by Joshua Clover
From Film Quarterly Fall 2010, Vol. 64, No. 1
Killers (Robert Luketic)
Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton)
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn)
Some thirty years ago, in “Dream of the Wise Child”, Ann Douglas noted that a considerable swath of commercial literature from the 1970s was given over to the repeated but often ignored proposition that children are not innocents so much as malign creatures, intransigently evil. It is not overly taxing to historicize this in relation to the signal crisis of U.S. decline, bracketed by the global paroxysm of 1968 and economic disaster of 1973, the first shivers of doubt about the American future. Cinema is scarcely divorced from this account; to those two dates, after all, belong Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. The children, one might say, bore within themselves an oncoming era considerably less rosy than the long post-war boom.
At the far end of that era–that is, after a couple generations of decline and amid a more terminal crisis–things look a bit different. The disaster is not busy being born, but fully inherited. In the terror twilight of the twentieth century’s long day, it’s the parents and especially the fathers who bear the onus of imperial decline.
The adducing of dad to empire is neither an original nor Herculean task. It gets interesting when the complex of formulations, substitutions, confusions, and anxieties takes on not just a new urgency but begins to constitute a new understanding, a dawning grasp of a changed situation (and, of course, the desire to resolve problems onscreen that can’t be wished away on our side of the looking glass). It is here we find ourselves.
The exaggerations of the action-adventure genre, ever-erstwhile in pushing the symbolic toward the literal, make a useful starting point in sketching the new field of fatherhood and empire. The clearest case is that indicative post-9/1 1 vision wherein the heroic father, synthesizing a commitment to family with a passion for country (the two domestic ethics, we might say), must rescue his daughter from not just villains but actual terrorists (if there is a lord of this subgenre it is surely Live Free or Die Hard, though television’s 24 has read the same bloody tea leaves with considerable intensity).
If one were drawing a semiotic square, the initial contraries would be dad and terrorist; the kid is finally more a convenience than a character, a structural mediator to connect opposed terms. Hero dad is where patriotism and humanism meet. Indeed, they turn out to be one and the same. The terrorist, contrarily, is neither patriot nor human: an America-hating sociopath.
Comedy, of late, seems to be clustering around a parallel contrivance: the farce of paternity. Again, the plot device is no news. Nonetheless, the story means differently in different situations. A historical study would have to address primogeniture, secularization, rising divorce rates, entrance of mothers into wage labor, and so forth. But the complex of historical contexts does not obscure the developing structure of our present landscape. The current cluster of paternity comedies often enough turns on the vagaries of artificial insemination: consider Jennifer Lopez’s The Back-Up Plan, Jason Bateman’s The Switch, and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, all in 2010.
The anxieties that mobilize these stories are not monolithic. Surely they concern the traditional family, struggles over gay marriage, the perceived erosion in the gendered division of labor, and more. Behind much of this lurks the impersonal or even inhuman character of technology, which is not simply the precondition for such narratives but a stand-in for the broader alienations of instrumentalized modernity and its still-intensifying logic. If the factory at once allowed for and threatened the American family in the 1950s, now it’s the test tube, intrauterine insemination, boutique fertility drugs. The old-fashioned turkey baster comes to seem, relatively speaking, almost cuddly.
Such movies are condemned to affirm the noble conclusion that the true father is the one who loves the child in the appropriately paternal fashion (it needn’t be a man, naturally). This surely is the heart of liteness: a kind of liberal uplift about the human decency, masking a rather desperate reassurance that everyone has a big daddy somewhere to watch over them, and he will reveal himself within an hour or two.
Even comedies whose hijinx are directed elsewhere find themselves tempted into ringing this liberal grace note: Get Him to the Greek, the latest Judd Apatow-produced homo-social epic (surely it is Apatow himself who is perpetually going Greek), has a strikingly irrelevant paternity mystery, regarding the dissolute rocker Aldous Snow and his son Naples, who is otherwise entirely absent from the plot. Well, perhaps not all that irrelevant: the strand means to humanize Snow. Preserved from the action genre is the insistence that freely chosen fatherhood is the very mark of humanity. Cough Knocked Up cough cough.
