Analysis of ‘RoboCop’

RoboCop is a 1987 science fiction action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. It stars Peter Weller in the title role, as well as Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O’Herlihy, and Ronny Cox.

It is considered one of the best films of 1987, and it spawned two sequels, several TV series (including two cartoons), video games, and a comic book, as well as a remake that got a comparatively lukewarm reception. There is much more to this film than just the usual ‘shoot-’em-up’ action film formula: there is much social commentary on the evils of capitalism, media manipulation, gentrification, and one’s sense of identity.

Here are some quotes:

“I’d buy that for a dollar!” –Bixby Snyder, repeated line from a TV show

Dougy: We rob the banks but we never get to keep the money.
Emil: Takes money to make money. We steal money to buy coke then sell the coke to make even more money. Capital investment, man.
Dougy: Yeah, but why bother making it when we can just steal it?
Emil: No better way to steal money than free enterprise.

Good night, sweet prince.” –Joe Cox, to Murphy after the gang has shot him

Bob Morton: How does he eat?
Roosevelt: His digestive system is extremely simple. This processor dispenses a rudimentary paste that sustains his organic systems.
Johnson: [Roosevelt dispenses the paste into a cup and hands it to Johnson] Tastes like baby food.
Bob Morton: Knock yourself out.

“Your move, creep.” –RoboCop

Reporter: Robo, excuse me, Robo! Any special message for all the kids watching at home?
RoboCop: Stay out of trouble.

“Murphy, it’s you!” –Officer Lewis

Officer Lewis: I asked him his name. He didn’t know.
Bob Morton: Oh, great. Let me make it real clear to you. He doesn’t have a name. He’s got a program. He’s product. Is that clear?

“I dunno, I dunno, maybe I’m just not making myself clear. I don’t want to fuck with you, Sal, but I’ve got the connections, I’ve got the sales organization, I got the muscle to shove enough of this factory so far up your stupid wop ass, that you’ll shit snow for a year!” –Clarence

“What’s the matter, officer? I’ll tell you what’s the matter. It’s a little insurance policy called ‘Directive 4’, my contribution to your very psychological profile. Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown. What did you think? That you were an ordinary police officer? You’re our product. And we can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?” –Dick Jones, when ‘Directive 4’ interferes with RoboCop’s attempt to arrest him

“It’s a free society – except there ain’t nothin’ free, because there’s no guarantees, you know? You’re on your own. It’s the law of the jungle. Hoo-hoo.” –Keva Rosenberg, Unemployed Person

Nukem. Get them before they get you. Another quality home game from Butler Brothers.” –Commercial Voice-Over

Dick Jones: That thing is still alive.
Clarence Boddicker: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dick Jones: The police officer who arrested you, the one you spilled your guts to.
Clarence Boddicker: Hey, take a look at my face, Dick! He was trying to kill me!
Dick Jones: He’s a cyborg, you idiot! He recorded every word you said! His memories are admissable as evidence! You involved me! You’re gonna have to kill it.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, listen, chief…your company built the fucking thing! Now I gotta deal with it?! I don’t have time for this bullshit! [heads for the door]
Dick Jones: Suit yourself, Clarence. But Delta City begins construction in two months. That’s two million workers living in trailers. That means drugs. Gambling. Prostitution. [Boddicker stops, backtracks into the room] Virgin territory for the man who knows how to open up new markets. One man could control it all, Clarence.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, I guess we’re gonna be friends after all… Richard. [Jones tosses Boddicker RoboCop’s tracker.]
Dick Jones: Destroy it.
Clarence Boddicker: Gonna need some major firepower. You got access to military weaponry?
Dick Jones: We practically are the military.

“It’s back. Big is back, because bigger is better. 6000 SUX – an American tradition!” –Commercial Voiceover [caption on screen says “An American Tradition. 8.2 MPG”]

“You are illegally parked on private property. You have twenty seconds to move your vehicle.” –ED-209, seeing RoboCop drive up to the OCP entrance

[last lines] Old Man: [to RoboCop] Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?
RoboCop: [stops and turns around; to Old Man] Murphy. [warmly smiles and walks out]

The sardonic take on the media is apparent right from the beginning, with TV newscasters played by none other than Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons (she having been on such programs as Entertainment Tonight) discussing the shooting of Officer Frank Frederickson, the policeman Murphy (Weller) is replacing in the local Detroit police force. An example of media phoniness is seen when newscaster Casey Wong (Machado) roots for Frederickson to recover from his injuries.

The police are having such difficulties dealing with the rampant crime in Detroit–a problem exacerbated by the plans of megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to privatize the force–that one angry cop suggests going on strike.

As I’ve argued in other posts, I see the mafia, as well as police–and most obviously, corporations like OCP–as representing differing facets of capitalism: the crime gang headed by Clarence Boddicker (Smith) symbolizes the “free market” version; and the cops are, apart from their role as capitalists’ bodyguards, representative of a more government-regulated version of capitalism. How the mafia, cops, and corporations intermingle is made blatantly clear in the movie.

In fact, when Murphy and Lewis (Allen) have chased Clarence’s gang into an abandoned steel mill (the gang’s hideout), we hear Emil (played by Paul McCrane) chatting with Dougy about “free enterprise,” in the form of stealing in order to finance their cocaine business. Capitalism in general is about stealing (the fruits of worker labour in the form of surplus value) in order to accumulate capital.

Capitalists don’t screw over only their workers, though. They also step on each other in the brutal, dog-eat-dog world of competition. As Marx said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) We see examples of this striking down in the rivalry between Dick Jones (Cox) and Bob Morton (Ferrer) over who has made the superior mechanical cop.

Clarence’s gang doesn’t just kill Murphy: they mutilate his body in swarms of bullets. His hand is blown off by a shotgun, then his entire arm before Clarence finishes him off with a bullet in the head. Indeed, there’s quite a lot of mutilation in this film: consider Emil’s fate, his body deformed in a soaking in toxic waste before his body sprays into pieces after being hit by Clarence’s racing car.

Soon after, Leon (played by Ray Wise) is blown up from having been shot by Lewis with the Cobra Assault Cannon, a weapon Jones has supplied Clarence’s gang with to destroy RoboCop. Morton is also blown up by a grenade set off in his home by Clarence; and Jones’s body is riddled with bullets before he falls to his death at the end of the film. People don’t just die: bodies get destroyed.

This mutilation is symbolic of how capitalism alienates us not just from each other, but also from our own species-essence. This is precisely what Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg symbolizes. He, as a cop defending the capitalist class, is reduced to a machine. His quest for the remainder of the film is to reclaim his identity, something all tied up with this alienation from himself, as a cop who exists only as a product of a corporation.

Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg has been compared to the death and resurrection of Christ. His character in general has been so compared; Verhoeven himself has made this comparison, and one can’t so easily brush aside the interpretations of the movie-maker himself.

Still, I must respectfully disagree. Though RoboCop is the hero of the movie, there’s nothing particularly Christ-like, or even Christian, about him. He’s still a cop: (especially American) cops kill, but Jesus saves. A bullet shot clean through Murphy’s hand could have symbolized the stigmata; instead, his hand (and arm) are blown right off.

Even if one were to say RoboCop’s wading in ankle-deep water is symbolically like Christ’s walking on water, the comparison is superficial. RoboCop is wading in the water pointing his gun at Clarence, saying, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” implying he’s going to shoot and kill the mob boss in cold blood. Christ walked on water to help his frightened disciples on a boat in a storm at sea, to teach them about having faith. The meaning between the two moments couldn’t be farther apart.

We shouldn’t always take movie-makers’ interpretations of their films at face value. How they discuss meaning in their films can often have more to do with stimulating interest in the films and making money off them (speaking of capitalism) than in telling us their real intents. Saying RoboCop represents Christ can easily be seen as a marketing trick to get religiously-minded people to want to buy a ticket and see the film.

So instead of comparing Murphy’s metamorphosis into RoboCop with Christ’s resurrection (how does a mechanical body–not easily perishable–represent a “spiritual body“–utterly imperishable?), I would compare it to a rebirth, almost a reincarnation. Bob Morton is the father, and though he’s playing God in his creation of a part-human, part robot policeman, the ruthless capitalist is no Holy Father; Tyler (played by Sage Parker), the female head of the team of scientists who make RoboCop can be seen as his new mother–she even kisses her baby at a New Year’s Day party, her red lipstick supposedly meant to arouse Oedipal feelings in her ‘son.’

Psychologically, RoboCop can thus be seen as a baby…not the ‘babies’ I characterized Carrie and Hannah as, with their waif-like innocence, naïveté, and vulnerability, of course, but in the sense that, newborn, he has no more than fragments of memories of his former life. He has no sense of self, or a meaningful sense of his past; it’s as if he were born yesterday. He even eats baby food.

Morton, as RoboCop’s ‘father,’ wants total prosthesis (i.e., all mechanical limbs) for his new product, so he insists on amputating Murphy’s one good arm. This amputation is a symbolic castration, yet another symbolic example of the mutilation and disempowerment inherent in capitalism.

Along with this, Morton goes over RoboCop’s Prime Directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. These directives represent the Name of the Father: symbolically castrated RoboCop is being introduced by his ‘father’ into the law and customs of society, though his ability to connect with others, and therefore to know himself, has been severely compromised.

How has this stifling of his sense of self and others happened? Consider the screen that has been fitted in front of his eyes. That screen is symbolically like a filter, blocking out the human connection felt between two faces–i.e., two pairs of naked eyes–looking at each other, empathically mirroring each other. It’s another symbolic manifestation of alienation.

His screen is similar to the TV screens people feel themselves glued to, addicted to, watching the news, commercials, or the TV show funnyman who’d “buy that for a dollar!” It’s similar to our experience today on social media, staring at phone screens instead of looking at each other, person to person, in real life.

In the film, we often see characters breaking the fourth wall and looking at us, who see them from RoboCop’s point of view, through that screen, which has an imperfect resolution like that of the TV screen showing Casey Wong and Jess Perkins (Gibbons), with people communicating insincerely and manipulatively.

