Analysis of ‘The Apartment’

The Apartment is a 1960 comedy produced and directed by Billy Wilder, who also wrote the screenplay with IAL Diamond. The film stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, with Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Willard Waterman, David White, Hope Holiday, and Edie Adams.

The film received widespread acclaim, and was the eighth highest grossing film of 1960. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing. Lemmon, MacLaine, and Kruschen were all nominated respectively for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor; Lemmon and MacLaine won Golden Globe Awards in their categories.

The Apartment is considered one of the best movies of all time, ranking at #93 in the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies, which then moved up to #80 for the 10th Anniversary Edition. It ranked at #20 for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs, and at #62 for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions. The quote “Shut up and deal” was nominated for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film’s central premise, that of an upwardly-mobile insurance clerk named CC “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon) allowing his senior coworkers to use his apartment to have extramarital affairs, is on many levels symbolic of capitalist exploitation. He often stays in the office late after normal working hours are over, working without overtime, because one of the men above him is fooling around with a woman in Baxter’s home, meaning he has to stay out until they leave.

This sense that his home is not really his home reminds us of another aspect of capitalism: landlords’ ownership of one’s home, putting one in the potential danger of being kicked out and thrown into the street. Indeed, early in the film, Baxter finds himself temporarily homeless one winter night because Mr. Dobisch (Walston) on short notice has picked up a woman in a bar who “looks like Marilyn Monroe,” and so he needs the use of the apartment; Dobisch also gives back the wrong key to the apartment, leaving Baxter out of his home even longer. Having been out in the cold, he ends up getting sick.

Why does he let these men walk all over him? If he doesn’t, his hopes of climbing the corporate ladder are sunk. Again, the cutthroat world of capitalism drives this pressure to compete. At the beginning of the film, Baxter’s is one among a sea of desks in the office, where the lower-ranking employees work; later, when promoted, he has his own, coveted office, but Dobisch, Kirkeby (Lewis), Vanderhoff (Waterman), and Eichelberger (White) all want the continued use of Baxter’s apartment, implying that if he doesn’t let them, they’ll bring him down just as surely as they brought him up.

Fortunately, Baxter will have the protection of his boss, Mr. Jeff Sheldrake (MacMurray). Unfortunately, that protection will come at a price–a spare key to Baxter’s apartment, so Sheldrake can bring his mistress there. To make matters worse, this mistress also happens to be Baxter’s crush at work–elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine).

The mistresses personify yet another aspect of capitalism: the exploitation of women. In a society that promotes worker alienation, it follows that women will be used for men’s sexual sport rather than appreciated as human beings. Dobisch et al are not only using Baxter as a kind of pimp; these married men are also using their mistresses as if they were prostitutes.

Their encroaching on Baxter’s apartment and his use of it in his free time is perfectly symbolic of how capitalists exploit the worker by extracting surplus value from him to generate profits. His apartment is symbolically (as well as literally, of course) what the office building is literally: private property, a place the capitalist uses to exploit workers and make profits from. Baxter’s home is thus a double for his place of work.

Even when at home alone, he still has capitalists intruding on his private life. He turns on the TV, hoping to enjoy Grand Hotel, a film starring Greta Garbo in which she says the famous line, “I want to be alone,” a sentiment with which Baxter surely would sympathize. The problem is that before the film even gets a chance to begin, it is interrupted by the program’s two sponsors.

His philandering boss’s and senior coworkers’ use of his apartment, symbolic of the extraction of surplus value, is significant in how this use of it is for sex, which shows how Marx can be fused with Lacan. Plus-de jouir, a term Lacan coined to express an aspect of his notion of jouissance–an excessive and transgressive indulgence in sexual pleasure–is derived from Marx’s notion of surplus value: one gains a sinful excess of sexual pleasure (i.e., cheating on one’s wife), just as a boss cheats the worker of the fruits of his labour (surplus value).

Still, a countercurrent is going on in the story. In spite of all the worker alienation we see going on, Baxter’s crush on Kubelik is the beginning of a bond slowly developing between the two. As coworkers, Baxter and Kubelik will build a mutual fondness that can be seen to symbolize worker solidarity.

This development is far from being a smooth one, though. First, when they have arranged a date to see The Music Man at the local theatre, she stands him up because Sheldrake, of whom she is–unbeknownst to Baxter–the latest in a string of mistresses, is taking her to the apartment.

Baxter forgives her for this because he’s happy to have been promoted and to have gotten his own office. Later, he returns a compact with a broken mirror to Sheldrake, knowing it belongs to his mistress because it was left in the apartment (in an argument with Sheldrake there, she threw it at him and broke it). During a Christmas party, after Kubelik has heard a drunk and chatty Miss Olsen (Adams), Sheldrake’s secretary and original mistress, tell her of all the women their boss has enjoyed, from Olsen to Kubelik, this latest, and heartbroken, mistress reveals herself as such to Baxter by letting him use that broken compact mirror so he can see how he looks in a new bowler hat he’s bought, now that he’s of executive status.

Marx and Lacan are again fused here in the form of alienation. Lacan’s mirror alienates one’s fragmented self (symbolized by the broken mirror) from the ideal-I in the specular image. Baxter would see his ideal-I (the new executive) in that hat in the mirror reflection, but the break in it shows his realization that he isn’t so great, because Kubelik is Sheldrake’s girl, not his.

Alienation from oneself in the mirror reflection can be seen as symbolic of alienation from one’s species-essence, as Marx called it. Kubelik’s heartbreak over falling in love with a married man who dangles promises before her of divorcing his wife so he can marry Kubelik, yet never keeping the promises, is an alienation of herself from herself, because she realizes she’s being used as his whore, when she’d rather see herself as his true love. Small wonder she likes how the broken mirror makes her look how she feels.

Not aware of the depth of her heartbreak and despair, and assuming she’s content to be Sheldrake’s mistress, Baxter leaves the Christmas party and goes to a local pub to drown his sorrows. A married woman there named Margie MacDougall (Holiday) gets his attention, hoping he’ll pick her up since her husband is stuck in Cuba over the holidays.

In a strange irony, Margie complains about Fidel Castro, calling him “a no-good fink,” for not releasing her husband, Mickie, from a Havana prison (a jockey, he was caught doping a horse). I bring this up because Cuba under Castro would provide largely universal housing and free healthcare, two benefits that could have helped Baxter avoid catching that cold, and could have freed his home from being a haven for his coworkers’ infidelities (Castro’s first name thus embodying yet another irony).

Baxter finds himself lowered to the level of lecherous Sheldrake, Dobisch, et al, taking Margie to his apartment for a tumble. He is experiencing a nadir of alienation, making him use a woman for his sexual sport (and helping her cheat on her husband), when deep down he just wants to have a real relationship with Kubelik. Another irony is that his neighbours and landlady assume that he’s an alcoholic ladies’ man, when it’s those other men that are drinking and philandering in his apartment.

Kubelik is in his apartment, too, to his surprise, since she’s had another argument there with Sheldrake earlier over his continued unwillingness to divorce his wife. Heartbroken, Kubelik has overdosed on sleeping pills and is lying on Baxter’s bed, unconsciously awaiting death.

Baxter has to kick Margie out and get his next door neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Kruschen) to help revive Kubelik. It’s interesting how, in the process of helping her to recover, the sense of alienation is fading away, to be replaced with a sense of solidarity.

Dreyfuss assumes, as does her gruff taxi driver brother-in-law (played by Johnny Seven) later on, that Baxter has taken advantage of Kubelik, when actually he has been a perfect gentleman with her. He and the doctor nurse her back to health–with the help of the care and cooking of Mrs. Dreyfuss (played by Naomi Stevens), who also assumes the worst of Baxter–and he even plays the role of housekeeper for her as she recovers, suggesting the feminist ideal of men helping around with the household duties.

In all of these actions, which include the doctor not requiring any payment for helping Kubelik, we see, in contrast to all of the exploitation of the upper-level coworkers of Baxter, Kubelik, and the other women (all symbolic of capitalist exploitation), communal acts of kindness and charity symbolic of socialism (recall what I said above about that “no-good fink,” Castro). This growing relationship between Baxter and Kubelik is the solidarity that will free them of Sheldrake et al by the end of the movie.

A crucial part of this growing relationship, in the symbolic sense, is the gin rummy game Baxter and Kubelik play. What’s ironic about this game is that he is playing with her, but it isn’t ‘playing’ in the sense that the other men are playing with their mistresses. A genuine bond is developing between Baxter and Kubelik as she tells him, during the card game, of her bad luck in love, not just with Sheldrake, but with a number of men before him.

Baxter listens sympathetically, which is just what Kubelik needs. He has also told her about a suicide attempt he once made with a gun over similarly unrequited love for a woman who sends him a fruitcake every Christmas. In this growing mutual empathy, we see also their growing solidarity against Sheldrake and the exploitative capitalist system he represents.

On the other side of this growing solidarity and camaraderie between these two employees, there is also their growing attitude of rebelliousness against the philandering men who still want to use Baxter’s apartment. Kirkeby and his telephone operating mistress are rebuffed at the door to the apartment; Kirkeby and the other men get their revenge on Baxter by helping Kubelik’s brother-in-law find her at the apartment, where he punches Baxter for having apparently soiled his sister-in-law’s honour.

Baxter doesn’t mind the punch, though, since Kubelik’s kiss immediately afterwards tells him that she’s growing feelings for him, too. This encouragement will inspire him, on the doctor’s advice, to “be a mensch,” and give up his pimping use of the apartment…even to his boss.

Sheldrake has learned that it was the loose lips of his tipsy secretary at the Christmas party that pushed Kubelik to the desperate swallowing of those sleeping pills, so he fires Miss Olsen. She gets her revenge on him by telling his wife about his many affairs, so Mrs. Sheldrake kicks him out of the house. As we can see, this conflict between him and Miss Olsen, as with the conflict that’s growing between Baxter and Kubelik on the one side and Sheldrake on the other, is symbolic of the contradictions between the bourgeois boss and the proletariat.

The worker is promoted as a reward for his obedience to the powers-that-be, not so much for his abilities. We see this when Sheldrake promotes Baxter to an even higher position…expecting the key to the apartment in exchange.

Baxter, in love with Kubelik and sick and tired of being used for his apartment, defies Sheldrake by giving him the wrong key…the one to the executive washroom instead of the one to his apartment. This deliberate giving of the wrong key is an ironic repeat of Dobisch’s accidentally giving Baxter the executive washroom key instead of returning the apartment key. The sexual symbolism of a key going into a keyhole is obvious: in the use of Baxter’s apartment key, the adulterous men are screwing their mistresses (and their wives, metaphorically); they’ve also been screwing Baxter out of the use of his own home; now, Baxter is screwing Sheldrake back.

At a New Year’s Eve party in the Chinese restaurant, Kubelik is surprised to hear from Sheldrake that Baxter has quit because he refuses to continue acting as apartment pimp for his now-former boss, especially if such pimping involves her. Now, she could go the traditional route and marry rich Sheldrake (only to be replaced in turn by future mistresses). Instead, realizing that unemployed Baxter truly loves her, she runs out of the restaurant when Sheldrake isn’t looking and goes to Baxter’s apartment.

There, the popping of a cork on a bottle of champagne sounds to her, out in the hall, like a gunshot; she’s relieved when he opens the door with the bottle and with no bullet in his head. Again, we see growing sympathy as indicative of growing solidarity and love.

She learns that he is moving out of the apartment: indeed, the memories of the pimping have made the place unattractive. The two sit down and get out the deck of cards. He professes his love to her, but she’s sick of hearing the mere words of love–hence, her famous ending line.

Playing that game of gin ironically expresses true lovemaking, not the lewd acts of the lecherous playas and their mistresses, but a real making of love, a building of a relationship of mutual support and solidarity, symbolic of a union of workers in defiance of their exploitative bosses.

The End of the World?

I: Introduction

As the above title implies, I’m afraid that this isn’t going to be a very rosy, positive post, Dear Reader.

Some readers who have read my posts about my family, and who know about my C-PTSD, might think that what I’m about to describe is just a reflection of my tendency to catastrophize the problems of the world, and I’d really like to think that that’s all that is going on here in my reaction to current events.

But I don’t think it’s my attitude to the problems.

I think it’s the problems themselves.

Now, before you think I’m just putting you on a real downer here, Dear Reader, consider that the first step in dealing with problems is acknowledging that they exist, rather than denying and running away from them. So let’s acknowledge these problems, where they began, how they’ve progressed, and what they’re escalating into now.

II: Background

First, with the ending of the great majority of the socialist states of the world, the capitalist class no longer felt the need to soften the plight of the working class with such things as welfare; for without any significant existing Marxist alternative to capitalism, the ruling class needn’t fear revolution if things grow intolerable for the poor. Hence, the rise of neoliberalism.

(For those of you who don’t think of the demise of 20th century Marxism-Leninism as a bad thing, please read this to understand why I think its demise was bad.)

That problem, however, was only the beginning.

With contemporary capitalism always comes imperialism, and with the end of the anti-imperialist bloc of Soviet states came, from the point of view of the imperialists, the gleeful realization that they could do anything they wanted, to any country, with impunity. The September 11th attacks, regardless of whether you choose to believe they were caused by radical Muslim terrorists or were an inside job, gave the American imperialists the perfect pretext to start carving up the Middle East any way they liked, as a general explained was the plan in this video.

With the “War on Terror” came the Patriot Act and the beginning of the decline in civil liberties. The state of permanent war has also meant a rise in the profits of the likes of Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, etc., profits that must be kept up to counteract the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, so the perpetuation of war has made it into a kind of addiction.

With war always comes war crimes, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were of course no exceptions. Chelsea Manning sent classified government documents of such crimes to Wikileaks, exposing the murderous American military and arousing its wrath. The persecution of her and Julian Assange has been the first major recent example of a threat to the freedom of the press, something that has gotten much worse in the 2020s.

Similarly, when Edward Snowden publicized the NSA’s plan to monitor the cellphone conversations of ordinary Americans, an Orwellian act rationalized as a form of counterterrorism, he was forced to leave the US for ‘treason,’ really a defence of freedom.

I’ve made this summary to set the stage, as it were, for what’s been coming since. The rise of neoliberal capitalism, an unfettered “free market” version that allows the rich to get richer and to exploit and immiserate the poor, has resulted–far from the right-wing libertarians’ fantasy of “small government”–in the wealthy being so rich that they can buy the government and make it do their bidding. The imperialist drive to find new markets in, and export capital to, other countries results in a further bloating of the military-industrial complex…big government, capitalist government.

The current-day depredations of imperialism aren’t limited to the countries of the Middle East. Any country that runs foul of the globe-spanning hegemony of the US and NATO is a target. Such targets have included the DPRK, Venezuela (with her vast oil reserves), Bolivia (with her lithium, so coveted by Elon Musk), and…of course, Russia and China.

And here is where things start to get especially scary.

III: The Threat of World War III

Not only has NATO, an extension of US imperialism, inched further and further eastward towards the Russian border over the past three decades, making Vladimir Putin more and more nervous, so has China been surrounded by American military bases in places like Australia, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea in what John Pilger has quoted a US strategist as calling “the perfect noose.” There is also the US navy in the South China Sea, and there are the over-a-billion-dollars worth in weapons the Trump administration sold to Taiwan to point at China.

A reminder: the US and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons, and China has hundreds.

So, we have all this dangerous and totally unnecessary nuclear brinksmanship going on with these three countries, which instead of competing with each other could be working together for the greater global good, a potential multipolarity whose balance of power could, if developed properly, actually improve our chances for world peace. Instead, the US is jealously fighting to preserve its unipolar hegemony, and would rather risk the annihilation of all life in a nuclear WWIII than share global power.

IV: Media Censorship

To make matters worse, as the Russian/Ukraine war rages on, one that even the Pope has acknowledged was NATO’s fault, the culmination of a thirty-year (and especially an eight-year) provocation of Russia from that eastward expansion I mentioned above, the mainstream Western media is censoring any dissident voices questioning the narrative that the war is ‘all Putin’s fault.’ Putin is no saint, to be sure, but the Russian intervention was far from unprovoked.

You know the old cliché: in war, the first casualty is the truth, and such a casualty is certainly here with Ukraine. Though the mainstream news media admitted to the presence and influence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government and military before the Russian intervention, since then their presence is either denied, downplayed, or outright ignored. Yet it is precisely this neo-Nazi presence that provoked the Russian response by killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region in the eight years between the 2014 coup that ousted Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian military operation beginning this February to protect that Russian community.

One can claim the pro-Russian side is biased if one wants to, but so is the anti-Russian side. The point of having a free press is to allow publication of both sides of the story, for the sake of balance. Justifying censorship of “Russian propaganda” has only reduced the Russophobic coverage of CNN, the BBC, MSNBC, etc., to nothing more than Western propaganda…and hypocrisy.

The censorship of the pro-Russian side–properly understood, the actual anti-war side, since the only real end to this war will be granting Russia’s security requests, i.e., giving the Donbass region its independence, as well as ensuring a neutral Ukraine (no NATO membership)–has gotten so bad that the US set up a Disinformation Governance Board, in effect, a Ministry of Truth directed by a self-styled Mary Poppins. Added to this, many dissident voices, including those of Caleb Maupin, Mint Press News, etc., are no longer being given access to PayPal; so in not getting paid for their journalism (something that had precedent with Wikileaks about twelve years ago), these people are in effect being silenced, for one can’t be expected to focus properly on one’s journalism if one has to use up one’s necessary time making money doing another job.

