“Cage rage” is one of the most famous Internet memes (Figure 1) which made Nicolas Cage's stylised and sometimes excessive acting style very popular. His outbursts became a subject of many Youtube videos, supercuts (see for instance Hanrahan) and analyses, which turned his rage into a pop-cultural phenomenon. Cage’s outbursts of rage and (over)acting are, according to him (Freeman), inspired by German expressionism as in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). How should this style of acting and its position within the context of the Hollywood industry today be read in societal and political sense? Is “Cage rage” a symptom of our times? Rage might be a correct reaction to events such the financial crisis or the election of Donald Trump, but the question should also be posed, what comes after the rage, or as Slavoj Žižek often puts it, what comes the “morning after” (the revolution, the protests)?
Fig. 1: One of the “Cage Rage” Memes
Do we need “Cage rage” as a pop cultural reminder that, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987), rage, for a lack of a better word, is good, or is it here to remind us, that it is a sort of an empty signifier that can only serve for catharsis on an individual level? Žižek, in a talk he gave in Vienna, speaks about rage in the context of revolutions:
Rage, rebellion, new power, is a kind of a basic triad of every revolutionary process. First there is chaotic rage, people are not satisfied, they show it in a more or less violent way, without any clear goal and organisation. Then, when this rage gets articulated, organised, we get rebellion, with a minimal organisation and more or less clear awareness of who the enemy is. Finally, if rebellion succeeds, the new power confronts the immense task of organising the new society. The problem is that we almost never get this triad in its logical progression. Chaotic rage gets diluted or turns into rightist populism, rebellion succeeds but loses steam. (“Rage, Rebellion, New Power”)
This means that, on the one hand, that rage could be effective. If we look at current events, we can witness the French president Emanuel Macron (if only partially) giving in to some of the demands of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protesters. In the recent past, the events of “Arab spring” are reminders of a watershed moment in the history of the participating nations; going back to the year 2000, Slobodan Milošević's regime in Serbia was toppled by the rage of the people who could not put up with his oligarchic rule — alongside international military intervention.
On the other hand, all the outrage on the streets and in the media cannot simply “un-elect” or impeach Donald Trump from his position as the American President. It appears that President Trump seems to thrive on the liberal outrage against him, at the same time perpetuating outrage among his supporters against liberals and progressives in general. If we look back at the financial crisis of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite the outrage on the streets, the banks were bailed out and almost no one went to prison (Shephard). Finally, in post-Milošević Serbia, instead of true progressive changes taking place, the society continues to follow similar nationalistic patterns.
It seems that many movements fail after expressing rage/aggression, a reaction against something or someone. Another recent example is Greece, where after the 2015 referendum, the left-wing coalition SYRIZA complied to the austerity measures of the Eurozone, thereby ignoring the will of the people, prompting its leaders Varoufakis and Tsipras falling out and the latter even being called a ‘traitor.’ Once more it turned out that, as Žižek states, “rage is not the beginning but also the outcome of failed emancipatory projects” ("Rage, Rebellion, New Power").
Rage and Individualism
Hollywood, as a part of the "cultural industry" (Adorno and Horkheimer), focuses almost exclusively on the individual’s rage, and even when it nears a critique of capitalism, the culprit always seems to be, like Gordon Gekko, an individual, a greedy or somehow depraved villain, and not the system. To illustrate this point, Žižek uses an example of The Fugitive (1993), where a doctor falsifies medical data for a big pharmaceutical company. Instead of making his character,
a sincere and privately honest doctor who, because of the financial difficulties of the hospital in which he works, was lured into swallowing the bait of the pharmaceutical company, [the doctor is] transformed into a vicious, sneering, pathological character, as if psychological depravity […] somehow replaces and displaces the anonymous, utterly non-psychological drive of capital. (Violence 175)
The violence that ensues–the hero confronting and beating up the bad guy–is according to Žižek mere passage a l’acte, an acting out, which at the same time, “serves as a lure, the very vehicle of ideological displacement” (Violence 175). The film, instead of pointing to the real culprit, in this case the capitalist pharmaceutical company diverts our gaze to the individual, psychotic villain.
