Monday, January 3, 2011

Walter Pretending (Dirty Harry)

Fluffy dog on feet this morning, tongue flicking against bare ankle. This town is indifferent to me. I have seen its true face. The streets are little-used curves of residential development and the developments are full of the new rich and when the storm sewers are finally snowed over, it's going to get very muddy. The grotesque brown sludge of dirt, salt, and snow will pile upon the curbs and all the yuppies and helicopter parents will look up and shout "plow us!" and I will look down and whisper "Shut up, I'm playing video games."

They'll be fine. Miasma of illegal immigrant labor will come for the worst, mostly Brazillians out of Danbury. Steel blades strapped to aging pickups scrape asphalt and hurry out by sunset. The rest will fend for themselves. Archways of snow hurled by weekend warriors' diesel manhoods. In time the snow will melt, and the ground will deform in freshly thawed muddiness, and the stench of methane will give way to the stench of freon as winter recedes to memory.

While in San Francisco, Harry Callahan scrawls his design on a morally blank world. It is 1971, and having crushed the appallingly misguided youth rebellions of 1968, the military industrial complex has finally kicked back, put up its feet, and resumed the business of cultural domination. Dirty Harry, among the first success stories of this process, is a glorious piece of Nixonian politic of the sort that spent 37 years sending Hunter S. Thompson to his grave.

While in parallel, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney wired together Computer Space, a clone of Spacewar!, among the earliest video games. The rise and fall of the technocrat begins its most visible upwards trajectory in this wreckage - a trajectory that, for a brief moment, gave some sense of vision for the future - some sense that things might be going somewhere. That's gone now, future and past together, as the remnants of the Great Boxing Day Blizzard of 2010 pool to slush in the dawn of 2011.

And in 1990, as the Reagan/Bush/Thatcher axis of Nixonian politic turned to slush, Dirty Harry: The War Against Drugs creates the absurd visage of a video game adaptation of this technocratic ascent. The game is an ill-structured side-scroller, a classic game of man-with-gun-shoots-bad-guys in every way except for the classic bit. Its subtitle encodes the worst social regressiveness of the post-60s era. The very idea of the game is a towering monument to technocratic excess. Except Dirty Harry was never the technocracy. Dirty Harry had no need or use for the technocracy, except inasmuch as they grudgingly sign his paychecks and he goes and takes care of the things they'd rather not think of.

What is interesting is that the order of events is not what you would expect. Dirty Harry, in 1971, was the first formation of the Nixonian hero. Or, no, let's be even more accurate, he was the second. Nixon was the first. The avatar of our own internal darkness, Nixon was brought out of the most needed retirement in human history to serve as the electoral knight of the forces of inertia. No. Not inertia. Nixon  was not merely a force of non-change, but a force of rolling back change. He is our id turned to the task of undoing human progress - to the Dark Ages if the Pliocene is a bridge too far. Dirty Harry is merely what happens when one undertakes the insane task of turning Richard Nixon into an action hero.

It was Reagan, Bush, and Thatcher who weaponized Nixonian thinking, that embraced the parallel legacy of 1971 worked out by Nolan Bushnell wiring together video games in a California garage. The technocracy rises, its culminating moment coming in 1990 as the Dirty Harry video game and the World Wide Web flare out into the world. For a moment, it appears that Nixonian politic fades in light of this. Like the angry, nihilistic thrashing of the late 70s and 80s has done what 60s utopianism could not, and has finally eliminated the darkness. The world lights up like a fiberoptic Christmas tree as the ground gives way from Cyberpunk to Cyberutopianism.

For a flickering moment, we lose sight of our own history. For a moment, it feels possible to ignore Watchmen, to ignore Dirty Harry, to ignore looming nuclear armageddon. A saxophone may yet lead us from darkness, but it was not to be. The radiant light of the information age turned dark in only a decade. The ensuing darkness lasted eight years. Like an engine overheating, our cycles of utopia and dystopia move faster and faster, collapsing the atavistic past of the post-apocalyptic and the glimmering future of the utopian into a frozen miasma melting into the storm sewers.

