“I thought I was bulletproof or Superman there for a while. I thought I'd never run out of nerve. Never.”
- Evel Knievel
There have always been items, markets and professions that rapidly bubbled in prominence, only to crash suddenly. This process has accelerated in the neoliberal age. Obviously, domesticated technologies have played a big part. Where once film-making took years of industrial apprenticeship to master, it's now available for anyone accessing relatively cheap software and rudimentary training (itself subject to obsolescence). The 80s promised cutting-edge success to those mastering computers, when for most of us it's largely a soul-destroying, minimum-wage wing of the service economy. The glut of 'food porn' and the financial crash will doubtlessly devalue the status of 00s chefs. Over-saturation, or the realization that it ain't so hard (hello DJs!), can rapidly shrink inflated egos (and incomes) of supposed professionals. Platforms such as this blog demonstrate how audiences don't necessarily result in market value. The death of the music press is proof enough of this. Our economy demands that today's Hot Item is tomorrow's scrapheap. If lucky, obsolescence retires into nostalgia, hoping its fickle middle-aged grandchildren will visit soon to play.
Until the early 80s, one highly romanticized profession was the stuntman. Although a far more lethal job in silent days, TV shows such as The Fall Guy or films like Hooper (1978) and The Stunt Man (1980) gave the stuntman an aura of mystique and value. From crime-fighting hijinks to existential questions about fate, the stuntman was sold as a figure on the edge of danger and mortality. Former stuntman Burt Reynolds was an apt superstar for the decade in which 'macho' became a mainstream word. This was also reflected in the 70s fetish for car chases, from most of Reynolds' films and extending to musicals and comedies like Grease (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Any number of innocent fruit and veg stalls or chicken coops were destroyed in the name of transient sensation. In the face of widespread uncertainty about who was in charge, these films reassured audiences they could at least steer their wheels in any direction. In the Carter years, this fetish became so chronic that whole films could be built around 'characters' simply known as The Driver (1978) and The Car (1977). Stuntmen gained such prominence in the 70s Spectacle that they could dispense with narrative altogether, staging summer blockbusters of the stunt itself.
It wasn't just the car with which heroes battled physics, nature and boredom. Evel Knievel (born Robert Cray Knievel) was very much a son of the soil with his mining, hunting and fishing skills. He was also something of a juvenile delinquent. His early love of motorcycles led to several scrapes with the law and prison spells. Despite proficiency in several sports - and continued involvement in illegal activity - he ended up working as an insurance salesman to support his family. Indignant at inadequate rewards for his considerable salesmanship, he went into business selling Honda bikes. Facing assumptions of Japanese technical inferiority and lingering WW2 prejudices, he soon went under. In need of income, his last resort was that most durable of American industries: showbusiness. His sales acumen and sporting prowess led to a series of publicity stunts, and with that growing media attention. Despite slippery maneuvres in gaining that attention (like posing as CEO of a fake corporation to gain access to Vegas bigwigs), he prided himself on being "a man of my word", proceeding with ill-advised stunts to satisfy his own hype. With emerging superstardom and 'role model' status, he even delivered on obligatory anti-drug moralising. He famously rumbled - and won - against Hell's Angels he'd publicly criticised (with his fans joining the fray). This became the basis for one of several movies, this time featuring himself as the action hero.
By mid-decade, stunt publicity stunts were all the rage - from skyscraper high-wire acts to the mysterious Human Fly ("the real-life superhero!"). Although not new to the 70s, stuntmen such as Knievel held a curious mass appeal at the time. His international fame was perhaps due to a lack of 'acceptable' male role models, rather than skill or showmanship. With war less fashionable, sport a site of political antagonism, the increasingly dark motifs of rock'n'roll, and the various excesses or anxieties of New Hollywood, Knievel found a lucratively inflated niche; not least as 'family entertainment' in the growing theme park market. Despite his many injuries, he was at some remove from the bland Nixonian personas of astronauts, the grand guignol of rock stars like Alice Cooper, the controversy of recent wars, or the political potency of a Muhammed Ali. The wide range of toys and tat licensed in his image were testament to a more wholesome idea of masculine risk-taking. Unlike today's wrestlers or 'extreme' sports stars, he was very much in charge of his own business affairs, and actually put his life on the line to entertain. If the 70s saw a crisis in traditional power relations, stuntmen offered a relatively authentic model of 'traditional' masculinity. However, as the gimmicks and vehicles grew more elaborate, Knievel wasn't immune to (literally) jumping the shark. His role in the Spectacle would have a limited shelf-life, and bankruptcy beckoned.
The 70s wasn't short of idolised supermen in decline (or the grave) for the next decade. From John Wayne's mythologised cancer in The Shootist (1976), to Bruce Lee's sudden death, to Muhammed Ali's tragic final bout, to the bloated corpse of Elvis Presley, this twilight of masculine idols was an almost ritualistic process. Not so much reacting to feminism, as vainly preserving an outmoded ideal, male figures recently sold as intimidatingly potent exited from the Spectacle in quick succession. Hubristic icons all, they sunk into a canyon as deep and ancient as the site of Knievel's most spectacular stunt. His malfunctioning rockets were as indicative of changing mores as widespread fatigue with the Space Program. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg offered safer light and magic, convincing us a man could fly - leading the way for video games, CGI and virtual stuntmen. As with manufacturing, stunt cinema would become a growth industry for the far east. In the west, 'hands-on' tasks became increasingly passe. Industry was for losers and sentimentalists. The new tough guy would swing it about on Wall Street; machismo caricatured on the cock-veined biceps of Stallone, Schwarznegger and their Aryan clones, lacking any of Burt Reynolds' humour. Unlike earlier figures, the spectacular male body was to be shielded from broken bones, obesity or sudden death. In denial of the boom in steroids, the New Man was expected to die hard.