Since I compare RoboCop to a psychological baby, I find it apt to compare the screen before his eyes to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of a beta screen. Normally, raw sensory data (beta elements, which tend to be agitating) that we receive from the outside world are taken in and processed in our minds (through alpha function) and turned into alpha elements (emotional experiences now made tolerable and usable as thoughts, dreams, etc.). Some beta elements remain intolerable and are never processed; they’re either projected onto other people, or they accumulate on the periphery of our minds in the form of a beta screen. Excessive accumulations of them can result in psychosis.

RoboCop–someone more machine than man, and who is relegated to the form of a mere product working for a mega-corporation (his ‘father,’ Morton, tells Lewis he has no name–he’s a product)–is no longer able to relate to people normally; so he cannot exchange emotional experiences with them in the form of processing beta elements and turning them into alpha elements, a processing that is the basis for growth in knowledge (Bion’s K) and learning from experience. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

These deficiencies of Murphy’s are far from absolute, though. Those fragments of memories still loom in his unconscious mind, for they have already been processed as alpha elements, and so they can be used in dreams. RoboCop has a dream about having been killed by Clarence’s gang; he wakes up, and he’s determined to find his killers. He’s no longer working under OCP’s orders, and this new willfulness of his makes his creators nervous.

Lewis stops RoboCop as he’s leaving the police station, for she knows who he originally was. She stands before him, looks him in the face–attempting genuine human contact and empathic mirroring–and wants to tell him his name is Murphy. With that screen–his symbolic beta screen–before his eyes, though, he can’t process the emotional experience properly. He can only drone, “How can I help you, Officer Lewis?” in the monotone voice of an automaton. He will, however, remember the name ‘Murphy,’ since his programming records everything, as if on tape, so he’ll eventually learn who he was.

Here’s a paradox about RoboCop: he has few human memories, just scattered fragments (he later tells Lewis that he can feel the memories of his wife and son, but he can’t remember them); any new experience, though, is literally videotaped through his programming, and is ‘remembered’ in minute detail.

When learning the names of all the members of Clarence’s gang, RoboCop finds Murphy’s file, is shocked to see the word “deceased” shown on it, and learns of his old home address. He finds the house, which is now up for sale, since his wife and son, understanding that he’s dead, have left. Fragments of memories of them flash in his mind as he looks about the house, in which a TV shows a real estate agent advertising the virtues of the house.

The pain of realizing what he has lost drives RoboCop to punch the TV screen. Screens divide people from each other; capitalism causes mutual alienation.

Meanwhile, Jones wants revenge on Morton for making him lose face with the success of RoboCop over the disastrous failure of ED-209. Morton’s murder reveals Jones’s business relationship with Clarence. This in turn symbolizes certain paradoxes about capitalism: one capitalist may strike down another, but that same capitalist may, at other times, also cooperate with a third capitalist if doing so is in his interests.

Right-wing libertarians like to fantasize that “free market” capitalism, devoid of government influence, is a purified version that will never result in corruption. This is nonsense, and is a grotesque oversimplification of the problem. Capitalism, in any form, cannot exist without at least some state intervention, and the corporatocracy (what libertarians label with the misnomer “corporatism“) that the “free market” is supposed to prevent is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism.

In capitalism, the 99% don’t count: only the 1% do. This means not only don’t workers count, but small businesses don’t, either. As for the 1% of super successful businesses, we see in them the concentration and centralization of capital; the state doesn’t cause this to happen–the capitalists are doing it all themselves. The only role the state plays is in protecting the interests of the ruling class, and this relationship between the state and capital is what we see in RoboCop.

Corporations, the state, and the market are all intertwined; there’s no separating them from each other. We see this intertwining in OCP, the police department, and Clarence’s gang. Because Clarence has connections with Jones and OCP, he feels free to demand the cocaine he buys from Sal and his mafia business for a lower price. One capitalist strikes down another.

Upon arresting Clarence, RoboCop learns of his connections with Jones. But when he goes to arrest Jones, RoboCop learns of a new, fourth primary directive: he cannot arrest a senior officer of OCP. Here we see the main point of having police–they serve and protect the ruling class. Yes, they catch criminals, but it’s always been about protecting private property; this is a historic fact. This is why the criminal activity of, for example, Wall Street bankers is rarely if ever punished.

Jones tries to have RoboCop destroyed, first by an improved ED-209, then by his police force, and finally by Clarence and his gang. When Delta City is set up, a gentrification project pushing the poor out and getting the rich to buy up the homes, Jones motivates Clarence to kill RoboCop by proposing that the crime boss run the poor areas, making it possible for him “to open up new markets” in prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc. Here we see the mafia again as a metaphor for capitalists.

Lewis and a damaged RoboCop hide out in the abandoned steel mill. He removes his helmet and visor, revealing Murphy’s face again, and he can see through his own eyes. He then sees a reflection of his face. Since, as I’ve argued above, RoboCop is like a baby psychologically, his seeing himself is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, helping him establish a sense of self. Though the ego is ultimately an illusion, RoboCop didn’t even have a sense of that before. He is now becoming reacquainted with his humanity and identity.

Now, when Clarence’s gang comes to fight him, RoboCop isn’t going to arrest them because of a computer program: he wants to kill them in revenge for having destroyed his life. This is how he isn’t symbolic of Christ.

When he arrives at the OCP building, RoboCop must again face ED-209, who tells him he’s trespassing on private property; once again we see the real purpose of the police. Fortunately, Murphy is several cuts above mere protectors of private property, so he destroys ED with one of Clarence’s Cobra Assault Cannons.

When RoboCop presents an incriminating video-recording of Jones confessing to the killing of Morton, Jones puts a gun to the head of The Old Man (O’Herlihy) and attempts to take him as a hostage. When The Old Man fires Jones and elbows him in the gut to get free of him, that fourth directive no longer applies to Jones, so RoboCop is free to shoot him.

The contrast between ruthless Jones (the bad capitalist) and the “sweet Old Man” (the ‘good capitalist’) is a reflection of bourgeois liberal Hollywood’s attitude toward capitalism, and this point is my one bone of contention with the movie. In liberals’ opinion, capitalism just needs to be reformed, its excesses kept in check by the state. In my opinion, capitalism must be completely annihilated; there is no reconciling of the market with socialism. Weaning ourselves of the market may take time, eliminating it bit by bit, but it must be done away with, not just extensively regulated.

The difference between the liberal version of capitalism and the hard right-wing version is seen in how The Old Man wants to build Delta City ‘to give back’ to the people; whereas for Jones, Delta City is a gentrification project. That the ‘kinder, gentler capitalism’ of The Old Man is a sham is made clear when his response to malfunctioning ED-209 is to be upset essentially about the loss of millions of dollars, the brutal, bloody killing of Kinney having caused a minimal emotional reaction in him.

On the other hand, Morton’s “contingency” plan, RoboCop, brings a smile to The Old Man’s face, since it may save him that loss of fifty million dollars in interest payments. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned a CEO may be: the preoccupation with dollars and cents is inherent in the system, no matter how much ‘state planning’ is added to mitigate the deleterious effects of capitalism.

This is why, though RoboCop is several cuts above the average cop in terms of doing the right thing, as a protector of the interests of the ruling class, he is still far from being a Christ figure. Police who don’t protect the capitalist class would be more along the lines of the militsiya and the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, that is to say, armed militias, as well as an army of the people. No, these Soviet police were no saints, but they were much better than the kind that keep taking the life and breath out of people because of the colour of their skin.

Oh, and incidentally, a hypothetical Canadian communist RoboCop would not be Jesus, but Murphy.

Bombs

The war machine

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on the cities of the innocent.
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Moms’ eyes

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their despairing, reddened cheeks.
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Sons’ and daughters’ bodies

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to the stony ground.
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Civilizations’ pillars

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leaving pebbles on the earth.
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Proud, towering trees

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in beds of smokey black.
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When will the fighter jets

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leaving the earth to grow in peace?
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Analysis of ‘True Romance’

True Romance is a 1993 romantic crime thriller written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and has an ensemble cast with Dennis Hopper, Michael Rapaport, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Saul Rubinek, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Bronson Pinchot, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Though the film got positive reviews for its dialogue and characters, it did poorly at the box office. Still, its positive critical reception helped it gain a cult following, and now it’s considered one of Scott’s best films, as well as one of the best American films of the 1990s.

Here are some quotes:

“I had to come all the way from the highways and byways of Tallahassee, Florida to Motor City, Detroit to find my true love. If you gave me a million years to ponder, I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together. And to this day, the events that followed all seem like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever. I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and everything seemed so shitty. And he’d say, ‘That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way too.’ That’s the way romance is. Usually, that’s the way it goes. But every once in awhile, it goes the other way too.” –Alabama, voiceover

“In Jailhouse Rock he was everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly. Mean, surly, nasty, rude. In that movie he couldn’t give a fuck about nothing except rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.” –Clarence, on Elvis

“I always said, if I had to fuck a guy… I mean had to, if my life depended on it… I’d fuck Elvis.” –Clarence

“Please shut up! I’m trying to come clean, okay? I’ve been a call-girl for exactly four days and you’re my third customer. I want you to know that I’m not damaged goods. I’m not what they call Florida white trash. I’m a good person and when it comes to relationships, I’m one-hundred percent, I’m one hundred percent… monogamous.” –Alabama

“I eat the pussy, I eat the butt, I eat every motherfuckin’ thang.” –Big Don

Drexl Spivey: No thanks? What does that mean? Means you ate before you came down here? All full. Is that it? Naw, I don’t think so. I think you’re too scared to be eatin’. Now, see we’re sittin’ down here, ready to negotiate, and you’ve already given up your shit. I’m still a mystery to you. But I know exactly where your white ass is comin’ from. See, if I asked you if you wanted some dinner and you grabbed an egg roll and started to chow down, I’d say to myself, “This motherfucker’s carryin’ on like he ain’t got a care in the world. Who knows? Maybe he don’t. Maybe this fool’s such a bad motherfucker, he don’t got to worry about nothin’, he just sit down, eat my Chinese, watch my TV.” See? You ain’t even sat down yet. On that TV there, since you been in the room, is a woman with her breasteses hangin’ out, and you ain’t even bothered to look. You just been clockin’ me. Now, I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a couple of titties.
Clarence Worley: I’m not eatin’ ’cause I’m not hungry. I’m not sittin’ ’cause I’m not stayin’. I’m not lookin’ at the movie ’cause I saw it seven years ago. It’s “The Mack” with Max Julien, Carol Speed, and Richard Pryor. I’m not scared of you. I just don’t like you. In that envelope is some payoff money. Alabama’s moving on to some greener pastures. We’re not negotiatin’. I don’t like to barter. I don’t like to dicker. I never have fun in Tijuana. That price is non-negotiable. What’s in that envelope is for my peace of mind. My peace of mind is worth that much. Not one penny more, not one penny more.