And if we aren’t given access to dissenting voices that might otherwise dissuade us from going along with the manufactured consent for more and more war, we’ll find ourselves inching all that much closer to a nuclear WWIII.

V: A Love of Death

So what is the mindset behind all this pushing for more and more war? Obviously, part of it is the profit motive, as I mentioned above (i.e., Boeing et al), since war is a business and a racket. But with the ever-growing dangers of nuclear annihilation, which will also halt the growth of those profits, we must look for an additional motive behind all this warmongering: what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character.

By “necrophilous,” Fromm wasn’t referring to the sexual perversion, but rather to a pathological preoccupation with death, with the non-living: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. [Fromm, page 369, his emphasis]

Fromm’s idea of the necrophilous character orientation is an elaboration on and a refining of Freud‘s notion of the death drive, which with Eros, the life instinct, is conceived as one of “the two most fundamental forces within man” [Fromm, page 369]. The death drive, just like the drive to achieve pleasure, involves a removal of tension to achieve a state of rest. As Hamlet said, “To die, to sleep, no more…”

It shouldn’t be hard to see how endless wars, leading to the risk of nuclear annihilation, as well as capitalism’s immiseration of the poor leading to their deaths through suicide, drug abuse and other addictions, the epidemic of homelessness, and the yearly starvation of millions in the Third World, are all manifestations of the necrophilous orientation in the ruling class, who adamantly refuse to do anything about these problems. This orientation, however, has manifested itself in other ways, too, which I’ll describe now.

VI: Economic Collapse and the Oligarchs

At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic blew up into what it’s been since, there were already predictions of a global economic meltdown, which the pandemic, of course, has only exacerbated (and served as a political distraction). Masses of people have lost work, have been threatened with (if not already subjected to) homelessness, and/or have developed serious mental health problems; the horrors of Third World poverty have gotten much worse, and the gig economy has found new, particularly heinous, ways of exploiting workers desperate for money.

Such Western oligarchs as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk have all, in their own ways, exploited the covid pandemic to get even more obscenely wealthy as all this global suffering continues. Their combined wealth, as well as that of the other multi-billionaire oligarchs of the world, could end world hunger, end homelessness, and be used to build schools and hospitals, among other benefits; but they always seem to have excuses for why doing such good for the world ‘won’t work.’ Instead, they fly off in rockets or buy social media platforms.

These men know they could help the world. People have nagged them to do it. Still, they won’t: this isn’t merely because of greed and selfishness, as I see it; I think they have at least an unconscious urge to kill off masses of the poor. Recall Bezos‘s connections with the CIA, as well as his ownership of the Washington Post; he is one of many examples of oligarchs who have undue influence over the government and the media. Gates, with not only all the money he’s given to control the WHO, but also the money he’s given to many, many media sources, is another “philanthropist” who has similarly excessive influence.

Recall how Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to allow mergers and acquisitions in the American media, resulting in about 90% of that media being controlled by six corporations. Hollywood is essentially required to make the CIA, an evil organization dedicated for decades to bringing about regime change after regime change, look good in films. See how the government, media, and oligarchs are working hand in hand to deceive and screw us all.

VII: The Oligarchs’ Love of Death

Let’s connect the dots: wealthy oligarchs control government organizations and the media, the latter of which is now silencing dissident voices, first about covid, then immediately after about the Russian/Ukraine war, which as I said above, could go nuclear. (People denigrate ‘authoritarian’ countries like Russia, China, the DPRK, Venezuela, Cuba, etc., for having state-controlled media; yet with Western oligarchs controlling the American government and media, both of which, through organizations like NATO, control other countries’ governments and media, do these Western “democracies” really have anything other than state-controlled media, if only indirectly so?) Manufactured consent for war, with no dissident media voices allowed to reverse the influence of this evil: the necrophilous orientation, on full display…if only people could see it.

Elsewhere, we see the number of covid deaths in the US has recently reached around one million (this assuming that they, as the ever-so-dubious mainstream media maintains, have all died of covid as opposed to having died with covid, especially since the omicron variant, though spreading faster, is less deadly than the previous variants, of which the survival rate has always been the great majority of those who have caught it). A single-payer, universal health-care system would suit these patients, in the richest country in the world. Yet the American government still prefers to spend billions of dollars on the military (while having upwards of a thirty-trillion-dollar deficit), and to send over a billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine, to make Ukrainians cannon fodder in the US/NATO proxy war against Russia. There’s money for war, but not for health: this is the necrophilous character, in a nutshell.

VIII: Roe vs. Wade

Now, one thing has happened recently in the US that, on the surface, doesn’t seem all that necrophilous: the Supreme Court’s leaked majority vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. If we examine this right-wing outrage more thoroughly, though, we’ll see that it’s hardly life-affirming at all: the compassion that the anti-abortionists have for the unborn ends when the unborn are born. These right-wingers are adamantly opposed to providing any kind of childcare, maternity leave, or any other form of financial relief to struggling single mothers (or fathers now obligated to help raise babies both parents would otherwise not have had). Life may “begin at conception,” but compassion ends at birth, apparently.

And in a world with not only the pandemic forcing children to wear masks and therefore get very little chance to learn how to read facial expressions (as older generations have taken for granted), with not only the looming threat of a nuclear WWIII, and with not only an economic meltdown so bad that it could be the end of capitalism (replaced not with socialism, but either barbarism or some kind of neo-feudal totalitarianism), but also skyrocketing inflation (made worse by rising gas prices in a bid ‘to stick it to Putin,’ a cutting-off of one’s nose to spite one’s face if ever there was one), bringing excessive life into such a shitty world is anything but “pro-life.” Birthing unwanted babies in the worst of economies, with very possible food scarcities (conveniently blamed on Russia, mind you, while the West is completely unwilling to grant Russia’s most straightforward requests to end the war that’s exacerbating this food crisis) on the way: what could go wrong?

IX: Compassion

Bible-thumpers call life (before birth, mind you) “sacred.” Buddhists, however, say, “Birth is Ill, decay is Ill, sickness is Ill, death is Ill: likewise sorrow and grief, woe, lamentation and despair. To be conjoined with things which we dislike: to be separated from things which we like–that also is Ill. Not to get what one wants–that also is Ill. In a word, this body, this fivefold mass which is based on grasping–that is Ill.” [Smart and Hecht, page 236]

Small wonder Schopenhauer, greatly influenced by Buddhism, had a pessimism regarding non-life as preferable to life; but being far removed from those of the necrophilous orientation, he confronted human suffering with an attitude head and shoulders above that of these Bible-thumping anti-abortionists–he espoused compassion for sufferers.

We socialists also have compassion for those who suffer; this is why we advocate universal healthcare, housing, education, and employment for all, and a society that produces things not for profit, but to provide for everyone. Such a beneficial transformation of society would reduce suffering to a far more tolerable level than we have in the current neoliberal nightmare. Such vast improvements are far more pro-life than the Bible-thumpers could ever offer.

X: Climate Change

Now, if we don’t end all life on this Earth through nuclear war, there’s another, equally sure way that will do it: through climate change. The warnings have been given for decades, and while conservatives outright deny the existence of this danger, liberals offer woefully inadequate solutions to the problem. All of the efforts of ordinary people to mitigate the problem–e.g., recycling, plastic straws replaced with paper ones, cleaning up pollution on the beaches, etc.–fade into insignificance when compared to the gargantuan contributor, which if anything is only getting worse: the US military as the greatest polluter in the world.

The climate change issue is not only very real, it’s an urgent problem that must be reversed, and soon, before its devastating effects can no longer be rectified. Sea levels are rising now. Wildfires have been raging in countries all over the world. This issue cannot wait, yet as I said above, the efforts to deal with it so far have been nothing more than puny compared to what must be done.

As for those right-wing libertarians who deny climate change, and who are no doubt informed by the greedy heads of corporations who put profit before human life, those right-wingers should consider the implications behind the underground bunkers that the super-rich will have when a world-ending disaster like the ultimate effects of climate change happen, or when there’s a nuclear war, or when the civilizational collapse brought on by the self-destruction of capitalism renders money useless. Will the boot-licking, climate-change-denying conservatives ever admit to themselves what the super-rich have known all along–that climate change is real, and that the super-rich thus have been lying to the conservatives?

Indeed, a number of blog posts by Rainer Shea discuss how the oligarchs plan to deal with the very civilizational collapse they themselves have been responsible for bringing on. In one such post, a CEO euphemistically referred to “the Event” (i.e., the end of the world via climate change or nuclear war), worrying about the loyalty of the armed guards of his bunker when money has become useless. As always, these necrophilous types care only about themselves, and they plan to hide out in their bunkers while the rest of the world burns.

XI: Conclusion–Revolution is the Solution

To make matters worse, the return of fascism, as a way of tightening the elites’ grip of power on us, is but one of many examples of how ‘democracy’ has revealed itself to be an illusion. The rich have militarized police, robotic dogs, and fascistic-minded bootlickers among the working class and petite bourgeoisie, all ready and willing to protect them. Liberals, though pretending to be progressive, are in their very defence of Ukraine revealing fascist sympathies. Though the sanctions on Russia have resulted in many countries, such as China and India, dropping the US dollar, which will help bring about the end of the Anglo/American empire, such a Western decline won’t come without a fight.

Chelsea Manning sent out an interesting tweet recently, about the need not only to be armed, but also for the armed to come into communities to train together. People, time is running out. Voting out the bad guys won’t work. There is no kind and gentle way to end the corruption in politics. We will have to fight our way out of this.

We can no longer just sit around and share memes on Facebook about revolution. We have to do it, and soon. Right-wingers among the masses, convinced by bourgeois propaganda that socialism is “Satanic,” will fight us tooth and nail, as will the police and standing armies of the ruling class. A revolution is not a dinner party.

In my heart, I don’t like violence; but it isn’t a matter of liking it. We have no other choice. If we on the left don’t organize, train, and act now, the end of the world will come, in the form of nuclear war, climate change, or neo-feudalism brought on by civilizational collapse, with that of capitalism. And with the media as censored as it is now, many won’t even see it coming.

Let’s get our act together, people.

Analysis of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

I: Introduction

Charlie Wilson’s War is a 2007 film directed by Mike Nichols (his last film) and written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from George Crile III‘s 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. The film stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with Amy Adams and Ned Beatty.

This is the story of US Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) and Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), who helped bring about Operation Cyclone, the organizing and supporting of the mujahideen against the USSR in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 to 1989.

The film was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy, but it did not win in any category. Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. After all, the real architect of Operation Cyclone wasn’t Wilson, but Zbigniew Brzezinski. Wilson’s charms and the analytical skills of Avrakotos’s team, as well as their planning, were crucial contributions, but it was a big team of people, not just Wilson, that made Operation Cyclone succeed.

Now, I’m less interested in the film’s faithful, or not so faithful, presentation of historical details than I am in the fact that Charlie Wilson’s War is blatant, shameless pro-American/anti-Russian propaganda coming from bourgeois liberal Hollywood. Casting Hanks, with his charisma and star power, as womanizing Wilson is just the icing on the cake to sell the idea that this war led to a “glorious” victory for ‘freedom and democracy.’

II: Needed Historical Context

A huge amount of missing context must be provided so one can truly understand how the war began, who the heroes and villains really were (and are), and how the success of Operation Cyclone has encouraged the American government to attempt repeats of its success in the current Russian/Ukrainian War, as well as a potential one between China and Taiwan…truly disturbing developments.

So before I go into an analysis of Charlie Wilson’s War, I must give a summary of the events in Afghanistan that led up to the war. Contrary to mainstream accounts that the Soviet Union was trying to force its ideology on the Afghans, and therefore invaded the country as an act of imperialism, the Afghan people of the 1970s were moving in a modern, progressive direction, in the direction of socialism (something far removed from the ways of the Taliban today), and they wanted help from the USSR to achieve this modernity.

Now, one can’t expect every Afghan without exception to have been modern and progressive-thinking. It was inevitable that some of them would have been reactionaries, conservatives, and even religious fundamentalists, hell-bent on reversing such progressive gains as improving women’s rights. (I’m curious: should we in the West be sympathetic to such reversals?)

Added to this opposition, naturally, was that of the US and other capitalist countries in NATO fighting the Cold War. Brzezinski, as National Security Advisor during the Carter administration, was a rabid anticommunist eager to bring down the Soviet Union, not caring at all what the political, social, and economic repercussions of such counterrevolution would eventually be. To get an idea of just how ruthless and determined Brzezinski was in getting the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union, just watch the pep talk he gave some of them in this video.

Charlie Wilson’s War portrays the mujahideen fighters as largely sympathetic underdogs, with only a few, slight hints at what they would evolve into by the 1990s and 2000s; but anybody who has done a little cursory reading of who they were and are knows not only that they morphed into the Taliban, but also that Osama bin Laden was one of them, as a photo from a newspaper article from 1993 revealed.

The original draft of the screenplay was meant to end the film with the September 11th attacks, clearly linking these with American government support for the mujahideen. Uncomfortable with this ending, Hanks had the filmmakers replace it with a happier one, where Wilson is awarded as an “honoured colleague” of the CIA. Here we see how liberal Hollywood willingly colludes with the CIA to spread propaganda to glorify the American government and vilify anyone opposed to it.

Now, as for the defeating of the Soviet Union, of which its loss in Afghanistan was one significant factor of many leading to its dissolution, one must carefully study the history of 1990s Russia before glibly assuming that the restoration of capitalism was a ‘triumph of freedom and democracy’ over ‘totalitarianism.’ Contrary to popular belief in the West, most Russians wanted to preserve the socialist system, and poll after poll has consistently shown that majorities of Russians have regretted replacing the Soviet system with capitalism. Similar results have been found when asking the people of other former Soviet Bloc countries about the restoration of capitalism.

So, who really benefitted from the defeat of the Soviet Union? Not ordinary Afghans, who found their hopes for modern and progressive change crushed, only to be oppressed by the fanatical, fundamentalist Taliban. Not ordinary Americans, who would be collectively traumatized by 9/11, and then manipulated into supporting the imperialist plunder of the Middle East in the ongoing quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.

No, the real beneficiaries were and are the neocon, neoliberal, imperialist ruling classes of the West, and liberal Hollywood junk history like that of Charlie Wilson’s War gives Westerners a false narrative that glorifies the shameful reduction of Russia to the impoverished mess it became under Yeltsin in the 1990s, while downplaying the ill effects of arming the mujahideen.

III: Recent and Current Repeats of “Charlie Wilson’s War”

To make matters worse, the US is currently attempting a repeat of “Charlie Wilson’s war” in Ukraine, where instead of arming Muslims to drain Russia of her strength in an agonizing war of attrition, the American government is arming neo-Nazis. Similar extremist mentality, different nationality.

An attempt at this kind of radicalizing also happened in Hong Kong back around 2019, when protestors led by Joshua Wong, who is friends with such neocons as Marco Rubio, were violently attacking anyone deemed Chinese (as opposed to being of Hong Kong) to provoke an invasion from China.

Luckily, and contrary to Western media propaganda, Chinese police showed great restraint in putting down the Hong Kong violence; but will similar provocations be stirred up in Taiwan in the next five to ten years? I hope not, but the Trump administration’s having sold over a billion US dollars in weapons to Taiwan to be pointed at China, as well as the banging of the war drums in Western, especially Australian, media, about ‘protecting Taiwan’ against a Chinese invasion, worries me, a resident of the island.

So, to get back to the movie, all of the above is the historical context one needs to know to have a proper perspective on Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s a liberal fantasy glorifying the US in its defeat of socialism, thus proving to all of us on the left, without a shred of doubt, that liberals are no more our friends than conservatives are. That liberals often posture as progressives should make us especially wary. At least with right-wingers, we know where we stand.

IV: The Film’s Beginning

So the film begins with Wilson getting his recognition from the CIA, that evil organization responsible for coup after coup of leftist governments trying to combat US imperialism, as an “honoured colleague.” This is the kind of feel-good scene meant to move patriotic Americans, liberal and conservative alike, since those two political persuasions–let’s face it–have much more in common (i.e., the motive to protect their imperialist class interests) than they have in contrast to each other.

After this scene, which was around the end of the 1980s, we go back in time to 1980, with Wilson in a hot tub with strippers. Though, as I’ve said, this film is blatant Hollywood liberal propaganda aimed at portraying the American government as the ‘good guys,’ liberating Afghanistan from Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ it also lets out a few, so to speak, Freudian slips that reveal the not-so-noble aspects of the American government. The hedonism and womanizing of Wilson is a key example of that.

In The Liberal Mindset, I discussed the psychological conflict liberals have between their id impulses towards achieving pleasure (Wilson’s chasing of women, cocaine, etc.), their ego‘s wish to stay safe (Wilson trying to steer clear of being charged with drug use), and their superego‘s need to have a clear conscience by doing what’s morally right (fighting for social justice–as Wilson would see it here, that would be helping the mujahideen underdog against the perceived juggernaut of the USSR).

The juxtaposition of Wilson in the hot tub with his seeing the mujahideen on the TV, giving him an urge to help them, perfectly exemplifies this liberal conflict between the pleasure principle and the ego ideal. The juxtaposition also demonstrates the position of privilege an American Congressman has and his ability to influence politics in an imperialistic way, all while keeping alive the illusion in his mind that in arming the mujahideen, he’s doing the right thing.

