‘Conspiracies do exist.’
A Coca-Cola billboard appears, only very briefly, above the American town of Hope, Washington, in the 1982 film, ‘First Blood’. Interestingly enough, this billboard (the domestic soft power) is elevated above Will Teasle, the sheriff of the town (the domestic hard power, so to speak) who pursues (haunts) John Rambo throughout the film, significant, perhaps, as elevating Coca-Cola above all things in American life.
Isn’t it interesting how the final scenes of ‘First Blood’ show Stallone putting an end to the billboards and advertisements that litter the landscape of this quaint, thoroughly American, township? Isn’t this another example of domestic ‘soft power’ meeting the ‘hard power’ of a rifle; a co-opted ‘hard power’, so to speak? It is striking, the way John Rambo, through sheer will and violence (a violence manifesting as an inability to communicate the crimes of imperialism), removes these corrupted artifices of capitalist America or, at the very least, those that litter this small-town landscape.
John Rambo’s sense of righteousness in ‘First Blood’ – as with all moral righteousness – leads to a sentence of hard labour at the hands of Criminal Justice. This lays the groundwork for ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ (1985), whereby we observe Colonel Sam Trautman meeting John at a prison-labour camp, asking for help.
Slavoj Žižek provides a good overview of this second film, where we see Rambo travelling to Vietnam to save a group of veterans from a Soviet backed outfit of militia. In an interview with Josefina Ayerza, published in ‘Lusitania’ in the Fall of 1994’, Žižek says about the film:
‘In the United States, I was struck by the series of films like Rambo […] which are based on the American obsession that there are still some prisoners, some Americans alive down there in Vietnam. The hero, Rambo, saves them, brings them back. I think the fantasy behind it is that the most precious part of America was stolen and the hero brings it back to where it belongs. Because this “treasure” was missing under Jimmy Carter, America was weak. If the hero brings it back, America will be strong again.’ (https://www.lacan.com/perfume/Zizekinter.htm)
In other words, after dismantling the quiet town of Hope, Washington – littered with its corporate artifice – Rambo seeks to return something to America that has been lost, years ago, in the jungles of Vietnam. What has been lost here, in these jungles, other than some ‘nostalgic referential’, a sense of humanity, something to point the way forward, a love for something beyond the commodities of a lost America.
Once again, the commodity is located within the sign-values of Coca-Cola, a drink that features heavily in the mise en scène of ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’, particularly within the military operations base, where we observe generals glugging away at Coca-Cola, (cans of Coke, chilled in a vending machine, no less), alongside the blinking lights of unrecognisable technologies; computers and equipment which Rambo will come to destroy in another scene of spectacular vengeance.
Even so, what does Rambo find in his return to the jungles of Vietnam? Love, of course. Not the love of a commodity, full of ‘metaphysical nasties’, but rather the love of a living, breathing, human being. A living referential for what America has lost in its desire for imperialistic conquest. Isn’t it interesting how Rambo finds his unbeknownst love, his assigned contact, Co Bao, as he passes through a littered landscape of lost, Buddhist (I assume) relics? Here, I am reminded of Mark Fisher’s analysis of those stone statues on Easter Island.
In ‘The Weird and the Eerie’, Fisher writes:
‘The problem here is not why the people who created these structures disappeared – there is no mystery here – but the nature of what disappeared. What kinds of being created these structures? How were they similar to us, and how were they different? What kind of symbolic order did these beings belong to, and what role did the monuments they constructed play in it? For the symbolic structures which made sense of the monuments have rotted away, and in a sense what we witness here is the unintelligibility and inscrutability of the Real itself. Confronted with Easter Island or Stonehenge, it is hard not to speculate about what the relics of our culture will look like when the semiotic systems in which they are currently embedded have fallen away.’
This is – perhaps – Fisher’s greatest insight, where he came to locate the source of his own hauntological circumstance as an experience originating from dwindling points of reference. The residue of a world ‘rotted away’. In some sense, we can consider the Britain of Fisher’s youth – full of subcultural vibrancy and rave culture – as his own Easter Island, put to death by the enemy of neoliberal values inherent in the prevailing capitalist (hyper)realism of the twenty-first century.
Nothing is more painful than the lost referential, monuments out of time, divorced from the semiotic systems that once governed them. It is an intriguing question to ask what would be lost from our own structures if not the order of the hyperreal that governs them; the irreality of sign-value and the like? Would Wall Street not look sepulchral without the virtual territorialization of ‘transeconomic’ metastasis? All around us, cities like ready-built tombs.
Even so, it is never a case of what has been lost, it is always more important to observe what has been left behind; to view the lost in relation to what’s left behind is nostalgia incarnate. Nevertheless, to consider what has been left behind is perhaps more painful than to consider what has been taken away. Isn’t this the melancholy that drives both Mark Fisher and John Rambo? After all, he is not angry at what has been taken away from him – he is angry at what’s left; a vapidity of existence, a shallow and passive nihilism, which is to say, a position we could characterise as Baudrillard’s ‘terminal melancholy’.