Clifford: You know, I read a lot. Especially about things in, uh, about history. I find that shit fascinating. Here’s a fact, I don’t know whether you know or not, Sicilians … were spawned by niggers.
Coccotti: Come again? [laughs]
Clifford: It’s a fact. You see, Sicilians have black blood pumpin’ through their hearts. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, you see, the Moors conquered Sicily. And the Moors are niggers.
Coccotti: Yes…
Clifford: So you see, way back then, uh, Sicilians were like, uh, wops from Northern Italy. Ah, they all had blonde hair and blue eyes, but, uh, well, then the Moors moved in there, and uh, well, they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin’ with Sicilian women, huh? That they changed the whole bloodline forever. That’s why blonde hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin. You know, it’s absolutely amazing to me to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that, uh, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene. Now this…[Coccotti laughs]
Clifford: No, I’m, no, I’m quoting… history. It’s written. It’s a fact, it’s written.
Coccotti[laughing] I love this guy. This guy.
Clifford: Your ancestors are niggers. Uh-huh. Hey. Yeah. And, and your great-great-great-great grandmother fucked a nigger, ho, ho, yeah, and she had a half-nigger kid… now, if that’s a fact, tell me, am I lying? ‘Cause you, you’re part eggplant. [All laughing]

“Do I look like a beautiful blond with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice-cream?” –Clarence, to Elliot Blitzer

“Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. I don’t give a shit if you’re fuckin’ Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that fuckin’ tower that killed all them people? I’ll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch. First one is tough, no fuckin’ foolin’. The second one… the second one ain’t no fuckin’ Mardi Gras either, but it’s better than the first one ’cause you still feel the same thing, y’know… except it’s more diluted, y’know it’s… it’s better. I threw up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one… the third one is easy, you level right off. It’s no problem. Now… shit… now I do it just to watch their fuckin’ expression change.” –Virgil, to Alabama after beating her

“If there’s one thing this last week has taught me, it’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.” –Clarence

Cody Nicholson[to Elliot] You just made it big time.
Nicky Dimes: You’re no longer an extra…
Cody Nicholson: …or a bit player…
Nicky Dimes: …or a supporting actor…
Cody Nicholson: …you’re a fucking star. You are a fucking star. And you are going to be playing your one-man show for the next two fucking years for a captive audience. And listen to this, you get out in a few years and meet some old lady, get married, and you’ll be so understanding to your wife’s needs because you’ll know what it feels like to be a woman.
Nicky Dimes: Of course, you’ll only want to fuck her in the ass because that pussy wont be tight enough anymore.
Cody Nicholson: Good one detective, right you fucking faggot?

While the title of the film is rather bland (inspired by the titles of such romance comics as True Stories of Romance), it nonetheless introduces a crucial theme running throughout the story: the dialectical tension between reality and fantasy, and how the latter is an attempt to escape from the former, but one which ultimately fails. I’m using the word romance here to mean more than just “love stories,” or “fiction about idealized or sentimental love,” but “a feeling or quality of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.” It’s an escape from the world of the true.

During the credits, we see visuals of a freezing cold winter in Detroit, with a group of homeless black men huddling around a fire. This is the kind of harsh reality one wishes one could escape from, for example, running away to sunny Los Angeles; but even in a warm, pleasant California environment, harsh reality inevitably follows.

That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way, too.

Clarence Worley (Slater) begins the movie by chatting (with a woman in a bar he hopes to take to the movies for his birthday) about his idol, Elvis. In fact, Elvis is such a hero to him that he sometimes has conversations in his head with the King as his, as it were, imaginary friend and mentor (played by Kilmer). Clarence speaks of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock as “rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.”

(Actually, Elvis’s character, Vince Everett, doesn’t die at the end of Jailhouse Rock. What’s more, anyone who knows about the real Elvis knows that he, overweight, did anything but die leaving a good-looking corpse. He was on the toilet, then fell off and lay on the floor in his own vomit. The King fell off the throne and died, but I digress…)

We see in these representations of Elvis the stark contrast between what’s true and what’s romance. (Speaking of romance, Clarence even has suppressed homosexual feelings about Elvis.) Capitalism sells us all kinds of commodities–in the forms of rock stars, movies, prostitutes, comic books, drugs, etc.–as a way to escape into a world of fantasy…but reality always catches up to us in the end.

The girl Clarence asks out to the movies isn’t interested in seeing a triple feature of Sonny Chiba martial arts movies, so he goes alone; but Alabama (Arquette), a beautiful call girl whom Clarence’s boss has hired so he can get laid on his birthday, comes to the theatre and sits with him. ‘Romance’ has returned.

With her, Clarence spends what he feels is the best time he’s ever had with a woman. She is giving him his fantasy: not just in bed, but also in (often) pretending to have the same interests that he has (liking The Partridge Family is part of the act, and I doubt that she’s anywhere near as interested in the first Spider Man comic as he is, either.)

His romance (i.e., of the perfect, beautiful girl), however, is a true nightmare for her. Even though (or especially because) she likes him, she feels the shame of being forced into prostitution by Drexl Spivey (Oldman). She is a human commodity being sold for Drexl’s profit; small wonder she insists on being called a “call girl” instead of a “whore.”

The enjoyment Clarence has had with her has grown into a full-blown urge to rescue her from her life of exploitation. We go back from the true harshness of the capitalist exploitation of women to the romance of saving her from that life; she even says that his killing of Drexl is “so romantic.”

In “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men,” Freud describes how a man may fall in love with, and thus wish to rescue, a prostitute; the very idea that other men have had her adds to his excitement because in his unconscious he is reminded of his Oedipal feelings for his mother, who he must accept is in a sexual relationship with his father. Clarence’s haunting wish to kill Drexl–even though he can easily just forget about the pimp, since Alabama is safe in Clarence’s home–can be seen as an unconscious transference from Clarence’s father to the pimp.

This transference would make Drexl into a mental representation, for Clarence, of the ‘bad father.’ Clarence obsesses in a fury about killing the pimp. When he confronts Drexl–who upon learning that Alabama is now Clarence’s wife, says this makes the two men “practically related”–Clarence is infuriated all the more. His killing of Drexl (part of the transferred Oedipal fantasy), which upsets his real, estranged father, Clifford (Hopper), causes more psychological conflict for Clarence; but when his father understands just what an awful man Drexl was, and he can accept his son’s killing of him, Clifford can now be fully the ‘good father.’ Clarence’s mentor, ‘Elvis,’ incidentally can be seen as a transferred mental representation of the ‘good father,’ one of the many romantic illusions in Clarence’s mind.

Drexl himself lives in a world of romantic illusions. A ‘wigger,’ he claims that his mother was Apache (Tarantino, pages 51, 65). Big Don (Jackson) and Floyd, two men who are actually black, and whom Drexl will kill and steal a suitcase of cocaine from, chat with Drexl, debating over whether or not it’s manly to perform cunnilingus. Floyd refuses to accept the modern truth that if a man wants to get oral, he should be willing to give oral, too. An extended version of the scene was filmed; the lines can be found on pages 7-11 of Tarantino’s original screenplay.

Drexl imitates blacks, yet he bosses them around (i.e., Marty), and he kills them (Floyd and Big Don). This is like when such musicians as Elvis (arguably) and Led Zeppelin steal the music of black bluesmen and make millions off of it. The white person who appropriates the cultures of people of colour; the man who expects women to service him without him needing to reciprocate–these people are in a fantasy world of romance. They need to be brought back into the world of the true.

Clarence, after killing Drexl, accidentally takes the suitcase of cocaine instead of one with Alabama’s clothes. With this valuable commodity, the two young lovers hope to prosper through a get-rich-quick scheme of selling it cheap to any Hollywood producers that Clarence’s friend, aspiring actor Dick Ritchie (Rapaport) might know.

Having commodities as exchange values in order to get rich is what capitalism is all about. The high that cocaine gives you, the temporary feeling of great confidence, is a romantic escape from the depressing truth of the world, a manic defence–against sadness–that’s in its own way as desirable as the pleasure gained from worshipping movie and rock stars, escaping into the fantasy world of comic books and Hollywood movies, and enjoying prostitutes. Capitalism sells fantasy, and denies us the truth. In True Romance, the suitcase of cocaine, as a coveted commodity, is the film’s MacGuffin.

The reality of capitalism, however, in its legal and illegal forms, is competition over who gets to have and sell the commodities. Hence, Drexl’s demand to “bring [Alabama’s] dumb ass back” to him and into his control. Hence also, the Italian-American mafia’s demand to get their stolen narcotics back.

As I’ve argued in a number of blog posts, the mafia as criminal businesses can easily symbolize capitalism and its exploitation of people. As with any Tarantino script, there is a preoccupation, on at least some level, with racism, which to a great extent is one of the many things capitalists use to divide the working class.

Apart from Tarantino’s fetishization of the word “nigger,” True Romance exploits a number of racial and ethnic stereotypes. The mafia is Italian-American, the blacks whom Drexl kills and steals cocaine from are ‘players‘ who objectify women, Asians are either into martial arts (Chiba) or are violently bloody Hong Kong mafia (i.e., the scene of a movie shown on TV with Chow Yun-fat and another man shooting each other), and the movie producer, Lee Donowitz (Rubinek), who buys the cocaine, is Jewish. [In Tarantino’s screenplay, Italian mafioso Lenny (played by Victor Argo) asks fellow mafioso Marvin, “What’s the Jew-boy’s name?” to which Marvin replies, “Donowitz, he said.” (Tarantino, page 118.) Indeed, Scott’s movie toned down a lot of Tarantino’s use of racial slurs.] Stereotypes are false beliefs about people, often used to flatter oneself at the expense of the stereotyped, and thus are an escape from what’s true.