Other ‘progressive’ films that Hollywood has to offer chose individual rage, like in Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume I and II (2003/2004), with the story centred around a very personal revenge of a woman against her former husband. It is noted here that most of Nicholas Cage’s films, including his big budget movies and his many B-movies, remain outside the so-called ethos of “liberal Hollywood” (Powers, Rothman and Rothman). Conservative in nature, they support radical individualism, somewhat paradoxically combined with family values. This composite functions well values that go hand-in-hand with neoliberal capitalism. Surprisingly, this was pointed out by the guru of (neo)liberalism in global economy, by Milton Friedman: “as liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements” (12). The explicit connections between capitalism, family and commercial film was noted earlier by Rudolf Arnheim (168). Family and traditional male/female roles therefore play an important role in Cage's films, by his daughter's murder in Tokarev (2014, alternative title: Rage); the rape of a young woman and Cage’s love interest in Vengeance: A Love Story (2017); the murder of his wife in Mandy (2018).
The audience is supposed to identify with the plight of the father/husband plight, but in the case of Tokarev, it is precisely Cage's exaggerated acting that opens up a new possibility, inviting a different viewpoint on rage/revenge within the context of that film.
Among Cage's revenge films, Tokarev/Rage has a special storyline since it has a twist ending – it is not the Russian mafia, as he first suspected, but Cage’s own past that leads to the death of his daughter, as she and her friends find a gun (a Russian-made gun called ‘Tokarev’) in his house. He kept the gun as a trophy from his days as a criminal, and the girls start fooling around with it. The gun eventually goes off and his daughter gets shot in the head by her prospective boyfriend. After tracking down Russian mobsters and killing some of them, Cage’s character realises that his daughter’s death is in fact his own fault and it is his troubled past that came back to haunt him. Revenge therefore does not make any sense, rage turns into despair and his violence acts were literally meaningless – just acting out.
Fig. 2: Acting Out – Cage in Tokarev/Rage
But within the conservative framework of the film: the very excess of Cage’s acting, especially in the case of Tokarev/Rage, can be read as a critique of the way Hollywood treats these kinds of stories. Cage’s character development points out the absurdity of the exploitative way B-grade movies deal with such subjects, especially the way family is used in order to emotionally manipulate the audience. His explicit and deliberate overacting in certain scenes spits in the face of nuanced performances that are considered as “good acting.” Here, a more subdued performance that delivered a ‘genuine’ character portrayal in conflict, would bring an ideological view into play. “Cage Rage” seems to (perhaps without knowing it) unmask the film’s exploitation of violence. This author finds that Cage’s performance suffices to tear through the wall of the screen and he takes giant steps, crossing over boundaries by his embarrassing and awkward moments. Thus, his overacting and the way rage/revenge-storyline evolves, becomes as a sort of a “parapraxis”, the Freudian slip of the tongue, a term borrowed by Elsaesser and Wedel (131). In other words, parapraxis, as employed in film analysis means that a film can be ambiguous – or can be read ambiguously. Here, contradictory meanings can be localised within one particular film, but also open up a space for alternate interpretations of meanings and events in other movies of a similar genre.
Hollywood’s celebration of rugged individualism is at its core ideology and usually overly obvious; but the impact this could on society and our understanding of rage and outrage is not to be underestimated. If Cage's “excess of acting” does function here as parapraxis this indicates firstly, the excessive individualism that these movies promote, but also the futility of rage.
Rage and the Death Drive
What are the origins of Nicholas Cage’s acting style? He has made claims to his connection to the silent film era, as expressive overstating, and melodrama was the norm without spoken dialogue to carry the story (see Gledhill). Cage also states that he wanted to be the “California Klaus Kinski” (“Nicolas Cage Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters”). This author could imagine him in a role similar to Klaus Kinski’s in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampire (1979), a homage remake of the silent film masterpiece Nosferatu (1922). There remain outstanding differences between Cage and Kinski. It seems that Kinski was truly “crazy”, witnessed by his actions in the documentary My Best Fiend (1999), where he attacks his director and friend/fiend Werner Herzog with a machete. Kinski was constantly surrounded by the air of excessiveness, to this viewer, and his facial expressions appeared unbearably too expressive for the camera, whether in fiction or documentary films. Cage, despite also working with Herzog, does mostly act according to the traditional, method acting norms of the Hollywood cinema. Often he appears cool and subdued, perhaps merely present on screen and seemingly disinterested (as in the aforementioned Vengeance). His switching off between these two extremes can also be seen in Face/Off (1997), where he plays the drug crazed criminal Castor Troy, alongside the role of John Travolta’s ‘normal’ cop Sean Archer, his enemy. In Mandy, in the beginning of the film, before he goes on his revenge killing spree, he presents as a stoic and reserved character.
