Analysis of ‘Watchmen’

I: Introduction

Watchmen is a 1986-1987 comic book limited series, collected into a single-volume edition graphic novel in 1987. Original characters were used, since most of them would be unusable for future stories. The series was created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgins.

Moore meant the story as a reflection on contemporary fears, and as a deconstruction and satire on the concept of superheroes, as well as a commentary on contemporary politics. Watchmen depicts an alternate history in which Nixon not only doesn’t resign or is threatened with impeachment over the Watergate scandal (which is never exposed), but enjoys an overturning of the two-term limit and is thus still president by the mid-80s, when the story begins. He is able to do this because such superheroes as Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian help the US win the Vietnam War, ensuring Nixon’s continuing popularity.

Watchmen has received commercial and critical success, recognized in Time‘s List of the 100 Best Novels. According to the BBC’s Nicholas Barber, it is “the moment comic books grew up.” A film adaptation by Zack Snyder came out in 2009, featuring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson; a video game series, Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, also came out the same year. A TV series continuing the story came out in 2019 on HBO. I’m basing my analysis on the comics and the 2009 movie.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

II: Alternate History vs Real History

What should we make of the alternate history, with a Vietnam War victory and Nixon continuing on as president well into the 1980s, that is, as a form of political commentary? Here’s my take: what difference does it make, really? Though communism hadn’t yet been defeated as of when Watchmen was written and published, it certainly had been as of the creation of the movie; besides, Vietnam would go over to a market economy, as would China, around the time of the comics’ publication. As for Nixon, when one considers how the foreign and domestic policies of the United States have moved unswervingly in the same neoliberal/neocon direction since the 1973 oil crisis, one can easily see how it has made no difference who’s been sitting in the Oval Office.

…and here’s where the superheroes come in.

Apart from the sheer goofiness of their names (Nite Owl?, Dollar Bill?, Captain Metropolis?, Hooded Justice?, Mothman?), the superheroes are a satire on their whole existence based on the idea that…no…they do not really embody the idea of defending truth, justice, and…wait, actually they do defend the American way. “Who watches the watchmen?Juvenal once asked of the corrupt men who would guard women against infidelity; though we today find far better application of his words to the defenders of tyrannical governments.

It must be emphasized that, though the liberal creators of Watchmen would have been unlikely to have defended Marxist-Leninist governments (note how the comics’ portrayal of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, moved later in this alternate history to the mid-80s, is still deemed an invasion, rather than an attempt to defend the growth of socialism there against the fundamentalist, reactionary mujahideen), the tyrannical government being critiqued here is the US dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist, imperialist state led by Nixon, who stands in for Moore’s real Republican satirical target…Reagan!

So, as with John Carpenter‘s film They Live, Watchmen is meant as liberals’ indictment of the GOP specifically, as opposed to being a critique of the entire American two-party system, the military-industrial complex, and capitalism in general, though it should have been meant as such, and it has enough elements in it to be critical of so much bigger a realm of political corruption, as I’ll try to show. For to put what I said above in different words, re-elected Nixon can be a stand-in for not only Reagan, but also Ford, Carter, Bushes Sr. and Jr., the Clintons, Obama, Trump, and Biden.

One criticism of the film’s general faithfulness to the comics is that it was too faithful. Retaining, for instance, the Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and socialist Russia was deemed by film critics over a decade ago to be too dated for contemporary moviegoers to be able to relate to the tensions depicted. In the 2020s, however, with new Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and capitalist Russia, moviegoers today can relate all too well to the tensions depicted in the film.

Such fears are what have motivated me to do this analysis.

III: The Comedian Is Dead

The story begins with the violent murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian (Morgan in the film), a man in his sixties who was in remarkably good shape for his age, but no match for his much younger killer, who throws him out of the window of his New York apartment, him falling to his death. The iconic image of his pin of a smiley face stained with a drop of his blood’s a harrowing one, for it symbolizes all that the Comedian in turn came to represent: the idea of superheroes defending the innocent is a sick, cruel joke.

Superheroes in this story are, essentially, glorified police and soldiers, whom they thus represent. Many people, especially in recent years, have come to feel nothing but contempt for cops, and justifiably so, for the cops’ job is really “to serve and protect” the ruling class. Similarly, the American/NATO military serves nothing more than imperial interests.

This is where the Comedian comes in. With Doctor Manhattan (Crudup), he is the only superhero allowed by the US government to remain so under the Keene Act of 1977, which otherwise banned all “masks.” Though the Comedian was inspired by the Peacemaker, with “a little bit of Nick Fury,” there’s also some Captain America in him, too, as can be seen on his Stars and Stripes shoulder sleeves.

Watchmen the comic and film seem to have anticipated the huge outpouring of superhero films in the 2010s, especially the MCU, with its pitting of the Avengers against armies of alien supervillains, a glorification of war between the “good guys,” or “Earth’s mightiest heroes” as representing the armies of US/NATO imperialism, and the “bad guys,” the Chitauri, etc., as representing any country opposing the Western empire.

Accordingly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see flashbacks of the Comedian killing the Vietcong with Doctor Manhattan, though we feel an unsettling sympathy for Charlie as he gets mutilated and destroyed, unlike those Chitauri. What’s worse, we see what a pig of a GI Joe the Comedian is to the pregnant Vietnamese woman he kills…after refusing to take responsibility for having impregnating her. Added to that is his beating and attempted rape of Sally “Jupiter” Juspeczyk, or Silk Spectre I (Gugino) back in the early 1940s. The Comedian thus represents not only police brutality and imperialism, but also toxic masculinity (elements I linked together here), showing what a cruel joke it is to be a “superhero.”

So, the Comedian is despicable in the extreme; but he is not 100% despicable. There are, after all, his penitent tears while sitting at the bed of Moloch (played by Matt Frewer in the film), who was his supervillain enemy for forty years (Chapter II, comic pages 21-23). The Comedian feels this remorse as a result of learning of the apocalyptic plans of Ozymandias (Goode). Indeed, his maskless confession to Moloch, revealing his secret identity as Blake, puts the retired supervillain in the ironic role of priestly confessor, thus once again blurring the line between good and evil in Watchmen.

The Comedian’s grinning wickedness can be explained, if never justified, in one remarkable way. His oft-repeated line, “It’s a joke,” can be interpreted as a kind of Camus-like absurdism. He knows it’s no good playing the hero in a world where villainy keeps resurfacing after brief defeats; it’s especially no good in a world whose existence is threatened by nuclear war.

For him, fighting crime is like Sisyphus rolling that huge boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom as soon as it’s reached the top, to have to be rolled up again and again, for all eternity. One can never make the world a better place, but one is forced to keep trying. Camus concluded, however, that one must imagine that Sisyphus is happy, as a proposed resolution of the contradiction of man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe; similarly, the Comedian continues to play the fake role of hero with a smile, knowing full well that it’s “all a joke.” Hence he commits atrocities without batting an eye.

IV: Rorschach

Rorschach (Haley), or Walter Kovacs–who has been, like a noir detective, investigating the murder of the Comedian and has formulated a conspiracy theory about someone out to kill all “masks”–is a similarly amoral sociopath, another example of how Watchmen deconstructs and satirizes the idea of “good guy” superheroes, though his sociopathy expresses itself in markedly different ways. His mother having been an abusive prostitute makes him a literal sonofabitch. This rupture in the normal child’s Oedipal and post-Oedipal development at least in part explains his pathology (it goes without saying that little Walter had no father in the home).

One peculiarity about Rorschach is his omission of definite and indefinite articles when speaking; these omissions are more extensive in the comic than in the film. Given his psychopathological nature, such omissions symbolize how incomplete his communicating is. In other words, he’s not as engaged as most people are in the Symbolic Order, the realm of language, social mores, custom, laws, culture, etc. His refusal to abide by the Keene Act, that is, illegally continuing his work as a “mask,” is a reflection of all this. He doesn’t fit in with society, and it shows when he talks.

He sees the world as irredeemably cruel, so he believes that he has the right to be as violent and cruel as he likes to other people (e.g., breaking people’s fingers when interrogating them). His superhero name and mask…or “face,” as he calls it, comes from the Rorschach test, a projective test using symmetrical inkblots (like the shifting black images seen on his white “face”) to bring out features of a patient’s unconscious thoughts that are projected onto the ink blots when he’s asked what he sees.

So his black-and-white “face” represents the kind of projection we all do, not just his own projecting of his viciousness onto the world, but also our projecting onto him when we see his “face,” or onto anyone else. (Consider the scene in the film when, broken out of prison with the help of Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, he finds his “face,” puts it on, and facing the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long–played by William S. Taylor– who has used the Rorschach test on him, he asks, “What do you see?”) He is a mirror to us as much as we are a mirror to him. Rorschach, in his permanent hostility to all those around him, personifies the alienation that is almost universal in our world.

The fact that his mask is black and white also represents his own psychological splitting, his black-and-white view of the world: if something isn’t totally pure and innocent, honest and just, it’s so fetidly evil that destroying all manifestations of that evil is perfectly defensible (the fact that he stinks becomes yet another projection onto that fetidly evil world he sees). Hence, “not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” The splitting into black and white means projecting the black outward and keeping the white inside…or so Rorschach thinks he’s doing; yet one cannot deny one’s Shadow, so he behaves as hideously as all those he condemns and maims.

V: Nite Owl II

Upon learning of the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach first goes to the home of Nite Owl II (Wilson), or Dan Dreiberg, to warn him about his theory of a “mask-killer.” Though based on the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle, Nite Owl is in many ways a parody of Batman, with his use of gadgets and his “Owlship” (reminding us of the Batplane), nicknamed “Archie,” short for Archimedes. Dreiberg’s father left him a lot of money when he died, allowing him to afford such things, rather like orphan billionaire Bruce Wayne. His class status as a bourgeois ensures that Dan, like the other Watchmen, will always have, if not right-wing politics, at least liberal ones, as a reflection of his wish to protect his class interests.

Still, of all the Watchmen, Nite Owl II (as well as Silk Spectre II, or Laurie Juspeczyk–Åkerman) is the most moral. He and she do the one act of saving the lives of innocent people in danger in the whole comic, rescuing people from a tenement building on fire and taking them aboard Archie (Chapter VII, comic pages 23-26). When he and the Comedian are trying to handle the rioters back in the 1970s, he’s in the role of the “good cop,” trying to reason with the rioters, while the Comedian is the “bad cop,” beating the crap out of them (Chapter II, comic pages 16-18), if not killing them.

VI: Ozymandias

After warning Dan, Rorschach goes to tell Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, now the wealthy owner of, among other businesses, a toy company that, in selling Watchmen action figures, is capitalizing on the whole superhero phenomenon. Here we see more of the comics’ satire on superheroes. Like Dan, Adrian shows skepticism over Rorschach’s “mask killer” conspiracy theory (Chapter I, comic pages 17 and 18).

Well, naturally Adrian shows skepticism: as we learn in the end, he is the mask killer.

He’s the one who breaks into Blake’s apartment, beats him up, and throws him out the window. Adrian’s the one who deceives Doctor Manhattan into thinking that contact with him caused his colleagues, his former lover, Janey Slater (played by Laura Mennell in the film), and Moloch to develop cancer, giving the godlike superhero such guilt feelings that he leaves for Mars for some peaceful solitude, thus ensuring he won’t interfere with Adrian’s plans. Since Rorschach is also piecing the plot together, Adrian must get rid of him, too–by framing him for the murder of Moloch and putting him in prison. Finally, Adrian stages an attempt on his own life to make himself seem above suspicion.

And what’s Ozymandias’ plot? To kill millions of New Yorkers with a monster he’s had biologically engineered so that the leaders of the US and the USSR, joining forces to defend the world from alien invaders, will relent from nuclear war. Thus is world peace achieved!

Now, purist fans of the comics will be infuriated with me for saying this, but I believe the film’s changing of the alien monster to energy blasts, seemingly from Doctor Manhattan, on not only New York but also a number of other major cities around the world, was an improvement. Wiping out so many more people makes it all the more horrific, and energy blasts coming from a harnessing of Doctor Manhattan’s power, by virtue of the godlike hero’s name’s association with the Manhattan Project (and therefore associating his power with nuclear weapons), creates an ironic genocide by power thus associated in order to prevent a genocide by nuclear weapons.

Ozymandias imagines that his plot, as horrific as it is, will be a necessary sacrifice to prevent a horror killing billions, because apparently, the American and Soviet governments will be deterred by this horror from ever going to war with each other. Why, however, should we believe that world peace, let alone a lasting one, will be guaranteed by this “sacrifice”? Ozymandias himself acknowledges that man’s savage, violent nature will inevitably lead to his destruction. One doesn’t have to be “the smartest man in the world” to know that that savage, destructive nature won’t be tamed forever just because of the massive deaths caused by the monster, or the energy blasts. Let enough time pass by, and all those deaths will slowly fade from memory, and our bloodthirsty, competitive habits will reemerge.

Kiling millions to save billions, therefore, must be Adrian’s rationalization, rather than his real reason, for killing all those people (I wonder if any of his businesses’ competition were wiped out in New York, with his full knowledge?). Like the Comedian and Rorschach, Ozymandias is yet another superhero psychopath (recall how easily he disintegrates his pet Bubastis in his attempt to do the same to Doctor Manhattan), but with some narcissism mixed in. He identifies with great leaders of ancient history: Alexander the Great, and later Ramses II, called Ozymandias by the ancient Greeks. We’re reminded of Shelley‘s poem, in which we read the famous lines, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

In his narcissistic imagination, Adrian thinks he’s achieved the ultimate act of greatness in creating world peace, paradoxically, through a huge massacre. We are to look on his works (supposedly not knowing they’re his works) and despair, on the one hand, at the huge number of deaths he’s caused, and on the other hand, at the great accomplishment–supposedly thus–of what has been deemed impossible to accomplish…a lasting world peace. The “mighty” would envy him for his great feat.

Yet, just as the giant statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem has been reduced to mere fragments of rubble by the passage of time, so will Adrian’s peace by mass murder–by the passage of time–fade away into oblivion with the innate human urge to resume competing and waging war. His peace will come crumbling down; in fact, it may crumble quite soon if Seymour (played by Chris Gauthier in the film), at New Frontiersman, takes Rorschach’s journal from the crank file and, reproducing in a newspaper article the contents that have resulted from Rorschach’s investigation, expose Adrian’s whole plan as a hoax (Chapter XII, comic pages 31 and 32).

Now, New Frontiersman is a right-wing newspaper (as made blatantly clear on pages 275-278 in the graphic novel), and Rorschach’s giving of his journal to them indicates his sympathies for their politics. Indeed, he often speaks disparagingly of “liberal sensibilities,” which, contrary to popular belief, are not left-wing, but centrist, swaying only temporarily to the left or to the right depending on the political climate of the time (consider, for example, how liberals were left-leaning peaceniks in the 1960s and 70s; but when Trump was elected, they started banging the war drums against Russians, leading to our predicament in the 2020s). Other masks, like the Comedian, are similarly right-wing, “practically a Nazi,” according to Adrian.

Now, Adrian is deemed one of the “most consistently left-leaning superheroes,” according to a 1975 article by the liberal Nova Express (pages 377-380), so virulently hated a publication by the editor of New Frontiersman. Still, as the wealthy owner of several companies, Adrian is merely a bourgeois liberal and a member of the capitalist class, so he hardly merits the moniker of “leftist.” He’s no more “left-leaning” than billionaire George Soros, who may critique the excesses of unregulated capitalism from time to time, but who also used the “Open Society” to help dissolve the Soviet states. Only a far right-wing moron would call Soros a ‘communist’; it’s equally absurd to imagine that Adrian, an admirer of rulers during the ancient slave/master class contradiction, is anything approaching a socialist.

If one wishes to call Adrian a liberal, fine. We’ve seen plenty of liberals in today’s world joining the choruses of condemnation of Putin and all things Russian in response to his provoked invasion of Ukraine. These same liberals are, knowingly or unknowingly (the latter being no excuse, as evidence of the provocations has been made public for years), cheering for a government that has Nazis in it, as well as in their military. (I go into more detail about this issue in these posts, Dear Reader, if you’re interested: rehashing these arguments is beyond the scope of this article.)

That Western liberals are rooting for Ukraine and manufacturing consent for continued war with Russia is a dangerous game, risking a very possibly nuclear WWIII. Such an understanding of Ozymandias’ politics helps clear our minds as to why this liberal, fantasizing about an ideal world, has massacred millions in a manner comparable with nuclear war in order, paradoxically, to prevent it. Recall how atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands in two Japanese cities (rationalized as having prevented far more deaths), far fewer than Adrian’s mass murder in New York City.

So, one lesson to be learned from this narrative is not to be naïve in hoping that liberals will steer humanity away from extinction. The trouble with liberal normal is that it always gets worse.

VII: Doctor Manhattan

The next heroes Rorschach goes to warn are Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre II, the couple being in a sexual relationship and living together in the Rockefeller Military Research Center, where Doctor Manhattan works for the government. When Rorschach tells them the Comedian is dead, Dr. Manhattan says he already knows, and that “the CIA suspects the Libyans were responsible.” Though the CIA presumably wouldn’t have known of Adrian’s plot (of course, knowing the nature of the CIA, and of at least some billionaires’ CIA connections, it’s quite possible that they might be in on it), their scapegoating of Libya sounds most convenient for their purposes.