V: Wilson, a Modern-day Sade

Of course, in ruining the hopes of the Afghans to bring about modernity, socialism, and equality for women, all in the name of protecting ‘American interests,’ as the rationalization is so typically given, Wilson is actually being cruel to the Afghan people, whether he’s consciously aware of it or not. This cruelty, coupled with the transgressive pleasures he’s indulging in with those naked strippers, invites comparison with the wickedness of the libertines in the pornographic novels of the Marquis de Sade.

The subtle reader, looking beyond the scurrilous violence of Sade’s books, will see a political commentary on the privilege and corruption of the rich and powerful, who routinely get away with their crimes because their victims are typically poor. Similarly, Wilson not only manages to evade getting prosecuted for the presence of that cocaine at the hot tub party, but also, even though he and the American government by his admission “fucked up the endgame” in Afghanistan (i.e., the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the explosion of terrorism in the 2000s), none of those responsible for that endgame were punished.

It’s interesting also to compare and contrast Wilson’s attitude toward women with the Taliban’s attitude. Both are sexist, if in opposing ways. The latter would control women by covering their bodies from head to toe to prevent temptations to lewdness; Wilson would control women by objectifying them, having them either relatively or totally undressed, or at least dressed provocatively, thus subjecting them to the pressures of a daily beauty contest. This is what we see later in Wilson’s office, with his bevy of beautiful “Charlie’s angels,” in whom their competence as his assistants (though undeniable) is at best secondary to their physical attractiveness (“Jailbait!”). Again, pleasure is coupled with at least a kind of nastiness.

Now, to be fair to the Charlie Wilson of history, his hiring of his “angels,” as opposed to the hiring of male office assistants, was meant as a feminist promoting of women workers–feminist, that is, by liberal standards, of course. I, however, am little concerned with the Wilson of history; I’m concerned with the Wilson of this bourgeois liberal propaganda effort, something even Hanks in an interview promoting the film acknowledged was often not the real Wilson. The Wilson of the film, the womanizing sexist, is to be examined less as history and more for his contribution to the film’s theme of pleasure-seeking coupled with cruelty.

VI: A Liberal Courting Conservatives

To go into that theme in its other manifestations, let’s consider Wilson’s relationship with socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts). Though he’s a liberal, she’s a conservative born-again Christian. His flirting with her in the movie, regardless of whether or not it has any historical basis, is symbolic of how conservatives and liberals have often worked together to bring down the left. Again, his wish to get her out of her clothes is coupled with their collaboration to defeat the Soviet Union, resulting in all the horrors I mentioned above, regardless of whether they were intended or not. Pleasure is wedded to cruelty once more.

Another juxtaposing of feminine sexuality and its pleasures with capitalist machinations to undermine the USSR is when Wilson and Avrakotos meet with Israeli arms merchant Zvi Rafiah (played by Ken Stott), Hasan (played by Shaun Toub), and the Egyptian Defence Minister (played by Aharon Ipalé) to discuss a better arming of the mujahideen, all while the last of these men is enjoying a belly dance from a personal friend of Wilson’s, Carol Shannon (played by Tracy Phillips).

VII: Gust Avrakotos

I’ve said much of the pleasure-seeking, sexual aspect of this movie. More needs to be said of the nasty aspects, much of which can be seen as personified in the rather uncouth Avratokos, a CIA man. There is much humour to be found in the confrontational scene between him and his superior, Henry Cravely (played by John Slattery), the CIA director of European operations, in Cravely’s office…an incident that really happened, though the superior whom Avratokos told to ‘go and fuck himself,’ twice, was named William Graver.

Avrakotos smashing Cravely’s office window…twice…is a nice touch in how it reinforces for us, viscerally, just how abrasive the man is, an abrasiveness and irascibility brought out so well in Hoffman’s performance. I see this gruffness as another Freudian slip in the film, in that Avrakotos, as a CIA man, is the perfect personification of an American government organization cruelly determined to undermine any attempt by any country to shake off American imperialist influence. Though the CIA is generally portrayed positively in this and pretty much all other Hollywood films, this bit of nastiness from Avrakotos can be seen as a parapraxis of this film.

The conflict between Avrakotos and Cravely exemplifies all so well the alienation felt between workers in the capitalist system, a system aggravated by its ascent to its highest stage, imperialism. Hence, it’s fitting to see that alienation aggravated so proportionately in the heated argument between the two men.

VIII: Criticism of the US vs That of the USSR

Wilson’s first visit to Pakistan to meet President Zia-ul-Haq (played by Om Puri), confronting him and Brigadier Rashid (played by Faran Tahir), and dealing with their annoyance at getting so little money from the US to fight the USSR, is a moment for this liberal film to pretend to engage in a criticism of otherwise heroic America. After all, it would be far too crass to portray the US government as utterly faultless. Allow the Pakistanis to have their legitimate gripes about the scant military funding as “a joke,” as long as both countries are on the same team fighting those commie Reds.

…and what about the Russian Soviets? Make no mistake, the film vilifies them to the hilt, and shamelessly so. We see footage of a parade in Red Square, complete with Red Army soldiers marching, tanks, and an image of Lenin in the background. We hear the soundtrack play, of all songs, “Farewell of Slavianka,” one which certainly had patriotic Soviet lyrics written for it, but which was also used as an unofficial anthem of Admiral Kolchak‘s White Army during the Russian Civil War, the attempt to restore capitalism to Russia just after the November Revolution. Such a choice of song seems to be yet another Freudian slip.

When we see this parade, we’re meant to feel intimidated and threatened by the mighty Soviet ’empire,’ when actually the point of these Soviet displays of military strength was to reassure the Russian people that they were well protected from the far more intimidating and threatening imperialists of the West, who since the dissolution of the USSR have done plenty of the kinds of airstrikes and other atrocities…on Muslims, no less!…that we see this film show the Soviets doing immediately after the parade scene. Remember what Manning and Assange revealed.

The film would have us believe that the Russians went around wantonly firing on innocent, ordinary Afghans out of sheer sadism and malice, which is a hard portrayal to reconcile with the historical reality of the Soviets trying to help the Afghans build a modern, progressive society. The Soviets were fighting the mujahideen, a backward, reactionary people who wanted to reverse any progressive gains for the Afghans, people whose fundamentalist mentality would lead eventually to the repressive Taliban.

Yet Charlie Wilson’s War would have us believe that the mujahideen were sympathetic underdogs desperately in need of American military assistance. A similar portrayal is now being made of the Ukrainian military, laden with neo-Nazis and far-right nationalist, Banderite fascist sympathizers, people whose extremism and viciousness are being downplayed and ignored, if not outright denied, in the Western media. One is reminded of what Malcolm X once said: “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The US and NATO-allied countries liked Russia when Yeltsin was running the country…into the ground…in the 1990s; as unpopular as Yeltsin was, they even helped him get reelected in 1996 when the Communist Party was close to electoral victory. When Putin began to revive the economy of the country in the 2000s, however, the West didn’t like Russia anymore, and its rise–with that of China–threatens the unipolar hegemony of the US and NATO. Though Gorbachev had been promised that, on the reunification of Germany, NATO would move “not one inch eastward,” it most certainly had by the making of this movie. Since NATO has never been Russia’s friend, it’s easy to see why its eastward enlargement has made Russia nervous.

Just a year after Charlie Wilson’s War came out, the Russo-Georgian diplomatic crisis came to a head, resulting in war between the two countries; a big factor in this crisis was the campaigning of George W. Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili for NATO membership for Georgia. Putin’s vehement opposition to such membership, as well as the plan to have Ukraine join, is part of what has made the West so antagonistic to Russia, even as early as the mid-to-late 2000s, and so we see this Russophobic attitude in the film.

This Russophobia is made clear in the scene when, after his meeting with the Pakistani president, Wilson goes to Peshawar and sees the Afghan refugee camp. He sees children whose arms have been blown off by landmines after the kids thought they’d found toys or candy. He hears of raped women, bayonetted pregnant women, and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Soviet troops.

Though admittedly atrocities are committed by soldiers of all armies in all wars to at least some extent, including even Soviet troops (for it is the hellish nature of war that it brings out the brutish in even the best of men sometimes), the extreme nature of what is described here in the film can, to at least a considerable extent, easily be attributed more to anti-Soviet propaganda than to historical fact. So the film’s depiction of Soviet brutality should be taken with a generous grain of salt. Besides, before Americans judge the brutishness of soldiers of other countries (those they’re hostile to in particular), they should first take a look at the crimes the soldiers of their own country are guilty of.

IX: Wilson Meets Avrakotos

Wilson returns to the US, to his office, and meets Avrakotos there. The two men discuss the antiaircraft guns the mujahideen need to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Wilson understands that the plan, so far, has been to drain the USSR of military power ever so slowly in a war of attrition, while of course he wants the mujahideen to be much better equipped, with anti-aircraft guns to shoot down those Soviet helicopters.

Their discussion is interrupted several times by “Charlie’s angels,” who tell Wilson about the danger he’s in of being charged with drug use at that hot tub party with the strippers. To save his hide, he of course must deny any knowledge of or connection with the cocaine that was being snorted at that party.

In this scene, we see the psychological conflict of the liberal on full display. There’s his id‘s indulgence in the pleasures of the party, in conflict with his ego‘s defence against being charged, and his superego‘s moral urging to arm the mujahideen and help the underdog (as he sees it) against the bullying Soviets.

Since Wilson will eventually be cleared of any charges of drug use (though he was most probably guilty of it), we see here the privileges of the well-connected politician, which keep him safe from the kind of prosecution the average person wouldn’t have a prayer of being safe from. And the juxtaposition of his “angels” and their tireless work to help him, with his discussion with Avrakotos about arming the mujahideen, once again reflects the film’s theme of the Sadean coupling of the ruling class’s indulgence in pleasure with its enjoyment of crime with impunity.

There’s Wilson’s impunity from being charged with drug use, and there’s the impunity anyone in the ruling class enjoys after all the ill effects of imperialism have been realized: the destruction of the socialist systems of Russia and the Eastern Bloc, which as I said above were preferred by large percentages of those living there to the predatory capitalism that replaced them. Then there’s the impunity, even forgiveness and rehabilitation, of–for example–the imperialist Bush, simply because he isn’t Trump.

X: Enemies Are Always Friends Against Commies

During the belly-dancing scene, it’s interesting to observe the mutual antagonism between Israeli Zvi and the Muslims he has to cooperate with. He complains of how upsetting it is that the Muslim majority nations don’t acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist,” of the “oppression” of his people, while no mention is made of the Zionist state’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians.

Still, Israel, the US, Egypt, and Pakistan will work together to arm the mujahideen, however secretive they will all insist this collaboration must be. In spite of all their religious, political, and cultural differences and hostile feelings, they’ll all unite against the spread of socialism, ensuring the security of their nations’ class interests. When it comes to money, politicians in the nations of the Abrahamic faiths worship the same God. Indeed, we see Christian Clarence Long (Beatty) saying “God is great!” (Allahu akbar!) to the Afghan refugees in a pep talk that looks like the film’s replacing of Brzezinski with a more likeable face.

Now that Wilson and Avrakotos have assembled their team–including Michael Vickers (played by Christopher Denham)–and they can equip the mujahideen with FIM-92 Stinger missile launchers to bring down the Soviets’ Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, they can turn the Soviet military campaign into a deadly quagmire. As Brzezinski had wanted, the US has given the Soviets their unwinnable Vietnam War. The CIA’s anticommunism budget has risen from $5 million to over $500 million. In keeping with the Russophobic agenda of this film, when the team is all set to strike, we hear Vickers gleefully say, “Let’s kill some Russians!”

XI: The Outcome

Of course, we all know the basic history. The USSR eventually withdrew from Afghanistan and acknowledged defeat. As far as the film is concerned, the US has saved the day by helping the mujahideen, though the Afghans who were hoping for Soviet help in modernizing their country and improving such things as women’s rights could say to Uncle Sam, “Thanks for nothing.”

Indeed, we finally come to a contemplation of the unpleasant repercussions that even the film acknowledges. Avrakotos warns Wilson to take seriously the “crazies” among those they armed in Afghanistan. The American government must look into rehabilitating schools in this post-Soviet era.

Avrakotos illustrates his meaning to Wilson by telling him a Zen master story, that of the lost horse. A boy is given a horse for a gift, but when riding it one day, he falls off and breaks his leg. The town where he lives is invaded, and all the men living there must fight off the invaders, though he can’t because of his leg; most of those men get killed, yet he lives.

As a Zen master is hearing the switches of fortune from good to bad to good again, with each switch of fortune, he just says, “We’ll see,” indicating his awareness of how impermanent good and bad fortune are. Avrakotos is trying to get Wilson to understand how the ‘good’ fortune of the mujahideen defeating the Soviets will become the bad fortune of the rise of the Taliban.

Wilson’s attempt to persuade his colleagues in the government to provide money to rebuild a school in Afghanistan falls on deaf ears. Even this most modest of requests to mitigate a rise in Muslim fundamentalist extremism through education isn’t considered.

Nonetheless, the film ends as it begins, with a happy, feel-good ending (Wilson’s recognition as an “honoured colleague”) meant to warm the hearts of patriotic Americans with Hanks’s charisma, instead of with the more explicit original ending intended, linking the outcome of the war with 9/11.

XII: Conclusion

Still, the film ends with a quote from Wilson: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…and then we fucked up the endgame.” Not quite, Charlie, in spite of even your ideological leanings. These things happened, and they changed the world, but they were anything but glorious. You didn’t just fuck up the endgame: you fucked up everything. The provoking of terrorism was just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Putin is a bourgeois reactionary with no intention whatsoever of re-establishing the USSR (contrary to what some propagandists say), he was right to say that its dissolution was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The demise of the USSR plunged 1990s Russia into poverty and encouraged right-wing, reactionary thinking worldwide. Without a swathe of socialist states to inspire revolution, to deter capitalists from aggravating their war on the poor, Clinton gutted American welfare and signed the Telecommunications Act to allow mergers and acquisitions in the American media, so that now a mere six corporations own and control most of the country’s access to information, freely allowing them to propagandize and manufacture consent for more imperialist wars, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now, Ukraine.

Back in the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union gave Francis Fukuyama the goofy idea that history had ended, leaving capitalism and liberal democracy at the ultimate zenith of human progress and civilization. “We’ll see,” the Zen master would say…and indeed, the extremes of wealth inequality today, with (as of 2017) eight mega-billionaires sharing the same wealth as that of the millions of the poor half of the whole world’s population, have caused many to reconsider socialism, including the Marxist-Leninist variety espoused in the Soviet Union.

The rapaciousness of capitalism, with its preference of maximizing profit over leaving a healthy Earth for future generations, is accelerating climate change, with rising sea levels, melting Arctic ice (making the polar bear an endangered species), and causing wildfires in many parts of the world right now! Musk‘s ‘green capitalism,’ with his electric cars, is nowhere near a solution, since–apart from its not doing anything about the number one polluter in the world…the American military–it is responsible for the brazenly imperialist outrage of having brought on the short-lived coup d’état in Bolivia, with the intent to steal the country’s lithium reserves.

Worst of all, unchecked US imperialism has reached such extremes that it is currently tempting fate by risking a nuclear WWIII with Russia and China over Western provocations in Ukraine, an attempt to redo what it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Ukrainian neo-Nazis are now among the sympathetic underdogs as far as the mainstream media is concerned, as were the mujahideen. And thus everything has come full circle, with no attempt to learn from the mistakes of the ‘fucked-up endgame.’

But with liberals’ interpretation of these mistakes, it’s hard for them to see how they’re going to fuck up the endgame. After all, just as the American government had been fucking everything up since day one of “Charlie Wilson’s war,” so have they been fucking everything up since day one of the current neoliberal, post-Soviet era.

The fucking-up began with the eastward European expansion of NATO, thus antagonizing Russia. It continued with Bush’s attempts to have Georgia and Ukraine join NATO (around the time this movie was made). Problems escalated when the US and NATO helped oust Yanukovych, replacing him with a NATO-friendly Ukrainian government including neo-Nazis who have been killing ethnic Russians for the past eight years in the Donbass region, thus provoking a Russian intervention as had happened in Afghanistan in 1979.

Still, the liberals kid themselves that the first part of “Charlie Wilson’s war” (actually, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s war) was “glorious,” because…communist totalitarianism, or something (read this for a debunking of that right-wing nonsense, as I don’t feel like repeating my arguments in this post). Now, to be sure, the Soviet Union had more than its share of flaws, especially from the Krushchev era onward, but in spite of these, it was an effective counterweight against Western imperialism, having aided in national liberation movements around the world. In any case, anyone who’s been paying attention for the past thirty years knows that life has been getting shittier and shittier…and what “glorious” thing happened thirty years ago, folks?

Recall a relevant quote from Stalin: “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.”

Like him or loathe him, Stalin was prophetic on this point.

Analysis of the Medea Myth

In Greek myth, Medea is something of a paradox: on the one hand, we sympathize with her for her suffering at the hands of her disloyal husband, Jason, who abandons her for Corinthian King Creon‘s daughter, the beautiful young princess Creusa (or Glauce), and for the abusive treatment she suffers as a foreigner, a ‘barbarian,’ and an exile. On the other hand, we are horrified at the wickedness she is capable of: fratricide, treason against her father, King Aeëtes (out of a capricious falling-in-love with Jason), and–as if immolating Creon and Creusa with a cursed, poisoned robe weren’t cruel enough–Medea, by Euripides‘ innovation, commits a double filicide on her and Jason’s sons (although some scholars believe Neophron was the one who added this horror to her list of sins).

