Hill: Southern Comfort (1981)
One of Walter Hill’s gifts as a director was his ability to tap into the complex dynamics of large groups of men. In fact, that’s what his definition of B-cinema came down to – a staunch and emphatic emphasis on increasingly antiquated forms of male camaraderie in a world that was being transfigured by feminism, sexual politics and the emergence of a new professional class. In that sense, his films were perhaps the last genuine development of the western before the genre was classicised and removed to a postmodern distance in the 90s, and yet his films aren’t quite westerns either. In part, that’s because they’re often set in urban, non-western locations – although, as Deleuze pointed out in Cinema 2, one of the hallmarks of the western at this point in time was its extension to just these locations, with, say, the England of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs counting as a western backdrop as much as the Southwest of Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. More significant than the movement away from traditional western backdrops, then, is Hill’s relative lack of interest in the forms of solitary, silhouetted masculinity that tended to drive westerns. Instead, Hill’s films often take as their subject matter the gangs, posses and packs that more often played the role of antagonist in westerns, the mob against which the hero had to define himself, or at least the mob he had to get under control in order to prove his worth. Caught between the artistic individualism and ensemble ambition that formed the twin poles of New Hollywood, Hill found a third way with what might be described as pack dramas, or pack casts, slabs of raw male collectivity whose component parts were only gradually – and incompletely – dissociated, anatomised and individualised as their respective dramas unfolded.
Going one step further, you could almost argue that this gradual and imperfect effort to extract the individual from the pack is what actually constitutes Hill’s films, just as one of the factors that distinguish one Hill film from the next is how elegantly and economically this process is condensed into a narrative. From that perspective, Southern Comfort is one of his most impressive efforts, even if it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office and doesn’t seem to have made its way into his canon, which has suddenly become visible, influential and even fashionable again in the wake of the recent fascination with the tone and texture of late 70s and early 80s cinema. Ironically, those tones and textures are often most visible – or more haunting – in films like Hill’s, which treat style somewhat economically and functionally, tapping into the visual language most likely to engage their audience rather than attempting to reinvent or reconfigure style in any kind of self-consciously auteurist fashion. Watching Hill’s films in retrospect, then, is also to recognise something about the present, which makes it doubly unusual to encounter a film like Southern Comfort that doesn’t appear to have been remediated in the same way as, say, The Driver, or 48 Hours, or even The Warriors. In that sense, it arguably belongs to a subsidiary strain in Hill’s work that is less available for camp appropriation, partly because it works to undo and contemplate some of the overtones of his more well-known films. While various factors characterise this subsidiary strain, one of the most noticeable features is a distinct lack of location shooting or, alternatively, the use of locations that haven’t aged or dated noticeably in the interim. Just as functional style can evoke the tones and textures of an era more evocatively than lavish auteurism, so a functional approach to place – and the functional location shot – can accrue a documentary gravitas over time that is not available in the same way in more stylised works. As a director who often treated location in quite a functional, pragmatic way, then, Hill’s films often feel like an inadvertent docudrama about the late 70s and early 80s, except, of course, for this subsidiary strain – which culminates with his contributions to Deadwood, both his most contemporary and most neglected work – which may be characterised by nothing more than some exigency that exceeds his regular location shooting.
All of which is a roundabout way of suggesting that Southern Comfort is, first and foremost, driven by the way in which it uses its location. In many ways, this is the richest and most evocative of Hill’s backdrops, leading, in turn, to one of the most economical and elegant narratives of his career. In effect, the film is about a single practice mission by the Louisiana National Guard in a remote bayou that goes drastically wrong when they mistreat a local Cajun population. From start to finish, the entire film is set in this bayou, and while it may seem a bit pompous to discuss Walter Hill and Aristotle in the same sentence, there is an Aristotelian unity of time and place here that is quite breathtaking in its focus and intensity. In another director’s hands, it would play more as theatre – it’s the kind of premise you can see playing out on soundstages in the classical era – but Hill removes any traces of theatricality with one of the most breathtaking spatial exercises in his career, circumscribing the action to an increasingly monotonous tone and palette while managing to evolve and deepen that landscape with each new development in the drama as well. As the Cajun retaliation escalates, the distinction between land and water – already so provisional and precarious in a bayou – dissolves and dissipates, suspending the soldiers in an odd drifting zone between land and sky that grows more and more metaphysical, primordial and purgatorial with each new death that descends upon them, until it feels as if the few remaining survivors already have one foot in the next world, as they contemplate their imminent, shadowy selves with a misty, morbid melancholy.
