Some Preliminary Thoughts on ‘Joker’

Arthur Fleck is my hero.

Sorry, I’m a bit of a joker sometimes…HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!

I finally got around to seeing Joker today. Wow! What a powerful film. Though set in the early 1980s, it’s as relevant to today’s times as any movie can be. Indeed, it’s the first Hollywood movie in a long time (to my knowledge, at least) that has genuine balls.

Contrary to what some of the knuckleheads in the mainstream media have either said or implied, Joker very much has a message. And no, that message is not for sexually frustrated, right-wing men to go out doing mass shootings. The film’s message is firmly left-wing: all out war against the bourgeoisie, and that’s what the ruling class–for whom the mainstream media works–feels truly threatened about.

No, I’m not advocating everyone wearing clown masks going on mass murder rampages, and busting things up. I believe in an organized, well-planned revolution that will result in giving people like Arthur Fleck what they need: decent medical and psychiatric care, guaranteed employment, etc. In short, I seek to eliminate the class system that deprives the have-nots, and which causes the alienation that causes so much of Fleck’s suffering.

I can’t do a proper analysis of this film until it comes out on DVD; then I can watch it twenty to thirty times or so, and savour every detail of this masterpiece, mining it for themes and symbolism. Until then, these preliminary remarks will have to do: after all, so much has already been said about the film in newspaper articles and videos.

Go see the film if you haven’t yet…no, chances are, you won’t become a murderer.

Analysis of ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is considered one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. It is a scathing critique of the materialism and hypocrisy of the so-called ‘American Dream‘ as embodied in the Roaring Twenties (a time to which current levels of income inequality are often compared) and the Jazz Age, and therefore of American capitalism in general.

A number of movie adaptations have been made of the story over the years, most notably the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan; and also the 2013 version with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy. I’ve included links to a few YouTube videos of scenes from both of these film versions below.

Here are some famous quotes:

Chapter 1

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘”Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” –Nick Carraway, the narrator

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

“All right.[…] I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” –Daisy, on her daughter

Chapter 2

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

Chapter 6

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
–Nick and Gatsby, on Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy

He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken.

Chapter 7

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

Chapter 8

Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night. “God sees everything,” repeated Wilson. –Wilson talking about the billboard outside his window

Chapter 9

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. –closing lines

A pervasive myth in the US is this notion of ‘the American Dream,’ as personified in Daisy in the story. Apparently, it doesn’t matter where one is born on the social ladder: if one works hard enough, one can rise to the top. Given the reality of class, as it has always existed in the US, right from the time of the Founding Fathers and the creation of the Constitution, every bit as much as elsewhere in the world, we can see what nonsense this fantasy of upward mobility is.

Even the wealth and success of Gatsby cannot disprove this disillusioning reality, for when he’s murdered, he is publicly despised (no one other than his father and Nick attends his funeral), not only because he takes the blame for the manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson, but because he has acquired his wealth through the illegal practice of bootlegging during the Prohibition years (the Prohibitionists themselves a much-misunderstood political movement). Though the capitalist accumulation of wealth through the exploitation of workers–that is, in the conventional way–may be legal, it’s no less immoral than Gatsby’s way.

Nick has received advice from his father not to judge those in the world who haven’t had the advantages he’s had; but by the end of the novel, he can easily judge Tom and Daisy Buchanan–the latter actually being guilty of Myrtle’s killing–since these two have had all the advantages of being from the upper classes. The “fundamental decencies [are] parcelled out unevenly at birth.” (page 1, my emphasis)

Many working class Americans admire Donald Trump as an ‘anti-establishment president’ embodying the American Dream, but they ignore that he was born into wealth. His grandfather made the family fortune, and the Donald claimed his father gave him “a small loan of a million dollars” to start out when he was young, which isn’t true, incidentally; but even if it were, the average Third World sweatshop worker (some of whom work like slaves for Ivanka) would kill to have that much money to start a business. This inequality is what we socialists mean by class privilege.

The Carraways embody this class privilege, too, since Nick’s “grandfather’s brother…sent a substitute to the Civil War” (page 2). Nick goes East to learn the bond business, and has “bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.” (page 3)

Nick lives in a house in a fictional area on Long Island, New York, called “West Egg,” and on the other side of the bay, “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water” (page 4). These two oval-shaped formations of land are the eggs that begin the life of this story.

Daisy and Tom, when Nick meets them in East Egg, almost immediately display their upper class arrogance: she shows her contempt of those in West Egg, and Tom blatantly reveals himself to be a white supremacist (page 10), right at a time, incidentally, when fascism was emerging in Europe. Recall elsewhere when Tom says, “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” (page 99)

Tom is especially obnoxious: he’s arrogant, aggressive, and obscenely wealthy (having “brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest” to Long Island–page 5), and we learn soon enough that he has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, whom he hits for daring to say his wife’s name (page 27). But it turns out that Daisy will have an amour of her own–Gatsby, who gazes out at a green light (where the Buchanans’ home is, far off across the water from his mansion).

The colour green is appropriate–the green of greenbacks. Money, accumulated in large enough amounts, it would seem, is the ticket of entry into the world of the upper classes. Since Daisy personifies ‘the American Dream’ in this story, and Gatsby so yearns for her, we can see why he’s gazing far off at that minute green light.

Myrtle lives with her poor husband, George Wilson, in a place between West Egg and New York City referred to as “the valley of ashes.” (page 17) The place is actually Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, which in the 1920s was a kind of dumping ground of ash and waste; but since Myrtle is struck dead by Gatsby’s car on the road there, and since George shoots and kills Gatsby in revenge for his wife’s death, then kills himself, making “the holocaust…complete” (page 125), I can’t resist associating this “valley of ashes” symbolically with Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, where burnt offerings of sacrificed children were given.

Both Gatsby and Myrtle are sacrificed, as it were, by Tom and Daisy, who carry on their upper class existence without repentance–hence Nick’s contempt for both of them at the end of the story. In this story, sacrifice isn’t about giving up something valuable in order to get something better: here, it is just ceremonial murder.

Gatsby, as the man who rose to wealth and has fallen by the end of the story (rising and falling is a motif expressed over and over again, in different forms, throughout the novel), is a kind of Christ for capitalism. He takes the blame for Daisy’s manslaughter of Myrtle (page 110), just as Christ died for our sins; then “Gatsby turn[s] out all right at the end” (page 2), which suggests at least a symbolic resurrection. He rose to wealth, died, and–so to speak–rose again.

[Fitzgerald published this novel four years before the stock market crash of 1929, but he seems to have been a prophet, seeing how overconfident people were in the Twenties, buying now and paying later. He saw how the economy rose and rose…he must have known it would fall. In any case, a casual reading of economic history would have informed him of the many economic crises that had already plagued the US over the centuries, enough to inform him that another one was coming soon.]

Gatsby’s mansion is his church, where he is the host of wild parties, his Mass. Heavy drinking goes on there; such drinks as champagne are his sacramental wine. As a bootlegger, Gatsby is saying to his guests, “Drink…This is My blood…” (Matthew 26:27-28). In the “hilarity” of these parties, we see a fusion of the Eucharist with Dionysian revelry.

Zagreus was a version of Dionysus (whom some ancients identified with Yahweh) who was killed, cooked, ceremoniously eaten (as are the wafers of the Host), and who rose from the dead. The Eucharist (drinking Christ’s blood and eating His flesh) is believed to have been derived from ancient pagan cannibalism; certainly the pagan Romans persecuted Christians out of a belief that Communion was cannibalism.

Nick refers to Gatsby as his host a number of times in Chapter 3, which vividly describes one of these parties; on one occasion, after “the first supper” (!), Nick and Jordan are “going to find the host” (page 33), which sounds–in this context–rather like trying to find Jesus, in this story, the Christ of wealth.

The “premature moon,” which has been “produced like the supper,” (page 32) has “risen higher” at “midnight [when] the hilarity ha[s] increased” and “happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky” (page 35). The moon is associated with lunacy, in this case Dionysian lunacy. Towards the end of the party, the moon is described as a “wafer…shining over Gatsby’s house,” and later in the same paragraph, Gatsby is once again referred to as “the host” (page 41).

When Nick meets Gatsby, the latter says to him, “I’m not a very good host.” Of course not: he’s a Christ for capitalism. The Great Gatsby-Christ does, however, confer his grace on you: “He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” (page 36)

Passages of this sort, among other Biblical allusions, abound in the story. Recall when “Owl Eyes [is] washing his hands of the whole matter.” (page 40) Earlier, there’s a reference to a magazine named Simon Called Peter. (page 21)

Gatsby is from a poor family in rural North Dakota; but he considers himself “a son of God” (!) and narcissistically aspires to something better. His wish to marry Daisy is thus like Christ’s love of His bride, the Church. Not only must she love Gatsby, though, she must also say she’s never loved her husband, Tom–rather like how the sinner must completely renounce his life of sin in order to be saved.

Gatsby’s fantasies of upward mobility, as opposed to the Buchanans’ already established class status, are like the right-wing libertarian’s dreams of striking it rich through the “free market,” as opposed to the way capitalism establishes wealth in the real world–through the protection of the bourgeois state and its laws…through class.

Gatsby as a nouveau-riche has made his fortune in a lawless manner, by selling booze as a mafia-capitalist during Prohibition. He is thus regarded as scum by Tom and the upper-class establishment. The Prohibitionists were opposed to the capitalist exploitation of alcoholism, of getting rich off of drinkers’ addiction; they weren’t so much priggish opponents of having fun, as popularly assumed. On the other side of the coin, the scorning of Prohibitionists as liberty-denying prigs was more out of a wish to continue profiting from the sale of liquor than from promoting ‘liberty.’

For these people, ‘liberty’ is really just licence to be selfish. Such ‘liberty’ is also seen in the taking of mistresses, which contrary to the denials of those into polyamory, just fuels jealousy, as we see mutually between Daisy and Myrtle over Tom, and between him and Gatsby over Daisy. Class differences intermingle with these jealousies, too–not just between aspiring Gatsby and Tom, but also between Myrtle and Daisy, the former being ashamed of her poor husband, George Wilson.

Gatsby idealizes not only the class status of Daisy, whose “voice is full of money” (page 92); he also idealizes the past–namely, his past with her prior to the war. He imagines, in his utterly quixotic way, that he can bring back that pristine past–the same way the market fundamentalists, wilfully ignorant of how capitalism has metastasized from its nineteenth-century, free competition form into the monopolistic, imperialistic finance capitalism that it has been for over a hundred years, imagine they can bring back the old laissez-faire of the past.

Gatsby’s love affair with Daisy, years prior to the beginning of the novel, was a kind of absolute jouissance that was taken from him when he had to fight in World War One. Having returned from the war, he’s hoped to reunite with her, but his hopes have been shaken from learning she’s married Tom. The happiness he had with her prior to the war is what Lacan would have called Gatsby’s objet petit a (“little-a object,” a standing for autre, “other“), the object-cause of his unfulfillable desire. He hopes his reunion with her will bring back that unrealizable joy, that excess of jouissance.

Gatsby has a lack, a void or hole in his life that he imagines Daisy will fill for him, when of course she can never do that, since she’s married to Tom and, in class terms, she’s out of Gatsby’s league, in spite of his newly-acquired wealth.

James Gatz has changed his name to Jay Gatsby, hoping this change in words will help change who he is. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Gatsby, and the Word was Gatsby. And the earth was waste and void, just as Gatsby has a void he needs Daisy to fill.

He takes the blame for Daisy’s having killed Myrtle with his car; for Gatsby so loved the girl that he gave his one and only life, that her reputation shall not perish but carry on living. His lack, his void, is the poor world he’s ashamed to have been born in. As a ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaire,’ he has this embarrassment as his objet petit a, which causes him to desire Daisy, marriage with whom will be his ticket to the upper classes.

Is his love for Daisy based on a transference of Oedipal feelings for his mother? Does Daisy’s voice, so “full of money,” remind him of his mother’s voice from when he was a child? We have no way of knowing, and it very well may not be; but even if there is no literal Oedipal connection, the relationship between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom can be seen as at least symbolically Oedipal.

In this scenario, Gatsby is the ‘son’ (recall that he’s “a son of God”), Daisy Buchanan is the ‘mother’ (with whom he’s had unrestrained jouissance before the war, as an infant has had with its mother before the Oedipal conflict begins), and Tom Buchanan is the ‘father,’ whose nom (or Non!) forbids the love of the first two.

Since Gatsby is ashamed of his humble beginnings, we can imagine him, in all likelihood, having grown up with a family romance, in which he has dreamed of being born to aristocratic parents. “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people–his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.” (page 75) Thus, his “Platonic conception” of being “a son of God” is an immaculate conception, in which his idealizing of Daisy, the American Dream personified, makes her a symbolic Madonna.

The Oedipal love in this family romance could have been unconsciously transferred onto Daisy and Tom. Just as Jesus was born into a humble setting, yet said to be “made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God…” (Romans 1:3-4), so has James Gatz been declared Jay Gatsby, “a son of God.”

Thus, Gatsby’s time of jouissance with Daisy before the war is like a baby’s time of narcissistic mirroring with its idealized mother, Lacan’s Imaginary, as I’ve described it elsewhere. In this scenario, Jesus Gatsby, if you will, is with Daisy the Madonna. The mythography of Mary, mother of Jesus, was influenced by mythology (or, at least, iconography) involving pagan couplings of mother goddesses (or virgin mortals) and their divine sons/(sometimes) lovers. Gatsby, as a “son of God,” is an expression of James Gatz’s grandiose self, and Daisy, as a symbolic Virgin Mary, represents an idealized mirror reflecting that narcissism back to him.

Law and custom must break up that narcissistic relationship, though: hence, Gatsby’s leaving Daisy to fight the war. This represents a leaving of the Imaginary to enter the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and society–no more one-on-one relationship with a mother/lover figure. One must embrace the world and know humanity in general.

Gatsby has his parties, but he doesn’t drink with his guests. His only reason for socializing with Nick is to get him to arrange a meeting with Daisy, the one person he wants to connect with, to revive that one-on-one, narcissistically mirrored relationship.

In Gatsby’s confrontation with jealous Tom in the Plaza Hotel (Chapter 7), we see the symbolic Oedipal hostility between ‘son’ (Gatsby) and ‘father’ (Tom). It isn’t enough for Gatsby to have Daisy love him, and for her to have formerly loved Tom: she must never have loved Tom, just as a child wants Mommy to love only him, and never Daddy. Such is the child’s narcissistic, self-absorbed state, to have Mommy all to himself and for her to be his entire world, an extension of himself. Gatsby wants the same from Daisy: his petit objet a demands this unrealistic, impossible thing from her.

“There is no such thing as a sexual relationship,” Lacan once enigmatically said. What he meant by that, apart from his usual verbiage about language and ‘signifiers,’ was that love, in the sense of finding an ideal, life-long mate, is an illusion. Shortly after we get married, the romance dies out, and we become disillusioned with, bored with, or even fed up with our partner. For many, religion, tradition, and/or custom are the only things that stop them from divorcing.

This disillusion is what we see in the marriages of the Buchanans and the Wilsons: hence, Tom’s and Myrtle’s affair, then that of Gatsby and Daisy. Still, keeping the ‘sacred’ institution of marriage intact is all-important to Tom, in spite of his philandering, since the preservation of that institution is part of what holds society together, which for him includes protecting his class and racial privileges. (Recall his racist remark about miscegenation on page 99.)

One should recall what Marx had to say about the bourgeois institution of marriage in this regard: “The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion, than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

“For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.

“Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each others’ wives.

“Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident, that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.” The Communist Manifesto, II–Proletarians and Communists

In sum, the following illusions are among the crucial ones that keep class conflict, in its current capitalist form, an undying problem: the unattainable, yet still ever-desired American Dream; racial superiority; bourgeois marriage; narcissism, and the Church. That love is expressed through adultery is more of a sign of alienation than any other.

George Wilson imagines God’s eyes seeing everything, but He did nothing to save the Wilsons’ marriage, let alone Myrtle’s life. The gigantic, God-like eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg watch over everything in the valley of ashes (page 17), yet like the God of the Church, they don’t do anything to intervene in the mayhem caused, to prevent the tragedy; thus they are rather like the aloof, yet watching eyes of the ruling class.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Collins Classics, London, 1925

Analysis of ‘The Time Machine’

The Time Machine is a science fiction novella written by H.G. Wells and published in 1895. The novella has spawned three movies and two TV adaptations, and the idea of time travel in general has inspired the premises of many popular sci-fi stories, films, and TV shows. His story is a warning that the future doesn’t necessarily bring progress.

Here are some quotes:

“There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives…Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter I, pages 2 and 3

“Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter IV, page 36

“We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!” –The Time Traveller, Chapter IV, page 39

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.” –The Time Traveller, Chapter X, page 97

The novel begins with a group of men in the house of a man known only as “the Time Traveller,” who discusses the topic of his given namesake. Indeed, most of these men (except one named Filby) are referred to by their professions (“the Psychologist,” “the Provincial Mayor,” “the Medical Man,” etc.) rather than by their names: it’s as though their professions are somehow more important than who they are as people; since Wells was a socialist (more of a social democrat, really–contrast his notions of socialism with those of Stalin, with whom he would, decades after the publication of this novella, have an interesting conversation), his labelling most of the men by profession seems a comment on the social alienation inherent in capitalism.

The Time Traveller discusses the fourth dimension of time with the other gentlemen, speaking of time as if it could be measured on a plane: one can go up and down in length, or side to side in breadth, or back and forth in depth, on planes of the first three dimensions; but imagine going back and forth in time, or skipping points in time, instead of just following time forward, second by second, an eternal now emerging from the past and disappearing into the future, in only that direction.

The following Thursday, the Time Traveller is to meet with some of those men (including the first person narrator) and a few new ones (“the Editor,” “the Doctor,” “the Journalist,” etc.); but when he arrives, he walks with a limp, his coat is “dusty and dirty,” with a cut on his chin, “his hair disordered,” and his face is “ghastly pale…his expression…haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering.” (page 15) He’s just returned from the remote future, a harsh world in which he’s had some traumatizing experiences. Therefore, when he tells the men his story, we must keep in mind how distraught he is; and so his emotional state, among other things, will distort his perception of the events of the future.

The men are incredulous, of course, but willing to hear his story. So, the first-person narrator is giving the account based on his recollection of the Time Traveller’s words.

Frequently, if not typically, a first-person narration is unreliable, at least to some degree, since the narrator is incorporating, consciously or unconsciously, his own biases; but here we have the first person narrator (seeming to be socialist Wells: recall his enthusiastic remark, “To discover a society…erected on a strictly communistic basis.” [page 6]) giving an account based on another first-person narration, so in this story we have not one, but two biases!

These biases seem to be contradictory opposites, one with communist beliefs, the other with anti-communist leanings (those of the Time Traveller). In fact, a major theme of this novella is dualism, or a conflict between contradictory opposites. These include above/below, metaphorical heaven/hell, metaphorical gods/devils, light/darkness, and forward in time vs. backward in time.

The Time Traveller describes the great discomfort he feels from shooting forward in time (page 21; also briefly noted on page 100); this could be seen to symbolize the displeasure often felt by reactionaries when social progress is made; also, the discomfort from this forward movement could symbolize a fear of facing the uncertain future.

He stops the forward movement at the year 802,701. He gets out of the time machine and sees a giant white sphinx. Since he gets the impression that there has been great neglect in the care of his surroundings (e.g., “a long-neglected…garden,” and “suggestions of old Phoenician decorations” that were “very badly broken and weather-worn,” page 30), this sphinx is symbolically comparable to that of ancient Egypt in that this future world seems to be the end of a former great civilization. Great eras of history seem to rise and decline in cycles. (Also, that sphinx will contain the riddle of where his time machine will be moved, when he later discovers it missing.)

Further proof of such a civilizational decline, in his opinion, is when he meets the Eloi, small, curly-haired, simple-minded, childlike people who live in idleness, eating only fruit. He has expected great advances in civilization, knowledge, technology, and strength; but it seems the world has gone backward in many ways.

For the Time Traveller, intellectual growth is driven by the need to survive; the easy living of the Eloi has made them complacent, lazy, and weak. The large, palace-like buildings he sees them living in–with no small houses characteristic of England–suggest the communal living of communism (page 34), of which one suspects he disapproves (Having sat–at the novella’s beginning–with his middle-to-upper-middle class guests in the comfortable chairs he’s invented, and with a housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett, among other servants in his home, the bourgeois Time Traveller would naturally be opposed to socialism.). Elsewhere, he notes how the Eloi seem to have little differentiation in terms of sex, symbolizing the future equality of the sexes.

There’s more to this utopia, this Spenserian bower of bliss, than meets the eye, though. First, after having left the time machine for a while, he returns to where it has been left, only to find it missing! Someone took it? Who? The Eloi are too small to have moved such a heavy machine. Will he be trapped in this strange world forever?

After searching fruitlessly for it in the bushes and elsewhere, he concludes that someone must have hid it in the White Sphinx. Since it cannot have been the puny Eloi who have moved it, there must be another people he hasn’t encountered yet. He also notices wells, connections to the underworld, where he’ll find those other people.

Here, we’ve encountered the main dualism in the story: that of the opposition between the Eloi living above and the Morlocks living below. Their names are puns on, respectively, the Hebrew Elohim (gods), and the pagan god Moloch, this latter god requiring child sacrifices. In other words, the Eloi are being represented as the angelic ‘good’ people, and the Morlocks are being represented as the devilish ‘bad’ people. Given the Time Traveller’s obvious bourgeois liberal biases, however, we shouldn’t be too sure about the accuracy of his portrayal of these two peoples.

At first, he associates the Eloi with the privileged capitalist class, in their indolence and easy living; similarly, he associates the Morlocks with the oppressed proletariat, since they make all the things the Eloi need to live. The emphasis of such a perspective could be due to the biases of the socialist first-person narrator who is recording the Time Traveller’s account (and who could be Wells himself–that is, if he isn’t Hillyer, possibly one of the Time Traveller’s servants, for all we know).

