I’ve been comparing Vin Diesel to Stallone over at The Federalist. That’s my beat, manliness and American culture. But I have more things to say about Vin Diesel than fit into that piece. He is successful, neglected, and misunderstood all at once. And he has made the relationship between the promise of success in America and the anguish of manliness a big subject in movies. At the same time, this has become a subject in politics, too, so let’s look at its clearest, most vulgar statement on the matter. Having already written about his major franchise, the Fast and Furious, I want to talk about his minor franchise, Triple X, which had another success earlier this year.
The American audience ignored it, because it’s so obviously a B picture. The worldwide audience liked it much better for much the same reason–the film made $300 million, half in China. The story shows something lots of people want to see: An anti-liberal, anti-globalization ideology. Vin Diesel starts by presenting himself as the champion of third-world kids who love soccer–the game of globalized democracy. He ends up the successful, defiant enemy of the government-tech oligarchy. The antagonist you could call the establishment–evil, treacherous, but undeniably powerful and sophisticated people that secretly run American foreign policy. Vin Diesel’s against the evils of espionage, war, and the surveillance state. How could you not admire him, nay, even love!
It gets better still: Who would you say is the incarnation of that insidious, upper class evil? Who embodies the privilege of playing with other people’s lives and the future of the world from a sheltered position that is the utter opposite of manliness? Who uses national security as a cynical ploy to further a selfish agenda? A white lady of a certain age, strikingly blonde, and very corrupt. What does the hero really love? Naked women and vulgar opulence. Yeah, that does sound like the Trump-Clinton election!
The original Triple X established the pattern for Mr. Trump back in 2002: Just think about the title–it promises explosions and titillation, danger and seduction. It’s for when the rough stuff is called for. The anti-hero’s line in that story, when America calls on him to save her, is this: if you’re going to send someone off to save the world, make sure he likes it in the first place! Indeed, what would make America lovable is at stake in the desperate recourse to anti-establishment outsiders in a time of confusions. It’s not quite the America the establishment likes.
For another example, the villain in the new Fast and Furious story, a franchise started the year before Triple X, is also a blonde white woman with super-sophistication in her back pocket. Her super-power? To corrupt the virtuous hero who stands up for his family and the majority of the people on this planet! Why is she so evil? Because she wants to be a one-woman surveillance state possessed of nuclear submarines, and she will exploit however many non-white people it takes to do it. Is it really likely Vin Diesel did this twice in a year by accident, and in movies made in the atmosphere of the 2016 election?
Vin Diesel is in the business of the manly championship of democracy. That means opposing the arrogance and privileges of the sophisticated few. A willingness to face danger, even an eagerness to enter into dangerous contests, is about opposing the ideology of health and safety. Instead, you get extreme sports. What’s so bad with our medical-political progress? Well, it sometimes turns into cradle-to-the-grave surveillance: and legal hurdles that mean little girls cannot sell lemonade: and scared souls forever worried about conforming and obedience, lest something bad should happen. Manliness here equals freedom: for once, it’s all-American. It looks like democracy because it’s opposed to the government and the corporations where health and safety are turning people into human resources. In such a situation, with such a predicament, the manly rebellion against authority is the same as standing up for the equal dignity of all people.
Conservatives have lately been embracing this populism, some at movies, some in politics, some in both, because it always comes around to saying friendship and family are best, private life is better than public life, and you can never trust sophisticated people who make professions of good–you should only trust people you actually suffer and rejoice with. That’s true and it’s alright, but it completely leaves out of account the issue of anguished manliness, as though manliness had been tamed and didn’t present any real danger for our situation. Mostly, these people seem to think manliness is just a show to get people in the theater, completely ignoring the psychology of anguish and its lasting effects.
The problem with this populism is not going to be solved by conservatives. It could only be solved if this story of championing democracy could be attached to a plausible American future. Instead, it’s predicated on a collapse of confidence about America’s future. After all, “family and friends” is often just another name for giving up on everything else. The big deal has to be giving people a sense of their dignity in opposing government powers exercised in contempt of the people. That we do not yet have. Vin Diesel’s stories are all about asserting independence from a life where wannabe oligarchs run your life. That really is not easy, and it’s all about turning to anger in your unhappiness. There is a thriving industry in movies that the press doesn’t care about, that’s all about counsels of anger. That’s about what there is in popular culture to address the issue of manliness. But whenever success comes, so does politicization.
Taking a manly attitude to manliness, that is, making it a public issue, inevitably politicizes it. Commercial success, popularity, and the ideology of “so much winning” went together to make the Fast and Furious movies assume a complex political ideology about the periphery of the civilized world fighting back against the system of liberal globalization. But America lacks a political figure to focus attention to what it means to make America great again at the movies. No surprise there: Mr. Bush seemed hobbled or confused by the burden of his war presidency and Mr. Obama was all about no more fighting, without much pretense that it was anything but defeat. This lack of focus guaranteed that populism at the movies would end up misunderstood.
Instead, what dramatic plot line dominates the Young Adult taste? Adults who run the state for the purpose of sucking the life-blood out of the young–call it Millennial angst. That’s political paranoia and it’s inevitable if you take the manliness out of anger, the possibility to act, and the confidence that you can rally the majority against the oligarchic takeover. The only alternative to political paranoia is the B genre of action movies and the king of it all is Vin Diesel. But this is no solution: the audience of action movies is under no doubt that mankind will choose comfort over danger, paranoia over conflict. It’s not clear that this populism at the movies has any movie future except politically paranoid views of a robotic-computerized future that has emasculated man completely. And I don’t know who believes the real world future of manliness is any better. So long as there’s no plausible American future, you end up with things you see in these Vin Diesel stories: only a retreat into third world enclaves seems to leave any room for manliness.
It’s going to be tough all over, but I say it’s heartening that the vulgar spectacles are serious about the basic political question: Democracy should be defended against the threat of a tech-business-government oligarchy.