Speaking of racism, Clarence’s father, Clifford, uses the Sicilian ethnic pride of the Italian-American mafia to get them to kill him quickly; this way, he won’t live to tell their boss, Vincent Coccotti (Walken) where Clarence and Alabama have gone with the cocaine. Saying that “Sicilians were spawned by niggers” is meant to enrage Coccotti into shooting Clifford in the head instead of slowly torturing him into betraying his son. (Actually, though, the notion that the Moors were sub-Saharan black Africans [an idea influenced by such things as modern productions of Othello?], rather than swarthy North African Berbers, is more romance than “history” from Clifford.)

Clarence contacts Dick by payphone, quoting the Big Bopper‘s “Hello, baby!” This is yet another example of Clarence’s preoccupation with popular culture as an escape from the real world. In his hope to sell the cocaine and make a ton of money, we see a contrast with the Big Bopper saying “I ain’t got no money, honey!” This is an ironic contrast between the romance of getting rich quickly and the truth of being poor, as spoken by a rock star, of all people.

Dick’s dreams of being “a successful actor” are similarly a romantic fantasy, especially given how awful his TJ Hooker audition is. Dick’s roommate, stoner Floyd (Pitt) smokes bowls to escape the truth of his wasted life. In fact, Floyd likes to imagine that he can beat up Virgil the mafia man (Gandolfini), so far detached is he from reality. Virgil, in turn, has a male chauvinism that blinds him to the truth that Alabama’s fight reaction, to the trauma of a beating, is strong enough to kill him.

In Tarantino’s original script, after having killed Virgil, Alabama is reciting a version of St. Francis’s prayer while hitting dead Virgil’s head with his phallic shotgun (Tarantino, page 91). The prayer seems self-indulgent at first, but it is another example of the theme of contrast between idealized fantasy (e.g., unconditional Christian love) vs. reality (the need to kill a killer).

Shotgun-wielding Alabama in this scene is the strong phallic woman, the phallus in turn being a symbol of power, the lack of which gives rise to desire. In the capitalist world of haves and have-nots, there is plenty of lack to be desired, and the romantic fantasy world of pleasure generated by the commodities of drugs, prostitutes, and pop culture (Hollywood movies, Animal Crackers, burgers, etc.) is an attempt to fill that lack.

Sissy Elliot Blitzer (Pinchot), who can’t even go on a roller coaster without throwing up, and who is bullied by Donowitz, tries to escape his pathetic life by enjoying some of the cocaine while driving fast with a girl named Kandi. The truth of the world soon comes to ruin his romance in the form of a policeman stopping him for speeding…then seeing cocaine all over his face.

Two cops modelled after Starsky and Hutch (Tarantino, page 95), respectively Officers Cody Nicholson (Sizemore) and Nicky Dimes (Penn), put the pressure on arrested Elliot, who breaks down and tells them about the drug deal between Clarence and Donowitz.

As I argued in my analysis of Reservoir Dogs, cops represent the extent to which the state intervenes in capitalism. As such, there’s a hazy distinction between them and the mafia as far as personifications of capitalism are concerned. They’re as inclined to murder and abuse others as any mafioso would. All that matters is getting ahead…realizing the American Dream…

Nicholson’s and Dimes’s interest in busting Donowitz et al for the drug deal isn’t in stopping ‘the bad guys’: it’s in furthering their careers. Ruining the lives of Alabama and Clarence (the latter being someone Nicholson twice admits to liking because he’s “wild” and “crazy”) makes no difference to these cops: they just want the collar, that is, credit for the bust.

When Clarence, Alabama, Dick, and Elliot are in the hotel elevator, and Clarence points his gun at Elliot’s face, sissy Elliot wishes someone would take him away from this true, cruel world, would come to his rescue and take him to a safe, ideal world of romance, then “everything would be all right.” Instead, it’s Clarence’s threats that are not true.

When they all go into Donowitz’s hotel room, they meet Monty and Boris, the movie producer’s bodyguards, both armed with Uzis. Combine this fact with Donowitz’s involvement in drug dealing, and we see how the Hollywood business empire is a mafia unto itself (consider all the allegations of sexual misconduct, including pedophilia, against celebrities, to see my point). Liberal Hollywood is as capitalist and exploitative as any other modern business or institution.

Again, instead of facing this dark reality, Clarence would rather focus on talking about Vietnam war movies: Coming Home in a Bodybag, produced by Donowitz, is one of Clarence’s favourites. He tells Donowitz that he knows Vietnam veterans who have endorsed the film; Donowitz says “veterans of that bullshit war” praising his movie “makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

Here we have the typical Hollywood bourgeois liberal, paying lip service to acknowledging the horrors of capitalist imperialism while making millions from the war movies he produces. As Donowitz says to Clarence earlier, during the conversation on his car phone: “I am on this earth to make good movies. Nothing more, and nothing…well, maybe less.”

Clarence convinces Donowitz to buy the cocaine, and the bust finally happens. The Italian-American mafia, after having learned where the hotel is from stoner Floyd (who, having just smoked a bowl, must be having the paranoia high of the century from seeing all those guns pointed at him!), kick in the door to the hotel room, and now three groups of trigger-happy men–cops, Donowitz’s bodyguards, and the mafia–are in a Mexican standoff.

In sharp contrast to this true tension, Clarence is in the bathroom taking a piss and having another imaginary conversation with ‘Elvis,’ that is, he’s experiencing another of his romantic escapes from reality. When he comes out, though, reality will hit him in the head…or rather, scrape against it.

Officer Dimes demonstrates something we all know too well: cops are just as inclined to murder as anyone else; he deliberately shoots and kills Boris in revenge for killing Nicholson. Dimes also shoots at Clarence, making Alabama shoot the cop in revenge.

When the shooting is over, the only survivors are Dick, Alabama, and Clarence…though in Tarantino’s original script, the bullet that grazes Clarence‘s eyes kills him, too (Tarantino, page 128). Before dying, he says he can’t see because of the blood in his eyes: this is how Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino, dies in Reservoir Dogs; for when he wrote the script for True Romance, he identified with Clarence (page x). Scott liked Clarence too much to let him die, though, so he arranged for a happy, romantic ending instead.

Now, Tarantino’s unhappy ending focuses on the true, rather than the romance, which is why I agree with him that his ending is better. Our fantasies are always interrupted by harsh reality, in how, for example, capitalism sells us fantasies to make us think we’re escaping a reality we cannot escape.

In the original ending, Alabama, despairing over Clarence’s death, leaves the hotel with Donowitz’s money and drives away in Clarence’s car (pages 132-133). She stops at one point, breaks down and cries, then puts his pistol in her mouth (page 133); but she decides instead to live after reading the napkin on which is written, “You’re so cool.” Then she gets out of the car, takes the briefcase of money, and walks away from the car forever (page 134).

Reality is harsh, but not hopeless.

Quentin Tarantino, True Romance, London, Faber and Faber, 1996

Bellies

The bellies
of the fat cats
are as swollen as
their pride. They
need to die…t.

The stomachs
of us First World
citizens, yes, ours,
are similarly
bloated. We
suck our guts
in, but still it
shows. Obesity

is
not
a
pro-
blem
in
the
glo-
bal
sou-
th
.

The
pou-
ched
bell-
ies

of
the
poor
are
emp-
ty
sacks
of
air.

They
must
be
fed.
Deaf
are
we
to
the
cries
of
the
hun-
gry.

We waste
food that
they could
eat. Our diet,
so tied to their
dying, must be
tightened.

Only
then
can
all
the
poor
be
freed
of the
tight
grip of
empire’s
might.

Their full
bellies means
the end of our
emptiness.

Revolution 2.0

With April 22nd of this year having marked the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Vladimir Lenin, and May 5th being the 202nd anniversary of Marx‘s birth; as well as it now being a few years over a century since the Russian Revolution, a century since the Red Army was defending that revolution during the civil war, and since International Workers’ Day went by several days ago, I find it useful to reflect on the current state of political affairs. We are seeing not only the usual immiseration of the world under neoliberal capitalism; we are–according to the predictions of many–about to experience a global financial meltdown, the destruction of the entire economic system, plunging millions into poverty (according to such sources as Oxfam), or those already impoverished into even worse poverty.

This looks like the kind of thing Marx predicted in Capital, Vol. III, the final self-destruction of the capitalist mode of production, its crumbling under its own contradictions. Here’s the important question, though: are we leftists going to seize the day and bring about a socialist revolution?

I’m not suggesting doing such a thing would be anywhere near easy, what with the militarized police and the general brainwashing of the public against not only Marxism-Leninism, but against anything even remotely like socialism, that is, the popular ‘big government, free stuff’ Sanders-speak. The difficulty of fighting for communism, however, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the urgency of the situation.

Along with the exacerbation of the plight of the poor, in the form of lockdowns preventing many workers–already living from paycheque to paycheque–from being able to pay for basic necessities, there is the outrage of yet another bailing out of the banks and other big financial institutions; and there’s been another huge transfer of wealth upward to oligarchs like Bezos.

Predictions have been made that the lockdowns–due to all this coronavirus hysteria–will throw millions out of work, meaning people won’t be able to pay rent, so many of them could be thrown out onto the street, causing a huge rise in the lumpenproletariat. Since many Americans’ health insurance coverage is tied to their jobs, this mass unemployment will also mean massive healthcare loss.

The coronavirus–a real disease, one that gets some people sick, kills some others (mostly the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions), and has little or no effect on most other people–has been convenient for the ruling class, and for many reasons. It can be used as a media distraction from imperialist aggression in the Middle East, the economic collapse, and the upward transfer of wealth (including furlough schemes). The West can scapegoat China with it. Lockdowns can be advantageous in stifling protesting, particularly in places like France. “Social distancing” can prevent us from coming together, organizing, and protesting.

