The Fourth Reich Is Within Us
Revolution and Counter-Revolution: Easy Rider, Romper Stomper, and American Citizen X
Who can forget the ending of Easy Rider? Even thirty years later, the effect is sudden and visceral, a jolt to the nervous system, an immediate political education, despite the fact that it's clearly predestined through flash-framing. Billy the Head and Captain America get blown away by a couple of cruising redneck strangers in a shabby pickup. The cutaway to an aerial view of the burning chopper and body happens with such omniscient fluidity that you forget about the crude, home-movie decoupage that characterizes the ride of Fonda and Hopper across America into oblivion.
While the hippies were more than a local American phenomena, it was in America that the movement achieved its revolutionary complexion. In Easy Rider the Viet Nam war is never mentioned and drugs are de rigueur. The movie opens with a cocaine deal that finances the trip to New Orleans -- at the time, this act was revolutionary rather than criminal, hip rather than creepy. Western culture -- especially in the English-speaking world -- was moving into the New Age discovery of inner space as it rejected the game-politics of war (Vietnam) and Christian chauvinism. Drugs were a novelty, hitherto a part of the Big Lie. Addiction was a state of mind, product illegality a conspiracy. No one but the control generation saw Billy or Captain America as moral creeps, purveyors of a new false religion, pop art, sex and self-worship. Their weird, utterly impractical motorcycles, their circus costumes with their insulting parody of America's cultural history, and their infantile behaviour were pure revolution, a legitimate mockery of a corrupt society blinded by anal-retentive rituals and a distortion of the Monroe Doctrine.
Well, Billy (Hopper) with his paranoid giggling and crude overtures to women was a little more recognizable as the criminal he really was. Concealed in the hippy culture, his boorish behaviour seemed merely part of the free expression of a free citizen. The fact that he's an asshole not much better than the rednecks who eventually grease him went unnoticed. Hell, in that buckskin jacket and bone necklace he could be out of a western. Billy was outlaw cool.
Captain America (Fonda) is more problematic. His makeover into the hippy persona is suspect. His cool is from another era, the wisdom of cryptic statements where the big insights are left hanging in the air like smoky ellipses. "We blew it," is the unsubstantiated statement that he is mostly remembered for. But what was he talking about? How could things have been any different? As usual, we attached our own disillusionments, assuming he knew just where we were coming from.
This isn't the only bogus ellipsis. What happened to George Hanson (Nicholson), the alcoholic lawyer? He dons his gold football helmet, teams up with the two bikers, then is bludgeoned to death in his sleeping bag as they camp under the stars. Billy and America survive the attack of the rednecks... and the next thing we see, they're riding into New Orleans. They just abandoned Hanson's body and moved on, we must assume, even though they would most certainly be the prime suspects in his murder. But motivational details like this just get in the way of the fantasy. Once again the omission fits with the desired sub-text -- these men are running away from the generational evil as if space can displace time.
There's a candy store mentality here. The interlude at the absurd commune in New Mexico was but a prelude to the whorehouse anarchronism in New Orleans. From free love to love for a dollar, the regression is cultural and personal. The acid trip in the tombs was the final revolutionary statement. Today it seems almost tedious, the characters generic, their fate irrelevant. Bikers and whores, pop poster icons. Removed from the global tension of the Vietnam war, the victim statement of white American youth seems false, and the smug counter-morality of Captain America a self-serving rationalization.
Still, that ending.... Within the paranoid context of the times, it was sensational. The fascists were clearly identified: good ole boys in pickups with rifle racks. Even the shooter was a mistake of Nature, a tumor clearly bulging on his neck. We knew who these men were -- they shot civil rights activists, buried them levee dikes. Their ignorance was legendary, their fascism intrinsic. Thus Billy and Captain America became martyrs.
