Monday, August 28, 2017

The last temptation of the first Rambo

Once it has become impossible to separate a film from the mass phenomenon it has become, once a celluloid hero has become an all-purpose emblem, there are advantages to seeing the film again on television, as a simple guest to the small screen. Rid of its aura, it becomes again what it started as: sounds and images among other sounds and images. It even happens that the film loses nothing in this modest recycling. 
Appalled by the recent offsprings, Rambo 2 and 3, we remain cool-headed enough to recognise the initial qualities of Rambo 1 (directed by Ted Kotcheff). How did John Rambo, the Vietnam hero, become a maddened beast, the films asks. How did Rambo, the film, degenerate into ever sillier sequels, is asking the same question. How come it’s probably no longer possible to follow through ideas is yet again the same question, asked this time of cinema as a whole. It applies both to Rambo and Rocky, meaning Stallone, who went from great to grotesque in each of them. These days, tapping a vein means betraying it at the first opportunity. Before being a vengeful brute, Rambo was a hunted animal in a state of legitimate defence. Rambo in fact doesn’t exist and if he starts out so gentle and sensitive, it’s because at the time (1983) America hadn’t yet made peace with its war and Jane Fonda hadn’t yet apologised to veterans. When America finished its Vietnam mourning, Rambo gained back in biceps what he had entirely lost in neurons. The series has no inherent logic: it’s an opinion poll in progress
This doesn’t stop the telly-vision of the first Rambo from being one of the nicest things. Everything is clear in this film with its qualities of primitive American cinema, with the action set at the centre of the picture and the motivations at the centre of the dialogue. Everything is clear because the only not-so-clear thing (the still recent Vietnam war) is only mentioned at the end of the film, when Rambo, in tears, is about to give himself up. In the meantime, everything that happens takes the form of a trauma, mirroring the much criticised ‘acting’ of Sylvester Stallone. 
Rambo isn’t just a film about someone who has almost lost the power of speech, it is fundamentally a silent film. Silent about all the big questions whose formulations it delays as much as possible. Silent about buried causes and ultimate motives, silent in the face of violence and nature. We should be grateful to Stallone to have re-invented for this film an acting style with wide-eyes and gazes as expressive as semaphores. This makes him like the actors in the early westerns, totally silent, traumatised at the slightest thing and twitching in the midst of hostile nature.  
If Rambo were a western, Rambo would be an Indian. Not the vanquished Indian of De Mille’s films but the angry Indian who has returned to challenge his former conquerors now vanquished by Vietnam. This western section is the best part of the film, and the most significant. Rambo has no need of a script because Rambo is its script, its memory that is. The recent memory of the Vietnam trauma, the ancient memory of the Indian genocide, quite simply the memory of the American people insofar as they are not to forget that they too are a warrior people. It is when they encounter Rambo (a shade roughly), and thanks to the war he declares to them by himself, that the forces of law and order of a small American town learn how to fight again. This is Rambo’s sacrifice; this is his Christ-like dimension. The suffering for him, the awakening for the others. In this sense Rambo is a true Christ and his ‘last temptation’ (that of merely being a man like any other) coincides with the ‘first blood’ (the blood he was made to shed, initially, by pure cruelty). Here’s someone who at least saves the world, instead of living the snobbish torments of contemporary individualism, like his future little Scorsesian brother. 
This is the real reason why so many have identified with his masochistic bodybuilding physique. All those for whom individualism is still a luxury recognise themselves in redeeming heroes, and they are never too particular about the ultimate nature of what is redeemed. For these too serious heroes who make them laugh redeem them from one thing at least: boredom. 
First published in Libération on 28 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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