Such a perspective could also accord with the Time Traveller’s initial impressions of the Eloi and Morlocks, though he would judge such a situation with far less sympathy for the Morlocks than Wells (as I’ll call the first-person narrator, for convenience’s sake). For it won’t be long before the Morlocks are portrayed as savagely evil.

The Eloi live up in the light, in their near-Edenic, would-be paradise. The Morlocks live down in the darkness, fearing the light as any demon would. The Morlocks’ underground abode is easily characterized as a symbolic hell. The Eloi are like sweet children of God, for “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

It is only natural that a bourgeois liberal will portray the members of his own class as good, even if flawed morally (recall the Eloi failing to rescue one of their own, Weena, from drowning, thus making the Time Traveller get her out of the water [page 50]). Similarly, the bourgeois will characterize their class enemy, the working class, as dangerous or at least morally inferior. Accordingly, the Time Traveler cannot bring himself to think any kind thoughts about the ape-like, but mechanically-minded Morlocks (Chapters VI and VII, pages 61, 67, and 69).

Recall his judgement of the Morlocks here: “…I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one’s own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.” (page 82)

Even the names of the two peoples I have doubts about with respect to the Time Traveller’s representation of them. He claims to have learned a substantial amount of the Eloi’s language to know the names of the two peoples; but his brief sojourn in their world can only cause one to doubt that he’s learned all that much. So his learning of the peoples’ names, as with all else about them, can easily be tainted by his personal biases.

The horrific thing we learn about the Morlocks is that they apparently practice cannibalism–they come up from underground at night and eat any Eloi they catch. The absence of animals in this future world means that food has become scarce. This is why the Eloi eat only fruit; but why don’t the Morlocks just steal fruit from them at night?

Deprivation of food over long periods can drive anyone to resort to cannibalism. The Time Traveller changes his original position, from that of the Eloi as the capitalist Haves and the Morlocks as the proletarian Have-nots, to one of oppressed Eloi and oppressor Morlocks: that is, the latter provide for the former only because the latter are, as it were, farmers raising the former to slaughter.

While we know of the Morlocks attacking and giving their prey little bites, we know of no explicit evidence that the Morlocks are eating the Eloi, apart from the Time Traveller’s discovery of a meal of flesh underground (page 65). Could it not be the flesh of animals that he, during his brief stay in this future world, has never had the time to find? Those Morlock bites could just be attack bites rather than attempts to eat. Again, his biases against the Morlocks could easily be warping his perception of events.

One possible interpretation incorporating Morlock cannibalism (in a symbolic way) is in Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic. This interpretation fuses the Time Traveller’s (and Wells’s) original capitalist/worker conception with this new ‘farmer/livestock’ one. The Eloi were the masters originally, and the Morlocks were the slaves. Through the Morlocks’ ceaseless work, though, they have gained power, while the Eloi have grown dependent and indolent, causing the power imbalance to reverse itself.

The Time Traveller himself concludes similarly: “I felt pretty sure now that my second hypothesis was all wrong. The Upper-world people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants; that had long since passed away…The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back–changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.” (page 70)

The Morlocks’ rising from underground at night can be seen to symbolize a proletarian uprising; they apparently eat the Eloi, just as the poor and deprived will one day have no other recourse than to eat the rich. The Time Traveller, as a bourgeois, naturally sympathizes with the Eloi; he criticizes them only because of their having backslid into apathy and laziness. He sees the necessity of strength, and strength coming from necessity. Such an attitude, of favouring competition over mutual aid–the former forcing one to adapt and to be strong, while the latter (so it is believed) causes one to be weak and complacent–is the conservative underbelly of liberals, which exposes itself whenever their class privileges are being threatened.

The Time Traveller fights off the Morlocks with a club, and uses his matches to build a fire to protect himself and Weena from them. The problem is that the fire he’s set causes a forest fire while he sleeps. In this story, fire–his weapon against the Morlocks–symbolizes civilization and technology; and as we can see, there are both good and bad sides to these two things we tend to regard as only good. Weena seems to have been killed in the fire; he prefers this fate to her having been possibly eaten by the Morlocks–though he doesn’t seem to give much thought to the fact that it is his fire that has killed her. Also, we can see fire as representing how bourgeois civilization and technology destroy the environment. Wells really seems to have seen the future…our real future.

The Time Traveller gets inside the Sphinx, and uses his time machine to escape and go far off into the future. He stops at a time with a black sky, a “salt Dead Sea” (page 103), an “air more rarefied than it is now” (page 102), reddish “monstrous crab-like creature[s]” (page 102), and a “sense of abominable desolation” (page 103). He goes ahead a hundred years from then, and sees “the same dying sea,” feels “the same chill air,” and there is “the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out…” (page 103)

He goes further and further into the future, by thousands of years, to discover ultimately no signs of life except for a “green slime on the rocks” (page 104). After Wells’s allegory of class struggle and violent proletarian revolution, we see the end not only of human and animal life, but of almost all life. Though Wells, of course, wouldn’t have known anything about nuclear war or global warming back in 1895, he seems here to have had the prescience of a time traveler; for he knew that we would have either socialism or barbarism, a world of social justice or our mutual destruction–more dualism.

The Time Traveller returns to his time in that physical and mental state of disarray already noted, such that we should be cautious in assessing the reliability and accuracy of his account. Only those withered white flowers from the future (symbolizing Eloi sweetness and innocence), given to him by Weena, indicate any truth to his story.

The Time Traveller uses his time machine again, never to return to his present. Has he gone into the past, or the future again? Has he returned to the Eloi and Morlocks, perhaps with a hope of either saving Weena from the fire, or avenging the Eloi and killing the Morlocks? Or have they killed him? Since, in his bias against the Morlocks, he’s chosen to resist proletarian revolution, we can see why he no longer has a now.

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, Bantam Classic, New York, 1895

Analysis of ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Reservoir Dogs is a 1992 crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, and Lawrence Tierney. A neo-noir film, it is to a large extent inspired by The Killing by Stanley Kubrick.

With Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs helped cement Tarantino’s reputation as a fresh, new talent. This is especially so with respect to his scriptwriting, given its rapid-fire dialogue–that is, the pornographic profanity, the breaking of politically-correct taboos (i.e., Tarantino’s fetishizing of such slurs as “nigger”), as well as the embracing of gratuitous violence, and the plethora of pop culture references.

Here are some quotes:

“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.” –Mr. Brown (Tarantino)

“Shit, you shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” –Mr. White (Keitel)

*************

Nice Guy Eddie (Penn): C’mon, throw in a buck!

Mr. Pink (Buscemi): Uh-uh, I don’t tip.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t tip?

Mr. Pink: I don’t believe in it.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t believe in tipping?

*************

Mr. Blonde (Madsen): Nobody’s going anywhere.

Mr. White[about Mr. Blonde] Piss on this fucking turd! [To Mr. Pink] We’re outta here.

Mr. Blonde: Don’t take another step, Mr. White.

Mr. White[screams] Fuck you maniac! It’s your fuckin’ fault we’re in so much trouble.

Mr. Blonde[calmly to Mr. Pink] What’s this guy’s problem?

Mr. White: What’s my problem? Yeah, I gotta problem. I gotta big fuckin’ problem with any trigger-happy madman who almost gets me shot!

Mr. Blonde: What the fuck are you talking about?

Mr. White: That fucking shooting spree in the store, remember?

Mr. Blonde[shrugs] Fuck ’em. They set off the alarm. They deserved what they got.

Mr. White: You almost killed me! ASSHOLE! If I had any idea what type of guy you were, I never would’ve agreed to work with you.

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?

Mr. White: What was that? I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Would you repeat it?

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite? [throws away his drink]

*************

Joe (Tierney): Here are your names… [pointing to each respective member] Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink: Why am I Mr. Pink?

Joe: Because, you’re a faggot, alright?! [Mr. Brown laughs]

*************

Mr. Brown: Yeah, but Mr. Brown? That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.

Mr. Pink: Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy.

*************

“I’m hungry. Let’s get a taco.” –Mr. White, to Mr. Orange

“The man you just killed was just released from prison. He got caught at a company warehouse full of hot items. He could’ve fuckin’ walked. All he had to do was say my dad’s name, but he didn’t; he kept his fucking mouth shut. And did his fuckin’ time, and he did it like a man. He did four years for us. So, Mr. Orange, you’re tellin’ me this very good friend of mine, who did four years for my father, who in four years never made a deal, no matter what they dangled in front of him, you’re telling me that now, that now this man is free, and we’re making good on our commitment to him, he’s just gonna decide, out of the fucking blue, to rip us off? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?” –‘Nice Guy’ Eddie, about Mr. Blonde

I see this film as an allegory of the contradictions between different facets of capitalism, similar to my analysis of The French Connection. The LAPD cops represent the state-regulated version of capitalism; and Joe Cabot, his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie, and the six men hired to rob a jewelry store of diamonds, represent the deregulated, “free market” version. Both groups are after a coveted commodity, and both groups use violence to get it. Recall that I see the mafia (criminal businesses) as symbolic of capitalism, and the police, of course, protect the bourgeois state.

The story takes place in the early 1990s, around the time of the dissolution of the USSR (not that Tarantino, filming in 1991, would likely have known that that dissolution was coming, of course, but it’s still an interesting coincidence). Pop culture references are made to music from the 1970s (i.e., the nostalgic K-Billy [KBLY] radio station) and the 1980s (Madonna songs), as well as to 60s and 70s movies (with Lee Marvin and Pam Grier) and TV shows (Get Christie Love! and Baretta). The 70s and 80s were a time when regulated capitalism in the US was beginning to cede to the “free market.” Nostalgia going as far back as the 60s suggests a desire to go back to a happier time.

Along with this symbolism of the economic shift to the right is a cultural shift in that direction, heard in the characters’ casually racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is described by Mr. Brown exclusively in terms of macho phallicism, when the actual metaphor for the song is the hymen (or rather, the simile for the song is virgin). Madonna herself wrote to Tarantino in response to his amusing, but ultimately wrong, interpretation of her song: “Quentin, it’s about love, not dick.” While it’s certainly entertaining hearing Brown talk about how the “fuck-machine” apparently felt vaginal pain during sex with the “John Holmes motherfucker,” the fact that she sings, “Feels so good inside” doesn’t exactly help Brown’s argument.

This macho rejection of a “sensitive,” “nice fella” represents a moving away from the cultural ideals of the 1960s and 70s, which was in its beginning stages in the 1990s, but would soon balloon into the aggravated hyper-masculinity of people like Roosh V today.

An early example of the casual racism of these thieves is how Mr. White gets annoyed with Joe about his old address book and talking about a Chinese girl named “Toby”; White calls her “Toby Jap I-don’t-know-what,” ignorant of any differences between Chinese and Japanese.

Now, this kind of off-colour language may have been humorous and understandable on some level at the time, that is, as an inevitable reaction to the strident political correctness prevalent in the late 1980s and early 90s; but when allowed to slide as it has since then, it’s a slippery slope from the mere verbal naughtiness of back then to the blatant, shameless white nationalism and neofascism of today, as seen in the recent shootings and the rise of the far right in the US, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere.

Next, Mr. Pink discusses why he doesn’t tip. He says he doesn’t tip “automatically” just because “society says [he has] to,” but he will “give them something extra” if the waitresses “really put forth the effort.” This is the essence of the bourgeois attitude to the worker: try to get as much work out of the proletariat as possible, but also pay them as little as possible.

Granted, all the other men at the table (save Mr. Orange, who we don’t yet know is an undercover cop), personifying “free market” capitalism in my allegory, argue in favour of tipping; but this variation only goes to show you how, as Ha-Joon Chang argued in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, there is no one objective definition of the “free market.” There are as many different lines to draw where ‘legitimate taxation and regulation’ (i.e., to limit profitability) ends as there are market fundamentalists.

Furthermore, the whole concept of tipping has historically been a ploy used by bosses to keep hourly wages as low as possible, especially for blacks and women, so even the ‘generosity’ of the other tipping men isn’t as altruistic as it might seem. Mr. Pink is simply the extreme version of the right-wing libertarian, who in his saying “society says you have to [tip waitresses]” sounds as though he means ‘socialism says you have to pay workers more.’

Pink is annoyed that, as a former minimum-wage worker, he had a job not “deemed tip-worthy”; so instead of showing solidarity with shafted workers, he’d rather support a “free market” version of the same capitalism that’s shafted him and waitresses. Indeed, he imagines that, just because the waitresses are making minimum wage (which, incidentally, can be as low as $2.13 an hour!), “these ladies aren’t starving to death.” Not taken into account is the fact that wages have stagnated since the 1970s, while the cost of living has steadily risen since then. What’s worse, Clinton would kill welfare several years after the making of this film.

Libertarian Pink is opposed to how “the government fucks [waitresses] in the ass on a regular basis” by taxing their tips, but he won’t “help out with the rent.” (Pink has missed out on his true calling: he should have been a landlord.) Note how, in Pink’s opinion, it’s government, and not the capitalists who control the government, that is at fault–a typical libertarian argument.

Mr. Orange, as an undercover cop who–in my allegory–represents the state-regulated version of capitalism, is “convinced” of Pink’s argument and wants his dollar back; here we see how blurred the line is between so-called corporatist and “free market” ideology.

As the men walk outside the restaurant and go off to commit the robbery in that iconic slow-motion scene, we hear the song “Little Green Bag,” by George Baker Selection. The song is about the wish to acquire American dollars, not weed! (“Lookin’ back on the track for a little greenback,” etc. One is “Lookin’ for some happiness” of the kind that money is believed to give people.) So, properly understood, this song is a perfect soundtrack to a movie about an attempt to acquire diamonds.

The thieves would steal diamonds to exchange them for greenbacks, another exchange value. Commodities as exchange values are what capitalism is all about: one produces commodities for profit and accumulation, not to provide use-values for people, this latter goal being what we socialists want.

And just so we’re clear, the jewelry stores that acquire and sell diamonds aren’t exactly innocent, either; nor are the police who protect the interests of the owners of those stores. All too often, diamonds are mined by African slaves, those “damn niggers” the thieves keep denigrating.

We see the preparations for the robbery. We see its aftermath: but we never see the robbery itself. Capitalism, in its regulated or deregulated forms, similarly conceals such things as theft of wages (e.g., tipping, or lack of tipping, to allow bosses to overwork and underpay workers in the service industry), imperialist plunder of resources in the Third World (e.g., those diamonds in Africa), and concentration of wealth upwards to the 1%.

Mr. Brown dies with blood in his eyes from a gunshot (a similar fate happens to Clarence Worley, who dies with blood in his eyes, in the original script for True Romance [p. 128], Tarantino having identified with Clarence [p. x]). At the end of the film, Joe says Mr. Blue is “dead as Dillinger,” a role played by a young Tierney in 1945.

Mr. Orange is dying from a gunshot in the belly. Mr. White tries to comfort him as he drives him to the rendezvous, a warehouse Joe owns. White lays Orange on the floor in the warehouse; Orange is bleeding profusely, but White doesn’t even attempt to clean or dress the wound by making an improvised bandage out of, say, his shirt. Granted, we may not expect a thief to know how to make a proper bandage, but Mr. White could at least try to make one!

Instead, White says he can’t do anything for Orange, but as soon as Joe appears, White promises he’ll urge their boss to get a doctor for Orange. Since these characters represent neoliberal capitalism in my allegory, their pitifully inadequate response to Orange’s dying can be seen to represent the utter failure that is the American healthcare system, the only non-universal healthcare system in the First World.

Pink storms into the warehouse, already convinced that someone has set them up by informing the police of the planned heist. The ensuing inability of the thieves to trust each other is symbolic of the alienation that capitalism causes: instead of trying to help each other (the “solidarity” that, ironically, Pink pleads for, but which neoliberal politics will always preclude), everyone is fighting.

When we see police in their uniforms enforcing the law, we see a quasi-fascistic authoritarianism imposing its will on us. In the case of the thieves, however, we see a similar, if not even greater, uniformity and rigid following of rules: the six men wear identical black suits, with white shirts, thin black neckties, and black sunglasses–in effect, a uniform; furthermore, they must refer to each other only by their colour names. Not only must they never reveal their real names, the six mutual strangers must never reveal any personal information about themselves.

These personifications of libertarianism and neoliberalism, ironically, are more rigid and oppressive with rules that most of us are, even cops; they’re also more mutually alienated from not being allowed to get to know each other. Bosses Joe and Eddie are free to wear whatever they want, to be addressed by their real names, and to discuss whatever they want, but then again…they’re the bosses, not the grunts doing the difficult work and heavy lifting.

Pink and White discuss the violent excesses of Mr. Blonde, who we learn is a trigger-happy psychopath who has shot and killed a number of innocent bystanders at the jewelry store, his reason being that the alarm was set off by one of them. When Pink is contemplating which of the men could have tipped off the police, he’s sure that Blonde can’t possibly be the rat, since he’s “too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops” (an odd observation to make, given how trigger-happy way too many cops are). Furthermore, it’s telling how Pink, personifying an extreme version of libertarian capitalism in my allegory, considers a psychopath to be on the level.

Indeed, Pink outdoes the other thieves in their callous attitude toward dying Orange by adamantly refusing to help White (the only thief who halfway cares about Orange) take him to a hospital, all because White went “against the rules” by telling Orange his real name (Larry) and where he is from.

As we’re drawn into the world of these characters, from Orange’s injury to Pink’s fears of a set-up, then to the introductions to the backgrounds of White, Blonde, and Orange, and finally to Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) pleading for his life when Blonde–having slashed his face and cut off his ear–prepares to burn him alive, we find ourselves actually sympathizing with these men.

As with the temptation to sympathize with D-FENS (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to sympathize too much with these thieves and murderers, as charming as they may be in their idiosyncrasies and their wit. For that’s the thing about the whole resurgence of the right ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: there’s a charismatic appeal to notions of ‘individual liberty,’ something that actually translates to licence, which in turn is used for selfish ends.

Since I allegorize Reservoir Dogs as a conflict between the regulated (cops) and deregulated (thieves) versions of capitalism, I find the film cleverly lures us into caring for these criminals and cops, these symbols of oppression in the world (as does Falling Down with D-FENS). Not that it’s these films’ intention to do so, of course; I imagine the writers and directors are trying to do a kind of psychological experiment on the audience, to see where our loyalties truly lie.

This leads to a discussion of the major themes of this film: loyalty and betrayal. White has been trying to show loyalty to Orange by insisting that Eddie call a doctor to help Orange, all the time not knowing that Orange, an undercover cop, has betrayed them all.

Joe and Eddie are touched by Mr. Blonde’s loyalty when he, “caught in a warehouse full of hot items,” never betrayed Joe and Eddie, “no matter what [the cops] dangled in front of him.” Again, psychopathic Blonde, or “Toothpick Vic,” is deemed “a good fella” by his capitalist mafia bosses.

If, Dear Reader, you think my allegorizing of the conflict between the cops and thieves, as representing the contradictions of capitalism, is just me imposing a Marxist agenda on the film, consider the thieves’ extensive use of language related to capitalism: job, “do some real work,” business, boss, professionals, etc. As with The Godfather, I equate the mafia with capitalists; that the police, in protecting bourgeois private property, protect the capitalist class, should be too obvious to need elaborating on.

Nostalgia not only for 60s and 70s music, movies, and TV, but also for comic books that originated in the 1960s (The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer), represents a wish to escape the ugly realities of today, to go back to a time before neoliberalism took root.

Mr. Orange, or Freddy Newendyke, meets with Holdaway, the only black person in the whole movie, to discuss the plan to slip Freddy in with the thieves and set them up. Holdaway is wearing a Maoist cap and a red Che Guevara shirt: I’m not about to say that he represents communism, as tempting as that would be.

He’s a left-leaning liberal dressed that way to look edgy, as far as I’m concerned. His involvement with the police set-up is not even symbolically like a socialist revolution; in helping the police, Holdaway is on the side of those I allegorize as representing the regulated version of capitalism. Holdaway represents reform, not revolution. Lots of moderate leftists (e.g., social democrats) work within the system to curb its excesses without making the fundamental changes needed, all while posing as radicals.

While Holdaway is posing as a radical in those clothes, so is Freddy posing in front of Joe and Eddie, pretending to be a thief with an amusing anecdote about selling a bag of marijuana and almost being caught with it by police in the men’s room. This being of one political persuasion, while acting as if being of another, represents how slippery all reactionary politics are. In order to preserve the class structure of society, the liberal will on one occasion pose as a radical progressive (Holdaway), and on another occasion pose as a libertarian (Freddy as Mr. Orange). Betrayers by definition pretend to be loyal.

In this reactionary world, people other than white males tend to be marginalized, as we see in a movie with an almost all white male cast. The only two women we see, in exceedingly brief roles, are in cars–one stolen by Pink, the other by White and Orange–we don’t even really see the women’s faces (in a deleted scene, a woman named Jodie works with Freddy and Holdaway–pages 80-82 in the script).

The police in “the commode story” prove to be every bit as crude and offensive in their language as the thieves (i.e., the cop who mentions the “sexy Oriental bitch”; this same cop threatens to shoot her boyfriend “in the face”). In my allegory, regulated capitalism (the police) isn’t much kinder than the deregulated variety (the thieves).

Now, the blurry distinction that I see between regulated and deregulated capitalism is seen as much more sharply distinct from the point of view of the people in these opposed pairings. Hence, as Orange watches, with a pained expression, White shooting the cops in the car pursuing them, Orange feels as though he is betraying those cops because he can’t blow his cover and shoot White. Blonde’s torturing of Nash, however, pushes Orange over the line. He must show at least one instance of loyalty to the cops, and so he shoots Blonde.

When Eddie, Pink, and White return to the warehouse at the end of the movie, Orange has to fake loyalty by making up an excuse for killing Blonde by claiming he was going to kill them all and steal the diamonds. Eddie, knowing Blonde’s tested and true loyalty to him and his father, knows Orange must be lying, and therefore Orange is the one who has actually betrayed the thieves.