On the other hand, as for those whose lives really are threatened by COVID-19, we have seen the inadequacy of the American healthcare system laid bare, to say nothing of the incompetence of the Trump administration and their pathetic response to the crisis. The US saw an opportunity to elect someone who promised to provide universal healthcare, but Sanders–as he was in 2016–was just a sheepdog used to lure voters over to the DNC, a point proven by his having dropped out of the race again and his supporting Biden. Now, Biden’s brain, remember, is turning into mashed potatoes; and even if it weren’t, judging by his political record, one finds it difficult to determine who is more right-wing, him or Trump.

Of course, even if Sanders were on the level, his reforms would be far from adequate; and even if he could legislate the corporate oligarchs out of their wealth (something they’ll never allow him to do, of course), he is at best a mere social democrat, one of those ‘leftists’ who have never shown any principled opposition to imperialism, Zionism, etc. Sanders has distanced himself from the Venezuelan “dictator,” Maduro…who, incidentally, has had free and fair elections, not that you’d know about that, thanks to the lies in the mainstream media.

The social-democratic faults of the Second International are why I take a hard line in pushing for socialism, that is, along Third International lines. At first glance, my position on this may seem extreme, but we are living in a world in which Biden and Macron are seen as moderate!

When a train is rushing towards a cliff where the bridge is out, we don’t take the ‘moderate’ position of sitting at our seats, thinking, “Well, at least we aren’t rushing to the front of the train and falling off the cliff first, as the right-wingers are.” We rush to the back of the train and jump off, instead.

Let me elaborate on my train analogy. Our current political situation is the train rushing towards the cliff where the bridge-tracks are broken. Income inequality continues to worsen. US imperialism is continuing its bellicosity against China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc. Even when the COVID-19 crisis dies down, it is possible that world governments may use fears of future viruses and flus to justify suspensions of democracy. Cash is getting increasingly replaced with digitized forms of money, something that, essentially, will benefit only the ruling class. There’s the continued ecocide, threatening everyone’s survival. That train is getting really close to the cliff.

Leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Bojo, and the fascists currently running Bolivia are running to the front of the train. Biden, I’d say, is walking in that direction…maybe doing a light jog. Turdeau [sic], the prime minister of my country, as well as our average mainstream politicians, are staying at their seats. People like Sanders are moving to the back seats and sitting down there. They’re all going off the cliff with the train; there’s no substantive difference among any of them.

So, who’s running to the back of the train and jumping off? The true anti-imperialists, that’s who! The Marxist-Leninists, whom I call ‘tankies‘ with the utmost affection. I speak well of them because, in spite of the difficulties they had in the 20th century, they set the example we need to follow. They not only achieved successful revolutions, they also built socialism, demonstrating that another world is possible, proving that there is no TINA.

Such socialist states as the USSR, Cuba, and China under Mao established universal free healthcare, equal rights for women, free education up to the university level, affordable housing, and full employment. They also aided Third World countries in their struggle for liberation from imperialism and colonialism. These achievements greatly overshadow the problems that occurred in such periods as the 1930s Soviet Union, the bad start of the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Stalin‘s leadership, which led to the defeat of fascism, alone has earned him the honour of being called a hero. He didn’t drop out of the sky; I don’t see him in terms of a cult of personality; he did a few things I wish he hadn’t; but for us to have a successful second revolution, we’ll have to do all we can to clear Stalin‘s name of such bourgeois slanders as ‘totalitarian dictator’ and ‘genocidal maniac.’

What’s more, the economic growth China has enjoyed since Deng took over, raising the country from Third World status to the second largest economy in the world, proves the superiority of state-planned economies to the anarchy of the “free market.” Accordingly, the socialist states’ response to COVID-19 has been vastly superior overall to that of the West. All attempts by imperialism to stifle China’s rise must be opposed, regardless of how one may feel about the country’s use of the market. One must prioritize primary over secondary contradictions, realizing that the US/NATO ‘alternative’ to China is totally unacceptable; so those ‘leftists’ who gripe about how actually-existing socialism falls short of their lofty ideals should know what they can do with their sour grapes.

Though most of the socialist states of the 20th century tragically succumbed to capitalism in the 1990s, we can learn from their mistakes and try again in this century. We have to, and quickly…for that racing train is getting ever closer to the cliff.

I am in no way qualified to map out a plan as to how to accomplish this feat. I’m just one blogger among many throwing his feelings onto a computer screen. But we do have to do more than just complain about the sorry state of affairs today on social media, as so many of us do.

We must get organized. I, unfortunately, live on a small East Asian island among China-bashers who have no revolutionary potential at all. Don’t get me wrong: Taiwanese are nice people, and I like them very much (I wouldn’t have chosen to live here for over twenty years if I disliked them!), but they are also–I’m sorry to say–far too quiescent towards the imperial agenda, and adoring of traditionalist authority, to take up the mantle. I won’t be raising up a movement of revolutionaries here any time soon. I can only reach out to you, Dear Reader, here online.

A revolution must be planned way beyond just impromptu general strikes. We must be careful not to bungle this, if we really decide to do it. Hegel wrote of history repeating itself. Marx wrote of history repeating its tragic self as farce the second time around (e.g., the tragedy of 20th century communism…yet, what of 21st century socialism?). Normally, I prefer Marxian materialism to Hegelian idealism, but when it comes to Revolution 2.0, I hope we get the Hegelian reprise, a non-farcical one.

Analysis of ‘In Bruges’

In Bruges is a 2008 British/American black comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

As the film’s title indicates, the story is set in Bruges, Belgium, where two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson, respectively), are sent by their boss, Harry (Fiennes), on a ‘vacation’ of sorts, until Ken is given instructions by Harry to buy a gun there and kill Ray for accidentally killing a boy while doing a job.

The film earned Farrell the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, while Gleeson was nominated in the same category. McDonagh won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines] Ray: After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through. “Get the fuck out of London, youse dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was. [pause] It’s in Belgium.

“Bruges is a shithole.” –Ray

“I like it here.” –Ken, to himself, at the top of the tower and overlooking the city

Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?
Ray: Yeah… yeah, it’s rubbish.
Overweight Man: It is? The guide book says it’s a must-see.
Ray: Well you lot ain’t going up there.
Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?
Ray: I mean, it’s all winding stairs. I’m not being funny.
Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?
Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? Youse a bunch of fuckin’ elephants.
[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around but quickly grows tired]
Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!
[the overweight women calm down the overweight man]
Overweight Woman #2: [to Ray] You know you’re just the rudest man. The rudest man!
Ken: [coming back from the tower] What’s all that about? [Ray shrugs] They’re not going up there. [to overweight family] Hey, guys. I wouldn’t go up there. It’s really narrow.
Overweight Woman #2: Screw you, motherfucker!
Ray: Americans, isn’t it?

“What are they doing over there? They’re filming something. They’re filming midgets!” –Ray

Canadian Guy: I don’t care if this is the smoking section, all right? She directed it right in my face, man! I don’t wanna die just because of your fucking arrogance!
Ray: [thinking the tourist is American] Uh huh, is that what the Vietnamese used to say?

[beating the Canadian guy, whom he believes to be American] “That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!” –Ray

Ken: You from the States?
Jimmy: Yeah. But don’t hold it against me.
Ken: I’ll try not to…Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.

Jimmy: There’s gonna be a war, man. I can see it. There’s gonna be a war between the blacks and between the whites. You ain’t even gonna need a uniform no more. This ain’t gonna be a war where you pick your side. Your side’s already picked for you.
Ray: And I know whose side I’m fighting on. I’m fighting with the blacks. The whites are gonna get their heads kicked in!
Jimmy: You don’t decide this shit, man.
Ray: Well, who are the half-castes gonna fight with?
Jimmy: The blacks, man. That’s obvious.
Ray: What about the Pakistanis?
Jimmy: The blacks.
Ray: What about…Think of a hard one. What about the Vietnamese?
Jimmy: The blacks!
Ray: Well, I’m definitely fighting with the blacks if they’ve got the Vietnamese. [pause] So, hang on. Would all of the white midgets in the world be fighting against all the black midgets in the world?
Jimmy: Yeah.
Ray: That would make a good film!
Jimmy: You don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off of black midgets, man.

Ken: [looking at a surreal Bosch painting] It’s Judgment Day, you know?
Ray: No. What’s that then?
Ken: Well, it’s, you know, the final day on Earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they’ve committed and that.
Ray: Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that.
Ken: Yeah. And what’s the other place?
Ray: Purgatory.
Ken: Purgatory…what’s that?
Ray: Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham. [pause] Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?

Ken: And at the same time, at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.
Ray: Who was that?
Ken: This fellow Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. But he came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.

“The little boy…” –priest, after having been shot by Ray

“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, and all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?” –Harry, to Ken on the phone in the hotel

“I know I’m awake, but I feel like I’m in a dream.” –Ken, pretending Ray has said it

“Do you know what that is? Yeah, I know you know it’s a train. Do you know what train? Well, it’s a train that Ray just got on, and he’s alive and he’s well, and he doesn’t know where he’s going and neither do I. So if you need to do your worst, do your worst. You’ve got the address of the hotel. I’ll be here waiting. Because I’ve got to quite like Bruges, now. It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.” –Ken, at the train station, on the phone with Harry

Natalie: [Harry gets angry and is destroying the phone; his wife approaches him, saying:] Harry. Harry! It’s an inanimate fucking object!
Harry: [to wife] You’re an inanimate fuckin’ object!

“When I phoned you yesterday, did I ask you, ‘Ken, will you do me a favour and become Ray’s psychiatrist, please?’ No. What I think I asked you was, ‘Could you go blow his fucking head off for me?'” –Harry, to Ken

“You’ve got to stick to your principles.” –Harry, before shooting himself in the head

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” –Ray, last lines

Central themes in this film are sin, grace, and, legalism, or the demand to measure up to moral standards, the failure to do so resulting in punishment (e.g., death). Added to these themes is the dialectical relationship between sin, grace, and legalism.

More dialectics are seen in how Bruges, a quaint, “fairy-tale” kind of town, full of old churches, can be seen to embrace elements of both heaven and hell. Frequent references are made to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch on such subjects as hell and the Last Judgement.

