in Profiles | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Looking for Trouble - or Privileging the Subtext

Reading between the screenplay's lines

in Profiles | 05 SEP 93

I'm in upstate New York, looking out a window. The wind is blowing, whistling. The trees are bending. The leaves are dark shapes marking the grass and the asphalt roads. The world is shadowy, dappled and mottled, filled with special effects.

I stare out the window and ask myself, what was The Bodyguard about?

I know I'm not alone in holding garrulous, but mute conversations. I peer into my own one-way mirror. It makes the time pass.

The story of The Bodyguard goes like this: A mega pop star played by Whitney Houston is receiving death threats, and a private security guard played by Kevin Costner is hired to protect her. She does not know about the death threats, because they're intercepted by her 'helpers'. So first she resists Costner's help, but not his arms. Then she resists both for a while, but finally and climactically, she succumbs when she realises the danger she's in. In short, she's pursued, he protects, she's saved by him, they fall in love. Dramatically, she leaves an airplane she's just boarded - he's standing on the tarmac -to run back to him. Her song / Will Always Love You (a Dolly Parton cover which, not inconse-quentially, revives Whitney Houston's 'real' singing career) swells to a crescendo as they embrace.

Someone's playing a radio somewhere, the volume's just low enough so that I can't actually hear it. can't tell if it's talk radio or the news.

I sometimes fantasise what Hollywood produc-ers say to each other about key moments in movies. I think about how much energy or interest is invested in bringing to the screen flagrantly whacked-out, oddly dubious work or deeply flawed curiosities. What about The Bodyguard? Money is just one motive in the mystery called the Hollywood movie. They could've made another movie.

The novelty of the country is distracting. It's supposed to be quiet, and it is at night, but during the day, when the trees blow crazily and you can see the shadows on the ground, it's noisy. People work with large machines that move dirt. They play their radios but not loudly enough. Country noise is different from the city's, where people run their engines in cars that idle, going nowhere fast, or raise their voices above the over amplified sounds of their CD players.

Once upon a time The Bodyguard might have been called an 'interracial' movie romance. Now, l wonder, if this is an interracial movie romance when the race of its lovers/protagonists is supposed to be unimportant; or a new genre of interracial movie in which race is unimportant, or it's not an interracial genre movie because race is not important to the story? The racial difference of the protagonists isn't proposed - scripted - as an issue between them. This isn't meant to be the 90s version of 'Look who's coming to dinner after the rock concert.' But does this absence on a diegetic level mean anything or not? Or, is it absent? Is it being elided, ignored, or is it surpressed? Is it desirable not to notice or ignore? What is that desire about? And isn't what's sur-pressed bound to emerge somewhere?

There's a pool here, not far from my room. l wonder if there's a bodyguard, l mean, a lifeguard. They're summer's security guards, its vigilantes. Lifeguards at pools are different from the ones at the beach, who sit alone, perched on lofty platforms, their noses smeared with thick white cream. Zinc, l think.

In The Bodyguard race registers first implicitly, coded as cultural/institutional difference: Houston is an entertainer and Costner the law, and cleverly, when he 'protects' her, he's 'private law' - unattached, a law unto himself, a freelancer. But pop stars, like Whitney Houston, are above law anyway, any law. She doesn't recognise his law initially, in any case.

High noon. The shadows are long.

When, in Miami, Houston finally permits Costner to rescue her, to take her to a safe place, with her son and sister, where's the mystery destination, the refuge? Costner’s father’s house, the family home, in Vermont, Maine or New Hampshire. From a terrace on a hotel balcony in a hot climate, post chaotic pop concert, where Houston's nearly been killed, the movie cuts to a winter wonder-land, to snow topped mountains, to snow everywhere, to a blindingly white and serene scene. A Hallmark Christmas card.

The Hallmark Card company has its home in Kansas. If my view here were Kansas, everything would be flat and there would be hardly any trees for miles. Lots of corn and wheatfields. In the city of Leavenworth, Kansas, not far from Kansas City and Hallmark, there are five prisons - federal penitentiary (maximum security), army (Fort Leavenworth), state, local and women's. l call it the Town without Pity.

Costner leaps out of the van and runs to his father. Both men turn to look at the three people Costner’s brought with him. The three are, by now, just standing there, dramatically dark or 'black' against the 'white' snow. The father looks at the three who are waiting patiently to be made welcome (a statement in itself):

Father to Costner: 'Are they all in trouble?'
Costner to father:'Not all of them.'

The dialogue cracks like the noise of a bat hitting a metatextual home run. It shocks as if something were exposing itself, not a penis, something more shocking, at least surprising. In its supposedly non-race-based context, the exchange serves as a 'white on black' comment, a racial/racist sounding comment. But the weather (and other conditions) isn't neutral: Or one thing, it’s on the ground, and it is the background against and on which the figures act. It's colour-filled, coded. To quote Cornel West, suddenly it's clear that race matters. And, given the prevailing climate in the US, the antagonistic and distorted attitudes of most US whites toward US blacks, inscribed in country versus city, inner city especially the lines signify a conversation about race(ial) matters. A couple of white guys are talking about blacks in the country.

