see through the camera in the switch in perspective from third person to first, eyes them a ll. For a reason we cannot determine, he chooses one and follows her to her house. He later returns to kill her. Further into the film we see chance at play again when Henry takes Otis out for a kill. They park their car on the shoulder of a tunnel, shooting indiscriminately the first concerned citizen that stops to help. We cannot rationalize the choice in victims, and thus a clear distinction between our concept of nor mality and the ideology of the murderous others has been blurred. Popular culture thrives on explanation as a way of abating fears of violence and fears of Otherness, whereas blank works emphasize the irrational, random nature of violence and horror. In typi cal reports of stories of serial killers, for example, there is usual ly a dialogue explaining what led the killer to commit atrocities. Understanding why someone do es something we consider abnormal helps us rationalize the occurrence. Fo r example, killer tomatoes from outer space are destroying the planet because things from outer space are weird and
103 dangerous Others from a different world or those that are markedly, absolutely different from us in some way make it easier for us to draw a line between us and them. Usually, the Otherne ss of the monster has been cl early identified and our concept of ourselves and our collecti ve normality are unchanged. In gothic horror this is evident in the physical presence of the killerhe is an easily identifiable monster. In his article Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film, Steffen Hantke suggests that the monsters body is a signifier in which monstrosity appears directly, unmistakably, palpably, visibly, shockingly (34). In serial killers films, we know that the monster we are watching is supposed to look normalwe recognize this as one of the things that scares us. But typica lly his mask of normality slips and we see him clearly for the monster he is (35). Camera angles, horrific facial expressions, and other physical indicators cr eated by the director help us to see this. This slip typically occurs in the presence of other characters, who shriek with fear at the revelation of the monster s true nature. Yet in Henry this never happens. Henry is relatively attractive and, though fri ghtening to watch while he kills, never appears less or more t han the average human. When investigating the psyche of serial killers, it helps us to know that they do the things that they do because they have a mental disorder or they were abused as children or they are demons fr om hell. As Phil Simpson suggests, the killers are coded as monsters, but a tragic personal history of abuse or neglect is also usually fore grounded as a par t of the narrative, humanizing them to at least some extent and making them capable of earning our sympathy (11).
104 Establishing clear reasons for their behavio r also gives us a definite distinction between ourselves and them. In addition to the physical reassurance that our killer is definitely a monster, most films or novels help us rationalize our monsters acts by telling us why he does what he does. Yet in Henry we are left only to guess. McNaughton toys with his audience in this regard. We see Becky, enamored with Henry, question him as to why he killed his mother. Otis told her that Henry shot and killed his own mother and another man. Henry tells Becky that his mother vict imized him, making him wear a dress (echoes of Psycho, of course) and watch her sleep with various men, beating him when he disobeyed. He then tells Becky that he stabbed his mother. She questions the discrepancy between the st ories, and he becomes defensive and seemingly confused. We get the impr ession that he has told many different versions of such a story to many people, offering to his listeners what he assumes people want to hear. As Hantke suggests, we must conclude that the personal confession about his own victimization a standard trope in current narratives about origins of violenceis nothing but a convenient psychological tool for him to subdue his victims (Violence 36). The audience is left with an unreliable explanationwe will never know why he does what he does. McNaughton has left us purposefully epistemologically confused. We cannot understand Henry, and therefore clear line between us and the Other has been blurred. The blandness of Henrys behavior and his se emingly off-hand choices again posit questions of ontology. Normally audienc es are traditionally presented with villains gleefully rubbing their black-gloved hands at the prospect of picking their
105 victim or plotting like some kind of evil geni us. Henrys blankness is all the more threatening in its passi ve, amoral figuration. Blank cinema, in addition to removing an explanation for crimes or deviance, also removes the comforting not ion that there are those in the world who inevitably stand against that which threatens unity and safety. Blank fiction rarely offers a character that can be consid ered a figure of justic e or morality. In many films, even if we are left to ponder wh y the monster is as extreme as he is, we can at least depend on the other characters in the film to reflect our sense of morality or at least our basic ideals of normalcythey do not murder people at random or commit other basic atrocities. Yet again in Henry a quintessential blank film, McNaughton has removed this comforting trope. He gives us no characters with whom we might hope to relate. There is no presence of jurisprudence in the film, no steely detecti ve knocking on the door or mismatched police partners solving their emotional crisis through their successful pursuit of a monster. There are really only two ot her characters in the entire film: Otis, Henrys old cellmate who is now his roomma te, and Becky, Otiss sister. Otis, in contrast to Henry, is an unattractive, physical menacing character. He is physically repulsive and completely morally corrupt; he is also an idiot. His outward appearance and mannerisms indicate the inner turmoil of evil. He is a classic murderous Other. We can immediately place him in the category of Other and at no time do his behaviors challenge our assumptions. Becky, on the other hand, appears initially to be our only repres entative of normality. Hiding from an abusive husband and trying to find work in Chicago, she represents that which
106 we can at least pity, if not relate to. We then learn of her terrible childhood (what we were hoping to learn of Henry) and her abuse at the hands of her father. Her immediate attachment to Henry is only mildly disturbing, but her worn-down acceptance of her brothers abuse begins to alienate the audience. Incest, a taboo in any film, is put right before us in the relationship between brother and sister. Even Henry objects. Yet Becky s objections are weak, and the situation takes on a culturally unacceptable feeling of permissibility. This awkward depiction of emotional response to abuse fu rthers this blank works attempt at undermining notions of conformity and symbols of basic normality. The removal of morally centered charac ters from the tale allows blank works to manipulate the c oncept of those in power. When power is removed from the hands of those typi cally considered just and right, audiences are forced to consider the power held by deviant Others. In Henry, having to abandon all hope of having a main character to whom we can cling for moral support, we begin to expect the arrival of a detective or other appearance of someone representing order and justice. Someone, we assume, will have to chase Henry, to threaten his spree, to stop him and Otis from killing again. But there are no close calls, no inquiries, no interviews, and no escapes. Henry is never challenged, and we are left on our own with the Other, w ho, by the end of the film, has become our only hero. Aside from his continuous killing, he is much less upsetting for us than Otis and easier for us to emotionally handle than Becky. And he is so good at what he does it seems almost natural for us to root for himalmost, of course And after McNaughton has stripped away all of our
107 comforting tropes that would usually keep us solidly connected to a moral norm, we recognize that we are alone with Henr y, and we feel ourselves beginning to relate to him. As we follow Henry th rough the film, we begin to anticipate his actions. We know he will murder Becky, for example, and when we see him take the suitcase from his truck, we know that it contains her lifeless body. As he drives away toward the horizon at the end of the film, we know he is headed west to continue his murderous spree. By the end of the movi e we are understanding an Other who we assumed we could never, ever understand. That this is possible in the world McNaughton has cr eated, one devoid of reference to real life, and one without a moralizing distance, is frightening to our moral ideology. All blank films have the effect of l eaving their audiences emotionally raw and somewhat morally confused. Henry is no exception. The violence and subject content are brutal, and there is no re spite from the horror of the film. The pressure of the narrative is constant. Devin McKinney, in her article Violence: The Strong and the Weak, discusses t he relentless tension of the film: There is a grinding insistence on murder as a mere relief of tension, a dully masturbatory act, and it infuses even the nonviolence scenes with a glowering menace. T he life seen here is entirely of a piece with death: there is no real world, no normality to return to. What this means in practice is that although the presentation is outwardly neutral, its effect is extreme. Unlike the common run of hermetic, low-budget bloodbaths, Henry puts its banality to a purpose. Its very monotony induces paranoia, hypersensitivity to