Here we see the conflict and contradiction between loyalty and betrayal, all coming to a head. White, feeling responsible for Orange’s having been shot, can’t accept the idea that he is the traitor. With Joe now among them and pointing a gun at Orange, the ensuing Mexican standoff of White pointing a gun at Joe and Eddie pointing a gun at White, underscores this extreme contradiction of loyalty and disloyalty.

White wants to stay loyal to Joe (“Goddamn you, Joe. Don’t make me do this.”), but not at Orange’s expense; this tension goes double for Eddie and his loyalty to his father over his friendship with Mr. White (“Larry, it’s been a long time, a lot of jobs. We’ve been through a lot of shit. You respect my father and I respect you, but I will put bullets in your heart if you don’t put that fucking gun down now.”).

After all three shoot each other (Joe having shot Orange), Orange must admit to his hitherto protector, now-wounded Larry, that he’s really Freddy…a cop. The betrayer must admit his guilt to the man who is about to stop being loyal to him.

The movie ends with a novelty song by Nilsson called “Coconut.” The lines, “Doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take…to relieve this belly ache?” remind us, as a form of black comedy, of Mr. Orange’s bullet in the gut. The song’s story is of a “silly woman” who mixes lime in a coconut, drinks it (to treat a stomachache), and feels worse instead of better; then in the middle of the night she calls an exasperated, reluctant doctor for help, getting him out of bed. He prescribes the very lime in the coconut drink to treat the stomachache that it causes. Thus, the song reminds us of how Orange never gets the medical help he needs…just as how so many poor Americans never get it.

Consider the following: the intermixing of police with criminals (Freddy’s undercover work); the police’s knee-jerk shooting of people (Freddy’s immediate shooting of the woman who’s shot him; the cops shooting Larry immediately after he’s shot Freddy), showing that the homicidal cops are in principle no better than the criminals they’re chasing; the cops’ use of crude, offensive language (Holdaway referring to “that invisible bitch“); and finally, all this struggle over diamonds (mined either by African slaves, or in all likelihood at least, by an exploited, overworked, and underpaid Third World proletariat; that is, the full fruit of their labour has been stolen from them).

The ‘legitimate’ capitalists that the cops work for, therefore, are no less thieves than Joe’s criminal gang. The cops fight one group of thieves to protect another group of thieves. All these considerations show how blurred the distinction really is between, essentially, two capitalist mafia organizations–those who obey and enforce bourgeois laws, and those who disobey them. Still, people imagine there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals: believers, respectively, in the deregulated and regulated versions of capitalism.

The obeyers (cops and their capitalists) and disobeyers (Joe’s men) in this film thus can easily be compared, respectively, to the kind of left-leaning’ Keynesian capitalist who regulates the economy to curb the excesses that an unbridled market results in, and that very right-wing, unregulated “free market” that leads to the chaos, violence, alienation, suffering, and death that has resulted after this latter form of capitalism really came into its own–right around the time of Reservoir Dogs‘s release in January, 1992.

Clowns to the “left” of us, jokers to the right: here we are, stuck in the middle with them.

Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, Faber and Faber, London, 1996

On Ideological Theory vs. Practice

There’s this irritating refrain we leftists hear from time to time, coming from those on the right side of the aisle, so to speak. Whenever critiques of capitalism are made, a response often heard from the right-wing libertarian crowd is that what is being criticized isn’t ‘real capitalism.’ Instead, the problems of the world (and of the US in particular) are being caused by ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism.’ Only the ‘free market’ is ‘real capitalism.’

I have already debunked this nonsense in previous posts, on many occasions, so the reader can go to those if he or she is interested; I don’t wish to go through the annoyance of rehashing those arguments in detail here. The point is, as far as this post is concerned, that there is a huge difference between the ‘free market’ in theory and how it works out in practice.

Of course, the right-winger will retort by saying, ‘Well, what about communism and socialism, you hypocrite? Those ideas all sound good on paper, but when put into practice, one hundred million people were murdered by power-hungry dictators! Everybody knows that socialism has been a failure everywhere it’s been tried!’

Oh, sure. Do you know what else? Iraq really possessed WMDs, Gaddafi really oppressed his people and thus had to be removed, Assad really bombed, killed, and gassed his own people, Russia hacked the 2016 US election, and Iran‘s bellicosity must be stopped through an invasion.

Really, all of the above is true! I know because the mainstream media told me. They know the facts because the CIA, that paragon of truth-telling, has been enlightening the West ever since the days of the Cold War.

But seriously, all sarcasm aside, there are many leftists, many of them anarchists or other left-libertarians, who argue in a manner paralleling right-libertarians and their twaddle about ‘real capitalism,’ that the USSR, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc did not, and still do not, practice ‘real communism,’ and for the same reason as that of the right-libertarians–that these Marxist-Leninist states were just that…states. (I used to think that way, too.)

The right-wing libertarians’ idealized abstraction, which they call “free market” capitalism, involves a belief that, without the corrupting influence of the state, capitalists will have a ‘level playing field’ allowing them to compete fairly. (As I’ve stated above, I have refuted these arguments elsewhere.) The idealized abstraction of the left-wing libertarians (or anarchists), on the other hand, involves a belief that a socialist revolution can be more or less immediately followed by full communism: no class distinctions, no centralized state authority, and money is replaced by a gift economy.

More moderately left-wing libertarians would allow for the temporary existence of a state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would wither away once all signs of capitalist counter-revolution have been thwarted. No classes, no state, no money.

I have tended towards this more moderate version, though I have in recent years grown even more patient than that. The reason for this need of patience is that thwarting counterrevolution is easier said than done: look at the lessons of the twentieth century to see my meaning.

Ultimately, the achievement of the goal, the idealized abstraction of communist society, should be understood as a process, a gradual flowing ever closer towards the ideal, rather than an immediately achieved utopian stasis.

The objection will still be raised: “But the socialists never achieved anything but tyranny and murder!” Now, I must give such readers a history lesson, free of bourgeois propaganda and lies. (Again, a full debunking of the whole communist death count thing is beyond the scope of this article, so click here for that. For the short explanation, here it is: blame Yezhov and famines, not Stalin or Mao. Furthermore, consider the capitalist death count.)

Remember what Russia was like before the revolution of late 1917. The tsar and capitalists were holding the industrial proletariat and peasants down under a feudalist and bourgeois boot. The provisional government following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II improved things a bit, but the people were still stuck in an unpopular war the provisional government didn’t want to get out of. Lenin, however, got them out of it.

The USSR enshrined equal rights for women in their constitution early into its existence, allowing equal rights in education, employment, access to high-ranking positions in the government, and paid maternity leave. All of these rights had been established by the 1930s, light years ahead of such improvements in the capitalist West.

Improvements were made to aim at affordable housing for everyone. Granted, these homes weren’t exactly palatial, but so what? Even the worst quality homes were much better than the epidemic of homelessness seen today in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Dublin, or Toronto, often with people living in tents.

Full employment was provided, as well as free education up to the university level (sure beats student debt, doesn’t it?), and free healthcare. With such benefits as these, it’s easy to see why majorities of not only Russians, but also other east European countries look back at their socialist pasts with smiles, and generally tend to regret the switch back to capitalism.

Benefits similar to these given to citizens of the USSR were also given to people in all the other socialist states, benefits that already, and all by themselves, justify the left-wing revolutions that occurred, even without the withering away of the state that those in the libertarian camp (right and left) so fetishize. But what was so impressive about the USSR doesn’t stop there.

Returning to my point above about what Russia was like before the revolution of over a hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks inherited a largely agrarian society, with mostly peasant farmers living off the land, at the mercy of Mother Nature. If there were bad harvests (which often happened), people would starve.

The implementation of Stalin’s three Five Year Plans in the 1930s changed all that. Rapid industrialization (in large part to prepare for a Nazi invasion), collectivization of agriculture (to end the exploitive rule of the grain-hoarding, wealthy, land-owning kulaks), which included getting the mechanized farming equipment needed to end the famines (which, by the way, makes nonsense of the absurd Holodomor hoax), and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (in defence against the American nuclear threat) all brought Russia from being a backward nation to a modern nuclear superpower in a matter of not much more than two decades! Impressive.

Next, we need to remember who the real heroes of WWII were: not so much the late-arriving US and Britain, as mainstream history books would have you believe, but Stalin’s Red Army. Their commitment to justice is what saved the world from fascism, not the mere inter-imperialist conflict of Hitler and Mussolini on one side, and FDR and Churchill on the other.

Jump ahead almost two decades later, and we have even more impressive Soviet feats: the first man in space, the first woman in space, and even the first dog to orbit the Earth. Also, the Soviets did the first spacewalk. So, what is all this nonsense about socialism ‘not working‘? Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to believe that when people cooperate, work together, and help each other, they will achieve a lot more than all those mutually alienated people competing with each other under capitalism.

This leads me to my next point: right-wing libertarians like to believe that an unregulated market–somehow, by the magical waving of an invisible hand–regulates itself and makes life good; and therefore a state-planned economy lacks the rich growth and innovation of the “free market.” Again, the USSR’s history debunks this claim.

As I said above, the Soviet Union went from being a backward agrarian society to a fully industrialized, nuclear superpower in a matter of a few decades. The Western capitalist countries went through this process much more slowly (i.e., starting from the Industrial Revolution). When the Soviet Union began industrializing around 1928, Western countries like the US and UK were already fully industrialized, so it isn’t fair to compare the USSR’s development to that of the USA. A comparison of the USSR to most of the rest of the non-Anglo-American, non-European world would be more apropos.

Over those few decades between the late 1920s and the early 1950s, the USSR shot ahead of the Third World. Though behind the West economically, the USSR was catching up. The West was feeling threatened, especially with the loss of face the US felt when the Soviets beat them into space. Indeed, the US took a few leaves from the Soviet book and started using more government-funded forms of technological innovation (e.g., NASA, DARPA) and social welfare–though in a capitalist context, of course–to save face and resist the threat of communist revolution in the West.

Economic growth was slowing down in the USSR during the Brezhnev years, but it was still happening. There were fears that, if left unchecked, the USSR would soon overtake the West economically. So by the 1980s, the Carter/Reagan administrations’ strategy was, through the arms race, the Soviet-Afghan War, etc., to drain the Soviet economy.

It worked. The USSR was forced into focusing its budget on the military when they’d have much preferred to continue building socialism. The USSR didn’t “collapse” in late 1991; it was dissolved, thanks to schemers inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Here’s the thing: if socialism ‘doesn’t work,’ why did the West (and why does it, vis-à-vis Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK, continue to) put so much effort into draining the socialist states of their lifeblood through economic sanctions, sabotage, etc.? Why not just be a little patient and let these ‘failed’ economic systems self-destruct of their own accord, over a presumably short time?

Despite the crippling sanctions and economic embargoes, the DPRK and Cuba are, within reason, still surviving…and that’s all the way from the wholesale destruction wrought by US imperialism during the Korean War, and from such things as the over six hundred attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, to the present. If the “free market” is so superior to state planning, how did China go from being a Third World country to the second largest economy in the world in a mere four decades?

So we see here that, even though the ideal of communist society–a classless, stateless society without money–was never attained, the progress made towards that ideal in the building of socialism is proof enough that it’s worth striving for. The practice of developing the socialist mode of production, and the benefits obtained, justify the effort even if the theoretical end wasn’t attained.

As for the failures and difficulties that inevitably were a part of this process, many, if not most, of these problems can be blamed on imperialism. The capitalist class has been ruthless in its attempts to thwart the development of socialism, right from the Paris Commune up to the present day. Such things as the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, properly understood as an invasion by several capitalist countries to help the Russian bourgeoisie restore their rule, put pressures on Lenin’s government that forced the Bolsheviks to become authoritarian.

Similar pressures were exerted on Maoist China, the Eastern Bloc, and the other socialist states, necessitating authoritarian rule, the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. And who was–and still is–doing the pressuring? All those forces that regard the ‘freedom’ of capitalism as their ideal. If, according to right-libertarian thinking, the US isn’t–and has scarcely, if ever been–‘truly capitalist,’ then why were they so adamant about stopping the spread of communism during the Cold War?

Let’s now look at how the abstract ideal of the “free market,” though never perfectly attained, of course (because it never can be–even some right-wingers admit this!), has nonetheless been approached, step by step, in the process including tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, deregulation, and cuts to social programs and welfare.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused many at the time to believe that Keynesian economics–a form of capitalism with intensive government interventions whenever there were economic crises–had run its course. Economists like Milton Friedman argued for minimal state involvement in the economy, as had Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, etc. Pinochet‘s government, which in 1973 forced “free market” capitalism on Chile, by the way, was portrayed in right-wing media as having brought about prosperity for the country, when in fact only the ruling class was doing well.

This kind of ‘prosperity’ encouraged the market fundamentalists to apply their dogmas to Western countries, in which the ruling classes were growing weary of paying high taxes and having regulations limit their profits. The stage was set for Reagan, Thatcher, et al, who busted unions and cut taxes for the rich. The process of gradually moving towards a “free market” had begun.

Reagan, of course, claimed ‘government is the problem,’ though even more obviously he did not shrink it. He deregulated and cut the rich’s taxes, to be sure, but his increase of defence spending only bloated the US government. This bloating, all the same, doesn’t disprove the existence of capitalism in the US, for this was the bloating of the bourgeois state. Note that in capitalism, there is deregulating and re-regulating, depending on the convenience of the capitalist. (And incidentally, in the US, there is private property; in the US, businesses produce commodities for profit; ergo, the US is a capitalist country…even if it isn’t the kind of capitalism the right-libertarians prefer.)

Right-wing libertarians have this absurd notion that the state per se is socialist, when in fact the state has been used by people of all political persuasions to further their agendas: fascists, “free market” capitalists (yes, them too!), social democrats, conservatives, liberals, and actual socialists.

Americans have been so indoctrinated by bourgeois propaganda that they think that all of the Orwellian things we’ve seen plaguing the US (the media as propaganda arm of the government, the state helping the rich get richer and leaving the poor to get poorer, the endless wars, the militarized police, surveillance, etc.) is the result of “communists” infiltrating the US. Oh, would that it were true!

What right-wing libertarians don’t understand is that capitalism is not the utopia they think it is. It’s an inherently contradictory, unstable economic system, given to financial crises about every ten years (indeed, we’re due for another one any time now, I contemplate with a due sense of exhaustion and dread).

Though the USSR’s economy stagnated during the Brezhnev years, their economy had soldiered on through the 1930s, just as the capitalist world was mired in the Great Depression. Similarly, as we in the West reeled for years after the 2008 global financial crisis, only ever so slowly crawling out of it, China–with its state-planned economy–bounced back and has continued to grow into the powerhouse it is today.

In sum: the ideological theory of socialism was meant to lead to a communist society that never materialized; still, in practice, the building of socialism in the twentieth century had successes that, outside imperialist interference, outweighed its problems, and therefore, socialism in practice was justified.

As for the ideological theory of the “free market,” that stateless capitalist utopia has never been, and will never be; while in practice, what is properly called neoliberalism has very much happened, and the appalling income inequality, imperialist wars, and all the other attendant miseries have shown how bankrupt that right-wing ideology is.

So, the left’s solution to current problems is, “More socialism!”, which, if carried far enough, might one day actually lead to the withering away of the state. Their ‘solution,’ on the other hand, is, “More free market!”, which will, if carried far enough, lead to the withering away of our Earth as we know it.

I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the free marketeers that their invisible hand isn’t seen because it isn’t there.

Analysis of ‘Office Space’

Office Space is a 1999 comedy film written and directed by Mike Judge (who also plays a small role as a restaurant manager). It stars Ron Livingston, Gary Cole, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, and Diedrich Bader. It’s based on cartoon shorts named “Milton” that Judge created for Saturday Night Live back in the mid-1990s.

Though a box office disappointment, Office Space has since become a cult film.

Here are some quotes:

“Mother…shitter…Son of an…ass. I just…” –Samir (Naidu), stuck in traffic

“Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. *JUST* a moment.” –Nina (repeated line)

“Hello, Peter. What’s happenin’?” –Bill Lumbergh (Cole)

“…So, if you could do that, that would be great…” –Lumbergh

***********

Female Temp: Michael…Bolton?

Michael Bolton: Yeah, that’s me.

Female Temp: Wow! Is that your real name?

Michael Bolton: Yeah.

Female Temp: So are you related to that singer guy?

Michael Bolton: No. It’s just a coincidence.

Female Temp[visibly disappointed] Oh.

Samir Nagheenanajar: No-one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It..it’s not that hard. Na-ghee-na-na-jar…Nagheenanajar.

Michael Bolton: Well, at least your name isn’t Michael Bolton.

Samir Nagheenanajar: You know, there is nothing wrong with that name.

Michael Bolton: No, there was nothing wrong with it, until I was about 12 years old and that no talent ass-clown became famous and started winning Grammys.

Samir Nagheenanajar: Why don’t you just go by Mike instead of Michael?

Michael Bolton: No way, why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.

***********

Peter Gibbons: What would you do if you had a million dollars?

Lawrence (in all seriousness): I’ll tell you what I’d do, man: two chicks at the same time, man.

Peter Gibbons[laughs] That’s it? If you had a million dollars, you’d do two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Damn straight. I always wanted to do that, man. And I think if I were a millionaire I could hook that up, too, ’cause chicks dig dudes with money.

Peter Gibbons: Well, not all chicks.

Lawrence: Well, the kind of chicks that’d double up on a dude like me do.

Peter Gibbons: Good point.

Lawrence: Well, what about you, now? What would you do?

Peter Gibbons: Besides two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Well, yeah.

Peter Gibbons: Nothing.

Lawrence: Nothing, huh?

Peter Gibbons: I would relax, I would sit on my ass all day, I would do nothing.

Lawrence: Well you don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin, he’s broke, don’t do shit.

***********

“Hello Peter, what’s happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmkay?…oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we need to sorta play catch up. Thanks.” –Lumbergh

“So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” –Peter

***********

“What would ya say…ya do here?” –Bob Slydell

“Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?” –Tom Smykowski

***********

“I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be.” –Peter

“You see, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” –Peter

***********

Bill Lumbergh: Milt, we’re gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B. We have some new people coming in, and we need all the space we can get. So if you could just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, OK?

Milton Waddams (Root): Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler…

***********

Peter Gibbons: It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing. It’s about all of us. I don’t know what happened to me at that hypnotherapist and, I don’t know, maybe it was just shock and it’s wearing off now, but when I saw that fat man keel over and die – Michael, we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.

Michael Bolton: I told those fudge-packers I liked Michael Bolton’s music.

Peter Gibbons: Oh. That is not right, Michael.

************

[drunk singing] Back up in your ass with the resurrection.” –Samir

Tagline: Work sucks.

That this film is a searing indictment of capitalism is so obvious, it hardly needs mentioning. There are, however, certain nuances that deserve mention, in particular, how liberalism acts as an illusory cushion of capitalism, which we see, for example, in the ‘soft’ bossing around of the managers, among other such examples.

The agonizingly slow commute to work in the morning, with the frustration felt by Peter and Samir is symbolic on so many different levels. No progress is made getting closer to their job at Initech, except in movements so slight that an old man using a walking frame gets further ahead than the cars.

This inability to move forward symbolizes how all liberal attempts to reform capitalism do nothing substantive to help the working class. Peter tries making quick lane changes to take advantage of openings in the road, only to find himself stuck in a newly stagnant line, the one he’s left now moving. Samir just curses ungrammatically (see first quote).

The image of a bunch of people in their cars, close to but cut off from each other, is a powerful symbol of the alienation of workers from each other, of social alienation in general. Michael Bolton (Herman) attempts an escape from this misery through a narcissistic identification with the rappers he’s listening to in his car (part of a desperate attempt to forget having such an ill-starred name). The absurd phoniness of this is exposed when he, a white man, turns the music down, stops rapping along, and fearfully locks his car door…because a young black man is approaching. Liberal sympathy for blacks is so hypocritical.

The boss, Bill Lumbergh, arrives at Initech in his Porsche, then looks back at it in admiration as it sits in his designated parking space. (One is reminded of memes like this.) Peter has to park further away from the building, and so he is seen plodding toward it, just like Shakespeare‘s “schoolboy…creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.”

The theme of worker alienation is further developed in the layout of the Initech office, with its maze of cubicles separating everyone like the walls of jail cells. Peter is nagged by Lumbergh, Dom Portwood (played by Joe Bays), and another manager on the phone for having forgotten to put a new cover sheet on their TPS reports, a new policy for which he seems not to have received the memo. What should be noted about this nagging is how ‘gentle’ it is: nobody in management openly expresses anger with Peter; a conservative boss would be more inclined to growl at him for the mistake, whereas we have a more liberal representation of capitalism here, with its ‘have a nice day’ smiley face. It’s no less irritating to have to put up with, though.

Other annoyances for him include a woman repeating “Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment,” in the exact same intonation every time, like an automaton. Furthermore, Milton won’t be cooperative and turn his radio down as a favour to Peter. The proletariat is a mutually-alienated and alienating set of human machines.

This worker alienation is intensified when Peter’s exasperation is mocked by a temp saying he has “a case of the Mondays.” This unsympathetic attitude toward the first and worst day of the workweek and its drudgery is repeated by an irritatingly cheerful waiter at a restaurant that Peter, Michael, and Samir escape to. Peter’s next-door neighbour Lawrence understands that “You’d get your ass kicked” saying someone has “a case of the Mondays.”

The point is that in showing no empathy for one’s fellow workers and their frustrations starting yet another oppressive workweek, a worker talking about “a case of the Mondays” is, however indirectly, being sycophantic to his or her boss, an attitude of class collaboration, which actually is an attitude promoted by fascists.

If the workweek didn’t involve long hours (i.e., over eight hours a day on average, as is typically the case in East Asian countries like Taiwan, where I live, where people work some of the longest hours in a year, with stagnant wages) and low pay, “the Mondays” wouldn’t be so bad.

