Commando (1985) is the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I saw it as a kid spending the night with a friend. We watched it on HBO and we loved it. Cobra (1986) is maybe the second or third R-rated movie I ever saw and I did not love it. I was not ready. Both movies represent cultural values and models of individualism informed by the policies of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. As a kid, I just thought Commando was loud, illicit fun and Cobra was an hour-and-a-half long nightmare. As a frame of reference, I also thought Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe were Satanists.
Anybody with skin in the art game likes to think of it as the perfect space for expressing a critique of things like a media culture that poses the President as a cowboy or a fighter pilot. But in the 1980s a lot of the new art, especially that of Richard Prince and the Pictures Generation, looked so much like the mass media oppression machine that some critics got badly confused. The critique offered by the new art, what critique there was, was obscured by alarmists and the jingle of the cash register. The Pictures Generation got famous, and Commando and Cobra both opened at number one.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan was TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year. He appears on the cover looking humble in denim western garb and a big, silver belt buckle. The image is a careful construction that works by the association of cowboys with American individualism. It is also a call-back to western morality tales of 1950s Hollywood, like Reagan himself. He was in another denim shirt and cowboy hat on the cover of TIME’s commemorative issue when he died.
But before that, also in 1981, the first year of Reagan’s first term, he took the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed off the roof of the White House. Like the denim shirt and the belt buckle, the act was a construction. The solar panels weren’t the issue. Removing them was. It was a symbolic gesture. There’s a new sheriff in town and he doesn’t really care about ecology. Nobody was surprised.
Commando, released at the start of Reagan’s second term, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as John Matrix, a retired Delta Force operative trying to live a quiet life with his daughter, played by Alyssa Milano. We first see Matrix as he emerges from the forest with a massive tree trunk over his shoulder and carrying a chainsaw. There are close ups of Schwarzenegger’s muscles and the chainsaw. He strides valiantly from the wilderness toward his cabin in the picturesque mountains. It’s all pretty phallic, but look closely at the tree trunk and you can see that it’s been hollowed out and filled with some lightweight material.
Members of Matrix’ old unit are being killed. Major General Kirby, a uniformed representative of the government, warns Matrix that he is probably next. “You’ve made enemies all over the world, John. It could be the Syrians, the South Africans, the Russians— or a terrorist group. They’re gonna find you,” he says. Thirty years later, that’s still a laundry list of international hostility.
Matrix’ daughter is kidnapped and he is coerced by Arius, a would-be dictator, into assassinating the President of some South American country. Matrix takes the job but turns the tables, destroys a lot of property, and kills Arius along with a bunch of his men. To get the job done, Matrix exploits the help of the hapless and strangely compliant Cindy, played by Rae Dawn Chong. He wrecks her car, drives a bull dozer into an army surplus store, and steals a bunch of high-powered weapons. He streaks his face and body with shoe polish, or something, and dispenses swift machine gun justice. He fights for his own reasons and abides no other law than his own. Major General Kirby shows up again at the end, just too late to be of any help at all. He asks Matrix to re-up, to join the military again. Matrix declines. Through firepower and self-interest the individual accomplishes more than the government ever could.
By that time, Schwarzenegger himself was a sign of self-determination. A Horatio Alger for the pumped up, image-conscious 1980s— image in the sense of appearance and also representation. Commando is aware of itself and its position among genre films. The film is full of jokey one-liners. “I’ll be back,” the famous catch phrase from The Terminator (1984), is reprised and the audience is reminded that Commando is part of a continuum, understandable as a composite of genre devices and influences.
In a profound lapse in judgement that he readily admits, my father took me and some visiting cousins to see Cobra one Sunday afternoon. He was tasked with occupying us for the day and that’s what he came up with.
Sylvester Stallone plays Marion Cobretti, the titular “Cobra.” He is a member of the LAPD in some sort of erratic renegade capacity. Single-handedly, he takes on a brutal murder cult that has been terrorizing the city. Just like John Matrix, and John Rambo before him, Cobra doesn’t wear a uniform and he operates completely by his own moral compass. Understandably, he has an antagonistic relationship with the bureaucrats on the force that hamper justice through their adherence to protocol and due process. Cobra doesn’t have time for any of that. As an individual he is more effective. “This is where the law stops and I begin,” he says.
