The glamour of individualism in The Cockfighter (Born to Kill)

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, p. 19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

I find Monte Hellman’s films, such as THE SHOOTING, TWO LANE BLACKTOP, FLIGHT TO FURY, both fascinating and frustrating. I'm never sure whether the dialogue is a parody of the dialogue in bad “B” pictures or just plain bad. Because of their crazy unconventionality, the visuals always interest and absorb me, but they usually don't lead anywhere. Hellman’s symbols are both obvious and complex: clear what they are, unclear what they mean. While Hellman always seems to go going against the grain of Hollywood cinema, I don't like his alternative: a vicious, hopeless cynicism. In spite of all this ambiguity, or perhaps because of it, I always go back to see his films and I'm always entertained at the same time that I'm incensed.

In part, I think I enjoy these films because I grew up in the 1950’s surrounded by romantic, existential heroes and antiheroes, from Tarzan and the Lone Ranger to Kerouac, the Beats, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell. These narratives and many others like them evoked in me a vivid, introspective fantasy world dominated by extreme individualism and nearly constant motion—one the function of the other. As a kid reading Tarzan novels and comics, I wanted to roam around in the jungle and commune with animals. As a teenager reading Kerouac, I wanted to hitch around the country, forever. At the time this all seemed positive, unusual, necessary, right and good because ordinary contact with other people was unrewarding and frightening.

Now I see this syndrome as very common and terribly sick, as a posture of avoidance—avoidance of contact, of responsibility, of growth, of taking risks with myself and others. Rather than heroic, the pose now seems mostly childish. I've come to see my adolescent reaction as an extreme but common response to the alienation we all experience under capitalism. We draw into ourselves, blame ourselves for what isn't right, suffer alone while hiding our “weaknesses and fear.” One major function of bourgeois art is to turn this inner suffering into fabulous fantasies, which relieve the awful pressure built up inside individuals, but withhold information and the means of letting individuals perceive where that pressure comes from. Hollywood films, for example, validate extreme individualism by incorporating it into the star system, by giving us actors and actresses we all want to be like. We want to live, act, be like them, so vie imitate their roles.

Even though I am aware of the deception involved in identifying with romantic and existential heroes, whenever I experience a certain type of art (such as literature by Camus and Sartre; films by Coppola, Sarafian, Peckinpah, Antonioni; performances by Nicholson, Gates, Newman, Pacino, and Hoffman), I respond and see how strongly influenced I still am by the bourgeois ideology of romantic male individualism I have been subjected to all my life. Like Sheila Rowbotham, I admired the “ultimate man,” the 1950'5 anti-hero:

“He rarely spoke about philosophic matters but simply grunted his profound and intense version of the world and so communicated honestly because he didn't mess about with words. He defined his existence through a twitch of his nose or the flicker of his eye. He was constantly leaving and arriving, he rode a bike, hitched, rode on top of trains, or stowed away. He ate magic mushrooms on mountains in Mexico, or crossed the Sahara four times at least .... My fantasy of the ultimate man was in fact extremely religious. I wanted a new kind of saint.” (Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, p. 15)

We can find such a character in Monte Hellman’s THE COCKFIGHTER (BORN TO KILL is the newer title). Warren Oates plays the laconic outsider, Frank Mansfield. Except for one line at the very end, Frank speaks on camera only in a few brief flashbacks, because he has given up speech until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year medal. (In case you think this is a porn film, it’s not. The film depicts the practice of inciting trained roosters to fight to the kill; the major “sport” is the betting. It’s a sort of penny-ante bull fighting with no band or the poor getting the benefit of the carcass afterwards.) Several obscure flashbacks show how Frank lost his chance for the medal the year before by pushing his archrival, Burke, into a cockfight in a motel room before the big tournament. Frank’s bird loses and the film shows him walking into the darkness saying he won't utter a word until he wins the medal.

As the film opens, Frank, his bird, trailer, car and “woman” arrive at a place where cockfights take place. He immediately loses his car, trailer, and “woman” to Burke. As Frank walks away with suitcase and empty bird cage in his hand, he thinks to himself (in voice over narration, sort of an interior monologue) that because this woman is young, pretty and a good lay, she can take care of herself.

This film is a glaring example of sexism in American narrative art. In THE COCKFIGHTER women are portrayed as mindless boobs, maternal dummies, predatory beasts, or civilizing castrators who don't understand why men need to compete. At one point we meet Frank’s fiancée, Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy), who wants to marry Frank, settle down, and have children. In a beautiful1y photographed but banal scene, she tells Frank she has waited too long and can't wait any longer. In mute response, he puts on his shirt and leaves. Later, however, he writes to her, invites her to the big tournament, and asks her to give him a “fighting chance.”