108 what was once ordinary. Like all wo rks of strong violence, it leaves its audience feeling dead inside, yet, somehow, more alive than it was before (18). The somehow to which McKinney is refe rring can be explained as the turmoil of emotions that the audience experiences after watching the film. McNaughton engages his audience, asking questions of us and taking away our comforting reality that we normally carry with us during horror films. In contrast to Hantke, who feels that the movie has a curious failure to engage the viewer emotionally (Violence 4), most audiences members will find this a compelling film, one that leaves them feeling emotiona lly exhausted. Most of this exhaustion comes from our knowledge that we have temporarily connected with a serial killer. This connection or moment of relativity m eans we have recognized the Other within ourselves, a terrifying moment of metacogni tion when we are forced to face the capacity for evil that lurks within us all as human beings. Had McNaughton left us to our own self-flagellation after we realized that we had stopped judging Henry and begun to understand him, the movie would have still been described as a blank f ilm and still been a challenge to its audiences concept of reality. Howeve r, as blank artists are consistently challenging their audiences notions of basic ideological norms, he did not stop there. McNaughton goes beyond this in Henry and actually implicates his audience in the perpetuation of the horro r of serial murder Otis and Henry procure a video camera, which they use to record their exploi ts. Otis becomes fascinated with watching the videotape, and we see the acts of violence repeated
109 regularly on the screen of the television We judge Otis for his childlike glee as he watches the horror unfold on his screen. His obsession with viewing the tape over and over repulses us. This repulsion then, we cannot escape as we realize that we, in a sense, are committing the same acts as we watch Henry kill his victims on camera. The use of the video camera in the film has little to do with meta-cinema and a lot to do with implicating the audience and its desire to see violence on film. How can we judge Otis for doing something very similar to what we are doing by watching the movie our selves? We then must recognize how much our sense of normalcy overlaps t hat which we had prev iously considered distinctly Other. Alternat ively, one might begin to pond er, as we are forced to consider when Kubrick turns the camera to ward the snipers victims, what our particular part is in this film, what kind of responsibility we must face for knowing and predicting the criminals behavior yet watching passively as he keeps on moving. In Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer John McNaughton removes the classic horror film tropes that give the audience a sense of dist inct separation from that which they fear. No longer are we allowed the security of knowing that we are normal and the monsters ar e screen are Others. In Henry we are left with no clear narrative structure that gives us a sense of closure and distance. We have no way of understanding what makes Henry so different and therefore no way of rationalizing his actions. We are left confused and frightened. Henry is not caught by a representative of our moral code, and we, at the end of the film, watch him drive away with no intention of stopping him ourselves. We see the
110 barriers between normal and abnormal being torn down within the film, and we feel them being torn down within ourselves. By relating to Henry we are admitting to the Other we have inside our selves, the Other we have tried to ignore for so long by seeing him caged and contained in classic horror films. In Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer John McNaughton presents his audience with a study of a killer who is unknown to everyone, yet somehow familiar. Henry is a kind of ev erymanhe has no outstanding physical characteristics, and he is presented to the audience unmasked and unmarked. Aside from his murderous rampage (which has been going on for an undisclosed amount of time), he appears in no way abnormal. He is articulate and mildmannered. He is charismatic in an understated waywomen are attracted to him, and he asserts his domination over ot her men with relative ease. In the outside world, Henry could pass easily as a member of the unexamined social group. He is therefore an ideal character to represent the threat of the unexamined. Henry, in contrast to the other prot agonists of blank fiction discussed thus far, seems incongruous in that he is seemingly illiterate and the son of an abusive prostitute. But Henry, like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is a complex character, difficult to define and inconsistent in his tales of his past. McNaughton emphasizes this by dropping the audience into the film with no fixed introduction and ending the film wit h Henry heading out on an anonymous highway. We are given no real information as to Henrys actual past or his future plans, and his time in Chicago living with t he white trash siblings could easily be
111 a single act in his multifaceted life. Henr y is by far the most blank of the blank protagonists, and though he appears to lack the wealth and privilege of his counterpoints in other blank works, his charm and his ability to fit into any situation identify him as a quint essential white, male threat. American Psycho The two most aggressive examples of blank works are McNaughtons Henry and Bret Easton Elliss American Psycho (1991). These two pieces, with their emphasis on the serial killer figure and their ironic incorporation of the horror genre, are consistently challenging to notions of morality, normality, and, ultimately, to signs of power. Wh ile McNaughtons film produced little popular attention, Elliss American Psycho created a maelstrom of controversy even before its publication. Although popular response is not always necessary to understanding the affect of blank works, exploring the response to this novel should help in explaining the nuance and de licacy of Elliss criticism of popular culture. His novel has attracted a lo t of media attention, and the varying reactions of those expressing an interest in the novel exposes the various levels of social and political critic ism expressed in the story. In contrast to the fact that it is beginning to receive critical, academic attention, when it was first publish ed in 1991, the publication trials and tribulations and the popular, public response to Bret Easton Elliss American Psycho overshadowed the book itself. St opped at the eleventh hour of its
112 publication by Simon & Schuster, it was quickly picked up by Random House Publishers. Time and Spy magazines reported on the graphic descriptions of violence in the text, prompting Simon & Sc huster to pull out of its contract with Ellis. When this information was released, public interest was, of course, piqued. Hailed by some as an icon for free speec h and deplored by others as a torturer's manifesto, the text itself has been largely overlooked. Its existence as a piece of fiction has even been missed by many who have attacked Ellis himself, confusing him with his serial-killer protagonist Patri ck Bateman. The novel (and Ellis) have been labeled anti-woman. Bu t the text is anti-dog, too and anti-beggar and antichild (Wheldon 2). Regardless of how it is labeled, the novel does not fail to shock. In her article The Aesthetics of Serial Killing: Working Against Ethics in The Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho , Sonia Baelo Allu discusses the violent nature of the text in contrast to another popular novel of serial killing, Silence of the Lambs In American Psycho, she suggests, Tortures and killings are narrated in detail. Whereas Demme [dir. Silence of the Lambs] offered only a safe shock, Ellis offers gruesome depictions of horribl e acts. I agree with Linda Kauffman who observes that [what] E llis has done is translate what viewers see on the screen in horror films into prose, transcribing the thousands of discrete sights, sounds, and sensations the brain records in each frame of any horror film. (16) The nuanced, explicit, what many have called pornographic violence of the novel is what stimulated t he furor surrounding its release. The nature of this