This paradox of Medea, arousing extremes of sympathy and antipathy, are representative of contradictory feelings many have towards foreigners: sympathy for their plight as second-class citizens, and the antipathy of xenophobia. Medea as the representative of all foreigners living in a land hostile to them, whose suffering can sometimes drive them to commit criminal, even atrocious acts, is therefore a story most relevant to our times, as I plan to demonstrate.

I will be examining her story primarily from three sources: the Medea of Seneca and of Euripides, and the 1969 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which is based on Euripides’ Medea. What is only incidentally examined in the two classical tragedies–that is, not only the plight of the foreigner, but also the relationship between imperialist plunderers and the countries they plunder–is developed more in Pasolini’s film (in his demythologizing of the source material), as I will also try to demonstrate.

A major contrast between what Euripides and Seneca wrote, and what Pasolini presents on the screen, is precisely that. In the former two, we have excesses of words–long, poetic speeches that are the hallmark of ancient Greek and Roman drama. In Pasolini, we have a relative dearth of dialogue; he is more interested in presenting vivid spectacle (rather like Michelangelo Antonioni, as we see in Blowup, La Notte, and The Passenger) than in providing plot and dialogue.

Medea is, as the daughter of Aeëtes, also the granddaughter of Helios, the sun-god. It can be said that she derives her ardour from the heat of the sun. She is also a sorceress, her magical abilities therefore making her an object of fear, exacerbating the xenophobia she already has to suffer, and, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, providing her with the power to do the very kind of evil that people are afraid she’ll do.

Jason as a child has been raised by the wise centaur Chiron, to keep the boy safe from his uncle Pelias, the usurping king of Iolcus who otherwise might want to kill Jason out of a fear he’ll be a threat to his power. Pasolini’s film begins with Chiron educating the boy; first we see him as a centaur, then, when Jason (played by Giuseppe Gentile) has come of age, Chiron is seen as fully human. (Such a representation of Chiron isn’t completely without precedent, for there are traditional Greek representations of him with human front legs, demonstrating his unique status as a centaur.) In the context of Pasolini’s atheistic demythologizing of the narrative, then, Chiron as a centaur represents the fanciful imagination of Jason as a child, while human Chiron as seen in Jason’s adulthood represents his loss of that childhood imagination. Put another way, the half-human, half-bestial Chiron represents the not-yet-developed reason of Jason’s childhood; the fully-human Chiron represents adult Jason’s fully developed reason.

Pasolini’s Chiron (played by Laurent Terzieff) admits to having lied to young Jason, who isn’t his son, as he’s previously said. He emphasizes to the boy that everything is sacred, that nothing in nature is ‘natural,’ that gods inhabit everything in nature. The sacred, however, is a mix of good and bad, that the gods love and hate. Again, Chiron admits to being a liar and to being too poetic. He predicts that, when fully-grown Jason goes to Pelias to demand his right to the kingdom, that the usurper will demand that he first fetch him the Golden Fleece. Finally, we see fully-human Chiron admit to adult Jason that there are no gods: his talk of gods inhabiting everything in nature has been another lie. Myths are essentially lies, in the opinion of atheistic Pasolini.

That we see centaur Chiron with Jason the child, and later, human Chiron with adult Jason, a mentor who admits to having told the boy poetic lies, represents the shift from an earlier, poetic, metaphorical use of language (as Northrop Frye discussed in The Great Code) to the later prosaic, descriptive kind of language (Frye, pages 24-28, 31-32). Analogous to this shift in language is also what his change from half-human, half-horse to fully human represents: a shift from animalistic primitivism–and its belief in myths, gods, magic, etc.–to a more advanced civilization lacking in gods. This contrast between god-fearing and godless, between the mythically and non-mythically oriented, between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilization,’ will be especially apparent in the Corinthian attitude towards Medea as seen especially in the film.

Since Pelias assumes Jason will never succeed in getting the Golden Fleece, he shrewdly claims he’ll give his kingdom to Jason if he gives Pelias the Fleece. Pelias doesn’t realize, however, that Jason will get crucial help from a woman whom Eros (according to Apollonius of Rhodes) will hit with one of his love-arrows…Medea.

One interesting point to mine for meaning in is how some writers, such as Apollonius of Rhodes and Seneca, regarded the Argo as having been the first ship (in Greek mythical history). The implication of this first boat, as regards sailing off to a distant land to steal the Golden Fleece, is that Jason’s mission can be seen to represent the beginnings of imperialist plunder.

The choral ode at the end of Act Two of Seneca’s play deals with this mythologizing of the dawn of imperialism:

Glorious were the ages our forefathers saw
when deception was far distant.
Each person lived an unambitious life, at home,
then growing old on ancestral farmland,
rich with a little, they knew no wealth
except what their native soil brought forth.
The world was once divided into strict partitions,
but those were broken by the pinewood ship,
which ordered the ocean to suffer a beating
and the sea, once inviolate, to turn into
one of our reasons to fear. […]
What was the prize for this journey?
The Golden Fleece,
and Medea, greater evil than all the sea,
a worthy cargo for the world’s first boat.
Now at last the sea has yielded and obeys all laws.
Now there is no need of a ship made by Pallas’ hand,
rowed back by kings, a well-renowned vessel–an Argo.
Any old skiff can wander the deep.
All boundaries are gone and the cities
have set up their walls in new lands;
the world is a thoroughfare, nothing remains
where it was. [Seneca, Act II, lines 329-339, 361-372]

In fact, the ending of this choral ode was famously quoted by none other than that exemplar of colonialism, Christopher Columbus, in his Book of Prophecies:

The ages will come, in faraway years
when Ocean will set free the links of Nature
and the great earth lie open, and Tethys will open,
new worlds, and Thule will be no longer
the end of the earth. [Seneca, Act II, lines 373-379; the original Latin can be found here]

So Medea and the society of Colchis can be seen, in relating Euripides’ and Seneca’s plays to our world, as representative of the Third World of today; for though imperialism in its capitalist form of course didn’t exist in the ancient world, class conflict did, in the analogous form of the master vs. slave contradiction. Recall Marx’s words: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The Corinthians’ regarding of Medea and the Colchians as barbarian has its parallel in the modern world, with Western imperialists’ racist labelling of those in developing countries as ‘uncivilized,’ or not considered “decent,” and using such labelling to justify taking over their land and stealing their resources for the imperialists’ enrichment. Pasolini’s film, in its vivid, graphic depiction of the Colchians performing a human sacrifice, with an exotic soundtrack of music from such places as Tibet and other parts of the Orient, emphasizes the foreign contrast between mythically-oriented, ritualistic Colchis and ‘civilized’ Corinth. The ‘civilized’ countries could cite this human sacrifice as proof of the lack of civilization in Colchis while turning around and stealing from the Colchians, or exiling Medea, and not considering their own behaviour as, in its own way, equally cruel.

In his atheistic treatment of the Jason and Medea myth, Pasolini largely removes the supernatural elements, replacing them with characters’ perception of, and belief in, a divinity that isn’t physically there. So instead of seeing Eros shoot a love arrow into the heart of Medea (played by Maria Callas in her only film role, also in which she doesn’t sing), she sees Jason’s arrival, and it’s love at first sight, expressed through her falling on the floor on her back.

Similarly, in Pasolini’s film, we don’t see her use her magic to help Jason plough the field with the fire-breathing bulls; nor do we see her use her magic to help him defeat the army of warriors that grew from a dragon’s teeth sown in the ploughed field; nor do we see her use her magic to put to sleep the dragon that guarded the Fleece. Instead, she simply has her brother, Absyrtus (Apsirto, played by Sergio Tramonti), steal the Fleece and take it with her by chariot to Jason and the Argonauts.

The film portrays Apsirto as rather weak-willed and dim-witted, for he shows no resistance to Medea’s wish for him to help her commit what his family and all of Colchian society would deem an act of the most abominable impiety. He just smiles like a fool and does her bidding without question. Indeed, when Aëetes and his men chase her and her brother to retrieve their prized Fleece, she raises an axe to kill Apsirto, but he shows not the slightest ability to defend himself.

Her helping Jason to steal the Fleece, a coveted possession that can be seen to represent the natural resources of a developing country, can in turn be seen to represent the puppet leader of said developing country collaborating with its imperialist oppressor.

In the film, when Medea finds herself outside of Colchis with Jason and the Argonauts, and therefore in a land foreign to her own, she feels alienated from it. The men all set up tents, but do not pray to the gods to bless them. Such irreligiousness is inexplicable to her.

She thus goes through a spiritual crisis. She runs about the land, which is barely covered in any vegetation, and calls out to her gods of the sun and earth; they do not seem to hear her in this strange, foreign land.

Jason returns to Iolcus and gives Pelias the Fleece, but the king feels no obligation to keep his promise and give Jason his rightful place on the throne. Unlike in the original myth, in which Medea schemes to have Pelias’ own daughters kill him, the Jason of Pasolini’s film simply accepts not regaining the throne, telling his uncle that the Fleece is of no use, value, or meaning outside of Colchis. Of course not: its meaning exists only for those who believe in it; in Pasolini’s godless world, the Fleece cannot mean anything outside of the Colchian culture that reveres it.

Pelias’ wives strip Medea of her black priestess robes and jewellery, replacing them with humble clothing similar to their own, the clothing of a wife. Medea has lost her gods, the Fleece’s value is no more, and she is now a mere housewife. Still, she’ll bear these losses, as long as Jason remains true to her…

She and Jason live in Corinth for ten years. Various sources say the couple have had anywhere from one to fourteen children. In the plays by Euripides and Seneca, and in Pasolini’s film, they have two sons.

Now, with this family living in Corinth, Medea is not the only foreigner–all of them are. In fact, Jason finds himself and his whole family in danger of Acastus, son of Pelias, who wants revenge for the killing of his father (for which, recall, Medea is responsible), and who has driven all of them out of Iolcus.

Jason can find only one practical solution to his predicament as an exile: marry Creusa, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, and thus abandon Medea. This new marriage should at least give protection to him and their two boys…and with this scorning and rejection of Medea, the tragedies of Euripides and Seneca begin.

Pasolini’s film only subtly shows Medea’s realization that her husband is abandoning her for another woman, a disloyalty grown out of his fickle nature rather than a need to protect himself and their sons from Acastus, who doesn’t figure in the film. She goes to Corinth with her nurse (played by Annamaria Chio), who is reluctant to go because she knows what Jason is about to do; Medea sees a kind of dancing competition among suitors as to who will win the princess’s hand. Jason is participating in the dance with the other men, and Medea takes the shocking hint.

Euripides’ play opens with a long speech by the nurse, who describes Medea’s anguish on learning of her husband’s betrayal. Seneca’s begins with Medea herself giving the long, anguished speech.

Comparisons and contrasts can be made between the Medea plays and a couple by Shakespeare with regard to the theme of revenge, namely, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Medea is disenfranchised both as a foreign “barbarian” and as a woman; Shylock, in TMOV, is disenfranchised for being a foreigner and a Jew in Venice. Because of their ill-treatment, both Medea and Shylock are pushed over the edge and driven to commit violent, horrible acts. As a result, both characters are sympathized with and abominated for what they do (Medea) or at least intend to do (Shylock). Shylock is allowed, at the end of TMOV, to live, but he has been financially and spiritually destroyed. In the end, though Medea physically gets away scot-free to Athens on her grandfather’s solar chariot, she can be said to have destroyed her own soul by her double filicide. Shylock is punished for his sins; Medea is punished by her sins.

As far as comparisons, or really, contrasts with Hamlet are concerned, Medea clearly shows its protagonist (if such a violent woman can be called such–i.e., a sympathetic character) to be firmly resolved in her wish not only to get revenge on and kill Creusa and Creon, but also to kill her two boys. In contemplating the double filicide, she wavers somewhat in her guilt, as can be seen in the Seneca, but she goes through with it all the same. She’s firmly resolved to commit all the killings in Pasolini’s film, too.

But in Hamlet, as we all know, the Danish prince delays his revenge all the way to the bitter end, when he’s been pricked by “the point envenom’d,” and only when he knows he’s going to die does he finally get his revenge on his uncle Claudius. A number of characters either in Hamlet or referred to in the play take (or want to take) their revenge more decisively than the Dane does: namely, they are Laertes (Act IV, Scene v, from line 109), Fortinbras, who is slowed down in his revenge only by a vast stretch of land to traverse, and Pyrrhus, who hesitates only briefly before killing Priam to avenge his father, Achilles (Act II, Scene ii, lines 444-491). And certainly, Medea is much quicker to revenge than Hamlet is.

Now, Colchis, Iolcus, and Corinth can be contrasted in terms of how “barbaric” vs ‘enlightened/’progressive’ they are. Colchis, as we already know, represents ‘primitive’ society, that of the developing world. Iolcus, with its usurping, double-crossing King Pelias, represents the unapologetically imperialistic part of the world, that which takes from other countries (i.e., the Golden Fleece), that which enriches itself at the expense of others, and feels no remorse for that foreign policy. In our modern world, Pelias is the conservative.

Corinth, however, is more like today’s liberal world. Creon would take in Jason and his sons; taking in Medea, however, would be crossing over the line for him. As we on the left know, liberal generosity has its limits, to put it mildly. As a manifestation of modern liberal thinking, social democracy would improve the lives of those within one’s own country, and has no qualms about taking from the Third World to enrich itself. Creon’s treatment of Medea, and of Jason and their sons, can be seen as symbolic of this liberal double standard. We’ll take care of the needy among us, and a select number of foreign refugees, but anyone outside of these must fend for themselves.

In Euripides’ play, Medea laments the miserable existence of women. She says,

Of all the sentient creatures of the earth, we women are
the most unfortunate. First there is the dowry: at such
exorbitant expense we have to buy a husband–pay
to take a master for our bodies. And as the seasons pass,
if he prove false, then are we twice abused…
…All our hopes and striving lean
on this one thing: whether the husband that we take
turns out good or ill. For marriage is the only choice
we have, and divorce discredits women utterly.
We leave the house we knew, the dear comfort of familiar
ways. We must enter the husband’s world, accommodate
strange practices, the habits of his house, and figure out–
oh, hardest yet–how best to deal with his whims, for little
in our past prepares us for this task of satisfying him. […]

A man when he is bored at home, or irritated by
the burdens of domestic life, goes out into the streets,
or to the baths, debates philosophy for sport, diverts
himself with games and friends, and does what pleases him.
Our lives are monotone: for on one man we’re forced
to fix our gaze. Men say we lead an easy life,
safe at home while they risk all at the point of a spear.
What do they know? I would rather stand three times
in battle with shield and spear than give birth once. (Euripides, lines 252-256, 259-267, and 273-281)

Medea might want to pause before preferring to fight three battles, and risk a violent death on the battlefield, to giving birth to a child; then again, I as a man should pause before presuming that risking one’s life to give birth, especially without modern medicine, as would have been the case with women in Medea’s time, would be preferable to going to war. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, I suppose.

While the patriarchal aspects of the sources of Medea’s suffering are so obvious as not to need much further comment (beyond how her leaving of Colchis and her family, to be with her new husband, Jason, is symbolic of patrilocal culture), I suspect we could be dealing at least in part with matrilineal customs, too. After all, though Jason is working to secure the safety of his and Medea’s sons in Corinth, threats of exiling the boys as well as Medea also loom over the course of the play. See, for example, in Euripides’ play, lines 976-977, where Medea says, “Do I not have the children? And aren’t we–they and I–/now exiles in need of friends?”

If descent in their world were patrilineal, the boys’ association with their father would ensure their safety without question; after all, only Medea, with her magic, is a threat to Creon and his daughter. The boys’ matrilineal association with Medea would make them as much foreigners as she is, and this association would threaten them with exile as well as her. Finally, Jason is marrying into Creon’s family, not Creusa into his family; his entrance into Creon’s family is thus matrilocal.

In Act Four of Seneca’s play, the nurse and Medea give detailed descriptions of the scorned wife preparing her “uncanny rites” (Seneca, line 680) and magic spells. In Pasolini’s film, we see Medea looking out of a window at the sun, her grandfather (as she, in this atheistic production, imagines it to be: she can easily be understood to be imagining the sound of Helios’ voice), and does something rarely seen in the film…she smiles. Then she assembles her ladies-in-waiting, including her nurse, who is ever-reluctant to participate in Medea’s violent plans, and chants with them, pacing back and forth ritualistically, to prepare the spell to make lethal her gift of a gown, necklaces, and a tiara for Creusa.

The film shows Medea’s revenge on Creusa (played by Margareth Clémenti) and Creon (played by Massimo Girotti, who incidentally was also in Last Tango in Paris) twice: first, as a vision Medea has of the gown literally burning the princess and king; then, as the actual revenge carried out, with Creusa looking at herself in the mirror fearfully while wearing the gown, identifying with Medea and her suffering, and then killing herself in remorse, with Creon following after and imitating her suicide.

Pasolini’s atheistic, demythologized representation of Creusa’s demise can be interpreted along Lacanian lines. Her beholding of herself in the mirror while wearing Medea’s gown, necklaces, and tiara can be seen as her looking at her ideal-I in the specular image. The ideal wife for Jason isn’t Creusa, but Medea. Creusa sees herself dressed like Medea and knows she cannot measure up to Medea’s ideal, because she cannot replace the woman who ought still to be Jason’s wife. Therefore, Creusa cannot marry him. The pain she feels from having caused Medea such pain, a pain Medea has projected onto Creusa in the form of the gift of clothes, is a metaphorical burning of her entire body, her entire self. That metaphorical fire is the fire of suffering caused by desire, the desire to have a man who isn’t hers for the taking.