Laurie feels no love lost for the murder of the man who tried to rape her mother, breaking her ribs and almost choking her; but Rorschach just trivializes the “moral lapse” of a man who died serving his country, a typically jingoistic and insensitive opinion from a right-winger (Chapter I comic page 21).

As for Dr. Manhattan, he is similarly unmoved by Blake’s death, since “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts.” As the only superhero of the Watchmen with superhuman powers, this nude blue demigod is emotionally numb from his deeper understanding of ‘the broader scheme of things,’ as it were, a numbness that will alienate Laurie from him and make her run into Dan’s arms later.

Dr. Jon Osterman became Doctor Manhattan as a result of a freak accident in the test chamber–in which he was locked–in the intrinsic field chamber where he and his fellow researchers worked. (He went there to retrieve a watch he’d fixed, that of his lover, Janey Slater.) In that chamber, his body was torn to pieces…pieces too infinitesimally small to see (Chapter IV, comic pages 7 and 8).

He reassembled himself (just like the repairing of her watch) in stages: first, a brain, eyes, and nervous system emerged; then, his circulatory system; next, a partially-muscled skeleton. Finally, he appeared before Janey and the other research staff in the cafeteria in his full, new form–blue, hairless, muscular, and naked, glowing with a “sudden flare of ultraviolet” (Chapter IV, comic page 10).

Osterman’s ordeal is obviously Christ-like in his agonizing death and resurrection, giving him a kind of “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), if you will, and as a kind of “second Adam,” it’s fitting that he goes about “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), just like the two lovers in the garden before their fall from grace. So his disintegration into the void was a kind of harrowing of hell…but also, paradoxically, a brief experience of the no-thing-ness of nirvana.

The sublation of the dialectical opposites of heaven (or, if you prefer, nirvana) and hell can be a way of interpreting what Wilfred Bion called O, and what Lacan called the Real. It’s a place of bliss as well as of trauma. Osterman has experienced both, almost simultaneously, and he’ll never be the same again.

Having experienced such extremes, he is distanced from the normal feelings of human attachment that are a part of samsara. He scarcely feels the fire of desire that causes dukkha, suffering; so his resurrected, god-like incarnation grows cooler and cooler emotionally. Death and suffering no longer trouble him all that much. He can still feel some emotion (hence his guilt over Janey’s cancer, a particularly powerful exception for him), but feelings are scanted for him, at best.

Small wonder he can walk as a giant through the jungles and rice paddy fields of Vietnam and destroy Charlie without flinching. Such is his nirvanic indifference to the differences between life and death. This indifference, of course, is most useful to the American government. As an American god, Doctor Manhattan should be terrifying to the world. As a metaphoric nuclear weapon personified, he’ll keep the Soviets at bay.

As the personification of a nuclear weapon, capable of destroying all life, he’s the opposite of what a superhero is supposed to be. As someone so indifferent to human life that it doesn’t matter to him if nuclear war wipes it out, Doctor Manhattan is that much less of a superhero.

It is only when he realizes so good a person as Laurie, Silk Spectre II, can come–by a one in a billion chance–from the mating of Sally, Silk Spectre I, with her near-rapist, the super-despicable Comedian, such good from such bad, that Doctor Manhattan sees the birth as a miracle, and therefore he can see value in human life once again. So by this paradox, he finds the willingness to go back, from his isolation on Mars, to Earth to prevent nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

But he arrives too late to stop the monster…or, according to the film, the energy blasts to be blamed on him.

Heroes meant to prevent calamity either fail to prevent it in Watchmen, or they outright cause it…the superhero concept is further satirized and deconstructed.

VIII: The Black Freighter

A subplot running throughout the comics, but not included in the film (apart from deleted scenes), is a comic book story–read by a young man sitting by a newspaper vendor who’s always prating about the end of the world (and providing copies of New Frontiersman to Walter Kovacs when he isn’t in his Rorschach outfit but is carrying around a sign saying “The End Is Nigh”)–from Tales of the Black Freighter. (This begins at the start of Chapter III.)

The protagonist of the story–curiously not a comic book superhero, since a decline in the popularity of “masks” over the years has replaced them with, in this case, for example, seamen–has found himself the sole survivor of his crew from a shipwreck resulting from an attack at sea by the Black Freighter, or as he calls it, the “hell-bound ship.” (Chapter III, comic pages 1 and 2) Overwhelmed by the sight of his wrecked ship and the bodies of his dead crew strewn on the shore, and also fearing the hell-bound ship sailing to his hometown of Davidstown, where his wife and daughters will be killed before he can get there, he vows revenge and is obsessively driven to get home to achieve it.

When he realizes that making a raft from wood won’t be buoyant enough, he decides to make one with the body parts of the dead crewmen he’s just buried. This ghoulish act is the first example of foreshadowing in the story, for the Black Freighter has heads nailed to its prow. In his overzealous quest to avenge evil (if he can’t stop the ship from killing his family, that is), the protagonist will become the very evil he’s trying to prevent. He’s projecting his own potential for evil onto the Black Freighter (Chapter V, comic pages 8 and 9), just as Rorschach projects his evil onto the world.

Further foreshadowing of him becoming that evil is when he, on his raft of rotting corpses, grabs a seagull among many trying to nip at the dead flesh and savagely eats it alive. We see a picture of him (Chapter V, bottom right of comic page 9) with a wild facial expression and gull’s blood dripping from his mouth.

It’s interesting to note, in connection with the moral degeneration of the protagonist, how the newspaper vendor standing by the kid reading the comic has said, from the beginning, that the US should nuke the USSR. Is his attitude not a perfect parallel of that of the comic’s protagonist? So eager to kill the bad guys that he talks like a bad guy himself. The same is true of the Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, all self-righteous psychopaths who think they have the right to end human life.

Eventually, the protagonist reaches land and gets to Davidstown. Since he’s narrating the story, and he’s been through a harrowing, traumatizing, and disorienting experience, his judgement will be shaky at best. Therefore, he is clearly an unreliable narrator. What he perceives to be happening next should be observed with due skepticism.

He sees a man and a woman walking along near the beach. It’s at night, so it’s dark and not easy to see. Still, the protagonist is sure this man is a moneylender from Davidstown whom he recognizes, and the woman is his paramour. Moneylenders were despised people back around the 18th/19th century, when this story takes place, so it’s easy to see the protagonist vilifying this man as an abettor to the evil crew of the Black Freighter. (Chapter X, comic book pages 12 and 13)

He kills the lovers, then disguising himself as the man and putting the woman’s body on her horse, he rides into Davidstown with her. (Chapter X, comic page 23) Again, this use of a corpse with transportation is a foreshadowing of his eventual identification with the murderous crew of the Black Freighter, with heads on its prow.

Finally in Davidstown, he gets to his home and, thinking the murderous pirates are there, he attacks one to avenge his family…only to realize he’s actually killed his own wife. (Chapter XI, comic page 6) The Black Freighter never reached Davidstown (has it been only a figment of his imagination the whole time, a projection of his own, inner evil?), though the ship is later seen approaching the shore by the despairing protagonist, who has returned to the beach. He gets in the water, swims to the boat, and joins the crew, being as evil as they are. (Chapter XI, comic page 23)

To return to the main story, after Ozymandias has released the monster (which, by the way, can also be representative of a nuclear holocaust, through associations with such kaiju as Godzilla) on New York, a mass murder that one TV news reporter compares to “Hiroshima but with buildings”(Chapter XII, comic page 25), he tells Doctor Manhattan about a dream he’s had, “about swimming towards a hideous…” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)

He doesn’t finish his thought, though, because, as should be obvious to us, he’s referring to the Black Freighter. Like the protagonist of that story, Ozymandias has become the very evil he claims he’s wanted to prevent…though he won’t let his guilt surface to his conscious mind (it can appear only in his unconscious, in dream).

IX: Conclusion

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” meaning the triumph of “free market” capitalism as the highest and final stage of human civilization. But as Doctor Manhattan tells liberal capitalist Ozymandias, “Nothing ever ends.” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)

We all imagined (myself included, at the time), in our naïveté, that the end of the Soviet states would not only usher in freedom and democracy around the world, but also, in ending the Cold War, put to rest our fears of nuclear annihilation. Yet since the early 1990s, we’ve instead seen life get shittier and shittier, with increasing income inequality, the capitalist class controlling most of our access to information, a homelessness epidemic, worsening financial crises, government surveillance (and surveillance capitalism), rampant imperialist wars, and militarized police. The end of socialist “totalitarianism” has only led to a very real capitalist totalitarianism. In the past, the West feared the rule of Stalin and Mao, but we don’t need to fear them: now we’re ruled by the likes of Gates, Musk, and Bezos.

Our “heroes” of the past–Soros et al–have become the very evil they fancied themselves to be fighting.

Furthermore, just as we see on the pages of the Watchmen comics, the doomsday clock is set just a few minutes before midnight. All one needs to do to see the grim reality I’m describing is to watch the reckless nuclear brinksmanship going on with the US and NATO’s proxy war with Russia, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder. And as if that weren’t madness enough, the Western imperialists are planning to play the same game of nuclear chicken with China, using the Taiwanese as cannon fodder.

The end of the world is nigh…where are Walter Kovacs and his sign when we need them?

Just as Ozymandias imagines dropping a giant squid-like monster on New York City–or, as in the film, using energy blasts seeming to come from Doctor Manhattan, killing not only millions in the Big Apple, but also in London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, etc.–will save billions by killing millions, so do some of the warmongering imperialist psychopaths in our world imagine using smaller nukes will defeat Russia and China without wiping out the entire world. MAD indeed.

Not only are we headed unswervingly towards WWIII and nuclear annihilation, we are also blinded to this reality by the Russophobic and Sinophobic propaganda of the Western bourgeois media, who keep the truth from us just as Doctor Manhattan kills Walter Kovacs to keep the truth from the world about Ozymandias’ plot. That Western propaganda is like the tachyons used to blind us Dr. Manhattans to the dire future we face, causing us to do nothing to prevent it.

The anti-Russian partisans of the DNC, as well as the anti-Chinese partisans of the GOP, see the politicians of their respective parties as superheroes defending the US…yet, who is watching the watchmen? In their hate of their version of the Black Freighter, be it China, or Russia, or both of them, these Western politicians have built their raft of corpses–from all their previous warmongering–and they’re on their way to Davidstown.

Not enough of us yet know that these Western politicians will soon swim to that hell-bound ship and join their bloodthirsty crew…will there be enough of us to stop them before it’s too late?

As we can see, Watchmen, in its comic and movie forms, is extremely relevant to our troubled times today.

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, Watchmen, Burbank, CA, DC Comics, 1986-1987

Analysis of ‘A Farewell to Kings’

A Farewell to Kings is the fifth studio album by Rush, released in 1977. The album demonstrates remarkable musical growth in the band, with their shifting away from their original, Led Zeppelin-inspired hard rock sound and into the realm of progressive rock.

To this musical end, the trio expanded from a basic guitar/bass/drums sound to one incorporating not only six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars, but also classical guitar (by Alex Lifeson). Furthermore, singer/bassist Geddy Lee adds a Minimoog, and both he and Lifeson play bass pedal synthesizers; this electronic sound would be further expanded to the use of more synthesizers by the 1980s, this being a dominant aspect of their music throughout that decade.

Drummer Neil Peart adds a wide array of percussion instruments on this album, including glockenspiel, tubular bells, Vibraslap (heard during Lifeson’s solo on “Closer to the Heart“), and Chinese temple blocks. These new musical colours, combined with Peart’s growth from his original Keith Moon-inspired aggressive drumming style to one of prog rock virtuosity, show the newer influence of the crackingly precise chops of Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford.

But just as newer musical ideas are being phased in, so are older ideas being phased out. As I said above, the hard rock sound, though still present to a large degree, is noticeably less here than on previous albums. And although Lee’s soaring head voice (with its grating vibrato) is as evident as ever here (in fact, on “Cygnus X-1,” he hits his highest note ever, a B-flat 5…or 6?), it won’t be long after this album (two albums later, specifically) that he will phase out the use of head voice and limit his highest notes generally to those within mixed voice, and focus on his lower, chest voice.

A Farewell to Kings is an album that Rush were most pleased with: Lee has never found fault with it, and Peart said that the title track “seems to encapsulate everything that we want Rush to represent.” It’s one of my personal favourites of the band’s, if not the favourite–it’s the first of theirs that I’d heard as a little kid, not long after it was released. Apart from all the musical colours I described above, A Farewell to Kings is genuine art rock, not only with long songs divided into sections, but also with a more prominent use of odd time signatures and superb musicianship that had since become synonymous with Rush.

Here is a link to all the song lyrics on the album.

The cover, by Hugh Syme, shows a demolition site in the background as juxtaposed with, in the foreground, a king slumped on a throne and made to look like a marionette. The picture expresses some of the themes of the title track, and by extension, those of the rest of the songs on the album, as I’ll explain below.

Decades ago, I spotted the obvious theme of morality, but a much more important theme is idealism, particularly the idealizing of the past as against the disillusionment felt in the modern world. Also, there’s the theme of the danger of recklessly seeking to attain those ideals, leading to one’s self-destruction.

The title track begins softly, with Lifeson playing a classical guitar melody with one bar in 3/4, then three bars in 4/4 before returning to the 3/4 beginning, and playing the whole cycle all over again. He plays it a third time, but with the first two of the three 4/4 bars, replacing the third with a transitional bar in 5/4, then one in 4/4, to introduce a middle passage with Lee’s Minimoog and Peart’s glockenspiel.

The first theme returns with all three instruments, and with the 5/4 theme played three times. Though this gentle introductory tune includes a synthesizer, the classical guitar’s lute-like sound makes one think of a time hundreds of years ago. The music’s tranquility makes one imagine, correctly or incorrectly, that that old time was a better, more peaceful one.

A sharp contrast is heard when the electric guitar, bass, and drums come crashing in, suggesting the turmoil of the modern world, a sad decline from that (perceived) idyllic opening. We hear two bars of 4/4, then a switch to several bars of 7/4 before returning to 4/4.

Now, the lyrics come in, Lee singing what amounts to be a conservative’s complaint of “Whatever happened to the good old days?” (If one didn’t know any better, one might think of Archie and Edith Bunker singing “Those Were the Days” at the piano.)

Added to this conservative lament is the use of medieval imagery in Peart’s lyric (i.e., references to “castles,” all things “kingly,” and “nobles”). Let me just get this straight: a farewell to kings, that is, to feudalism, is a bad thing? Morality can be upheld only through the absolute power of a monarch, the ‘divine right’ of kings?

Such would be a very strange position for three young, long-haired rockers (who only the previous year sang of the pleasures of dope in “A Passage to Bangkok“) to take. Either Peart was being ironic, or he was being metaphorical in his references to kings and castles as an ideal, or the lyric is in the voice of a reactionary whose political ideals are in sharp contrast with those of the band.

I’d say that a hint to what Peart was really writing about, perhaps by way of a Freudian slip, is in the line “Ancient nobles showering their bitterness on youth.” Does this line not encapsulate what the whole lyric presents to the listener–grumpy old men griping about all these bad kids, with their long hair, loud rock music, and sex and drugs, only it’s expressed with all this medieval imagery, just to reinforce how “ancient” the complainers are?

One thing to remember about Rush, and about Peart in the 1970s in particular, was the influence of right-wing libertarianism, and of “the genius of Ayn Rand” in their reworking of her novella, Anthem, in their side-long suite, “2112” (not to mention their song of the same name as her book, and in the name of Rush’s record label). Surely, these three haters of ‘Big Brother government’ weren’t holding up the monarchy as a fitting alternative. And if the idealizing of monarchy is meant as a metaphor, then for what?

I want to give Rush credit here, and say that this song, however much Peart insisted would “encapsulate everything that [they wanted] Rush to represent,” is meant as an ironic presentation of the views of authoritarian conservatives “showering their bitterness on youth.”

In other words, Rush represents ironic tongue-in-cheek.

Sandwiched in between these verses is a tight instrumental section in alternating 4/4 and 2/4, with Lifeson doing a solo with a delightfully angular tone on his Gibson ES-355 over Lee’s Rickenbacker bass octaves in A, and Peart’s tight drumming. Lifeson stops soloing for a moment and plays an A-chord with Lee’s A octaves and Peart’s drumming of the 4/4 and 2/4 rhythm; then we have just 4/4 and a chord progression of A major, G major, and D major, over which Lifeson resumes soloing before a reprise of the “Cities full of hatred…” verse.

A final verse, to the same music as that of the reprised verse, ends with the hope for a world that’s “closer to the heart,” an allusion to the famous song that acts as a solution to the problem presented in the title track. More on that later, of course.

Though lyrically, “Xanadu” is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem “Kubla Khan,” Peart’s idea originally came from the classic film Citizen Kane, in which the titular character (based in part on William Randolph Hearst) owns a mansion called Xanadu. Just as the title track yearns for an ideal morality in the feudal past (metaphorically, if not literally), so does “Xanadu” involve a quest for the ideal of eternal life.

As with the title track, “Xanadu” begins with birdsong (indeed, Messiaen would have loved it!). We also hear a low E played on the bass pedal synthesizer, along with Lifeson soloing with a volume pedal, and Peart playing the Chinese temple blocks, swiping the chimes, and tapping an E on the tubular bells.

