Love and Hate at the Movies01-22-2023
Wyatt Mason revisits the 1987 action movie Predator and finds, to his horror, that it is a masterpiece and that he, in spite of himself, loves action movies. Amidst a tour de force romp through the history and structure of action movies and a romp through his personal history as a failed script writer, Mason reflects on the role of violence in film. There are all sorts of violence in film: bloody violence, misogynistic violence, black humor, and ironic violence. At the height of the genre is a spirit of violence that breeds “sadism with comedy and made a mode.” Mason revels in this self-aware-comedic violence and yet, in spite of his love for the genre, comes to see that the violence of action films doesn’t age well.
The movie, plausibly terrible, is actually a masterpiece. I use the word in its humblest, dehyperbolized sense: a piece of work by a craftsman accepted as qualification for membership in a guild as an acknowledged master. It’s directed by John McTiernan, whose first movie, Nomads (1986), was extremely bad, and whose next movie, after Predator (1987), was Die Hard (1988), which for most action aficionados remains the genre’s high-water moment, McTiernan the Orson Welles of the form. But on rewatching Predator—and all of its despairing sequels, as well as McTiernan’s highly uneven filmography—that jungle movie seems, more fairly and more purely, not only McTiernan’s best movie, but the most cinematic in the genre’s history.
For long stretches, Predator is both silent and still: there’s much lying in wait, given the whole “hiding monster coming to kill you” idea. Through that stillness and silence, McTiernan’s gift for understanding movement itself moves, with bursts of legible action—none of the jumpy-cam jittering or super-slow porno of our degraded present—that exhilarate not because you can’t believe that anyone could do what the commandos are doing, but because you absolutely can. The scale of the proceedings is human, and the pace is human, the triumph of the Schwarzeneggerian will over the space alien is human, too. Zero suspension of disbelief required. As is the case with the work of all truly gifted directors, we are not asked to believe or made to believe. Unbelievably, seeing is believing.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, Predator is strangely moving. It’s an ensemble piece, with Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura and all sorts of gorgeous male humans with bared glistening man-parts who crush their sentence-fragment lines. Lots of steely stares between jacked American muscle. But there’s something going on behind the caveman exchanges. A queer—all senses present—tenderness. Call the movie Men in Love. And Arnold! So easy, then as now, to laugh at as a cultural figure, but he can’t be laughed at retrospectively. He’s calm, not wooden; fierce, not foolish; intelligent, not doltish. One hadn’t noticed. One can’t not notice.
For any doubters of my claims, I endorse the recreational use of Monson’s book. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read, and it feels like it shouldn’t work at all. It’s structured as thirty-one essays that march chronologically through the movie, each parsing what’s going on in the film’s significant scenes and shots, less at a technical level—though Monson is good at that stuff—than a metaphysical one. His enterprise is ultimately anthropological, a look at a culture in which guns are central and entertainment with guns is focal, but without cant. The book really revolves around Monson, each of his chapters about the movie becoming chapters that maunder through his life, cleaving away at the monster of manhood. “I don’t mean to be the subject here,” he writes, “but I do mean to be an instrument. I am a thing on which an effect is registered.”
Monson’s book brought up uncomfortable feelings in this reader, as if I, too, had become an instrument: a gong, one on which he beat away, mercilessly. Predator had the effect of an awakening, as if a dormant part of myself, asleep in an unswept corner, had been made to shoot to its feet, fangs bared. How dare he, was the feeling. How dare Monson remind me of something I had gone to great lengths to repress: how much I loved action movies, and how much of my young adulthood I had spent, and misspent, trying to understand precisely how they worked, not merely the mechanics of mayhem up on the screen, but the more mysterious matter of how they were assembled on the page. For as much as my interest was, like Monson’s, authentically anthropological, it was also practical. It was my life’s ambition to bring my poetic patience and scholarly passion to bear as I tried to write them.