After the killing of Creusa and Creon comes the atrocity of Medea’s killing of her two sons. Seneca has them killed onstage. Pasolini doesn’t show the killings, but he slowly builds up the suspense leading up to the implied act; this leading-up includes Medea’s last moments as a mother with the boys, bathing them and holding them lovingly. Seeing the boys naked as she bathes them reinforces our sense of their vulnerability and helplessness; seeing her cuddle with each of them after their baths is a touching moment that reinforces how heartbreaking it is to know she is also planning to kill them, given that we watchers of the film know the original myth.

Euripides shows Medea, having already killed them, on Helios’ sun-chariot, a subversion of the notion of the deus ex machina, which is normally used to resolve a difficulty in the plot, in a contrived manner, through divine intervention. To use this plot device is actually rather lazy writing, as having a god resolve a problem is conveniently far easier than doing so through human effort, which requires the writer to devise a thoroughly thought-out solution him- or herself.

The deus ex machina appearance of Medea resolves her problem of where she, as an exile and a murderess, is to go to escape punishment. Earlier in Euripides’ play, Aegeus, king of Athens, has promised her he’ll let her live in Athens if she uses her herbs to cure his infertility. So she will go there and be safe, never punished for her crimes, since Aegeus knows nothing of them. He will also marry her.

Using the deus ex machina for her, however, is a perversion of the purpose of the plot device, since it’s meant to resolve difficulties and thus prevent tragedy. In Medea’s case, she uses it just after aggravating the tragedy, not preventing it, and ensuring that her victims won’t receive justice. After all, the chthonic religion that she adheres to resorts to revenge, not to justice, to settle grievances (the Furies, for example, were chthonic deities of vengeance). Recall that Hecate, one of the prominent chthonic gods, is one to whom Medea prays to aid her in her revenge in, for example, Seneca’s play (Act IV, lines 833-842).

In killing their boys, Medea has done to Jason what he’d initially planned to do to her: deprive a spouse of a family, a country, and a future. She kills the boys not to hurt them, but to hurt him. Now Jason has lost not only a family to marry into and thus to protect him from the dangers of exile and avenging Acastus, but he’s also lost the future of his family line through the boys’ deaths. In destroying Jason’s hopes of patrilineal descent, Medea’s revenge can be seen as a proto-feminist act.

The ambiguity over whether we’re dealing with a matrilineal or patrilineal society could be resolved by imagining that Medea, like Aeschylus‘ trilogy, the Oresteia, represents a transition from lineal descent by the female to that by the male, and therefore also represents a conflict between the two. Just as we see in Medea a mythologized beginning of imperialist plunder, so do we see in the play a mythologized beginning of the patriarchal family’s oppression of women.

That we see the mythological origins of the imperialist plunder of ‘primitive’ societies coinciding with the origins of the oppression of women is significant, for Friedrich Engels, in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, also noted the coinciding of the end of matrilineal society with the end of primitive communism…and therefore the beginning of not only patrilineal society, but also societies based on class conflict.

Now, one cannot go on plundering, oppressing, and mistreating the poor, women, the landless, and developing societies indefinitely without expecting some eventual form of horrifying karmic retribution. For we should see the excesses of Medea’s revenge as just such a retribution, a dialectical shift from the oppressor hurting the oppressed to vice versa.

In our modern world, we shouldn’t be too surprised at this or that terrorist attack in, say, New York City, London, Madrid, Paris, or in Israel. We may lament the deaths of these victims (as we do Medea’s sons), but when we allow the existence of governments that cause mayhem in the Middle East and other parts of the Third World, and when we as First Worlders benefit from such oppression (as Jason, Creon, and Creusa were meant to benefit from a marriage that would undo Medea; or as Pelias planned to benefit from the theft of the Golden Fleece), when karma gets back at us, we shouldn’t pretend to be shocked by such violence.

On the contrary, such violence should be expected.

Euripides, Euripides, 1 (Medea, Hecuba, Andromache, The Bacchae), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998

Seneca, Six Tragedies, New York, Oxford University Press, 2010

Analysis of ‘Le Amiche’

Le Amiche (“The Girlfriends”) is a 1955 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and Alba De Cespedes, and adapted from Tra donne sole (1949), a novel by Cesare Pavese. The film stars Eleonora Rossi DragoGabriele FerzettiFranco Fabrizi, and Valentina Cortese, with Yvonne Furneaux (who was also in Repulsion), Ettore Manni, and Madeleine Fischer. It was shot on location in Turin, Piemonte, Italy.

Le Amiche received the Silver Lion award in 1955 from the Venice Film Festival; it also won the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon Award for Best Director (Antonioni) and Best Supporting Actress (Cortese).

The name of the film is ironic and somewhat deceptive, since Nene (Cortese), Momina De Stefani (Furneaux), Rosetta Savoni (Fischer), and Mariella (played by Anna Maria Pancani) are girlfriends in little more than a superficial sense. There’s actually a considerable amount of conflict between them, at varying levels of intensity, due to jealousies over their rivalries over men, as well as their varying degrees of vanity and narcissism.

Indeed, jealousy, envy, vanity, and pride are major themes in Le Amiche. A few minor comparisons between this film and Othello can be made, as far as the themes of jealousy and envy are concerned. Rosetta can be seen as the Othello of the film (Nene, too, in an opposing way); her doomed, jealous love of Lorenzo (Ferzetti) leads to a failed suicide attempt at the beginning of the film, and a successful suicide towards the end, just as the Moor kills himself at the end of Othello. Momina, cynical and envious of others’ happiness in love, is the scheming Iago: she encourages Rosetta’s pursuit of Lorenzo, leading to a conflict she finds most amusing to watch, just as Iago enjoys watching the Moor go insane with jealousy.

In a way, a vague comparison can be made also between Le Amiche and Romeo and Juliet, since the film involves pairs of lovers from incompatible worlds. The pairings of Clelia (Drago) and Carlo (Manni), and of Rosetta and Lorenzo, are incompatible not because of feuding families, though, but because of conflicting class relations and sex roles.

Clelia, as the manager of a new fashion salon opening in Turin, is–like her boss (played by Maria Gambarelli)–as an Italian woman in the conservative 1950s, a career woman ‘before it was cool.’ Thus, Clelia is a bourgeois. Carlo, her love interest, on the other hand, is a worker. The sex-role assumption of the time was that, were they to marry, he’d be supporting her financially, not vice versa…a rather hard thing for him to do, with the lower amount of money he’s making than she is. She’d also suffer an unacceptable lowering of social rank in such a marriage.

Similarly, Rosetta is from a well-to-do family, while the man she’s in love with is a struggling artist, one struggling so much that Nene, his fiancée, is actually more successful as an artist than he. Again, the sex-role assumption is that Lorenzo is supposed to be the more successful of the couple, and therefore the more monied one, not Nene or Rosetta. Neither of these women care that he is of modest means (nor should they, of course), but his pride and male chauvinism make him envy Nene’s success, just as she and Rosetta are jealous of each other with regards to him.

Though Clelia is as bourgeois as Momina, both women are on the opposite ends of the narcissism spectrum. We can see this contrast early on in the film, when we are introduced first to Clelia, who is unassuming and, with a smile, tells the hotel maid either “signora” or “signorina” is an acceptable way to address her; then later on, we’re introduced to Momina at the front desk of the hotel, where she treats the man working there contemptuously, saying he’s “ridiculous” to think her friend, Rosetta, has already left the hotel, then orders him to call her room. We see the contrast in their attitudes towards workers, and towards class differences.

Clelia may walk around in a beautiful fur coat, but she does so not out of narcissistic ostentation; as the manager of the new fashion salon, she has an image to maintain, hence the nice clothes. Similarly, her annoyance with the workers’ slow progress in getting the salon ready isn’t out of a condescending attitude to them, but from the pressure she feels from her boss to have everything ready on time.

In Clelia and Momina we can see the Venn diagram, as it were, where narcissism and capitalism overlap. In Momina, both are apparent, since she uses the class hierarchy of capitalism as one of a number of rationalizations to demonstrate her ‘superiority’ to others. In Clelia, we just see the pressures of capitalism making her dress and act with an air of superiority, but narcissistic tendencies are minimal in her: her looking at herself in mirrors, for example, is brief. Momina, in contrast, will look idolatrously at her reflection with that of Cesare Pedone (Fabrizi) in a window in her home, idealizing the image as one of a ‘perfect couple,’ when actually, she’s married–though temporarily separated from her husband–using Cesare as one of many lovers.

A recurring issue in this film is various characters’ preoccupations with such superficialities as what dress to wear, what facial lotion to use, how is one’s reputation or social status, etc. Note again that this preoccupation with one’s public image is directly related to one’s social class, where narcissism and capitalism meet.

The big mystery early on in the film is why Rosetta has tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. On the train ride back from the girlfriends’ disastrous get-together at the beach, Rosetta confides in Clelia about her reasons for her suicide attempt: namely, she speaks of the emptiness of, for example, wondering what dress she’ll wear; soon after, she confesses the more central reason–she can’t have Nene’s Lorenzo. Still, that earlier reason carries considerable weight, and in fact it bears a relationship with the second reason.

She loves Lorenzo because she sees in him a gruff honesty that doesn’t exist in such superficial friends as Momina and the pretty, but air-headed Mariella, the latter’s preoccupations being little more than how beautiful others see her, and who will be her man. Rosetta doesn’t care whether Lorenzo is successful or not: she loves him for how he’s made her feel, in the portrait he’s painted of her.

Though Momina predictably doesn’t think much of the picture, Rosetta is touched by Lorenzo’s efforts. It felt to her as if, with his brush painting her face, he was caressing her. To look at her portrait is, for her, to look in a metaphorical mirror: in painting her, he’s created an idealized version of her to which she cannot measure up if she can’t have him. Hence, when she tries phoning him prior to taking the overdose of sleeping pills, she wishes he’d destroy the painting, as she’s destroyed all her photographs, other metaphorical mirrors of herself. She’d wipe out all traces of herself prior to her suicide.

Of course, Lorenzo being by his own admission much too vain to destroy his painting, also sees it as a kind of metaphorical mirror (i.e., of his painting ability), since apart from having painted it, he sees, in her face, her love reflected back on him, titillating his vanity. Indeed, he looks at her smiling at him, and he feels she has ‘the most beautiful smile in the world.’ His narcissism isn’t of Momina’s malignant kind (i.e., he doesn’t consciously intend to hurt Rosetta or Nene, whereas Momina finds it amusing to stir up drama in this love triangle), but it is sufficient to make him enjoy an affair with Rosetta, enjoying her charms and flattery while leading her on and causing Nene to suffer.

Now, Momina is eager to find any insights related to Rosetta’s suicide attempt, including whom she tried to phone prior to taking the pills. Momina acts as though she only wants to help, but her real agenda is to find out the truth about Rosetta and Lorenzo, in order to exploit it.

Other examples of Momina’s superficiality, narcissism, and general meanness are seen in the early scene when she asks Clelia, in her hotel room, about whom Rosetta phoned. Momina gives Clelia a backhanded compliment about how well she dresses, as good publicity for her salon, when also pointing out how, apparently, ‘fashion designers usually dress like tramps.’ She then asks about Clelia’s facial cream, Clelia getting the hint that Momina is implying how cheap it is. Clelia, lacking Momina’s narcissism, doesn’t judge a product’s worth by its price.

Now, Clelia’s unassuming, but her sense of social class nonetheless must exclude Carlo, as much as she likes him. Workers are typically talked down to by not only Momina, but also Cesare, who is condescending to Carlo in the diner scene when he’s with Clelia; though Mariella acknowledges Carlo is a ‘hunk.’ Clelia tries to be kinder to workers, as I pointed out with her interaction with the hotel maid, as well as with her accommodation of the vagabond in the trattoria scene, when Lorenzo fights with Cesare.

Clelia, therefore, represents the liberal capitalist, who would like to be kinder to the poor, but the pressures of her social class won’t allow her to go beyond a few token gestures of generosity. Hence, she enjoys Carlo’s company in the diner, as well as during their walk to look at furniture for the fashion salon…but marriage with him is out of the question. Just compare her coat with his to see why.

During their walk, she shows him the poor area of Turin where she lived as a little girl. Yes, she was once poor, and was able to rise out of it, so she lacks the snobbishness of Momina and Cesare. Carlo, nonetheless, can feel her airs of superiority, however much Clelia tries to minimize them, and he cannot hide his annoyance with her.

At the end of the film, when Clelia is to leave Turin by train and return to Rome, Carlo wants to be there when she leaves, but he is too ashamed of his lower social class to show himself to her. As he follows her to the train she gets on, he hides behind a vendor’s tall cart. Note how this carrier of things to sell, a symbol of capitalism, is a barrier separating Carlo from Clelia.

Rosetta similarly would love Lorenzo with all her heart, and not care that he has less money than the wealth of the snobbish family she feels little affection for. (Indeed, when her mother visits her in the hospital and is scandalized by her suicide attempt, instead of focusing on her daughter’s pain, she steps aside and looks at herself in her compact. Her narcissistic preoccupation with her own looks, her image, is a more pressing concern than Rosetta’s health and happiness.) She sees herself and Lorenzo in a large mirror while he’s lying on a bed; seeing their reflection together is her idealizing of their relationship, but for the opposite reason of Momina’s idealizing of her time together with Cesare, seeing their reflection in the window in her home. Momina loves the status of having a man like Cesare; Rosetta sincerely loves Lorenzo for himself.

It isn’t Rosetta who sees the class divide between herself and Lorenzo as a problem, though: it is he who does. His masculine pride won’t allow him to marry up, as Clelia’s pressure from the capitalist world won’t allow her to marry down (she wouldn’t want to give up her career and be a housewife/mother for a wealthy husband, but she especially won’t do so for a working-class husband–Carlo…Couldn’t she continue to work, and he be a househusband?).

In these contradictions, we see how career women rising in the context of capitalism will never assure equality of the sexes. A wiping out of sex roles–including the assumption that men are supposed to be more successful (recall Momina’s comment in this connection, during the scene in her home, something with which Rosetta vehemently disagrees), more monied, and generally ‘superior’ to women–is indispensable to such an attainment of equality…and it must be achieved in a socialist context, with a wiping-out of class differences, since sex roles, along with such things as racism, are among the many things the ruling class uses to keep the working class divided among each other.

Lorenzo, however, has internalized the social expectation of masculine preeminence, and his pride won’t let him let go of it. Hence, his fight with Cesare, whose taunts about Nene’s artistic success over Lorenzo’s failures push him beyond endurance in the trattoria scene. Cesare, of course, pretends he’s just joking around, an obvious falsehood, but one of the main themes of Le Amiche is the keeping up of appearances.

As I mentioned above, “The Girlfriends” is an ironic, deceptive name for this film. These women (and their men) largely go about keeping up the appearance of friendship, all for the bourgeois sake of saving face. Actually, all manner of animosity and hostility abound, coming to a head in the three fight scenes–first, at the beach with Momina slapping Mariella, then in the trattoria, with Lorenzo and Cesare trading punches, and finally, between Clelia and Momina in the fashion salon.

Mariella, always opening her mouth without thinking, speaks of how only Rosetta doesn’t have a man, and not noticing that Rosetta has just walked by and heard her. Wishing to avoid losing face and to keep up the appearance of them all bearing no gossipy ill will toward Rosetta, Momina scolds Mariella for speaking so foolishly. When Mariella tries to defend her choice of words and repeats the tactless remark, Momina slaps her. Rosetta, however, prefers Mariella’s tactlessness to Momina’s hypocrisy. As another manifestation of animosity thinly veiled with phoney friendship, Mariella gets even with Momina for the slap by hugging and kissing Cesare in the sand, he being Momina’s boyfriend of the moment, then confessing her motive of revenge before hugging Momina in a pretence of reconciliation with her.

Clelia’s job as manager of a fashion salon is her participating in the business of keeping up appearances, producing glamorous clothes that allow their women wearers to maintain the illusion of exquisite beauty. Capitalism is compelling Clelia to reinforce women’s socially-induced need to hide behind the illusion of beauty, reinforcing this insecurity for the sake of making a profit. Her relationship with Carlo cannot last, him wearing that dull, scruffy coat as against her fur coat, because her association with him would tarnish her glamorous image–it’s bad for business. She even has to hide a love note between the two of them from her models, one of them finding it and laughing at her boss’s expense.

The two women among the girlfriends whom one would assume to be the most mutually rancorous are actually mutually empathic–Rosetta and Nene. The former has stolen the latter’s man; Nene has seen the proof from a sketch she knows Lorenzo did of Rosetta on a matchbox, then given to Rosetta. But instead of privately fighting with her while publicly smiling with her, to keep up appearances among their girlfriends, Nene has a sad, candid conversation with Rosetta about him in private. Rosetta can’t deny being in love with Nene’s man, yet she’s also remorseful about causing Nene’s suffering.

These two, ironically, are the most like friends of all the women.

The final moment of animosity that comes to a head is between Clelia and Momina after Rosetta’s successful suicide. Weeping, Clelia calls Momina a murderess for having goaded on Rosetta to continue her doomed relationship with Lorenzo, all for Momina’s narcissistic, cynical entertainment. That Clelia has blown up at Momina right in front of her boss, a scandalous loss of face in the salon, means Clelia assumes she will lose her job. Fortunately, her boss forgives her and offers her a job in a salon back in Rome, which Clelia accepts.

