JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Megan is taken aback when Hunt refuses her offer to come up. Her open and inviting body language is nicely contrasted with Hunt, who keeps one hand in his pocket.

High over Manhattan, Megan’s dreams warn her about the true nature of Eugene Hunt.

When Eugene lets Turner go, her open-armed, splayed pose visually rhymes with the thug sent flying through the supermarket’s glass window.

Kathryn Bigelow’s “nearly model-perfect face” draws attention to her looks instead of what she looks at.

Bigelow’s vampire western Near Dark, released before Blue Steel, features similar levels of hyper-realistic violence and genre crossing.

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, looking over her shoulder as she enters Jame Gumb’s lair in The Silence of the Lambs. Her gun is aimed at the skin suit Gumb is making.

Blue Steel: Turner, after her rape, pursues Hunt with a new ferocity, bursting into her bathroom with drawn gun.

The Silence of the Lambs: Physically surrounded by local law enforcement, Starling struggles against both foes and friends.

Blue Steel: When Eugene is set free, Megan also has two battles to fight, as Mann, Hoyt, and another officer all have her pressed up against the wall.

Like Blue Steel, The Silence of the Lambs features many references to specularity and the cinematic apparatus, such as this point of view shot where Gumb watches Starling through night vision goggles.

Blue Steel: Megan’s tough cop persona is genuine here, as she puts her father up against the wall. In overthrowing “him,” she strives to meet a better male.

Eugene ingratiates himself with Turner’s mother, who is impressed by this well-dressed, mannered commodities trader.

Megan steals an ill-fitting uniform and takes to the street in search of Hunt ...

... but while mirroring her official drag performance at graduation day, here Megan’s shoes give her away.

A shallow depth of field threatens Megan’s final hunt for Eugene ...

... while a rack focus gives viewers the eyes in the back of Megan’s head.

The last image we see in Blue Steel is a defeated, shell-shocked Turner as the police arrive at the scene of the final shootout.

On their first date Megan looks uncertain at Eugene’s opulent lifestyle ...

... although the yuppie devil soon wines and dines her.

Ultimately, however, the reading of the heroine cop as vengeful feminist castrator is unsuitable since it does not take into account the complexity of Megan Turner’s characterization. Yet, arriving at this reading again makes my point about the burden placed on this female character if we conceive of her as the only well-rounded subject in the film. It is the film’s spectacularly violent ending, generated by Hunt’s unstoppable pursuit[8][open endnotes in new window] of Megan, that covers over the complexity of the yuppie devil’s desire and makes coherent readings of Blue Steel difficult.

We might believe that Hunt was already insane before he entered the supermarket, and this would provide an easy solution to the film’s problem. In this case we would read the film as a straightforward thriller, and understand the film’s coding of Hunt as a yuppie as simply metaphoric for the kind of lonely, pointless, and crazy-making existence yuppies lead. Yet, we would then give short shrift to the interrelated complexity of Eugene and Megan’s relationship. The problem with reading Eugene as a metaphor for how Reagan-era excess and 80s greed can make one crazy is that we may then be tempted to read Megan metaphorically as well. That reading could posit how feminism, for example, could make guys go crazy or turn women into castrating vigilantes.

While the film relies somewhat on the concept of a purely evil, obsessive psycho for the dramatic heft of its conclusion, I find it more suggestive to read the first three-fourths of Blue Steel as a parable of yuppie desire. Watching a woman shoot a man turns Hunt on, especially in the field of the supermarket. Rather than read his later psychotic break as a symptom of his yuppie lifestyle, we could find his behavior indicative of the limited forms of yuppie sociability that he was already engaged in. An isolated figure, he is unable to make sense of Megan Turner. He finds in her a set of incompatible problems, a beautiful woman capable of public violence. What fuels the yuppie devil’s ambition, paradoxically, is a kind of over-recognition. Thus, Hunt tells Turner “I know you better than you know yourself,” and “We’re two halves of one person, you and I.” Such a strange kind of identification demonstrates how reliant on others the yuppie devil is for his identity. By looking at Hunt, I suggest that his yuppie devil character is not unproblematically evil or psychotic from the outset, but rather that such yuppie devil characters are constructed only in a gendered relation to feminine heroines.