While Southern Comfort is entirely shot on location, then, as well as clearly contoured by Hill’s experience and knowledge of the South, its locations are abstracted in a way that makes them more resistant to 70s/80s appropriation than his more urban-centric films. At the same time, however, that timeless, metaphysical backdrop is even more uncanny in that this is one of Hill’s earthiest troupe of men, a spitting, swearing, strongarming collection of renegades that make most of his other confraternities look positively politically correct by comparison. In the first five minutes alone, they joke about gassing university students, peddling drugs to high school kids, American Indian genocide and institutionalised rape, while the encounter that sets the film in motion pretty much involves them “appropriating” a series of canoes from local Cajuns, launching a series of racist invectives and a volley of machine-gun blanks when the Cajuns retaliate, and then swearing revenge when the Cajuns open fire and take out one of their own, since the right to defend one’s life and property apparently doesn’t extend to anyone outside the Louisiana National Guard. Against “the spirit of the New South”, they’re a band of Confederate mercenaries, and yet their behaviour is so provocative that I have to wonder whether Hill is offering something akin to Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” in the way he parodies whatever residual preconceptions and expectations the audience might have about Southern prejudice.
And yet, as with Newman, parody doesn’t quite seem like the right word to describe this strategy either, since parodic distance from the South is partly what Hill is trying to preclude. To that end, he repeatedly takes certain Southern stereotypes to such an absurd conclusion that parody is redundant – or at least banal – while simultaneously suffusing the film with a residual affection for the sticky, swampy, sweaty banter within which those stereotypes are articulated, not dissimilar to Newman’s quite unabashed affection for the hokey, folksy, old-timey language of rednecks and redneck culture, even or especially as he might not directly align himself with actual redneck attitudes. On the one hand, that precludes any kind of critical superiority, but it also precludes the – equally patronising – critical philanthropy by which we condescend to grant our sympathy to a disavowed subculture after they concede to allow us into their innermost subjectivities. One of the great strengths of the film – and Hill’s vision in general – is the way in which lovingly embellished types never quite solidify into the depth-characterisation of so-called quality cinema, not only forestalling a certain kind of critical revulsion and a certain kind of critical rehabilitation, but suggesting – even more powerfully – that they amount to much the same thing. Recalling Jameson’s famous diagnosis of postmodernism as a shift from parody to pastiche, I often found myself wondering if Hill’s vision here ultimately lies in assembling everything about the South that might seem ripe for parody, but in the name of a pastiche that thwarts any comfortable or critical distance that one might feel tempted to assume. In that sense, you might say that the film maps the temporal shift between modernism and postmodernism onto the spatial distinction between North and South – or maps the historical difference between North and South onto the shift from modernist to postmodern spatialities – as Hill considerably expands the definition of liberal-baiting to suggest that anyone who is still attached to parody is, in some sense, a Northerner and Unionist.