This is why Rambo seeks comfort in the silence and depth of a spiritual Buddhism, perhaps? It is fascinating how Buddhism – and its icons – feature in every Rambo film, aside from ‘First Blood’, the one film grounded in the landscape of America. After all, with its penchant for silence, how could Buddhism exist in a utopia built on the foundations of an endless and ecstatic communication, other than by way of simulation and image?
One of the more prescient expositions of the dynamic interplay between Coca-Cola and Buddhism appears in ‘Rambo III’ (1988). In the opening scene, as John prepares for a prize-fight, shots of Buddhist monks are interjected alongside scenes of Colonel Sam Trautman walking from the American Embassy of Thailand. As the Colonel strides through the market bazaar, we see the distinct Coca-Cola logo, the ‘soft power’ of American capitalist values – as it always appears in the ‘developing’ world – integrated neatly into the sign-value system of the local marketplace.
Likewise, in the early cinematic adaptation of ‘Total Recall’, (1990) Coca-Cola appears as a billboard advertisement within the ‘future’ world of the Philip K. Dick novel, which can today be read as a theory-fiction into the nature of the hyperreal trajectory. Later on, in the 1995 adaption of ‘Judge Dredd’, Coca-Cola would appear, once again, this time in the ‘cursed lands’, where a Coke bottle appears – both strikingly and briefly – to be stood on in the desert wastelands of a futuristic America.
In terms of Baudrillardian analysis, ‘First Blood’ tells the story of the commodities’ dominion, ‘the domestic battle’ over the American landscape, where the commodity has finally ‘overcome’ humanism, negating the alternative philosophies of depth and silence inherent in the spiritual posturing of Buddhism, for example. Both ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ and ‘Rambo III’ tell the story of a ‘globalisation’, a confrontation between the individual – with all its spiritual grotesquery – against the ecstatic delights of the commodity’s materialization. This is Coca-Cola as a harbinger of the hyperreal, finding fruition in ‘Judge Dredd’, through which we glimpse our ‘cursed’ future; our desert of the real.
Of course, if you think I am over-reaching, just remember how the ‘Rambo Trilogy of the Eighties’, and ‘Judge Dredd’, all feature Sylvester Stallone as title characters. (Aside from the film – ‘First Blood’ – where the commodity has already prevailed over the human subject of small-town America; the commodity has already drawn ‘first blood’, so to speak.) The smoking gun of this theory can be found in Buzz Feitshans, the executive producer of all five films discussed, here.
In conclusion, we have the appearances of the exact same commodity, a similar casting, the exact same executive producer; how much of this is purely coincidental? These five films, all produced by Feitshans, actually tell a meta-narrative of Coca-Cola dominating small town American life in ‘First Blood’, before representing the beverage as a product of colonial hard power in ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’, then as a global consumer object of soft power in ‘Rambo III’, before featuring in the dystopian landscape of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Total Recall’, and finding a fruition of its trajectory as a product of the hyperreal order in the desert of the ‘cursed earth’ in ‘Judge Dredd’. It seems we are given, in these films, a meta-narrative regarding the perverse omnipresence of the commodity; the mythological trajectory of Coca-Cola itself.
I would also like to mention John McTiernan’s masterpiece, ‘Die Hard’ (1988). What is John McClane (Bruce Willis) – the hero and protagonists – other than a Linkolan ‘Guardian of Life’, operating chiefly as another cinematic recurrence of a ‘masculine referential’, a character (a police cop, nonetheless) ostracised from the hyperreal ‘corporate’ world; a man who understands the sacrifices that need to be made in an attempt to preserve life? Ironically, during the climax – in order to the save his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia), the damsel, from the clutches of a ‘referential evil’, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) – John sacrifices an expensive, personalised Rolex watch. Is this scene not loaded with a powerful meta-significance? The sign-value significance given over to that commodity, particularly in the scene between Hans Gruber and Harry Ellis, is truly fascinating.
It is amusing how Harry Ellis – a stereotypical, morally relativistic, corporate cocaine addict – askes the terrorists for a Coca-Cola. It is interesting how Coca-Cola becomes a signifier of Ellis’ hallucinatory notions of coked-up power. Compare, for example, in that final scene between Ellis and Gruber, the interplay between the impotence of Ellis’ chosen commodity (a referential soft power) compared to the force of Gruber’s handgun (a referential hard power). Isn’t it interesting how Gruber’s hard power is only overcome by the ‘nostalgic referential’ – the American hard power – in other words, a previously ostracised, ‘sheriff’s justice’ – finding representation in John McClane? In overcoming Gruber’s terroristic plot, McClane must concede the ‘soft power’ of the Rolex watch. Gruber’s corrupted desire for commodities – stealing negotiable bearer bonds to purchase additional ‘John Philips’ suits in London, I imagine – has to be mediated by a thoroughly ‘Americanised’ sense of justice. In this way, ‘Die Hard’ is a deeply propagandistic film; but a great action flick, nonetheless. It is Alan Rickman’s greatest performance, perhaps? second only to his portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (1991). A film where the thoroughly corrupted morality of (Christian) justice, lost in the capture of Jerusalem by the army of Saladin, must be returned to England in the form of Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner).