Next, Lifeson plays–no longer with the volume pedal–a seven-note cycle of E–E (octave higher)–A–B–E-flat–A-flat–A, which then brings in the bass and drums. After this passage in 7/8, we return to 4/4, still in E major, with a riff including a whirlwind of notes starting on D, in the E-Mixolydian mode. Then, we’re back to 7/8 (Rush’s favourite odd time), with Lifeson quickly strumming chords of E-major, D-major, B-major, A-major, and G-major, but with an open high E string (he does a lot of this–playing E-shape barre chords, but with the high E-string open, without the barre–at various points in the song). Peart joins in with cowbells of different pitches, and Lee with the bass pedals set at a treble range. The bass and drums soon join Lifeson in this 7/8 passage.

The instrumental opening goes on for about five minutes before Lee finally begins singing, making allusions to Coleridge’s poem. “Drink[ing] the milk of Paradise” is what the speaker hopes will confer immortality onto him, though the milk, combined with honeydew, also suggests the use of narcotics (recall, in this connection, “A Passage to Bangkok,” as well as Coleridge’s own drug use).

The speaker seeks the ideal of eternal life, and hopes to find in Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome” the ideal abode, paradise. But just as hoping for moral ideals in a romanticized past in “A Farewell to Kings” is foolish, so is the speaker’s hope for happiness in immortality in Xanadu foolish.

A thousand years pass, and the speaker has no hope of dying. He yearns for the end of the world, hoping to be destroyed with it, and thus to be freed of the “prison of the lost Xanadu.” Just as Charles Foster Kane can find no happiness or fulfillment in his wealth and power, the speaker, in his “bitter triumph,” cannot find any in honeydew and the milk of paradise.

Wealth, power, immortality, ideals…these don’t provide happiness. That’s what A Farewell to Kings is all about.

Now, “A Farewell to Kings” may have presented the problem of immorality (just as “Xanadu” explored the problem of immortality), but “Closer to the Heart” presents an attempt at finding solutions. Obviously, “the heart” is meant to indicate that we need a world of love as the solution, though as I’ll later argue, the solution as given isn’t adequate.

From a formal, structural perspective, the song’s lyrics (written by Peart, but inspired by a verse by Peter Talbot, a friend of the band’s) are cleverly written, with parallel structure from verse to verse. Examples of such parallelism include the rhyming last words of the third line of each verse (“reality,” “creativity,” “mentality,” and “destiny”); in the first line of each verse are references to different careers one could have (“men who hold high places,” “the blacksmith and the artist,” “philosophers and ploughmen,” and “captain”); the blacksmith would “forge,” and the artist use his “creativity,” ploughmen “sow” the philosophers’ “new mentality,” and the captain goes “sailing into [the] destiny” of “the chart” that “I will draw.” The most obvious parallelism is the repeat of the song’s title in the last line of each verse.

Now, this all makes for fine rhetoric, which again uses archaic diction, as in the album’s title track, the question song to which “Closer to the Heart” is the proposed answer. Here’s the problem: nothing in the song actually details how we are supposed to move towards a more loving world.

Matters start to get a little disturbing when we consider how the band that’s preaching how we must move “closer to the heart” was only the previous year touting the ‘philosophy’ of an embittered Russian bourgeois expat in the US, she who wrote of The Virtue of Selfishness, which espoused “rational egoism,” or as I would call it, rationalized selfishness.

In all fairness to Rush, and to Peart in particular, when they recorded these 1970s albums, they were young and naïve about the world. Their expertise was in music, not politics. Given the intense anti-communist propaganda of the Cold War, the kind that raised a hack writer like Rand to fame (seriously, I read Anthem when I was young and, being similarly naïve at the time, was more sympathetic to the story’s anti-socialist message, and even then, I was not impressed with her prose), it’s easy to see how Peart could have been seduced by her ideas, as so many have been. And to be even fairer to Peart, in the last decade of his life, he confessed that he’d renounced Rand (who, incidentally, was no libertarian, but rather an advocate for capitalist government) and begun calling himself a “bleeding-heart libertarian“…translation: a liberal. Indeed, it was the individualism of her message, not the pro-capitalist one, that he’d always liked, anyway.

As for those conservative politicians whose Rand influence has stayed with them, look over the past forty years of neoliberalism and ask yourself honestly if their politics have steered the world any “closer to the heart.” Tax cuts for the rich have resulted in their wealth ballooning to the point that they can essentially buy politicians and both American political parties, ensuring that the owners of the big corporations determine the direction the world goes in, which means more for them and less for the rest of us (all of this has given a new, bitter irony to Peart’s complaints of “the seeds that we let grow”). As I’ve explained in other posts, the “free market” dialectically leads to “corporatism,” or the capitalist government that Rand wanted, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

So, with the song’s championing of a more loving world, with its clever rhetoric and a lack of a concrete plan for realizing its goal, “Closer to the Heart” is another example of the album’s theme of idealism. Note that utopian thinking exists on the left and on the right. Everyone has his or her own notion of the ‘perfect world’: there are, for example, the Nazi ideals of Lebensraum and judenrein, though decent people would never espouse such horrors. “Free market” fundamentalists’ notion of unbridled capitalism, through the voodoo of the invisible hand, leading to happiness and harmony is another utopian fantasy: how does unchecked selfishness help the world? It’s easy to see how it results in unaccountable corporate tyranny, though. And leftism isn’t necessarily all idealistic: contrary to popular belief, Marxism is not, as I explained here, utopian socialism, but scientific, grounded in revolutionary theory.

Now, “Closer to the Heart” may have failed to provide a method for achieving the more loving society, but Lee’s lyric for “Cinderella Man” gives us something of an idea. Just as “Xanadu” was inspired (in part) by a classic old black-and-white movie, so was this one: namely, by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, one of Lee’s favourites.

Longfellow Deeds (played by Gary Cooper) is dubbed the “Cinderella Man” by a newspaper reporter, named Louise “Babe” Bennett (played by Jean Arthur), because of his sudden rags-to-riches inheritance of his late uncle’s $20,000,000 fortune. He’s from a town called Mandrake Falls, and he goes to New York to get the money.

Since Deeds eventually decides to give all of the money to poor, starving farmers (the 1936 film is set during the Great Depression), powerful men scheme to get their hands on his money by having him declared insane, and therefore too mentally incompetent to be trusted with the responsibility of managing and dispensing with so huge a sum of money. His eccentric behavior, which includes suddenly punching men for no apparent reason, walking in the rain, and feeding a horse an excess of donuts, seems to confirm that he’s insane. In fact, a psychiatrist deems him to be a manic depressive. In the end, though, they “just couldn’t beat him.”

So, Lee’s lyric tells the plot of the film in an extremely abbreviated form. The proposed ideal moral solution to the problem of poverty is, essentially, a kind of charity, acts of generosity done of one’s free, individual will, as opposed to the workers’ revolutionary seizing control of the means of production, resulting in a state-planned economy providing free healthcare, education, housing, and full employment.

It’s interesting to note, in light of Rand’s influence on Peart, that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a film by Frank Capra, who also did It’s a Wonderful Life, another film about the value of Christian charity, and one despised by the likes of Rand, who have idiotically claimed it is a “communist” film. Capra, a kind of right-wing libertarian in his own right, didn’t even like FDR’s New Deal, which was meant to keep the Depression-era American working class from agitating for a socialist revolution. As I argued in my analysis of this latter film (link above), the notion that altruism of any kind can be airily called “communist” really only displays the mean-spiritedness of the “rational egoists.”

“Madrigal” is a simple love song, with a sweet melody that Lee plays on his Minimoog, and with Peart’s drums recorded in an echo room. Even this love song can be seen as a manifestation of the theme of ideals, for when one is in love, one idealizes the love object, ignoring his or her faults, and exaggerating his or her virtues, especially as a contrasting bulwark against this harsh world we live in, as expressed in Peart’s lyric. That the song is called madrigal is again, as with much of the diction of its lyric, an example of the use of archaic imagery (suggesting associations with courtly love poetry, which idealized the Lady as love object), reinforcing that sense of idealizing a distant past against our troubled modern world.

“Cygnus X-1 Book One: The Voyage” is, in contrast to the previous songs’ settings at different points in the past, a science fiction story about going “across the Milky Way” in a spaceship to reach a black hole “in the constellation of Cygnus.” It’s in four parts, the Prologue opening with an electronically-altered narration by Terry Brown, the producer of A Farewell to Kings and all the other Rush albums from their second, Fly by Night, up to Signals.

1 is very brief, with Lee singing of how entry “through the void” of the black hole leads one “to be destroyed,” or could it be a wormhole into either another part of the universe, or a door to a parallel one? Our protagonist dares to find out.

Lee begins playing broken-up segments of the bass line that, when Lifeson and Peart join in, will comprise a riff in 3/4, 7/8, 3/4, and 4/4. Soon after, a frantic riff comes in with chords of C-sharp minor, E minor, and G-sharp minor, which we’ll hear again at the climactic end of the song. A guitar line of G, A-flat, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, and G leads into a riff in 11/8, 12/8, and 11/8, with chords in C minor, a passing chord of B minor to F-sharp major, E-flat minor, and a passing chord of D minor back to C minor. The Minimoog eventually comes in, largely doubling the chords.

2, narrated by the protagonist, describes the flight on his ship, the Rocinante, which is named after the horse ridden by Don Quixote, a foolish idealist who, having read so many chivalric romances, fancies himself such a hero, a knight-errant in search of adventure. He’s an awkward fool, engaging in a task far beyond his abilities. The protagonist in the spaceship is similarly foolish and idealistic, engaging in a dangerous quest (though, in “Book Two: Hemispheres,” he enters–through a wormhole, presumably–the world of the Apollonian and Dionysian battle of the mind and heart, achieving the ideal of balance between the two).

Beginning this section is an upbeat chord progression of C major, F major, D major, and G major, musically suggesting the rosy optimism of the protagonist. Things don’t stay positive for long, though.

A repeat of the G, A-flat, B, C, D, E-flat, F-sharp, and G leads to a solo by Lifeson with the wah-wah pedal. Next is a quieter section suggesting the traveling of the Rocinante deep into space, with Lifeson playing octaves of C, A-flat, and B. Backed by Peart’s drumming, Lee comes in with his bass soon after, with fragments of his bass line from that frantic, climactic progression heard in the Prologue and soon to be heard again–notes of C-sharp, E and G-sharp…hearing this is a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s doom. Fittingly, the bass line does a bitonal clash with the guitar line, reinforcing the sense of tension building up to the climax. But just before that climax, there’s a louder section in E, in 4/8, 3/8, and 4/8.

3 has the Rocinante spinning out of control as it reaches the black hole, with that frantic chord progression fully developed in the form of C-sharp minor, E minor, G-sharp major, and G major, then C-sharp minor, E minor, and C minor, all in 6/8. The protagonist screams out that his “every nerve is torn apart.” (The tragedy of his self-destruction in his spaceship is paralleled by the farce of Don Quixote charging, on his horse, the windmills.)

The song ends with soft but eerie chords of C minor, E-flat minor, and E minor added ninth, then E minor again, but without the ninth. This fades out, suggesting the fading out of the protagonist’s life.

The protagonist thus goes through the whole Hegelian dialectic of being, nothingness, and in Book Two, the sublation of being and non-being, that of becoming, the balance between the two (as well as that between the Apollonian mind and the Dionysian heart), the achievement of the Hegelian ideal.

But this ideal isn’t to be reached until the next album. Instead, as far as A Farewell to Kings is concerned, our quixotic hero just destroyed himself, as does the drinker of the milk of paradise in the other long song ending Side One of this album. The first hero destroys his mind in madness, and the second destroys his body; the first erases the possibility of his non-existence, the second erases his existence…both heroes doing so in the foolish pursuit of unattainable ideals.

Analysis of ‘Notorious’

Notorious is a 1946 spy film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Ben Hecht. It stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, and Leopoldine Konstantin.

The film was a watershed for Hitchcock artistically, having a heightened maturity. It was his first attempt to create a serious love story, with two men (played by Grant and Rains) jealously vying for the attention of a beautiful woman (Bergman) within the context of a spy thriller.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

What’s curious about this film is how it depicts clandestine operations by ex-Nazis in Brazil just after WWII, when the Nazis had just been roundly defeated. One would think that the ex-Nazi war criminals hiding out in South America would want to keep a low profile by not doing anything suspect just after their defeat, with Nazi hunters after them.

The ex-Nazis of this film are high-ranking members of IG Farben, the German chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate infamously associated with such atrocities as the creation of Zyklon B, which killed over a million people in gas chambers during the Holocaust. These IG Farben executives, it is discovered, are mining uranium ore, to be used in the making of atomic bombs. (Incidentally, from the discovery of nuclear fission to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the Nazis were hardly motivated to develop nuclear weapons; getting rid of Jews was their priority at the time. And only now are these ex-Nazis interested in uranium ore?)

What is odd about the villain conspirators being from IG Farben is that the conglomerate was seized by the Allies at the end of the war in 1945, its directors to be put on trial from 1947 to 1948, thirteen of the tried twenty-three directors being convicted of war crimes. If a Nazi conspiracy to make nuclear weapons were afoot, it would seem unlikely that its men would allow any association to be made with IG Farben.

What’s more, while at the end of the war there would have been plenty of animosity felt towards the Nazis by the general populace of Western countries, there were also plenty of people among the Western bourgeoisie who had expressed sympathy for the Nazis as a group dedicated to destroying communism. Accordingly, not only did many Western bourgeois hope that Hitler would invade the USSR, and encouraged such a move at the Munich conference, but also a great many ex-Nazis were given prestigious jobs in the American government, in NASA, in NATO, and in the West German government, as part of the Cold War offensive against the Soviet states. Recall also that a number of Hitler’s business backers were American companies and other Allied multinationals.

Now, Operation Paperclip wasn’t made public through the media until December of 1946, well after the release of Notorious. Truman hadn’t officially approved of Operation Paperclip until September of 1946, again after Notorious was finished. It was therefore extremely unlikely that Hitchcock and Hecht would have known anything about the operation.

Still, with the Nazis decisively defeated, and not yet having the knowledge of the mining of uranium ore, it seems unlikely that the American government as portrayed in the film would be so concerned with the activities of a few ex-Nazis hiding out in South America. The Nazis were no longer an effective challenger to Western imperialist interests; on the contrary, it was now the Soviets who were such a challenge. And as I said above, the Western ruling class still had a soft spot in their hearts for commie-hating Nazis.

So what’s the real point about having ex-Nazis as the villains in Notorious?

Well, the movie-going public, as opposed to the capitalist class, would have had an unequivocal dislike of Nazis just after WWII, so the IG Farben men would have made fitting villains. Hecht, as a Jew, would naturally have hated Nazis, too. Finally, the mainstream liberals in Hollywood at the time, in their defence of bourgeois democracy, would have seen Nazis as appropriate villains whose presence in Notorious would have made the film appealing to the public.

On a deeper level, though, Notorious reflects the ambivalence that the liberal bourgeoisie of the time would have had towards such villains. This ambivalence is seen in how surprisingly sympathetic Alex Sebastian (Rains) is, as an ex-Nazi in love with (and his heart broken by) German-American Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the beautiful daughter of a German traitor in the US who has been convicted of aiding the Nazis.

Indeed, the love triangle between these two and the American government agent, TR Devlin (Grant) can be seen to be an allegory of this Western capitalist ambivalence to Naziism. Alicia, a woman exploited by the American government to seduce Sebastian–or, put more bluntly, to prostitute herself to him–in order to spy on him and discover what wickedness the IG Farben men are up to, personifies the land and resources that the US (as personified by Devlin) and Nazi Germany (as personified by Sebastian) are competing for, to possess and to dominate.

The men’s mutual jealousy over her is thus an allegory of 1) the Western capitalist use of fascism to counter communism, and 2) the inter-imperialist conflict of WWII when Hitler showed that he wanted much more than just to invade and colonize the Soviet Union; he also wanted to muscle in on the territory of Britain and other Western imperialists.

Alicia, as that American daughter of the German traitor, also fits in with my allegory in how she’s, on the one hand, looked down on, is notorious, as an alcoholic and a tramp who, at the beginning of the film, is suspected of being sympathetic to her father’s politics; yet on the other hand, is also such a desirable beauty. Western liberals despise fascist brutishness, yet they nonetheless find it politically expedient in furthering capitalist and imperialist interests.

Now, the object of desire here is a beautiful woman who drinks, and drinking–of alcohol especially–is a major thematic motif in Notorious (indeed, Hitchcock’s cameo in the film shows him drinking a glass at a party). This drinking is recurrently associated with danger and destruction: we see this first in her drunk-driving scene with Devlin, then later in the discovery that the uranium ore is being hidden in wine bottles in the cellar of Sebastian’s house.

This association of alcohol, wine in particular, with danger and destruction reminds us of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and madness (consider the violence and wildness of his Maenads). The rivalry between Devlin and Sebastian over the charms of Alicia is the essence of irrational jealousy, leading to her near-death by poisoning and Sebastian’s downfall at the end of the movie, when he can no longer hide the fact that he has fallen for an American spy. This understanding deepens my allegory in that the madly jealous inter-imperialist rivalry during WWII between the capitalist West and Nazi Germany resulted in so much death and destruction.

