Ask an Action Movie Expert: Mark Rubinfeld
by Ashley Atwood (’07)
Sociology professor Mark Rubinfeld has loved popular culture since childhood and has spent his career studying its pervasiveness in modern life. Since 2006, he has taught Exploding Hollywood, a May Term course that explores action films. This September, Mark is condensing Exploding Hollywood into 90 minutes for Classes Without Quizzes so the college community can learn what their favorite blockbusters say about our culture.
Why did you create Exploding Hollywood?
“I grew up loving popular culture and wanted to study it. I spent 10 years focusing on one genre, Hollywood love stories, and did my doctoral dissertation on 155 love stories spanning from 1970 to 1999. After that, I needed a break from love stories. I’ve always loved action movies and noticed the same story patterns in them. I began my next book on action films and, in 2005, I had a chance to teach the subject. We looked at what accounts for action movies’ appeal and how their power and ubiquity are used in positive and not-so-positive ways. Out of that came Exploding Hollywood.”
What exactly qualifies as an action film?
“First, understand that not all genres are pure. Genres are identified by conventions—for example, westerns by cowboys, the frontier, the landscape. The most classic example of a pure action movie is Die Hard. Obviously, these movies have a lot of action: stunts, special effects, set pieces that are five to six minutes long and make you go, ‘Wow!’ There’s fast pace; high energy; simplistic plotting; chase sequences; fight scenes culminating in climactic showdowns, with clear-cut opposition between good and evil, with good vanquishing evil. Put simply: if a lot of things go ‘boom!’ and there’s at least two or three exploding cars or helicopters—that’s an action movie.”
What do you discuss in Exploding Hollywood?
“We look at conventions, director styles, and technical aspects of movies, but the bulk of time is spent analyzing cultural and ideological messages and meanings, which not only reflect the ideology of the genre but the ideology of the society that creates that genre. If one lone hero sets out to ensure justice prevails without backing from any authority, there are a lot of messages about valuing individualism over due processes, deliberation, negotiations, or rational logical processes.”
How have action films changed since you first started teaching Exploding Hollywood and how does that affect your teaching?
“There’s a lot more inclusiveness now. Action movies of the ’70s and ’80s were almost always white, with white males in most top roles. It wasn’t until the ’90s that films became more multiracial, with people of color not only co-starring, but starring. We also had the rise of action heroines in the early ’80s. Many movies focusing on Asian-American family life and love life have come out in the last year and a half. With more characters and actors from underrepresented groups, we look at how accurately they are represented. How much control do they have over production? How many of them are directors, producers, and financiers? We discuss steps toward equity and inclusion, and examine where gaps remain and how they affect stories.”
What are some of the best and worst things about action films?
“In the way Americans think of ourselves, there’s something to say about confidence and idealism. When evil is allowed to go unaddressed, people suffer, so there are times you need to take a stand. If society is not taking that stand, the lone hero is a cathartic way of watching the story play out. There’s something about what freedom and individualism provide—we’re not tied to old bureaucracies, traditions, and ways of doing things. We’re able to create new ways. But there’s a flip side. When you put the individual over the collectivity, it often is a celebration of selfishness, of me first, country first. And there’s a certain aggressive masculinity that defines American heroes. When there’s clear-cut evil to overcome, as in World War II and Hitler, you want to be powerful. But most of the time, evil and good are not clear-cut, and aggressive masculinity leads to bullying, unilateralism, and imperialism that get embodied, and then rationalized, in movies.”
What do you hope people take from this class?
“I want them to continue to love movies and popular culture. But I also want them to think about the connections between popular culture and society, whether in movies or TV programs, music, or books—not only what stories say, but meanings in those stories. What are the connotations about a good person, a good society, a good community? In what ways do they reflect the best of us, and in what ways do they project parts that are not living up to ideals? I want them to be critical, instead of passive, consumers; to be active interpreters and manipulators; and to buy into and enjoy a lot of what they’re watching, but to not be afraid to think about what’s problematic.”
Don’t miss the opportunity to chat with Mark about your favorite action movies and why you love them on September 21. Each Classes Without Quizzes session is only $5—“half the price of a typical movie ticket, unless you live in Los Angeles,” Mark notes. Register now.
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