"Purity at all costs" (Hando, quoting Hitler)
It took twenty years for the counter-revolution. It was seeded by the punk movement, which then refined itself to a militia core of white supremacists and neo-Nazi ideologues. This time it confined itself to the disaffected white youth of Europe and the English-speaking cultures. As generational alienation goes, it seems an odd and dangerous movement, where sexual charisma is a shaven head and a pair of combat boots. It is, however, very similar to the hippy culture -- Che Guevara has been replaced by Adolf Hitler, and the iconography continues to be pop.
Nazis are cool -- fifty years of movies exalting the death's head chic of the SS have made the swastika the desired symbol of the white punk trying to retain his identity in a global economy of immigrant hordes, affirmative action and secular morality. Nazis are mythical, their appeal ancestral, their legacy theatrical. Old Nazis might die but their uniforms live forever. As Peter O'Toole the psychotic SS General in the Kessel/Litvak Night of the Generals (1967) says, "No one rots with me."
Romper Stomper (1992) is about a skinhead squad in Melbourne, Australia, which is really a surrogate "family" unit run by a young Mein Kampf religiosto called Hando (Russell Crowe). The squad hangs out in an abandoned garage somewhere in the industrial zone. Instead of Jews and Gypsies, they persecute Vietnamese, many of whom enter Australia as "boat people" refugees. The action is often raw montage, the rumbles scored by blended animal sounds, the ugly panting barks of warring dogs and the primal squeals of stampeding rats. It's very effective, an audial metaphor that no amount of discussion could match, a physical dramatization of the sociology.
"I don't talk monkey talk" (Hando)
Hando falls in with a young bourgeois epileptic, the disaffected daughter of a film director. Sex is animal style, a rear-end speed metal pump in a Nazi shrine. Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie) is so alienated that she leads the squad into her father's gated estate in a home invasion where they proceed to kick the shit out of him before tying him to his own toilet. They smash a few things, steal others, load up the director's Rolls with the booty but get sidetracked by more vandalism. As pathetic as it is predictable, their undisciplined violence leads to their failure, and they escape with nothing.
Indebted to -- but by no means enslaved by -- A Clockwork Orange, the action continues on its relentless way with the betrayal of Hando and his core soldiers by Gabe who is driven not so much by conscience as by biological plasticity. In the end, the story is another sex triangle in which the father is the ghost and the trauma.
While this brilliant film by Geoffrey Wright merely whispered its presence in North America, it did establish the lead, Russell Crowe.
American History X, the recent Hollywood "essay" on this subject, is marred by moral majority propaganda but nonetheless disturbing in its raw verbal and physical violence. While the sociology is multi-cultural, the antagonists are the familiar white against black, speed metal against hip hop. It seems the screenwriter David McKenna and the director Tony Kaye are familiar with Romper as certain scenes and editing styles are similar. Filtered, montaged, the shrines and parties of the urban skinhead look the same in Melbourne, Australia, and Venice Beach, California... although we must admit that Kaye has used these filters in his career as a director of TV commercials. Perhaps X is more of a commercial than a drama, as it has been featured by Amnesty International at its functions across the U.S.
Perhaps it takes propaganda to counter propaganda. The curious paradox of anyone in the democratic countries adopting Hitler's Mein Kampf as a spiritual guide is only one of the many contradictions within the contemporary secular state. Ethnicity and integration are a paradox, as race cultures exist by instinct and self-indulgence. A social engineering directive such as "affirmative action" is a paradox, where merit and natural justice are continually subverted in the name of political expediency.
Hence, for the Vinyard family, the celebrity martyrdom of Rodney King becomes typical of the pandemic. King was a habitual criminal and the fact that some white police officers got sent down for beating him brutally "on camera" is part of the absurd way in which justice is now manipulated. The fact that the clandestine video of King's beating was an ending converted into a beginning by the media is another paradox that distorts the truth and demonizes the white man.
Just as the Nazis talked about lebensraum, urban white youth sees itself being pushed aside by the immigrant hordes and migrating blacks. "Living space" -- where is it? In X, even the local basketball court becomes a territorial issue.