While I’m sure that neither Hitchcock nor Hecht consciously intended to present the allegory I’m describing here, I consider the political circumstances that led up to WWII and those depicted in Notorious to be such that my allegory is inevitable, if only through the unconscious emergence of a few Freudian slips. Accordingly, I don’t find it to be too far out of place to see Devlin as a pun on devil.

Devlin takes Alicia by plane from her home in Florida to Brazil; through the airplane window, she can see the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It seems as though, through her working for the American government, she is about to redeem herself for her father’s treason. During the flight, and by an interesting juxtaposition, she also learns of her father’s death in prison by swallowing a poison capsule. She sees the statue immediately after hearing the news; it’s as if her father’s death is a Christ-like sacrifice freeing her of her family’s Nazi past.

They fly into Rio, and it isn’t long before Devlin and Alicia fall in love. Their love affair being in Brazil of all places, where she is to seduce Sebastian, adds more depth to my political allegory of this film when one considers how the Monroe Doctrine led to an increasingly possessive attitude towards Central America (i.e., the Banana Wars) and South America, that is, in imperialist terms. Since the beginning of the Cold War especially, any attempt at a leftist liberation from US imperialism would lead to a CIA coup d’état, replacing the erstwhile leftist government with an authoritarian, right-wing one, reminding us in a way of the ex-Nazis hiding out in South America.

The US government, thus, has been like a jealous, possessive lover of Latin America, just as Devlin has been of Alicia. A comparable kind of possessiveness can be seen in the US occupation of the southeastern and central part of West Germany just after WWII. German-American Alicia is eyed this way by Devlin, and Sebastian’s later jealous eyeing of her in Brazil allegorically suggests the ex-Nazi presence in South America. The allegorical interpretation of the Devlin/Huberman/Sebastian love triangle is complete when one considers the above-mentioned American use of ex-Nazis in their government from the beginning of the Cold War.

That closeness of America and Germany, apart from being personified in Alicia herself, is also seen in her famous extended kissing scene with Devlin, in which Hitchcock deftly evaded the censors of the prudish Production Code by briefly breaking up kisses that could last as long as the three-second limit. Indeed, one could think of the breaking up of the kisses as representative of the ambivalent attitude of the US government towards a Germany with a fascist past: love her, Devlin, but not too much.

Anyway, his love for her will soon turn into animosity when he learns from his superiors, including Captain Paul Prescott (Calhern) of the US Secret Service, that her job is to seduce Sebastian so she can find out what he and the other IG Farben men are up to. As I said above, Devlin’s and Sebastian’s mutual jealousy over the German-American beauty represents the ambivalent attitude the US government has always had towards fascism.

Like all good little liberals, the American ruling class is supposed to hate Nazis…but this doesn’t mean the Nazis don’t have their uses, as do other kinds of fascists, that is, in how they can serve imperialist interests by, for example, thwarting the advancement of socialism. Even now, the American liberal establishment, in order to avoid feeling any cognitive dissonance, pretends that the Russian/Ukraine war is a fight for liberation against the ‘aggressor’ Putin, while also denying, or at least minimizing, the neo-Nazi elements in the Ukrainian government and military, who are perfectly content to ban opposition parties and persecute ethnic Russians living in the area.

So, to get back to the story, Devlin is more than uncomfortable to know that the woman he’s attracted to is being used to attract another man. That the Americans can’t just go in and arrest the IG Farben men–because they’d then just find others to replace Sebastian et al, and so their sinister work would continue–is reasoning whose validity I’m not convinced of. Nazi war criminals are war criminals…arrest them! When the replacements come, arrest them, too. Nazis as of 1946 ceased to be a threat to US bourgeois imperialist interests (and as we now know, Nazis were actually helping the American government against its then-real threat, the Soviets), so just arrest the IG Farben men.

Devlin’s jealousy will be swelling when he learns that Sebastian wants to marry Alicia, who will agree to it…and he isn’t the only one feeling this jealousy over the marriage that’s coming; so is Sebastian’s mother, Madame Anna Sebastian (Konstantin). Though Rains retained his British accent while playing German Sebastian, Grant spoke with his Trans-Atlantic accent (bringing up associations between American, British, and Nazi imperialism in the context of Notorious), and Bergman largely managed to hide her Swedish accent in her portrayal of a German-American, the Austrian actress Konstantin spoke with her German accent undisguised, which really brings out the stereotypical Nazi associations in her role, as not only one of the main villains of the movie, but also as Sebastian’s ruthless and domineering mother.

There is a parallel to be observed in his relationship with both his new wife and with his mother–one of servile love. Just as Sebastian is uxorious towards Alicia, so is he Oedipal in his attitude towards Madame Anna, something she can use to her advantage in controlling him. One is reminded of the love Hitler had for his mother, Klara, after whose death he grieved for the rest of his life.

Hitchcock’s mother died four years before Notorious was made and released; he addressed his own mother issues for the first time in this film, and the notion of a domineering mother like Madame Anna, a reservoir of her son’s guilt, anger, resentment, and Oedipal yearning, was something Hitchcock would explore further in films like Psycho and The Birds. Indeed, he would often incorporate psychoanalysis in such films as these and in Spellbound, a film he did the year before Notorious.

The unhealthiness of an unresolved Oedipus complex that is exploited by a cunning mother just adds a deeper level of villainy to this group of ex-Nazis, for properly understood, the Oedipal longing for a parent’s love and undivided attention–combined with the frustration of never fully having that attention–is a narcissistic trauma. Sebastian’s unhealthy relationship with his mother, in which he is weakened and made vain and foolish, ends up being transferred onto Alicia, making him uxorious in his feelings for her. She, as an American spy, can exploit his weakness in getting to the key to the wine cellar to find the hidden uranium ore.

She’s being exploited, too, recall, by the American government, and to complete the job, she must agree to marry Sebastian and allow him into her bed–a conquest of his comparable to the American takeover of aboriginal land (I’m reminded of lines 25-32 from Donne‘s Elegy XIX, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’), which inspired Hitler to want to conquer Slavic land. Alicia must go along with this fake romance, to keep up appearances so Sebastian will never suspect she’s an American spy. Devlin must also keep up appearances and maintain a professional attitude, pretending he’s had no romance of his own with her.

Indeed, keeping up appearances is a major theme running throughout Notorious. Alicia’s mission as a spy includes keeping up appearances that she’s as much in love with Sebastian as he is with her. She imagines Devlin’s love for her is pretend, while he keeps up appearances of a stoic lack of interest in her, always hiding his jealousy behind a feigned contempt for her, all for the sake of keeping the mission going. The IG Farben men keep up appearances of wine bottles innocently containing wine when some of those in the cellar actually contain uranium ore.

Ironically, when Sebastian intrudes on Devlin’s and Alicia’s moment alone in the cellar just after discovering the “sand” in one of the wine bottles, Devlin has her pretend to kiss him in order to keep up appearances of having an affair to hide their real offence against Sebastian, the discovery of what’s hidden in that bottle. This ‘appearance’ of being in love, of course, hides the fact that they really are in love…though they won’t admit this until the end of the film.

The penultimate keeping up of appearances is when Sebastian and his mother pretend to be concerned for Alicia’s declining health–to cover up for his foolish falling in love with an American spy–when it’s their piecemeal poisoning of her coffee, another drink Notorious associates with danger and destruction, that is causing her declining health. And the final keeping up of appearances, which ultimately fails, is at the end, when Sebastian and his mother pretend that Devlin is just taking Alicia to the hospital instead of actually rescuing her from her two poisoners.

Sebastian pretends not to fear death as Devin is taking Alicia down the stairs towards the front door, but when she’s put in the car and Devlin is about to drive away, Sebastian is desperately anxious to have them take him in the car, too. More keeping up of appearances.

Sebastian has everything to fear, for the other IG Farben men, knowing there’s no telephone in Alicia’s bedroom from which Devlin could have called the hospital, proves that the hospital story is a lie…so Sebastian must meet the same fate as that of Emil Hupka (played by Eberhard Krumschmidt) for having reacted with shock, in front of Alicia, at the wine bottles, which tipped her off to their significance.

The paranoid intensity of security maintained by the IG Farben men is what makes me doubt the plausibility of there being any substantial American cause for suspicion of sinister plots by these ex-Nazis against American imperialist interests. They’re hiding their conspiracy so tightly that it seems virtually impossible for the Americans to have discovered anything; Alicia’s being tipped off by Emil’s display of agitation seems little more than a fluke.

Such a tight keeping up of appearances by the IG Farben men leads me to discuss the ultimate pretense of this film, whether consciously intended by Hitchcock and Hecht or not: that the US government, just after having defeated the Nazis, would still regard fascism as an intolerable evil in any form. The American moviegoing public would surely have continued to vilify Nazis, so it would have been expedient for Hollywood producers to keep up the appearance of despising fascism, too…for the sake of ticket sales, at the very least.

But bourgeois liberal Hollywood interests aren’t all that far removed from those of capitalist imperialism and colonialism. Hecht as a Jew would have justifiably hated Nazis in all sincerity, but he was also an avid supporter of the establishment of the settler colonial state of Israel, whose persecution of the Palestinians has been every bit as evil as the Nazi persecution of the Jews was. Notorious‘s keeping up of appearances of regarding Nazis as an enemy of America covers up how useful the West has always found fascism, which they’ve since falsely equated with communism…another deft move of propaganda on the part of the ruling class.

Western capitalism’s appeasement and, therefore, encouragement, of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in its attempt to thwart socialism, was ultimately the creation of a monster they’d quickly regret. The Western bourgeoisie were Dr. Victor Frankenstein; fascism was the monster. WWII was the horror story. Notorious was, in my opinion at least, an example of a bourgeois attempt to save face over its creation of that monster.

Analysis of ‘Easy Rider’

Easy Rider is a 1969 film produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring both of them, and written by them and Terry Southern. The film co-stars Jack Nicholson (in a role that made him a star), Karen Black, Toni Basil (later of “Mickey” fame), and Luke Askew.

A landmark counterculture film, Easy Rider not only explored the rise of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle, but it also helped spark the New Hollywood era of filmmaking in the early 1970s. Real drugs were used in the film.

Critics praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, and visuals. Easy Rider was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson).

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Though the film is understood to be a film for ‘rebels,’ one needs to look deeper. Wyatt, or “Captain America [!]” (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper) have names inspired by Wyatt Earp and outlaw Billy the Kid, reinforcing their image as anti-establishment rebels by associating them with the rough and violent types of the Old West. Instead of horses, they’re on bikes. What immediately should strike one with suspicion, though, is Wyatt’s display of the Stars and Stripes on his black leather jacket, helmet, and the chopper he buys after he and Billy profit off of a sale of cocaine. Wearing such colours indicates the duo’s acceptance of the values of American capitalism, not a rebellion against them.

Indeed, the film begins with Wyatt and Billy in Mexico, riding on dirt bikes to a bar where they’ll buy cocaine so they can smuggle it into the US to sell for a much higher price. Their clothes are as humble as their bikes at this time. They sell the cocaine to their “connection” (played by none other than Phil Spector, of “Wall of Sound” fame) outside at an airport, where airplanes are flying noisily overhead, as if representing the heavenly host watching over Wyatt and Billy, and judging them for their sins.

And what is their sin? I’m not so much interested in moralizing about their drug trafficking as I am in discussing what Marx wrote about in Capital, vol. 3, about “Commercial Capital” (chapter 16, pages 379-383). A merchant buys a commodity from a producer, then sells it again for a higher price to obtain a profit. Wyatt and Billy sell the cocaine they bought in Mexico to their American connection for a much, much higher price. Some might call this white Wyatt’s and Billy’s exploitation of the poor Mexicans they bought from.

Small wonder we hear, right at the end of the deal with the American connection, “The Pusher,” in which originally Hoyt Axton sang “Goddamn the pusher man” because he “is a monster,” selling you hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, and not caring “if you live or if you die.” (In the film, though, we hear Steppenwolf‘s cover of the song.) We hear these lyrics as Wyatt is stuffing their dollar bills down a plastic tube hidden inside his US-flag designed chopper. Hence, his bike is symbolic of American capitalism…Wyatt and Billy are just as much the establishment as are all the hicks who later antagonize them.

So when we see these two cool dudes riding their new choppers on the road, and we hear “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf as the credits flash across the screen, we have to be clear about what the contradiction is that is examined in Easy Rider. It isn’t between the right and the left: both sides here are capitalists through and through. It’s between conservatives and liberals. This distinction is important to make because there are many politically illiterate people out there who confuse the left with bourgeois liberalism (e.g., hippies, the Democratic Party, etc.). It’s significant that we hear Steppenwolf perform both the Hoyt Axton song and “Born to be Wild,” one immediately after the other, at this point in the film; this juxtaposition of songs emphasizes the dual nature of Wyatt and Billy, being both establishment (commercial capitalists) and anti-establishment (biker rebels) at the same time.

Now, conservative capitalists–owners of such private property as motels–won’t accommodate these two liberal capitalists. This lack of shelter for Wyatt and Billy puts them in a paradoxical situation: that of being, on the one hand, a pair of privileged white men with that secret stash of cash in Wyatt’s bike, their profit from the drug deal; and on the other hand, two men reduced to the status of the homeless.

Bourgeois lumpenproletariat: who’d a thunk it? In a sense, one might even think of what happens to King Lear.

One is reminded, in contemplating how the conservative capitalists are bullying these two liberal capitalists, of something Marx said in Capital, vol. 1: “One capitalist always strikes down many others,”(Marx, page 929)…or in this case, some capitalists often strike down these two others.

…and some far-right dummies out there equate the likes of Wyatt and Billy with communists. Give me strength.

Still, we see these two riding their choppers on roads with beautiful American landscapes and scenery on either side. One thing to remember about this land, though, is who it belonged to originally.

In a movie largely about white male rebels, we might not pay too much attention to those who are marginalized in it…probably because these people are so very marginalized: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. It can be just as instructive to note who or what is not seen in a movie as who is seen in it.

Our two biker rebels stop at the home of a humble farmer to fix a flat tire on Wyatt’s bike. They have dinner with the farmer’s family, who say Grace before eating. This is a humble, conservative Christian family, though the father is liberal and unprejudiced enough to marry a Hispanic Catholic. Still, he expects her to run off and get more coffee.

What should be noted is not so much the contrast between, on the one side, Wyatt, Billy, and the hippies they’ll meet soon enough, and on the other side, the bigoted and outright dangerous conservatives. One should rather see these opposing sides as on a continuum with people like this farmer’s family as somewhere in between. All of these people play a role of some kind in the white settler colonial state that is the US. It is those aforementioned marginalized people (including the Mexican seller of the cocaine and the farmer’s wife) who should be set in opposition to all the others, including Wyatt and Billy, in this film.

Indeed, this dinner with the farmer’s family has a double in the later dinner at the hippie commune, before which they also pray, the camera slowly moving and showing us the faces of everyone about to eat. We’ll see that the hippies, for all their drug use and practice of free love, have a lot more in common with the Christian farmers than meets the eye.

Wyatt and Billy ride on, and soon they pick up a hitchhiking hippie, a Stranger on the Highway (Askew). When at a gas station, the hippie fills up Wyatt’s bike, having taken off the gas cap and leaving the possibility of him seeing the plastic tube with all the money in it, Billy gets nervous and wants to stop him. He’s just as protective of his wealth as any capitalist would be.

At nightfall, the three stop by the side of the road to smoke some grass, then to sleep. When Billy asks the hippie where he’s from, he’s evasive in his answer, feeling that all cities are the same. People who’ve done LSD, something the hippie will give Wyatt and Billy to do at a fitting time later, often sense a unity in everything and everyone, that everywhere is ‘here,’ so to speak. The hippie would also have Wyatt and Billy take heart of how this land they’re sitting on has its original owners, the Native Americans, buried under it.

He says that Wyatt and Billy could be “a trifle polite” in their attitude towards those dead aboriginals whose land the white man has taken from them. Billy chuckles at the hippie’s words; his attitude should be a reminder to us, as much as Wyatt’s Stars and Stripes, that these two bikers are not sticking it to the Man the way they should be.

All the two men want to do is pursue a life of physical pleasure: drugs, drinking, chasing women, and freely riding their choppers along the American landscape…from a land taken from the aboriginals. Wyatt and Billy are going to New Orleans to enjoy the Mardi Gras festival: “Fat Tuesday,” a great indulgence in pleasure before the great abstinence of Lent…in which they, of course, have no interest.

Their rebellion is against repressive, right-wing conservative authority, but it doesn’t go far enough. One cannot just do one’s own thing while coexisting with those reactionary types, for the reactionaries refuse to coexist with society’s long-haired rebels, as we’ll see by the end of the movie. Those reactionaries must be defeated and wiped out, not merely given the finger to, or else they’ll wipe out the rebels. This is the reality as understood in the intensification of class struggle, and why a dictatorship of the proletariat is needed to prevent the return of reactionary capitalism.