This kind of problem is but a small taste of what we socialists might call ‘the tyranny of work.’ Right-wingers scoff at such a concept, straw-manning our argument by claiming that we dream of a utopia in which we never have to work, and everything we want is handed to us on a silver platter. THIS IS NONSENSE. We socialists are so in favour of work that we aim for one hundred percent employment; we just want better working conditions, better pay, and reasonable hours.

It’s the right-wingers who want to keep a reserve army of the unemployed, “to scare the shit out of the middle class” (as George Carlin once said) and make them work harder out of fear of being fired. Hence, worker sycophancy to bosses, class collaboration, alienation between workers, the tyranny of work, and “a case of the Mondays.”

Adding to the tension at Initech is the introduction of “the Bobs,” Slydell (played by John C. McGinley) and Porter (played by Paul Willson), who are “efficiency experts” pressuring each member of the staff to justify his or her employment. Anyone whose job is suspected of being in any way redundant risks being fired.

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) pressures capitalists to maximize profit; so when capitalists feel the pressure to cut costs, it’s the workers who feel the cut of the knife first. All the boss needs is a reason to fire you: the Bobs provide that reason.

Of course, when Lumbergh introduces Bob Slydell to the Initech staff, he does so with his usual phoney attempts at seeming congenial, saying the workers must ask, “Is this good for the company?” (Translation: are their jobs worth saving?)

Even the most sycophantic employees can smell the danger to their jobs; so when Lumbergh reminds them that “next Friday is Hawaiian Shirt Day,” as if this would raise worker morale by even as much as a millimetre, the faces of the entire staff present keep their frozen frowns. Even Lumbergh has an awkward expression, knowing his attempt to cheer them up has failed miserably.

This attempt by management to put a happy face on such a blatantly cutthroat act is typical of the liberal approach to capitalism; at least conservatives are honest (more or less) about wanting to screw workers over.

We see something similar going on in Chotchkie’s, the restaurant that Peter, Michael, and Samir go to, where Joanna (Aniston), a waitress Peter likes, is being nagged by her manager, Stan (Judge), about not wearing enough flair. He doesn’t directly order her to wear more; he asks if she wants to express herself, and says that the management encourages such ‘self-expression’ by wearing more flair.

Again, this is liberalism concealing capitalist dominance over workers by pretending to be progressive. “I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to express yourself,” Stan says to Joanna. (Translation: I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to dress flashier to draw more customers in so we can make a larger profit.)

That irritatingly cheerful waiter, Brian (played by Todd Duffey), is favoured by Stan because of his “thirty seven pieces of flair” and his “terrific smile.” Again, this is the liberal way of being a capitalist: put on an outer façade of friendliness and goodwill, but inside, be a total prick.

Each working day gets worse and worse for poor Peter until Friday, when his worst fears are realized: Lumbergh wants him to work on Saturday. Worse yet, on Sunday, too! Lumbergh’s stretching of his back when he asks Peter to work on Sunday suggests it’s actually difficult for him to ask…well, almost difficult.

That night, Peter goes to a hypnotherapist. He’s at the lowest of the low, near despair. The hypnotherapist is a big, heavy fellow who looks far from physically healthy. In the middle of getting Peter into a deep state of trance, the obese man has a heart attack, falls to the floor, and dies right there.

If you’ve read my posts on how I interpret the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use it to represent the dialectical relationship between opposites, which meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and the coiled middle of its body represents all the intermediate areas between these opposite extremes on a circular continuum. Peter, having hit miserable rock bottom (the bitten tail), wakes up from his trance in a blissful state (the biting head). All of his anxieties have magically disappeared.

The next morning, he ignores his alarm clock and answering machine messages from Lumbergh, who asks why he hasn’t shown up for work on Saturday morning. With a blithe smile on his face, he couldn’t care less.

Instead of going to work, Peter goes up to Joanna at Chotchkies’s and asks her if she’d like to join him for lunch in another restaurant. They bond over their shared liking of Kung Fu and disliking of their bosses.

Meanwhile, the Bobs plan to fire Tom Smykowski (played by Richard Riehle), Samir, and Michael. This is even after the last of these three has degraded himself to pretending to like the music of his namesake, a pop singer Slydell likes so much that he “celebrate[s] the guy’s entire catalogue.” (This is brilliant character acting by McGinley, by the way: imagine the method-acting work he had to do to dumb his musical tastes down that much!).

And as for poor Milton Waddams, who keeps having his desk moved by Lumbergh, he was already laid off a while back, but neither did anyone inform him nor did he stop receiving pay-checks, due to a glitch in accounting. The Bobs have fixed the glitch, and nothing else is being done. Lumbergh will keep him on as his own personal slave.

This leads to a discussion of workplace bullying in Initech. We saw a form of this bullying with the managers on the one side, and Peter and Joanna on the other. With Lumbergh and Milton, though, workplace bullying is taken to a whole new level. Minor forms of this bullying include his being the only staff member not to get a piece of Lumbergh’s birthday cake, and Lumbergh wresting Milton’s fetishized Swingline stapler away from him.

(As for that birthday party, note how the moping staff mumbles the Happy Birthday song, except for such grinning boot-lickers as Nina; while Lumbergh looks on with a smug smirk as if to say, ‘N’yeah, if you could just go ahead and keep on kissing my ass, that would be great, m’kay? You wouldn’t want your job security to be jeopardized in any way, would you?’)

To add insult to injury, cake-deprived Milton not only hasn’t received his pay-check, he is also asked by Lumbergh to move his desk again…into the basement! In the basement, he’s asked by Lumbergh to get a can of pesticide and spray the cockroaches; though this of course isn’t part of his job description, since Milton’s become Initech’s unpaid slave, why not?

This carrying-on, to a comical extreme, of the bullying of Milton is symbolic of all that a wage slave has to suffer in any job in capitalist society, be it a job like that in Initech or in a sweatshop in the Third World. Milton and Peter have become the most class-conscious of all the employees in Initech, and while Peter’s “religious experience” is wearing off (that is, he has shifted from that blissful place at the ouroboros’s biting head down to the upper middle of its coiled body, enlightened but dissatisfied), he is still motivated to stick it to the Man, as he was in his ignoring of Lumbergh and his outrageous bluntness during his interview with the Bobs.

Peter, Michael, and Samir decide to fight back at management by stealing fractions of cents from the company’s accounts and putting the stolen money into an account of their own. A miscalculation–a wrongly-placed decimal point, it seems–means they take out much more than the unnoticeable amount they’ve intended.

This appropriating of money is a step in the right (left, rather) direction towards the road to revolution, but it isn’t enough. The exploitive structure of capitalism, here symbolized by the Initech building, must be brought down. Peter, Michael, and Samir are too chicken to go through with this (though their evisceration of a hated photocopier is a delight to watch).

Here’s where Milton comes in…sort of.

We never take seriously the milquetoast’s threats to burn the Initech building down…until it finally does burn down, we like to think, at his hands. Up to this point, Peter has been moving further clockwise along the length of the ouroboros, that is, he’s been growing less and less happy, and approaching the bitten tail of despair when he decides to take full responsibility for having stolen the money. He slips a check for the full amount of money taken, along with a written confession, in an envelope under the door of Lumbergh’s office.

We see the cyclical return of his deep sadness when he apologizes to Joanna for having judged her for sleeping with (he mistakenly thinks, Bill) Lumbergh. He asks why he can’t just be happy, though he’d be happy with her.

Luckily for him, the burning down of the Initech building means the destruction of the evidence of his theft of the money; so Peter has again shifted past the serpent’s bitten tail of despair and returned to the biting head of happiness. Milton waddles away with a…guilty?…look on his face and the check in his pocket.

Peter’s, Michael’s, Samir’s, and Milton’s problems with Initech are over, but not their problems with wage slavery and capitalism in general. Michael and Samir get jobs in Intertrode, which by its name alone sounds as bad as Initech, if not worse. Peter would rather work with Lawrence as a menial labourer, a not-so-glamourous job with lower pay, but at least Peter’s out in the sun.

One cannot end capitalism only locally, but rather internationally. The burning down of the Initech building provides only temporary relief. To end worker suffering, the hierarchical structure of Intertrode (aptly called “Penetrode” by Peter), and every other manifestation of private property must be abolished. Even the hierarchy of Peter’s new job with Lawrence must be done away with.

There’s a deleted scene of a foreman telling Peter and Lawrence, in fluent Lumberghese, “Yeah, if you guys could just go ahead and sorta pick up the pace a little bit, that’d be great.” Peter is again slipping down from the biting head of bliss, down the length of the serpent’s body, to a not-so-happy frame of mind. I’m guessing one of the reasons they cut this scene was that liberal Hollywood, apart from allowing Peter’s story to have a straightforwardly happy ending, would have us all think that there are still some decent jobs out there in Capitalistan.

In the final scene, Milton has spent his newly-acquired booty on a much-needed vacation to a resort in Mexico. Relaxing on the beach, he complains to a waiter about having been given the wrong drink, and one with salt. The waiter, exasperated with the petty gripes of the spoiled “gringo,” must apologize, but then leaves Milton without correcting his order.

Annoyed at seeing the Mexican walk away, Milton mumbles, “I won’t be leaving a tip, ’cause I could…I could shut this whole resort down. Sir? I’ll take my traveler’s checks to a competing resort. I could write a letter to your board of tourism and I could have this place condemned. I could put…I could put…strychnine in the guacamole. There was salt on the glass, BIG grains of salt.”

Sorry, Milton: you aren’t the victim this time. There’s a huge difference between the proletariat in the First World and that of the Third World. A labour aristocracy exists, thanks to capitalist imperialism, that divides the workers of the world (i.e., workers in developed countries vs. those in developing countries) and stops us all from uniting in international solidarity. Mexican workers have it much worse than you do, Milton.

Helping only workers in the First World, at the expense of those in the Third World, isn’t legitimate socialism: it’s mere liberalism, not all that much different in principle from the snarky would-be charm of Lumbergh and Stan. We can do a lot better than that; so, to you liberals out there, if you could go ahead and try to help us out with making real progressive change, that would be great, m’kay? Thanks.

Analysis of ‘Barton Fink’

Barton Fink is a 1991 period film produced by Ethan Cohen, directed by Joel Cohen, and written by both of them. It stars John Turturro (in the title role) and John Goodman; it costars John Mahoney, Judy Davis, Steve Buscemi, Michael Lerner, and Tony Shalhoub.

The film is about, essentially, writer’s block, since the Cohen brothers themselves had been going through some writing difficulties when working on Miller’s Crossing. Barton Fink is a New York playwright who fancies himself a writer championing “the common man,” but when he has an opportunity to write a Hollywood screenplay for a movie about a wrestler (the kind of the story “the common man” would have found entertaining at the time), he can barely type a word.

Here are some quotes:

Garland Stanford: The common man will still be here when you get back. Who knows, there may even be one or two of them in Hollywood.

Barton Fink: That’s a rationalization, Garland.

Garland Stanford: Barton, it was a joke.

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“I run this dump, and I don’t know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? ‘Cause I got horse sense goddamit, SHOWMANSHIP! And also I hope Lou told you this, I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. Did you tell him that Lou? And I don’t mean my dick is bigger than yours, it’s not a sexual thing. You’re a writer, you know more about that. Coffee?” –Jack Lipnick (Lerner)

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Charlie Meadows (Goodman): And I could tell you some stories…

Barton Fink: Sure you could and yet many writers do everything in their power to insulate themselves from the common man, from where they live, from where they trade, from where they fight and love and converse and…and…So naturally their work suffers and regresses into empty formalism and…well, I’m spouting off again, but to put it in your language, the theatre becomes as phoney as a three-dollar bill.

Charlie Meadows: Well, I guess that’s a tragedy right there.

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“Honey! Where’s my honey?” –Mayhew

“I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain.” –Fink

“Me, well, I just like makin’ things up.” –Mayhew (Mahoney)

“I’m buildin’ a levy. Gulp by gulp, brick by brick…” Mayhew

“That son of a bitch! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine writer.” –Fink, of Mayhew

“Never make Lipnick like you!” –Ben Geisler (Shalhoub)

“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind…There’s no roadmap for that territory…And exploring it can be painful.” –Fink

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Detective Mastrionotti: Fink. That’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?

Barton Fink: Yeah.

Detective Mastrionotti: Yeah, I didn’t think this dump was restricted.

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[at the USO club] “I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator! [points to his head] This is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!” –Fink

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Detective Deutsch: You two have some sick sex thing?

Barton Fink: Sex?! He’s a man! We wrestled!

Detective Mastrionotti: You’re a sick fuck, Fink.

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“Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!” –Meadows

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Barton Fink: But Charlie–why me? Why–?

Charlie Meadows: Because YOU DON’T LISTEN!

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[last lines]

Beauty: It’s a beautiful day.

Barton Fink: Huh?

Beauty: I said it’s a beautiful day.

Barton Fink: Yes. It is.

Beauty: What’s in the box?

Barton Fink: I don’t know.

Beauty: Isn’t it yours?

Barton Fink: I don’t know. You’re very beautiful. Are you in pictures?

Beauty: Don’t be silly.

Fink has just written Bare Ruined Choirs, a play whose title is inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73: “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Choirs aren’t the singers, but rather the places where choirs sing in churches (or in the case of the sonnet, where the birds sang, on leafless tree branches). The point is that the lack of singers, in the context of the movie, represents the lack of inspiration, no poetic singing coming from blocked Fink.

Fink is loosely based on Clifford Odets, a socialist playwright who had been a member of the Communist Party back in the mid-1930s, and who had to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s. The physical and superficial similarities between Fink and Odets are obvious; but beyond their ‘championing of the common man,’ they haven’t much more in common. Odets was a leftist; Fink is a liberal.

Odets was actively involved in socialism; Fink merely talks of wanting to write about “the average working stiff.” It quickly becomes apparent that he’s not all that interested in the working man. His play is the toast of Broadway, enjoyed by a largely bourgeois audience as pretentious as he is.

Phoniness is a recurring theme in the movie. Fink affects modesty at the success of his play, claiming it’s “merely adequate.” Hollywood producer Lipnick (Lerner) claims “the writer is king” in Capitol Pictures, when it turns out the writer’s contract makes him into a virtual slave. Charlie Meadows seems a friendly, unassuming insurance salesman selling “peace of mind”; we later learn he’s “Madman Mundt,” a serial killer (or is he even that?…see below). W. P. Mayhew, loosely based on William Faulkner, supposedly “the finest novelist of our time,” is really a “souse” whose “secretary,” Audrey Taylor (Davis) has written much, if not most, of his great work, scripts and novels alike.

Fink is offered a job to write scripts for Hollywood, an opportunity he snobbishly balks at. When his agent, Garland Stanford, says he might see some of “the common man” in Hollywood, Fink dismisses this as a rationalization, when Garland really meant it as a joke, showing how little he and Fink really care about working people.

Having arrived in Hollywood, Fink is surrounded by examples of the common man. In his seedy, rundown hotel, there’s the bellboy Chet (Buscemi) and his neighbour Charlie. There are the sailors at the USO hall (where buffoonish Fink does the nerd-dance of the century). Fink has no interest in these people’s lives whatsoever. He should be up to his armpits in inspiration; but he can’t get anything, outside of literary inspiration, for this wrestling movie script he has to write. So much for championing the common man.

The movie is more interested in the small and insignificant than Fink is: the hotel bell rings out in a decrescendo until Chet puts his finger on it, just before the fade to absolute silence. We see closeups of a sinkhole, a drain, typewriters, and the bell of a jazzman’s horn. When Charlie frees Fink from the metal foot rails of the bed-frame a cop has handcuffed him to, a small steel ball rolls from one of the broken rails and along the floor, up close to the camera, a small thing growing into a big thing before our eyes.

Fink represents liberalism, but Jack Lipnick represents the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog capitalist. Now, bear in mind how congenial he appears to Fink at first. This represents the superficial charm of the narcissistic capitalist, who pretends to be friendly and generous while secretly scheming and planning to lure the employee into wage slavery, here represented by Fink’s ball-and-chain contract with Capitol Pictures.

Lipnick is a fast-talking loudmouth, a red flag already warning us of his predatory capitalist nature: “I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town. Did you tell him that, Lou? And I don’t mean my dick is bigger than yours, it’s not a sexual thing, although you’re the writer, you’d know more about that. Coffee?”

Still, Lipnick pretends to idolize the writer who gives him “that Barton Fink feeling,” even kissing his feet after Lou Breeze (Jon Polito)–who represents Lipnick’s True Self–tells Fink in all frankness that “the contents of [his] head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” Lipnick, in his narcissistic False Self, fires Lou…though in the next scene with Fink in Lipnick’s office (in which the producer rants about how much he hates Fink’s script), Lou is in the room with them, proving how much of an act the firing was, and how phoney Lipnick’s high regard of Fink has always been.

Charlie Meadows is largely friendly, a true representative of the common man whose work in insurance is meant to help people. We later learn from Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch (who, as their surnames imply, respectively represent Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) that Charlie is really Karl Mundt, a pun on Karl Marx.

So this means that Charlie represents communism. His violence (both real and imagined) represents that of revolution and the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. The cops’ labelling of him as a serial killer is something one shouldn’t be too credulous of, given that they represent fascism, and it is by no means proven (but rather assumed to be true) that “Madman Mundt” actually killed all those people, so the cops’ characterization of him can be seen to represent right-wing demonizing of socialism.

Furthermore, the film is set in 1941, the same year the Axis Powers invaded the Soviet Union, an attack paralleled in the movie by the cops’ entering the Hotel Earle to arrest Charlie. Charlie’s shooting of the cops thus represents the Soviet victory over fascism: his saying, “Heil Hitler” before shooting Detective Deutsch is mockingly ironic.

Since Charlie, or Karl, represents communism, and Fink represents liberalism, consider the nature of their ‘buddy-buddy‘ relationship. Sure, they’re friends, but when Charlie “can tell [Fink] some stories,” Fink interrupts him, speaks condescendingly to him, and prates on and on about the contemporary state of American theatre, something from which Charlie “can feel [his] butt gettin’ sore already.” Fink, a typical liberal, rejects all opportunities to learn about the real common man, treating their stories like Wilfred R. Bion‘s rejected beta elements, raw sense impressions that are not allowed into the mind, processed, and made into thought. Fink does no learning from experience.

Instead, he hopes his literary hero, W.P. Mayhew, will help him figure out how to write the wrestling picture, but he only grows increasingly disillusioned with the “souse.” Ironically, it’s only Mayhew’s status as a major man of letters that interests Fink, while his alcoholism, a common symptom of the alienation of the working man, disgusts Fink.

At a picnic with Fink and Audrey, Mayhew drinks, speaks obnoxiously, and even slaps her after finishing a piss by a tree. As indefensible as his behaviour is, this crudity is but a symptom of the sufferings of the oppressed proletariat, for which snobbish Fink has no sympathy.

In his inebriated state, Mayhew wanders off among the trees singing “Old Black Joe,” an old Stephen Foster song about a black American slave. Though a white man, Mayhew has been made a slave of sorts by the contract he has with Capitol Pictures. His wandering off, singing, and drinking represent his attempt to escape his miserable existence, a manic defence against his sadness and inability to write.

Fink pretentiously speaks of writing “from a great inner pain”; he’s posturing as the ‘suffering artistic genius.’ Mayhew’s more honest about what makes him write, and about his pain. He likes “making things up…escape.” And when he can’t write, he finds that, apparently, the bottle “will sometimes help.”

Fink will find himself increasingly wanting to escape, but in a different way: through fantasy. Whenever he’s stuck at his typewriter in his hotel room, not knowing how to begin the story for the wrestling movie, he looks up at a picture on the wall of a beautiful young woman sitting on the beach, watching the water with her hand over her eyes to block the sunshine.

He often stares at the picture, admiring the beauty of the woman and the scene. This is his conception of heaven: those waves washing on the shore are his relief from the fiery hell of Hollywood, with its capitalistic degrading of creativity for profit. The beach picture reminds us of the relief and joy of the Greek soldiers in Anabasis when they behold “the sea! The sea!

There is a dialectical relationship between the hell of Hollywood and the heaven of the City of Angels, the former being within the latter, as is the case of the paradise picture of the girl on the beach in Fink’s room in the hellish Hotel Earle–yin and yang. The aspiring writer who has sold his soul to Hollywood tries to escape to the heaven of fantasy. For Fink, the flames of hell are quenched by the water on the shore; for Mayhew, they’re quenched–so it would seem–by firewater.

Some have claimed that where Fink is water, Charlie is fire; and so, if the burning Hotel Earle–Charlie’s home–is hell, then Charlie must be the Devil. I find this to be a simplistic interpretation of a much more complex character. Charlie has a raging fire of pain in him, but he has a lot of good, too.

It is assumed that he is a serial killer, that he kills Audrey out of a rage of sexual jealousy because Fink has chosen beautiful her over fat Charlie as his Muse and his lover. I’m sure Charlie has heard them making love, as earlier and elsewhere in the hotel, he’s been able to hear “those [other] two love-birds next door drivin’ [him] nuts,” and thus he feels hurt that his obesity makes him unattractive to anyone.

None of this, however, conclusively proves that he killed her: his jealousy isn’t necessarily strong enough for a motive for murder. If so, why not kill Fink instead? Their homoerotic wrestling suggests Charlie has wanted Fink, so his betrayal with Audrey should make Charlie want to kill him instead. If killing her was meant to get revenge on Fink by hurting him–traumatizing him–why help him dispose of the body afterwards, in an attempt to protect him from the cops? For all we know, Mayhew–in an uncharacteristic moment of sobriety–could have sneaked in the hotel and killed her.

The detectives call “Madman Mundt” a serial killer, which he could very well be: but why should we trust the claims of those two obnoxious, bigoted personifications of fascism? I find it ironically fitting that Charlie, whom I equate with communism, would–in the eyes of the Hollywood liberal that distributes films like this–symbolize Satan.

The one time we see Charlie actually kill people is in the scene in the burning hallway in the hotel. The inexplicability of the fire, especially when combined with the non-urgent reaction of everyone to it, forces one to conclude that it’s a fantasy in Fink’s head. Where the fantasy begins and ends, however, is hard to determine for sure: is only the fire a fantasy, or is Charlie’s shooting of the cops also one? After all, he casually enters his room, one surrounded by flames, instead of fleeing the scene of the crime.