If the action flick’s overt theme of nationalism seems to have fallen out of our semiotic schema when applied to comedies, this is but a temporary seeming. One need only peer down toward another corner of the square, adjacent to both the corners already noted. Such an intersection appears at first implausible: a remorseless killer who is also a flag-draped father. Is this even imaginable: the not-terrorist not-dad, a character who is patriot and not, pater and not?
Why not? Comedy, after all, concerns itself not with exceptions to the structure, but with surprise solutions which satisfy seemingly impossible structural demands. Meet the CIA father-in-law. If said structuralist solution seems vanishingly neat, one must be even more taken by the fact that it is far from unique. Taking as its locus classicus The In-Laws (Peter Falk as possible CIA agent and incipient father-in-law), the recent decade has offered, to name a few, Meet The Parents (Robert De Niro as possible CIA agent and incipient father-in-law), a remake of The In-Laws (Michael Douglas as etc.) and now Killers, with Tom Selleck taking on the curious duties.
Killers, more than the others, concerns how the government and the family are finally phantasms of each other. Spencer Aimes (Ashton Kutcher) is in effect a child of the state, which recruited him out of college and turned him into a contract killer, highflying and unnaturally sophisticated but always playing a role–a life he has since renounced with some difficulty and only halfway, leaving the government in the lurch so as to reconstruct a domestic existence.
Aimes has no father, and his handler (Martin Mull), the thinnest shadow of a father figure, ends up dead–assassinated after going rogue, it will turn out, by Mr. Kornfeldt (Selleck), who is not only Aimes’s comically threatening father-in-law but, inevitably, an “old school” company asset. Orphaned Aimes has effectively married back into the state, which will indeed become a real family; wrong is set right, and life resumes. This happy conclusion is secured when he and his wife deliver a grandchild (through which Aimes and the Kornfeldts become blood relations)–a child Spencer will one day be called upon to rescue, no doubt, from terrorists.
Hollywood’s Semiotics of Paternity and Imperialism
Such substitutions render transparent the occasion for the current cluster of paternity narratives. If dad is the U.S. government (in both terrifying and caring guises, in-law and true dad), stories of uncertain paternity evince a certain doubt about the once almighty state, its status, and its care-taking capacities: a subgenre within the growing Cinema of Empire Declining.
But “the state,” as we are all too aware, doesn’t quite get it right. The CIA’s argot–“the company,” “asset” etc.–is resonant for a reason: the substitution of father and empire is not all there is to it. Not at all. For there must also be a third exchangeable term: in short, the company.
The exchange between sovereign political state and vast import-export business is of course the truth of the first truly modern empire, that arm of the East India Company known as Great Britain. Moreover, this is the only model we have for a historical and global empire that has suffered the expiration that the U.S. currently confronts. This is not the secret but more or less explicitly the frame narrative of Alice in Wonderland, the blunt maneuverings of which veer closer to comedy than it intends.
The latest Alice is set when our heroine is nineteen. Her father makes an early appearance as a dashing yet tender import-exporter-and is killed off post haste. The company is doomed, and Alice is pushed to wed the son of his business partner just to make her way in the world -prefacing the main action in Underland. This column would scarcely be the first to draw forth the economic allegories of Lewis Carroll’s land down under. But no need for allegories; things up here are plain enough.
When Alice returns overground, she declines marriage and instead goes into business with her dad’s old partner. You see, she has borne back from the reverse side of the world one impossible, imaginative idea: a heretofore ignored trade route that will rescue the company, restore it to its former glory, and perhaps more. She will, in short, realize her father’s ambitions even in his death. And lest we miss that this resurrection is not of the father but of empire as such (also invoking with thudding obviousness our present imperial precarity), the film’s punch line-the source of this new wealth and restored vitality-turns out to be China, where every projected future of the American empire now must lodge itself, dead or alive.