Wyatt and Billy take the hippie to his commune, where we see two young women who show an immediate sexual interest in the two bikers, just as they’ve been openly affectionate with the hippie. (One of these women thinks Wyatt is “beautiful,” in his Stars and Stripes outfit, which should tell you something about her and her attitude towards straight America.) Billy briefly plays ‘cowboys and Indians’ with the children of the commune, an indication not only of the spirit of levity felt by these whites towards the genocide of the Native Americans as noted above, but also how these hippies, in not teaching their kids that even playing war might lead to a warlike mentality when they grow up, don’t seem all that committed to the anti-war cause, a reminder that hippies are liberals, not revolutionaries–they’re the phonies that Zappa accused them of being.

Yet there are right-wing morons out there who claim that hippies are communists. Pathetic.

Other examples of traditionalism among these hippies–which give the lie to their ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘counterculture’ posturing–include, apart from the prayer before eating mentioned above, their singing of old-fashioned, traditional songs like “Does Your Hair [originally “Do Your Ears”] Hang Low?” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (as opposed to singing, for example, 60s antiwar/pro-drug songs), and their reluctance to accommodate any more visitors. Such a reluctance isn’t too far removed from when Archie Bunker refused to accommodate two unmarried hippie visitors to his house.

As I said above, all these groups of people in Easy Rider lie on a continuum, ranging from the bigoted hecklers and killers of Wyatt, Billy, and George Hanson (Nicholson) on the far-right side, then a little to the left of the bigots, there are the Christian farmer and his Catholic, Hispanic wife, then a little further left from them are the people in this hippie commune, then further left are Hanson, then Wyatt and Billy, and finally the hippie hitchhiker, who acknowledges the genocide of the aboriginals (without helping to do anything about it), on the other side. A real far-left opposition would include people like the Black Panthers and any Native American activists struggling against white settler colonialism, something we’ll never see in this film. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, the mainstream media ensures a very narrow, but lively, range of debate between the “left” and the right.

Wyatt and Billy–after engaging in skinny-dipping and free love with those two women from the commune, then taking some LSD from the hippie hitchhiker–continue on their way into a town in New Mexico where a parade is going on. They ride their choppers along with the parade, as if to join it, then they get arrested for “parading without a permit.” Actually, the cops just don’t like long-haired men.

Here is where they meet alcoholic Hanson, himself locked up for having overindulged in booze the night before.

Now, George Hanson, as a lawyer who has done work for the ACLU, is rather square, but also liberal and open-minded, as well as knowledgeable about the social issues of the day. He knows that this town they’re in is full of right-wing reactionaries who’d love to shave the heads of Wyatt and Billy, taking away their symbol of rebellion…like taking away Samson‘s strength by cutting his hair.

George can help Wyatt and Billy get out of jail as long as the two bikers haven’t done anything like killing someone…white, which George says with a sardonic grin, indicating his awareness of his society’s double standards against the marginalized black community.

He gets them and himself out of jail, has a bit of the hair of the dog, sees their impressive bikes, and learns of their plan to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. George is so intrigued that he’d like to tag along; he even tells them about a whorehouse there, calling the girls “US prime.” Once again, we see that these ‘rebels’ can be just as marginalizing of people as the ‘hicks’ they’re rebelling against.

So George rides as a passenger on Wyatt’s bike (something Nicholson would metaphorically be in a later film also dealing with an uncommitted progressive), wearing his nerdy helmet. They stop somewhere off of the road, as usual, that night and smoke some marijuana, which George has for the first time, him at first being reluctant, then opening his mind to it.

As they’re getting high, Billy speaks of a ‘satellite’ he’s just seen in the night sky (which, incidentally, can be vaguely associated with those airplanes flying overhead during the cocaine deal). George tells him and Wyatt about the “Venusian” pilots of the UFOs, about whom the world governments apparently know, but keep a secret for fear of creating a general panic among the world population.

Apparently, these “Venusians” have a far more advanced civilization than ours: egalitarian, pacifist, money-less, and with futuristic technology. George says they’ve been coming here since 1946…which by the way was around the beginning of the Cold War. They’re people just like us, George says, working with us all over the Earth in an advisory capacity.

These “Venusians” sound an awful lots like communists (egalitarian, money-less, and with advanced technology) and Marxists (i.e., leftist professors in Western universities–working ‘in an advisory capacity’) to me. The capitalist governments don’t want us to know about them (as they did so embarrassingly, via McCarthy, during the 1950s) because our antiquated capitalist system, with our leaders, is no match for theirs.

You don’t believe me? That’s because the US government doesn’t want you to know how the Soviet Union went from a backward, agrarian society in the 1920s to a nuclear-armed superpower that won the space race in the late 1950s…technological advances all achieved within a mere three decades, along with progress towards equal rights for women, universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare for all. To this day, Stalin–far from being regarded as a ‘cruel dictator,’ is loved by millions of Russians for his leadership in defeating the Nazis, and majorities of Russians have consistently preferred the Soviet era, for all of its imperfections, to current-day, capitalist Russia. The same can be said of China, from the Maoist era to today.

Now, Billy, like most people brainwashed by bourgeois propaganda, thinks that what George is saying is “a crackpot idea,” because he and Wyatt are, at heart, not all that far from establishment thinking as they might seem to be. The two bikers just want to get stoned, each of the two an easy-going rider of a chopper.

…and the two of them lead me to my next point.

Duality is a major theme in Easy Rider. Apart from the two biker protagonists, there are two cocaine deals: first, the buying of it in Mexico, then the selling of it in the US–M-C-M’, or money to commodity to valorized money, that is, money with a profit, or increased value.

Wyatt and Billy visit and eat at two farms: that of the man and his Catholic wife, and that of the hippie commune, both of which include prayers before eating, and both of which have their own mixture of traditional and liberal values, in itself another duality in the film.

There are airplanes and satellites (or UFOs) flying overhead.

Wyatt and Billy spend time with two male companions, the hippie hitchhiker, and George Hanson, both of whom share valuable insights about the world while smoking dope with them (i.e., insights about the marginalized aboriginals buried in the ground where they are, and the marginalized “Venusians,” or communists, as I interpret them to be).

Wyatt and Billy have sexual encounters with two pairs of women: the two hippies they skinny dip with, and the two prostitutes they do the LSD with in New Orleans.

There are two parades: the one in New Mexico, and the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

There are two violent assaults with intent to kill: the first in which George is bludgeoned to death at night, and the second at the end of the film, when Billy, then Wyatt, are shot and killed on their bikes.

These pairs of incidents have their parallels and their dialectical contrasts. Billy is more adversarial and self-centered; Wyatt is more laid-back and generous. The first coke deal is the buying of it: the second, a selling of it.

The first farm they visit is more conservative; the second is more liberal. The first flying machines are very real, the second are more imaginary.

The hippie hitchhiker and Hanson, as well as the pairs of women, are, in their respective ways, thoroughly paralleled.

After the first parade, Wyatt and Billy are put in jail. After the second parade, their minds are ‘freed’ with the LSD.

The first violent assault leaves Wyatt and Billy hurt, but still alive. The second assault leaves them dead.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of drugs enjoyed in this film: the narcotic kind (cocaine, marijuana, and LSD), and the religious kind (the “opium of the people“). Both kinds are attempts to escape, rather than solve, the world’s problems.

There are also doublings of performers playing songs on this famous soundtrack: I already mentioned the two Steppenwolf recordings; there are also two songs by Bob Dylan and performed by Roger McGuinn–“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Ballad of Easy Rider.”

There is also a duality of time, the present vs the future, in the form of the film’s “flashforwards” that occur at various points in the story, a quick flashing ahead to the future, then back to the present. The most important of these is when Wyatt and Billy are in the New Orleans whorehouse: Wyatt reads something about death freezing one’s reputation forever, then there’s a premonition of his death, his chopper in flames and flying in pieces by the roadside. Such a fusing of present and future symbolically suggests the feeling of timelessness experienced when using psychedelic drugs.

Now, the ultimate duality–or rather, the ultimate two dualities, as I’ll explain immediately after–is the conservative vs liberal contradiction. Since the liberals here are capitalist white men enjoying the privileges of US settler colonialism not all that much less than the conservatives are, then the conservative/liberal contradiction is really hiding a much more profound contradiction that one can only see if one is paying close attention. This is the white bourgeois vs the marginalized black/aboriginal/proletarian contradiction.

Indeed, as Wyatt and Billy are riding their choppers, or walking the streets of New Orleans, we get brief peeks of rural black families, or blacks playing music during Mardi Gras, or someone dressed as a Native American in the Mardi Gras parade. All marginalized people.

To get back to the story, Wyatt, Billy, and George continue on their way, while we hear “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” by Fraternity of Man, then “If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix. Both of these songs reflect our bikers’ attitude to life in general, and to reactionaries in particular: just keep on smoking dope, and who cares what’s going on in the rest of the world? We do our own thing, and who cares if the conservatives don’t like it?

Umm…actually, Wyatt, Billy, and George do need to care.

They stop off in a little diner where the locals make no secret of their surprised reaction to these three strangely dressed visitors. Once again, there’s a duality in these reactions: first, a bevy of cute teenage girls finds the three men handsome and fascinating; second, all the men, being bigoted, narrow-minded conservatives, engage in non-stop heckling of Wyatt, Billy, and George.

It doesn’t take long for our three heroes to face the fact that they’re clearly not welcome, so they leave, in spite of the girls’ coming out to talk to them at their bikes.

That night, Wyatt, Billy, and George camp outside as usual. George laments the direction he sees his country going in. He says, “This used to be a helluva good country.” He’s wrong. A country founded on black slavery and the genocide of its aboriginals was never a good country. What’s more, these old sins laid the foundation for the three men’s current predicament.

Though lip-service is routinely paid to the notion of the US being a country founded on the principles of “freedom and democracy,” a deeper investigation of the intents of the Founding Fathers reveals that these land-owning, upper-class white men were primarily out to protect their class interests. They made a few concessions to working class Americans as a result of indispensable political agitation.

Nonetheless, those class interests have to this day been continually maintained in such divide-and-conquer forms as racism against blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and all non-WASP immigrants; other forms of the divide-and-conquer of the proletariat have included sex roles, keeping women in the home and away from such things as voting, and belief in such nonsense as ‘capitalism is freedom,’ the ‘free market,’ the ‘American Dream,‘ and the ‘land of opportunity.’ These illusory freedoms are what the reactionary nemeses of Wyatt and Billy will fight to the death for (as George explains), while condemning the freedom that our two protagonists practice.

As soon as the illusory form of freedom is exposed as such by the real exponents of freedom, these reactionaries further expose their fascist mentality through violence. This expression of violence is why one cannot coexist with these kinds of people: they must be fought and defeated; if they aren’t defeated, they’ll not only defeat, but also kill us. This harsh reality is what Wyatt and Billy won’t accept, and it’s also what gets them and George killed.

Freedom does not come for free.

One cannot escape the fascist mentality through drugs, though Wyatt and Billy continue to try to after George’s murder.

The two get to New Orleans and decide to find the brothel that George recommended. As they’re dining in a restaurant, getting drunk, and talking about going to the brothel, we hear a song by The Electric Prunes that does a psychedelic rendition of the Mass’s Kyrie. We continue to hear the song as they wander into the brothel and look around at the artwork. These two druggies are pursuing pleasure while we hear more music about the opium of the people.

They get two prostitutes, Karen (Black) and Mary (Basil), and all four of them drop the hippie hitchhiker’s acid after entering a cemetery in New Orleans’s French Quarter. As they’re all tripping out, we hear the voices of other people there reciting the Credo, Ave Maria, and Pater Noster. Again, we have a juxtaposition of drug use with the opium of the people.

Mary gets naked, and she and Wyatt screw. Karen has a bad trip. Wyatt embraces a statue of a goddess, and, weeping, complains of his abusive mother as if the statue were of her. He seems to be having an epiphany that Billy, unfortunately, isn’t having: Wyatt seems to realize that his rebellion against society is based on his rebellion against his parents, which would seem to be the basis of Billy’s own social revolt. This is why the two bikers can’t be revolutionaries: they won’t take on the system because all they want to do is stick it to their parents, their Oedipal, love/hate relationship with their parents being a universal narcissistic trauma.

The two bikers ride out the next day, and that night, camping out as usual, they chat for a while before sleeping. Billy is thrilled to be rich from their cocaine deal, thinking with the materialism of a typical capitalist and equating their material success with freedom. Wyatt, however, knows better, saying they “blew it.” That acid trip must have helped him understand how superficial their “freedom” is.

A common experience during an acid trip is a dissolving of the barrier between self and other. One feels a sense of unity between oneself and all of humanity, like the equating of Atman with Brahman, resulting in stronger empathy. Wyatt could very well have felt such an emotional connection with the marginalized aboriginals, blacks, and female lumpenproletariat (i.e., those two prostitutes, Karen and Mary). This would have made him realize that mainstream American liberalism just isn’t progressive enough.

Accordingly, he wears his “Captain America” leather jacket far more sparingly, that is, only outside at night, when it’s much too cool not to wear it. When Billy is shot by the man in the truck, the hick who doesn’t like his long hair, Wyatt rides back to help Billy and puts his star-spangled jacket on Billy’s wounds.

He’ll die anyway, because the gunman shoots Wyatt next, destroying his star-spangled bike. What does all of this mean, symbolically? It means that the American flag won’t heal your wounds, and that American capitalism will one day destroy itself through the violence of its own bigoted, reactionary, fascist mentality. Interpreted this way, the ending of Easy Rider can be seen as a prophetic warning of what would happen to the US, and to the world it dominates, decades after the film was made.

Please indulge me in a digression through recent political history.

The US of the mid-twentieth century–with its strong unions, high taxes for the rich, and welfare, to say nothing of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation–had enormous progressive potential. The American government, however, was also giving safe haven to former Nazis in NASA, NATO, and the West German government, all rationalized as part of the effort to contain communism.

This tolerance of fascism (as seen in an allegorical sense in Easy Rider in the form of these reactionary hicks who are never properly fought off) has led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, for all of its imperfections, was an effective counterweight against US/NATO imperialism, aiding liberation movements in the Third World and goading the US government to adopt more economically progressive policies to keep the American working class from resorting to socialist revolution.

Without the USSR as that effective counterweight, the US government has since been able to do anything it wants with impunity: hence, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed the mergers and acquisitions of American media until now only six corporations control most of Americans’ access to information. Then, there’s been one imperialist war after another: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the ongoing threats of war with Iran, Russia, and China.

Hollywood liberals (including one or two Jewish ones) are now cheering on a Ukrainian government and military under the strong influence of Neo-Nazis. Instead of using its revenue to help the poor (a huge section of which are, of course, aboriginal, black, and female), to repair roads and crumbling infrastructure, to end homelessness, to fund education and healthcare, and to create jobs, the US government sends billions and billions of dollars to those Ukrainian Nazis in a proxy war to weaken Russia (as it had in the 1980s in Afghanistan), as part of an ambitious, yet maniacal, plan to go after China in a similar way (through Taiwan). All of these events risk a nuclear WWIII, which would kill everyone on the planet.

This is what happens when we let things slide, like an easy rider on the road that leads to the far right. The violent hicks who kill Wyatt, Billy, and George aren’t literal fascists, of course, but they share the same vicious, intolerant mentality; hence, they can be easily seen as representative of the fascists I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. If one can’t tolerate something as simple as longer hair on a white man, one isn’t going to tolerate much of anything else. These intolerant people, however, have been tolerated by liberals, not just in the film, but in our society for all these decades, leading not only to the film’s ending, but also to our current political predicament, which is why I brought it up.

The hicks fear the freedom of the longhairs because such freedom has the potential to lead to the liberation of the marginalized groups I mentioned above, including, ultimately, the liberation of the global proletariat (not that the liberals, as represented by Wyatt and Billy, are doing anything to pave the way towards such liberation). The hicks have a black-and-white view of the world in which one is either absolutely like their reactionary selves, or absolutely like long-haired ‘commies’…and the only good commie is one that’s dead, remember. This conception of the world is what links the violent end of Easy Rider to the precarious state of the world today.

Once again, the hicks are coming to get us. We’ll have to do a lot more than just give them the finger.

Birds

What’s
supposed
left wing is, seen more closely,
in the centre, which in turn
moves to the right.

A
bird
in flight, whose flapping wings are
left here, over there on the right,
is only so depending on your
point of view.

If
it’s
flying forwards, you will see
the left wing where it ought
to be, and where the right
should be.

If
it’s
flying backwards, right at you,
the left, centre and right
may seem a confused
monstrosity,

as
has
been the case, increasingly,
for the past forty years.
As it nears,

the
bird,
which is an eagle, quite the hawk,
shows no signs of slowing down
as it reaches us,
its prey.

Not
knowing
the left wing from the right,
we will be snatched up
in its claws, fed
to its chicks.

Analysis of ‘Masculin Féminin’

Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (“Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events”) is a 1966 French New Wave film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard (who died just over a month before I began writing this up). It stars Jean-Pierre Léaud (who also played Tom in Last Tango in Paris, by the way), Chantal Goya, Marlène Jobert, Catherine-Isabelle Duport, and Michel Debora.

The film uses many of the then-innovative film techniques of the French New Wave, such as oddly disjointed scenes without the sense of a unified, flowing narrative, existentialism and absurdism, and breaking the fourth wall.