For that reason, Hill is perhaps the first great postmodern B-director, or at least a transitional figure. Since B-movies are by definition driven by formula, repetition and familiarity, the moment at which conscious pastiche – rather than executive, assembly-line production – becomes visible is hard to discern, but Hill is one of those directors who does seem to oscillate between the two, thanks in part to the way in which the very mass-produced hyperbole of the B-picture so often becomes the subject matter of his films, which is perhaps why he has become such a significant figure to contemporary pastiches of the 70s and 80s as well. For all his functionality, you might say that Hill was one of the first directors to provide a pastiche of the present – in fact, that’s a very good definition of what functionality entails, at least in a postmodern context – and there’s a sense in which films like Drive are interested in using Hill as a way of getting back to that formative moment. As a result, Hill’s films also feel among the first B-films that are pastiches of the B-film as a genre, as well as the first that treat exigencies and functionalities as a conscious style, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so difficult to decide whether Hill is an auteur or not. For all that they inhabited and defined New Hollywood, directors like Scorsese, Coppola and Friedkin were auteurists in a kind of retroactive sense, injecting their work with a totalising artistic control and vision that was, ironically, rarely actually available during the great age of classical auteurism itself. Hill, however, was a director who embraced functionality as its own end, in much the same way as Warhol turned the mass-printing-press into an artistic signature, with the result that his works are quite anonymous and divorced from any overarching vision but also somehow singular in their anonymity as well. If Hill’s South stands in for a certain kind of postmodern pastiche, then, it also stands as a kind of objective correlative to or ideal canvas for this brand of auteurist functionality, the ideal zone for demonstrating the drastic results of a cultural condition in which the idiosyncratic, individualist, auteurist voice – previously so precious to Southern regionalism – has somehow melted into thin air.
As a result, Hill’s South doesn’t feel like an actual place, region or culture so much as the constitutive absence of taste, discretion and directorial discrimination that supposedly typifies the B-picture – not dissimilar, once again, to the way in which Randy Newman’s critique of Northern self-satisfaction takes place through the kinds of anonymous, folky, hokey music traditions that fall outside the confessionalist, individualist and auteurist assumptions of the singer-songwriter tradition within which he was nominally working. At the same time, it’s precisely that evacuation of a distinctly or realistically Southern ethos that allows Hill to channel other spaces and situations in the American consciousness that were less visible or available at this point in time, with the Vietnam War, in particular, feeling like a very palpable presence as the atmosphere thickens around the swamp, and the suspense starts to segue into something closer to metaphysical horror, even if it is grounded in a series of increasingly gory and gruesome deaths. Of course, the film itself studiously avoids any references to anything outside the swamp, but its peculiar tone recalls the subliminal convergence of war and horror tropes characteristic of films about Vietnam that had started to come out around this time.
Of course, at some level, war films are always about horror, and are always designed to engender horror in their audience. At the same time, the specific language of 70s exploitation horror often seemed like the best way to capture a military enemy, landscape and rationale that seemed more bewilderingly unknowable than any other in history – at least as Vietnam films presented it – with the brutality and synergy between the Viet Cong and their native landcape often figured in terms of some shape-shifting entity that, in the words of one of Hill’s soldiers, seems to “be hunting us just for the fun of it.” Given how uncannily that anticipates the horrific kernel of Predator – the possibility that humans might be hunted for sport – there’s an interesting case to made that the strongest Vietnam films, or the films that most tapped into the peculiar terror of Nam, lay outside the war genre altogether and instead conform more to the increasingly millitarised horror that came to dominate so much 80s cinema. Certainly, there was something about the style of warfare typical of Nam – small batallions dropped in the middle of the jungle, often isolated from any central command, let alone the hierarchical and organisational rhetoric of the two World Wars – that conforms to a slasher logic, with frontal combat replaced by a kind of stealth attrition in which members of the group are seamlessly picked off one by one. Conversely, there’s something about the slasher, as a figure, that epitomises the sheer opacity and insatiability of the Viet Cong as an enemy, and that sense of a military exercise increasingly governed by an unseen slasher consciousness is very much the logic of Southern Comfort as well, even if we’re miles away from anything resembling a Southeast Asian terrain. At the same time, though, there is something to be said for the delicacy with which Hill turns his bayou into an echo of Nam as well, with the troupe continually trying to signal down military helicopters as they traverse a nascent delta landscape haunted by the residue of French colonialist decadence, in what often feels like a B-movie version of some of the key episodes along the river in Apocalypse Now, which is probably the best example of this devolution of military drama into body horror in the name of Nam realism.