Mary Elizabeth does come to the tournament just in time to see Frank’s dying bird win the medal for him. She is disgusted more by his response to the fighting than by the fight itself. In the final scene, Frank tears off the dead bird’s head and gives it to her. She says it’s a “substitute for your heart,” puts it in her purse and leaves.

Now all sorts of Freudian things come to mind. In both the dialogue and in the way the film is shot, Hellman shows the cocks to be extensions of or substitutes for the penis. During the fights the men often stand behind their birds, facing each other, legs spread apart, hands on hips. There are lots of waist high shots of the men. Just before the fights; the men stroke the birds’ necks and backs. Having a good bird is clearly a tool to power, money, women, possessions, and fame. The rivalry between Frank and Burke is a classic macho contest—winner take all.

But for all this Freudian imagery, the film is sexless. There are no sexual relationships, no sexual interactions. Only once, in the flashback, is there a sex scene and it is juxtaposed with a cockfight as if to equate the two, as if to say that the men’s cockfighting is a substitute for sexual activity. Hellman suggests this desexualizated substitution by making the cock a very ambiguous symbol. As fighting cock, the rooster is a phallic symbol. But as a bird, it is identified with women.

The woman Frank gives up in the beginning of the film is thin and angular and has birdlike gestures. Once she attacks him in the ring during a “hack” (fight between birds) and he carries her off over his shoulder. In the flashback, a slow motion lovemaking scene corresponds to the cockfight in the same flashback. The woman bites her mate and the motions are much the same as in the fight. Thus when Frank gives the limp, spent rooster head and neck to Mary Elizabeth, it is not as a “substitute for his heart” as she thinks, but as a sort of consolation prize. She can have what is left over from the male-world substitute for heterosexual relationships. She wisely leaves.

The only warmth in the movie is shared by Frank and his partner Omar Baradinsky. The relationship is typical of the male bonding in U.S. narrative art which Leslie Fiedler has discussed in Love and Death in the American Novel. According to Fiedler, U.S. novelists’ inability to show mature male-female relationships leads them to show male-male relationships. Fiedler loves to shock his readers and audiences by pointing out the obvious homosexual undercurrents and possibilities in the relationship between men such as Huck Finn and Jim. The relationship between Frank and Omar follows Fiedler’s model in other ways. An anglo male hero (Frank has an ethnic sidekick (Baradinsky, who describes himself as a fourth generation Polish Jew from Indiana), both of whom find happiness in the wilderness (Georgia) away from the destructive, civilizing influence of women.

Male bonding of all kinds has become an extremely popular narrative device in U.S. films: BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNOAICE KID, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. But it has always been a way to structure westerns and gangster films—the most male genres. It is probably the lack of satisfying male relations in middle class white male culture which make artistic (and unrealistic) portrayals of “successful” male bonding so popular. Middle class men wish for the companionship that is portrayed. But equally significant is the fact that sexism seen in the hatred, subordination, marginality, or total absence of women—is an important component in all these films. Male bonding constitutes the society of men; its unity rests on oppressing women, gays, and racial minorities.

I think that male-bonding films have become so popular because male dominance has been threatened internally by the women’s black, and gay liberation movements and externally by the U.S. loss in Vietnam. These films respond to a need for a greater sense of cohesiveness, but they also represent an effort to convince men that their domination of women—and, by extension, everyone else—is both right and essential to their self-definition.

Like his other films, Hellman’s THE COCKFIGHTER utilizes the main elements of bourgeois cinema: an extreme individualism verging on misanthropy; misogyny, expressed directly in glaring sexism and indirectly in male bonding; and the typical substitutes for mature sexual interaction—sports and violence. GODFATHER II contained all these elements, too, but since Coppola so scrupulously showed the way they related to the development of capitalism, i.e. but his psycho-narrative in a clear historical and social context, I had no problem liking the film. Hellman’s film cannot be so praised, for THE COCKFIGHTER is basically a fantasy having little or no contact with a real life, time or place. The misanthropy and misogyny are not tied to any situation that would give them meaning or would show us where they came from but are presented as innate attributes of human nature.

THE COCKFIGHTER interests me because of its crazy unconventionality, its playing with filmic conventions, and its humorous treatment of the story. It evoked a strong emotional response in me. I reject it finally because I can see where it is leading me. And although we can easily see and criticize misanthropy and misogyny as powerful components of bourgeois ideology which are reinforced in most Hollywood films, it is insufficient simply to dismiss such films without also seeing and analyzing what attracts us to them. For in that way we come to understand the mechanics of sexism and bourgeois ideology much better. A film like THE COCKFIGHTER is sexist in its content and cinematography and romantic in its treatment of the hero. The glamour of the individualism makes the sexism seem natural and OK. Such a filmic structure sets up a reactionary response. But once you understand what the film is doing politically, you can't like it in the innocent way Hellman intends.