What are those noises now? Clangs and then a humming. Red-faced men with walkie talkies are calling to each other and looking into the ground. Cars are rolling on gravel roads, birds are singing, chatting. l suspect the view outside this window would be remarkably the same every day. City streets are like rivers to me, in constant motion.

Did the movie's makers intend the dialogue merely to demonstrate a caring, older man, a good father available to everyone (almost impossible for a Hollywood movie not to be about fathers and masculinity these days)? The paternal can easily move into paternalism and, at the very least, those lines resound paternalistically. The scene that was contrived - that Christmas card - is a slice of a pie called white America. Lts untouched and serene surface masks the pie, hides its crumbly apple filling, which is in trouble - and trouble, not just for the 'others' who wait not so patiently for a fairer share of the national pie.

I watch a baby chipmunk run for cover under a dilapidated house.

In The Bodyguard a 'real American' man - real Americans are not hyphenat-ed Americans, they don't need adjectives - saves the African-American woman, and other people of colour, not only from herself or themselves, but also, and more sinisterly, from each other. It was, pointedly, Houston's sister who hired the killer. Merely a plot point in the story, she's an undeveloped character who's supposed to be riven with envy of her sister. Costner rescues Houston from her sisters evildoing. It's all in keeping with the traditional Hollywood way, the Western (movie) way: a good white man will appear who will get the job done. He will save troubled, unprotected people, be a hero, take the country in hand, allow newcomers into (onto) the land. But even in the most slanted and egre-giously anti-Indian Westerns, the Indians were acknowledged as Indians. There were recognised conflicts, battles, 'between' white settlers and Indians, though the Indians were mostly disadvantaged in and by those narratives. In The Bodyguard the 'disadvantaged' are further disadvantaged: underlying conflicts between blacks and whites are embedded in a narrative that builds on 'trouble' subliminally.

I can't relax. I don't have a TV here but there are newspapers to read. The New York Times reports that girls in swimming pools are being attacked and fondled by groups of boys in a practice called 'the whirlpool'. The boys come at them in a swarm, a formation, and surround and attack. The lifeguards are outnumbered sometimes. One says: 'We do our best. But we don't just jump in like that.'

The Bodyguard is armed with powerful hooks: lt's a desire machine produc-ing not just romantic love but also a love that protects against danger that makes one safe, that is itself safe. But that safety, its innocence, is questionable. Romance can function (it's labile), and desire can have more than one object, even contradictory objects. Romance is a good cover story, and romancing the 'other here obliterates the idea of an other, of the differences 'between'. The Bodyguard asserts that she - black, female - needs protection, but acts as if he - white, male - her protector, is neither dangerous to her, and others, nor in danger from himself and others like him.

There goes a jackhammer.

Racial conflict is the unmentionable, perilous secret of The Bodyguard, sitting at the back of the movie-bus, not supposed to be there, not supposed to be an issue. And it's easy to miss in all the garish confusion. Visually the movie is an accumulation of bright, brassy and cluttered scenes, stuffed with action, lights, objects. Everything is happening, the scenes insist, as if all that glitters and glows, all that goes POP culture in the night, is meant not to be looked at or regarded seriously. Just window dressing, mere distraction.

There’s a squirrel scooting up a tree. L once liked squirrels, but now I look at them and wonder if they're rabid. Two men have come along and are fixing something in the ground and talking about it. There's constant fixing going on in these parts, as they say.

A longer shot, another pet theory of mine, related but extrinsic to The Bodyguard’s narrative, is: lt's likely that Costner was or is a Republican or a Reagan Democrat. Ln the movie Costner’s character once worked in the elite corps that protects the President - Reagan - but was off duty the day that Reagan was shot. (He was getting married to the wrong woman.) Years have passed but Costner is still guilt stricken (suffering from an Oedipus complex). He thinks if he'd been there he could've saved Reagan, by which l take it to mean the father, the Republican Party and the US. The party/country (and movie business) needs a hero like Reagan/Costner. The Bodyguard has a hero, who makes all the difference. Bases loaded home run. Costner scores, reaching home base on the backs of others who are playing without numbers on their shirts.

The wind has died down. The existence of Satanic cults around these parts is exaggerated, l hear.

The Bodyguard is relentless in its mission to romance the nation, while American Heart, for instance, a movie about the state of the country, set in Seattle, has nearly the opposite (oppositional) drive. Jeff Bridges, toned, muscu-lar and tough-looking, plays a guy just out of jail, who tries to become a good father to his young, sad eyed Alain Delon-like son. But it's too late, and even an antihero with a tough body isn't viable, battling forces as big as and in tandem with psychological problems which challenge the probable success of individual acts of heroism. There are no heroes, there is an ex-prisoner who can't really get out of prison. The movie has a spare, quietly desperate look, its mise-en-scènes of devastation like the characters' faces and the face of the downcast (economically downturned) country.