Ray’s one hit job is to shoot a priest in the confessional. Ironically, Ray gives his confession before killing his confessor. After putting bullets through the chest of the priest, who is staggering out of the confession box, Ray hears him say, “The little boy…” before dropping down dead. Once on the floor, the priest no longer is obscuring Ray’s vision: one of his bullets has grazed a boy’s forehead.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which conveys the image of “missing the mark.” The irony in Ray’s sin is in his hitting the mark all too well. One of the bullets has gone right through the priest’s body, then flies past and hits the boy. In grazing his forehead, it has ‘missed the mark’ (i.e., not gone through the middle of his head), but hit him well enough to kill him. In killing the innocent, Ray has sinned.

This missing the mark vs. hitting it all too well should also be understood dialectically, for it symbolizes the dialectical relationship, discussed above, between sin and theological legalism, the strident demand to fulfill lofty moral standards. Recall that in ancient Greek tragedy, hamartia also means ‘tragic flaw,’ which in Harry’s case refers to his proud insistence that killing a child, even accidentally, is punishable only by death…even if he were to commit the sin himself.

Sins of all shapes and sizes are committed in quaint, churchy, fairy-tale Bruges. These sins range from the mildest (rudeness, four-letter words, etc.) to the harshest (murder and suicide), and everything in between (anger, fighting, racism, tactlessness towards dwarfs, drug use and trafficking, soliciting prostitutes, theft, etc.).

Ray, guilty of most of these sins, finds Bruges to be a “shithole,” even to the point of imagining an eternity in the town to be the very definition of hell, as he muses at the end of the film. It’s only natural that he’d think that way: all those churches have been reminding him of his sins.

St. Paul, in Romans, chapter seven, wrote of how the Mosaic Law inevitably leads to sin, since no one can reasonably be expected to follow the Torah to the letter all the time. This excess adherence to the Law, or hitting the mark all too well, inevitably leads to missing the mark, as described above when Ray has literally hit the mark by killing the priest, and has metaphorically missed the mark by killing the boy in the church, the bullet grazing his forehead.

As I’ve stated in many posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and its coiled body is a circular continuum between those opposites. Excessive adherence to legalism, or hitting the mark too well, is the serpent’s biting head, which shifts over to the bitten tail of missing the mark, sinning, accidentally killing a boy, or a dwarf, leading to suicidal ideation, if not committing it, the unforgivable sin of despair.

Ray and Ken go to the Belfry of Bruges, the top of which gives a beautiful, heavenly view of the town. Ray isn’t interested, so Ken goes up alone. Three obese American tourists ask Ray about the building; but he advises them not to try going in and up the narrow, steep staircase, bluntly saying they’re too fat to fit inside. The man among the three is infuriated, and he pathetically swings punches at Ray, who of course can easily dodge them; then the man quickly tires. In his anger at Ray’s rudeness, he has missed the mark.

Now, going up those stairs reminds me of Milton‘s words: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 432-433) While it is unfair to judge the overweight by claiming that their obesity is merely because of indulgence in the deadly sin of gluttony (there is the factor of a genetic predisposition to obesity, or overeating could be a manic defence against facing one’s unhappiness), we can see the obesity of these three tourists, unable to climb that staircase “that out of hell leads up to light,” in terms of the movie’s theme of sin.

Later, Ray notices some people making a film, and one of the actors is a dwarf. Ray is fascinated, almost fixated, on the dwarf. He imagines that, because of the difficulties dwarfs face in life, that they must have a high suicide rate; he cites Hervé Villechaize as an example.

The dwarf, Jimmy (played by Jordan Prentice), as can clearly be seen by the end of the movie, is a double of the boy Ray has accidentally killed. He has transferred his guilt feelings towards the boy onto Jimmy, by on the one hand suggesting a concern that Jimmy might one day kill himself (Ray would try to stop Jimmy from dying, since he cannot bring back the boy he killed), and on the other hand annoying him by tactlessly dwelling on the subject with him and making him self-conscious (i.e., going from hurting the boy by killing him, to hurting a dwarf by reminding him of his condition). By discussing suicide with Jimmy, Ray is also projecting his own suicide ideation onto him.

Among those on the movie set, someone else has caught Ray’s eye, a young Belgian woman, Chloë (played by Clémence Poésy), whom he finds attractive. Since she sells drugs and robs tourists sometimes with her ex-boyfriend, Eirik (played by Jérémie Renier), she is a fellow sinner, so Ray can feel all the more comfortable with her. Iniquity loves company.

The very nature of having a job as a hitman is inherently alienating; and as I’ve discussed many times before, the mafia can be seen as symbolic of capitalists. Harry, Ray’s and Ken’s mob boss, wants the latter to kill the former, thus reinforcing their sense of worker alienation; but Chloë’s entrance into his life can be a cure to his estrangement from society…and to his suicidal ideation. (While we’re on the subject of Harry representing the evils of capitalism, there’s a deleted scene in which we learn the reason for him wanting Ray to kill the priest: he was opposed to a housing project Harry was working on, so killing him would help the business go through unobstructed.)

Being judgemental of others typically leads to more sin, as we see in the restaurant scene, when Ray gets into a fight with two Canadians over Chloë’s smoking, then Ray mistakes the Canadians for Americans by collectively judging the latter nationality for the killing of Vietnamese…and John Lennon.

Unless one becomes as little children, one shall never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3. Children are the innocent, the angelic, and therefore inviolable, as Harry sees them. This in part is surely why the only time in the film that we see the bad-tempered mob boss actually smiling is at his children at home.

Jimmy, though a double of the boy Ray killed (see above), doesn’t share children’s innocence the way he shares their short stature, as is revealed in his bizarre, racist prediction of a war between blacks and whites…in which, of course, all people of colour, including Asians and even those partly white, are lumped together with “the blacks.” In his physical association with children (especially in that schoolboy uniform we see him in towards the end of the film), and in his not-so-innocent attitude, we see another dialectical unity between sin and grace.

As unapologetically uncouth as Ray is, he is tearfully remorseful over his killing, however accidental, of the boy in the church. Here we see a dialectical relationship between penitence and impenitence, and thus between sin and grace once again, since it is penitence that leads the sinner to grace. To “sin boldly,” as Luther advised, is to admit to oneself how badly one needs the redemption of Christ.

In this connection, we can see Ken as a Christ figure. First, Ken defies Harry’s order to kill Ray, thus repudiating his boss’s legalism (‘capital punishment’ for Ray, as Harry would see it, but murder to everyone else, hence we see dialectics in Harry’s ‘illegal legalism,’ if you will). Ken doesn’t go through with shooting Ray, just as the latter is about to shoot himself, then gets upset at the sight of the gun in the former’s hand! Ken then takes away Ray’s gun, and later puts Ray on a train to leave Bruges so Harry can’t find him; for Ken wants Ray to have a chance at redemption, to try to live a good life.

As Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

When Harry arrives in Bruges, he argues with Ken over whether Ray should be forgiven. One is reminded of Portia‘s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained…” Ken is prepared to be shot and killed by Harry; at the top of the belfry, Ken won’t pick up a gun and try to stop Harry from killing him. He’s shot twice by Harry, in the leg and in the neck, but he isn’t killed…Harry hasn’t hit the mark he wanted to (he also compares Ken to Robert Powell in his portrayal of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth). Harry begins helping Ken down the staircase.

When Harry is tipped off by Eirik as to where Ray is (just outside with Chloë), Harry runs out of the belfry. Ken limps his way back up that difficult, narrow staircase, reminding me of the flagellation of bleeding Christ in His passion, when He wears the crown of thorns and struggles to carry His cross during the Stations (in particular, 2, 3, 7, and 9). Ken returns to the top and lets himself fall off the edge, so he can warn Ray in time about Harry. Like Christ, Ken dies so a sinner can live.

Harry chases Ray back to his hotel, which is co-owned by a pregnant woman named Marie (played by Thekla Reuten). She refuses to step aside and let Harry run up the stairs and shoot Ray in his room. We should note that the story is set near Christmas: in an earlier scene, Marie is seen decorating a tree.

Since it is taboo for Harry to harm a child, he cannot force his way past Marie. Here we see more Christian symbolism: she is like Mary, pregnant with the Christ-child, soon to give birth to the Saviour who will redeem us from the harshness of religious legalism. Even a “cunt” like Harry won’t brutalize a pregnant woman. (In keeping with Marie’s association with the Virgin, we never see the father of the unborn baby.)

Ray escapes the hotel by jumping onto a boat going down the nearby canal. Harry runs out, sees Ray on the boat, and fires, hitting Ray just below his heart. Harry has hit the mark all too well…but Ray isn’t dead.

He gets off the boat and staggers over to the film set, where a dream sequence is being filmed using costuming inspired by imagery from Bosch’s paintings of hell and the Last Judgement. Recall Ken’s remark about Bruges being like a dream, claiming that Ray said it; recall also Hamlet‘s words, “To die, to sleep;–/To sleep, perchance to dream,” when the Dane is contemplating suicide.

Harry follows Ray to the film set, and fires a few more bullets in Ray’s back. Ray echoes the priest’s words, “The little boy,” only he’s looking at Jimmy in that schoolboy uniform…with his head blown to pieces from one of the dumdums that ‘dumdum’ Harry got from Yuri (played by Eric Godon).

Because Jimmy’s head has been blown apart, Harry doesn’t know that he’s accidentally killed a dwarf instead of a little boy. When Ray killed the boy in the church, the bullet grazed his head: Ray almost missed the mark; actually and ironically, he missed missing the mark. Harry’s shot has hit the mark all too well–if only he’d missed it! Again, we see the dialectics of sin and innocence.

Harry’s moral legalism about killing kids is his undoing, his tragic flaw, his hamartia, his missing of the mark by hitting it all too well. He can never forgive himself for what seems to be the killing of a boy, and so he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger before Ray can get a chance to tell him he’s killed a dwarf…actually, one lacking in innocence, as we’ve seen above.

Harry’s rash judgement of himself is illustrative of the cruel nature of the moralistic superego, which gives us all a merciless inner critic. Kleinians consider the superego to be a split-off part of the ego, with a projected death instinct as well as a life instinct. If not modified and integrated with the rest of the personality, the superego can grow from being very severe to being associated with extreme disturbance and even psychosis. Such pathology can be seen in Harry, who imagines his morality to be superior in wanting child-killers to be killed, even those who don’t mean to kill children…but he’s also OK with killing priests who oppose his business interests.