113 violence and its literary significance wil l be discussed further, but what must be addressed first are the in itial critical reactions to the novel itself. Many academics, once they are able to look past the gruesome details of maiming and torture, have begun a dialogue that ex plored the meaning behind Elliss bloody third novel. The majority of critical discourse has centered on issues of commodification and the material culture of midto late-1980s America that the story seems to c ondemn. It is true that American Psycho is typical of blank fiction in that the commodity is a central figure of the work. As in Less Than Zero taking time to understand the interest in commodification is important because, as Ernest Mandel argues, in Late Capitalism contemporary economics involves a v ast penetration of capital into the spheres of circulation, se rvices and reproduction, a process that operates by extending the boundaries of commodity production. Relentless commodification, a process that effects almost all levels of social life, characterizes what he calls the late capitalist period (Annesley 8). Ellis, like all blank artists of his time satirizes the late capitalist world of the late 1980s New York, basing his book around the effects of widespread commodification. His characters are no longer fully fleshed-out people, they are simply things in the system of commodities: In the system of commodity econo my, everything, including people, their capabilities and talents, etc, becomes a commodity, there is a tendency, not only to treat everyt hing as a commodity, i.e. as
114 something which is bought and sold; but since things are commodities, there is also a t endency to endow everything with the nature of things, to reification (Schaff 75). Elliss characters are portrayed as things not as people, and they relate to one another as thingsjudging one anothers marketability and value. Bateman epitomizes this; those in his world hav e been completely reified and there is no sign of humanity left. The violence in t he text centers on the ultimate form of commodificationthat of turning a human being into a commodity, not as a form of labor commodity, but as an object. Ba teman is the definitiv e consumer; his life is based around what he wears, buys, and eats (and whom he dismembers, of course). There are numerous ex amples of such consumption: Autumn: a Sunday around four o'cl ock in the afternoon. I'm at Barney's buying cufflinks. I had walked into the store at two-thirty, after a cold, tense brunch with Christ ie's corpse. In addition to the cufflinks, I've bought an ostrich travel case with double-zippered openings and vinyl liners, an antique, silver, crocodile and glass pill jar, an antique toothbrush container, a badger-bristle toothbrush and a faux-tortoiseshell nailbrush. Dinner last night? At Splash (280). Bateman is a consumer with unlimited wealth and unlimited desires and as such he is unable to distinguish between purchasing a camera and purchasing a woman (Annesley 14). And purchase wom en he does, whether it is literally (call girls and hookers) or figur atively, wining and dining and buying presents for his
115 dates. His violence agains t them emphasizes his feelin gs of ownership, and their murders represent not only their total reification (as disposable things) but also Batemans desire to consume them totally, to take from them all they can possibly give. He takes this even furt her when he tries to eat them, trying to satisfy both his consumer urges and his co rporeal desires (Annesley 16): I want to drink this girl's blood as if it were champagne and I plunge my face into what's left of her stomach, scratching my c homping jaw on a broken rib (Ellis American Psycho 331). Batemans desire to consum e is insatiable, and the connection between his cannibalism and Elliss comm entary on late capitalism has been the primary focus of literary critics in their responses to this novel. The objectification and commodity feti shism of the novel is never so clearly presented as in the scene in which Bateman cruises for prostitutes in the meat packing district, finding one standing alone beneath a giant sign that says MEAT in red, capital letters. James Annesleys entire reading of the novel, in his seminal work on blank fiction, is based on the belief that Elliss point is that the human dimension has been occluded in contemporary society with destructive consequences (20) and t he madness of Patrick Bateman is the natural product of a society in which ra mpant consumerism intersects with the hyperreality of a media society (19). It is undoubtedly obvious that Batemans morality has been replaced by consumerism. His ethics have been exchanged for a capitalist mantra: If it looks good and ha s solid market value, then it is good. When he references Stashs cheap, bad haircut he admits that it is a haircut thats bad because its cheap ( AP 20). He is fanatical about his appearance and
116 in constant distress that he or his belongings may appear less than perfect. Inadequacy over his business card in co mparison to a colleague's brings on a dizzy spell. His grooming products are of equal importance to air and water. Superficial appearance and material possession in American Psycho replaces any need for personal depth. There is a stark lack of characte rization and depth in Bateman and in every other character presented in the novel. Alex E. Blazers article Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity: Defi ning the Postmodern through Bret Easton Elliss American Psycho , defines Batemans lack of depth, suggesting that he cannot differentiate between products and people, consumption and affect: hes flat, superficial, and ultimately unfathomable. Blazers article identifies the key problem with the vast majority of critical discourse related to American Psycho Blazer argues: Postmodern culture, habituated to the velocity of life, takes emptiness as its foundation, and its origin, and is thereby driven by and to images of hyperreality in an exponentially mediated existence. Below the mask is si mply another mask, another media. Depth is an image, an image of an illu sion. Depth is precisely what Jack Gladney in Don DeLillos White Noise lacks: existing in an age of incessant media bombardment, a vi rtual reality of sorts, the only epiphany he is capable of involves a Toyota Celica, the word as pure signifier, not even the thing itself.
117 Identifying (as this article does) Jack Gladney as Batemans contemporary suggests that American Psycho is nothing more than extreme example of typical postmodern fictiona White Noise on drugs. But having considered the mode of fiction, blank fiction, that Ellis empl oys and the degree to which he uses irony and obvious humor to make statements about la te capitalism, one must insist that the majority of critical readings of this nov el have not yet fully explored the overall, holistic message of the book. Blank fiction does fall victim to a lack of interpretation by audiences, and as with his first novel, Less Than Zero Ellis is presenting his audience with a satirical, insightful book that has been oversimplified and misinterpreted by critics. Reading American Psycho as a criticism of late capitalist culture is to understand it on only one level, but to suggest, as Annesley does, that its violence and graphic nature render it as me rely pastiche and make it a part of the problem of media-saturated America is to completely ignore the multi-layered cultural commentary of t he novel (21). Although many have denounced this book as a contribution to the degeneration of culture because of its pornographic violence, others have recognized it as sa tirical commentary on the violent images produced by a late capitalist society. While together these two arguments produce an interesting postmodern debate, to understand the book in either one of these ways is to grossly oversimplify and misunderstand the text. In the art of the blank fiction movem ent, there is a void where moral order typically stands in popular culture, and the ideals of justice and law are notably absent. One of the primary reasons that Elliss book upsets so many people
118 seems to be the fact that Bateman does not face justice for his crimes. The text annoyed both left and right, first by gl eefully cutting up women and then by getting away with it. (If ther es one thing that disturbs mainstream American more than evil, its amorality ) (Dunant 24). Graphic, violent texts are acceptable in America if the line between good and evil is clear and justice prevails. Such balance assures us that the system is working and everything is in its place. That is why, according to critic Fay Wheldon, novels by Stephen King and Thomas Harris are best sellers not banned for indecency. In these texts there has always been someone to play lip service to respectability: to the myth that the world we live in is still capable of affect. The serial killer gets discovered, punished, stopped. There are people around to throw up their hands in horror, who can still distinguish between what is psychotic and what is not (2). Alas, audiences are unable to make this distinction in American Psycho. As in the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in this novel we only have events through the eyes of the psycho and no one to st eer us straight, no straight-talking cop, no psychoanalyst to explain it all to us. Being psychopathic, Bateman is also an incredibly unreliable narrator, whic h causes even more confusion to the readerit is difficult to denounce the acti ons of someone when one is not even sure they are actually occurring. A ccording to Carla Freccero, Batemans unreliability and his struggle between his two identities presents inevitable cracks in his narration and allow us to peer into the void beneath (62).
