Jailhouse Rock Richard Thorpe (1957 USA) Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler
Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle 4 Oct 09; Ticket Price: £4
Retrocrit: On the form initiation into the Godhead.
Jailhouse Rock (JHR): some people see a movie, I see an initiation rite. A rite de passage through which Elvis (EP) storms into the new age of cool. In an early part of the movie we watch EP punished in gaol with a beating. We’re shocked to feel the lash of the whip on his body: flesh purified in preparation for entry into his Kingdom. Hail the King! And as we watch his initiation our intimations of his suffering open up an era where body style and state of mind define identity and image.
The hazing of EP takes us into the new epoch where we’re not producers; we become consumers of attitude. EP’s career into the cool might speak the more directly to the male but the values justified adopted and flaunted by EP in JHR, are for everyone to take internalise and imitate. The shock of watching JHR is achored in its structure which mimics religious forms of justification through suffering. This is what jolts us out of our seats as consciously or unconsciously we feed back into the movie EP’s reincarntion and migration into a realm of pure image.
This was the third film made by Elvis and the earliest I’ve seen. In look and style JHR clearly owes something to Nick Ray’s Rebel without a Cause. But JHR in contrast defines itself through the medium of a new career: Rock Star celebrity. In JHR although EP may have ‘the voice’, this is not the critical medium of his success.
As EP says to Peggy when his singing bombs at the club: “ Anyone can sing like that.” The medium of EP’s success is ‘Attitude’. Attitude built on cool detachment, a ‘demand for ‘Respect.’ This is how to succeed in the jungle of the music business which is American society. At a time when class barriers were weakening, in particular in the entertainment industry, the musicscape enters an era of individualistic competition a Hobbsian war of all against all. A new kind of man is born fashioned to succeed in a vicious changing social environment.
EP embodies the natural realisation and celebration of this process with the invention of a bastard form of neo-Nietschianism characterised by the will to succeed. Hence JHR as a kind of initiation ceremony, the scarification of body and mind that is a necessary precursor to the entry into a deified status. A psychic journey that purifies and justifies the attitude of one who is above judgement and legitimises the overarching goal of success. EP blazes in film a trail that will be followed by almost every other male rock star act: to engage in a process of overcoming whether through drugs or behaviour that justifies and serves the claim to an altered identity. This ‘rite’ both with Presley and others also effects the fusion of role and image in manner that is radical and new. God as pure attitude.
It might be said that EP’s passage was only through celluloid not a real passage as travelled by Morrison Reid or Cobain. But this misses the point that it is image that is perceived as reality. Real in terms of perception ceases to have any means of objective validification.
The model for the new male had already been developed in Hollywood. It was the gangster as personified by Raft, Robinson, Cagney. The gangster’s image as projected in films like Scarface and Little Caesar combined extreme narcissism, triumph over poverty, conditions of birth and ethnicity with a murderous ruthlessness and an expressive life style built on conspicuous consumption that commanded respect. (Note that at the heart of the process lies a regression to infantilism. Many aspects of the gangster image, like the rock stars comprises the continuous state of narcissistic desires demands and needs of the child.) Although the gangster image as presented by Hollywood was an obvious source of imitative modelling for young males, the image lacked mainstream cultural legitimacy. The flaunting of life style was OK but the methods through which it was achieved were criminal and not easily justified. Further although there was some confusion (in particular with Raft) between the actors and their gangster roles, by and large these were perceived as separate; image did not fuse with identity. With the era of the rock star this changes; but for it to be effective there must be a transforming, a rebirth. Enter EP your time has come. Make the movie. Shock us into your new reality. You are the first of and perhaps the greatest of the many who were to come