Point Break

Prolly my favorite movie ever. In attempting to write about this for class I found myself scrambling to try and fit everything I wanted to say about this movie into one paper, and eventually realized that it wasn't possible. There's lots more to discuss re this movie that doesn't make it into this essay, and I'm literally always down to chat about it! hmu

The video is focused on one specific element, the queer space of the ocean (and, to an extent, the sky). Decided to experiment with a somewhat more abstract style than my last two video essays, which were more lecture-y. Not sure that it works! Oh well!

Video here. (It probably makes the most sense to read the essay first then watch the video, but do whatever.)

Written essay:

The identification of homoeroticism as an important element of commercial action movies is by this point a well-documented subject. Writing in 1997 Patrick Schuckmann points to the “images of eroticized male bodies” that have become abundant in cinema of the 80s and 90s, specifically the macho action blockbusters (think of the work of Stallone or Schwarzenegger) that rose to prominence in this period; his scholarship provides a useful framework in investigating these tropes. Working from Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, he proposes an extension of her rhetoric, coining the term “the homoerotic gaze” as a means of classifying and investigating this new crop of films which were not a part of the cinematic landscape of the 70s, the period when she first published her theory (Schuckmann, 672). Today there are films like Top Gun (1986) that are regularly discussed in queer contexts, but the homoerotic action movie is not a phenomenon present in just a few select texts; rather it is a pattern somewhat inherent to these movies’ style. 80s/90s action cinema is, fundamentally, a celebration of masculinity––a genre made up of men gazing at the eroticized bodies of men, and then displaying these erotic sights on screen largely in order to give pleasure to other men. This homoeroticism is interesting to study, because it carries with it a number of odd contradictions. These film’s tend to rely on “the bodybuilder-as-star,” which represents one such contradiction (674). Their exaggerated musculature presents a sort of masculine ideal, representing heroism and virility, but at the same time the bodybuilder also represents an excessive interest in physical appearances, which might conversely be read as a feminine trait (674). Further these films often display at once an erotic fascination with the male body, and explicit repudiation of said interest, usually in the form of homophobic jokes, or the inclusion of heterosexual love interests (675). “Homoeroticism is both consistently evoked and disavowed” (675). He goes on to identify three categories of homoerotic action movie convention: first there is violent man-to-man combat, which allows for physical touch between male characters to serve as a “safety valve” for homoerotic tension; second is the suggestive pairing of male partners, “buddies,” which is usually accompanied by contradictorily homophobic remarks; and third, the obsessive chasing of a “bad guy,” whose relationship with the male hero, his antithesis, is marked by “a mixture of hate and admiration” (675). We can often read this obsessive fixation on another man as being motivated by homosexual desire, and the frequent inclusion of a marginal female character “confirms the men’s heterosexuality and serves as a token of exchange” (675). Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 surf-thriller, Point Break, appears to embody much of the terms Schuckmann uses to describe this trend of homoeroticism. Though FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is paired with a partner, the older Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), it is the first and third categories that more specifically apply to Point Break.