119 The blank movements emphasis on the blankness of its characters is clearly illustrated through Bateman and hi s thinly developed cast of support characters, like Clay and his friends in Less Than Zero who serve to not only criticize the superficial world that helpe d create them but draw attention to the void over which they have plastered thei r worldly faades. Batemans ability to look like the boy next door and totally GQ means he passes easily as a respectable member of soci ety, not giving any clues to his masochistic streak. Even when he attempts to give clues to re veal himself, no one listens: '"Patrick is not a cynic, Timothy. He's the boy nex t door, aren't you honey?" "No I'm not," I whisper to myself. "I'm a fucking evil psychopath (Ellis American Psycho 19). No one appears to listen to one another at all in the novel. People ignore most of what is said to them, and El lis portrays them as heari ng only what they want to hear. To the world he appears a yuppie pr ince, and no one wants to dig beneath the surface. Presenting Bateman not as some horrific abe rration, but as a yuppie everyman (Annesley 19) and having him mix in powerful, wealthy circles unnerves the public consensus that those people, those who torture, rape, and murder, are different and in some way distinguishable and therefore punishable. Bateman is a member of the society of 1980s Manhattan. He has great wealth and, therefore, great power. The issue of power and t he manipulation of signs that so motivates the artists of blank fiction is clearly articulated in American Psycho Batemans position of undisputed power within his social strata functions on two levels. His wealth (and whiteness) put him into the unexamined category, making him, to a
120 fair degree, above suspicionhis appearanc e suggests privilege and anonymity, neither of which typically fall into any ki nd of profiling categorie s on urban streets. But, should he make too many mistakes and draw attention to himself (which he frequently does), then his money buys him protection. His money equips him with the tools he requires to commit his murders, the money he needs to buy his victims, and, significantly, the power to purchase the legal protection required to avoid imprisonment (15). Ellis demonstrat es this literally when Bateman talks about financing his defense against rape ch arges and figuratively when Bateman runs into the Pierce and Pier ce building, to the safety of his office, after his gun battle with the police. Batemans security in his position of power as a young, wealthy broker who looks the perfect gent leman comments on the stratification of power in the American capitalist system. The true horror of the serial killer wor ks of blank fiction is in their emphasis on blankness at its most critically powerful. The characters of American Psycho with their likeness and interchangeable c haracterizations, create a system of irresponsibility: Even Batemans confession, a moment in the novel that teases us with Foucauldian irony, succeeds in revealing absolutely nothing, not because anything remains hidden, but because there is no truth to be revealed, extracted, and expedited in confession. No one is listening to him (he speaks to a telephone answering machine) and, since proper names correspond interchangeably to bodies, no one
121 can tell who is who; nor does anyone (except the protagonist) notice that fact, and no one, includi ng Patrick, cares. (Freccero 52) No one seems to care about anything of substance in the novel. The focus on emotional response in blank art draws audience attention to ISAs, the elements in ideology t hat are accepted through long-term, subconscious programming and social c onformity. Inappropriate emotional response to horror pervades this tex t: Bateman's ecstasy at dismembering people, for example, or his boredom at his attempt to tr y and poison his girlfriend with a urinal cake. The only times he emotes strongly are when he feels inadequate or when he feels as though he or others do not appear perfectly turned out. But Bateman is not alone in his bizarre emotional responses, as the other characters show themselves to be emotionally warped as well. The landlady who simply ignores the blood and gore at Paul Owen's apartment and simply tidies it away for a quick sale is a consummate example of the type of behavior that exposes the characters as one-dimensional, super ficial creators. The call girl and hooker, who ignore their initial torture session with Bateman and leave well-paid also exemp lify the bizarre, blunt response s to horror and tie into the text's overall themes of total co mmodification and de-humanization, but also to the deeper, more important message of a lack of responsibility and a lack of social conscience. In most of blank fiction the emotional responses of the characters are inappropriat e, and the reactions in American Psycho are skewed in a similar way. Bateman's reactions of joy to his bloody mu rders emit a feeling of successful conquestthat he has ac hieved control and consumption of
122 another human being. The joyous reactions of those committing violent crimes in urban realist novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn emit more a feeling of relief or revenge, as though in some way their crim es make up for all of the times that they themselves had been treated badly. T he victims' reactions in each book are also different. In urban realist novels and in most ho rror tales, the victims are typically unsurprised by what happens to them, even resigned to the fact that it would inevitably happen, whereas in American Psycho most of the victims pretend as though nothing has happened, emphasizing Elliss underlying social criticism within the novel. Blank arts often aim directly at the iss ues of stratification of wealth during the Reagan administration, and Elliss novel is particularly poignant in this regard. The spectre of the homeless is constan t, as Elizabeth Young suggests, they hover, les misrables like ghosts on the edge of consciousness a reproach, a reproof, a warning (109). The pres ence of the homele ss helps highlight Batemans wealth and power, their helplessness and need emphasizing his authority and control. Ruth Helyer addresses the homeless issue in her article on the gothic in American Psycho : In stark contrast to the interior of Patricks exclusive apartment, New York is represented as a des olate and dirty urban backdrop, inhabited by penniless beggars, s howing the other side of the obscene wealth of the yuppie traders. The streets seem alienating and full of menace, yet ironically it is Patrick who is the threat, not the street dwellers. He delights in taunting the homeless and never
123 gives them any money. His wealthy companions share his values and priorities, commenting faceti ously that one beggar badly needs a facial (738). At first a seemingly obvious technique in the novel used to criticize U.S. social policies, Helyer deciphers a more comple x code of criticism, suggesting that a part of Batemans hatred fo r the underclasses is his f ear that is the beggars thrive then he will not (738). By ident ifying this apprehension of threat, Helyer helps us understand how much more r eprehensible Batemans crimes and his contemporaries indifference actually ar e. Rather than simple psychosis or simple self-centeredness, the acts of inhum anity in the novel are colored by an awareness of and responsibility for crimes that help the moneyed classes stay in control. The stark, atonal style of blank fict ion serves to illuminate the social undercurrents of the author s works. Ellis's use of language in American Psycho binds the novel together. His blank, em pty style and schizophrenic jumping from scene to scene reflect the contents of t he book and the demented mind of Patrick Bateman. His writing and c ontent skim along the surface of reality, resulting in a very plastic, cartoon-esque feel of the novel, which in turn emphasizes his message of the commodification and reification of humanity. American Psycho is a text with a haunting message, a message E llis conveys through violent images. The gratuitous violence of American Psycho is symbolic and unrelated to actual violence. To read American Psycho as simply a graphic display of indecency or to treat it as pornography is to dismiss it completely and miss the entire point of
124 Ellis's message. Understanding it as a wo rk of art that gl orifies freedom of expression is definitely better than denouncin g it, but this barely scratches the surface of the novel. Ellis uses extreme examples of grotesque violence, rather than street violence or straightforw ard knife and gun attacks, to create a psychological effect. Ellis narrates the atrocities Bateman commits in a haunting, painfully graphic way that makes people grimace and turn their headsit is completely appalling. He needs this affect however, to illustrate his point. The message of American Psycho makes people just as uncomfortable as the violence does. Ellis's Bateman is a reflection of humanity in the Western world. The successful, pretty, all-American businessman is representat ive of the reader, members of the unexamined in particular, and his crimes are the symbolic representation of the crimes committed every day by flourishing members of a capitalist society, a society that c an discount humanity for profit, valuing commodities over humans. Bateman's a ttacks are violent and all consuming, turning human beings into things. Killi ng a person leaves an unanimated corpse, a dead thing. Ellis uses Bateman's love of torturing and killing people to remind us that the real horror of present day society is the downw ard spiral of reification, and most importantly, an uncompr omising look at issues of social responsibility and self-induced ignorance. The novelists and filmmakers of blank ar t use the serial killer figure as a way of expressing their fears and concer ns about the group that holds the most power in the United States yet receives t he least amount of scrutiny. The rise of the popularity of the serial killer figure in popular culture occurred at a time when
125 the governmental administration was work ing its hardest to create an image of an utopian nationa nation besieged by a seri es of governmental traumas for the past several decades. Just when the cu lture seemed unable to see through the paper-thin utopian exterior, writers, direct ors, and artists emerged to offer to the country a popular character through whic h they could effectively criticize the powers that had control. When the most po werful nation in the world is being run by an exB-movie actor, what better wa y to express dissent than through novels and films with characters who smile like the Gipper just before they are about to slash you open? The graphic violence that many aut hors and filmmakers of blank works depend upon in their novels and films should not be considered simply metaphoric, however. Violence, like sexua lity, is a cultural system over which those in power have control. By incor porating graphic violence into their works, blank artists are entering into the arena of sign control. Rather than simple mimicry of the types of dis posable art that enter into Jamesons discussion of the waning of affect, these notable artists are taking on systems of power in contemporary culture and engaging with symbols and signs of control, expressing their concern wit h widespread social acceptance of power in the hands of established forces. With t heir manipulation of genres and their engagement within the discourse of violence, blank artists are showing audiences that those often accepted as powerful need not necessarily be trusted or accepted. To expose issues of power control in society exposes the flaws in a dominant ideological system, but rather than just point out the flaws of
126 the false consciousness, blank artists ar e showing audiences that they have the power to use signs for social and political change, putting, hopefully, the power to do the same into the hands of the masses.