The female dick

I want to turn now to critical response towards Blue Steel’s heroine and villain, especially in light of Kathryn Bigelow’s Hollywood reputation. The majority of Blue Steel’s reviewers flatly dismissed the film based on its yuppie villain. David Denby wrote Hunt off as simply “a schizophrenic commodities trader.”[9] Roger Ebert agreed, suggesting that Hunt is

“a customer who hit the deck long before the shooting started. He is already a deeply troubled man.”[10]

Maslin argued,

Blue Steel reveals almost nothing else about [Eugene], yet it counts on audiences to greet him with instinctive mistrust.”[11]

Utilizing a recurring surface/depth model, Maslin elsewhere claimed,

“It is the film’s contention that just beneath his high-gloss yuppie surface there lurks a deranged, psychotic killer yearning to break free.”[12]

While it is certainly in keeping with yuppie iconography to focus on Hunt’s “high-gloss” superficial qualities, critics contradict themselves if they also assert that underneath this lies a “depth” which can be so simply described (and ignored) as “deeply troubled,” “schizophrenic,” “deranged,” or “psychotic.” I situate my own analysis against such readings of Hunt, which mask finding any depth in his yuppie persona in favor of an ill-defined, one-dimensional reading of “schizophrenia” or “psychosis.” Interpreting Eugene as the “customer who hits the deck” — a literal euphemism for “yuppie psycho” — is a construction which works to contain contradiction and nuance by appealing to the vague category of mental illness. The difference with how Blue Steel codes the killer lies in coding his psychosis as a yuppie one. While Eugene Hunt is an early prototype for later, more well known representations of 80s yuppie killers (such as Patrick Bateman in the film and novel American Psycho), Blue Steel works from the outset to complicate Hunt’s yuppie character. His behavior is more than just a product of his insanity, and it actually works in counterpoint to the film’s narrative development of Megan’s character; the two characters are developed only by means of their increasingly complex visual relationship.

Blue Steel shares many features with Bigelow’s previous film, the vampire western Near Dark (U.S., 1987), most noticeably both films’ play with genre conventions and their hyper-realistic depictions of violence. The success of Near Dark, Bigelow’s marriage to powerful Hollywood director James Cameron, having Oliver Stone and Edward R. Pressman as producers, and her reputation in the media as an attractive woman[13] had predisposed critics suspiciously to anticipate Blue Steel. Additionally, the apparently feminist subject matter of this film and its self-stated intention to be a cross between Dirty Harry (dir. Don Siegel, U.S., 1971) and Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, U.S., 1987) made the question of (or the critical decision about) the film’s sexual politics even more divisive.

Sympathetic critics initially marked Blue Steel as “postfeminist,” later drawing fruitful comparisons to The Silence of Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, U.S., 1991). In fact, both film share iconography — female investigators, difficult training sequences, mentorship relationships with men, psychosexual villains, and knowledgeable references to specularity and the cinematic apparatus. Also both are unusual in depicting a postfeminist female detective: rookie, ambiguously sexed, occupying the troubling identificatory space between female victims and female detectives. Cora Kaplan labels Blue Steel part of the “Dirty Harriet” genre, which feature“fantasies of female omnipotence” that

“rehearse . . . the uneasy positioning of women, and by implication feminism, in postfeminist dystopia.”[14]

Kaplan also emphasizes Bigelow’s film theory training in order to draw out the self-reflexive relation Bigelow establishes between her scripts and her direction. Blue Steel’s suspenseful precredit training sequence, its association of the gun with the film camera, and its constant invocation of the theme of vision all invoke theoretical questions about the cinematic apparatus and the extent to which film audiences participate in the narrative, as well as questions about how well cinema can represent cultural experiences. Following in this vein, I argue that rather than see Blue Steel as simply representing a shared cultural experience of yuppie villainy, we should examine how Blue Steel and other yuppie devil films work to construct and manage the anxieties that yuppies raised in the late-80s popular imagination.

From a feminist perspective, Bigelow’s self-conscious narrative use of film theory ideas such as the cinematic apparatus marks one way in which we can read the film’s plot against its execution. Rather than dumbly absorb the violence of Blue Steel’s conclusion, viewers might read the film’s closing in light of feminist film theory’s ability to read film texts heterogeneously, so that we need not trace one uniform meaning onto Hunt’s or Turner’s character. For Kaplan, Blue Steel takes up the “synthesized popular feminism” of this period to interrogate how theory in particular

“concerns the construction of contemporary sexuality and sexual difference in — and by — the field of vision.”[15]

Blue Steel is literally concerned with one result of the acceptance of feminism since the late 70s — the gradual admittance of women into traditionally male occupations. So, Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs, which center around law enforcement occupations that require a high level of specular knowledge, demonstrate even more the visible contradiction that literary critic Jane Gallop wrote about in 1992:

“In the American academy feminism gets more and more respect while in the larger society women cannot call themselves feminist.”[16]

Ironically, as it becomes possible for films to depict characters such as Megan Turner in traditional male roles, it becomes more difficult to explicitly identify these advances with academic feminist thinking. For this reason, I think, Bigelow has made an especially knowing and subversive film which simultaneously presents and parodies conventional wisdom about both men and feminism in popular culture.