The final scene of Fink with the beauty at the beach can only be fantasy. It is absurdly improbable that a woman in real life, identical to the girl in the picture, would assume the exact same pose, too. So there is much fantasy in this film, fantasy that’s blatantly obvious towards the end, but not necessarily fantasy only at the end. A legitimate question is, how much of the whole film is Fink’s fantasy, and how much of it is real?

Lipnick’s original sucking up to Fink is symbolic of a kind of capitalist con game, as I outlined above; but is it also a hallucinatory projection of Fink’s mammoth ego? There’s Lipnick’s phoney geniality and there’s Fink’s false modesty; but since phoniness is one of the main themes of the movie (symbolized by the peeling wallpaper to reveal the seediness of the hotel behind its thin mask of a decor), phoniness applies not only to the characters, but also to the visuals in general.

Are there real mosquitoes in Fink’s hotel room, or are they figments of his imagination? Are the cuts on his face from mosquito bites, or are they from him having too harshly scratched itches from imagined bites? Recall Geisler telling him that “there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles. Mosquitoes breed in swamps–this is a desert.”

Fink’s ‘inspiration’ to write the wrestling screenplay most definitely comes from a hallucination; he certainly doesn’t get his idea from having observed the common man, whom he’s been constantly ignoring. His hallucination comes from reading the first chapter of Genesis. God’s Creation becomes Fink’s creation: his inflated ego equates him with Yahweh.

This is the essence of Fink’s phoniness, his egotism: he fancies himself a moral guardian of the little man, yet he really imagines himself as, so to speak, homoousios with the Big Man Himself. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Fink, and the Word was Fink.

His inspiration consistently comes from the written word, from literature, not from the blood and sweat of the working man, as he’d have us believe. Bare Ruined Choirs, as noted above, gets its title from a Shakespeare quote. When he opens the Gideon Bible in his hotel room, he fortuitously opens it to the Book of Daniel, chapter two, in which there is mention of Nebuchadnezzar‘s dream of four kingdoms.

The title of one of Mayhew’s novels, incidentally, is Nebuchadnezzar. The king as portrayed in the Bible says, “if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces,…” (Daniel 2:5); the connection between these two facts lends credence to my theory as to who the real…author…of Audrey’s murder could be. Recall in this connection how, earlier, Mayhew is repeatedly screaming, “WHERE’S M’HONEY!!” when she is merely chatting with Fink for the first time; imagine the bloodiness of his rage to think she’s with Fink in his hotel room.

Fink’s script, it is safe to assume, is essentially a rewriting of Bare Ruined Choirs, in which it seems that fishmongers are largely replaced with wrestlers: “We’ll be hearing from that crazy wrestler. And I don’t mean a postcard,” is an ending much too imitative of that of the original, “We’ll hear from that kid. And I don’t mean a postcard.” Lipnick hates his script for being too “fruity” and artsy-fartsy; we should dismiss Fink as a one-hit-wonder.

Finally, we should consider Fink’s mental health, and the cause of his hallucinations. I find the insights of Wilfred R. Bion useful for this purpose.

Above, I mentioned Fink’s rejection of any of the stories of the common man, new ideas that could help him in his writing of the script for the wrestling movie. I referred to those rejected ideas as beta elements, Bion’s term for sensory data from the external world that aren’t taken into the mind and converted (by alpha function) into thoughts (alpha elements) that can then be used in dreams and unconscious waking thoughts.

Bion explains: “The attempt to evade the experience of contact with live objects by destroying alpha-function leaves the personality unable to have a relationship with any aspect of itself that does not resemble an automaton. Only beta-elements are available for whatever activity takes the place of thinking and beta elements are suitable for evacuation–perhaps through the agency of projective identification.” (Bion, page 13)

When large amounts of beta elements aren’t being processed and turned into thoughts that one can learn from (as is obviously what’s happening with Fink), a beta screen is formed from this unprocessed accumulation, a mental wall blocking out learning; and over time, these beta elements–which, though expelled and projected, never really go away–can become bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections from oneself.

Hence, the walls of Fink’s hotel room symbolize his beta screen of rejected outside influence (the resulting isolation of which reminds us of two films that influenced Barton Fink, namely, Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion and The Tenant, from his Apartment Trilogy); so instead of feeling genuine concern about what Charlie is laughing–or weeping–about in the neighbouring room, Fink complains to Chet about the noise.

The burning hotel and the picture Fink has a conversation with are two of his bizarre objects, hallucinations that indicate his growing psychotic break with reality. Bion dealt with many psychotics in his clinical practice; he noted that they didn’t dream or have unconscious waking thoughts (recall sleepless Fink in this connection, or his projected Nebuchadnezzar, who didn’t know his dreams or their meaning), because they wouldn’t convert beta elements into alpha elements. Raw sensory data were never invested with meaning, to become thought. Unprocessed beta elements thus become bizarre objects.

Fink, in his narcissistic sense of superiority to the world, not only won’t link with other people through Knowledge (what Bion called K), but he actually rejects and pushes away Knowledge (-K). Bion explained it thus: “…any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality…is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority.” Fink thus can be seen, to paraphrase Bion slightly, to be “asserting [his] superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is [his] hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed.” (Bion, page 98)

Instead of learning anything, Fink takes the elements around him and “these elements are stripped of their meaning and only the worthless residue is retained.” Recall how Fink complains to Charlie (after interrupting him and not letting him get a word in edgewise) about how theatre that is cut off from the common man “regresses into empty formalism”; Fink is projecting his own writing vices onto other writers.

Fink is surrounded “by bizarre objects that are real only in that they are the residue of thoughts and conceptions that have been stripped of their meaning and ejected.” (Bion, pages 98-99) Fink’s disturbed alpha function won’t convert those beta elements, so his rejection of learning (-K) leads to an accretion of bizarre objects that drive him mad.

His accelerating psychosis is propelled by the traumatic incidents that disappoint or shock him. First, he feels that writing for a ‘lowly’ wrestling movie is beneath such a talent as he is; he can’t write the screenplay because he simply doesn’t want to. Second, his literary hero, his idealized Mayhew, traumatically disappoints him by revealing himself as a “souse” and, worse yet, a fraud who hasn’t written anything of his own in years…maybe he has never written anything. Finally, there’s the traumatic shock of seeing Audrey’s bloody body next to him in bed…which leads to my next speculation…

It’s assumed that Charlie killed her, of course (and that package may give today’s viewers of Barton Fink eerie recollections of the box at the end of Se7en). I’ve speculated above that Mayhew could have killed her. But here’s an idea: what if Fink killed her, and then in his psychotic state, erased the crime in his mind (as Norman Bates did his mother’s murder)? I’m sure Fink sincerely believes he’s innocent, but the memory of that murder could easily be more evacuated beta elements, projected onto Charlie.

Other rejected beta elements for Fink would be the realization of the rise of fascism in Europe and the hell his fellow Jews would be suffering there. (Jewish Lipnick doesn’t seem to care about them, either, assuming his attitude isn’t another Finkian projection; the profit-driven producer, in his colonel costume, is only concerned with “the Japs.”) Also, are those two detectives, whose symbolic fascism is manifested in their antisemitic and homophobic remarks, more projections of liberal Fink’s disregard for others?

The point is that all that is hateful to narcissistic Fink, hateful things inside himself, all those things are projected onto the world. He unconsciously considers himself too perfect to have any faults of his own, so he projects them onto other people, real or imagined. Also, he considers himself too perfect to introject anything from the outside world, to learn anything, so he rejects the beta elements.

One crucial symptom of narcissism is envy, envy of others’ virtues as well as the perception that others envy the narcissist. Of particular interest is Bion’s use of the Kleinian conception of envy, which originates in the baby’s unconscious wish to spoil the contents of the good breast. In Fink’s case, he wishes to spoil the contents of those whom he unconsciously envies, while projecting that very envy onto them, too.

…and who does Fink envy, and project his envy onto? The common man. As a bourgeois liberal, an educated, literate, middle-class man, he unconsciously wishes he had the simple virtues of the working man. He wishes he had their pain so he could be sympathized with, instead of being the privileged man he really is.

So when he “finds nobility in the most squalid corners and poetry in the most calloused speech,” he’s really bastardizing workers, spoiling their simple purity by making it baroque and literary. This is what Lipnick means when he complains about how “fruity” Fink’s script is; it’s not supposed to be fancy, it’s supposed to be real and down to Earth.

Fink knows this…everybody knows this. He just doesn’t want to comply because he’s too snobbish to. He makes the writing all poetic to show how much ‘better’ he is than the common man. In this way, Fink’s envy spoils all that is good in the worker, ironically, by ‘ennobling’ him. He ‘ennobles’ the working class because he imagines their “brute struggle for existence [, which] cannot quite quell their longing for something better,” is laden with envy of his higher status as one of the intellectual middle class.

Still, Fink’s envy of the working class’s simple purity is why he rejects all opportunities to learn from their experience. His refusal to obtain knowledge, -K, is based on Kleinian envy. As Bion wrote, “one wonders…why such a phenomenon as that represented by -K should exist…I shall consider one factor only–Envy. By this term I mean the phenomenon described by Melanie Klein in Envy and Gratitude.” (Bion, page 96)

Envy is also why Fink could have been Audrey’s murderer: knowing she was the one with the writing talent, rather than Mayhew, could have made him want to spoil her goodness…and her physical beauty, too. (On the other hand, the murder could be more phantasy on his part, the mutilating of her chest representing his unconscious wish to spoil the contents of the good breast.) Though Se7en was made four years later than Barton Fink, I still find it serendipitous that maybe both films involve a package hiding a severed head, and that John Doe’s murder of Tracy Mills was also motivated by envy.

Fink’s phoney extolling of working people masks his unconscious contempt for them, a typical liberal trait. Added to all the traumas he’s already suffered, the narcissistic injury he feels from Lipnick telling him his “story stinks” pushes him over the edge. His narcissism has already been but a fragile defence against psychological fragmentation; but after all that’s happened, he has no other choice but to fall apart. He’s in Mayhew’s shoes now, trapped under contract with people who have no appreciation for his “fruity” creativity. Where else can he go but onto a beach of fantasy, and hear a talking picture?

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen, Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, Faber and Faber, London, 1991

Analysis of ‘Blade Runner’

I: Introduction

Blade Runner is a 1982 neo-noir science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, with Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, and Edward James Olmos. It’s loosely based on Philip K. Dick‘s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I will also be analyzing, as I will the film’s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049.

Neither Blade Runner nor its sequel fared as well as they should have at the box office, though both have been well-received critically, the first film now regarded as a cult classic, and one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The stories’ notion of androids–“andys” in the novel, and “replicants,” or pejoratively, “skinjobs” in the movies–raises questions of what it means to be authentically human; for the androids are virtually indistinguishable from real humans. Since these androids are used as slave labour on other planets, they can be seen as symbolic of victims of racism and class conflict.

II: Quotes

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

‘I’m not a cop.’ He felt irritable now, although he hadn’t dialed for it.

‘You’re worse,’ his wife said, her eyes still shut. ‘You’re a murderer hired by the cops.’

‘I’ve never killed a human being in my life.’ His irritability had risen, now; had become outright hostility.

Iran said, ‘Just those poor andys.’ —Dick, page 1

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The saying currently blabbed by posters, TV ads, and government junk mail, ran: ‘Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours!’ –page 5

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“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.

“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody here to fight the kipple.” –page 52

*********

Thinking this, he wondered if Mozart had any intuition that the future did not exist, that he had already used up his little time. Maybe I have too, Rick thought as he watched the rehearsal move along. This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name “Mozart” will vanish, the dust will have won. If not on this planet then another. We can evade it awhile. As the andys can evade me and exist a finite stretch longer. But I will get them or some other bounty hunter gets them. In a way, he realized, I’m part of the form-destroying process of entropy. The Rosen Association creates and I unmake. Or anyhow so it must seem to them.” pages 77-78

At an oil painting Phil Resch halted, gazed intently. The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by – or despite – its outcry. –page 104

Luba Luft…stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face. –page 104

Resch…burrowed a narrow hole, silently, into her stomach. She began to scream; she lay crouched against the wall of the elevator, screaming. Like the picture, Rick thought to himself, and, with his own laser tube, killed her. Luba Luft’s body fell forward, face down, in a heap. It did not even tremble. –page 107

So much for the distinction between authentic living humans and humanoid constructs. –page 113

‘The whole idea in bounty hunting is to work as fast as hell. That’s where the profit comes’ –page 125

…bounty hunters…something merciless that carried a printed list and a gun, that moved machine-like through the flat, bureaucratic job of killing. A thing without emotions, or even a face; a thing that if killed got replaced immediately by another resembling it. And so on, until everyone real and alive had been shot. –page 125

‘You’re androids,’ Isidore said…’But what does it matter to me? I mean, I’m a special; they don’t treat me very well either, like for instance I can’t emigrate.’ –page 129

The old man said, ‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe. –page 141

Roy Baty…had probably been a manual laborer, a field hand, with aspirations for something better. Do androids dream? Rick asked himself. Evidently; that’s why they occasionally kill their employers and flee here. A better life, without servitude. Like Luba Luft; singing Don Giovanni and Le Nozze instead of toiling across the face of a barren rock-strewn field. On a fundamentally uninhabitable colony world. –page 145

‘That goat,’ Rachael said. ‘You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then your wife, then last of all–‘ –pages 158-159

‘Mercerism is a swindle!’ –page 165

‘The whole experience of empathy is a swindle.’ –pages 165-166

What a job to have to do, Rick thought. I’m a scourge, like famine or plague. Where I go the ancient curse follows. As Mercer said, I am required to do wrong. Everything I’ve done has been wrong from the start. –page 178

For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self. –page 182

The hunger and heat combined, a poisonous taste resembling defeat; yes, he thought, that’s what it is: I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat? He did not know, but as he plodded along a vague and almost hallucinatory pall hazed over his mind; he found himself at one point, with no notion of how it could be, a step from an almost certain fatal cliffside fall—falling humiliatingly and helplessly, he thought; on and on, with no one even to witness it. Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else’s degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves. –page 183

************

‘They’re saying now that Mercer is a fake.’

‘Mercer isn’t a fake,’ he said. ‘Unless reality is a fake.’ –page 186

************

‘The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn’t matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are.’ –page 191

From Blade Runner

“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” –Deckard (Ford)

“Skin jobs”. That’s what Bryant called Replicants. In history books he’s the kind of cop who used to call black men “niggers”. –Deckard (voiceover)

“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.” –Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel)

“Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” –Rachael (Young)

“Is this testing whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” –Rachael

“You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” –Rachael

“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it?” –Leon

“I want more life, fucker (father).” –Batty, to Tyrell

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy.” –Tyrell

“Proud of yourself, little man?” –Roy Batty (Hauer)

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” –Batty, before dying

“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” –Gaff (Olmos)

From Blade Runner 2049

“You newer models are happy scraping the shit… because you’ve never seen a miracle.” –Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista)

*********

Interviewer: Officer K-D-six-dash-three-dot-seven, let’s begin. Ready?’

K: Yes, sir.

Interviewer: Recite your baseline.

K’: And blood-black nothingness began to spin… A system of cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells interlinked within one stem… And dreadfully distinct against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

*********

Luv: I’m here for Mr. Wallace. I’m Luv.

K’: He named you. You must be special.

*********

Rick Deckard: I had your job once. I was good at it.

K’: Things were simpler then.

*********

“Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger.” –Deckard

“Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.” –Freysa

III: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

One of the things that are supposed to distinguish humans from “andys” is our capacity for empathy. Rick Deckard’s wife, Iran, however, is avid about using an “empathy box” to experience climbing a rocky hill and enduring being pelted with rocks, a shared experience called “fusion” with Wilbur Mercer, the hill climber and eponym of “Mercerism,” the new religion of those living after “World War Terminus” (in the year 1992, or 2021, in later editions of the novel), a nuclear war that has made life on Earth difficult, if not unliveable.

The empathy box allows her, and all other adherents to Mercerism, to experience Mercer’s climb as if they were he. Hence, she can empathize with him and all others sharing in the fusion, and thus grow spiritually in accordance with the religion. Yet, since empathy is, at least normally, an innate human trait, why does one need to use the box? Why not pray or meditate instead, using one’s religious faith to share the experience intuitively? Why use a machine to feel empathy?

The people of this world also have a device called a “mood organ” that they can set at whatever number to provide any emotional state they wish to have, including negative emotions. But again, since these are actual humans who use the mood organ, why can’t they just try to feel these feelings naturally? Devices like this one and the empathy box give us the impression that real people in this dystopia are as machine-like as the androids (who also have emotions, incidentally).

Empathy is the basis of the morality of Mercerism, which has replaced Christianity since the nuclear destruction of the world as we’ve known it. Few animals have survived, and as an expression of empathy, people are expected to own and take care of an animal–preferably a real one, but mechanical animals (e.g., Deckard’s electric sheep) are owned by those who can’t afford the expensive real ones.

The ‘better’ an animal one has (i.e, a real one), the more social status one has, since taking care of a ‘better’ animal implies that the owner has more empathy. We can see in this commodification of animals, bought and sold, real and fake, how the new religion is as corrupt as those of the past.

Rick Deckard’s ambition is to get enough money to buy a real animal. He sees his neighbour, Bill Barbour, with his horse (pages 6-10). He envies Barbour because all he has is that electric sheep. The opportunity to “retire” (that is, kill) a group of androids who have escaped the off-world colonies and come to Earth can give him the money for a better animal.

What is emphasized in the novel and both movies, though in different ways, is that the distinction between humans and androids is meaningless. Similarly, in our world it has been scientifically established that there are no such things as races, yet racists keep insisting on making those distinctions; just as the humans in Dick’s novel use the Voigt-Kampff empathy test to maintain a sense that “andys” are not truly human, and therefore aren’t deserving of basic rights.

Humans create androids to be slaves on the off-world colonies. Capitalists created, if you will, the proletariat through, for example, the enclosures of the Commons in England and forcing the peasant workers into the cities to sell their labour for a meagre wage. White slaveowners created the ‘nigger’ by taking him from Africa, scorning his original culture, and creating a disparaging one for him in the US. The histories of these oppressed peoples were replaced with the new ideology of the oppressor, to justify his ‘superiority’ over his victims.

Mercerism’s moral notion of human empathy, something that androids apparently lack, is used to justify notions of human superiority over “andys”; just as the ‘superior’ morality of Christianity has been used to justify ‘superior’ Western culture in its lording itself over ‘uncivilized’ and ‘heathen’ societies, thus legitimizing imperialist conquests of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America with no pangs of bad conscience.

In comparing bigotry against androids with bigotry against people of colour, though, we note an ironic contrast. The difference between man and android is invisible, whereas the visual difference between whites and non-whites is obvious. We don’t deny the biology and personalities of non-whites as genuine, yet we treat them as subhuman just because of their darker skin colour. “Skinjobs” (as they’re derogatorily called in the movies) have no skin colour distinct from that of humans, yet biologically, they’re synthetic, and thus are regarded as non-human.

Deckard’s willingness to retire the androids, just to rise in social status by owning a real animal, illustrates perfectly how this dystopian world is symbolic of how dehumanizing capitalism and class conflict are. Subjugate and/or kill off the lower classes and people of colour, and rise in class status by having done so. Religion justifies this class structure, since the upper classes apparently are more moral, have more empathy, and therefore deserve a better life.

Protestantism justifies letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, since God rewards the hardworking with more money and, by implication, punishes the ‘lazy’ with poverty. The Hindu caste system in India has also justified privileged ruling classes of Brahmins and Kshatriyas, and the Vaishyas, rewarding their good karma from previous lives, as against the lowest-level Shudras, who are kept in poverty because of bad karma:

“The fundamental social ideal is that of the four-fold division of society…In the accounts of the division of society into four classes (varna) in the sacred texts it is emphasized that the origin of the class structure is divine, not human, the implication being that the right ordering of society is ultimately a religious, not a secular, concern.” (The Hindu Tradition, page 75)

The ’empathic’ caring for an animal (usually a synthetic one) in Mercerism parallels the phoniness of charity promoted in typical manifestations of organized religion. We socialists see through the pretence of using charity to help the poor, since we know that throwing a bit of money at them from time to time does nothing to solve their problems. Giving to the poor is about giving oneself face, and little more.

Alongside the contempt shown to androids is a similar attitude shown to humans adversely affected by the toxic environment after the nuclear war. One common affliction is against the intellect, causing such people to be unfit to live on a colonized planet off-world. Such people are referred to by the slur, “chickenhead.” A gentler term for “chickenhead,” however, is “special.”

John Isidore is a “special,” living alone in a filthy, abandoned building, until he meets Pris Stratton, one of the renegade androids that Deckard has to retire. Isidore’s relationship with her, Roy and Irmgard Baty (whom he later meets) is one of a mutual understanding of each other’s outsider status, with an added measure of android contempt for servile Isidore.

So while the androids are comparable to the scorned working class and people of colour, Isidore is rather like mentally disabled people; so “chickenhead” might remind us of the slur ‘retard.’ While we’re on the subject of people discriminated against and looked down on, consider Rachael’s remark when given the Voigt-Kampff test: “‘Is this testing whether I’m an android,’ Rachael asked tartly, ‘or whether I’m homosexual?'” (page 39–of course, in the movie the words android and homosexual are replaced with replicant and a lesbian)

Indeed, that very test is grating on one’s nerves, in how it probes and discriminates through its taunting questions. The very determination that Rachael Rosen, originally assumed to be human, is an android underscores the foggy distinction between human and android. There’s a recurring worry that these tests may be ineffective in spotting the difference between android and human, leading to the fear of accidentally killing a person.

Added to this confusion is Deckard’s growing empathy for androids like Rachael. After retiring Polokov, having originally thought he was a Soviet policeman, and after helping Phil Resch kill Luba Luft, an android opera singer whose voice he admired, Deckard is beginning to see the futility of distinguishing human from android. The incident at the fake police station (manned by androids, Chapters Ten and Eleven) reinforces Deckard’s confusion, since he’s been manipulated into thinking he could be an android.