127 Chapter 5: Conclusion The rise of blank fiction and ci nema in mainstream culture was precipitated by the political and social problems of America in the mid-1980s. The artists whose work attempted to express concern with certain Reagan administration policies and iss ues related to late capita lism offered a dissident voice in a culture saturated with works of escapist fantasy and superficial sensationalism that support ed the dominant ideology of t hose in power. Studying the works of blank fiction and cinema is crucial to understanding the alternative voice of a nation that has been, thus far, underappreciated in the world of academia. To criticize, as the artists discussed in the previous chapters have done, the dominant forms of power in America through their mainstream mediums is a remarkable feat, but that these artists produced works that not only criticized but offered an example of a solu tion to the problems they identified is extraordinary. By incorpor ating the typical signs of traditional power into their works and producing fiction and films that show mainstream audiences the threat of unexamined forces of power, blank arti sts are showing audien ces that signs of power can be controlled by anyone and that the dominant ideology is neither static nor impenetrable. If the signs of power can be manipulated and criticized in a mainstream medium, than all of us have the ability to manipulate these signs of power and alter the ideology that they produce. Truly investigating and
128 recognizing the power of blank works will offer the scholarly community insight into a movement in the postmodern world that counters Jamesons theory of the waning of affect and his theory of a loss of historicity as well as Baudrillards theories surrounding the hyperreality of contemporary culture. Although blank artists works present skeletal ideations of works that epitomize the waning of affect, it is the fact t hat the works have been produced and that they disturb and fascinate audiences that challenges t he very notion of waning of affect. The Legacy of Blank Fiction and Cinema Studying the foundational texts and films of the blank movement addresses the seminal issues that helped shape the style. However it is by looking at the legacy of blank fiction and cinema that the resilience of this inventive style can be seen, further supporti ng the necessity of research into the movement. In the pages t hat follow, I discuss how the form of blank fiction echoes throughout recent socially consci ous works, and I illuminate specific elements of the blank style, including li mited plot, a focus on characters whose motives are unexplained, the incorpor ation and manipulation of signs of traditional power, and an emphasis on blan kness in these works. Although the works of the mid-1990s onwards are not mo dels of quintessentially blank pieces of fiction and film, there are strong el ements of blank works present throughout current popular culture. Joyce Carol Oatess 1995 Zombie Sherman Alexies
129 1996 Indian Killer Michael Hanekes 2007 Funny Games ,12 and the Coen brothers 2007 No Country for Old Men13 serve as examples to illuminate the heritage of the blank style in recent works. One of blank fictions most notable attr ibutes is its stark form, its harsh use of brevity and choppy narration that ingr ains popular culture references and the narrators thought patterns completely into its structure. Oatess Zombie continues this tradition. The novel follows Quentin P., a homosexual, psychopathic serial killer intent on creating a zombie to fulfill his sexual fantasies and desire for control. Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho Quentin exposes readers to his reality and fantasy lif e in a way that leaves the audience entangled in the deviance of his vision of the world. Without the benefit of a third-person narrator or the reassuring pr esence of a voice of reason, readers are entirely at the mercy of Quentins logi c, reason, and emotional responses to others. Oates ensures that Quentins voice remains authentic, as her narrative style mimics the corrupt nature of his f antasies: a true zombie would be mine forever. He would obey every comm and and whim. Saying Yes, Master and No, Master. He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me and saying, I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master (49), as well as the adolescent rage of his emotive responses: I coul d see the cops still in the driveway FUCKERS! Wanted to yell out the window at them FUCKERS! HARRASSING 12 Hanekes original Funny Games was produced in 1997 in German. His 2007 version is a shotby-shot English remake of the 1997 version. For t he purpose of this project, I will focus on the English-language version, though it should be noted how very little difference there is between the two versions. 13 The Coen brothers wrote the screenplay and directed this film, and it is their interpretation of Cormac McCarthys novel, rather than the novel itself, on which I will focus.
130 me and SCREWING UP my life! (158). The stunted sentences of Oatess narrative reiterate the stunted nature of Quentins development, and the catch phrases and colloquialisms of his created identity pro liferate the text (I am CARETAKER), much like the merge discussion of Less Than Zero and the slogans bantered about in American Psycho Oatess narrative echoes loudly with the voice of the original blank authors whose work began ten years before the release of Zombie. The starkness of blank cinema, its focus on a basic setting, its use of single-take shots, and the heavy presence of color symbolism can all be seen in contemporary films that borrow heavily from the initial wor ks of directors like Kubrick and McNaughton. Funny Games for example, relies heavily on singletake shots, a simplistic setting, and the metaphor of color; Peter and Paul, the youthful serial killer duo, commit their hein ous acts dressed entirely in white. The camera does not move as it follows them from kitchen to living room; the starkness of the white appliances and grey walls offer a striking contrast to the blood spatters from their first kill. Haneke, much like Kubrick does in Full Metal Jacket manipulates the traditional dramat ic paradigm, ignoring the three-act structure, reducing his film to a linear nightmare, and shunning the mainstream concept of cutting to continuity. Not mu ch actually happens in the filmlike all blank works, Funny Games emphasis is on subtext whil e its superficial structure is limited and atonal. The traditionally austere style of blank fiction is exacerbated by a generally limited plotline; works such as Less Than Zero and Henry: Portrait of a Serial
131 killer focus on questions of ontology and ph enomenology rather than traditional notions of dramatic entertainment. The dramatic paradigm, as discussed previously, is lacking in most blank works. This tradition continues in Zombie and Funny Games for example, with stories of psychopaths out for entertainment and satisfaction of bloodlust that focus on small amounts of time and a single purpose. This lack of plot and bleak style can also be noted Indian Killer and the popular No Country for Old Men though perhaps many woul d label these works thrillers or mysteries that seem to have complex plots. Both works may initially seem to be traditionally genre based, but both exploit the expectations of their genres and manage to create exciti ng works with minimal plotlines and limited story development. In Indian Killer Alexie initially presents his novel as a mystery, following a serial killer ar ound Seattle as he/she murders and kidnaps White Men as vengeance for what Native Americans have suffered in the United States. The story never truly dev elops, however. Alexies novel is one based on static characterization and audience speculationthe killer is never revealed, and there is never any actual chase or dramatic tension. The Coen brothers interpretation of No Country for Old Men is similar to Indian Killer in that it appears to be a thriller/myst ery film that is a kind of generic cross-over between drama and western. The movie follows the serial killer Anton Chigurh as he wanders the West killing and maiming and hunting for Llewelyn Moss, who stole money from a drug deal related to Chigur h. Although initially set up as a cat-andmouse tale of normal man versus e vil monster, the plot never develops beyond the initial premise. The charac ters are static and undeveloped in the
132 blank tradition. Alexie and the Coens comp licate audience expectations of genre and audience expectations of good and evil, much like the blank works that came before them. Zombies Quentin, the Indian Killers mystery killer (IK), No Countrys Chigurh, and Funny Games Peter and Paul are quintessential blank characters. Quentin P. self-consciously constructs his blank identity in order to avoid drawing attention to himself. He introduces and de scribes himself clearly at the beginning of his story: My name is Q_P_ & I am thirty -one years old, three months. Height five feet ten, weight one hundred and forty-seven pounds. Eyes brown, hair brown. Medium build. Light scattering of freckles on arms, back. Astigmatism in both eyes, corrective lenses required for driving. Dis tinguishing features: none. Except maybe these faint, worm-s haped scars on both knees. They say from a bicycle accident, I was a little boy then. I don't contradict but I don't remember. I never contradict. I am in agr eement with you as you utter your words of wisdom. Moving your asshole-mouth & YES SIR I am saying NO MA'AM I am saying. My shy eyes. Behind my plastic rimmed glasses that are the color of skin through plastic. Caucasian skin that is. On both sides of my family going back forever as far as I am aware (3).