In that sense, one of the achievements of Southern Comfort is the way in which it manages to transfigure the lush otherness of Vietnam into a Gothic landscape by diverting it through the Louisiana bayou, imbuing all the characters – and even the actors – with an odd, provisional quality that alternately makes it feel as if they’ve served in Nam and as if they’re always about to discover the full horror of serving in Nam. On the one hand, that works beautifully with Hill’s taste for hardened men whose rites of passage are always displaced from the film itself – or, rather, collections of men who are always in the process of hardening, without ever achieving the total apotheosis of masculine assurance, or the heroic masculine isolationism, that would distinguish the next wave of B-pictures and their promulgation of what has come to be regarded as the classical action aesthetic. At the same time, there’s something about that displacement which captures the peculiar status of the Vietnam veteran as well, haunted by a war fought on behalf of a country that has always already somewhat disavowed it. Of course, that’s partly the paradox and agony of all veterans, but the combination of widespread dissent and unprecedented televisation meant that the Vietnam veteran received less closure than most, left to drift in an odd space in which returning to Vietnam almost seemed like the most logical move, a conundrum that is beautifully captured in the momentum and rhythm of Southern Comfort, with each new atrocity dealt at the hands of the bayou just seeming to confirm that the bayou is the only place that these men can really turn. In that sense, one of the most decisive gestures in the film is Hill’s refusal to ever leave the bayou, which not only precludes any kind of overt catharsis, but also precludes the elevation of impotence itself to a kind of cathartic spectacle in the manner of, say, First Blood, which perhaps represents the point at which the disenfranchised Vietnam vet truly starts to modulate into a fully-formed action sensibility.
Of course, that sense of impotence – and the inability to turn impotence itself into a spectacle – isn’t just due to Hill, but the stable of actors he has at his command. While all of them work brilliantly, the film belongs to Keith Carradine, who is about the closest that Hill ever came to a genuine muse. Here, as in The Long Riders, his masculinity is somehow both swaggeringly assured but always in the process of constituting and solidifying its swagger at the same time, leading to a subliminal, escalating sense of unease and insecurity that correlates with the gradual dislocation of the squad that acts as his support structure, even if it doesn’t even really manage to propel, motivate or launch him into the heroic stratosphere of the imminent action figure with any kind of conviction either. If queerness is above all a prescience for the performativity of gender roles, then there is something inextricably queer about the way in which Hill leaves his characters’ performance of masculinity open as performances in this way, which perhaps explains some of the odd homoerotic touches lurking around the fringes of the drama. Of course, there was something performative about the subsequent action hero as well, but in some ways the burden of performance was displaced from the character to the actor in ways that tended to neutralise the disruptive potential of performativity itself. Watching Van Damme, there’s no question about the hyperbolic, hallucinatory and hysterial performativity of his characters, but that’s more than offset by the franker and more direct way in which he performs his agility, musculature and flexibility as an actor, to the point where it’s a bit like watching a sporting match in which the bodies of the participants are so directly and viscerally on display that it tends to distract you from the parameters of the display itself. Yet while Hill’s actors are somewhat deindividuated, stereotyped and objectified, they are never quite objectified enough for their bodies to take over this performative burden, creating what is perhaps finally best described – both historically and affectively – as a pre-action aesthetic, a quivering condensation of masculine energy around a redemptive apotheosis that is never quite allowed to come into existence. If action heroes often seem as if testosterone has imbued every extremity of their body with a phallic potentiality, then Hill’s pre-action heroes fall just short of that moment, as testosterone distends across their bodies only to dissipate, once again, into a hormonal melancholy that seems to leave a panoply of phantom phallic limbs in its wake, a testosterone hangover without the comfort of a proper testosterone binge behind it, and it’s by remaining right on that nauseous cusp that Southern Comfort manages to be so beguiling.
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