So, phenomena like ‘Cage Rage’, connected to revenge and aggression and are displayed as violent acts, can serve as a stark reminder of the cataclysmic aspect of individual rage as integrated with the death drive – following Freud’s concept that aggression/death drive was significant for self-preservation (Nagera 48).
As this author has observed, in fact Cage’s acting only occasionally has outbursts of stylised overacting, which is exactly what makes those outbursts so outstanding and excessive. Here, his acting is an excess itself, a sort of a “surplus” type of acting which recalls Žižek's interpretation of Freud's notion of the death drive:
The Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, for the return to the inorganic absence of any life-tension; it is, on the contrary, the very opposite of dying – a name for the “undead” eternal life itself, for the horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain. (Parallax 62)
Žižek continues to say that “humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things” (Parallax 62). This is very similar to the mode of enjoyment detected in Cage’s over-acting.
Revenge and vigilantism are the staple themes of mass-audience Hollywood cinema and apart from Cage’s films previously mentioned. As Žižek reports, he views the violence depicted in films such as Death Wish (1974) to John Wick (2014) as “one of the key topics of American culture and ideology” (Parallax 343). But these outbursts of violence are simply, again, ‘acting out’ the passage a l’acte, which “enable us to discern the hidden obverse of the much-praised American individualism and self-reliance: the secret awareness that we are all helplessly thrown around by forces out of our control” (Parallax 343f.).
Nicholas Cage’s performances express the epitome of being “thrown around by forces out of our control.” This author reads his expressionistic outbursts appear “possessed” by some strange, undead force. Rather than the radical individualism that is trumpeted in Hollywood films, this undead force takes over. The differences between his form of “Cage Rage” and others who are involved in revenge scenarios, are his iconic outbursts of rage/overacting. In his case, vengeance in his case is never a ‘dish best served cold,’ as the Klingon proverb expresses at the beginning of Kill Bill. But, paradoxically, this coldness might be exactly what one needs in the age of the resurgence of the right in politics which can be witnessed in America and Europe, and the outrage it continuously provokes.
Rage has the potential to be positive; it can serve as a wake-up call to the injustices within society, and inspire reform as well as revolution. But rage is defined here as primarily an urge, a drive, something primordial, as an integral expression of the Lacanian Real (Žižek). This philosophic stance contends that in the process of symbolisation, or rage’s translation into language, this articulation tends to open up inconsistencies in a society, and causes the impetus to lose its power. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the cycle of rage and the “morning after” which inevitably follows, seems to have a problematic sobering effect. (This effect is well known to anyone who was ever hungover and who therefore professed to ‘never drink again’ where feelings of guilt prevail, which erase the night before from existence.) The excess of rage before followed, this author contends, by the excess of rationality after the revolution are therefore at odds, indicating that a reconciliation between these two should happen, a negotiation, providing a passage from the primordial emotion of rage to the more rational awakening.
‘Cage Rage’ and its many commentators and critics serve to remind us that reflection is required, and Žižek’s explication of filmic rage allows us to resist the temptation of enacting our rage that merely digresses to an ’acting out’ or a l'acte. In a way, Cage takes on our responsibility here, so we do not have to — not only because a catharsis is ‘achieved’ by watching his films, but as this argument suggests, we are shocked into reason by the very excessiveness of his acting out.
Solutions may appear, this author notes, by divisive actors in society working towards generating a ‘sustained rage’ and to learn how to rationally protest. This call to protest need not happen only in an explosive, orgasmic way, but seek a sustainable method that does not exhaust itself after the ‘party’ is over. This reading of Nicholas Cage offers both models to learn from: if his rage could have positive effects, then Cage in his ‘stoic mode’, as in the first act of Mandy (Figure 3), should become a new meme which could provoke us to a potentially new revolutionary act–taking the time to think.
Fig. 3: Mandy
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