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IT HAS BEEN obvious for a long time that American filmmakers are unable to deal with the politics of the left in any recognizable way. There is a wide gulf between I Was a Communist for the FBI and The Strawberry Statement, but the two films share a total inability to portray the substance, or even the style, of radical political activity. American films about radicalism are either paranoid cartoons, like the first, or patronizing gobbledygook, like the second.
One is tempted to think that American filmmakers are simply not encouraged to understand or even think about politics by the people who put up the money. But recent American films have begun to show a frightening sophistication in at least one area of politics--the half-world of sadism and authoritarianism which is the breeding ground of the Fascist mentality.
Three recent films--The French Connection, Straw Dogs, and Dirty Harry--manipulate the symbols of sadism and power with remarkable zest and facility. The effects achieved are so powerful--and the similarities between them are so striking--that it is difficult to believe that the directors are not trying to say exactly what they seem to be saying. They think they have struck a rich vein of ore buried in the American psyche, and they intend to mine it for all they can get.
None of the three has been a box-office flop; two of them --French Connection and Straw Dogs--have collected more than their share of critical praise. French Connection was a top grosser across the country, and the movie industry showered it with awards on Oscar night. Bad as it is, it is the least pernicious of the three. Unlike the other two, French Connection cannot be called a fascist movie. Instead, it is merely a celebration of authority, brutality and racism. The hero of the movie, Popeye Doyle, is a tough detective; his excesses, it is implied, must be excused because this is how cops really are.
HE IS CLEARLY a racist. It is true that police practices across the country are racist; but there is a vital difference between demonstrating this fact, which the movie does not, and approving it, which it does. I saw the film in a Southern city, and the white audience responded enthusiastically to the scenes of Doyle roughing up black people and taunting them with his peculiar question: "You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie, boy?" The racism of the film is offhand and casual; no attempt is made to understand it or show it as part of a pattern. The scenes of Doyle shaking down blacks are simply thrown in as extra titillation, a little something to keep the adrenal juices flowing until the film can get down to the real chasing and shooting.
Besides being a racist--and, of course, a killer--Doyle is also a bit of a boot-fetishist. One scene showing him in his apartment after an alienated liaison with a nameless woman wearing a particularly amazing pair of purple and vinyl boots, typifies the atmosphere of the film. The room is bare and cold; the furniture lacks unity or warmth; clothes, papers, and boots are strewn about everywhere. The point is made subtly that Doyle lives in a world of moral chaos, like his room; it is a world without standards, in which the chase and the capture are the only satisfactions. The point is not only made, but celebrated, and we are encouraged to enter Doyle's lawless universe as vicarious hunters and killers.
The French Connection is still the least obnoxious of the three. Its values are only those of a racist, authoritarian cop; it offers no unifying ideology by which to live in its jungle. Straw Dogs and Dirty Harry do offer such a rationale, and it is not a misuse of the word to call this rationale fascism. Pauline Kael called Straw Dogs "a fascist work of art." It is. Its director. Sam Peckinpah uses the actors and the camera to teach his lesson with skill and finesse. The lesson, however, is classic fascism: the quest for the meta-experience of violence as a validation of existence, along with a contempt for and brutalization of women.
Peckinpah portrays two women in the film, and they are so similar that it is impossible not to conclude that he is making a point about all women. The image he shows is a savage and archaic one: women are moral voids, empty places in the universe who function only as lightning rods to collect the violence of men. Dustin Hoffmann, a shy mathematician, seeks solitude in Cornwall with his wife, played by Susan George. The wife's sex appeal attracts a group of subhuman yokels, who lure the husband away from the house in order to rape the wife. The double rape scene is brilliantly shot, almost lyrical: it is a celebration of rape and its effects on rapist and victim. After the rape, the husband must prove his masculinity by defending his house and his woman against attack by the brutes, whom he kills in a number of instructive and painful ways. This is his victory: to have passed the portals of murder into the world of manhood, and by so doing to have conquered the menace of women. It is a totalitarian pastoral, the rural equivalent of a sidewalk beating.
BUT DIRTY HARRY is the vilest of the bunch. Unlike the other two, it has no pretensions of art; it is a simply told story of the Nietszchean superman and his sado-masochistic pleasures. The hero is Clint Eastwood, a tough cop who carries a Magnum .44, "the most powerful handgun in the world," and brandishes it at a world which is so cowardly, stupid, and slow as to be beneath contempt. His quarry is a sniggering psychopath, a blank-faced embodiment of evil who personifies all that the American tough mentality despises: long-haired, pacifistic, whiny, effeminate. Harry tracks the killer into a stadium, and there publicly enacts the audience's fantasies by stomping of his wounded arm until he tells where he has hidden his victim. But a liberal district attorney and a smirking Berkeley professor turn the killer loose, and he strikes again. This time he hijacks a schoolbus and demands ransom and a jet to Rio for the return of the children. Although ordered not to interfere, Harry tracks the bus down, beats the killer into jelly, and then blows his head off with the .44 Magnum. In the final scene he rips off his badge and throws it away, rejecting forever the cowardice of those who tell him that evildoers have rights or who place limits on the experience of giving and getting pain.
Dirty Harry is a film without mercy; the violence is the most extreme I have ever seen, relentless and graphic. Its message is a frontal assault on the concept of law. Society must give its highest men--Nietszchean policemen--complete freedom to do as they see fit in a total war between good and evil.
It is widely accepted that art should be free to say what it must, without political or moral responsibility. To say otherwise seems to lead quickly to a system of thought-control. But watching Dirty Harry I realized with rage that our society tightly restricts the portrayal of sex but allows this savagery to be shown to children. Is it too much to ask that these films not be made? We do not need any more laws governing what can be shown and what cannot; but we can all place some pressure on producers and distributors to stop offering us fascist propaganda and sado-masochistic wet dreams. If we do not, we may soon find our screens completely filled with screaming faces, broken teeth, and rivers of red, red blood.
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