Recall the end of Chapter Nine, when Officer Crams (an android pretending to be a policeman) has apprehended Deckard. “‘Maybe you’re an android,’ Officer Crams said. ‘With a false memory, like they give them. Had you thought of that?’ He grinned frigidly as he continued to drive south.” (page 88)

And later, an android, pretending to be a senior police official named Garland, says this to fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch about Deckard: “‘I don’t think you understand the situation,’ Garland said. ‘This man–or android–Rick Deckard comes to us from a phantom, hallucinatory, non-existent police agency allegedly operating out of the old departmental headquarters on Lombard. He’s never heard of us and we’ve never heard of him–yet ostensibly we’re both working the same side of the street. He employs a test we’ve never heard of. The list he carries around isn’t of androids; it’s a list of human beings. He’s already killed once–at least once. And if Miss Luft hadn’t gotten to a phone he probably would have killed her and then eventually he would have come sniffing around after me.’ (page 94)

So we see here a group of androids trying to beat the humans at their own game, by projecting the non-human, Untermensch status onto those who are always doing it to them, and–with respect to “Garland’s motives. Wanting to split [Deckard and Resch] up…” (page 112).

We learn that Garland et al are androids, and after he is killed by Resch’s laser tube, Resch asks Deckard about the “andys”: ‘Do you think of them as “it”?’ With Deckard’s growing empathy for androids, he replies to Resch by saying, ‘When my conscience occasionally bothered me about the work I had to do; I protected myself by thinking of them that way but now I no longer find it necessary.’ (page 99)

Because both Deckard and Resch have doubts as to whether they’re androids or human, they both do the Voigt-Kampff test (pages 111-113). This doubt of theirs again reinforces the unclear line between human and ‘non-human.’

In his shock and unease about realizing he’s empathizing with androids, Deckard buys a Nubian goat (a real one) with his reward money. After presenting it to Iran, he explains his feelings to her: ‘I took a test, one question, and verified it; I’ve begun to empathize with androids, and look what that means. You said it this morning yourself. “Those poor andys.” So you know what I’m talking about. That’s why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be a depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you’re depressed…But when you get that depressed you don’t care. Apathy, because you’ve lost a sense of worth.’ (pages 137-138)

His wife wants to have “fusion” with Mercer because of her husband’s purchase; he isn’t all that enthused about Mercerism, but he has a vision of Mercer during “fusion,” who tells him of the necessity sometimes to do what is or seems to be immoral, or contrary to one’s nature (page 141). This hearing of Mercer’s words must be an auditory hallucination brought on by his stress and confusion over the morality of his work, and his growing, troubling empathy for androids he has to kill.

He meets Rachael, who has agreed to help him with the remaining androids to be retired, in a hotel. They are developing feelings for each other, which is difficult for him, of course, since she’s an android. He tells her of his goat: ‘I bought a black Nubian goat,’ he said. ‘I have to retire the three more andys. I have to finish up my job and go home to my wife.’ (pages 150-151)

This revelation annoys her, since it seems to her that in his hierarchy of values, the goat comes first, Iran second, and Rachel last: ‘That goat,’ Rachael said. ‘You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then your wife, then last of all–‘ She laughed merrily. ‘What can you do but laugh?’ (pages 158-159)

She seems to have it right, for Deckard’s whole motivation has been to retire “andys” so he can have a living animal as a status symbol. Middle class types like Deckard rise, retired andys fall; this is symbolic of the class contradictions between the middle and lower classes, or the racial contradictions between whites and blacks.

Deckard’s wife isn’t all that important to him, since he sleeps with Rachael without any pangs of conscience over his adultery. The only aspect of the immorality of his sexual encounter with Rachael is in how he’s broken the law by sleeping with an android; it reminds one of the KKK’s abhorrence of inter-racial sex.

Towards the end of the novel, Deckard reflects on his sexual transgression: “Bed rest, he thought. The last time I hit bed was with Rachael. A violation of a statute. Copulation with an android; absolutely against the law, here and on the colony worlds as well.” (page 186)

The retiring of Pris, Roy and Irmgard Baty is, in my opinion at least, disappointingly anticlimactic, especially as compared to Deckard’s and Roy’s confrontation in the film. Only Pris will be even remotely a challenge, since, firstly, she could be Rachael’s twin, both females being of the same model.

“Tonight sometime, he thought as he clicked off the bedside light, I will retire a Nexus-6 which looks exactly like this naked girl. My good god, he thought; I’ve wound up where Phil Resch said. Go to bed with her first, he remembered. Then kill her. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said, and backed away from the bed.” (page 153)

The second reason it will be difficult for Deckard to kill Pris is because she’s planning a surprise attack as she waits for him to look around Isidore’s building. Again, the stress of the moment causes Deckard to have a hallucination of Mercer, who warns him of Pris. (pages 174-175)

What’s interesting about Deckard’s growing faith in Mercer is how, for pretty much everyone else, the whole religion has been proven a fake. Mercer is dead: thus spoke Buster Friendly (pages 163-166). Still, it’s remarkable how people can cling to a discredited faith, especially one in its fundamentalist form.

Many fall prey to organized religion, not so much out of spiritual conviction as from an emotional crisis of some kind, as is the case with Deckard. The simple, black-and-white solution of fundamentalism for people’s problems has an immense appeal, in spite of the absurdity of the belief system.

Deckard’s original belief system, that of the ‘difference’ between man and “andy,” has been shaken. It’s been suggested that he’s an android, he’s been empathizing with a few androids (Rachael and Luba), he’s made love with one, and he’s killed, among other androids, one that looks exactly like his “andy” lover. All of this is more than enough to give him an emotional crisis needing quick relief.

The black-and-white solution of ‘Mercer’s guidance’ can give him that relief easily, so Deckard hallucinates about him. Similarly, Christians who have brutalized black people can comfort themselves with the visual illusion that black skin somehow makes blacks fundamentally different from whites; the spurious notion that blacks were descended from Ham, who disgraced himself before drunk, naked Noah, has been used, among other rationalizations, to scorn blacks.

Deckard, however, doesn’t have the convenience of a different skin colour to fool himself that androids are sub-human, and therefore unworthy of the same consideration and rights as humans. Ironically, as his empathy for “andys” grows, so does his faith in Mercerism. It is so bizarre that, in a post-apocalyptic world of nuclear annihilation, where androids are either enslaved or killed, and people like Isidore are scorned as “chickenheads,” one believes that the cultivation of empathy can be anything other than a case of ‘too little, too late.’ Indeed, the very idea of trying to cultivate empathy in such a dystopian world is a sick joke.

Deckard’s crisis grows when he learns that Rachael has thrown his goat off the roof of his apartment building, thus making it fall to its death. Recall how irked she was over his preference of the goat, and his wife, over her. On another level, her killing of the goat can be seen to symbolize an act of proletarian defiance against a system that prizes commodities and the bourgeoisie over the working class. Since it’s a real goat, its killing is a misguided defiance, but a defiance all the same.

The androids’ loathing of empathy, as a virtue assumed to be unique among the privileged–since “andys” rarely receive any of it–is also reflected in Pris’s clipping of the spider’s legs (pages 162-166), much to Isidore’s chagrin; this loathing is also seen in Roy Baty’s glee in knowing that empathy is fake, because Mercer is fake (pages 165-166). The loathing is comparable to how class-conscious workers realize that, as Marx observed, “religion is the opium of the people.” Rachael’s killing of the goat-commodity is like workers’ deliberate sabotaging of their bosses’ means of production.

Recall Irmgard’s words on empathy as a supposedly human-only virtue: ’empathy…Isn’t it a way of proving that humans can do something we can’t do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing…’ (page 165)

In Chapter Twenty-One, Deckard, in his growing emotional turmoil, flies his car up to an obliterated area of Oregon, where he climbs a rocky hill, is pelted by rocks, and thus finds himself acting like Mercer, but without one of those VR empathy boxes. His delusion that he is Mercer is the ultimate narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation, the only thing keeping him from falling apart, from all of his accumulated guilt over having killed all those “andys.”

We see the lead-in to Deckard’s vision of Mercer in his conflicted reflections on what he’s done, his alienation from himself: “For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self.” (page 182)

Then, as Deckard ascends the hill: “The hunger and heat combined, a poisonous taste resembling defeat; yes, he thought, that’s what it is: I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat? He did not know, but as he plodded along a vague and almost hallucinatory pall hazed over his mind…” (page 183)

In his stress, Deckard has seen Mercer, a dark figure in the shadows, twice (excluding the VR “fusion” on page 141): once before confronting Pris (pages 174-175), and now this other time on the hill. This second time, he identifies with Mercer. The dark image of Mercer is rather like Lacan‘s mirror: an idealized version of spastic, hill-climbing Deckard looking back at him like a mirror reflection. He’s alienated from himself, just as that spectral image alienates him and, paradoxically, is identified with him.

“‘Mercer,’ he said, panting; he stopped, stood still. In front of him he distinguished a shadowy figure, motionless. ‘Wilbur Mercer! Is that you?’ My god, he realized; it’s my shadow. I have to get out of here, down off this hill!

“He scrambled back down. Once, he fell; clouds of dust obscured everything, and he ran from the dust–he hurried faster, sliding and tumbling on the loose pebbles…He plucked open the car door, squeezed inside. Who threw the stone at me? he asked himself. No one. But why does it bother me? I’ve undergone it before, during fusion. While using my empathy box, like everyone else. This isn’t new. But it was. Because, he thought, I did it alone.” (pages 183-184)

Deckard also finds a toad that is supposed to be extinct, yet he imagines, in his ‘divine’ self-delusion, that it’s real: “…to find the critter most sacred to Mercer. Jesus, he thought; it can’t be…Did Mercer arrange it? But I’m Mercer. I arranged it; I found the toad. Found it because I see through Mercer’s eyes.” (page 188) He takes it home, thinking it can replace the goat as the object of his ’empathy.’ Iran shows him it’s electric (page 191). “Crestfallen,” he, in all exhaustion, goes to bed, covered in dust (page 192).

This sleep of his is a sleep of sloth. His illusions have been peeled away, one by one: androids have no less a legitimate right to be empathized with than humans have; Mercerism is fake; the radioactivity and filth have probably infected his brain, causing his Mercer delusions as well as his inability to tell a fake animal from a real one, as he has begun to suspect, even during his Mercer delusions: “Maybe it’s due to brain damage on my part: exposure to radioactivity. I’m a special, he thought. Something has happened to me. Like the chickenhead Isidore and his spider, what happened to him is happening to me.” (page 188) Deckard is losing all purpose in life.

In his routine as a bounty hunter, using empathy boxes and mood organs to help him have feelings, he–as well as Iran and every other human on Earth–is more android than android.

Since I see androids as symbolic of proletarians and people of colour, this notion that humanity lives an android-like life indicates how we’re all victims of the alienating, hierarchical world of capitalism, regardless of whether we’re black or white, working class or petite bourgeois.

Deckard realizes his pitiful state, yet gets no edification from it: he just goes to bed and acquiesces to his mechanical life.

Perhaps he’ll dream of his electric sheep.

IV: Blade Runner

[I am basing this analysis on the Director’s Cut. I don’t have a DVD of the Final Cut; if, in the future, I get one and find elements in it that ought to be included in this analysis, I’ll update it accordingly then.]

It’s fitting that I should write this analysis in 2019, though I’m not in Los Angeles (as opposed to the novel’s San Francisco setting), and…why don’t we have flying cars by now?

Leon Kowalski (played by Brion James, and roughly equivalent to Polokov in the novel) is being given the Voight-Kampff test by Dave Holden (played by Morgan Paull). Replicant Leon is nervous, and comes off as not very intelligent. He often interrupts Holden with irrelevant questions and remarks.

Because the test is “designed to provoke an emotional response,” as Holden tells Leon, because replicants are emotionally immature due to their short life span (four years, not enough to develop the nuanced emotions we all take for granted), because the test’s purpose is to help in the discrimination between man and replicant, and because–as I’ve shown above–the oppression of replicants (or “andys”) is symbolic of the oppression of people of colour and of the working class, this test can be seen as a formalized kind of taunting.

Taunting is a tactic often used by bullies and racists against their victims. The provocative nature of the Voight-Kampff questions–especially in relation to my notion of replicants as symbolic of, among other oppressed groups, black people–is comparable to what happens to Marian in Angelica Gibbs‘s short story, “The Test,” published in 1940 and reflective of white racial prejudice against blacks.

Marian is an African-American woman doing a driving test, sitting next to a prejudiced white man who’s both testing and taunting her. He calls her “Mary-Lou” instead of her real name. When he learns she’s 27, he says, “Old enough to have quite a flock of pickaninnies, eh?” He whistles “Swanee River.” He pretends to be astonished to learn she’s from Pennsylvania, saying, “You-all ain’t Southern?…Well, dog my cats if I didn’t think you-all came from down yondah.” She endures him as best she can, until his slurs against her skin colour finally go too far, and she cries, “Damn you!” He loses “his joviality in an instant” and makes “four very black crosses at random in the squares on Marian’s application blank,” failing her, even though her driving has been impeccable the whole time.

The tension the replicants feel in Blade Runner when doing the Voight-Kampff test is similar to how Marian feels. When Holden asks Leon to talk about his good memories of his mother (of which he obviously has none), the replicant, holding a concealed pistol, shoots Holden and leaves him for dead (though we later learn that Holden survives). One endures the taunts and provocations as best one can, but sooner or later, everyone reaches his breaking point.

The notion of a replicant’s relationship with his ‘parents’ is symbolically interesting, from a psychoanalytic standpoint. The lack of a mother for Leon is tantamount to what the object relations theorists would call a ‘bad mother’; Roy Batty’s relationship with Eldon Tyrell is also like a son’s relationship with his ‘bad father’–Roy literally calls Tyrell “Father” (or “fucker,” depending on the version) when demanding a longer life…this shows us how much of a ‘bad father’ Tyrell really is.

The bad mother is derived from a part-object, the bad breast, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion developed by saying the lack of a breast for an infant, frustrating the baby by not giving milk, is a bad breast (Bion, Chapter Twelve, pages 34-37). So by extension, Leon’s lack of a mother is a bad mother, causing a traumatic split in the replicant’s mind that Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Leon’s nervousness and agitation indicate the paranoid aspect, his persecutory anxiety; the splitting of people into absolutely good replicants and absolutely bad humans is the schizoid aspect.

For Roy, his begging Tyrell to find a way to lengthen replicants’ lives is an attempt at reparation with his ‘father’; but Tyrell the ‘bad father’ insists that lengthening a replicant’s life is impossible (or, maybe, Tyrell simply doesn’t want to lengthen the replicants’ lives, out of a wish to maintain power over them), so Roy kills him. Reparation with the father is impossible; Roy, like Leon, is doomed to being permanently in the paranoid-schizoid position.

The inability to connect with one’s parents, real or symbolic, as in the case of this movie, is the basis of social alienation, since the relationship with one’s parents, be it good or bad, becomes the blueprint for one’s later relationships with other people throughout life. Now replicants, as symbols of the wage slave global proletariat, experience alienation in a particularly stinging way. Taunting remarks from the Voight-Kampff tests, in particular as to whether one has a mother or not, are especially triggering for a replicant, hence Leon’s violent reaction.

In this connection, recall how Marx compared the bourgeois family with that of the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To that crime we [communists] plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52) Note the absence of the family among replicants like Leon, hence his shooting of Holden. Note also Roy’s exploitive ‘father.’

Some buildings in Blade Runner have a pyramidal structure, reminding us of those of the ruling class Pharaohs of Egypt, who had peasants build them through forced labour, or those of the imperialist Aztecs who invaded other Central American civilizations and killed their enemy captives in rites of human sacrifice on the tops of their temples (rather like a blade runner retiring replicants, isn’t it?). Other buildings shoot flames up in the air: these make one think of volcanoes, suggesting the fiery wrath of Mother Earth after all of man’s environmental damage to her.

Indeed, the film replaces Dick’s World War Terminus with the results of a more gradual ecocidal degradation that we’re inflicting on the Earth right now. We see a Coruscant-like cityscape of endless buildings and no nature; the electric animals that are so integral to Dick’s plot are of little more importance in the film than to develop theme.

Instead of being eagerly willing to retire Roy, Pris, et al in the hopes of buying a real animal to enhance his social status (as is the case in the novel), the Deckard in the film is dragged back into a bounty hunter life he wants to leave behind. He’s called a “blade runner,” an expression snatched from The Bladerunner, a novel with no other connection whatsoever with Dick’s, or the film’s, story.

The Tyrell Corporation boasts in its motto that its replicants are “more human than human,” and Deckard finds out just how accurate this motto is when he does the Voight-Kampff test on Rachael, who is assumed to be human. Indeed, when we first see her and watch her respond to Deckard’s questions, her mannerisms and facial expressions seem almost robotic; but after we learn that she’s a replicant, she shows the full range of human emotions and body language.

J.F. Sebastian (played by William Sanderson), who is loosely based on Isidore, isn’t afflicted mentally (actually, Sebastian is a genius), but rather physically: he isn’t allowed to live off-world because he suffers from “Methuselah Syndrome,” which makes him age faster, thus shortening his lifespan and making his predicament comparable to that of the replicants. No wonder Pris (played by Daryl Hannah) says to him, “We need you, Sebastian. You’re our best and only friend.” He is one of the few humans who can truly empathize with her and Roy…and he makes robotic toys, rather like what replicants are! The oppressed would naturally have mutual sympathy, even if they aren’t oppressed in the same way.

Roy: We’ve got a lot in common.

Sebastian: What do you mean?

Roy: Similar problems.

Pris: Accelerated decrepitude.

A major motif in the film is eyes. There’s the closeup eye reflecting the fire-shooting buildings at the beginning; there are Leon‘s and Rachael‘s eyes, with the “Fluctuation of the pupil…” and the “involuntary dilation of the iris,” as Tyrell says of the reaction to Voight-Kampff tests; there’s Hannibal Chew, the Asian eye-designer who is bullied by Leon and Roy; and there’s Roy playing with a pair of fake eyes in Sebastian’s home.

Here’s a relevant question: since replicants’ eyes are artificial, shall we associate that with seeing ‘fake’ things? Or, since replicants are “more human than human,” do their eyes–as ‘fake’ as they may be–see even better and grasp more complete truths than human eyes can? Do the oppressed see reality better than the privileged, though the latter gaslight the former into thinking their ‘fake’ eyes see a ‘fake’ reality?

Hannibal Chew: I just do eyes, ju-, ju-, just eyes… just genetic design, just eyes. You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.

Batty: Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!

Speaking of gaslighting, one should note the implications of giving replicants implanted memories, thereby tricking them into thinking they’re human, as has been done with Rachael and…Deckard? Giving people a fake past, then denying them the validation of the truth of their memories, is the essence of gaslighting; and as I’ve argued elsewhere, gaslighting has political manifestations as well as those in relationships involving, for example, narcissistic abuse; and abusive interpersonal relationships are the microcosm of the larger, geopolitical forms of abuse and manipulation.

Now, whether or not Deckard is a replicant (i.e., his unicorn dream and Gaff‘s unicorn origami, implying he knows of Deckard’s supposed memory implants) is irrelevant to me, since I see replicants as, to all practical purposes, as human as humans. If they can be more human, replicants can be equally human, too. They’re just told they’re non-human as a part of the oppression they suffer.

These replicant humans are deprived of life (the four-year lifespan), and thus are denied a childhood. They’re denied a decent stock of memories, hence they’re emotionally immature. Some are given false memories as a “cushion” to make it easier to control them (gaslighting). They’re slaves on the off-world colonies, conquests of Earth’s imperialism; and if they try to escape, they’re killed (or, “retired,” to use the human euphemism). Their experiences are denied validity because they don’t have natural, human eyes. Small wonder Deckard would never believe what Roy has seen: what the replicant could teach us, due to his short life, “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The empathy of film-Deckard won’t be lost as that of book-Deckard is, though; so instead of sleeping, he runs off with Rachael as a fellow fugitive.

V: Blade Runner 2049

The meaninglessness of the differentiation between human and replicant (or bioengineered human) is made even clearer through a new development: it has been discovered that Rachael has given birth. Now, if Deckard is a replicant–presumably an older model with memory implants and a long lifespan–this means that no human was involved at all with the baby’s conception.

Whether or not Deckard is a replicant, the fact that K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant blade runner working for Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is itself established proof of a symbolic class collaboration, given my equation of replicants with the proletariat and oppressed racial minorities.

One of the ways we keep the male proletariat in line is with fantasies of beautiful, submissive, and supportive women, as we can see in K’s purchase of Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic image of, essentially, the perfect housewife. She’s sweet, loving, and willing to do anything K wants, to please him. That she’s not even a replicant, but rather an ideal image of woman emphasizes how unreal she is; for no woman can (or should ever have to) be so perfectly pleasing to a man. That her name is spelled with an i instead of a y adds to the symbolic unreality of the happiness she provides.

When Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a female replicant who is a ruthless killer for Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and thus another example of a class collaborator, meets K and asks if he’s satisfied with the company’s product (Joi), we see not only the commodification of the housewife ideal, but also how women under capitalism, provided they’re in the upper echelons, will often strive to maintain the system as it is, just as much as their male counterparts will. Just look at Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Gina Haspel to see my point. Both Luv and Lt. Joshi represent this ugly reality in the film.

Wallace himself is wicked and cruel on a whole different level. As the creator of so many replicants, he seems to have a God complex: he certainly likes to incorporate Biblical concepts in his speech. “And God remembered Rachael, heeded her, and opened her womb,” he quotes from Genesis 30:22 when he meets Deckard.