As Ray is carried off on a stretcher, he imagines Bruges to be the very definition of hell (all those Bosch-costumed actors do nothing to dissuade him from such a conclusion). Yet he also sees Chloë and Marie, two angelic figures that should remind him of how Bruges is actually the dialectic dream of the “sleep of death,” a marriage of heaven and hell. Like “in-betweeny” Purgatory.

He ought to have Marie pray for him now, at the hour of his death.

Analysis of ‘A Cure for Wellness’

A Cure for Wellness is a 2016 psychological horror film written for the screen by Justin Haythe and directed by Gore Verbinski, based on a story they wrote together. It stars Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth.

Haythe and Verbinski were inspired by Thomas Mann‘s novel, The Magic Mountain, which also features a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. This inspiration in turn suggests the influence of Nietzsche‘s having spent many summers in Switzerland, often hiking in the Alps, in the hopes that the climate and fresh air would be therapeutic for his ill health.

The film got mixed-to-negative reviews because of its perceived-to-be excessive length, and its ending, which some deemed disappointing–though its visuals and performances were generally praised. Perhaps if one thought of it less as a horror film, and more as a drama with thought-provoking, philosophical themes, one would see more value in it, as I hope to demonstrate. Indeed, there seems to be the potential for the film to become a cult classic.

Furthermore, though this film came out in 2016/2017, a reconsideration of it (as of this post’s 2020 publication) would be timely, given the current coronavirus outbreak. The American response to the crisis has been markedly inferior to that of China and Cuba: on the one hand, not enough is being done in terms of helping the overworked, underfunded health services; and on the other hand, too much fear-mongering seems to be going on in the media, often motivated by governments with authoritarian agendas. The film deals with similar issues: the capitalist world cares too little about the sick, while Dr. Volmer (Isaacs), director of the sanitarium in which the story is set, seems overly solicitous of patients’ health…and for not-so-noble reasons.

This analysis is dedicated, and with a shout-out to, my Facebook friend, Gunnar Angeles, who, as a fan of the film, has been eager to have me write something up on it. I hope you like it, Gunnar.

Here are some quotes:

“There is a sickness inside us. Rising like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats. It’s there in every one of you seated around the table. We deny its existence until one day the body rebels against the mind and screams out, ‘I am not a well man.’ No doubt you will think only of the merger. That unclean melding of two equally diseased institutions. But the truth cannot be ignored. For only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure. I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again. Sincerely, Roland E. Pembroke.” –Lockhart (DeHaan), reading Pembroke’s letter while sitting at a boardroom table

“Dad? Dad!” –9-year-old Lockhart (Douglas Hamilton), on seeing his father jump off a bridge

“You ever have a twelve inch black dick in your ass? Prison, Mr. Lockhart.” –Hollis

“No-one ever leaves.” –Hannah von Reichmerl (Goth)

Pembroke (Harry Groener): Is that why you came all this way? Ambition? Then you have it worse than any of us.
Lockhart: What’s that?
Pembroke: The sickness. Your father saw the truth long before the rest of us. The pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things…[submerging into the pool water]

“There’s something in the water. There’s something in the fucking water!” –Lockhart

Hannah: You made me believe I could leave here one day.
Lockhart: Why would anybody wanna leave?” [brainwashed, and grinning with dentures]

“I’m not a patient!” –Lockhart (repeated line)

Volmer (Isaacs): For the human physiology, the effect of the water can be quite toxic…unless, of course, it is properly filtered. The baron devised the process, using the bodies of peasants that belonged to his land. He managed to distill the water to its life-giving essence. Of course, he paid a terrible price for his ingenuity. His only mistake was to use subjects who were unwilling. Luckily, times have changed. The last two hundred years have been the most productive in human history. Man rid himself of God, of hierarchy, of everything that gave him meaning, until he was left worshipping the empty altar of his own ambition. That is why they come, men like you. You’re quite right, Mr. Lockhart: no one ever leaves. What you fail to understand is that no one wants to.

Pembroke[brainwashed] I’ve never felt better.

[last lines]
Hollis (Lisa Banes): [as Lockhart begins cycling away with Hannah] Are you insane?
Lockhart[last line of the film; with a crazed grin on his face] Actually… I’m feeling much better now![Lockhart continues biking into the night]

The film’s paradoxical title already introduces a theme before the story has even begun: the dialectical relationship between illness and health. (Recall Dr. Volmer’s words: “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure.”) Put another way, sometimes those who would harm us the worst are those who claim to be most concerned for our health.

The protagonist, a young American businessman named Lockhart, is aptly named, for his name sounds like a pun on ‘locked heart.’ Indeed, the trauma he suffered as a child, watching his father commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, when combined with his experience of the cutthroat world of capitalism, has closed his heart from enjoying close relationships with other people. His ‘locked heart’ will be opened soon enough, though, when he meets Hannah.

The board of directors of his company want him to go to the Swiss Alps to find and bring back a fellow executive, an elderly man named Pembroke, who is desperately needed by the company to help sign a merger and deal with a criminal investigation of malfeasance–something that’s Lockhart’s fault, but something they plan to make Pembroke take responsibility for.

The only half-decent relationship Lockhart has with anybody is with his mother, and even this relationship is tenuous. She makes a figurine of a ballerina who “doesn’t know she’s dreaming,” and gives it to him. Just before his trip to Switzerland, his mother dies, something he recalls in a long dream during, ironically, the one good, long sleep he’s had in ages.

His giving of the ballerina figurine to Hannah is symbolic of his love of his mother transferred onto the girl. His growing relationship with Hannah–from his having a beer with her in a pub, to her giving the now “awake” figurine back to him (a return of that love, which in turn breaks him out of his mad acceptance of the “cure” that Volmer has, through gaslighting, manipulated him into taking on)–unlocks his heart and makes him want to rescue her from her rapist father.

The true cure to illness has always been, and always will be, loving relationships…but back to the beginning of the story.

Pembroke is staying in a large sanitarium, a castle-like building with a strange history, as Lockhart’s driver there tells him. A baron who lived there several centuries ago, in order to preserve a “pure” bloodline, wanted to marry his sister. She was infertile, and so he tried to create a kind of medicine to cure her. His experiments involved killing off local peasants by using their bodies to filter out toxins from water in a local aquifer, water that otherwise has life-extending properties; the peasants grew so enraged at him, after finding all the poorly-hidden corpses, that they rose up against him. They cut out the baby from the woman’s now-fertile womb, they threw it in the aquifer (though it survived!), they burned the woman at the stake, and they burned the baron’s castle to the ground.

Already in this story of incest among nobility do we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health. Throughout history, from ancient Egypt to the Habsburgs and later, royalty has rationalized inbreeding among them to preserve a ‘pure bloodline.’ Yet everyone knows, as all of these royals should have, that inbreeding results in birth defects, producing the opposite of a perceived ‘pure bloodline,’–instead of getting the healthiest, ‘noblest’ offspring, one gets the least healthy of them.

Pembroke has written a letter to the New York company, saying he won’t return because his aspiration to be ‘cured’ renders insignificant his aspiration for more wealth. This wish to find a ‘cure’ to what ails him is like a religious experience; indeed, one interpretation of the health centre is that it’s a metaphor for a religious cult. Recall Jesus’ words: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31)

That no one who enters the sanatarium ever leaves should give us pause about this ‘paradise.’ Recall the sign over the entrance to Dante‘s hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” (Canto III, line 9) This hope is a hope of leaving the world of suffering, the hope of getting well. There’s no exit, Sartre‘s hell of other people, where one’s self-concept is trapped in the opinions of others. The ‘ill people’ in the sanitarium can never see themselves as well if Volmer doesn’t say they’re well, and so, they can never leave. In this relationship between heaven and hell, this dialectical unity of opposites, we also see the unity between sickness and wellness.

Accordingly, Pembroke never gets better, nor does anyone else in the sanatarium. People there drink lots and lots of water, but they become…dehydrated, more unity in opposites. The aquifer water, toxic to humans, nonetheless causes the eels swimming in it to extend their lives–dialectical unity of life and death. Anyone who has read enough of my posts knows by now know that I use water, with its dialectically flowing waves, to symbolize a nirvana-like state, a kind of heavenly eternal life. But bliss is only one aspect of this ineffable state of being, and this film presents water in its blissful and traumatizing aspects, heaven and hell, health and sickness, eternal life and death.

This two-sided nature of Ultimate Reality is something I’ve noted in the ocean in my Moby-Dick analysis, as it’s been noted in Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, in Lacan‘s Real Order, and in primordial Chaos as I’ve interpreted it here.

So the sanatarium is a Spenserian bower of bliss for the elderly patients: they seem to enjoy a blissful life of having their ‘ailments’ cured, they amuse themselves on the front lawn by playing badminton and cricket, by doing t’ai chi, or by doing crosswords, as Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie) does. None, except her and Lockhart, suspect that something insidiously evil is going on.

The fact that most of the patients, except special-case Hannah, are elderly is interesting. They are all senior citizens; she is mentally even younger than her physical, teen years. Their naïve, uncritical acceptance of the ‘cure,’ as well as hers suggests a dialectical relationship between her being so young and their being so old, something aptly expressed in Shakespeare’s As You Like it:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Act II, Scene vii, lines 163-166)

So, the gullibility of the elderly patients is a dialectical match for the sweet innocence of Hannah, who we eventually learn is Dr. Volmer’s daughter. He is in fact a kind of father figure to all the patients of the sanatorium; he takes on a paternalistic attitude to Lockhart, too. He rarely gets angry from Lockhart’s rebelliousness, but the doctor typically shows a subtle condescension to him, in his insistence that Lockhart, the identified patient who’s always acting up, isn’t well.

Hannah hates being holed up in Volmer’s ‘castle,’ as evinced by her constant frowning and pouting, like an annoyed little girl. When Lockhart challenges her always only doing what she’s “supposed to do,” she finally gets the courage to rebel; so her riding with Lockhart on her bicycle down the mountain is like her experiencing adolescent willfulness.

Rebelling against her father–who, as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “should be as a god” to her–is like Nietzsche saying, “God is dead!” Thus begins Hannah’s down-going.