Considered by some to be representative of 1960s France, Masculin féminin is among Godard’s most acclaimed films. At the 16th Berlin International Film Festival, the film won the award for Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People. Jean-Pierre Léaud won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for his performance in the film. The film was prohibited to French viewers under 18, however, because of its sexual subject matter; this annoyed Godard, since he’d intended the film to be seen by French youth.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, in English translation; and here is a link to the film, with English subtitles.

The main theme of Masculin féminin is alienation, a particularly bad problem for the protagonist, Paul (Léaud), who fancies himself a good communist but isn’t respectful to women; neither is his friend and fellow leftist, journalist Robert Packard (Debord). These two idealistic, would-be revolutionaries don’t seem to have taken to heart Mao’s dictum, “Women hold up half the sky.”

Indeed, these two young Frenchmen are what many people today would call “brocialists.” They oppose the Vietnam War, sign a petition to free political dissidents in Brazil, yet repeatedly appraise women’s breasts in public.

The jumpy, disjointed narrative of the movie, broken up into “15 Specific Events,” apart from being a standard experimental technique of the French New Wave, is also symbolically one of the many ways of conveying the sense of alienation that pervades this film. This alienation stifles potential for socialist revolution, a necessary condition of which is proletarian solidarity. This condition cannot be met if sexism contaminates the proletarian movement, and this sort of thing is a problem all the more today, with the degraded state that Western leftism has sunk to.

Paul frequently whistles, as we hear him do during the opening credits, an earnest whistling of “La Marseillaise,” a tune used to celebrate the revolutionary forming of the First Republic. Immediately following this whistling is Paul, writing in a restaurant, expressing the theme of alienation. So in the film’s beginning, we have dreams of revolution juxtaposed against the kind of alienation that vitiates such hopes.

“Never do two gazes meet,” he says and writes. “No sign of life. Silence. Emptiness.” How can one even hope to bring about a revolution as Earth-shaking as that one that started in 1789, if one can’t even make two gazes meet, not even one genuine moment of human connection?

He likes to put a cigarette in his mouth by tossing the filter end in, as if he were doing an impressive trick. This is our first suggestion of the kind of narcissism he will show later on, the kind that will doom any revolutionary movement.

It is with this introduction of Paul that his soon-to-be love interest, Madeleine Zimmer (Goya), enters the restaurant and meets him. He asks her if she can help him get a job at the magazine where she works, though she wants to quit the place to be a pop singer of the “yé-yé” style.

His dissatisfaction with this job or that, quitting one to find another (as he’ll do later on), ties in with his general alienation from society, since this dissatisfaction is worker alienation. Similarly, the cutting up of the film into fifteen segments, as I said above, is symbolic of alienation, in particular from oneself, for if we were to think of the film as personifying someone like Paul, it would thus be alienated from its species-essence, as Paul undoubtedly feels.

The way alienation, as presented in Masculin féminin, is lethal to revolution reminds one of what the Marquis de Sade says in Marat/Sade: “Marat/these cells of the inner self/are worse than the deepest stone dungeon/and as long as they are locked/all your revolution remains/only a prison mutiny/to be put down/by corrupted fellow-prisoners” (Weiss, page 99).

As we will see in this film, the men who would make revolution (Paul, Robert, the blacks on the train) will “be put down/by corrupted fellow-prisoners” (the women with pistols, as well as the girls in Paul’s ménage à quatre, as I speculate is what really happens to him at the end of the film.)

Paul’s conversation with Madeleine is interrupted by a fight between a man and his wife. The woman leaves the restaurant in a huff, but the man tries to take their child from her, so she stops him by getting a pistol from her purse and shooting him outside.

This act of violence symbolically sets the tone for another important theme in the film: feminist rebellion against male authority. To a great extent, Masculin féminin is thus titled as an expression of the battle of the sexes, much more so than as an expression of the sexual relationship between them. The wife’s gun, just like that of the racist white woman with the two black men on the train, is a symbolic phallus, her taking of power into her own hands, a power that is normally seen as men’s.

In the next scene, Paul has left the restaurant and gone to a smaller cafe where he meets up with Robert, who says they’re on strike at the newspaper where he works.

A man enters the cafe and asks a lady working there where the stadium is; she tells him where, and he leaves. Then Paul gets up from the table where he’s been sitting with Robert, and he asks the lady the same question. Robert asks him what he was doing by asking the same question, and Paul says he was putting himself in that other man’s shoes…and that it was all for nothing.

Paul’s spontaneous…and “pointless”…imitation of the visiting man is another example of how severe alienation is in his life, that he can’t bring himself to empathize with others, to put himself in their shoes. For Paul, to do so is at best an empty charade; this inability to feel genuine empathy for others will not only poison his budding relationship with Madeleine, but will also prove how pointless all of his leftist activism is. (Recall in this connection what Che once said about the true revolutionary and love.)

Indeed, just after this imitative asking about the stadium, Robert goes over to the table of a lady whose breasts he admires, and he asks her for some sugar. Paul then gets up and asks her for some sugar, too, and he agrees with Robert about the quality of her breasts. Now here is an instance when he can put himself in someone else’s shoes. If only he could put himself in the shoes of a woman who’d rather not have her breasts appraised by a lecherous young man.

Next, we see Paul working at a desk in his new job at the magazine. (A brief interruption of this scene is one with Madeleine and Elisabeth Choquet [Jobert], shopping in a department store. Madeleine is pregnant, and therefore this interpolation seems to be sometime after the end of the events of the film, for we can safely assume she is having Paul’s baby.) He leaves his desk to go talk with Madeleine about going out with her.

She insists that she never agreed to go out with him, and he calls her a liar. During this conversation, we get alternating shots of the two, each with just one of them while both of them exchange words. Each of these shots carries on for a while before switching to one of the other character; we get this instead of the more usual quick switching back and forth of them when it’s either’s turn to speak. The effect of each long shot of one person is to make both of them seem mutually isolated, rather than together, during the conversation. This isolation thus reinforces the theme of alienation.

When she asks him why he wants to go out with her, he answers by complimenting her on her appearance; he does so, however, with a rather cool expression on his face, as though his words are insincere, just him feeding her lines. His eyes also seem to be bordering on looking at her obsessively, like a stalker. She wonders if, by taking her out, he means to take her to bed. He responds to her question with a disquietingly long pause and a cool stare; in fact, instead of directly stating his intent, he later admits that he’d like to sleep with her.

He also admits he likes to go out with girls from time to time, girls like Madeleine. He admits to having been with prostitutes, though he says he doesn’t like being with them because of a lack of warmth or feeling. This is an odd comment to make from a young man who is pursuing Madeleine without much of any warmth or feeling.

He asks her if she’s going out with a man that night, a man he’s seen her with before, a very tall and presumably desirable man. Paul’s question suggests the beginnings of the film’s theme of jealousy, something to be developed further when he’s in the ménage à quatre with her, Catherine, and Elisabeth. He asks what she’s thinking when she looks him in the eye; she says, “Nothing.”

Next, she has a question for him: what, for him, is the centre of the world? He finds her question surprising, but his honest answer would help her to gauge the extent to which he is narcissistic. His answer is “Love,” which hardly sounds honest. She imagines–and quite correctly, as we’ll gradually learn over the course of the movie–that he’d say, in all honesty, that he considers himself to be the centre. He hesitates again when she asks if he thinks her supposition of his honest answer is strange. He simply thinks it’s natural to see, hear, and think of things primarily from his own perspective, but she means more than that.

This scene is one of many cinéma vérité-style interviews in the film of characters coolly asking each other questions that the one being asked finds strange, surprising, or discomfiting. The emotional disconnect that these questions cause, and are caused by, reinforces the sense of alienation between the interviewer and interviewee.

The fourth segment is introduced with the sound of a gunshot heard many times throughout the film. As a reminder of the opening scene with the woman in the restaurant shooting the man, that gunshot reinforces the theme of woman’s violent rebellion against the oppressive men in her life, a necessity that our two brocialists don’t understand.

We see the two young men walking together outside, carrying cans of paint. Paul, in a voiceover, comments on the changing times of the mid-Sixties. He speaks of James Bond and the Vietnam War, two indicators of the Cold War, in pop culture and historic form. He also mentions the hopes of the French left with the upcoming elections; any real communist, however, would reserve hope for revolutions, not for elections.

The boys meet up with Madeleine, who introduces her two roommates to them. Robert fancies Catherine (Duport) in particular, though the feeling is by no means mutual.

During segment “4A,” Paul and Robert, still with their paint, encounter a US Army car, the driver of which is distracted by Paul as Robert paints “Peace in Vietnam” along the passenger’s side of it. When the car is driven away, Paul and Robert chant, “US, go home!” Once again, we see how puerile and ineffective their would-be anti-imperialism is.

The next segment, introduced with another gunshot sound, begins with a voiceover of Madeleine while we see a train go by on an overpass. Paul’s relationship with her is getting more and more physical; Elisabeth, who it’s implied has lesbian feelings for her, is getting jealous. Madeleine is happy to have Paul’s love, but she hopes he won’t be a pest; this hope of hers ties in with both the train and the gunshot sound, as we’ll discover by the end of the film, as with the upcoming scene in the train with the two blacks in their conversation with the racist white woman.

At night, we see Paul leaving a building (Madeleine’s apartment building?) through the front doors of a store. He’s staring at the camera as if we were extras in the film; then he gets on the train. He sits with Robert.

They overhear, across from them on the train, a conversation between that white woman and the two black men that I mentioned above. This conversation is, in fact, an extremely abbreviated version of Dutchman, a short play by Amiri Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones). Here is a link to the play, and here is a link to a British made-for-TV movie of it, with Al Freeman Jr. playing Clay, and Shirley Knight as Lula.

The white woman making racist generalizations about “niggers” is of course Godard’s equivalent of Lula, and the black man with the hat parallels Clay; the other black man, in the white coat and sitting next to “Lula,” represents the young black man at the end of Baraka’s play, with a book in his hands, Lula’s next victim.

Naturally offended by the racist attitude of “Lula,” “Clay” discusses how white people love the music of Bessie Smith, yet they don’t understand what she’s really singing about. She’s actually saying, “Here’s my big, fat black ass…telling you to fuck off.” (Or, as she says in Dutchman, “Kiss my black ass.”

Next, “Clay” mentions Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, again whom his white fans don’t understand. Bird, like Bessie Smith, would kill all white people, except their music expresses their anger instead. Now, in the play, Lula stabs Clay with a knife; in Godard’s film, however, “Lula” shoots “Clay” with a pistol, that recurring phallic motif of women’s liberation, except that here, the gun is an instrument not of feminism, but of white supremacy.

So this segment, too, reinforces the theme of alienation, which ruins the hopes of proletarian revolution by diverting one’s rage from the ruling class and, instead, redirecting it against one’s fellow proletarians. Class antagonism is obscured by racial hatred, or hatred between the sexes.

In the next segment, Catherine and Elisabeth discuss which parts of the body reflect the essence of sexuality. For Elisabeth, it’s the genitals; for Catherine, it’s the skin. The touch of the skin, for Catherine, is the basis of human connection. Elisabeth wonders if such connection can be made with the eyes. In any case, little real connection occurs in this film.

The next segment shows Paul and Madeleine enter a restaurant. He wants to propose to her, but several things frustrate his attempt to tell her. Firstly, she has little time. Secondly, they sit at a table close to where two men are reading aloud an erotic story whose objectification of a woman is making Paul and Madeleine most uncomfortable. Finally, they move to another table, where they overhear a man telling a woman his unhappy story of his wife’s death and his need to start his life all over…again, something not easy to hear when a man is trying to propose.

Madeleine’s time has run out, and she must go, pressing Paul to blurt out his proposal in an awkward hurry. She says they can discuss it later, and leaves. Once again, an attempt at human connection is thwarted by the many symptoms of an alienating society.

As she’s leaving the restaurant, we hear one of her songs, “Laisse Moi,” in which she sings–it would seem, to Paul, “Let me go on just being me.” She would just be friends with him, and wishes he would leave her alone so she could be herself, as the lyrics tell us. It’s significant that he has slight regard for her music, since it expresses feelings he refuses to acknowledge.

As the song continues playing, we see Paul being the pest that Madeleine fears he will become. In her home with Catherine, she is reading a magazine that Paul grabs from her and throws back at her.

Just before and after this shot, we see shots of middle-aged Frenchwomen (mostly) either crossing the street of a shopping area, or entering and exiting a department store. Amidst all of the alienation in human relationships, there is the capitalist spectacle of consumerism. The desire to buy things has largely replaced the wish to be with people.

We hear Madeleine’s song again as she’s dancing with Elisabeth and others in a club, though Paul isn’t interested in dancing. Next, we see Paul, Madeleine, and Elisabeth buying some drinks, but the girls are annoyed with him and leave him alone to pay. A young prostitute offers to sell him a private moment in a photo booth, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay to touch her breasts. He leaves her abruptly in a huff.

Next, he goes into a neighboring booth to record himself telling her, in an attempt at romantic, poetic language, how much he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. This romanticism, just after considering using a prostitute and brushing her off so rudely!

Another of Madeleine’s songs, “Tu M’as Trop Menti,” is heard while Paul plays bowling in a small arcade. She sings, again, as if to him, that she has heard too many of his lies to believe him anymore. He approaches a man playing pinball; bizarrely, the man pulls out a knife and threatens Paul with it before stabbing himself in the gut. When you cannot project the pain of your own alienation onto others, it eats you up inside.

We see Madeleine and Elisabeth walking along the street at night among other window shoppers, this after having left Paul to pay for the drinks. Again, we see consumerism replacing healthy relationships.

Paul enters a laundromat and meets Robert there. Oddly, instead of telling Robert about the surely traumatizing experience he just had with the man with the knife, Paul tells him about men following him. These men each apologized for having scared Paul. It’s as if Paul is processing the trauma of the man with the knife by making it seem less severe, just men following him.

Robert is reading a newspaper article about Bob Dylan, whom he calls a “Vietnik,” which is a portmanteau of Vietnam and beatnik. Such a juxtaposition of ideas, like “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” reflects another theme of this film: the dialectical relationship between the socialist ideal and all that which vitiates the realization of that ideal.

Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, like Marx, represents the socialist ideal, while the beatniks whom Dylan represents (and by extension, the hippies and modern-day liberals who have come since the Dylan of the mid-sixties), and the corrosiveness of popular soft-drinks like Coke, represent the vitiating of that ideal, just as ‘brocialism’ does. Capitalist South Vietnam and liberal opportunism (which includes the progressive posturing of beatniks and hippies) were and are similarly corrosive…in a metaphorical sense.

Reading the Dylan article, Paul sings of Hitler, Stalin, and Johnson having only one thing to do: “kill ’em.” The equating of these three most dissimilar men is a typical tactic of today’s political establishment, though the liberals keep propping up the political party that gave us LBJ, who helped escalate the Vietnam War, as if it were the only one worth considering.

Paul also complains to Robert about his woman problems; he contemplates dumping Madeleine, even just after saying he wants to marry her. He also hopes to move in with her after being kicked out of his own place. He of course will move in with her, enflaming Elisabeth’s jealousy.

Robert still likes Catherine, who still doesn’t like him. He once asked her about her bra size, and she slapped him hard. Just then, a woman enters the laundromat and walks by the two seated young men, and true to their nature, they loudly appraise her breasts favourably. Paul has Robert stick out his finger, and Paul makes his hand into a yoni, then the two hands jokingly simulate sex. Paul jokes crudely, but he’s unhappy because of his faltering relationship with Madeleine. Men often don’t realize that their addiction to lewdness stems from sadness.

Robert notes that in the word masculin are two hidden words: masque and cul (“mask” and “ass”). In féminin, however, there is nothing. One is reminded of the Renaissance-era slang use of nothing, or “no thing,” or “an O-thing,” to mean vagina. We’re also reminded of how Madeleine looked into Paul’s eyes and felt…nothing. Paul frowns upon hearing Robert say “nothing.” Could this “nothing” be because of the masculine use of social masks in a quest for the feminine “no thing” and ass? Is this the true meaning of the title Masculin féminin?

In the seventh segment, we see Madeleine and Elisabeth in a cafe while Paul, in voiceover, talks of his sadness. The jealousy felt between him and Elisabeth over Madeleine (recall the implied lesbian relationship between the two girls) is the basis of the tension in the film. Jealousy is a narcissistic trait, with its origin in the Oedipal relationship with one’s parents: we would selfishly hog the loved parent to ourselves while shoving the hated parent away. As we get older, we transfer the love/hate relationship with our parents onto new people we meet, as Paul and Elisabeth have done onto pretty Madeleine. They would each hog her to themselves while shoving the other away.

A female voice (Elisabeth’s?) predicts a future sex toy that will give the user perfect satisfaction. Madeleine in a voiceover says that if we, the commodity-addicted consumers, would have our TVs and cars, we would be delivered from freedom. Who needs freedom in the capitalist world when you can simply buy stuff?

Next, we see Paul and Catherine at the dinner table at home. He has moved in, and he wonders, in an implied tone of jealousy, “Where the hell are they?”, that is, where are Madeleine and Elisabeth (“Qu’est-ce qu’elles foutent?” or, “What the fuck are they doing?”). The two girls come home soon after.