Wallace covets the newly-discovered ability Rachael had to bear children. A newly-created female replicant stands nude before him in his first scene. Like a newborn baby, the naked woman is as vulnerable and helpless as any member of the possessionless proletariat; he touches her belly and contemplates how he wishes he could make her conceive, while Luv watches with restrained emotion. He stabs the replicant where her reproductive anatomy is…if only it worked; she falls down dead. Luv’s shock is again suppressed, for Wallace’s replicants are totally obedient (class collaboration). He, like Tyrell to his creations, is the bad father, kissing his newborn ‘daughter’ the way the ‘prodigal son’ Roy kissed Tyrell before killing him.

Recall the eye motif from the previous film. Niander Wallace is blind, using cybernetic implants in his neck to interact with various computers and “see” through flying miniature camera units. He’s symbolically blind to the suffering of the oppressed. Do his fake “eyes” make him see a false reality that flatters his megalomania, or do they allow him to see the elite’s privileged version of reality? Again, the distinction between real and artificial is blurred.

K, for the great majority of the film, shows little, if any, emotion. As a good, obedient blade runner working for the system, he lives a soulless existence, as all proletarians are forced to do. Indeed, Lt. Joshi notes that he’s “been getting on fine without…a soul.”

After investigating who Rachael’s child could be, though, he learns that his memory of a small toy horse isn’t synthetic, as they usually are for replicants–those emotional cushions implanted in their brains in order to control them; this particular memory is real, so he comes to believe that he is Rachael’s son. His whole enslaved life has been a lie, regardless of whether he is her son or not, though he realizes this only through imagining he’s her son. He does have a soul, it seems. So finally, he shows emotion, in the form of an explosion: he shouts, “God…damnit!”

The Voight-Kampff test has been replaced by a new one called a “Baseline” test. K is required to recite five lines from a poem from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire. The section of the poem that K quotes involves a near-death experience of fictional poet John Shade:

And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

Since the fear of death is a major preoccupation of replicants, it’s significant that K is required to recite what, for him or any replicant, must be quite a triggering passage, and to do so without hesitation or emotion. The repetition of the words cells and interlinked, in the context of the film rather than that of Nabokov’s novel, is noteworthy in how replicants’ lives seem trapped in metaphorical prison cells, and replicants aren’t supposed to be interlinked by any sense of mutual empathy.

As for K, though, he’s realized what cells he and his kind are trapped in, and only by being interlinked in mutual love will they ever be free.

His recitation of the baseline is with mechanical precision the first time; but his next recitation, after coming to believe he’s Rachael’s son, is shaky and hesitant, making him fail the baseline and causing him to be regarded as having gone rogue.

K finds Deckard in an abandoned building that was once a Las Vegas night club. Holographic images of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and young women dancing in a 1960s style can be seen; like Joi, they represent an idealized older world that has no basis in reality now. Elsewhere, and earlier in the film, a huge holographic image of a Soviet [!] ballet dancer is also seen…another idealization no longer possible in the dystopia of 2049.

Instead, this dystopia shows us the ugly reality of such things as prostitution. Some feminists have criticized the film for presenting women either in this degrading way or as the housewife ideal in Joi; they forget that, as with American Psycho, the intention is not to recommend such portrayals of women, but rather to comment of these ugly realities. The first step in ridding our society of such ugliness is to acknowledge its reality.

In a noteworthy scene, Joi hires one of the prostitutes seen earlier to merge with her as a body that K can have sex with. Two forms of female fantasy are thus combined: the “nice girl”/”bad girl” opposition; also, the ideal and material forms. It should be seen as a sad comment on alienation in a capitalist society, that a woman has to be a man’s fantasy, rather than be herself, to make love with him.

In Deckard’s and Rachael’s case, however, we can see real love, and it has resulted in a child. That people, replicant or not, can connect and have families, is a threat to the dystopia that Lt. Joshi’s police department, on the one hand, is trying to keep ordered and stable, and that Wallace, on the other hand, is trying to profit from and rule over as its ‘God.’

Lieutenant Joshi: The world is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.

***********

Niander Wallace: Every leap of civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce,…but I can only make so many.

Normally, capitalists and the state work together in harmony. In this case, the LAPD’s agenda to have the replicant offspring killed is in contradiction with Wallace’s agenda to find the offspring, then learn how to use replicant reproduction to expand interstellar colonization, symbolically a manifestation of capitalist imperialism. Because of this contradiction, Luv must kill Joshi, though one suspects that Luv, as a replicant, has her own personal reasons to find the replicant child, feelings that are suppressed and just under her surface obedience to Wallace.

Now, the prostitute who was with K and Joi is secretly part of a replicant resistance movement. Their leader, Freysa (Hiam Abbass), hopes K will kill Deckard before he can tell Wallace where…as it turns out…his and Rachael’s daughter is. Though K now knows he isn’t their son, he’s been humanized enough, through all his traumatic experiences, to want to help Deckard reunite with her. It’s the most human thing he can do, after all.

To protect his daughter (Dr. Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri), Deckard has had to keep away from her all these years, making him a kind of ‘bad father’ through his absence from her life, yet also a good father for sacrificing the relationship to keep her safe. K recognizes the need to prevent Wallace from finding her, for the sake of the coming replicant revolution; but K also realizes that the liberation of the oppressed must come through the establishment of human relationships, to end alienation. Hence his arrangement to have Deckard reunited with Ana.

A system of cells interlinked.

What’s it like to hold your child in your arms? Interlinked.

To be freed from our cells, we must all be…interlinked.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1968

Analysis of ‘The Thing’

I: Introduction

The Thing is a 1982 science fiction/horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Like the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, it was an adaptation of the 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, written by John W. Campbell (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart); actually, though, the 1982 film is much more faithful to Campbell’s novella than the 1951 film was.

The Thing stars Kurt Russell, with A. Wilford BrimleyT. K. CarterDavid ClennonKeith DavidRichard DysartCharles HallahanPeter MaloneyRichard MasurDonald MoffatJoel Polis, and Thomas Waites in supporting roles. Though the film garnered praise for its special effects, it was poorly received on its release; some even considered it one of the worst films ever made. Its critical reputation has since improved, though, and it’s now considered one of the best sci fi/horror films ever made.

Here are some quotes:

[talking into tape recorder] “I’m gonna hide this tape when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. The storm’s been hitting us hard now for 48 hours. We still have nothing to go on. [turns off tape recorder and takes a drink of whisky. He looks at the torn long johns and turns it back on] One other thing: I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over. Windows found some shredded long johns, but the nametag was missing. They could be anybody’s. Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait… R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot, US outpost number 31.” [turns off recorder] –MacReady (Russell)

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” –MacReady

[the Thing roars at MacReady] “YEAH, FUCK YOU TOO!!!” [throws stick of dynamite] –MacReady

[after passing the blood test] “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot. But when you find the time… I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” –Garry (Moffat)

************

MacReady: I don’t know. Thousands of years ago it crashes, and this thing… gets thrown out, or crawls out, and it ends up freezing in the ice.

Childs (David): I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.

Palmer (Clennon): Childs, happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?

Childs: You believe any of this voodoo bullshit, Blair?

Palmer: Childs, Childs… Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.

*************

Blair (Brimley): [showing the remains of the dog-thing to the entire camp] You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

Norris (Hallahan): Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

*************

MacReady: Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By Spring, it could be all of us.

Childs: So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

*************

MacReady: How you doin’, old boy?

Blair: I don’t know who to trust.

MacReady: I know what you mean, Blair. Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what – why don’t you just trust in the Lord?

*************

Childs: The explosions set the temperatures up all over the camp. But it won’t last long though.

MacReady: When these fires go out, neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well… what do we do?

MacReady[slumping back] Why don’t we just wait here a little while? See what happens.

**************

[from teaser trailer] Some say the world will end by fire. Others say it will end by ice. Now, somewhere in the Antarctic, the question is being settled forever.

[from theatrical trailer] Twelve men have just discovered something. For 100,000 years, it was buried in the snow and ice. Now it has found a place to live. Inside. Where no one can see it. Or hear it. Or feel it.

The main theme of this film is paranoia, distrust of others, based on the fact that “The Thing” is an alien able to imitate other life forms to perfection, thus making it next to impossible to be sure if any of the men in the research base in Antarctica is really a man, or an alien imitation waiting for its chance to change the other men into imitations.

This ability to pretend to be human or animal, not just in physical but in mental form, too, is also in Who Goes There?, unlike the 1951 film, which is essentially just a monster movie. The alien can slip in undetected and seem to be one of the men, knowing their memories and personality traits down to the last detail. Hence, “Who goes there?” implies the next, and even more relevant question: “Friend, or foe?”

II: Unity of Opposites

This friend/foe duality is merged in how those who seem friends are often really foes…and vice versa. This merging and juxtaposition of opposites is seen in other forms, too, as in the extremes of fire and ice, both of which end and preserve lives (i.e., the flame thrower and the blowing up/burning down of the research base, which kill alien manifestations and save the men; this burning happens in the freezing cold temperature of a winter in Antarctica, which can kill the men and preserve the alien in a state of hibernation…“to die, to sleep”). Also, there are the literally polar opposites of Antarctica versus Scandinavia (i.e., the Norwegians whom MacReady confuses with Swedes, so, the Arctic); then, there’s the 1951 movie’s moving of the setting from Antarctica to Alaska.

Another opposition in the film is in its implied anti-woman versus anti-male attitudes. There isn’t even one actress in the entire film (save Adrienne Barbeau‘s voice-acting of the “Chess Wizard” computer game, which sexist MacReady calls “baby,” and a “cheating bitch” before pouring his glass of booze into its inner circuitry, because he can’t accept losing a chess game to a ‘woman’), something to annoy any feminist. On the other hand, this very lack of females is ironically itself a criticism of masculinity, since the point of the film is the relative lack of empathy, cooperation, and friendship among the characters, virtues more stereotypically associated with femininity.

III: Who Were Our Real Friends and Foes During the Cold War?

The more germane question of the movie, however, is what does this alien represent, this “Thing” that causes so much alienation and confusion among the men? One allegorizing of the film is of the Cold War (indeed, the story is a literal cold war), representing the antagonism between the NATO and Warsaw pacts, and the danger of provoking MAD.

Some might see the alien as representing the Soviets, and therefore its spreading imitations of humans as the fear of the spread of communism; while the paranoid, bickering men represent such right-wing curmudgeons as those in the GOP (and since this is a Hollywood film, all of this hostility between the two extreme sides is best neutralized with a ‘balanced’ liberal mindset [!]).

Those of you who have read enough of my blog posts will know that I have no intention of interpreting this film’s meaning through either conservative or liberal lenses. I, contrarian that I am, plan to flip conventional analysis of this film on its head. So what follows will be, in part, a Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the story.

Though the men fighting off the thing are Americans, and at the beginning, Norwegians (that is, members of two countries that were founding members of NATO, and therefore ideological opposites to the Soviets), I see them as symbolic of any socialist state fighting off the forces of capitalist reaction. US vs USSR, friend vs foe, fire vs ice, all men vs no women: all dialectically related opposites, the one side merging and interacting with the other. Because of the dialectical unity in all contradictions, we can see an interesting irony in Americans representing their ideological foes.

Consider what The Thing can do: taking on any shape or form, it sneaks up on unsuspecting people, attacks them, and replaces them with imitations of them; then those imitations do the same to others, again and again, until–theoretically, at least–the entire Earth has replaced all life with alien imitations. It’s rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, actually.

This spreading of a kind of cancer, if you will, wiping out all life and replacing it with the infection–is this not like what capitalism does? Modern capitalism grew out of the mercantilism and merchant capitalism that were dominant in the modernized parts of Europe about five centuries ago. Those two, as well as feudalism, transitioned into capitalism as the new form of class conflict, which then spread around the world.

Capitalism also causes alienation between workers, like the estrangement felt among the paranoid men in the film. It causes alienation from one’s species-essence, symbolized in the film by the contradiction between the False Self of the alien imitation and the True Self of the original man who is imitated.

The alien imitations pretend to be the men’s friends, just as capitalism is made out to be the friend of humanity, according to bourgeois propaganda, liberating us from Bolshevik state tyranny, eliminating poverty, and bringing about economic prosperity. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, especially since the disastrous dissolution of the USSR, has shown what lies these notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘poverty elimination‘ and ‘prosperity’ are, just as when we are shocked to learn that Norris and Palmer are aliens.

So in this context, the US research station in lonely Antarctica can be seen to represent any of the socialist states, past and present, that have been economically isolated by sanctions and embargoes. The Americans’ struggle to defeat The Thing represents the aggravation of class struggle under socialism, as manifested in the Great Purge and the Cultural Revolution. Stalin and Mao knew there were bourgeois traitors hiding among them and pretending to be fellow socialists (just as The Thing hides among the Americans in the film), and allowing them to gain the upper hand would have lead to the defeat of socialism, the actual achievement of which, as we have seen since the 1990s, has lead to the egregious wealth inequality, the constant threat of US imperialist war, and destruction of the earth that we’ve seen and are still seeing.

Now, as we recall, a lot of nastiness occurred in the USSR in the 1930s, and in China during the late 1960s, just as there is nastiness among the Americans in the movie as they try to eliminate the alien: MacReady shoots Clark (not an alien) in the head. Of all the men MacReady–threatening them with dynamite–has tied up, only Palmer is an alien; the men freak out, tied up and helpless, as the Palmer-Thing reveals itself and infects Windows, forcing MacReady to kill them both with the flamethrower. These problems are comparable with the innocent Soviets imprisoned and executed (the fault of Yezhov, not of Stalin), and with the violent moments of the Cultural Revolution.

The film begins with a sled dog (man’s best friend?) running in the snow towards the US research station, with Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing it and shooting at it. The Norwegian with the rifle shouts frantically about the danger the dog poses; since he isn’t shouting in English, the Americans have no idea what his problem is. Because of his constant shooting at the dog, and accidentally wounding Bennings, he seems crazy (Dr. Copper [Dysart] speculates that the “stir-crazy” Norwegian got “cabin fever”)…and dangerous himself; so Garry gets a pistol, points it out the window, and kills the man.

Communists are similarly seen as crazy (as are the victims of narcissists) when warning the world about capitalists (who, especially in the upper echelons of power and wealth, tend to be narcissists); they’re vilified and often killed, as is the Norwegian. My point is that we leftists, like the Norwegians, see a real danger that most other people don’t.

Later, we see that sled dog looking intently, ominously, out a window at the Americans’ helicopter returning after investigating what happened at the Norwegian base. Ennio Morricone‘s keyboard soundtrack was playing when the dog was chased by the helicopter, with an eerie bass synth ostinato highlighting a pair of loud notes making us think of a heartbeat…the alien’s heartbeat? The dog isn’t man’s best friend, but his worst enemy.

When the dog is caught in the middle of making another dog into an imitation, Blair (Brimley) examines the internal organs of the imitation and realizes how indistinguishable those organs are from a real dog’s organs. He is so horrified by the implications of this alien ability (i.e., that it can imitate humans) that he goes mad and violent, and then has to be sedated and confined, separate from the other men.

The imitation is both internally and externally perfect, and so the alien can take on all kinds of shapes and forms. Recall what happens to Norris’s body when Dr. Copper does the defibrillating; a huge mouth opens up from Norris’s chest, with huge teeth that bite off Copper’s hands, killing him. Then Norris’s head rips off the body and grows what look like an insect’s legs and stalks with eyes on the top of each; hence MacReady’s correct observation that The Thing’s body parts, right down to drops of blood, can be complete life forms in themselves. Copper’s mutilation symbolizes the injuries the worker under capitalism often suffers, often without compensation.

Capitalism, too, can adapt and imitate many aspects of leftist ideology, in ways so convincing that many people confuse real leftism with phoney versions of it, for example, mainstream liberalism, social democracy, identity politics, social justice warriors, “democratic socialism,” etc. Tiny parts of capitalism existing within ‘socialism’ are still cancerous capitalism, and thus must be rooted out. Capitalism’s ability to adapt is remarkable, as David Harvey noted in a quote I’ve used in other blog posts, but it’s relevant to reuse it here, too:

“Capital is not a fixed magnitude! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of ‘accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.” –David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, page 262

So, with all this shapeshifting and adapting that The Thing does, who are the men’s friends, and who are their foes? Much suspicion is put on Clark, Windows (Waites), Garry, and MacReady, all of whom, it turns out, are not aliens (though we can’t be too sure about MacReady at the end of the movie). Windows in particular has a menacing look on his face as he waits in the shadows for MacReady to dip a hot wire into a sample of his blood, only to prove his innocence.

Similarly, who are the friends, and who the foes, of the working class? Is communists’ preoccupation with the imperialist plunder of the Third World a legitimate concern, or does this concern just make us ‘tankies‘ whose ‘over-solicitude’ is used to justify ‘dictatorship’? Will a few left-leaning reforms, giving the Western working class some free stuff, be sufficient, while we not only ignore but aggravate the exploitation of people in developing countries? Is getting rid of Trump and the GOP all we need to do, or is there something more fundamental that needs to be fixed in American politics?

As I mentioned above, this alien doesn’t need a full body to reproduce itself in imitations: a mere drop of its blood is enough, hence the efficacy of MacReady’s blood test with the hot wire (also used in the novella). Since I see the alien as symbolic of capitalism and imperialism, we should consider what the drops of blood–these ever-so-small parts of the alien’s body as fully-functioning, independent units of existence, each a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the whole Thing–imply about the danger of the existence of even the smallest manifestations of capitalism, that eerie alien (and alienating) heartbeat that never dies.

Social democracy incorporates strong unions, a welfare state, free education and healthcare, among other benefits for working people, all within the context of a market economy. Yugoslavia under Tito pursued a market socialist economy and remained independent of the Eastern Bloc; some say Yugoslavia‘s non-alliance with the Eastern Bloc gave Western imperialism an advantage, helping them defeat communism by the 1990s, thus ushering in the current neoliberal hell. Recall that Lenin’s NEP was only meant as a temporary measure. Stalin put an end to it after a mere eight years.

Even the smallest amounts of capitalism–just like even the smallest amounts of The Thing–can’t be allowed to live and thrive. The microcosm is no less evil than the macrocosm.

IV: The Narcissistic Thing

While discussing the tinier manifestations of evil as seen in The Thing, consider how narcissism or psychopathy (seen in ambitious, exploitative individuals) are the microcosm of the macrocosm of capitalism and class war. People with Cluster B personality disorders will slip in among the crowd of normal people, pretend to be as normal as the latter, and will treat them as extensions of themselves, just as The Thing does to the Americans.

Non-psychopathic and non-narcissistic people will be falsely accused of having either those pathologies (i.e., through projection) or similar ones, as Clark, Garry, Windows, and MacReady are suspected of being alien imitations. Not only will the Cluster-B-disordered one accuse the innocent, but so will his enablers (even the unwitting enablers), as is the case when the non-assimilated men accuse each other of being ‘Things.’

The narcissist or psychopath is, like The Thing, selfish, wishing only to survive, even at the cost of betraying his own kind (this selfishness is noted especially in the novella with respect to “the monster”–Chapter VIII). A game of divide and conquer is played, making the victims hostile to each other instead of to the victimizer. We see this antagonism in The Thing, in the exploitative relationship between narcissists and their victims–that is, on the microcosmic level–and in class relations (i.e., big corporations vs. small businesses and workers) on the macrocosmic level. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Still, the narcissist needs other people to give him narcissistic supply, and the capitalist always needs new supplies of profit to offset the TRPF; just as The Thing always needs a new supply of life forms to assimilate. If the narcissist’s True Self is exposed, he goes berserk with narcissistic rage, feeling the danger of psychological fragmentation; just as the alien goes wild and physically comes apart when Palmer is exposed as an imitation.

Heat will expose the alien, and fire will kill it. It can, however, hibernate in ice. The narcissist, as well as the capitalist, has an icy heart–cold is his home. The Thing, narcissist, and capitalist can all hide in human warmth, though, pretending to be a friend even as they plot our destruction.

V: The Thing-in-itself

So, to recap, The Thing could be seen as symbolizing the threat of the spread of communism, as conservatives and liberals would see it. In my Marxist interpretation, the alien invader represents capitalist imperialism, the microcosm of which (that is, The Thing’s blood) is the narcissistic or psychopathic personality. But this all depends on one’s sense perceptions.

What is The Thing, in itself?

Thanks to Kant, I’ve just answered my own question.

The Thing appears to be a sled dog at the beginning of the film, thanks to the limitations of the Americans’ sense impressions. When they see the thing-in-itself, that is, in mid-transformation into other dogs, they realize their senses have deceived them. The men continue to have this sensory deception throughout the film, as do we, the viewers, right up to when MacReady and Childs share the bottle of scotch and begin freezing to death.

In this sense, The Thing represents the source of human problems, whatever that source really is; it is what it is, in spite of the limitations of our sensory impressions, those of our world view, those of our political biases. Conservatives’ and liberals’ biases would call that source communism, or something similar. Marxists like me would call that source the capitalism that conservatives and liberals defend (in its ‘free market‘ or ‘kinder, gentler‘ forms, respectively).

So, which is the friend, capitalism or communism, and which the foe? According to John Carpenter, one of the two freezing men sharing the bottle is an alien assimilation: is it Childs, or MacReady? Which is the friend, and which the foe? Is the friend the man who–suspected of being a foe–‘Stalinistically’ [!] had most of the other men tied up, and yet exposed Parker; and is the foe Childs, who was opposed to imperious MacReady’s blood testing, yet at the end of the film shows no light reflection in his eyes, and whose breath isn’t visible?

As for the thing-in-itself, some, like Wilfred Bion in his mystical conception of O, might associate Kant’s idea with God, or Ultimate Reality. O is to be understood intuitively through the abandonment of memory, desire, and understanding–no use of deceptive sense impressions. Bion didn’t sentimentalize his mystical idea, though; he acknowledged that O results in moments of ominous and turbulent feelings…feelings the alien certainly provokes in the Americans…feelings that cause one to lose one’s anchor of security in everyday reality.

If The Thing, as thing-in-itself, is some form of Divinity, again we must ask: is God friend, or foe? Is Ultimate Reality a comforting…or a terrifying…reality? Recall that Christians (Protestants in particular) often embrace capitalism, believing that God is rewarding their work ethic, seen as an expression of their religious faith, with financial success. Thus, God is a friend to the capitalists–to the rest of us, not so much.