133 QP's appearance is a major focus of the text; he, like Bateman, is incredibly conscious of how he appears. From list ening to news reports and detective shows, as well as from learning what his parents, counselors, and parole officer want to hear, he is able to appear exac tly as he should at any particular moment in order to avoid suspicion. When going onto the university campus, for example, he knows exactly how to behave and what to wear in order to blend in. I was walking across the Univ campus. I was wearing my khaki shorts and loose fitting MT VENON U T-shirt & my aviation glasses & caught some quizzical eyes I believe & some registering of approval. Summer school was in session & the kids in clothes like mine (116). He is particular about his car, insistent that it needs a bumper sticker and an American flag: I drive everywhere in my Ford van. It is a 1987 model, the color of wet sand. No longer new but reliable. It passes through your vision like passing th rough a solid wall invisible (4). He takes effort to present himself and hi s belongings as stereotypes. Even his behavior in his job as caretaker is perfe ctly constructed so as not to arouse attention or suspicion. His excruciating self-awareness helps him hide all signs of his deviance. His appearance (both physical and em otional) is the foundation of his murderous master plans. Alexies Indian Killer is ambiguous in its use of a protagonist. The novel begins with the story of John Smiths adopt ion from a Native American mother to a white suburban couple; however, though John Smith, with his blank name and struggles with mental stability is in many ways the main focus of the novel, the events that occur in the novel are spurr ed on by the actual killer, who is never
134 clearly identified, and, thus, a blank character in the literal sense, in that it lacks an identity entirely. The IK is neither a man nor a woman, is neither white nor ethnic minority, is neither human nor spec tral, is neither one nor many. The IK passes through crowds unseen and can sneak in and out of homes under surveillance without arousing suspicion. T he IK is precise in its murders, but leaves no trail or sign of its identity. The novel introduces a long series of characters, all of whom are in many wa ys stereotypes of Am erican extremes. For example, Truck Shultz is the angry, loud, conservative talk show host representative of racism and extremism, and Marie Polatkin is a radical Spokane Indian representative of the young, angry Native American population speaking out in social forums. Homeless I ndians, narrow-minded rednecks, wanna be Indians as Alexie calls them (Caucasians claiming Indian heredity), and various other standards pepper the narrative, all of whom come together to create a blob of a personalities that stand in juxtapos ition to the true blankness of the IK. Hanekes Funny Games features Peter and Paul, bl ank characters straight from the tradition of American Psycho and Henry. Peter and Paul approach their victims wearing tennis whit es, with stylish haircuts and Ivy League accents, wellmannered and soft spoken. They infiltrate the Head of the Harbor community by blending in with its residents, before they begin their reig n of torture and terror. The two are reminiscent of Elliss most devi ant characters in their youthful frivolity and blank similarity to each other. They are nearly interchangeable in appearance and refer to each other by di fferent names throughout the film, creating confusion and disorientating t he audience. They make veiled comments
135 about their sexuality, never disclosing a particular preference. Their dialogue suggests that they are highly educat ed, and their planning and maneuvering is complex and sophisticated. They are ruthless and vicious, yet they can perform sensitivity and thoughtfulness when required. They represent upper-middle-class delicacy and enter the homes of their prey as self-effacing gentry. Like Bateman, Peter and Paul desire control and entertainment and react in an adolescent rage when they are denied either. Like Henry, their smiles, under neutral circumstances, can easily win friends, but their psychosis is unmatched in any other serial killer film. Traditional blank works emphasize t he unexamined nature of their deviant protagonists, and though I argue that No Country for Old Men is in many ways reminiscent of traditional blank works, the devi ant anti-hero of No Country is notable in his Otherness. He is Spanis h, with an obvious ethnic appearance and a heavy accent. In every other way, however, he is representational of blankness. Although everyone seems to know his name, no one knows anything about him. Few have seen him and lived to tell about it; even fewer have ever spoken with him. Yet many men in powerful positions know him. He is a sociopath, yet sticks rigidly to a code of ethics only he understands. He is universally feared and nothing seems to be beyond his reach, and he, like the mysterious IK, can maneuver unchecked as though he were a ghost or some kind of spirit. Although not a member of the tradition al unexamined group of American power, Chigurh ex udes the same omnipoten ce and omnipresence as many traditionally blank serial killer fi gures that are member s of that group.
136 One of the most fright ening, unnerving aspects of blank works is the lack of explanation that writer s and directors offer for their characters disturbing behavior. Mainstream fiction and cinema undermines the threat of Otherness in culture by explaining the drive behind devianceexplaining deviant behavior helps audiences understand it, as discussed in Chapter 4. The legacy of blank works can be seen in the lack of motivati on offered for the serial killers in Indian Killer, Zombie, Funny Games and No Country Although Alexie alludes to the Indian Killers vendetta against the White Man in his novel, the true identity of the killer is never revealed, and thus, t he audiences understanding of the true motivation for the murders is never satisfied. Depending on our interpretation of the novel, the motive could be anything fr om psychosis to self-hatred. Oates offers a seemingly plausible umbrella excuse of mental illness for Quentins deviance, but the illness is never spec ified, and the speed with which all of Quentins loved ones and caregivers offer generalized excuses for his past misdeeds suggests that perhaps the illness is not legitimate, but another excuse offered by the family to cover up his Otherness. Like McNaughtons character Henry, the murderous duo of Peter and Paul invent answers to explain their behav ior that have obviously been constructed and re-constructed over time, varying by aud ience. The boys taunt their captives with tales that might explain the root of their evil as the family clutches for a reason for why they have been thrown into the nightmare. Perhaps we were abused as children, one suggests, or perha ps we are insane, chirps the other, undermining any sense of reason and breaking the cinematic fourth wall and
137 challenging the audience to search for l ogic behind their deviant behavior. The Coen brothers taunt their audience as we ll, answering questions about Chigurhs motivation with more questions. The M anagement men with whom he works are never identified, the agencies with whom he is aligned are never revealed, and his own code, on which the deat hs of two people are based, is never explained. Even his sanity is left undefined. He seem s insane, but his ability to rationalize and talk with his victims often shifts the fo cus on sanity from his state of mind to that of those watching. Our inability to follow his train of thought shifts the balance of power from the real (audi ence) to the fictional (Chigurh). Underlying the unique style and characterist ics of blank works is a function of social criticism. The early works of blank fiction and cinema spoke out against political and social issues in American cu lture of the midto late-1980s, and the echo of this dissident voice can be heard throughout the pieces of fiction and film that resonate today with this style. Alexies Indian Killer manifests an awareness of cultural stereotyping and reader bias through his unwillingness to reveal the true identity of the IK. A llowing readers to assume knowledge of the perpetrator, only to constantly undermine those a ssumptions, challenges notions of sublimated prejudice and issues of racism in our national ideology. Alexie also gives a voice to those traditionally mu ted by systems of power in the United Statesthe mentally ill, t he homeless, the desperate, and the revolutionaries creating images of humanity for those w ho are regularly dehumanized. Oatess Zombie focuses on Quentins manipulation of the correctional system to criticize the problems with the American justice syst em in general. Quentin understands
138 that he can kill the disenfranchised, junk ies, drifters, fo reign students, or someone from the black proj ects downtown. Somebody nobody gives a shit for (28), more easily than he can those he truly desiresthe young, virile men of the middle class with college educations and cari ng families. His choice of victims shows the discrepancies in the American ju stice system, a system that proclaims equality but in reality seems to care more about certain classes and races than it does others. Quentin also manipulates the correctional system, in particular its system of profiling, in a way that enables him to carry out further crimes but remain undetected. The system he manipulates is so institutionalized and so overwrought with legislation that its primary function, that of stopping crime and rehabilitating offenders, does not work. It is a de-personalized system that handles the public as a thing, rather than as a collection of specific individuals. Quentins realization of this allows hi m to assume the persona of a member of the blank group that is genera lly protected from close scr utiny by the very nature of its blankness. American power systems in general, it can be argued, not just the correctional system, try to legislate most details of their citizens lives using predominately capitalist values. Legislation means control, but in order to enact the legislation and gain control, the public must all behave the same in order to fit the mold that the laws envelop. This cr eates a thing which will be controlled, not individual human beings. Quentins zombies represent the reification of the American public, and the violence of this te xt is based on a want to control and frustration that attempts to completely c ontrol are failing, representing the failure of a system whose ultimate goal is t he complete control of its subjects.