However, as with The Silence of the Lambs, Bigelow’s film may be a contradictory project if the “fantasies of female omnipotence” found in “Dirty Harriet” films give way either to misogynistic readings of violent women or to a complacent comfort with these heroines’ dehumanizing violence. Since the clichéd narrative conditions of the cop film ostensibly frustrate feminist aims, these films are of necessity always parodic, ironic, or incomplete. Thus I do not fault Blue Steel for not presenting a coherent female subject, but enjoy Megan Turner as an example of what Linda Mizejewski punningly terms the “female dick,” a sort of hybrid gender performance which takes into account both her sexed body and her unusual career as a police officer.[17] Pointing out that the female investigators in Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs are positioned both within and against legitimating patriarchal institutions of justice, Mizejewski illustrates how the female dick, with her professionalized violence,

“poses a substantial threat to heterosexuality as organized by mainstream cinema.”[18]

Like Kaplan, Mizejewski focuses on the self-reflexive intertexuality of Bigelow and Demme’s films, particularly the cinematic metacommentary, and also how both directors position their female characters against gendered career roles as well as against class and economic markers.

While the issues of sexuality and gender tend to dominate feminist readings of Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs, both films also significantly interrogate class groupings. Economic class is especially important in late-80s Hollywood cinema since it marks another category against which the female dicks are constructed — Reagan-era economic policy and the icon of the yuppie. Both Blue Steel and The Silence of the Lambs have protagonists specifically marked as of a lower class than the antagonists. For Blue Steel, part of the danger Megan Turner faces is succumbing to the allure of Eugene Hunt’s lavish yuppie lifestyle as he takes her to expensive dinners and romances her high above the Manhattan skyline in a helicopter. Megan is trapped between the yuppie’s newly-minted wealth and the depressing familiarity of her father (Philip Bosco), a dour, alcoholic, working-class man who physically and mentally abuses his wife and is scornful of his daughter’s desire to become a police officer. From her family’s perspective, Megan is a progressive character, and viewers are sympathetic with her intention to better herself. The same is true of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs, and both films’ heroines share this double burden of escaping their class origins and occupying masculine professions. Yet while The Silence of the Lambs invokes the “white trash” trend in 90s serial killer films (recently analyzed in Jump Cut by Nicola Rehling),[19] Blue Steel’s yuppie devil villain is a problem, for he is seemingly the logical extension of Turner’s own impulse towards self-improvement and economic betterment. As Mann dryly comments of Hunt, he is an ideal mate for someone like Turner. He’s got

“nice suits, a good salary — your mother would approve.”

Looking at the villains in these two films, comparisons with The Silence of the Lambs make it further clear how easily the yuppie devil trope has been accepted. Work on Demme’s film has doubly focused on the female detective and her positioning between two male villains — the psychosexual Jame Gumb and the cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Curiously, though, no such comparable work has been done on Blue Steel’s yuppie villain Eugene Hunt. As did Maslin, most reviewers of Blue Steel hastily accepted Hunt’s yuppie devil characterization, paradoxically finding this devil simultaneously self-possessed and raving mad. This, I think, is an effect of Ron Silver’s performance, which in some ways does present Hunt as a classic film psychopath, “stereotypically nuts and then some.”[20] Yet Silver only fully employs such a characterization at the film’s end. Earlier, Silver plays Hunt as a mix of contradicting thriller tropes: he is predatory and cunning, he charms his way into the heroine’s heart and family, and he knows how to cover his tracks and stay one step ahead. These qualities also align socially with models for a yuppie’s behavior; in the 80s, it was good to be cunning and charming, good to try to get ahead. It is only in the latter part of Blue Steel, where Hunt displays cinematically “psycho” behavior — killing a prostitute, hearing voices from God, and overconfidently taunting his victims — that Silver really begins to act “stereotypically nuts.”

The first time Eugene does seem interested in sex, he hires a prostitute and ends up murdering her, howling as he clutches her blood-soaked dress.