The boss actually envies Clelia for having been able to get her pain off her chest. The boss, always pressured to keep up appearances, has had to bottle up all of her feelings, a suppression she jokingly claims must be causing her some kind of gastrointestinal problem.

Le Amiche is a movie all about social hypocrisy, narcissism, pressure to keep up appearances, and punishment for those who dare to break society’s rules. It’s also about how class and sex roles divide us all. One hopes that those who watch this film will learn, by example, how not to be friends.

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio Cortázar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with Cortázar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed), this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in Cortázar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In Cortázar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj Zižek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (Zižek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In Cortázar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.

Analysis of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

Bonnie and Clyde is a 1967 crime drama written by David Newman and Robert Benton, loosely based on the early-to-mid-thirties crime spree of the Barrow gang. The film was directed by Arthur Penn; it stars Warren Beatty (who also produced it) and Faye Dunaway, and costars Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard. All five of these actors were nominated for Oscars, with Parsons winning.

Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of filmmaking (New Hollywood), with its shockingly bloody gunshot wounds (produced by squibs), jump cuts (courtesy of the direct influence of the late fifties/sixties French New Wave; in fact, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were consulted during the making of the film), and sexual innuendo, helping to bring the old, prudish Production Code to an end and replacing it with the MPAA ratings system.

As good and ground-breaking as the film is, though, don’t expect that watching it will leave you well-informed about the real history of Bonnie and Clyde. The film not only romanticizes the crime spree, making the Barrow gang into social rebels and heroes to the late sixties counterculture, but it also plays fast and loose with what actually happened back in the early-to-mid-1930s. The real crime duo’s meeting place was totally different (at the home of Barrow’s friend Clarence Clay, not at Bonnie’s home); they robbed far fewer banks (mostly grocery stores and gas stations); there’s no evidence that they robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; Bonnie was already married (to Roy Thornton, who was in prison himself during and after the crime spree), and the real Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle) and Blanche Barrow (Parsons) were totally unlike the weak, humiliated portrayals seen in the film.

The film was reviled on its first release, most audiences being disgusted with the excess violence. But over time, it has become a classic, to the point where Quentin Tarantino said film history can be divided into films made before and after Bonnie and Clyde, that is, that the cinema of the seventies started with this late-sixties movie.

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here.

Though the writers denied intending any deeper meaning behind their movie, their having changed so much of the history, and indulgently so (they were originally even going to have Clyde be bisexual!), to suit their purposes, suggests at least unconscious motives. Therefore, I feel free to interpret the film’s meaning as I will.

The film’s mythology of the Barrow gang, who “rob banks,” portrays them as sympathetic to the poor, and as society’s rebels who are sticking it to the Man. I will carry that line of thinking a little further, and say that their crime spree is symbolic of a revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists. Their being shot and killed by the police thus represents a counter-revolution and restoration of capitalism.

We see black-and-white pictures of Bonnie, Clyde, et al during the opening credits, establishing a photograph motif symbolizing the fixed image, the idealized myth, of the Barrow gang, as opposed to who they really were. This contrast between ideal and real is reinforced immediately after in the opening scene, with Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) nude in her bedroom and looking at herself in the mirror. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which we have the contrast between the idealized mirror reflection (her ideal-I), a unified totality (just as in those photos), and the woman looking at it, she who feels lacking, fragmented physically and psychologically, and discontented with her life.

Her inner fragmentation is related to her fragmented relationship with the outside world, that is, her social alienation and that of her species-essence. The jump cuts in this scene, the deliberately choppy editing, symbolize her fragmentation. The shot of her lying on her bed, with her head between the bars of the head of her bed, make her look imprisoned. She bangs her fists in frustration on the bars like a prisoner wanting to be free, for she has a dull job as a waitress, and she wants more out of life.

Then her chance to be free arrives, outside, by her mother’s car.

She looks out the window and sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mom’s car. Her choice of words to address him is significant: she calls out, “Hey, boy!” She’s up there, calling down to him from the second floor, addressing the young man as “boy.”

This moment introduces another theme of the movie: the reversal of sex roles. She hollers down at him, rather than, say, him looking down at her and calling her “girl.” This role reversal, many more examples of which we’ll see soon enough, symbolizes–by challenging the validity of traditional sex roles–a movement towards the equality of the sexes, which in turn is a necessary part of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.

She quickly gets dressed and goes down to meet him. They walk together, buy bottles of Coke, and the sexual innuendo between them commences as we see her with her lips around the bottle top, sensuously drinking in a way suggestive of fellatio. She’s skeptical of his claim to be a thief until he pulls out a pistol, then lowers it to his crotch area, giving the gun obvious phallic symbolism. The sexual innuendo continues when she touches his gun, as if she’d like to masturbate him.

He goes off and robs a store, firing his gun as he and Bonnie race off in a car. She’s so thrilled with his daring that she wants to make love with him. They pull over by some trees, and she jumps on him and covers his face with kisses.

Here we have another reversal of sex roles: she is the sexual aggressor, not the man. In fact, the reversal is carried even further when he has to fight her off…for we learn that he is impotent.

Making Clyde impotent is yet another indulgent invention of the scriptwriters, who earlier considered putting Clyde in a scene involving a bisexual ménage à trois with Bonnie and CW Moss (Pollard). This earlier idea was scrapped for being obviously too risqué even for the radical sixties, especially since the Production Code, though moribund from an increasingly lax enforcement, still wasn’t quite dead yet.

I wonder if the scriptwriters’ inspiration, for bisexuality on the one hand and impotence on the other, came from the fact that the real Clyde Barrow, while incarcerated in Eastham Prison Farm from 1930 to 1932, was raped by an inmate. Either way, this all adds to the theme of sex role reversal by making (or at least seeming to make) Clyde, in one sense or another, sexually passive.

In any case, he does feel emasculated, and his chopped-off toes symbolize such a castration. Small wonder he needs to fire that phallic gun of his, ejaculating bullets to compensate for what he feels to be his incomplete manhood. On the other hand, his giving Bonnie his gun to practice firing at a tire, behind a home they’ve squatted in (repossessed by a bank), is symbolically giving her a phallus, thus once again bringing about a sex role reversal.

When the fledgling duo of thieves see the family that has lost their home to the bank, they show their sympathy. Clyde fires bullets into the sign saying that the family’s home is now the bank’s property, and he tells the father, “We rob banks,” with a proud grin.

Clyde gives his gun to the father and a man named Davis (who worked there with the family), allowing them to fire bullets at the sign and house windows, to release their frustration at the bank’s taking it away from them. Davis is black, incidentally, and he is treated with pleasantly surprising respect, given the time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the American south. He is referred to by name, not as the ‘coloured fellow,’ or the ‘Negro,’ or any other word beginning with n. This sympathy and comradeship against such capitalist institutions as banks and against racism shows how the Bonnie and Clyde of the film represent socialist expropriators of the ruling class, as well as friends of the people.

Later, Clyde–after telling Bonnie not to be nervous about their next job (while he is the one obviously nervous)–attempts a robbery of a small bank that has gone out of business and lost all of its money due to the Depression. When she learns of the bank’s lack of money, Bonnie laughs at Clyde as they hurry away in their car. His embarrassment is another symbolic emasculation, a lowering of him from the unattainable male chauvinist ideal, showing him to be her equal. He fires a few ejaculatory bullets in the window of the bank in a pathetic attempt to save face.

They begin to build up the Barrow gang by adding CW Moss, a composite of WD Jones and Henry Methvin, as their getaway driver. First, Clyde shows his inadequacy during their next bank heist by only weakly saying, “This is a stick-up,” then saying it again loud enough to be heard by all in the bank. Then, Moss demonstrates his incompetence by parking their getaway car where Bonnie and Clyde can’t find it.

Both men’s failings once again show the myth of male superiority, showing Bonnie to be their equal.

While we don’t see any signs of incompetence in Bonnie, who is far less experienced as a criminal than Clyde or Moss, Parsons’s portrayal of Blanche, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), is most unflattering. Her hysterics so annoyed the real Blanche, who was alive to see the film, that she complained of the writers and Parsons making her “look like a screaming horse’s ass!”

And Parsons, of all the nominated actors in the film, was the one to win an Oscar, which must have embittered the real Blanche all the more.

While, on the one hand, we have the lowering of men from their chauvinistic high horse, we also have the urge to raise women higher, where we see Bonnie succeeding and Blanche failing. Bonnie, the liberated woman of the movie, naturally loses her patience with Blanche and her traditional womanhood. As unpleasant as it may be to watch Bonnie verbally abusing Blanche, still, the demand for her to toughen up is as necessary–for the sake of sexual equality–as it is to see the men humbled.

Speaking of Bonnie as a feminist icon in the film, another reversal of sex roles happens when Clyde takes that famous photograph of Bonnie with his cigar in her mouth and his gun in her hand, leaning against the car. The gun and cigar make her into the phallic woman, an idealized, strong version of herself making the photo comparable to the ideal-I she saw in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the film.

The ideal of those photos, still images showing people as unified totalities instead of the fragmented people we all feel ourselves to be, is a motif in this film connected with the image of Bonnie at the mirror. The pictures are representative of the Imaginary Order, establishing the self as an illusory, idealized ego.

The photos of the real Bonnie and Clyde that were discovered in their hideout in Joplin were published in the newspapers, adding to the grandeur of the myth of the Barrow gang. The contrast between, for example, the photograph of Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and the real Bonnie, who didn’t smoke cigars, demonstrates this difference between the ideal and the real. That photo may have made her look like a cigar-chomping, gun-brandishing moll, but the real Bonnie wasn’t as tough as all that.

So the screenwriters were perhaps a bit more justified in their mythologizing and romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde than it would seem, since the media of the 1930s were doing a mythologizing and romanticizing of their own. This is a story of idealized images, as contrasted with the disappointing reality of (in the film) an impotent Clyde, a dim-witted Moss, and a screaming, weak Blanche. The movie’s idealizations, in turn, contrast with the disappointing reality that these thieves were no Robin Hood and his band of merry men, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but were just common criminals, Clyde having been especially hardened by the traumatizing prison rapes he suffered.

Added to the deliberate falsifying of history is the film’s anachronistic use of bluegrass banjo music, which hadn’t existed until the mid 1940s.

More romanticizing of the Barrow gang occurs when they rob a bank, but let a poor man keep his money. They’re violent only to those who try to protect the wealth of the establishment–the cops. Hence, my allegorizing of them as socialist revolutionaries.

The stolen money is divided up fairly among all the members of the gang. Even Blanche, who sticks up for herself and demands her share, gets hers. Unlike in capitalist society, where banks can seize a poor family’s home and transfer wealth up to the 1%real robbery!–the socialists that our expropriating revolutionaries represent here understand the principle, “From each according to his ability [i.e., Bonnie, Clyde, and Buck, who’ve robbed the bank], to each according to his needs [i.e., Moss and Blanche, who were outside or in the car].”

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer follows and tries to catch the gang, but he’s caught himself, then humiliated in photos taken of him with the gang and later sent to the newspapers. This never actually happened. Hamer was a well-respected law enforcer, inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame; his posse shot and killed Bonnie and Clyde not out of a wish for revenge over his wounded pride, but out of their need to stop a gang of violent cop-killers. In fact, his widow and son sued Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character, getting an out-of-court settlement.

The Barrow gang needs a new car after that bank robbery, so they steal one owned by an undertaker, Eugene Grizzard (played by Gene Wilder). The theft of Grizzard’s car, and the kidnapping of him and his girlfriend, Velma Davis (played by Evans Evans), seem to be based on those of Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone.

Eugene and Velma have been making out when the car theft occurs, so the two lovers race out after the Barrow gang in her car. Furious, Eugene puts on a phoney show of macho bravado in his shouting that he’s “gonna tear them apart!” But when Velma, the driver, warns that the thieves may have guns, he immediately loses his courage and tells her to turn around so they can inform the police.

In this comic scene, we see another reversal of sex roles. He is all emotional, while she is keeping her cool. She is driving because it’s her car, of course, but the visuals of a woman driver and male passenger, as opposed to the traditional vice versa, still reinforces the role-reversal theme. Ultimately, though, the Barrow gang’s possession of phallic guns (including the women) vs. Eugene’s not having any is a symbolic emasculation for him, a male humiliation comparable to Clyde’s impotence, Moss’s slow-wittedness, and Hamer’s photos with the gang.

Just as a little boy experiences a symbolic castration when confronting the nom (or Non!) du père, with its prohibition against Oedipal incest with Mother, so is Eugene experiencing a kind of ‘legal prohibition,’ if you will, against getting his stolen car back; for in the world of the Barrow gang, a world symbolic of the proletarian dictatorship, the poor have the ‘legal’ right to expropriate the bourgeoisie. Eugene and Velma are, by their appearance and their nice-looking cars and house, clearly middle-class.

The Barrow gang chases after, catches, and kidnaps Eugene and Velma, and at first they’re friendly with the two, Buck telling them his silly joke about the cow’s milk mixed with brandy, and the gang buying them hamburgers. But when Eugene tells them he’s an undertaker, an instance of foreshadowing of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s fate, she gets apprehensive and insists on kicking them out.

Scared and craving a reunion with her mother, Bonnie runs off. The gang finds her, and they agree to a visit with her family. This visit, with her mother’s fear for her clearly apparent, strengthens our sense of sympathy for her and for the rest of the gang.

Clyde tries to reassure Bonnie’s mother that he’ll find legitimate work as soon as the Depression is over. Here’s the thing: economic hardship has a way of turning desperate people into criminals, for it’s capitalism’s inherent nature to lead to crises, due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The gang finds another temporary hideout, and Moss and Blanche go off to a restaurant to get takeout; but someone there recognizes them and calls the cops. Another shootout and escape leave Buck with a gunshot wound to the head, and Blanche with a bullet breaking the car window and blinding her in the left eye. They camp somewhere in the bush, but the cops find them and another shootout ensues, with the death of Buck and the arrest of grieving, hysterical Blanche. Both Bonnie and Clyde have been shot in the arm, but they and Moss get away. (In the film, by the way, we at no point see Bonnie get that crippling, third-degree leg burn that she got in real life.)

Now, if we see their bank robbing, shooting policemen, and showing mercy to the poor as allegorical of socialist revolution, then we can see the police raids as symbolic of counter-revolutionary attempts to restore capitalism. Consider, as historic examples, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the suppression of the weakly-defended, short-lived Paris Commune.

The injuries the Barrow gang have sustained, including the loss of Buck and Blanche, remind us of how important a good defence is. Similarly, during the Cold War, the USSR, China under Mao, and the DPRK learned of the necessity of having a strong nuclear defence. The Barrow gang has had only getaway cars and easily found hideaways to protect themselves in.

Moss drives wounded Bonnie and Clyde to an open-air place by a lake where a group of poor people, those that the Depression has cast aside, are staying. Moss asks them for some water. They huddle around the car to look on sympathetically at Bonnie and Clyde. Again, this solidarity among the poor and among society’s misfits shows how the Barrow gang can be seen as representative of socialists.

After that, Moss drives them to the house of his father, Ivan Moss (played by Dub Taylor). His pa is furious that he’s got a tattoo on his chest, the influence of Bonnie and Clyde, whom Ivan would give over to the police in a heartbeat, though he gives the two thieves dissembling grins the whole time.

The conflict between father and son here is a reflection of the generation gap of the late sixties. CW Moss’s tattoo says “Love,” suggestive of the hippies, while Ivan’s disapproval of it suggests the conservative parents of that later decade.

Dim-witted CW should know better than to put the care of his fugitive friends in the hands of his arch-conservative father; but he doesn’t have anywhere else to take them. This is why a better defence is so important.

Smiling Ivan, always pretending to be a hospitable friend to Bonnie and Clyde, is like the kind of fifth-column traitor that used to sneak into the socialist states and tear them apart, bit by bit, on the inside.

And CW is just weak-willed enough to allow his father and Hamer to set a trap for the crime duo, just as Blanche–both eyes bandaged, instead of only the one injured eye–is blind to Hamer’s scheming and tells him CW’s name. Such weak-willed people in the socialist states used to help the fifth-column traitors, too, in their efforts to restore capitalism, leading in turn to today’s neoliberal nightmare.

Bonnie’s and Clyde’s injuries heal, and she writes a poem on their life together. It is sent to the newspapers, a poem that foreshadows their deaths; but as a communication of who they are to the media, it replaces photographic images with language, a far more meaningful expression. Instead of still photos giving the illusory, unified egos of the Imaginary, we have the therapeutic language of the Symbolic.

Clyde is delighted with her poem when he sees it published in the papers; he feels she has told his story to the world. This makes him feel integrated with society, rather than alienated from it. The linguistic, expressive world of the Symbolic has healed him, and he can finally make love to Bonnie. He’d also like to marry her.

The problem is that Ivan has made a deal with Hamer to set a trap for our two lovers. The police will be lenient with CW in return for Ivan’s help in catching Bonnie and Clyde.

Bonnie and Clyde are going in their car to where the ambush has been prepared. Clyde is wearing sunglasses with the left eye glass broken out, symbolic of his inability to see straight and anticipate the danger he and Bonnie are in (In fact, it parallels Blanche’s wounded left eye).