139 The blank works of the midto la te-1980s often focus on issues of commodification and materialism in American culture. These i ssues are at the core of the blank cinemainfluenced Funny Games The victimized family, George, Ann, and Georgie, head to their lake home for a week of golf and sailing. Their exclusive Head of the Harbor nei ghborhood is complete with personalized docks and fully mechanized electronic gat es with unscalable walls surrounding each cabins compound. The home itself is a display of modern technology and expensive electronic systems. As the film progresses, however, these signs of power and progress are exposed as hindran ces and traps, keeping the family from salvation. George and Ann, rather than run for help, spend precious time trying to salvage their cell phones. With the power cut, the couple is unable to easily escape their vacation bunker, and the enclosed privacy that the guests insist upon alienates the neighbors from one another, el iminating the possibility of help or concern from those who liv e across the street. Haneke emphasizes the impotence of technology ag ainst the terror that th e family faces, and he focuses on their dependence upon cell phon es and electricity rather than humanity to survive. The focal point of many of the most violent scenes in the film is the familys television, which blares NASC AR while covered in young Georgies blood. As Ann surveys the decim ation of her family, her first act of freedom is to turn off the TV, emphasiz ing Hanekes underlying message about the importance of humanity over tec hnology and the worrying consequences of the alienated state of humankind.
140 Power and the manipulation of signs of power, a cornerstone of blank works, pervade the theme of No Country for Old Men and draw our attention to the continuation of this important factor of blank fiction and film. In No Country, the figure of good is repres ented by Sheriff Ed Tom Be ll, who follows the evil figure of Chigurh through dust-blown Te xas landscapes, each vying for the soul of the everyman Llewelyn Moss. In the generic tradition of the western, Ed Tom would win, saving Moss and vindicating those that Chigurh had wronged. In No Country however, the struggle ends badly, emphasizing Ed Toms impotence in the face of danger. In te rms of actual signs of power there is a notable lack of a specific symbol of male power in the filmthe gun.14 The films villain uses a captive bolt pistol, a weapon most widely used in the slaughter of cattle to stun the animals before they are butchered, rath er than the traditional phallic weapons used by those who oppose him. This could be read, arguably, as commentary on a loss of traditional masculine power or the domination of new forms of power over that of traditional forms. The traditi on of moral and judicial law, so ingrained in American ideology, is challenged by this film and shown wanting. This decrease in power for those representing traditional notions of goodness is further emphasized by the char acter of Moss. Moss is a character whose life is built upon a sense of amora lity, around the satisfacti on of his own needs and his lack of consideration for the humanity of others. As the film begins, Moss, stumbling upon a scene of ma ss murder, ignores a dying mans request for water and focuses instead on the satisfaction of his own desires (in the form of money). 14 In all of the works discussed in this chapter, ther e is a notable lack of firepower. The killers in these works generally prefer more intimate and creative methods of destruction. This is an aspect of new blank works that calls for further research.
141 Later that evening, Mosss conscience does impose upon him, and he returns to the scene with water, but hours too late to save the victim. Mosss interactions with the other characters are reactive and filter ed through his own needs, illuminating the films concern with selfishness and a loss of humanity in contemporary America. The four works discussed in this chapter are simply samples of the kinds of fiction and cinema that have been produc ed since the mid-1990s that show elemental evidence of having been heavil y influenced by the blank works from the mid-1980s and early-1990s. Their form, style, and content resonate with the voices of authors like Ellis and filmmake rs like McNaughton, and the social and political issues that the works raise further support a strong link between blank works critical stance and the historical si tuation in which they are produced. It is my hope that more academic study of blank fiction and cinema will be encouraged by this project and that the lega cy of traditional blank art in particular will be explored further. I am particularly concerned with the tone of the pieces that I have mentioned in this chapter, because though traditional blank works are disturbing and unnerving, the piec es I presented in detail in this project seem to encourage change and offer redemption, whereas the four works discussed here lack any kind of positivism. The overa ll themes are dark and negative without the didactic nature of previous blank works that could help influence revolutionary ideas. A future project interrogating the po litical and social situations from which these pieces grew may offer a thesis as to their more ch illing nature.
142 Works Cited Primary Texts and Films Alexie, Sherman. Indian Killer New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1997. American Hardcore Dir. Paul Rachman. AHC Productions LLC, 2006. Blue Velvet Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Dennis Hopper and Kyle McLachlan. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), 1986. Casualties of War Dir. Brian De Palma. Perf. Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. Columbia Pictures, 1989. Coupland, Douglas. Generation X. London: Abacus, 1992. Crimes of Passion Dir. Ken Russell. Perf. Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins, and John Laughlin. New Wo rld Pictures, 1984. DeLillo, Don. White Noise 1985. New York and London: Penguin, 2000. Do the Right Thing Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Danny Aiello. 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks, 1989. Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho London: Picador, 1991. Ellis, Bret Easton. Less than Zero London: Simon and Schuster, 1985 Full Metal Jacket Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf Matthew Modine and Vincent DOnofrio. Warner Br os. Pictures, 1987.
143 Funny Games Dir. Michael Haneke. Perf. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. Celluloid Dreams, 2007. Harris, Thomas. Red Dragon New York: Dell Publishing, 1981. Harris, Thomas. Silence of the Lambs New York: St. Martins Press, 1988. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Dir. John McNaughton. Wr itten by Richard Fire and John McNaughton. Perf. Michael Rooker and Tracy Arnold. Greycat Films, 1986. Manhunter Dir. Michael Mann. Perf. Willia m Peterson and Stephen Lang. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), 1986. McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights, Big City New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1984. Moody, Rick. Garden State. New York: Pushcart Press, 1992. Moody, Rick. Purple America New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1997. No Country for Old Men Dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Perf. Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin. Paramount Vantage, 2007. Oates, Joyce Carol. Zombie. New York: Plume, 1996. Rambo: First Blood Part II. Dir. George P. Cosmatos. Perf. Sylvester Stallone. Anabasis N.V., 1985. Rivers Edge. Dir. Tim Hunter. Screenplay by N eal Jimenez. Perf. Dennis Hopper and Keanu Reeves. Hemdale Film, 1986. Selby, Hubert Jr. Last Exit to Brooklyn New York: Grove Press,1964.