The “bad guy” of Point Break is Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), an adrenaline junkie surfer who robs banks just for the thrill of it. His free-spirited California zen strikes a distinct contrast to the pretty boy, former quarterback Utah, and it is the latter’s pursuit of the former that dominates the film’s narrative. This pursuit constantly manifests in physical altercation: football tackles, fist fights, and even a crazed embrace in the midst of a 10,000 foot free fall are all integral to Bodhi and Johnny’s relationship. These homoerotically-charged elements as well as the film’s hyper-masculine violence and patent silliness place it in the realm of Schuckmann’s broader assessments. But although Bigelow’s film appears to resemble these trends on its surface, it soon becomes clear that its homoeroticism is of a somewhat different quality then that of many of the films Schuckmann discusses. In fact the film’s homosexual edge is so prominent, so consistently a factor throughout the film, that it is difficult to understand it as anything other than deliberate and pointed. Evidence of homosexuality in the two leads is plentiful and rather indisputable; one can find queer subtext lurking in nearly every scene, and many have done so, but in the interest of space we will look just at a few crucial examples. Complicating the good guy-bad guy dynamic described by Schuckmann, Bodhi and Johnny’s relationship actually begins as a friendship. Aiming to covertly infiltrate the Los Angeles surfing community, Johnny befriends Bodhi as a means of accessing the insular group of beach bums. The reveal that he is, in fact, the very bank robber that Johnny is out to catch does not occur until midway through the movie––well beyond the establishing of their relationship. And fascinatingly, the unmasking of Johnny as officer of the law, and Bodhi as bank robber, has an oddly insubstantial impact on their behavior towards each other. Neither are particularly surprised at the revelation (nor are we); it only literalizes the pursuit that had been ongoing the entire movie. The reality is that, even before they consciously understood their roles, Johnny was chasing after Bodhi, and Bodhi was seducing Johnny. Unlike Schuckmann’s assessment, there is very little “hate” between Johnny and Bodhi. In fact many have referred to the film as a “love story” (Manzi, np).

We should now look to the famous foot chase scene, which occurs just after Johnny’s suspicions about Bodhi are confirmed. After a long, drawn out (and expertly filmed) pursuit, Johnny is given the opportunity to take down his target. He has Bodhi frozen in the sights of his pistol, but as he points it, readying to fire, the two lock eyes. We are treated to a Sergio Leone-esque extreme closeup of Bodhi’s piercing blue eyes as glimpsed through the holes in his Reagan mask. Time seems to stand still. Why doesn’t Johnny take the shot? We soon realize that he is unable to. He cannot kill Bodhi because he loves him. Further, this inability to kill Bodhi, to penetrate his body with the phallus of his gun, is representative of his inability to have sex with him. Frustrated he turns on his back and fires the rest of his rounds into the air, an ejaculatory auto-relieving of repressed sexual tension. If we understand Johnny’s pursuit of Bodhi to bear a romantic/sexual edge, then his inability to catch Bodhi (or to “nail” him, if you will allow me a touch of crudeness), is conflated with an inability to bed him.

Describing its phallic penetration and sensuality, April Wolfe, in a Rolling Stone retrospective of the film, writes: “there is, arguably, no sport that is more overtly sexual than surfing” (np). Certainly this film leans into that sensuality; rarely, if ever, has the art of surfing been captured with the elegance––and eroticism––of Bigelow and DP Donald Peterman. Much can be made of the way Johnny gapes at Bodhi as he watches him surf for the first time (this is further eroticized by a shot where Bodhi’s penetrating of a barrel wave might be described as “making love to the ocean” (Wolfe, np)), and further the game of football they play on the beach shortly after being introduced. Inexplicably (on the surface) desperate to take him down, Johnny plows through a near endless horde of muscular surfers, chasing Bodhi far beyond the bounds of the game, and finally tackling him into the ocean. This brings our attention to one potential queer reading of the film (there are many), which sees Bodhi, and by extension surfing, as representing the tantalizing world of homosexuality, seducing Johnny despite his resistance. In an early scene Johnny uses an FBI database to find information on Tyler (Lori Petty), a local surfer and his heterosexual love interest. (She will be discussed in greater depth later.) Learning that her parents are both dead, and attempting to force a connection with her, he lies, telling her that he, too, lost his parents. He gives Tyler a speech about how his whole life he has done what his parents wanted him to do (including pursuing football, and law school, two things we know Johnny did, indeed, do) and now that they are gone, he feels like he has not lived his own life. So he has come from Ohio to the coast, and finds himself drawn to the ocean, and to surfing. We understand that Johnny is trying to manipulate Tyler into helping him, and we know for a fact that he made up the death of his parents. Watching the film without the knowledge of what comes after might further lead us to presume that this entire monologue is false as well––and likely, in Johnny’s mind, at this point, it is. But in fact, whether he realizes it or not, this moment holds a lot more truth than it initially suggests. Johnny's attraction to Bodhi and the surfing lifestyle suggest that the FBI, law school, college football, etc, may not be the life he truly desires to live. We know nothing definitive about his parents (except that they are alive), and we cannot say for sure that they did indeed influence Johnny’s life path in such a way, but it is certainly more than likely that Johnny’s “lie” is based at least in a modicum of truth. This scene indicates Johnny’s uncertainty of his status within the world of the FBI (which in this reading we understand to be representative of heterosexuality/heteronormativity, the enforcers of law, i.e. convention, in opposition to the free-spirited, criminals, i.e. queer, surfers), and a feeling of being drawn, a desire toward the transgressions of Bodhi and his crew. Crucial to this understanding of Bodhi’s lifestyle is the orgasmic delight that Johnny experiences as he learns to surf, and similarly as he accompanies Bodhi on more adrenaline-chasing expeditions, like skydiving.