As they’re approaching the trap, she gets a pear and eats it, sharing it with him; they look rather like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and making themselves nakedly vulnerable to the death sentence they’re about to suffer.

Ivan’s truck is on the side of the road, and seeing them nearing their death trap, he waves at them and gives them another dissimulating smile. Clyde stops the car and goes over to help Ivan with his apparently broken down truck.

In this scene, just as in the beginning one of nude Bonnie in her room, we see a number of jump cuts symbolic of fragmentation. This fragmentation, however, is not that of the Imaginary, but that of the Real, in which a chaotic lack of differentiation resides, the traumatic, non-differentiated world of terror and death. The language of the Symbolic cannot express this experience.

Ivan slips under his truck for safety, just after we see a flock of birds fly out from the bushes where Hamer’s armed men are hiding; these birds are a bad omen, but the warning is too late for Bonnie and Clyde.

The jump cuts show the two lovers looking about in suspicion, then at each other one last time as they resign themselves to their fate. This looking in each other’s eyes is a mirroring of their love for each other, paralleling Bonnie’s looking in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the movie. In their love, they see themselves in each other.

Then the bullets fly out.

Since guns in this film are phallic, the bullets are symbolic ejaculations. Hamer’s sense of manhood has been humiliated, especially by Bonnie’s kiss on his lips when the photos are taken of him with the gang (hence his ejaculatory spitting on her afterwards), so his and the posse’s shooting of her and Clyde is him taking his revenge and regaining his sense of manhood. It’s his wish to humiliate them back in, symbolically, a similarly sexual and emasculating way, by raining, if you will, bukkake bullets all over their bodies, spraying red semen on them.

The two lie there dead, a physical fragmentation to complement their psychological fragmentation at the start of the film. Hamer and his posse emerge from the bushes and look at their bloody work, reminding us of the executions of the roughly 20,000 Communards, 147 of whom were shot against what’s now called the Communards’ Wall. We see Hamer’s men through the bullet-riddled glass of Clyde’s car, glass which gives some reflection of the trees behind, reminding us of Bonnie’s mirror from the beginning scene.

In all of these ways, we see the first and last scenes of the movie as doubles of each other: an opening scene of fragmentation, the alienation of capitalism; the middle of the film’s capers representative of socialist hopes; and the end as the brutal, bloody restoration of the original, fragmentary estrangement of society that is caused by capitalism.

‘Succubus,’ a Surreal Erotic Horror Short Story

[SEXUAL CONTENT]

“Oh, no!” Jack Bates said as he looked at an online newspaper article on his phone.

“What?” his friend, Ivy, said while sitting across from him at their table in the food court of a shopping mall.

“Svetlana Sharapova killed herself,” he said, frowning. “She died of a drug overdose, it says, but they think it was suicide, because she’d been depressed for some time.”

“Who’s she?” Ivy asked.

“Who’s Svetlana Sharapova? She’s only my absolute favourite porn star.”

“Oh, you pig,” Ivy said with a sneer.

“I don’t mean to be a perv,” he said. “She just has this…power over me. I can’t describe it. It’s like she compels me to watch her videos. She seems to come right out and touch me. I can’t explain it.”

“What do you need to beat off to internet porn for? With your blond good looks, those baby blue eyes, that manly husky voice of yours, that good-looking plaid dress shirt you have on, your stylish brown leather shoes, and those tight blue jeans, you could get any girl.” I’m right here, she thought, and not bad looking, even if I do say so myself. You never notice me, though. You never pick up on any of my signals, you asshole.

“I’ve done relationships before, and I’m done with them. I don’t want my heart broken again, especially since the last girlfriend I had two months ago. Sometimes a guy just needs the honesty and security of some good porn.”

“‘Honesty? ‘Security’? ‘Good porn’?” She sneered again.

“Well, hey, you’re into ‘Wicca.’ You’re a ‘witch,’ right?” He giggled an annoying falsetto laugh.

“Don’t make fun of my religion, Jack.” Now she was frowning.

“Why don’t you use your ‘magic’ to find me the right girl?” He was smiling at her like a smart-ass.

“Magic doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Besides, I don’t need magic to find you the right girl. All you have to do is open your dumb-ass eyes.”

“OK, well, how does Wiccan magic work?” he asked. “Or, at least, the way you use it?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “For me, it involves cycles, like the seasons. One thing rolls into its opposite, then back again.”

“Well, can you roll me from loneliness to its opposite…b-but not back again?”

“I could…but not with magic.”

He just looked stupidly at her, while she frowned in annoyance back at him.

*********

That night, he was in his apartment, half-asleep and sitting in front of his desktop. He wore nothing but a half-opened bathrobe. A box of Kleenex sat to the left of his mouse. He clicked on PornHub, then typed in Svetlana Sharapova in the search engine.

“This meat-beating is in your honour, and in your memory, sweetheart,” he said in yawns. He clicked on a solo video of hers, one he’d enjoyed many times before. “I never get sick of this one, and since I can’t see anything new of hers, I’d might as well enjoy a good classic.”

He yawned again.

“This wank should wake me up.”

She was gloriously naked from her head down to her bare feet, a blonde beauty with eyes even more hypnotically blue than his. Bright makeup painted up her face with purple eye shadow, black mascara and eyeliner, pink blush, and red lipstick. She had her skin tanned a golden brown, and had large, natural breasts, a full Brazilian wax, and a bleached anus. These features, combined with the Photoshopping done to the video, made her body look so fake in its anatomical perfection that what he saw of the real her was so invisible, it was as if she were fully clothed.

She was masturbating with a vibrator. He was playing with himself, too, but his fatigue was making his eyes heavy.

“Oh, your body…is so perfect,” he grunted, halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness. “Oh! Why…did you want…to kill yourself? You don’t know…your power…over men…over me. Unh! You could have…any guy…you wanted. Ah!

At that point, she looked directly at the screen, right into Jack’s barely opened eyes, as if she’d heard his words. He closed his eyes and slumped back into his chair.

“Who’s gonna…free me…from my lust…over you, Svetlana?” he mumbled before nodding off.

“Jack,” she said to him in a sigh.

He was dozing for about half a minute, lightly snoring.

“Jack,” she said louder.

His eyes opened. “Svetlana?” he said. “Did you say my name?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “I want you.”

“Am I dreaming?” he asked with widened eyes. “I thought you were dead. Didn’t you kill yourself by ODing on heroin or something?”

“Yes. I am her spirit, and I want you.” Her Slavic accent alone was getting him hard.

“What are you, some kind of succubus?”

“Something like that. I want us to be together, forever.”

“Why me? I’m nobody special. You could have any guy.”

“I don’t want any guy. I want you.”

“What’s so special about me? You don’t even know me.”

“My spirit scanned the feelings of everyone around the world, just after I died. Nobody cared about my suicide. Not even the abusive family I ran away from in East Europe, when the news came out.” She sobbed a little. “Only you felt anything, not just lust for my body.”

“Really? Only me? That’s awful. I’m sorry, Svetlana.”

“Yes,” she sobbed. “Only you see me as a human being, not just a piece of ass. That’s why I want to be with you.”

“Wow,” he said, then thought, If this were a dream, surely I’d have woken up by now, because I always wake up as soon as I know I’m dreaming. Is Svetlana my Mrs. Right? Did Ivy’s ‘magic’ do this? Oh, come on, Jack! What a ridiculous idea! Why would Ivy want to mate me with Svetlana, even if she could do that? No, this must be a dream…but I’m not waking up.

“Let me climb on top of you,” Svetlana purred. “Then we can make love.”

“How can you come out of my monitor and onto my lap?”

“Spirits have special abilities,” she said, then crawled out of the screen.

“Holy shit!” he said as she, in the bare flesh, crawled onto his lap. “What is this, The Ring? This can’t be real. I must be dreaming. Why am I not waking up?”

His bathrobe fell off of his arms and draped onto the chair. Now he was as naked as she was.

When she sat on his lap, his erection slid into her effortlessly. It was as if both his and her genitalia knew exactly where to be, without needing to aim. The lovers began grinding on that chair, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Oh, the power…you have…over men!” he panted. “Over me.”

“Power?” she sighed with a slight sneer. “What power?”

“Pussy…power,” he grunted. “All men…want you. You control us…you control me. You can have…any man…you want.” He reached up and cupped her breasts.

“All men…wanting me…never made me…feel powerful,” she sighed, fingering his nipples and pinching them. “All men…wanting me…terrifies me.”

“Why?”

“They may…want to rape…me.”

“I’d love…to be…as desirable…as you are. Oh!

“If you think…I get power…from my body,…you have it.”

Suddenly, he felt a strange sensation in his groin area. It didn’t hurt–actually, the sexual pleasure was the same, if not better–but he felt a sudden anatomical loss. Instead of him sliding in and out of her, she was sliding in and out of him…they had traded genitals!

“What?” he said, looking down. His eyes and mouth opened their widest possible. “My dick…is gone! You have it! Unh! And I…have…your pussy? What the fuck?” He was shaking in spasms and jerks.

“What are you…worried about?” she asked as she continued sliding in and out of him. “You have…the ‘power’ now.”

Still with his trembling hands on her chest, he felt her breasts shrinking and flattening. His own chest felt heavier now, jiggling. He looked down: her boobs were on his chest! “Oh, my God!” he gasped. “Why do I have your tits?”

What was more, he felt his body hair disappearing. His fingers, on her torso, felt wisps of hair growing, tickling him. He saw the growing hair on her and recoiled, pulling his hands away.

“Eww!” he groaned with a crack in his voice like that of a pre-teen. “What the fuck is happening to me…and to you?” He looked at her face, which now had his three-day beard.

With her remaining–yet slowly diminishing–feminine features, she looked like a strange merging of his parents…fucking him! It reminded him of a time when he was about four, and he went into their bedroom one night and caught them having sex. His father screamed at him to get out. He could never forget that fright.

Suddenly, all the lights went out. Jack felt his chair disappear; he fell to the floor with a thud. “Oof!” he grunted…in a woman’s voice.

What the hell? he thought. Have I become a she?

Jacqueline, if you will, began running ‘her’ hands all over her skin. All of it was the hairless smoothness of a woman’s curvy, buxom, naked body. Svetlana’s body, or so it felt to ‘Jacqueline.’

Soon, she felt not only her own hands feeling her up, but also the bigger, stronger, and hairier hands of several men, moving all over her naked body. All the men want me, she thought. But I don’t want any of them to want me. ‘Pussy power’ is total bullshit.

Hard phallic objects were being shoved inside her three holes. She whined in pain from the stabbing. Were they cocks or dildos? They certainly weren’t welcome.

The lights came back on with a flashing, blinding brightness. She got the answer to her question: bukkake was raining all over her body. Definitely not dildos. Some of the ejaculation got in her eyes, so she couldn’t see the group of men encircling her. A dozen leather shoes rubbed against her arms, hands, legs, and feet, letting her know how many men were surrounding her.

She wiped her eyes clear, and tried to look around her, but the light was still too bright for her to see easily. Her eyes adjusted to her surroundings in about twenty seconds; she saw a square room with white walls, cameras, and lighting and sound recording equipment.

Six blond men, fully clothed, were operating the equipment. These men, it was safe to assume, were her gang rapists. She couldn’t make out their faces clearly, though she saw lecherous smirks on all of them. They were also dressed identically, wearing plaid dress shirts and blue jeans.

She lay there, as naked as a newborn baby, with only the men’s come for clothing. Suddenly, she was sprayed on with cold water from a hose held by one of the men, all of whom laughed in falsetto giggles at her shocked reaction. After being thoroughly washed clean, she lay there shivering when the hose was turned off.

“I love the way her nipples get erect when she’s cold and wet,” one of the men said in a husky voice.

Still, the men’s faces were all blurry. One of them threw her a towel. She dried herself with it, then hoped to cover her nakedness with it, but the man who’d given it to her snatched it away from her before she could.

“Nope,” he said in that same husky voice, suggesting that all six men had as identical a voice as they had clothing. “No covering yourself. You’re always to be naked. We like seeing every inch of you, all the time.”

All the men giggled another falsetto laugh. Still, she couldn’t get a clear look at their faces.

One hid his behind a camera. “OK, Svetlana,” he said. “Get on all fours, spread your legs, and point your ass at the camera.”

Svetlana? he wondered. I’m Svetlana now?

Trembling, and with the utmost reluctance, she did as she was told. She looked back at the camera in abject terror.

I’m turning these men on, these rapists of mine, she thought. I’m all exposed. They can see everything, and their hunger for another fuck is growing. That hurt like hell the last time; I’m still shaking from it, and they want more, I can feel it. I have no protection, no one to help me. They’re wearing almost identical clothes, all too familiar clothes…what’s that supposed to imply?

One of the men walked up to her with a little bag of white powder. She shuddered at where his eyes were pointed, though his face overall was blurred enough not to be recognized.

Please, don’t stare at my ass like that, she thought. That sodomizing I got was the most painful of all those intrusions. I’d cover my nakedness with my hands, but I’m afraid they’ll beat me or something.

“Hey, Svetlana,” he said, crouching by her face. “Wanna get high? I have some ketamine here. When you do it, your body won’t care what’s happening to it. C’mon, try some. Live a little.”

“Oh, uh, OK,” she said in a tremulous voice while avoiding his eyes, so she never saw his face. I’d like it if it could kill me.

He chopped a line on a nearby table and she snorted it. She waited for the K to kick in. When it did, the lights turned off again. She lay there in a sea of infinite black. All she could hear was her breathing. She couldn’t see anything, certainly not any of those men: could they still see her?

It felt as if they could see her…yet, nothing happened.

She just waited on the floor, on all fours, with her legs spread and her ass pushed out.

The waiting was unbearable.

What were they about to do?

She soon found out. Intrusions in her vagina, anus, and mouth happened as before, but the dissociation she felt from the K kept them from being physically painful. All the same, the sensations triggered the memory of her previous rape, and she felt no less a terror than the last time.

The lights came on again with the same temporarily blinding flash. Now, she was on her back with her spread legs pushed up and her feet above her ears. The man she’d been sucking off pulled out and rained come on her hair and left ear. He got up, zipped up his tight jeans, and walked away.

The man who was pumping her vagina now bent forward and brought his face close to hers. She could see his face clearly now, and all the eerie familiarity about the men was confirmed for her…the man on top of her was Jack!

Jack’s consciousness, trapped in Svetlana’s body–that is, ‘Jacqueline’–was being fucked by a smiling, panting, and almost drooling Jack Bates! She looked over at the man who came on her…she saw Jack’s smirking face on him, too! Then she looked down at the man who was moving in and out of her ass…she saw Jack’s face a third time!

Svetlana wanted me to go fuck myself, ‘Jacqueline’ thought. Literally.

Jack’s own face was close enough to give her a kiss, laughing and panting as he fucked the female form that the soul of the real Jack was trapped in! All the other Jacks were laughing in that annoying falsetto as female Jack was being degraded in Svetlana’s body. Now ‘Jacqueline’ knew which sex had the power, and which one didn’t.

Her other two rapists came all over her body and showered her with the hose as before. After having her shivering, freezing body towelled off (and again being denied the towel to cover her nakedness), one of the Jacks approached her. She lay on the floor, trembling in the fetal position.

“You must be starting to come down from your K high,” he said. “We have other drugs: heroin, cocaine,…”

“Heroin!” she gasped in that Slavic accent, in frantic desperation. “Lots of it!”

“Will do,” the Jack said, then produced a needle.

Now, there’s a prick that’s welcome in my body, anytime, she thought.

He stuck the needle in her.

She blacked out.

***********

The next thing she knew, she was looking out of what seemed to be a window–one of black borders and infinite blackness surrounding it–looking into Jack’s apartment. He was sitting, slouched in his opened bathrobe on the chair in front of his computer, which she was obviously inside.

His eyes were only ever so slightly open. She heard a faint snoring. He was mumbling something.

“Ivy,” he mumbled. “How can we…free Svetlana? How can I…free myself…of her?”

There is no freeing her, ‘Jacqueline’ thought. There’s no freeing yourself from her, or me from her. We’re trapped in her forever. I know that now. This is at least the third time we’ve passed through this loop, this cycle, now that I finally realize–this is no dream I can hope to wake from. Nevertheless, it’s my turn to have the power now, and after what I just went through, I want it.

“Can’t…your magic…rescue Svetlana…from porn, Ivy?” he slurred.

Ivy’s magic doesn’t work that way, Jacqueline thought as she crawled towards the monitor screen, about to slip out and climb onto his lap. It works this way.

“Jack,” she purred, waking him up.

Analysis of ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’

The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin in Hungarian; Der wunderbare Mandarin in German) is a pantomime/ballet composed for full orchestra by Béla Bartók from 1918 to 1924. It premiered in 1926 at the Cologne Opera, in Germany. The story is based on a libretto by Melchior Lengyel. The violence and sexuality of the story caused a scandal at its premiere.

What also would have caused distaste for the audience, whom I’d presume to have been mostly conservative in their musical tastes, was the extreme dissonance of the music. Indeed, Bartók’s toughest, most dissonant music was written in the 1920s, with such pieces as his third and fourth string quartets, his first piano concerto, Out of Doors for solo piano, and his second sonata for violin and piano. At times, this music would get so dissonant as to border on atonality.