Stallone wrote the screenplay and it was directed by George P. Cosmatos. They worked together the year before on Rambo: First Blood Part II, which Stallone co-wrote with James Cameron. Of Cobra’s development Stallone, quoted in a 1988 article by Roger Ebert, says, “In Hollywood movies like Friday the 13th, everybody screams, but nobody ever calls a cop. I’m gonna put a cop into the middle of that kind of situation, and see how it works.” He seems to be describing the film as a response to other films, a continuation of other genre film ideas, and not as fascist propaganda. In the same article he does express this Cobra-like sentiment: “[Charles] Manson is on Geraldo Riviera, and I get chastised by the press for not explaining the motives of the killer in my movie. Well, there are no motives. They just kill. And the only way to eradicate them is to find a cop who is a radical eradicator.”
If ever there was a camera-ready bogey-man, it is Charles Manson. However, Geraldo Rivera’s “interview” with him doesn’t glorify anybody. Sly shouldn’t have worried.
Cobra was released in 1986, a peak year for urban violence and murder in major American cities. According to a 1987 New York Times article, in Los Angeles, “more than half of all slayings [were] considered drug-related.” Gang violence was escalating and involving younger people, teens and adolescents. It looked like Reagan was ending the Cold War abroad and tightening the screws at home. He pumped money into the drug war and the Pentagon. Cobra certainly doesn’t operate as though he has any particular affinity for democracy, but he does have a portrait of Ronald Reagan in his office. So, there’s obviously something about the political system in the United States that he likes.
The Reagan administration tried repeatedly to cut funding to the National Endowment of the Arts and other arts programs. As with Jimmy Carter’s solar panels, such cuts seem symbolic, representative of a small-government, free-market party line. Artists who already might have felt alienated enough by the cultural landscape, for whatever reason, had even more reason to be critical of right-wing political policies encoded in chauvinist representations of individualism and self-determination. However, at the same time, art was looking more and more, and in some cases exactly, like the media culture it criticized. Prices soared.
Pictures was the name of a influential exhibition in 1977 curated by a guy named Douglas Crimp. The artists in the show, including Sherrie Levine and Jack Goldstein, were dealing with modes of representation disengaged from “the tyranny of the represented,” as it was put in the press release. The Pictures Generation came to include other artists working in photography, video, and performance that dealt with representation and appropriation, such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Children of the 1960s and raised with television, they had a unique perspective on the nature of images and their construction.
Richard Prince re-photographed ads featuring the Marlboro Man for his Cowboys series. The ads are cropped, depicting only the iconic cowboy in the Romantic American landscape. Thanks in part to the conservative sociopolitical climate established by the policies of the Reagan administration, it was again a timely sign of American freedom and individualism.
The strategy of appropriation brings attention to the commercial and ideological agenda behind the construction of the images in the first place. Appropriation also negates the hand of the artist and asserts the position that the individual is inextricable from history and culture and can only find expression with forms offered by the same. Prince’s Cowboys extend the ideas and methods of Pop and conceptual art. They are also a critique of subjectivity and the very individualism embodied by the Marlboro Man.
The impossibility of a truly autonomous self has grim implications that still spook some critics who think that such a critique of subjectivity reduces self to little more than an amalgam of marketing and ideology and affirms the dominant media culture, making the artist complicit in its jingoism, sexism, racism, and other perversions.
The action movies of the last couple of years tend heavily toward science fiction and fantasy. Many of them are based on comic books, graphic novels, or regular novels with built-in marketability. The heroes are mutants, hybrids, and super-humans. Often, they are members of an elite team selected by destiny to wear uniforms and costumes and fight alongside other chosen ones. They display the same disregard for democracy as the heroes of Reagan-era action films, while cities and worlds are destroyed in the name of justice and freedom.
This year, the solar panels went back on top of the White House. Another symbolic gesture. I bet when they come back down again, the top action films of that year won’t feature comic book characters. And who knows what kind of art will be desirable to collectors if, by that time, we have also vanquished some terror threat or trounced a foe on the other side of the world. My guess is that there will be an obvious trend with clear philosophical and/or formal signs that make the art identifiable as a trophy, a prize taken in conflict, like a scalp.