By now the transfers are getting . . . not messy, exactly, for their logic never really wavers. But there are a lot of them, structures laid on structures. Dad is empire, in both its remorseless and humanist guises. The business of empire is business. But this Capital Empire Dad is uncertain, at risk, deathward-something drastic must be done, something out of this world. If Alice does not offer a clear enough formulation, there is another, so direct as to be frankly awe-inspiring.
It lies at the core of Inception, the latest festival of spectacular intricacy from Christopher Nolan. The title refers to the crime at the center of what is finally a very elaborate caper flick: the act of implanting a single idea in a person’s mind, an idea that person will pursue as if it were his own revelation. The idea is to be implanted in mind of the heir to a mighty energy corporation, one so mighty it is likened to a superpower. When we arrive at this singular idea, it is scrawled on a corporate whiteboard in all caps, the primal imperative for the new New World: I WILL SPLIT UP MY FATHER’S EMPIRE.
If it seems the opposite solution to Alice’s I will restore my father’s empire, it must still be seen as an unblinking version of the exact same problem: what is to be done about the passing away of Capital Empire Dad? Both movies, for their adventurous darkness, still pretend there is an answer out there (in a curiously literal sense: both movies, strikingly, must construct incredibly elaborate nightmare worlds just to imagine there could be a place containing an actual answer to this impossible question).
But there is at least one more angle on the problem. We haven’t yet filled in the remaining corner of the semiotic square -the one between dad and terrorist, at the opposite corner from CIA father-in-law. To satisfy these requirements, we would need a still more implausible character: terrorist dad. Loving, protective, true -but still an outside-the-law killing machine. Which brings us, with rictus grin, to Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass was condemned by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the last issue as a particularly crude exemplar of the Tarantine revenge fantasy, lacking in entrails or consequences. Such movies, it was argued, irresponsibly provide a convivial mental landscape for the delusory belief in bloodless wars of aggression, and thus offer ideological succor to U.S. imperialism. This is probably right. It is certainly a more insightful attack than the superficial condemnation of the film for placing foul language in the mouth of an eleven-year-old girl.
But there is something peculiar about Kick-Ass, which evades that logic and takes an even darker view on the matter of Capital Empire Dad (or at least a clearer one, which may amount to the same thing). There are three main kids, each with a dual identity: Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass, Mindy Macready/Hit Girl, and Chris D’Amico/Red Mist. Of the six requisite parents, two mothers are killed off before the narrative opens; the other scarcely appears. Which leaves the three fathers. Again, one is barely there; like the surviving mom, he is entirely absent from the film’s second half, including the ending. Which leaves two dads: the crime boss Frank D’Amico, and ex-cop Damon Macready, who is also the crimefighter known as, no one will be surprised to learn, Big Daddy.
It is these latter two we might expect to occupy our first two poles, dad (of the patriotic humanist variety) and terrorist. Strikingly, neither slots into these roles; nor are they versions of CIA father-in-law. Both, in fact, turn out to hold down the fourth corner: loving dad as driven and indefatigable killer. This is Capital Empire Dad at his most fearsome: socio-pathic, beholden to no law but his own, carried along by some absolute compulsion he can do nothing but embody. It is uncertain whether we might see post-millennial America better in the panicked megalomania of the mafioso, unable to enforce his will through any methods other than torture and reflex killing; or the vigilante assassin with the inhuman demeanor. These are the two dads on offer, two visions of imperial capital in its death drive, with all inhibitions removed.
The children will have to fend for themselves. For if this sort of father is the novelty of Kick-Ass, it is not the heart of its peculiarity. This, rather, lies in a singular fact: both these dads are killed off, spectacularly. It is a film in which parents do not survive. Dads especially. By the end, there is none left standing.
The film’s irresponsibility, one might say, is its point. There isn’t anyone taking care. Kick-Ass, caricatural as it may be, reverses Douglas’s tale: those children of 1973 are the parents now. Capital Empire Dad has gone off the rails, pathologically murderous, unable to protect anyone, unable to preserve his own empire. Sure he loves us, the movie suggests. But he has greater and more ruinous impulsions now. Because of this, the movie’s logic insists, he has to die.
Joshua Clover is a 2010-11 Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, researching a book on poetry and political economy.