Madeleine speaks of how her music is doing on the charts in Japan: she’s trailing behind the Beatles, France Gall, and Bob Dylan. Paul, apparently annoyed with her success, reads from a blurb in a magazine on her, reading in an affectedly overly-enthusiastic way, saying the words with frantic speed. Now she is annoyed with his making fun of her.

Indicating his continued lack of interest in Madeleine’s music, he puts on a record of classical music and listens, rapt. Madeleine and Elisabeth shower together, giggling [!]. The two of them go to bed, but with Paul lying in between. Elisabeth is reading a book with her nose clearly out of joint as Paul and Madeleine lie close together, touching each other.

After this, Paul sees Catherine playing with a miniature model of a guillotine. She has the figurine of a man whose head is to be put in. She asks Paul if he’s ever heard of the Marquis de Sade, who of course was much involved with the French Revolution, which in turn was of course notorious for its use of the guillotine.

As she puts the figurine’s head in the guillotine, we hear a fiery, dramatic speech in voiceover, one addressing Mitterrand, and mentioning the dethroning of twenty kings for the sake of liberty. Again, we have the ideal of revolution juxtaposed with a left-wing leader who would, in time, prove to disappoint. (Mitterrand wouldn’t have been explicitly known as a disappointment until the 1980s, but any Marxist worth his salt–like Godard–would have already known in the 60s not to trust the results of mainstream voting.)

Paul will come to dislike his job at the magazine, and he’ll quit, soon to find a job interviewing and polling people for IFOP. We see an interview he has with a girl named Elsa, a friend of Madeleine’s. The whole time, we see only Elsa, hearing Paul’s questions and her answers. As with the other interview-like dialogues occurring before and after this “Dialogue With a Consumer Product,” there is a sense of alienating disconnect between man and woman here, reflected in seeing only her face and never his, instead of the camera going back and forth between speakers.

He asks her a number of questions concerning politics and other subjects she feels unqualified to answer, and therefore questions that make her feel awkward. He often interrupts her when she answers. It’s as if he were trying to impose his ideology on a girl who clearly prefers the liberal democracy of the US to socialism. We socialists won’t win people over to our cause with Paul’s tactics.

Outside the room they’re having the interview in, we hear, from time to time, the giggling of girls (Madeleine? Catherine? Elisabeth?). The implication is that women live much happier lives without pests like Paul around.

In the ninth segment, we see Paul playing pinball in a restaurant; Elisabeth is there, too, using the phone. (We also hear another of Madeleine’s songs, “Si Tu Gagnes Au Flipper.“) He rudely calls out to her to sit with him and eat. As they’re eating, she mentions a man that Madeleine has been with, enflaming Paul’s jealousy, something it’s safe to assume that Elisabeth is trying to do. Madeleine will join them soon.

During his chat with Elisabeth, we see included in the shot a German man sitting right next to Paul, though he’s of course not at all involved in the conversation. This man will later sit at a booth with a German-hating prostitute who Madeleine recognizes as the same woman who shot her husband at the beginning of the film.

The alienation is swelling now.

The German tells the prostitute that he dissociates himself from his country’s Nazi past. (Actually, it was the East Germans who successfully dissociated themselves from it), since she hates the Germans for what they did to her parents in the concentration camps.

Next, Elisabeth notices a man talking to Brigitte Bardot about some lines she is to recite, lines he feels she’s been saying too slowly. His criticisms tie in with the theme of alienation in how we often communicate poorly. We saw this in Paul’s interview of Elsa for the IFOP, and Paul himself, by the end of the film, realizes the error of his questioning methods during those interviews.

After this scene, we see Paul, Madeleine, Elisabeth, and Catherine go to the movies to see a Swedish film about a woman abused by her man (It seems to be Godard parodying Ingmar Bergman‘s The Silence.). We hear “Comment le Revoir,” another of Madeleine’s pop songs playing as the usher helps the four find their seats.

Elisabeth doesn’t like Paul sitting next to Madeleine, for obvious reasons, so she puts herself between Madeleine and him, angering him. He also changes seats, but not sitting on the other side of Madeleine in Elisabeth’s original seat–he sits on the other side of Catherine instead, to spite Madeleine for her acceptance of Elisabeth at her side.

The film they’ve come to see begins: we see the dominant man going after his woman outside on the winter streets, to grab her and control her. Later, we’ll see them in their apartment.

Paul needs to use the washroom, but in there, he finds two gay men kissing in one of the toilet stalls. Paul’s homophobic disgust at them is presumably mainly for the usual reason, but these two male lovers probably also remind him of a certain pair of female lovers. (Incidentally, we will soon see Elisabeth’s hand stroking Madeleine’s hair as they watch the movie.)

Paul has little interest in it, but he goes out and complains to the projectionist about the format of the film (e.g., its aspect ratio, etc.; they are all, in Paul’s opinion, not acceptable). The point is that he’s so disconnected from human communication that he focuses more on the technical aspects of the film than its expression of one of the fundamental problems of male/female relations: the abusive dominance of one over the other. This oversight of Paul’s also reflects his own refusal to acknowledge his disrespectful attitude towards women.

The brutish man in the film, who typically grunts his commands at the woman and makes her perform sexual acts on him, is quite the animal. Indeed, he looks at himself in the mirror, seeing it distort his face as if to tell him that he truly is bestial. He pouts at what he sees. Soon after, we see him kissing the woman in front of the mirror, holding her by the hair to control her. One imagines him pleased to see this in the reflection, his Lacanian ideal-I as a powerful man in the specular image.

Paul frowns as he watches the film, with the abusive man making the woman, it would appear, perform fellatio on him. Paul the idealist wants to see romanticized images of men and women on the screen (much as how the abusive man wants to see himself in the mirror as a desirable lover, rather than as a controlling man), not the unsettling reality of relations between the sexes as seen in the film…or as seen in Paul’s own actual relations with women.

The twelfth segment is introduced with the gunshot sound again. At home, Catherine and Robert are having a conversation that parallels the one between Paul and Madeleine when he was asking her to go out with him. Robert, however, is much less successful with Catherine, of whom he can’t take the hint that she doesn’t like him. Again, we usually only see the face of the one, or that of the other, for long stretches of the conversation, reinforcing the sense of mutual alienation.

She’s eating an apple, like Eve with the forbidden fruit (or like Lula and her apples while aggressively coming on to Clay in Dutchman–links above): does her rejection of Robert at all compare with the ruin of Adam, or of Clay? In any case, we see in all these scenes more of the tensions between the sexes, the kind that ruin all possibility of proletarian solidarity.

Catherine asks Robert if he has ever been with prostitutes, as Madeleine asked of Paul; Robert admits to it with a smile, making him all the less attractive to Catherine. He asks her a number of personal questions she feels are none of his business. He speaks of his plans to bring about “a complete revolution,” yet he’s so charmless that he can even connect with a girl like her. The sense of mutual alienation between them is such that, even in those shots that include both of them, his head is obscured by the door of a cupboard (they’re in her kitchen), a symbolic expression of that estrangement.

He’s jealous because he thinks she’s in love with Paul, which she isn’t–she just doesn’t like Robert. She notes at the start of their conversation how difficult it is for him to talk: this inability to communicate is, with jealousy, one of the main themes of this film. We hear Madeleine’s song, “Sois Gentil” during this chat: it’s as if she’s telling Robert to be more of a gentleman on Catherine’s behalf.

His chatting with her about politics is as awkward as it was between Paul and Elsa. Interrupting their chat, ever so briefly, is another shot of women shopping in a department store, another iteration of the theme of consumerism trumping human connection. As we can see, revolution is not possible in such an alienating society that prefers commodities to community. Small wonder this film is “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” stated in a famous inter-title with the gunshot sound to introduce the next segment.

Paul and Catherine walk down the street. A man borrows Paul’s matches without giving them back, but using them to immolate himself as a protest against the Vietnam War. One is reminded of the Buddhist monk in South Vietnam who did the same thing a few years before this film. If only Paul had the strength of character to protest the war in such a brave way.

Paul and Catherine visit the recording studio where Madeleine is recording “D’Abord Dis Moi Ton Nom.” Paul, still with no interest in or respect for her music, walks right into the recording area, as if her talking to her narcissistic boyfriend were more important than her art.

Paul, Catherine, and Madeleine go outside, where a music journalist asks her a few questions. She mentions loving Pepsi–once again, such commodities as cola get in the way of Marxist revolution.

In the next segment, we hear Paul speaking in voiceover, acknowledging how misguided his questions for the IFOP polling have been. This admitting of bad communication will be too late, though, for he will soon die. During his speaking of his need to change his interviewing style, we see lots of shoppers on the streets, another juxtaposition of the failure to communicate with a fetishizing of commodities.

In the fifteenth and final segment, also…and most significantly…introduced with the gunshot sound, we see Catherine and Madeleine in a police station telling the officer there how Paul died, him having fallen from a window of his recently purchased apartment in a high rise. The girls insist his death must have been an accident rather than a suicide. When Catherine says it was “a stupid accident,” she looks down and away from the officer, suggesting she’s lying.

Significantly, I believe, Elisabeth isn’t there to talk to the officer, but we learn that, while Paul wanted Madeleine to move in to his new place, she wanted Elisabeth to move in with them, too, which of course jealous Paul would never have accepted. There was fighting, then the “accident.” I don’t believe he killed himself in heartbreak over learning of his woman’s lesbian relationship with Elisabeth, which they, having all lived together for so long, couldn’t have kept secret from him for so long. He must have already known for at least quite a while, and he and Elisabeth were competing for Madeleine, which finally came to a head.

I believe the girls are covering up how jealous, lesbian Elisabeth actually pushed Paul off the building (it fits in with the theme of women killing men that has appeared in so many forms throughout the film). One can sense a trace of guilt in pregnant Madeleine’s eyes, especially since she’s contemplating…however hesitantly…getting an abortion.

The film ends with the word “féminin” shown on the screen, then with the gunshot sound and the “émin” removed to indicate “fin.” Indeed, the film ends with the women, who without the proper masculine support, won’t ever join in proletarian solidarity with them.

We’d kill a man, rather than go after The Man.

Analysis of ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’

We’re Only in It for the Money is the third album by Frank Zappa‘s band, The Mothers of Invention. It came out in 1968, the album cover parodying the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As is typical with Zappa’s music, the lyrics of this concept album satirize the social hypocrisies of 1960s straight America–in this particular case, those of conservatives and of a particular kind of liberals whose hair was as long as that of Zappa and the Mothers…the hippies. Musically, we hear a mix of psychedelic rock (a parody of it), and the influence of such post-war avant-garde composers as Varèse and Stockhausen.

Zappa used montage recording techniques, including musique concrète, speeding up the tape, and abrupt interruptions between abbreviated songs, splicing in segments of dialogue and unrelated music. These montage techniques were also used on Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which came out at about the same time as Money, and is its sequel, or “Phase 2.”

While Zappa had intended the outer front and back cover, as well as the inner sleeve photo, to parallel those of Sgt. Pepper, Verve decided to reverse the intended inner and outer designs out of fear of legal action resulting from a lack of assurance of permission from the Beatles’ business managers.

So on the front cover, we see–from left to right–bassist/vocalist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Don Preston, drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group,” as he himself tells us twice on Side One), and keyboardist/wind player Ian Underwood; and on the back, we see–from left to right–Zappa (asking if this album is Phase One of Lumpy Gravy), drummer Billy Mundi, and saxophonist Bunk Gardner. They are posed against a yellow background, as in the inner sleeve of the Sgt. Pepper album, but instead of wearing marching band uniforms as the Beatles wore, Zappa and the Mothers are all in drag, their facial hair all intact, for sure, and Zappa’s hair in the cutest of pigtails (or ‘bunches,’ if you prefer).

The inner sleeve shows the parody with the Mothers in drag again, as well as a collage of faces in the background, those generally more obscure than the famous faces seen on Sgt. Pepper. These include Zappa’s father, Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot, a pregnant Gail Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and LBJ. Instead of the bright blue sky at the top of the Beatles’ front cover, we see a dark, stormy sky with lightning.

The other side of the inner sleeve shows the lyrics and album credits against a red background, with the Mothers in drag again at the bottom; though instead of seeing most of the band facing forward (as in the case of Lennon, Harrison, and Starr) and one member facing backward (i.e., McCartney, who, recall, was “dead”), here all of the Mothers have their backs to us, and only saxophonist Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood is facing us, which I guess is because he had the “teen appeal” that the band needed so desperately.

The title of the album is a cynical take on the financial success of bands like the Beatles, who presented their music as an inspiration to the hippie counterculture; yet as with the hippies themselves, the music of these bands was something Zappa considered to be equally fake. The album’s title is also ironic, since no one would seriously consider music of such an experimental nature (far more avant-garde than the sonic experimentation of Sgt. Pepper) to have been conceived to make much of any money, let alone solely to make lots of money.

The overall theme of Money is phoniness: the phoniness of conservative parents, of the hippie ‘counterculture,’ and of “American womanhood.” On a deeper level, we can see the dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal to be a false one, as exposed as such on this album. Indeed, both groups of seemingly opposed people are really just upper-middle class bourgeois who, though pretending in their own respective ways to uphold either traditional or progressive moral values, are really just preserving their class status in society.

This is not at all to say that Zappa himself was ever interested in upturning class privilege any more than the hippies were. He openly expressed his dislike of communists and his disdain for any kind of labour movement. During a gig in Berlin back in the late 1960s, he was annoyed when radical leftists in the audience heckled him and his band by calling them “The Mothers of Reaction.” Similarly, as a bandleader, he was clearly the boss, making his musicians play only his music, and dictatorially demanding exacting performances of his music from them.

Still, Zappa wasn’t as paranoid about communism as so many on the right in the US have always been. I would characterize his politics as a libertarian-leaning centrism: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Though he would never have advocated my proposed solutions to the problems of conservative vs. liberal/hippie phoniness, I can nonetheless use his satirical depiction of the faults of these only seemingly opposed groups as a basis for diagnosing them as bourgeois symptoms, indications of class and imperialist privilege that would be alleviated by a revolutionary class struggle that Zappa would have wanted no part of, having been quite bourgeois himself.

Side One fittingly opens with Eric Clapton asking a question whose answer in the affirmative would seem to be the root of all the phoniness Zappa observed in the conservatives and liberals/hippies of the time: “Are You Hung Up?” A preoccupation Zappa had throughout his career, and the basis of his work as a social critic and satirist, was people’s mental health…are we, or are we not, hung up? Are the repressions of our conformist society inhibiting us from expressing ourselves, each of us in a unique, creative way?

Zappa’s preferred alternative to the hippie scene was the California freak scene, a group he hoped to promote and organize into a Mothers fan club called “The United Mutations.” He preferred the freaks to the hippies because the former group dressed, acted out, and danced to his music in creative and non-conforming ways without the use of drugs, of which he never approved. (Back in the 1960s, Zappa tried smoking marijuana about ten times, but he never liked it.)

The next track on the album is “Who Needs the Peace Corps?“, which it’s safe to assume isn’t about the American government organization, but is rather a metaphor for the peacenik hippies. Zappa despised the phoniness of the hippies not just because of their conformist adherence to the fashion trends of the time (long hair, beads, leather headbands, etc.), or their getting stoned and partying, only to go back home to Mom and Dad; but also because their dreaming of a world of peace and love was hopelessly naïve and utopian.

It’s only natural that most of us want to end all the wars in the world (especially now, in the 2020s!), but before we can end war, we have to understand it. People from upper-middle-class, petite bourgeois America are the least likely or motivated to take the time to learn of the origins of warmongering. Their class privilege makes the hippies far too complacent.

The Russian working class and peasants, back in the 1910s, eagerly wanted to get out of WWI. Lenin, who theorized about the imperialist competition for land that was the basis for the war, promisedPeace, Land, and Bread” to the Russian people, and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they delivered on their promise, though they had to make a number of unpleasant compromises in the process. (And granted, the Russian Civil War came almost immediately after that, but that was the fault of the capitalist invaders, not of the Bolsheviks.)

Communists have fought wars far more often out of necessity than out of choice, as we’ve seen imperialists do routinely; the Soviets often tried to influence the peace movement. Even Soviet military interventions were less the result of wanting to fight than of being manipulated into it, as was the case with Afghanistan in the 80s. The Red Army bore the brunt of a Nazi invasion that Stalin bought time against with a non-aggression pact (since a detailed discussion of the history of this is beyond the scope of this post, I refer the reader to this).

My point in bringing all this up is that the only realistic way to end war and achieve a lasting peace is to eliminate imperialism, which is a chronic cause of war, as we’ve seen to be especially true since the dissolution of the USSR. Similarly, the only way we’ll all sincerely love one another is to end the alienation that capitalism causes. Hippies, with their typically bourgeois social background, are hardly inclined to make the necessary changes. These people are phonies because they lack revolutionary potential.

In fact, hippies are so reactionary that they tended to go from the 60s counterculture to the liberal establishment of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s…up until now. They’ll tell you, “Vote blue no matter who!”, even if the blue candidate is an imperialist warmonger like Biden, who is pals with the GOP. Zappa once observed that hippie types would even reinforce conformity in the music industry.