After murdering the prostitute on a rooftop, Eugene practically howls at the moon like a wolf. Nude except for the essential Rolex, the yuppie devil bathes in blood.

The disheveled Hunt digs for the buried gun ...

... offering Turner a wolfish look when she surprises him.

Silver’s performance in Blue Steel, then, works in part on a visual level of typecasting. Silver often portrays Jewish or Mediterranean types. Before Blue Steel he starred as a Holocaust survivor in Enemies: A Love Story (dir. Paul Mazursky, U.S., 1989), and his next role after Eugene Hunt was as Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune (dir. Barbet Schroeder, U.S., 1990). In Blue Steel, his tailored, manicured look ethnically and socially distinguishes him from the fair, working-class Megan Turner. In the visual contrast Blue Steel sets up, viewers are inclined to read Hunt as an example of the dangerous, sexy urban type, while Turner is the pretty, innocent girl from the suburbs. The fairy tale aspect of their relationship is brought to the front when they first meet. Then Hunt, hailing a cab in the rain, makes a reference to The Wizard of Oz:

“Hey, remember what happened to Dorothy when she didn’t get out of the storm.”

In this case, Dorothy’s protector turns out to be a wolf in disguise.

Die, yuppie scum!

For feminist audiences, the stakes of turning back to reconsider Blue Steel's male villain may not immediately be clear. While in the latter part of the Reagan 80s the yuppie became a symbol of the amorality of unmitigated economic success, I argue that the yuppie’s promise of a lifestyle of wealth proved impossible not because of the falsity of Reaganomics or Wall Street capitalism, but rather because the instant success of the yuppie did not provide an imaginative space in which to place women. The 80s yuppie theme was supposed to be one of equal opportunity. This shaped the yuppie’s scorn of those who were not successful: “Go get a job,” yuppies sneered. As an initial political and demographic category, the label “yuppie” applied to both men and women; in this view money was more important than sex. Early representations of the yuppie in fact strived to be desexed, pointedly sublimating sexual activity to the greater good of economic activity and personal achievement. Many jokes dealt with the absence of sexuality in the yuppie lifestyle. For example, Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley’s best-selling The Yuppie Handbook: The State-of-the-Art Manual for Young Urban Professionals, published in 1984, the “Year of the Yuppie,” repeats the joke about yuppies needing to consult their calendars before scheduling sex with their spouses.[21] A similar idea is picked up in Blue Steel; Megan is surprised when Eugene refuses her offer to come up to her apartment. This mild sexual rejection of Megan dovetails with Eugene’s de-sexed lifestyle, and he goes home to work out instead.

Another example of the yuppie’s asexuality occurs in the curious language used in initial media descriptions of the yuppie. As in Janet Maslin’s words in the epigraph to this essay, the yuppie was at first presented as a strange animal — it is a “creature for our age,” “a mythological demographic beast,” or the “newest political creature” which belongs “on the endangered-species list.”[22] Described here in a way that is more taxonomic than demographic, the yuppie was rarely portrayed as a human. Nor was the “creature for our age” shown as a friendly one. The first moment in Blue Steel when Eugene does seem interested in sex, he hires a prostitute and ends up murdering her, howling at the moon like a wolf as he clutches her blood-soaked dress. Later, after he hides the thug’s gun in Central Park and goes to retrieve it, the wolf motif is repeated. Forgetting exactly where he hid the gun, Hunt growls and digs at the roots of trees with his hands. Turner interrupts him, and he gives her a wild, animalistic look. Hunt’s beastly image extends the yuppie’s asexuality to metaphoric levels; the yuppie devil is nonhuman in its pursuits.

Such an image has transformed the yuppie’s original characterization. Like the jokes about the yuppie’s sex life, initial social representations of the yuppie in film and television were humorous in nature. Because it is a simple character to get — self-obsessed, pampered, eclectic, snobbish — the yuppie provided a comic foil to saner ways of living. In the popular television program Family Ties (1982-1989), Michael J. Fox stole the show by portraying Alex P. Keaton as a tie-wearing young Republican humorously out of step with his hippie parents’ values. In middle-class, everyman comedies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik, U.S., 1989), Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo play characters scorned by their yuppie next-door neighbors, whose perfect lifestyle, indicated by an elaborate stereo system, chic bedroom decor, and jogging routine, is turned upside down by the simple-hearted Griswolds.[23] Played for laughs, these yuppie characters are ridiculed for their image-obsessions, illustrating to middle-class audiences the frivolity of pretentious aspirations and asking us to sympathize with the frustrated aims of the everyman.

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