144 Wright, Richard. Native Son New York: Harper Perennial, 1940. Secondary Texts Adams, William. Vietnam Screen Wars. Culture in an Age of Money: The Legacy of the 1980s in America Ed. Nicolaus Mills. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee and the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1990. 156 74. Allu Baelo, Sonia. The Aesthetics of Se rial Killing: Working Against Ethics in The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and American Psycho (1991). Atlantis 24.2 (December 2002): 7. Annesley, James. Blank Fictions London: Pluto Press, 1998. Baker, Stephen. The Fiction of Postmodernity Edinburgh: U of Edinburgh P, 2000. Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacrum and Simulacra Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. Blazer, Alex E. Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity: Defining the Postmodern through Bret Easton Elliss American Psycho . Journal of American Culture (1900-present) 1.2 (Fall 2002).
145 Burns, John F. Protests are Issue: Russians Charge Gross Flouting of the Ideals of the Competition. New York Times 9 May 1984. Cannon, Lou. Reagan. New York: Putnam, 1982. Chambers, Ross. The Unexamined. Whiteness: A Critical Reader Ed. Mike Hill. New York and London: New York UP, 1997. Connor, Stephen. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. Conrath, Robert. Serial Heroes: A So ciocultural Probing into Excessive Consumption. European Readings of Am erican Popular Culture. Ed. John Dean, Jean-Paul Gabilliet, and Ro b Kroes. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. 147. Conte, Joseph. Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2002. Dewey, Joseph. Novels from Reagans America Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1999. Dunant, Sarah Sympathy for the Devil. The Guardian 24 July 1999: 24. Durand, Alain-Philipp e and Naomi Mandel, eds. Novels of the Contemporary Extreme New York and London: Continuum, 2006. During, Simon. The Cultural Studies Reader, Third Edition. Oxon: Routledge. 2007. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction: Volume One 1978, Vintage Books Edition. New York: Vintage, 1990.
146 Freccero, Carla. Historical Violence, C ensorship, and the Serial Killer: The Case of American Psycho . Diacritics 27.2 (Summer 1997): 44. Freese, Peter. Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero : Entropy in the MTV Novel? Modes of Narrative: Approaches to American, Canadian and British Fiction. Ed. Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte. Wrzburg: Knigshausen & Neumann, 1990. 68. Hantke, Steffen. Monstrosity Without a Bo dy: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film. Post Script 22.2 (2003): 34. Hantke, Steffen. Violence In corporated: John McNaughtons Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Vi olence in Popu lar Narrative. College Literature 28.2 (2001): 29. Helyer, Ruth. Parodied to Death: The Postmodern Gothic of American Psycho. Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (Fall 2000): 725 Hendin, Josephine. Fictions of Acquisition. Culture in an Age of Money: The Legacy of the 1980s in America Ed. Nicolaus Mills. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee and the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1990. 216 33. Hill, Dilys, Raymond Moor e, and Phil Williams. The Reagan Presidency. London: MacMillan, 1990. Horrocks, Chris and Zoran Jevtic. Introducing Baudrillard. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1999. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.
147 Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London and New York: Verso, 1981. Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1992. Johnson, Haynes. Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1991. Liebovich, Louis W. The Press and the Modern Presidency Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. Mandel, Ernest. Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1978. McKinney, Devin. Violence: The Strong and the Weak. Film Quarterly 46.4 (1993): 16. Meese, Edwin III. With Reagan: The Inside Story Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1992. Mills, Nicolaus. Culture in an Age of Money: The Legacy of the 1980s in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee and the Foundat ion for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1990. Nadel, Alan. Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cu ltural Narratives in the Films of Reagans America New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997. Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marxs Concept of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971. Panichas, George A. The Politics of the Twentieth-Century Novelists New York: Hawthorne Books, 1971. Peary, Danny. Cult Movies 1st ed. New York: Delta Books, 1981.
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150 Bibliography Primary Texts and Films Apocalypse Now Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen. Zoetrope Studios, 1979. Art School Confidential Dir. Terry Zwigoff. Screenplay by Daniel Clowes. United Artists, 2006. Deer Hunter Dir. Michael Cimino. Perf. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walkin. EMI, 1978. Ellis, Bret Easton. The Rules of Attraction London: Picador, 1987. Good Morning Vietnam Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Robin Williams and Forrest Whitaker. Touchstone Pictures, 1987. Hamburger Hill. Dir. John Irving. Perf. Anthony Barrile and Don Cheadle. RKO Pictures, 1987. Hanoi Hilton Dir. Lionel Chetwynd. Cannon Group, 1987. Indiana, Gary. Horse Crazy. New York: Paladin, 1989. Janowitz, Tama. Slaves of New York New York: Picador, 1986. Kids Dir. Larry Clark. Shini ng Excalibur Films, 1995. Lindsay, Jeff. Darkly Dreaming Dexter New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2004.
151 Lindsay, Jeff. Dearly Devoted Dexter New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2005. McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. McInerney, Jay. How It Ended. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. McInerney, Jay. Story of My Life New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1988. Morrison, Toni. Beloved New York: Alfred Knopf, 1987. Pierre, D.B.C. Vernon God Little London: Faber and Faber, 2003. Platoon Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Tom Berringer, Willem Defoe, and Charlie Sheen. Cinema 86, 1986. Requiem for a Dream Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Hubert Selby, Jr. Artisan Entertainment, 2000. Selby, Hubert, Jr. Requiem for a Dream Chicago and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978. Uncommon Valor Dir. Ted Kotcheff. Perf. Ge ne Hackman and Robert Stack. Milius-Feitshans, 1983. Secondary Texts Annesley, James. Fictions of Globalization: C onsumption, the Market, and the Contemporary American Novel New York and London: Continuum, 2006. Appignanesi, Richard and Chris Garratt. Introducing Postmodernism Cambridge: Icon Books, 2003.
152 Aronowitz, Stanley. The Politics of Identity: Class, Culture, Social Movements London: Routledge, 1992. Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism London: Methuen, 1976. Ferguson, Frances. Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004. Goldstein, Philip. The Politics of Literary Theory: An Introduction to Marxist Criticism Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1990. Haggerty, George E. Anne Rice and the Queering of Culture. Novel 32 (1998): 98. Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. Hendin, Josephine. Fictions of Acquisition. Culture in an Age of Money: The Legacy of the 1980s in America. Ed. Nicolaus Mills. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee and the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, 1990. 216 33. Hilfer, Tony. American Fiction Since 1940 London: Longman, 1992. Hill, Mike, ed. Whiteness: A Critical Reader New York and London: New York UP, 1997. Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism New York: Routledge, 2002 Jameson, Fredric. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983. New York: Verso, 1998. Kristeva, Julia. Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
153 Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1979. McClain, Larry. The Rhetoric of Regional Representation: American Fiction and the Politics of Cultural Dissent. Genre 27.3 (1994): 227-253. Millard, Kenneth. Contemporary American Fiction Oxford: Oxfo rd UP, 2000. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination London: Picador, 1992. Panichas, George A. The Politics of the Twentieth-Century Novelists New York: Hawthorne Books, 1971. Peary, Danny. Cult Movies 1st ed. New York: Delta Books, 1981. Powell, Richard. Afr ican American Art. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience 2nd ed. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Richardson, Brian. The Poetics and Polit ics of the Second Person Narrative. Genre 24:3 (1991): 309. Tillman, Lynne. Critical Fiction/Critical Self. Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Ed. Philomena Mariani. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.110142. Traber, Daniel S Whiteness, Otherness, and the Individualism Paradox from Huck to Punk New York and Houndmills, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Seminar Press, 1973.
About the Author Ashley Donnelly is currently a full-time instructor in the Telecommunications Department at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. S he teaches courses related to media analysis, film and television studies, and scriptwriting.