Academic journal article Framework

Severed Heads and Severed Genitals: Violence in Dead Presidents

Academic journal article Framework

Severed Heads and Severed Genitals: Violence in Dead Presidents

Article excerpt

The Hughes Brothers' 1995 film Dead Presidents (U.S.) is structured around a mind/body duality that focuses specifically on the issue of masculinity; a structure that conforms, in part, to a pattern of mind/body narratives that have proliferated in 1990s films (Lehman and Hunt). In this pattern, a beautiful and discontented woman who is married or otherwise attached to an intellectual upper-class male has a life-enhancing epiphany when her sexuality is awakened by a working-class man associated with the body and the earth in various ways. The 'body guys' in this dichotomy can sexually satisfy women in ways that 'mind guys' cannot, thus reinforcing cultural stereotypes of the 'socially and sexually inept, nerdy intellectual' and the 'potent, blue-collar stud who intuitively knows how to fuck.' The '90s pattern appears in 'art house' films such as The Piano (Jane Campion, New Zealand, 1993), Sirens (John Duigan, U.K., 1994), An Ionia's Line (Marleen Goris, Holland, 1995), and Moonlight and Valentine (David Anspaugh, U.S., 1995), but is also found in box office hits such as Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, U.S., 1994) and Titanic (James Cameron, U.S., 1997), among many other mainstream Hollywood offerings.

While the 'body guys' and the masculinity they represent in the 1990s pattern are glorified in various ways, Dead Presidents systematically foregrounds the notion that the cultural imperative for men in certain racial and class groups to define their masculinity through the world of the body, both in the realms of sex and violence, is an imperative doomed to failure. The Hughes Brothers' unusual pessimism concerning the effectiveness of what might be considered 'traditional' masculinity interests us in that we argue power or empowerment in society is more accessible to an educated population who use their minds well rather than to those who see their bodies as the site of strength (models, actors and professional athletes notwithstanding).

Edward Zwick's Legends of the Fall provides a cogent example of the 'body guy' masculinity that Dead Presidents recapitulates, but then critiques. In 'Legends, ' Harvard-educated Samuel Ludlow introduces his beautiful, intelligent fiancée Susanna to his father and two brothers, Tristan and Alfred. Tristan-his father's favorite son-is as rugged and body-oriented as the urbane Samuel is delicate and intellectual. Bare-chested, bearded Tristan fights a grizzly bear and tames wild horses while the impeccably suited, clean-shaven Samuel reads books and is depicted as a 'mamma's boy' because he left his father's beloved family ranch in Montana for Boston to be with his prim mother who couldn't endure harsh western life (a mother Tristan overtly dislikes).

The three brothers enlist in World War I, but Samuel is so naive and helpless that in the one moment Tristan isn't guarding him, he volunteers for a dangerous mission, is blinded by poison gas, stumbles around screaming for Tristan, gets entangled in barbed wire and is then shot repeatedly and killed. As if this excessive punishment isn't enough, after a distraught Tristan sees Samuel's dead body he stabs it and cuts out his heart (as per a Native American tradition). Samuel's swift and gruesome elimination from the narrative trivializes Tristan's teary statement, 'He was the best of us.'

Tristan's narrative superiority is manifested in his sexual prowess. While Samuel was still alive, Tristan and Susanna acknowledged a mutual attraction to each other. After Samuel's death, they have highly physical sex in which Tristan repeatedly brings Susanna to orgasm while performing in various positions for a prolonged period of time. We can assume that Samuel would not have evoked this response from Susanna in that at one point he shyly consults Tristan about 'having' her before marriage. Tristan asks if he's talking about 'fucking' and then says, 'I recommend fucking'-a notion that embarrasses Samuel, but is something that Susanna clearly enjoys with Tristan. …

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