During the end credits, we hear Morricone’s funereal organ tune and its alien heartbeat bass synth line; a fusion of life and death, more dialectical unity in opposites. The killing alien is still alive. The defeat of communism is a joy to the capitalists, but a catastrophe to us Marxists, who see imperialism‘s continued destruction of the rest of the world, just as The Thing will surely continue to assimilate other humans when a rescue team comes and finds the American research base.

When Childs and MacReady freeze, the human will die and The Thing will hibernate until that rescue team comes and thaws it out. Which man is real, and which is fake? It’s been said that all the men whose eyes show a reflection of light are real, and those without that reflection–like Palmer, Norris, and Childs (at the end)–are imitations. But that’s just the opinion, the sense perception, of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who deliberately provided a subtle illumination to the eyes of uninfected characters, something absent from Childs, with his conspicuously invisible breath, at the end. 

Cundey created that sense impression in the characters’ eyes, just as we all create our own sense impressions of the world through our personal biases. Does light in the eyes symbolize ‘seeing the light’ of human truth, or do we just interpret the symbolism that way? Is the light in our eyes just the limitation of our own sense perceptions?

If, Dear Reader, your senses perceive it to be disturbing that I would consider the communists our friends, and the capitalists–of every conceivable stripe–our foes, remember that The Thing is a horror movie. That’s the whole scary thing about the film: we don’t know who our friends and enemies really are, including our ideological friends and foes; and in spite of the persuasiveness of the light-in-the-eyes theory, we don’t know for sure which man–Childs, or MacReady–is The Thing.

The two freezing men will just have to wait there a little while, and see what happens.

Analysis of ‘Falling Down’

Falling Down is a 1993 thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Ebbe Roe Smith, and starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, and Barbara Hershey; it costars Frederick Forrest, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Lois Smith, and Raymond J. Barry.

Douglas plays Bill Foster (whose car’s personalized plate says “D-FENS,” hence the ending credits name him thus), an unemployed, divorced former weapons builder who has a mental breakdown in Los Angeles during a sweltering day in summer. He is the stereotypical “angry white male,” feeling shafted by a system that’s actually far more unfair to those other than his socioeconomic category.

I’d have to agree with Kirk Douglas and say that his son’s performance as D-FENS is his best yet. Though D-FENS represents a lot of disagreeable aspects of conservative American men, Michael Douglas humanizes the character and his many faults, making us sympathize with him, however indefensible his acts and thoughts may be.

Here are some quotes:

[Bill Foster exits his car in the middle of the highway]

Man on Freeway: Hey, where do you think you’re going?

Bill Foster: I’m going home! (his first line in the film) […]

“I’m rolling prices back to 1965!” –Bill, to Lee, the Korean store owner

“I am not a vigilante. I am just trying to get home to my little girl’s birthday. Now if everyone will just stay out of my way, then nobody will get hurt.” Bill, to Nick, the neo-Nazi surplus store owner (Forrest)

“I lost my job. Actually I didn’t lose it. It lost me. I’m overeducated, underskilled—Maybe it’s the other way around. I forget—but I’m obsolete. I’m not economically viable. I can’t even support my own kid.” –Bill

“You know what was in this? Zyklon-B! You remember? What the Nazis had! Listen! [shakes can, a slight rattle is heard] Empty! This was used, man! This was actually used! I wonder how many kikes this little can took out? Huh?! Think about it!” –Nick, to Bill

“Fuck you, Captain Yardley. Fuck you very much.” –Prendergast (Duvall)

Rick: Yes, sir?

Bill Foster: Hi. I’d like some breakfast?

Rick: We stopped serving breakfast.

Bill Foster: I know you stopped serving breakfast Rick, Sheila told me that you… why am I calling you by your first names? I don’t even know you. I still call my boss ‘Mister’ even though I’ve been working with him for seven years, but all of a sudden I walk in here and I’m calling you Rick and Sheila like we’re in some kind of AA meeting and…I don’t want to be your buddy, Rick. I just want a little breakfast?

Sheila: You can call me Miss Folsom if you want.

RickSheila. We stopped serving breakfast at 11:30.[Foster looks at his watch to find it’s 3 minutes past the deadline. He places his gym bag full of guns on the counter.]

Bill Foster: Rick, have you ever heard the expression “the customer is always right”?

Rick: (sighs) Yeah.

Bill Foster: Well, here I am. The customer.

Rick: (still smiling) That’s not our policy. You’ll have to order something from the lunch menu.

Bill Foster: I don’t want lunch. I want breakfast.

Rick: Yeah, well hey, I’m really sorry.

Bill Foster: (smiles back) Yeah, well hey, I’m real sorry too. (pulls out a TEC-9) […]

Bill Foster: You’re Korean? Do you have any idea how much money my country has given your country?

Mr. Lee: How much?

Bill Foster: I don’t know, but it’s gotta be a lot. […]

Nick: We’re the same, you and me. We’re the same, don’t you see?

Bill Foster: We are not the same. I’m an American, you’re a sick asshole. […]

“I am just disagreeing with you! In America, we have the freedom of SPEECH! The right to DISAGREE!” –Bill, to Nick

“Good! Good, freedom of religion. Now you get the swing of it. Feels good to exercise your rights, doesn’t it?” –Bill, then opening fire on Nick, shooting him through a mirror

“Beth, did you know that in some South American countries it’s legal to kill your wife if she insults you?” –Bill

Sergeant Prendergast: Let’s meet a couple of police officers. They’re all good guys.

Bill Foster: I’m the bad guy?

Prendergast: Yeah.

Bill Foster: How did that happen? I did everything they told me to. Did you know I build missiles?

Prendergast: Yeah.

Bill Foster: I help to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Then they give it to the plastic surgeon. You know, they lied to me.

Prendergast: Is that what this is about? You’re angry because you got lied to? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? Hey, they lie to everybody. They lie to the fish! But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.

How D-FENS dresses and looks is significant. With a crew cut, glasses, and a white shirt and tie, he looks like a man straight out of the late Fifties, or early Sixties. In fact, he’s stuck in the Sixties, but not the way a hippie is; he is a don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty kind of man from the Sixties, having built missiles “to protect us from the communists,” as his mother tells Prendergast. D-FENS thus represents straight America.

Now, D-FENS, like straight America, has always had problems. His ex-wife, Beth (Hershey) has always sensed his potential for violence; like Travis Bickle, Bill Foster is a ticking time bomb.

Similarly, the US has, throughout her history, been a bomb waiting to explode; we know this because she has already exploded so many times before. But now that the Cold War is over, and she doesn’t have the convenient enemy of the USSR, America needs a new enemy, and has been seeking them out eagerly; so now her explosive tendencies have grown so much more dangerous…as have Bill’s. On this hot summer day, his war with LA is no cold one.

His problem–a “horrendous temper,” as Beth calls it–is on a continuum with most of the other characters, and this is significant, given his being a personification of conservative America. Indeed, a number of characters, especially Prendergast, parallel D-FENS to at least some extent, in terms of their pain, anger, alienation, and how varyingly functional or dysfunctional their ways are of coping with their problems.

When we see D-FENS in his car at the beginning of the movie, stuck in bumper-t0-bumper traffic on such a hot day, his air conditioning not working, and a fly buzzing all around him, we see him sweating, growing increasingly agitated, and finally losing it and abandoning his car. He goes from this agitation to a complete mental breakdown within the next half-hour.

He seems, on the face of it, so normal, so ‘straight,’ yet he goes crazy and violent in such short order. Seeing this, we ask ourselves, ‘Could I do that one day? What will it take to push me over the edge?’ After all, we don’t yet know much about him, until we get his ex-wife’s perspective; so Bill could be any ordinary American, for all we know.

This potential to become–this changing from one kind of man to another, two kinds so seemingly opposed, from ‘the good guy’ to the bad guy, is what makes D-FENS so scary to us. This contrast seems stronger when we learn from his mother, who’s terrified of him, that he has built weapons for American defence–“D-FENS!”–and when he’s lost his job, it’s the rest of us who need defence from D-FENS.

Now that he’s stopped building missiles, he’s become a kind of missile himself. As a weapons builder, Bill represents more than just straight America: he also represents the military-industrial complex (MIC). His accumulation of weapons (a bat, a switchblade, a gym bag full of guns, and a rocket launcher) thus represents the frightening growth of the MIC. The phallic nature of those amassed weapons also symbolizes Bill’s growing hyper-masculinity.

The MIC has always been in the service of imperialism, which is the extension of capitalist hegemony into other countries. The capitalist imperialist tends, however, to project his intrusiveness onto his victims (e.g., ‘the terrorists are going to get us,’ so we must bomb the Middle East, or, ‘we must stop the Red menace,’ so any killing of communists around the world is considered justified), just as Bill projects his aggression onto those he runs into. He attacks, yet he imagines it’s all…D-FENS.

So when he walks into the grocery store for change for the pay phone, and he finds Mr. Lee (Michael Paul Chan), the Korean owner, uncooperative, he busts up the place, as the US military did when the North Korean communists refused to cooperate with capitalism. Bill’s paying for a can of Coke–rolled back to 1960s prices–represents the capitalist imperialist short-changing the global proletariat. His taking of Mr. Lee’s bat represents imperialism’s attempts (if not successes) at depriving countries like the DPRK of the ability to defend themselves, a depriving that the US considers…D-FENS!

Capitalism breeds alienation, which includes the inability to communicate; therefore it’s no surprise that Bill finds it difficult to say anything when Beth answers his phone calls. He says nothing during those first few calls, but she knows it’s him on the other end.

She explains to the police that she has a restraining order against Bill–which she admits may have done more harm than good (it has!)–because she (justifiably, we learn) fears the possibility, the potential, of his rage to blow up into physical violence. She can see the psychopathy in Bill’s eyes; just as we on the left can see the potential for the moderate right to develop into outright fascism.

Still, we viewers of the film find ourselves sympathizing with D-FENS, in spite of his increasing violence and instability, since almost everyone he encounters is rude and obnoxious. Our sympathizing with him, however, is dangerous in how we make ourselves complicit, if only in thought, in his excesses.

Indeed, when we see him encounter the two Latinos in gangland, their bullying of him makes it hard to sympathize with them; but when you see this film as an allegory of US imperialism‘s dealings with Third World countries (e.g., those of Central and South America), the two Latinos’ aggression against gringo Bill becomes more than understandable.

They claim he’s “trespassing on private property,” a turning of the tables of what’s usually the white man telling the poor and people of colour to get off his property. Seen in this light, Bill’s D-FENSiveness becomes far less D-FENSible.

Now, as we ignorantly sympathize with Bill, we feel less and less sympathy for those who annoy him, including the poor. A homeless man trying to get a handout from him bumbles and stumbles over his absurdly transparent lies, making us want to laugh at his stupidity rather than pity him for his plight. Bill, of course, icily rejects him, and we find ourselves agreeing with him that the man should just “try to get a job.” (We probably forget our having agreed with him when we later realize Bill himself has no job, which has already been implied by his suitcase having only his lunch, and no business papers.)

Such an uncaring attitude toward the poor is dangerous, though, given the American gutting of welfare just a few years after this movie was made, one of many neoliberal moves resulting in, among other problems, the current epidemic of homelessness, not only in LA, but also in such places as San Francisco, Toronto, and the UK.

His confrontation with the staff in the Whammyburger is instructive of how employees are treated in capitalist society. Granted, we customers can’t help being annoyed when we enter a fast food restaurant hoping for breakfast, but we’re only a few minutes late, and they’ve switched to the lunch menu; still, it’s hard for the workers in the hot kitchen, cluttered with both breakfast and lunch cooking equipment, to prepare both kinds of meals at the same busy, hectic time. A strict ending of the one, to facilitate the switch to the other, may be inconvenient, but it’s perfectly understandable, as any past or present worker at places like McDonald’s will know.

Bill’s brandishing of the semi-automatic weapon, firing into the ceiling, is symbolic not only of the rudeness customers show to those suffering in silence in the food service industry (and I am guilty of such rudeness, too, far more often than I care to admit), but also of the boss’s bullying of his striking workers, getting the police to fire on them. Recall in this connection that, since “the customer is always right,” he is the boss even of the boss and managers.

As our Odysseus continues on his journey home (and recall that Odysseus returned home after invading Troy with his army, as Bill’s America invades countries all the time), seeing poor people all around him and caring little about their plight, one far greater than his personal frustrations, he buys a gift for his daughter and sees a black man (short hair, white shirt and tie!) complaining outside a savings-and-loan that won’t give him a loan because he’s “not economically viable!” Bill can sympathize with this man, because he’s clearly middle class by his clothes. The man is one of several doubles of Bill seen throughout the film.

Speaking of Bill doubles, Prendergast has his own family frustrations, including a difficult wife and a daughter he can’t see…because she’s dead. Instead of losing his job, he’s about to retire; and after leaving fighting crime on the streets to work at a desk, he has to endure the taunts of the other cops for supposedly being a coward, when getting off the streets is the only way he can stop his wife from being hysterical.

Still, with all of his problems, he’s able to deal with them in a controlled, reasonable way, unlike D-FENS. The most violent he gets is punching a particularly obnoxious cop in his department for insulting his wife, and shooting D-FENS when goaded into killing him. Part of the p0int of Prendergast and the “not economically viable” man is to show that we can express our anger without making it escalate into frightening proportions.

We hear so many tragic stories about unstable Americans (usually white men) with guns a-blazing. The US, as the nerve centre of global capitalism, “the belly of the beast,” as Che Guevara once called her, is also one of the worst places as far as alienation is concerned. Added to this is the toxic mixture of violent hyper-masculinity (a combination of biological factors and sex role socialization) and gun culture, including such absurdities as open carry. Then, there’s the growing problem of “white nationalism,” which leads me to Bill’s next major confrontation.

After Nick, the surplus store owner who’s been emboldened by Bill (and whom he says he’s “the same” as), taunts two gay men, he protects Bill from the “officeress” and gives him a rocket launcher. When Bill sees just how far to the right neo-Nazi Nick is, he refuses to identify with him.

Conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves about not being at least comparable to fascists. The only difference between a centre-rightist and a far-rightist is how much rage and frustration each feels with society. Both support the hierarchical, capitalist establishment; the fascist resorts to violence when that establishment is, or at least seems to be, threatened–the moderate conservative sees no threat…yet.

We must remember that the world isn’t a static, unchanging thing. All things flow dialectically, as I argued in my ouroboros posts. The social democrat shifts counterclockwise to the liberal centrist, who in turn shifts centre-right–or neoliberal/neocon–when such things as political correctness frustrate him; and this centre-rightist shifts to a pro-fascist position when the heat’s on even more.

This is why, when D-FENS says to Nick, “I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole,” he’s being more than disingenuous. Conservative Americans like to rationalize their reactionary ideology by imagining they’re defending freedom, including freedom of speech and of religion…and who did many of these conservatives vote into office? Someone who cages migrants, has banned travel from six Muslim-majority countries, and dismisses criticisms of him as “fake news.” Because the DNC establishment is largely no better than he, he’ll probably get reelected in 2020, too.

When D-FENS shoots and kills the neo-Nazi, what’s interesting is how the latter is in front of a mirror. Bill is projecting his own fascistic tendencies onto Nick, pretending that his own evil potential is something alien to himself, when that Lacanian mirror shows Bill’s and Nick’s reflections together, a merging of the moderate right that is forever in danger of phasing into the extreme right. Whether Bill wants to admit it or not, Nick’s right-wing authoritarian ideal ego is Bill’s, too.

Just before D-FENS kills Nick, he falls down, which of course refers back to the film’s title (contrast this with Prendergast’s singing of “London Bridge is falling down…” to soothe and comfort his wife). Here is the point where Bill is falling down,…the point of no return. Up until this point, his aggressions have fallen short of lethal. He shot the Latino gang member in the leg, and the switchblade stab in Nick’s neck isn’t quite enough to kill him; but then Bill points Nick’s pistol at him with a shaky, spastic hand while looking at Nick and himself in Lacan’s mirror. Bill is fragmented and alienated from himself and his Nazi doppelgänger, as well as from the world. This murder is symbolic suicide (he shoots a hole in the mirror, at a point connecting with his reflection), for Bill hates what he can see himself turning into.

He’s at the point of no return; having killed the violent, fascist authoritarian, he’s become what he killed–the potential has become the reality. Accordingly, he threatens Beth on the phone. So much for the ‘American’ right to disagree: she disagrees with him, in his unstable state, when he asserts his right to see his daughter on her birthday; he implies he’ll kill Beth if she “insults” him.

Normally, one would sympathize with divorced men who are discriminated against in child custody cases; but Bill is clearly one of those kind of men who are unfit to raise a child. His embrace of his daughter at the end of the film would begin a process of emotional healing for him, but he’s nonetheless reached the point of no return…

Now “dressed like GI Joe,” which is symbolic of his militaristic, quasi-fascist frame of mind, D-FENS leaves the surplus store with the rocket launcher in the gym bag and confronts a group of construction workers, like those whose blockage of the road set him off at the beginning of the movie. Again, as with the Whammyburger incident, we may be annoyed with government bureaucracy and all of its rules, regulations, and interference in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we can assume they’re never justified.

When Bill is told there’s “nothing” wrong with the road, this could just be the worker’s exasperated attempt to placate him, since Bill won’t accept being told there’s a legitimate reason for digging up the road. Government bureaucracy, rules, and intrusions are sometimes without justification, but sometimes they can’t be avoided. Bill, as right-libertarians all too often do, refuse to accept this reality.

The right-winger despises unionized workers, but sometimes he despises the rich, too. That’s why D-FENS gets mad at rich golfers and plastic surgeons. Right-libertarians blame the state for propping up the super-rich while they insist on preserving the class system and ‘free market’ that inevitably result in the current oligarchy. Fascists and Nazis have sometimes paid lip service to opposing capitalism, but Hitler was content to get financial aid from big business, including from foreign capitalists. Both of these kinds of right-wing thinkers are wilfully blind to their own hypocrisy. Capitalism is fine when it’s convenient for their selfish interests; if not, it’s just ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism,’ and not ‘real’ capitalism.

Still, we whites are made to sympathize with Bill. Such sympathy is dangerous, leading to such real-life violence as the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting (whose suspect was fixated on this movie). Whites often tend to lack sympathy for the justified anger of such people as the black rioters in LA in 1992, which disrupted the filming of Falling Down. When Bill breaks down and cries before the family in the backyard of the plastic surgeon, we’re touched by the expression of his pain (superbly played by Michael Douglas); but we mustn’t let that blind us to all the wrong D-FENS has been doing. Having a little residual humanity isn’t enough when the rest is all viciousness and brutality.

Speaking of the mix of residual humanity with brutality, consider the world that D-FENS wishes would come back. As a builder of missiles “to protect us from the communists,” he had work centred around the Cold War. This means, on the one hand, he helped the American war machine undermine the efforts of the USSR, Maoist China, Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc to free the world of imperialism. To Bill, that’s “D-FENS!” To us anti-imperialists, it’s viciousness.

On the other hand, the very presence of those Red countries prodded Western countries to provide quasi-social-democratic programs to help the Western working class feel at least somewhat comfortable under capitalism, thus stemming the tide of communist revolution. This ‘pinkish capitalism,’ if you will, was at its zenith from the post-WWII era to 1973. This was that bit of ‘residual humanity’ symbolized in those sympathetic moments in Bill; to us Marxists, that ‘humanity’ did little of substance for the world.

You see, those postwar, social-democratic benefits were largely for white working class men. The story was different for women who, during WWII, had had their first taste of bringing home a good pay-check doing their husbands’ jobs, but then had to go back in the kitchen, or to traditional, lower-paying jobs, once their husbands returned; and secondly, increasing divorce, especially during the Sixties, threw many women back into the workplace, where they’d experience discrimination. I hardly need to review what blacks were going through at the time.

Still, this postwar prosperity, with the American assurance that Bill et al were on the side of freedom, was a world that gave a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. By the time of this movie, though, the USSR has already dissolved with almost all the other socialist states, and ‘freedom’ has prevailed. But as Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom observed, the experience of ‘freedom from’ tyranny leads to a vacuum that needs to be filled with a new sense of structure, since no ‘freedom to’ develop one’s human potential has been provided to fill the void.

Bill has been in this predicament ever since his divorce from Beth and the loss of his job. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, without any structure or purpose in his life. All he can do is resort to increasing violence, as did the Nazis, of whom Fromm wrote.

Similarly, the Western victory over communism left the US without an enemy, and with a NATO hungry for expansion. Terrorism satisfied that need for an enemy during the 2000s, and Russia and China have satisfied it recently. The US, like D-FENS, has been growing more and more bellicose by the year. Many foresee American self-destruction within the next ten to fifteen years, comparable to Bill’s goaded suicide at the end of the film. (Recall what I said above, that Bill is straight America personified.)

All those angry white men, by the way, who cheer on D-FENS’s aggression fail to understand the film’s real intentions. We’re not meant to condone his actions, however much we may sympathize with him for how he’s suffered. Just because he’s gone through so much hardship, “doesn’t give [him] any special right to do what [he] did,” as Prendergast–who has also suffered terribly, yet handled his problems far better–says.

Now, for those on the right side of the political spectrum who are reading this, and are shaking their heads at what I’ve written here, I’ll give you all a full confession. I too went through an ‘angry white male’ phase, from my mid-twenties up until my late thirties, from about the mid-1990s to about 2010, before coming to my senses, shifting from the centre-right–little by little–to the left where I am comfortable now. I know your anger, right-leaning readers: I’m not some latte-sipping liberal who lives in the ivory tower of a university life; I’ve known for many years how mean and nasty the real world is.

So, to all you fans of D-FENS out there: please come to your senses and realize that he isn’t meant to be emulated, as Craig Stephen Hicks emulated him. You don’t want to find yourself falling down with people like this. It’s a fall from grace you might not be able to pick yourself back up from.