Sunday, July 13, 2008

Demolition Man as Post-Marxist Nostalgia

I've been in Mexico for the past month, hence no posts (not that anyone is out there in TV land anyway). Here goes.


For my money, Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 sci-fi epic, is Sly pretty close to the peak of his game (obviously the Rambo and Rocky movies are on another level entirely, but this is every bit as badass as Cobra, Tango and Cash, and Over the Top—yeah, I said it). He plays John Spartan, late twentieth-century super-cop, who is wrongly convicted of blowing up some civilians and sentenced to a stint in cryo-prison. A few decades down the line, super villain Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who actually blew up all the innocent civilians Spartan was blamed for blowing up, is thawed out and unleashed on the metroplex of San Angeles, a peaceful, pussified new world, where violence is a thing of the past and everyone is a raging sissy. Since Spartan is the one who put Phoenix away the first time, and the cops are totally useless and unschooled in the way of ass kicking, they thaw out our good buddy Stallone and much mayhem ensues.

While I don’t normally associate the films of Sylvester Stallone with post-Marxist political theory, read Fredric Jameson’s essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” and tell me that Sly doesn’t immediately to mind.

The ideas in Demolition Man fit into his arguments in an interesting manner. There are the obvious class conflicts between the wealthy elites, the working police force that they control, and the uber poor, radical factions (led by Denis Leary as Edgar Friendly) that live underground and attack with graffiti. The raid on Taco Bell, the only franchise left after the fast food wars, screams of underclass rebellion.
Underground is a throw back. They eat meat, use gas, have sex because it feels good, touch, drive muscle cars, and are in direct opposition to the sterile, distanced world above, where no one has any physical contact or participates in “fluid exchanges.” Everything on the surface is quiet and pure, and no one has any options. The underground represents the freedom of mutiny and upheaval, as well as the unpleasant and ugly aspects of choosing to live outside the accepted society—while those who live above ground live in a world of stale bureaucracy, where everything from swearing to diet to mode of dress is regulated, the people who live below have their freedom, but may fucking starve.
Demolition Man is a 'nostalgia film' much in the same way that Jameson talks about Star Wars and Body Heat. It is a throw back to dystopian novels like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, to which the film makes numerous overt references. The heroine, played by Sandra Bullock, is named Lenina Huxley—a combination of one of the central characters first names, and the surname of the books author, Aldous Huxley; Stallone's character, John Spartan, is referred to as a savage, invoking John Savage, the hero in the book; and society has been wiped away of all unpleasantness, and everyone is distracted and medicated.

Society has been made perfect and ideal, but in true dystopian form, upon closer examination it becomes blatantly apparent that nothing could be further from the truth. What sacrifices had to be made to create this perfection? How much was destroyed and covered over in order to build the foundation? What still lurks beneath that surface? "The allusive and elusive plagiarism of older plots is, of course, also a feature of pastiche,” says Jameson. Demolition Man is definitely a work of pastiche, a contemporary rewriting of an older story.

Jameson makes the point about the predominance of nostalgia movies; it is “as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representation of our own current experiences.” We cannot deal with time and historical context, so even in films set in current landscapes (or the future) we look for some cue, some model from the past with which to interpret the artifact.
And let us not forget the most frightening aspect of Demolition Man. It accurately predicted Arnold Schwarzenegger would become governor and then went even further, foreseeing an eventual Schwarzenegger presidency. This is what the future has in store for us. Truly it is a visionary work of modern cinema, and a frightening picture of what is to come with a tip of the hat to what has been.


Footnotes:

This is not a paper, so I'm just going to tell you to read the essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," by Frederic Jameson. You can look it up on-line. Don't be scared, it won't bite.