This rebellious adolescent phase is intensified when she and Lockhart enter a pub patronized by a gang of antisocial teens. She has her first beer and dances to music on a jukebox while one of the boys dirty dances with her, hoping to do the obvious with her.

Prior to this dancing, she goes into the girls’ washroom. The girls of the gang ask her for a tampon; she seems a “freak” to them for not responding. She doesn’t even seem to know what a tampon is, implying that she hasn’t had her first period yet. We eventually learn that the distilled liquid in the small blue bottles lengthens one’s life by slowing the aging process…hence her infantilized state, both physical and mental.

She does, towards the end of the film, finally have her period, while standing in the swimming pool, her blood attracting a swarm of eels. She’s terrified by all the blood, and she goes to get help from Volmer. Her fearful ignorance of menstruation reminds us of Carrie, whom I described in my analysis of the novel as a psychological baby in a teen’s body. Hannah, too, is such a baby, and Volmer is like a secular Margaret White to her–overprotecting, domineering, emotionally abusive.

Volmer’s ending of a fight between Lockhart and the boy who’s been trying to seduce Hannah in the pub shows the doctor’s authoritarian dominance; for everyone in the pub, including those nasty teens, is intimidated by him, just as the naughtiest son often is by his father. This is how we should think of the sanatorium’s director: as a domineering father whose religious-cult-like authority must never be defied or challenged.

Lockhart’s continued defiance, however, constantly gets him in trouble with Volmer, causing him at one point to have one of his upper front teeth pulled out in an agonizing way reminding us of that scene with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

This tooth-pulling also reminds us of Trelkovsky’s predicament in The Tenant. In my analysis of that movie, I associated the loss of his tooth with castration, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis is symbolic of any bodily mutilation, or of lack, giving rise to desire.

Lack as the cause of desire leads to what the eels can be seen to symbolize, especially since they swim around in that water, that ‘healing’ water I associate with nirvanic bliss, or the eternal life of heaven. The water is life-extending for the eels, but toxic to humans; so the advantage it gives the eels is a human lack covetously desired by Volmer. Since the water is dialectically both immortalizing (as it were) and killing, the eels swimming in it can be seen to represent this destructive, hellish aspect; for theirs is an immortality denied to us.

The eels, as I see them, are symbolic castrated phalluses. This phallic association is especially apparent when one considers scenes with them in which erotic elements are juxtaposed (Consider also how young Freud did research attempting to find the location of male eels’ sexual organs!). When Lockhart is in the tank and sees the giant eels swimming around him, a man supposed to be supervising him has a sexual encounter with a nurse who bares her breasts while he masturbates; she also feeds him drops of that life-extending fluid. In another scene, Lockhart dreams of naked Hannah in a bathtub with eels slithering around her body.

The castrated phallus symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire, which in turn causes suffering and perpetuates samsara, the negation of nirvana. In this sense we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health, between heaven and hell. Though Nietzsche spent all those years in the 1880s in the health-affirming Alps, by 1889 he still had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

Since the long-living eels swimming in the aquifer water are crucial for Volmer in proving its life-extending properties–prompting him to filter it with human bodies to create the fluid for this “mad immortal man” who “on honeydew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” last two lines)–we see that his “cure for wellness” involves a regression from an ill state (or just a seemingly ill one) to an even worse one. The human filters regress from ‘illness’ to death.

We see many manifestations of regression in this film. The elderly patients regress to a dependent state similar to childhood (see the Shakespeare quote above). We see in infantilized Hannah a regression from her physical teen years to her being mentally like a little girl (recall the reference to Carrie above).

Elsewhere, we see in all those CEOs in the sanatarium taking “an enforced vacation” a regression from modern-day capitalism to–symbolically speaking–feudalism, since we learn that Volmer is actually the baron of two hundred years ago (whose family, the Von Reichmerls, were the owners of the land on the mountain where the sanatarium is), kept alive all this time with the fluid.

Under feudalism, serfs (e.g., peasant farmers, etc.) worked for their feudal lord on his land in exchange for his protection. Everyone knew his place, and no one questioned this class system. The absolutism of the Church and of kings and queens thrived under this system until such revolutions as those in France overthrew the feudal lords and monarchies and replaced them with a new set of class masters, the bourgeoisie. In this film, however, the revolutionary change of masters has regressed…gone backward.

Capitalism is an economic system desperately needing to be overthrown, but feudalism (even in the symbolic sense that I’m describing it in this film) is no improvement. What’s worse, not only are these aged ex-capitalist human filters working–as it were–for their feudal master, the baron who calls himself Volmer, by letting him kill them in their filtering of the aquifer water, the now-purified of which is his “milk of paradise,” so to speak; but they are letting him do this in all willingness. His sanatarium, his “stately pleasure-dome” (Coleridge, line 2) is also like a feudal Brave New World, and his water is the soma his patients all get high on. People enjoy their oppression too much to revolt.

He has them drink his water, which dehydrates them, makes their teeth fall out, and ultimately kills them. The patients’ bodies filter the toxins in the aquifer water, distilling it so he can drink only its healthier aspects, his liquid of (potential) immortality. This exchange of drunken liquids is symbolic of the narcissist’s manipulative use of projective and introjective identification. The abuser’s bad parts are projected out onto his victims; he keeps only the good parts. He doesn’t merely imagine that his victims embody his vices: he manipulates them to internalize his bad projections and to manifest them in real life, as symbolized by Volmer’s patients drinking his water. They believe the lie that he is selling, his ‘cure.’

Remember Pembroke’s words to Lockhart as the former is in the pool? He says, “It’s our fluids that must be purified.” Pembroke seems spiritually enlightened early on in the film, in the letter he’s written to the company; but these words of his in the pool remind us of those spoken by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove: “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” The cure for wellness is madness, as we see in Volmer’s near driving of Lockhart mad with the cure.

Just as there is a disproportionately large number of narcissists and psychopaths in the capitalist class, so were there far too many of them among feudal lords, monarchies, and ancient slave-masters. Royals’ and nobles’ tendency towards inbreeding reflects narcissism both in their arrogant wish to maintain a ‘pure bloodline’ (i.e., not ‘contaminating’ it with the blood of the ‘inferior’ classes), and in their belief that indulging in incest was a privilege permissible only to them. After all, Uranus procreated with his mother Gaea, Cronus slept with his older sister, Rhea, to bear the Olympian gods, and Zeus married his older sister, Hera. The kings of heaven could commit incest, so why not allow the kings of earth to do so, too?

For narcissists like Volmer, man is something to be overcome. Volmer will teach us the superman.

The baron’s wish to commit procreative incest with both his sister and his daughter, Hannah (who he notes, with delight, even looks like her mother), reflects his narcissistic wish to procreate with a lover as close to being himself as possible. He’d procreate asexually, if he could.

The removal of his false face to reveal his ugly burns symbolizes the contrast between the narcissistic False Self and the True Self. His claim that he’s done all for Hannah’s sake is, of course, a lie and reaction formation: he’s done everything for himself (just as the abusive parent who imposes Munchausen Syndrome by proxy on her child), for she is just a metaphorical mirror of his narcissistic self. His love for her is just Narcissus pining away at his reflection in the pond, his ideal-I.

The baron ties Hannah’s arms to the upper bedposts, then tears her top open, exposing her breasts. As she struggles to get free, he speaks of how her mother, his sister, “was also somewhat resistant” to have sex with him “at first,” then “she grew to like it,” a typical rapist’s rationalization. That he must have also tied up his sister before raping her is a safe assumption.

Lockhart helps rescue her, then she returns the favour when the baron almost kills him. By cracking her father’s skull open with a shovel, Hannah is being the phallic woman, demonstrating her newfound strength, as contrasted with all of his symbolically castrated patients. Lockhart burns the building down, one of many examples in this film suggesting Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, as expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There are many examples of the eternal recurrence implied in the film; I’ll give a few examples.

At the beginning of the film, we hear that “Delaware” is “dead,” but then Lockhart says it’s “resurrected.” One of his parents died, then the other does. The patients were literal children decades ago, now they’re experiencing a “second childishness.” The baron killed off his peasants to make the “cure,” and now he is killing off a new, capitalist kind of ‘peasant.’ He committed incestuous rape with his sister, and now he at least attempts to do so again with Hannah. His castle was burned down centuries ago; it’s burned down again.

Pembroke writes a letter describing his ‘religious experience,’ and not wanting to return to New York; Lockhart writes a similar letter, if less willingly. Lockhart has gotten away from his New York bosses early into the film; he gets away from them again at the end of the film. He and Hannah ride on their bike down the mountain in the middle of the film; they do so again at the end.

Also, the baron renounced God so he could marry his sister, much to the dismay of the Church; Lockhart and Hannah, in killing him and burning down the sanatarium, have renounced Volmer, the God of the “cure” so they can be free of him, much to the dismay of his staff and the rest of his ‘cult.’ As Lockhart rides down the mountain with Hannah, grinning his grin of dentures, he can proclaim, “Volmer is dead.” The narcissism of man is something to be overcome.

Thus begins Lockhart’s down-going.

Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

In his book, Learning From Experience, Bion explains: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

Guns

The people must acquire the power
and guard against
letting
the rich

return on top with all their guns
and tanks and planes
to kill
us all.

From guns’ barrels grows all our power.
Our trigger fingers–
hands grip
the handles.

If we don’t wield the guns, they will:
they’ll turn things
upside down
once more.

Once more,
we’ll have
those bourgeois boots
upon our heads, stomping on us.

We cannot keep the enemy
at bay unarmed.
It’s us,
or them.

When they’ve no guns to point at us,
the ballot will
replace
the bullet.

No peace or freedom comes from dreaming.
Repose succeeds
the worthy
work

to change thing-love to people-love.
To end the wars,
erase
the rich.

The birth of love means death of hate.
The greedy bleed,
then we
can heal.

For peace, one must prepare for war.
For empty guns,
fire out
the rich,

those wealthy bullets; make them fly
out fast and far.
With them
expelled,

we’ll fill the void instead with food,
we’ll fill the holes their bullets made,
we’ll fill the gap ‘tween rich and poor,
and glut our hungry heads with school.