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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Action!

By Kevin John

A friend recently suggested that the action film has taken over the mantle of the Western, "but it hasn't assumed the enormous responsibilities that go with succeeding to the throne of the most cinematic of all genres." If indeed that's the case, then we have to ask ourselves what those responsibilities are. We could easily enumerate the myths and anxieties the Western fueled (or fuels, I would say, but that's another subject).

But what drives the action flick? In many cases, cars. Clearly, the action flick is fueling some sort of fantasy of motion. But what is particularly static or sticky in contemporary American society that the action flick is responding to?

Let's look at "Speed" for some preliminary answers. "Speed" unquestionably moved me... down. The top of the theatre seat was well above my head throughout most of the film and I'm 6'2". But I don't think the intensity I felt was due solely to the randomness of a city bus held hostage, the fact that you or I could have been on it. Rather, it was exhilarating to see a city bus move that fast, to watch Bullock ignore all the stops and stop lights in order to maintain a speed of 55 mph (for a brilliant essay on public transportation, see Sikivu Hutchinson's great chapter "Waiting for the Bus" in Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles). But the herky-jerky nature of public transportation seems to have infected all forms of transportation. In most major cities, the car has succumbed to Marshall McLuhan's notion of reversal in relation to technology. Increasingly, cars don't do what they're supposed to do (i.e., go), even in the 'burbs. So it might be instructive to focus on places in action flicks too — where exactly can one be gone in 60 seconds?

Then again, I recently had the chance to revisit "Speed" and it didn't hit me as hard. That might have something to do with the fact I've made the drive between Milwaukee and Montréal (30 hours round trip) several times over the past two years. Those drives are action flick enough for me, what with the fear of waking up in a ditch or dealing with Nazi immigration officials and border troopers or seeing terrifying twister-like patterns in the worst rain imaginable or veering away from debris falling off the truck a few miles ahead or praying those deer on the side of the road stay right where they are or stopping every so often to scrape the snow that's become caked onto the headlights or wondering why there are such mind-fuckingly bad drivers on that dreary stretch between Toronto and Montréal. Add to this the fact that the car was frequently stuffed to the back of our necks with personal items and two cats and suddenly the "need" for haunted houses, roller coasters and action flicks dissipates.   It reminds me of that old joke about amusement parks. Q: "What was the scariest ride?" A: "The ride there." The world simply becomes a scarier place for some people as they grow older, rendering action flicks (and perhaps we should throw in slasher flicks) either boring or unbearable.

But can we conceptualize action flicks only in relation to an (at least theoretically) temporary condition of youth? Do slasher flicks only palm off of an adolescent disgust with the body? And does anyone want to put in a good word for heavy metal? Maybe next time.
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