Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where Have All the Action Heroes Gone?

They aren’t much allowed anymore, neither on the pages of contemporary fiction nor in modern movies or on TV, not unless they’re latent homosexuals, confused about gender, tolerant of gays, lesbians and Muslims,  anti-gun, anti-violence, and worried about global warming.  Also, they don’t much smoke, don’t drink, aren’t “sexist,” try to keep their “microaggressions” to a minimum, know they must be non-patriarchal and non-patronizing to women and minorities, and they drive fuel efficient and environmentally friendly cars. They have become, as Chess Hanrahan calls them in Honors Due, “social workers with guns,” armed also with a clown’s trick flower to squirt into your face.  They’re little else but a corrupt, nihilistic culture’s court jesters.

Give them a serious moment or two, but always follow it up with laughter and humor at the hero’s expense, or at the expense of the story. Don’t let the public walk out of a theatre feeling uplifted and invincible, or let them turn off a TV without the uneasy feeling that they’re fools and that they shouldn’t take it seriously.

The action or thriller heroes of yesterday – yestercentury? – are persona non grata. They’re not politically correct by any stretch of the definition, because they pre-date the term and the mentality that has succumbed to the practice.

Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand had more than a few words on the subject of thrillers. She was an avid fan of them on TV. I think her favorite series were Perry Mason (with Raymond Burr, a kind of courtroom thriller) and Charlie’s Angels. She wrote in her essay, “Bootleg Romanticism,” in January 1965:   

“Thrillers” are detective, spy or adventure stories. Their basic characteristic is conflict, which means: a clash of goals, which means: purposeful action in pursuit of values. Thrillers are the product, the popular offshoot, of the Romantic school of art that sees man, not as a helpless pawn of fate, but as a being who possesses volition, whose life is directed by his own value-choices. Romanticism is a value-oriented, morality-centered movement: its material is not journalistic minutiae, but the abstract, the essential, the universal principles of man’s nature—and its basic literary commandment is to portray man “as he might be and ought to be.”

Thrillers are a simplified, elementary version of Romantic literature. They are not concerned with a delineation of values, but, taking certain fundamental values for granted, they are concerned with only one aspect of a moral being’s existence: the battle of good against evil in terms of purposeful action—a dramatized abstraction of the basic pattern of: choice, goal, conflict, danger, struggle, victory.

Thrillers are the kindergarten arithmetic, of which the higher mathematics is the greatest novels of world literature. Thrillers deal only with the skeleton—the plot structure—to which serious Romantic literature adds the flesh, the blood, the mind. The plots in the novels of Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky are pure thriller-plots, unequaled and unsurpassed by the writers of thrillers. . . .
Thrillers are the last refuge of the qualities that have vanished from modern literature: life, color, imagination; they are like a mirror still holding a distant reflection of man.

In that same essay, she had no kind words for the producers and directors who spit in the public’s face by turning popular thriller TV series and movies into vehicles for their hatred of heroic values. Each of the series discussed here suffered that same fate.

While Dr. No, when it debuted in 1962, knocked the movie-going public flat, there was a lot in it that didn’t quite resonate with me. I had read Ian Flemiing’s novel, and while I concede that the film of it was a spectacular event even by the standards of the time, I didn’t particularly care for certain elements in it, such as how Bond disposed of Dr. No, the villain. In the novel, he is buried in a pile of guano dust. In the movie, he’s boiled alive in a bubbling nuclear bath.

All the Fleming Bond novels are producible as they were written, even the short stories. It is an indication of the producers’ and directors’ malign view of the public that while they based their productions on Fleming’s novels and even just took a title (A Quantum of Solace, a short story) and made “Bond” movie of it,  they made all the subsequent Bond movies gimmick-and-gadgetry laden jokes.

The actors who played Bond, aside from Connery, are Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, Daniel Craig, and George Lazenby (once, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969). None of them held a candle to Connery. They lacked the confident panache that was exclusively Connery’s. The unfortunate thing is that after Dr. No, the Connery Bond movies grew imbecilic and less enthralling. The tongue-in-cheek undertone in Dr. No became more and more apparent as the producers and directors stuck out their tongues at the public.  “Let’s give the fools some heroics with lots of sex and pointless action, that’ll keep them happy and we’ll make lots of money.”