A man has just walked by, drinking a beer. One night in a bar in New York, when l was going on about Coppola's Dracula being about Islam's challenge to Christianity and a new Crusades, the West's terror of Islamic fundamentalism, and the 'Moslem hordes infecting us' with bad (AIDS) blood, a woman said to me: 'You privilege the subtext.’ I laughed and thought to myself, l suppose l do. Frothy, nasty, fascinating, entertaining, endlessly questionable - the subtext, that's where uncertainty rules uncertainly. Where the ambiguous never takes a vacation. Where never an innocent word can be heard (in my mind I'm hearing Home, Home on the Range). Always compelling, it's the parallel palace of the partly known, mostly unknown, unarticulated, unspoken, indirect.

It rained yesterday. I didn't go outside all day. I'm the spy who didn't go out in the rain. Just a private eye in a public sphere. l want to cover the dirty laundry. Fran Lebowitz once wrote a column in Interview magazine entitled I Cover the Waterfront. My mother used to ask: Why look for trouble? A hardboiled kid, l answered, it looks for me.

In A Few Good Men, is director Rob Reiner contesting Oliver Stone's domi-nance in Hollywood, attempting to halt Stone as he advances to corner the market on movie manhood and patriotism? Is he telling Stone: You didn't have to have served in Vietnam to be a man or a good American? Reiner even quotes the crusty Caine Mutiny Court Martial, a trial drama, because where else try Stone but in a Hollywood court of law? After all, there are 'a few good men' in Hollywood who are Oliver Stone's age and generation, like Rob Reiner, who did not fight in Vietnam.

Like President Clinton, who bombed Iraq again. Was it to boost Clinton's popularity or because Bush was bleating that if Clinton didn't avenge the attempt on his life, Clinton's presidency was finished? Or was it Cohn Powell nudging Clinton: You give me another shot at lraq: l'Il give you gays in the military? All of the above?

And, what about The Crying Game? I heard some US viewers adamantly refused to accept that Jaye Davidson was male, even after seeing the shot which panned down his body and revealed a penis, his. Does the movie ask: ls the body a foundation for anything? Doesn't it propose that love - desire - can conquer all and that it's always 'natural' but not linked to the body? The object is always achieved, as well as the way to the object (even though the movie keeps insisting 'it's in my nature', contradicting its own more interesting premises). Nature is itself the question in The Crying Game. And, interestingly, it was very popular here but not in Britain. Is that because, in the US, the focus of 'trouble' was seen primarily as the sexed body, not as 'the trouble' in the political body? Seen less as the politics of the IRA, Northern Ireland and England than as the confusion and terrors of sexuality, of alienated bodies, of enforced fixed gendering? Its treatment of the terror one body can inflict upon another in service to a political body (because of having been born into one nation -'it's in my nature'- not another) could be observed with distance, from a safe distance. The protago-nist's alienation from the IRA and his flight across the border were generally viewed as pre-text for the transvestite story, a different flight/borders crossing tale.

I like to go for walks on winding roads. I like not knowing what's behind the next bend. I feel content except when cars slow down and there's no one else around. Last week it stormed fiercely and three old trees came down, obstructing the road. Lightning had struck them and they lay there for a while. Fairly quickly they were removed, leaving no effects, no traces of the drama in the sky, which had flashed and raged indifferently, ferociously.

In the Line of Fire plays with some of the ideas in The Bodyguard, but flips them over and over like just so many pancakes. Ciint Eastwood is in the secret service, a presidential bodyguard, who had been assigned to protect JFK on that awful Dallas day. Now someone else -John Malkovich – is gunning for the current president. The charged conversation between Malkovich and Eastwood is the subversive motor, the ailing American heart, of this movie: Why protect a bad president? Is America worth serving? What is heroism? Loyalty? Is there a good guy, a bad guy, and what makes the difference? How do public and private traumas intersect? The good and the bad - Eastwood and Malkovich - are a disillusioned, dialogical couple (of white guys), performing intimacy and identification in a verbal dance and duel choreographed by a relative of Raskolnikov. Since the Malkovich character has links to the government, he is a set of ironic, disturbing questions - about the price of protection, for one thing - which never surface in The Bodyguard. And, in another coupling - Eastwood's love affair with a female agent, Rene Russo - Eastwood continues his cinematic role: only male mega star in Hollywood tough enough, 'masculine' enough, to afford to be feminist and even to be a feminist's enamored foil . ln a scene only he could pull off, Eastwood offers to quit his job, for love of her.

The trees now remind me of totem poles, not telephone poles. Emile Durkheim theorised that the totem pole was the place around and at which society began; in a sense it was the social, the first instance of society. Movies are social instances, totemic, in this farfetched sense, a social place, a place to which one goes, a place about place. A place before one's eyes. Sometimes l am astonished at what happens before my eyes.