And now the odometer of the planet ticks over, bringing us further from the future with every shudder of history's engine. Winter seems a needed cooling, a shutting off of the heat to quell the riot before it even begins. The sludge of ice suspended on a frozen ground that cannot absorb it serves to chill the blood lest we come to the sickening realization preceding a cartoonish drop off a cliff.

Those of us with manual manhoods may yet have our shovels in hand. Let us then indulge in a moment of archeology. Perhaps we shall fare better than my dog, managing something other than a mangled mole corpse in the snow.

This lone Clint Eastwood figure cutting across the landscape proved an only partially witting forking point for the zeitgeist. The central moral question of Dirty Harry - should we be rooting for this guy - is by necessity answered in the affirmative somewhere on the road to Dirty Harry Part Five, more properly called The Dead Pool. That this answer is alarmingly depressing is no matter in the face of a $235,000,000 film franchise.

The question is revived in 1984 by Alan Moore in Watchmen, as Dirty Harry's archetype pulls on a shifting mask of inkblots and fights crime. Rorschach is actually based on The Question, a then-obscure post-Spider-Man creation of Steve Ditko. Ditko's Ayn Rand fetishism was starting to bleed through the linework of his urban psychedelia when he created The Question, and would finally break through completely when Ditko thinly reskinned the character as Mr. A, possibly the only superhero named after an Aristotlean logical principle.

It is easy to catastrophically misread Watchmen and think that Alan Moore sympathizes with Rorschach. There are two reasons for this. First, Rorschach is a fantastic character. Whatever Alan Moore means for him, he exceeds it and steals every scene he's in. Second, the comic ends with Rorschach's journal being the sole plausible means by which the machinations of Ozymandias might be revealed. As we are, for obvious reasons, pretty uncertain about the ethics of the guy who dropped a massive fake alien on New York City and killed a frighteningly large number of people, it is easy to mistake this possible avenue of justice as a remotely good thing.

To make this misreading requires two related errors. First, one has to read Watchmen, maybe V for Vendetta, and preferably nothing else Alan Moore has ever written. Tragically, many people are all too willing to oblige on this front. Second, one has to ignore the fact that Moore repeatedly paints Rorschach as a dangerous sociopath with intensely fascist viewpoints. The fact that this proves a stumbling block for anyone reading the comic is a sad commentary on, basically, everything ever.

Instead of serving as the deliciously targeted critique of fascist superheroics that it was, Rorschach got adopted as the iconic and default form of comic book vigilante for, basically, the next twenty years. The only major developments in the Rorschach concept were basically to add guns and robot arms.

Parallel to Watchmen was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a comic whose fame rests largely on the fact that it has most of the sex and violence of Watchmen wedded to the moral sensibilities of Dirty Harry. In fact, it basically is just a Batman comic where Batman is Dirty Harry. There are persistent rumors that there were occasional plans to adapt the comic to film with Clint Eastwood playing the role of Batman.

This in turn brings us to the problem of Clint Eastwood, the rare actor to have a distinct three-act structure to his fame. First, Clint Eastwood played the living embodiment of badassery, a role he had mastered mostly in the 70s and 80s. Eventually he moved on to phase two, being a director, before finally, in 1992, coming to the third and most interesting act of his career, playing washed up and retired badasses in movies he directs himself.

At the age of 80, Eastwood's fourth act surely involves decomposition. But here is where the future gets eaten - in a wave of expensively preserved geriatrics. This is a documented problem. We spend our lives watching the past die off, sustaining it at the cost of futurity. Mediocre video games, 21 years past their prime, are dusted off for historical retrospective without regard for the social cost.

As our anesthetic covering of ice, sand, and dismembered gopher sluices towards the drains, this is the secret uncovered beneath its drifts: the secret of the badass. Whether it is Dirty Harry, Rorschach, or Batman - the badass is always conservative, in the sense of conservation - the sense of maintaining what is, and what was. The badass is the enemy of futurity.

1 comment:

  1. The way you're focusing on the snow accumulating and melting feels new :-) Great post.

    Have you been reading the Buffy comics? Most recently the plot has turned into a battle between conservation and futurity. The threatening future, in this case, is the lovechild of Buffy and Angel. Buffy and gang want to abort it from coming into the world, but in the ensuing fight the source of the status-quo's power is accidentally broken, and an unknown future is unleashed upon the earth. It's a cliffhanger at this point, of course.