Watching the film for the first time, we might be jarred by the way Bodhi and Johnny interact after their true identities are exposed. (This gets back to that complication of the good guy-bad guy dynamic.) At one point, Bodhi shows up to Johnny’s house and insists that he has something to show him. By now we know that Bodhi is the bank robber, and we know that both of the characters know this, and yet they do not explicitly acknowledge it to each other. They are keeping up the act, but why? We are confused, nervous even––what is Bodhi planning?––and a number of suspenseful moments follow, including one where it is suggested that Bodhi may have given Johnny a faulty parachute pack as they prepare to go skydiving. But it is a red herring; they make the jump successfully, and what follows is perhaps the most rapturous scene in the film, as Mark Isham’s score twinkles with sublime synthesizers, and Johnny, Bodhi, and the surfer gang engage in one last moment of orgasmic bless. We forget, if only momentarily, that these two men are diametrically opposed. If we read the surfers as representing this lustful queer sexuality, then we can see their adrenaline-chasing as the expression of said sexuality. Look no further than the post-coital tangle of limbs that greet us at the conclusion of Bodhi and Johnny’s last dive. “Goddamn you are one radical son of a bitch!” Knowingly operating within the world of the homoerotic action movie, the film does not allow the characters to literally achieve their desires, instead they are allowed sexual pleasure in the form of the coded act of surfing, as well as the liberating, adrenaline-pumping act of skydiving and the symbolic repudiation of heteronormativity that comes with bank-robbing. These moments fulfill their sexual desires in a way that the genre’s structure (and the culture of popular audiences––this was produced before the queer boom of the 90s really began) do not allow. Bigelow seems to be deliberately invoking the conventions of this homoerotic mode of filmmaking, and exaggerating them, pushing them as far as she can without veering into total satire. An important component of the film’s success is simply that it is a remarkable feat of action filmmaking; Bigelow plays by the genre’s rules in order to subvert and interrogate them. This brings us to another important break from Schuckmann’s broad assessment: this film’s director is a woman.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of 80s and 90s action movies, Point Break is not the product of a man gazing erotically at another man. The subject of the gaze is, here (avoiding a broader argument of auteurism), a woman. This leads us into a further variation on Mulvey’s theory, one that is often discussed in relation to this film: the female gaze. In her RS piece (which goes so far as to proclaim that “Point Break is the greatest female-gaze action movie ever”––I am inclined to agree), Wolfe provides her own definition of this concept:

"It’d seem only logical that the female gaze would simply be the inverse of (the male gaze) — slobbering visuals of biceps and tight butts, right? Not quite. The male gaze objectifies; the female gaze humanizes. It reinforces the idea that the whole package and not just an errant body part is sexy, no matter what the gender identity is" (np).