But, making lots of money has never been the secret desire of such esthetic saboteurs. Rather, It has been to kill Romanticism and to kill the best in men.

Post-Connery, perhaps the only memorable facets of the movies are many of the theme songs.

The low point in the whole series was when the pipe-smoking “M,” of the Royal Navy, Bond’s boss at MI6 or the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), was replaced by a bitchy Judi Dench. But I had long stopped watching the Bond films.

Patrick McGoohan as John Drake in Secret Agent/Danger Man was arguably brighter than Connery’s Bond, but no less ruthless, lethal and indefatigable in his pursuit of villains. Urbane, articulate, a good dresser without being ostentatious or bogusly showy (as most of the post-Connery Bonds were), and possessed of an intelligence one can see at work in his expressions, John Drake was my favorite TV man of action.

That persona was automatically carried over into McGoohan’s subsequent hit series, The Prisoner, when a nameless British secret agent resigns, is kidnapped and taken to “The Village,” where he is given a name, “No. 6.,” although McGoohan and the show’s producers deny that it was supposed to be John Drake. The series was intriguing and ingenious in many respects as one watched No. 6 outwit his captors and his attempts to escape. It was only in the last few of the seventeen episodes that the story began to fall apart and ended bizarrely and  inconclusively.

The opening credits of The Prisoner by Ron Grainer however, married to their story-telling visuals, are fabulous, as they serve to suggest how every hero ought to be introduced, as he ought to be introduced.

My next favorite TV action series was The Avengers, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. This was the second and best version of the series; the first version with MacNee and Honor Blackman was never aired in the U.S. not to my knowledge. It was witty, often humorous without being self-deprecatory, and I developed a lasting crush on Diana Rigg, the svelte and swift Mrs. Emma Peel.  The badinage between Macnee as John Steed, the nattily dressed secret agent armed with a bowler and an umbrella that wasn’t much used to deflect rain, and Mrs. Peel was entertaining as they foiled the plots of various wacky and deranged villains.

The production in the U.S. of such series was largely disappointing. The filming of several of Donald Hamilton’s engrossing Matt Helm novels did not even bother introducing the hero straight up; it starred Dean Martin and was a farce from first film to the last. Gimmicks and gadgetry and snorts full of laughter.

There are a few other TV series and movies that I could discuss here – and I may make them a subject in a future column – but I think I’ve made my point.
Today’s “heroes” aren’t heroes at all. They’re creatures of neurosis and victimhood or they’re so bland that one wonders why their creators thought they deserved to have any serious conflicts.
They’ve been emasculated of any integrity moral certainty or certitude. Their values are commonplace if not bizarre. They are basically helpless existential eunuchs, incapable of idealism, powerless to pursue values, or corrupted by institutionalized pragmatism. They are what the killers of man’s spirit wish their victims to become.  

It’s that, or they’re “super heroes” with mystical or extraordinary powers based on comic book characters, often burdened with the same internal doubts and ethical conflicts as the more “realistic,” Naturalistic ones.

Now, when I was very young I was a devotee of the Mighty Mouse cartoons on TV, and also of Superman with George Reeves. But as I grew into adolescence and adulthood, my stock of knowledge also grew, as did my need for more “realistic” heroes and heroines. This is not to say that Superman and Mighty Mouse declined as values; they were replaced with heroes who were fundamentally linked to my struggles and existence in the real world.

So I discovered Cyrano de Bergerac, and Howard Roark, and John Galt. And a handful of others.

The extraordinary powers of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman et al. cannot help anyone pass moral judgments on Barack Obama or even understand how one has been abused by the esthetic pedophiles in today’s cultural establishment.  

My own philosophy of literature from the first novel I ever wrote – in case anyone familiar with my work has had any doubts about its purpose – can be paraphrased in Bond’s words to Professor Dent in Dr. No:

“That’s Bootleg Romanticism and grungy Naturalism, and you’ve had your six.”

1 comment:

  1. This review is not intended to be exhaustive. I have discussed only particular movies and TV series that happen to be favorites of mine and which lend themselves to the theme that heroes, once introduced, in the hands of Hollywood, in our current culture are subjected to what Rand called "bootleg romanticism" or are completely transformed into pariahs. There are dozens of movies and TV series I could have discussed, but for obvious space reasons could not even mention them. I may write a similar column in the future.