The next song is “Concentration Moon.” The first word of the title is clearly referring to a concentration camp, so we prisoners see the moon at night outside our cell there. The references in the song to the police shooting and killing “creeps,” as with the reference in the previous song to the police who “kick the shit out of me,” are indications of the fascist nature of the authorities associated with a concentration camp. “Over the camp in the valley” cements this interpretation, since it also alludes to Kafka‘s “In the Penal Colony” (more on this short story later), which is a concentration camp in a valley on an island.

Note the juxtaposition of a concentration camp with hippies in the song, and keep this in mind when you recall what I said above about hippies all too quickly becoming part of the political establishment…a liberal establishment that, far from promoting peace, has for years now been banging the war drums against Russia. Instead of wanting a quick end to the war with Ukraine, these liberals are cheering on the Ukrainian army, which includes Neo-Nazis, of whom they’re either willfully ignorant or in denial, or whose existence they’re rationalizing and/or minimizing.

Social democracy is, essentially, left-leaning liberalism, like the kind these former hippies tend to espouse. Recall, however, Stalin’s words: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Small wonder Zappa considered hippies to be a bunch of phonies.

So the juxtaposition of hippies in a concentration camp, hippies who’d rather be “back in the alley,” is symbolic of the surprisingly close relationship between conservatives and liberals. Contrary to the spurious horseshoe theory indicating a closeness between communists and fascists (actually two ideologies as far apart from each other as any could be), it’s the liberals who are far closer to fascism.

Next comes “Mom and Dad,” which is, by Zappa’s standards, a surprisingly serious song. Here we have a kind of diagnosis of American society’s problems at their root: the dysfunctional, emotionally neglectful family.

The cops’ violent reactions to the hippies and freaks made it difficult for the Mothers to perform on the West Coast; instead, they had to play in New York City if they wanted to make any money. In the song, however, the parents’ callous attitude to the “creeps” whom the cops were killing is rationalized with the observation that “they looked too weird.”

The song’s indictment of the parents grows bitter during the bridge, when it’s asked if they’ve ever taken a minute “just to show a real emotion.” Do the parents have any appreciation of their kids’ talents, or even a sincere love for them? Just as the hippies have drugs, their good, upstanding, God-fearing parents have a drug of their own–alcohol, which they’re usually too embarrassed to let their kids watch them drink.

Do the parents even notice how unhappy their kids are? For all their pretensions to being good, virtuous, Christian families, these conservative parents are every bit as phony in their own way as are the hippies, who as we know will become quite conservative themselves when they get older. The idea that you “have to love a plastic mom and dad” really gets you in the heart. In these toxic families, “love” is really just obligation; one “loves” one’s family because one has to, not because one wants to. Small wonder the teens become hippies, as a way not to be like their moms and dads.

After the “Telephone Conversation” with Suzy Creamcheese (Pamela Zarubica, actually) comes “Bow Tie Daddy,” which continues the satire on conservative parents, but is light-hearted and focuses on the father’s hypocrisies rather than those of the mother, as we heard in “Mom and Dad.” We sense that the root of Dad’s bad temper is his frustrations with his personal inadequacies (i.e., “getting too old,” and his “drinkin'”). The bow-tie and parody of old-fashioned music, of course, emphasize how decidedly unhip Daddy is, hence the teens’ desire to rebel against him.

Harry, You’re a Beast” opens with dramatic piano arpeggios played by Ian Underwood. The song satirizes “American womanhood” by pointing out how “phony” these females are with their use of makeup (“You paint your head.”) rather than accept their facial imperfections (a lack of acceptance that is society’s fault, mind you, not theirs), as well as how air-headed Zappa perceived them to be.

Now, this song’s satire of American women borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, outright misogyny in how it makes light of a rape. “Harry” the “beast” attacks a woman, “Madge,” and while the censored version of the rape is played backwards, the uncensored version gives us an allusion to part of an old Lenny Bruce routine, “‘To’ is a Preposition; ‘Come’ Is a Verb” (“Don’t come in me, in me,” the woman begs her rapist, four times.). Her comical crying afterwards (with a return of the piano arpeggios), and his buffoonish excuse that he “couldn’t help it…doggone it,” is a kind of humor that should apply only to Harry’s hypocrisies of an outward mask of virtue (“it’s not merely physical”) and not to Madge’s trauma.

Next comes, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which is a parody of the doo-wop that Zappa loved to listen to as a teen back in the 1950s, and which he made a tribute to–and a parody of–on the album Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. As we listen for the first time, we assume that a criticism of one’s physicality is coming, and we’re surprised to hear that it’s our mind that is the ugliest body part.

The ugly minds are those of the teens’ parents, who don’t like “all those creeps” the teens hang out with; they’re “creeps” because of how ‘ugly’–in the parents’ judgement–they look in their non-conforming clothes. The parents’ intolerance and narrow-mindedness is what makes their minds so ugly, and what makes their teen kids rebel to the extreme point of doing drugs and engaging in free love.

The doo-wop suddenly switches to a 7/8 section in which Zappa indicts the parents with telling their kids “lies”–emotionally abusing them by teaching them bigoted ideas and moulding them into adopting a socially conformist mindset. A brief section in 3/4 time expresses a mother’s worry that her daughter, Annie, is hanging out with “creeps” before returning to the 7/8 riff and Zappa’s further indicting of the parents’ “ignorance.”

A pretty piano passage by Underwood, with arpeggiated chords played so fast that they sound strummed, opens the next song, “Absolutely Free,” another Zappa parody of hippie idealism and psychedelic music, somewhat imitative of the Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds,” with its almost Baroque keyboards and trippy imagery in the lyrics. At the end of the opening piano, we hear Suzy Creamcheese say she “won’t do publicity balling…anymore,” with the word “balling” originally censored from the album.

When Zappa begins by saying “discorporate,” meaning “to leave your body,” he’s talking about the mind-expanding effects of drugs, and the naïve belief that they will liberate us from the stunting effects of conformist society. While some, like George Carlin, have had positive, mind-opening experiences from doing LSD, even he acknowledged how dangerous such experimentation can be (i.e., doing too much, or doing the wrong kind).

Most of the music has a waltz-like triple metre, except for a bar of 4/4 played on the harpsichord before we hear “Unbind your mind, there is no time,” which is sung in three bars of 3/4 and one in 2/4, before going back to the usual triple metre. ‘Unbinding one’s mind’ can refer to the ‘liberating’ drug use, or to the letting go of inhibitions to lead the carefree, hippie life. After the first declaration that “You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be,” we hear a brief riff in 7/8 before going back to 3/4.

A reminder that Zappa doesn’t believe a word of what he’s singing is in another censored line: “Flower power sucks!”

The next song to make fun of hippies is “Flower Punk.” The main riff is played in a fast 7/8 time, which alternates with 5/8 sections with singing. With this album, we note the conspicuous absence of lead singer Ray Collins, who briefly left the band, meaning Zappa here is singing pretty much all the lead vocals, though his voice often isn’t recognizable, as he tends to speed up the vocal track, which he did on “Flower Punk.” (Here is a version with digitally slowed-down vocals, making his voice recognizable.)

The “Hey, Punk” questions are a parody of “Hey Joe,” a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix. The usual hypocrisies of hippies are exposed in how, far from being committed to promoting peace and love, these are people who just want to party and get laid, or who have fantasies of becoming “rich and famous” rock stars. One of the air-headed hippies that Zappa (with sped-up tape for his voice) lampoons even acknowledges that it’s all a “gigantic mass deception.”

Hot Poop” ends Side One with the whispering, paranoid voice of Gary Kellgren, who has been doing this whispering at various points on the album, and will do so again on Side Two. He usually speaks of Zappa as if obsessed with him, as if Zappa’s presence in the control room of the recording studio were omniscient and oppressive. The first side of the LP that I used to own, when a teen, ended with a particularly delightful, even melodious, “snork” (by Dick Barber) that I, regrettably, haven’t been able to find on any of the YouTube videos of Money.

Side Two begins with the musique concrète of “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” which includes Eric Clapton’s declaration that he has ‘seen God.’ Towards the end of it, we hear a bit of surf music interrupted by what sounds like a stylus being abruptly pulled off of a record.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is based on the true story of the antics of Ronald “Ronnie” and Kenneth “Kenny” Williams, neighbours of Zappa when he was living in Ontario, California back in the early 1960s. Ronnie and Kenny would engage in such after-school fun as making “blue angels,” that is, to “burn…poots away,” all while their parents, “Daddy Dinky” and their mom were at work, her in a restaurant “with her apron and her pad” (this latter being censored after being confused with a sanitary napkin).

I think that the point behind Zappa’s inclusion of this story among the songs on this album was to contrast the weird antics of Ronnie and Kenny against, on the one hand, the phony conformity of the conservative parents who, for all their posturing as good Christians, just emotionally neglect their kids and get drunk, and on the other hand, the phony ‘non-conformity’ of the hippies who, for all their posturing as progressive pacifists, just want to party, get high and get laid, then “go home to bed.”

As odd–and outright disgusting–as lighting farts, pissing in jars, and collecting snot (“pneumies”) on one’s bedroom window are as pastimes, at least Ronnie and Kenny were engaging in behaviour that can be genuinely called non-conformist. These two freaks, or “creeps” were being different in an honest way; they weren’t just following a fashion trend.

The Idiot Bastard Son” is a kind of sequel to the previous track, since it also involves Ronnie and Kenny, who raise the abandoned “idiot boy,” the illegitimate love-child of a congressman and an LA prostitute. (Fittingly sandwiched between these two songs is the actual Ronnie Williams performing “a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on Earth”: backwards, distorted, guttural vocal noise that makes me imagine what an alien might consider to be beautiful, lyrical, mellifluous singing. It’s another manifestation of Zappa’s favouring of the creativity of freaks over hippie phoniness.)

That the congressman would be called a Nazi is apt, for it fits in with the theme I’ve described above, of how there’s a continuum ranging from hippie ‘counterculture’ to mainstream liberalism, then to the conservatism of one’s parents, ultimately leading, under the right social and economic conditions, to fascism. As we’ve watched the degeneration of American society over the past sixty years, from parental conservatism to the hippies in the 60s, to the mainstream liberalism of the 70s, then to the return of conservatism (in the form of neoliberalism) in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and now to the resurgence of fascism in the 2010s and 2020s, we can see how prophetic Zappa really was. Recall his fears of the US developing into a “fascist theocracy,” and how Roe vs. Wade recently got overturned.

Again, the hypocrisy of the conservative congressman and his ‘good, Christian values’ is exposed by his getting the hooker pregnant and abandoning the baby “in back of a car.” He’s an “idiot boy” because his neglectful upbringing, stashed “away in a jar” by Kenny, precludes any proper education, something most of those on the American right are averse to providing.

The song is interrupted by another spoken word segment, a chaos of voices, some with sped-up tape, of men talking about the different kinds of booze they’ve drunk. Just like hippies’ use of drugs, getting drunk is another manic defence against facing the depressing realities of life, another time-wasting indulgence Zappa disapproved of.

Back to the song, we’re reminded of all that snot on Ronnie’s bedroom window. Elsewhere, the idiot bastard son will spend his time at church, “warming his pew,” which could mean that he’s just sitting there because he’s been made to go, and he isn’t listening to the preacher; or he could be warming his pew with his flatulence, the result of the loving influence of Ronnie and Kenny.

Under the tutelage of the flatulent duo, indeed, the boy will “thrive and grow,” entering our world of corrupt “liars and cheaters”…for what other world is there for him to enter? The hippie communes won’t be much better for him.

Lonely Little Girl” was originally listed as “It’s His Voice on the Radio,” which was how I had it on my old LP. Apart from being another complaint about emotionally neglectful, psychologically abusive, conservative parents, this short song also repeats a line from “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” namely, “All your children are poor unfortunate victims…” etc. A quick flurry of guitar notes segues into the next song.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Danceexisted in other forms prior to this one. There was an instrumental version Zappa recorded back in 1961, then one with lyrics in 1965, a straightforward pop song called “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” and there’s another instrumental version, “Take Your Clothes Off,” ending Side Two of Lumpy Gravy.

The version on Money is another satirical dig at the hippies and their idealistic view of how life will be one day when we’re all “free to sing and dance and love.” We won’t care how our hair looks, we won’t be ashamed if we’re overweight, and one day, we’ll even dance naked. Of course, no program of social transformation to bring about this utopia is ever discussed; communists have revolutionary theory, whereas liberal hippies are just dreamers.

The next song is a reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which replays the doo-wop opening, and ends with a weird, comically eerie repeat of voices saying, “I think it’s your mind.” Recall that these ugly minds are those of both the conservatives and the hippie liberals, against whom Zappa would contrast his preferred freaks, or “creeps,” or…

Mother People,” which begins fittingly with some snorks, has a guitar/keyboard riff first in 3/4 (for three bars), then a bar of 6/16, then one in 3/8, then two in 6/16, these last two bars with a guitar lead playing notes a perfect fifth between them. These Mother People “are the other people,” those other than the conformist conservatives and the phony hippie liberals.

You might think they’re “crazy, out of [their] mind,” but wait ’til they tell you who they really are, and what their plan is, for each of them is “another person” than the “creepy” one you’ve misunderstood them to be. This section, clearing up the misunderstanding, is musically set in a tense 7/8, which soon switches to 6/8.

The music of this 7/8, then 6/8, section has a second verse with naughty words; this verse was originally censored, but Zappa put it backwards on the end of Side One. (Here is the uncensored version of the song.) Before the third playing of this section, with the lyrics described in the previous paragraph, the song is interrupted with a brief orchestral arrangement, rather like something in a film soundtrack; it can also be heard on Lumpy Gravy.

The final track on Side Two is “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” This piece is another example of Zappa’s avant-garde, experimental leanings. We hear dissonant piano after an ominous fade in, then birdsong-like woodwinds and chaotic percussion, then a dark section including an eerie bass clarinet, then maniacal laughing with the…arbitrary…inclusion of the word “arbitrary.” Finally, we have acoustic guitar playing dubbed notes, accompanied by percussion, and an ominous fade-out.

Zappa advises us, in the liner notes, to read Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” before listening to this final track. Once we’ve listened to it, our own crime will have been carved on our back. A brief synopsis of Kafka’s story is thus indispensable here.

An officer demonstrates to an “explorer” an “apparatus” for executing criminals in a most sadistic way, carving the crime on the back of the condemned. Though the explorer, as any reasonable person would, disapproves of the cruelty of the apparatus, the officer is in fanatical support of it, loving the former commandant of the island’s concentration camp for having devised it. Despairing over the explorer’s disapproval, and knowing the camp’s new and more humane commandant would do away with the apparatus, the officer gets naked and puts himself in the apparatus, killing himself with it, with the intention of having the message “BE JUST!” carved on his back (though the poorly-maintained machine fails to do so). After seeing the grave of the old commandant, the explorer gets on a boat and leaves the island.

What I find to be the most significant part of the story is how the old commandant’s gravestone has an inscription prophesying that he will rise again and lead his followers to retake the penal colony…”Have faith and wait!” Though Zappa was thinking about the Japanese internment camps of WWII, and how Reagan, then-Governor of California, might have used the camps for the hippies, I see other dangers in this prophecy.

Though Kafka wrote the story in 1914 and published it in 1919, the cruel, authoritarian nature of the old commandant and his loyal, son-like officer seems to anticipate the then-imminent arrival of fascism. That these two men’s sadistic ways were defeated by the more liberal-minded new commandant (old ways that are prophesied to return) is in turn a prophecy–as I see it–of the return of fascism today, something Zappa was surely predicting, however indirectly, by referring to Kafka’s story on this album. This was a fear of his back in the late 60s, when one would never have imagined a return of fascism…that is, if one were blinded by the ideals of the mainstream liberalism of the time.

As I said above, only the communists of today have remained vigilant against the recent resurgence of fascism, while partisans of the DNC and GOP have turned a blind eye to it in Ukraine. Even Zappa, addled by anticommunist propaganda, didn’t really see it coming back when he was hanging out with Václav Havel.

As a registered Democrat, Zappa may have gotten politically active in the 80s as he, rightly, fought the PMRC; still, his real focus was never politics but, of course, music. He didn’t live to see the evils wrought by the Clintons in the 90s, evils exacerbated not only by Bush and Trump, but also by Obama and Biden today. Though Zappa was no hippie, thank God, and though he rightly saw the danger of allowing the Christian fundamentalists among Reagan and his ilk to have their way, he didn’t see the road fiscal conservatism was taking us all on.

So in sum, though We’re Only in It for the Money does do a legitimate and important critique of many aspects of the problems of American society, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t do enough. All the same, I believe we can use the album as a starting point to critique those other aspects.

Thrones

She
had
the
big
chair, just
as so many
before her

used
that
seat
with
the intent to
take over and
plunder worlds.

One
may
sit
and
rest, while
many more
must fight

to
be
in
an
adequate
state of
existence.

One
can
sit
and
take it easy
on a throne
without gems,

and
the
men
and
women of the
world can be
seated as well.

So
we
in
an
abased state
must rise up
so all may sit.

Tightrope

If
I
lean
too much the one way, or too much the other, I will fall.

If
the
rope
went in a straight line, I could keep my balance well enough,

but
the
rope
keeps veering to the right, making me counterbalance left.

How
far
is
too far left, or not left enough? Is moderate “too balanced”?

One
has
to
walk it slowly, yet the human race’s time is running out.

We
can
not
stay on one side; we must go, yet to fall is certain death.