Bigelow’s eroticization of bodies is not reliant on disembodied objectification, like the male gaze, or perhaps even the homoerotic gaze. Rather, Wolfe argues, she elects to eroticize by displaying “the whole body in movement” (np). She and her crew even created their own camera mount, termed a “pogo-cam,” which allowed them to better showcase the “physical prowess” of their performers (np). The aforementioned foot-chase scene is memorable for its sexually-charged emotion, yes, but also because it revolutionized the foot-chase sequence. The pogo-cam allows for a camera operator to sprint along with the actors, elegantly capturing their athleticism as they run full speed. Bigelow’s feminized approach, and outsider status (a woman making a film about men) grants her a unique perspective, one that allows her to interrogate masculinity and genre conventions in a fresh way. Here the pent-up homoerotic energy gets pushed to its limits, and the result is catastrophic. By the film’s climax, Bodhi’s zen philosophizing has turned to serious violence. A joke line of Tyler’s from earlier in the film gains an added resonance, “there’s too much testosterone here.” Indeed, Bodhi’s hypermasculinity has driven him into an almost maniacal state (exacerbated by Swayze’s frightening turn in the final act). The genre’s homoerotic machoism has run rampant, and the
A further subversive, and important, element to Point Break is its casting. Though his action star credentials are substantial (Speed, The Matrix, more recently John Wick), it is important to note that Keanu Reeves was not an action star in 1991. To that point he was known best as one half of the doofus duo in cult comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), and his outward appearance was markedly different from the action archetypes of his time. Reeves has a boyish look to him, some even describe him as androgynous, or bearing feminine qualities (Rennebohm, np). Whereas the typical action star of the 80s/90s was a macho bodybuilder type (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren, Van Damme, etc)––even the exceptions like Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988) have a distinctly masculine energy––Reeves stands out. He has a nice body, certainly, but not a muscular, sculpted one. He is slender, smooth, without a trace of body hair. His skin looks soft to the touch, like he has not yet had the need to shave. He is not even a particularly skilled fighter: when he is cornered by surfer punks he displays no superhero-esque amount of skill––he gets his ass kicked until Bodhi shows up and saves him. Though Reeves and action cinema now go hand in hand, casting him in 1991 was a bold choice by Bigelow, and one that contributed greatly to the film’s subversive edge. Similarly important is the casting of Lori Petty as Tyler, Keanu’s connotative, heterosexual, love interest.

Reportedly the script initially called for a blond beach babe (Wolfe, np), but once Bigelow came aboard she gave her the androgynous name Tyler, and cast Petty, a “short-haired, flat-chested tomboy” (Manzi, np). Evident from their first encounter, when Tyler saves the novice Johnny as he attempts to surf, is the physical similarities between the two. Petty has her hair cut short and dyed black to match Reeves’. In a striking overhead shot of the two lying together in bed, Tyler lying on her stomach, Johnny on his back, both shirtless, they look almost the same. They are each performing a sort of androgyny, leaning across the gender binary and meeting in the middle; “his feminine edges nudge in nicely to her masculine ones,” writes Wolfe (np). Tyler’s atypical appearance, as well as her rough demeanor and respected status make her stand out among the many “marginal female characters” that tend to serve empty roles in this sort of movie (Schuckmann, 675). The androgynous gender performances of the two characters complicates what is usually a structure designed to encourage hegemonic romantic values. Most queer readings present her as a device serving to further the film’s true romantic relationship, Bodhi and Johnny’s (though perhaps we should be more hesitant to ascribe such rigid monogamous ideals––I do not necessarily think it inconceivable that Johnny loves Tyler and Bodhi. They both represent the radical, queer world of surfing, in their own ways), and ultimately she is, as per Schuckmann’s categories, used as a token of exchange between the two men, but even this is a more complicated detail than it might seem.