Even so, the portrayal of Coca-Cola as a means of ‘hallucinatory power’ – the ‘sign-value’ of this particular commodity, (particularly as a means of soft power) – is prevalent throughout the mise en scène of many 80s’ action films; perhaps most strikingly in the 80s’ ‘Rambo’ trilogy, featuring Sylvester Stallone as US Army veteran, John Rambo. It should be noted how, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone has developed, over the years, into a ‘transcendental referential’; in other words, a referential that transcends the limits of the cinematic fiction. He had – in terms of the hyperreal – come to represent the ‘nostalgic referential’ of hypermasculinity in particular, even outside the remit of the cinema screen. If you want additional examples of Stallone’s hyperreal credentials, one only has to visit the Smithsonian Museum of America, where you will find a multitude of props from ‘Rocky’ (1976), selected by the Library of Congress as culturally significant, worthy of preservation and so on. Alternatively, you could consider Rocky Balboa’s inclusion into the ‘International Boxing Hall of Fame’. Not bad achievements for someone who does not really exist, but rather retains a presence, a residue, in thoroughly simulated forms; in other words, exists as a point of reference, the ‘idealised American man’, in this case.
In terms of Baudrillardian analysis, the fictionalised account of the ‘American Dream’, portrayed in ‘Rocky’, and its five sequels, actually masks the reality of its total absence in American life. Here, I will recall to your mind the words of America’s greatest intellectual, George Carlin: ‘The owners of this country know the truth; it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.’
What we lack in a simulated reality, we make up for in fiction. Isn’t this the hidden motivation behind the 80s’ ‘Rambo’ trilogy, for example? A film where the downtrodden, Vietnam veteran is able to exercise his fantasies through an aestheticized vengeance, initially, upon small town America, ‘First Blood’ (1982), and later, an American military base of operations, ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ (1985). It is fascinating how this all-American hero later fights in the Soviet–Afghan War, fighting alongside the Mujahideen, no less, in ‘Rambo III’ (1988). Nothing is more painfully ironic, these days, than to observe the final commemoration of that film, whereby we see ‘Rambo III’ dedicated ‘to the gallant people of Afghanistan.’ Interestingly enough, a rumour circulates, (a conspiracy theory of sorts) claiming the film’s commemoration once read ‘to the brave Mujahideen fighters’, with alterations taking place in response to the September 11 attacks. Will we ever really know the truth in regards to this rumour’s persistence? More importantly – it begs the question – do we believe our mythology is beyond such revisionism?
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Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and The Eerie. London: Repeater
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Linkola, Pentti. (2009). Can Life Prevail? trans. Corrupt, Inc. UK: Arktos
Die Hard, 1988, Online Streaming Service (SkyGo), Gordon Company, Silver Pictures, US, distributed by 20th Century Fox, directed by John McTiernan. (Cinergi Pictures would go on to produce ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ in 1995.)
First Blood, 1982, Online Streaming Service (SkyGo), Anabasis Investments, N.V., US, distributed by Orion Pictures, directed by Ted Kotcheff. (Buzz Feitshans is credited as the producer for this film).
Judge Dredd, 1995, Online Streaming Service (SkyGo), Hollywood Pictures, Cinergi Pictures, Edward R. Pressman Film Corporation, US, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures (North America/South America) Cinergi Productions (International), directed by Danny Cannon. (Buzz Feitshans had joined Cinergi Productions in 1992.)
Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985, Online Streaming Service (SkyGo), Anabasis Investments, N.V., US, distributed by TriStar Pictures (US), Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment (UK) directed by George P. Cosmatos. (Buzz Feitshans is credited as the producer for this film.)
Rambo III, 1988, Online Streaming Service (SkyGo), Carolco Pictures, US, distributed by TriStar Pictures, directed by Peter MacDonald. (Buzz Feitshans is credited as the producer for this film.)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991, Online Streaming Service (Netflix), Morgan Creek Productions, US, distributed by Warner Bros., directed by Kevin Reynolds.
Rocky, 1976, Online Streaming Service (Netflix), Chartoff-Winkler Productions, US, distributed by United Artists, directed by John G. Avildsen.
Total Recall, 1990, Online Streaming Service (SkyGo), Carolco Pictures, US, distributed by TriStar Pictures, directed by Paul Verhoeven. (Buzz Feitshans is credited as the producer for this film.)