The government has failed and it's up to the individual to restore the status quo. Enter Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), A-student, all round hardbody son of a white Los Angeles cop (or is he a fireman) killed in the line of duty.
With his shaven head and Nazi body art, Derek has the dangerous sexual charisma of a Waffen SS officer straight from the academy. We first see him as a sexual animal, voraciously humping his black-eyed vixen bigot under a Nazi flag as if she's something to be eaten by a German Shepherd dog rather than caressed by a human being. The flag and the candles are typical heavy metal voodoo, a mysticism conveyed by borrowed symbols and perverted ideology. Interestingly, Derek starts his de-programming when he's raped by another pseudo-Nazi in the showers while doing three years for the murder of two blacks.
We see him in a number of situations from the past, dinner table discussions with his father and later his mother's "boyfriend". The conversations with his Nazi mentor (Stacy Keach) are in black and white, as if their logic is that straightforward. Keach's character is unfortunately left under-developed, another piece of visual melodrama. We want to hear his philosophy and understand his hold on these young men but he's ambiguous, like some old warlock in an auto wrecking yard who might or might not be dealing dope.
Daniel Vinyard (Edward Furlong) writes an essay on Mein Kampf but the angered school principal (who is black) makes him rewrite the essay as a study of how his older brother Derek ended up in jail. The essay is called American History X, and provides the narrative frame for the film. In a pragmatic touch, the past is rendered in black and white, the present in color. Thus the narrative is a frame, which allows an intellectual commentary to be imposed upon the dramatic incidents of the story.
As a junior skinhead, Danny models himself on his older brother, aspires to be his clone. Therefore it comes as no surprise that in a story of Christian sin and contrition, there must be, finally, a sacrifice. Danny's death is part of the loop, the familiar synthesis in the cycle of violence.
"Don't fuckin' eyeball me, man, or I'll skullfuck ya!"
Daniel Vineyard is blown away by a 9 mm automatic, just like the one his brother used. Captain America and Billy are blown away by a shotgun. Rednecks and Rappers, what's the difference? No one considers giving guns to children -- although they now acquire them all too easily -- or recognizes that more adults than ever remain children. We laugh when children fantasize and threaten mass annihilations. Give them automatics, and at the first aggravation, they'll be sure to act.
In this era of the child-adult, fascism is as much a symptom of the free-market as it is of technology. Attitude is a commodity, something of market value in identity politics. American History X does a good job of rendering character by history rather than attitude, although attitude is very much a part of the "essay". This didactic approach -- while irritating in some scenes -- faces head-on the very fascism that the Hollywood film industry has helped promote. Vigilantism plays straight to our fantasies, and especially to the fantasies of the excluded classes.
It's a lonely landscape, one of mutant encounters and visual disgust. As in all adolescent experience, first contact is always sexual, a flash frame of desire and self-loathing. We see ugliness in ethnicity, a threat to what we see in our own mirrors. Derek Vinyard is reluctantly ameliorated when he is forced to work with Lamont (Guy Torry), a young black whose desire to please is almost as embarrassing as is his humanity. We smell contrivance here, although the essential truth of human contact is irrefutable. Work, respect, bond -- it's a fact. Enemies often reconcile in jail.
North America has always been a breeding ground of free market religions. It's not hard to transform a gang into a cult. We see this activity at all levels now, from the new medievalism of the "tree huggers" and environmentalists, to the suicide transcendentalists of the UFO cults. The Nazi militia groups are fundamentally religious groups, as all sub-culture and state culture uses mysticism and the imagery of sacred relics.
"It is a tragic thing that the Fuehrer has become such a recluse and leads such an unhealthy a life. He doesn't get out into the fresh air. He does not relax. He sits in his bunker, fusses and broods. If only one could transfer him to other surroundings!" (Joseph Goebbels, Diaries, March 1943)
© LR 11/99
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