Schuckmann does, actually, devote a brief portion of his essay to Point Break. He recognizes its “outstanding” qualities, the ways in which it pushes the boundaries of homoeroticism in interesting ways, but he still writes it off as succumbing to the conventions of the form, largely due to its treatment of Tyler (675-676). Though there is validity to a critique of Tyler’s character, she warrants a much more complicated understanding than the one Schuckmann presents. In the end Bodhi takes her back, not romantically, but literally kidnapping her, holding her in captivity as an “insurance policy.” This is the ostensible motivator for Johnny’s third-act actions: he is chasing after Bodhi, and not killing him, because to do so would be to lose his heterosexual lover. In these final scenes Tyler is presented, somewhat jarringly, given her general toughness, as a damsel in distress. Clothed only in a night slip, we see her tied up by Bodhi’s henchman. When she is freed, she runs to Johnny and hugs her male savior, forgetting his wrongdoing that drove her away in the first place. This reads as perhaps succumbing to the bothersome, sexist tropes that typify these homoerotic movies, and might even damage the power of the film’s queer content––that is, it might if the movie were to end here. What Schuckmann manages to overlook is that this is not the final scene. The film ends on a coda, a year after Bodhi got away. The trope of the female love interest is designed to reinforce heterosexuality, to indicate, in this case, that Johnny was not chasing after Bodhi because he wanted to fuck him, but rather because he wanted to save his woman. But the film’s coda shatters any such reading. Here we learn that Johnny’s pursuit did not end when he reclaimed Tyler; in fact he chases after Bodhi for an entire year, without a straight motivation in sight. It is true that Tyler is marginalized for the sake of Bodhi and Johnny, but we can perhaps see this marginalization as a deliberate and meaningful choice on the film’s part. Perhaps, this odd view of Tyler as a damsel in distress is a means of calling attention to this trope of the heterosexual motivation. By presenting Tyler the way the film does in that scene, we are jarred, forced to think about the implications therein, and further it draws our attention to the fact that, ultimately, the film subverts this trope.

The film’s final moments are emotionally overwhelming. After a final physical confrontation which ends with Johnny handcuffing himself to Bodhi, ensuring that his love will not escape him, he finally elects to let him go free, to allow him to ride one last wave, to find that “ultimate thrill,” rather than incarcerate him within the constraints of the heterosexual world. Death is better than being handed over to the cops, for Bodhi. In a sense for Johnny the straight motivation of saving Tyler might be seen as having been replaced by a similar motivation to execute his job, to carry out justice. But Johnny’s final act is as telling of the film’s ideology as any: walking down the beach, he takes out his FBI badge, and tosses it into the ocean, disavowing that symbolic world of heteronormative restriction once and for all. “Still surfing?” Bodhi asks, just before he catches his final wave, “every day,” responds Johnny. It is as if Bigelow has allowed the tropes of these homoerotic action films to play out to their logical conclusions. In that sense the film is a critique of the absurd masculinity that fuels this sort of film, while allowing that latent homoeroticism to be brought to the fore, and legitimized, rather than explicitly disavowed. This manifests both in the manic hypermasculinity that drives Bodhi over the edge, as well as in the powerful and transgressive love between he and Johnny. Point Break uses the masculine aesthetics of its own genre to deconstruct its tropes, and establish a queer love story that goes beyond that of any of its peers.

Manzi, Anthony. “Point "Heart" Break, or: Why Bodhi and Johnny Utah Just Want to Bang Each Other,” Reel3, 14 Feb. 2014. Accessed 12 Dec. 2018.

Rennebohm, Kate. “Keanu Reeves is a Queer Superhero,” PopOptiq. Accessed 12 Dec. 2018.

Schuckmann, Patrick. “Masculinity, the Male Spectator and the Homoerotic Gaze.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, 1998, pp. 671–680. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Wolfe, April. “Revisiting Hours: ‘Point Break’ Is the Greatest Female-Gaze Action Movie Ever,” Rolling Stone, 31 Aug. 2018. Accessed 12 Dec. 2018.