Though he insisted that his music, while using all twelve semitones, was tonal (a reaction to Schoenberg‘s atonal use of all twelve semitones), Bartók essentially abandoned the major/minor system in favour of one based on axes of symmetry. These axes are at the intervals of the diminished seventh chord; this isn’t to say that he made constant use of that particular chord, but that he would do modulations and chord changes–and use such scales at the octatonic (and its alpha chord)–based on the minor third, the tritone, and the major sixth, pivot points, if you will, which are comparable to shifts from the major key to its relative minor, and vice versa.

These–at the time, unusual-sounding–melodic and harmonic experiments, as well as the extensive influence of the folk music of his native Hungary and neighbouring countries (around which he traveled much in his younger adulthood, recording and studying the music), give Bartók’s music its unique sound.

A few YouTube videos of performances of The Miraculous Mandarin can be found here, here, and here. A video with the score, which includes written indications of developments in the plot of the story, can be found here. And here is a link to the concert suite, which removes about a third of the score, mostly the last twelve or thirteen minutes, which musically depicts the tramps’ robbing and attempting to kill the mandarin.

Bartók insisted it was a pantomime rather than a ballet, since the only dancing in the story is supposed to occur when the pretty girl–forced to lure male victims into the tramps’ den to be robbed–seductively dances with the victims (Gillies, page 373); nonetheless, performances tend to have everyone dancing throughout–see the links above, and a few brief excerpts of performances in links given below. The pantomime begins with the chaos of the city. The orchestra assaults our ears with dissonances.

The second violins play a flurry of quick ascending and descending sixteenth notes in septuplets of G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#, up and down and up and down, the outer edges making a dissonant minor ninth. This up-and-down cycle I see as symbolic of the boom-and-bust economic cycle, a manifestation of the instability of the capitalist mode of production. Such economic uncertainty leads to an aggravation of crime, which in turn leads to the next issue.

A hectic rhythm in 6/8 time is heard with notes in minor seconds, a motif that will reappear whenever we encounter the violence of the tramps (also referred to sometimes as apaches or vagabonds), three male criminal thugs who find themselves without money and resolve to rob others, using a pretty girl to dance seductively and lure the victims in.

The brass section adds to the dissonance by imitating the honking of car horns. Flutes are now playing waves of shrill, quick chromatic notes in a manner similar to the opening second violin waves. The horns get much harsher. The violent tone of the pantomime has been established. We have in this music a vivid depiction of the neurotic, alienating, and violent modern urban world. The stage has been set for the entry of the three tramps. The curtain rises.

A tense theme is played on the violas (later taken over by the first violins) when we see the tramps; the first checks his pockets for money, and the second tramp checks the desk drawers of their den for money, of which they haven’t any. This lack of theirs gives rise to desire, which is one of the dominant themes of the pantomime, as we’ll see with the old rake, the shy young man, and especially the mandarin, when they behold the beauty of the dancing girl, who now appears on the stage.

The third tramp violently tells her to dance alluringly for any male passer-by, so they can sneak up on him and rob him. She refuses to, of course, but the tramps force her to all the same. Here we see how desire gives rise to suffering, just as lack gave rise to desire–the three go round and round in a cycle–for the tramps, lacking money and desiring it, are now exploiting her for the hopes of gain. Such exploitation is the essence of the relations between the owners of the means of production (the capitalists) and those who have only their labour to sell to survive (the proletariat).

Thus we see how the tramps, in spite of their momentary pennilessness, represent the bourgeoisie. Their den represents the land and means of production owned by the capitalist class. The girl, who can do nothing other than dance and arouse men’s lust, has only her body to sell; thus, she represents the disenfranchised working class. She is being, in essence, a prostitute for the pimp tramps (and pimps, as mafia, are a perfect metaphor for capitalists, as I’ve argued elsewhere); small wonder The Miraculous Mandarin was banned on moral grounds.

There is probably no worse example of worker exploitation than that of pimps exploiting prostitutes, something euphemistically expressed in this pantomime through the girl’s erotic dancing. Thus we can easily see why Lenin, in his agenda to promote equality for women, wanted to end prostitution.

The concert suite version of The Miraculous Mandarin cuts out a brief section of the music at around this point, at a ritardando when the girl refuses to dance for male passers-by. We hear a plaintive melody played on the first violins; then, when the tramps repeat their brutish demand of her and she, however reluctantly, acquiesces, the section cut out from the suite ends, and the discords in the music sadly begin to calm down in a decrescendo. The girl is about to do her first seductive dance.

She begins a lockspiel–a “decoy game”–by a window to attract the first victim. We hear a clarinet solo as she dances. The first victim is an old rake, who sees her and is immediately enticed by her. Musically, he is represented by trombone glissandi spanning a minor third, which is an important interval heard at various points throughout the pantomime.

A minor third is suggestive of sadness. It is significant that we hear so much of it in this piece, for it reflects the universality of suffering as experienced in the world of this story. Hearing the minor thirds in the trombone glissandi, representing the lecherous old rake, is important in how it links lack and suffering with desire, an important combined theme in The Miraculous Mandarin.

As György Kroó explains in his analysis of the pantomime: “The minor third has a special function in The Miraculous Mandarin. Because of the central role of the ‘desire’ motif this interval is the differentia specifica in the work’s score.” (Gillies, page 380)

As the shabby old rake lustfully watches her dance, she asks if he has any money, during which time we hear a flirtatious melody on the cor anglais. He replies, “Never mind money! All that matters is love.” Useless to the tramps, the penniless man is thrown out, at which time we hear the tense 6/8 motif with the minor seconds.

Part of how the capitalist class keeps the poor in control is by dividing them; one common division is made between the sexes. We’ve already seen how women are exploited and injured because of this divisive use of sex roles, in making women into sex objects. Men have their lust exploited through how society addicts them to beautiful women; and if men don’t provide money, they’re deemed useless, as the old rake is, and as the shy boy will be.

The girl returns to the window and resumes her dancing. We hear the clarinet again during this second lockspiel. The shy young man appears, and he is as captivated by her beauty as the old rake was. His shyness makes his seduction more difficult; the clarinet solo is longer and more florid.

Soon, he and the girl dance to a haunting theme on the bassoon, a melody featuring tritones, in 5/4 time, backed up by rising notes on the harp; then the theme is played on the flute, then there are crescendi and decrescendi on the clarinet, suggesting a heating-up of the dancers’ passion. Finally, the haunting theme is heard briefly on two solo violins, and finally, climactically on all the first and second violins. The boy has been successfully drawn into the den, where the hiding tramps are poised to strike.

They attack the boy, and we hear the opening 6/8 motif with the minor seconds again. The tramps learn that the shy young man hasn’t any money either, so he is quickly thrown out, too.

The girl gets ready to do a third lockspiel at the window, and we hear the solo clarinet again. This time, a wealthy mandarin appears at the door. We hear a kind of parody of a stereotypically pentatonic Asian melody here, harmonized in tritones. She is terrified of him; next, we hear three loud brass glissandi (trombones and tuba) in descending minor thirds (recall how the minor third suggests sadness, so in this moment of the tramps’ desire of the mandarin’s money, and the mandarin’s growing desire of the girl, we have desire again as the cause of suffering). The mandarin stands immobile at the doorway, and her dancing only very slowly arouses his desire.

An interesting question needs to be addressed here: why a mandarin, of all male victims, to be the most important one of the story? György Kroó explains: “The chief male figure of the pantomime, the mandarin, is not typical of modern urban society–as are all the other characters–but is a force existing outside society. He is, to some extent, an unreal and symbolic figure. It is this unreality and symbolism which lend him a fearful greatness, enabling him to stand isolated above the world of the vagabonds, and to defy them. But the mandarin’s triumph is only symbolic: he raises the girl to his own level of existence by making her aware of herself as a human being and aware of the existence of true love. For this victory, of course, the mandarin has to die, and the girl is left standing beside his body, shocked and lost in wonder, unable now by herself to progress to a better life, unable alone to oppose the evil surrounding her.” (Gillies, pages 372-373)

This “force existing outside society,” an East Asian in a European city, can be seen to personify the East Asian Third World, just as the girl represents the exploited proletariat of the First World. The tramps, representing the rapacious bourgeoisie, have failed to get any money from the men of their own society, so they must find riches from men of foreign countries.

What we see being expressed here allegorically is the shift into imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, as Lenin theorized. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall forces capitalists to seek out counteracting factors, one of the chief ones of these in the modern world being the exploitation of foreign markets. The robbing of, and violence against, the mandarin thus represents the invasion and plunder of the Third World.

We often speak of the Third World as poor, as undeveloped or underdeveloped. Actually, these countries are rich, like the mandarin who personifies them in the pantomime. It’s the people of the Third World who are poor, like the mandarin after he’s been robbed and brutalized. The Global South isn’t underdeveloped, it’s overexploited.

The China of the time that The Miraculous Mandarin was composed and premiered was similarly exploited by imperialism; but like the defiant mandarin, Mao Zedong stood up to the imperialists. (More will be said below about how The Miraculous Mandarin can be retroactively allegorized on contemporary China.)

As I said above, the girl is scared of the mandarin and runs off to the other side of the room. Much of her reason for being scared is presumably out of xenophobia and racism against Asians, a common feeling in the West, especially at that time. In the context of the allegory I’m presenting, this xenophobia is significant, for it is a kind of tragic flaw that will ensure that the girl can never escape her exploitation (refer back to the Kroó quote above).

After the loud brass dissonant introduction of the mandarin, the music dies down with the sound of minor thirds in decrescendo in the French horns (F# and A). At this point, the concert suite cuts out another short passage of the music, during which we hear cello, bass, and viola pizzicatos in the background, and the tramps push the girl to get over her fears and dance to lure in the mandarin.

The concert suite resumes with the music at the point in the story when the girl, however reluctantly, begins to dance for the mandarin. We hear flurries of shrill, quick ascending and descending notes in the piccolo and celesta, with a dark back-up in the pizzicato and arco cellos. As I said above, the mandarin’s desire is aroused much slower than that of the previous two men, but when his desire is at its peak, it’s an explosion of lust.

His intensity of passion makes us realize that the mandarin doesn’t merely lust after her. Sexual desire for her is there, to be sure, but for him to survive the lethal assaults of the tramps means that his feelings for her must be more than merely physical. He is touched by her, as I see it: he sees not only her beauty and sex appeal, but also her vulnerability and suffering because of the tramps.

My allegory can explain the transcendent nature of his desire. I say that she represents the Western proletariat; he represents the exploited Third World. Sexual union between the two thus represents the needed solidarity of the global proletariat. He wants her because he empathizes with her.

The relative comforts of living in the First World, even for the working poor amongst us, cause us to have limited revolutionary potential. The desperate poverty of the Third World, on the other hand, gives the people suffering there far greater revolutionary potential (consider that huge general strike in India to see my point).

The girl is repelled by the mandarin, just as the First World poor pay far too little attention to the suffering of those in the Third World. The mandarin’s desire for the girl grows and grows, just as the poor of the Global South, growing ever more desperate, needs the help of the First World (consider the oppression of the Palestinians to see my point).

The girl gets over her inhibitions, and she and the mandarin begin dancing a waltz whose melody is full of minor thirds and tritones. Again, we see lack and sorrow (symbolized by the minor thirds and the diabolus in musica) linked with desire (the soon-to-be lovers’ romantic waltz).

As I said above, his desire isn’t merely lust. It’s more of a Lacanian desire, the desire of the Other, to be what the Other wants, to be recognized by the Other (in this case being, of course, the girl). This wish for recognition from the Other, to be as desired of the Other as one desires the Other, means we’re not dealing with the selfish lust of the old rake or the shy young man. Those two just wanted to get from her; the mandarin wants to get and to give. This wish for desire to be mutual between the mandarin and the girl again, in the context of my allegory, represents the need for solidarity among the oppressed of the world.

The waltz that they dance grows louder, faster, and more impassioned, and the hitherto reticent mandarin suddenly goes wild with desire, terrifying the girl. He chases her all over the tramps’ den. The music gets barbarically dissonant, with pounding drums and a fugue passage representing (fittingly, given the etymology of fugue) his pursuit of the girl. He seizes her, and they struggle.

After this music reaches its most chaotic, brutal point, the concert suite ends with four bars in 2/2, and a tense chord featuring minor thirds is played three times to give the suite a sense of finality. (This three-chord repetition isn’t heard in the full pantomime performance.) It is at this point that the tramps come out of hiding and attack the mandarin. The music isn’t as loud now, but it’s still just as tense.

The tramps strip him of his riches and finery. All he can do is stare longingly at the girl. Having wondered what to do with the mandarin now that they’ve taken all of his valuables, the tramps decide to kill him. This violence against him symbolizes the plunder of the Third World, the taking of its valuable resources and the killing of anyone living there who dares to resist.

The tramps grab pillows and blankets, put them on the mandarin’s head, and try to smother him by sitting on him. After a while, they figure he must be dead and get off of him. The music softens. He’s still alive and looking at the girl. His would-be killers are amazed and horrified.

The tramps make a second attempt to kill him; this time, one of them grabs a sword and stabs him three times with it. Still, he won’t die. Still, he stares at the girl. The tramps cannot believe their eyes.

This miraculous refusal to die may remind us, in a symbolic way, of how the victims of imperialism won’t back down after being invaded. To see what I mean, look not only at the Chinese resistance to Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 40s, not only at the USSR’s successful repelling of the White Army during the civil war of around the years 1918-1921, and of the Nazis during WWII; but also look at the continued resistance to the American empire in Afghanistan and Iraq. China is a miraculous mandarin in its own right these days, surrounded by US military bases, and on the receiving end of hostility from Hong Kong and Taiwan; but China keeps getting stronger and stronger…and richer.

A third attempt is made to kill the mandarin, this time by hanging him from a lamp hook. It falls to the floor, and instead of the hanging killing him, the light of the lamp goes out and seems to be transferred onto him, for now he–always with his eyes on the girl–is glowing with a greenish-blue aura. A wordless chorus (alto and basso at first; later, tenors and sopranos will harmonize) begins singing a melody in mostly minor thirds as he glows, suggesting a superhuman quality in him.

This superhuman quality of the mandarin, with the suffering he’s being put through while cheating death, suggests a Christ symbolism for him. His hanging from the lamp can be associated with the Crucifixion, while his glow–suggesting the spiritual body of the Resurrection–and the almost angelic choral singing lend a kind of mysticism to him.

Now, when I compare the mandarin to Christ, I don’t mean the ecclesiastical Christ whose “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), He who died on the Cross to save us from our sins; rather, I mean the Jewish messianic conception–that of the revolutionary who attempted a defiance of ancient imperial Rome. This was the Jesus of such books as Hyam Maccoby‘s Revolution in Judea, in keeping with the anti-imperialist allegory I’ve been outlining here.

The desire that this messianic mandarin has for the girl can thus be associated with the sexual desire expressed in the Song of Songs, as allegorized as the love of Christ for his Church (i.e., the girl). So this mandarin, in his defiance of the brutality of the exploitative tramps (symbolic of capitalist imperialists), is making revolutionary overtures to the girl (representing the First World proletariat), hoping she’ll join him in solidarity against their oppressors (i.e., through their sexual union).

Finally, she realizes what must be done. She understands the true nature of his desires, and just as he is touched by her vulnerability and suffering under her exploitation, so is she touched by his love for her: this is the only reason she could have for doing what she’s about to do. She has the tramps untie the mandarin. She lets him have her.

Now, she satisfies his desire, but it’s far too late: the injuries that the tramps have inflicted on him can’t be undone. His wounds open, and he finally dies, with lethargic, anticlimactic music playing as he collapses on the floor bleeding, her watching in horror. This ending relates to my allegory in the following way. There is a danger in not responding quickly enough to the call for revolution in today’s late stage capitalism. The global proletariat must unite, and they must do so…fast!

As with sex roles, racism and xenophobia are used by the ruling class to divide the people. Look at Trump’s “Build the wall!” nonsense to see my point. The excessive nationalism of fascism is used to prevent international solidarity.

The girl’s xenophobic prejudice against the mandarin is what makes her take so long to unite with him. Imagine if, instead, not only were she and the mandarin to unite immediately upon meeting each other, but if they, the shy young man, the old rake, and any other men potentially tempted by her dancing, were to combine their strengths against the tramps and end their exploitation and victimization once and for all?

Selfishness and alienation are inimical to the solidarity of the people against their ultimate enemy, the capitalist class. Now that the mandarin is dead, the girl is alone against the now-monied tramps. She is in an evil trap she cannot escape.

In composing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók was warning of the growing evils of the world. “Between 1919 and 1924, while working on this work, Bartók was experiencing a great sense of loneliness. He felt quite isolated in his efforts to warn society of the evils he could see. By setting the ‘elemental life force’ in opposition to ‘degraded emotion’, he cried ‘No!’ to the world of evil, and to the immorality of the dehumanized apaches. And as an example to those who had confidence and hope, he presented the figure of the mandarin who, like Bartók himself, is a constant reminder of courage in opposition, determination in thought and feeling–the very triumph of man.” (Gillies, pages 383-384)

Consider the evils of today’s world, the contemporary exacerbation of those Bartók had been aware of a century ago. Consider what might happen if we lack the “courage in opposition” and “determination in thought and feeling” needed to end those evils. Though the danger of nuclear war between the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other, is more than possible, all we need to do to end life on the Earth is to continue to be passive in the face of growing climate change. Then the moribund musical ending of the pantomime will express what TS Eliot once did: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Malcolm Gillies, editor, The Bartók Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1993

Analysis of ‘Black Christmas’

Black Christmas is a 1974 Canadian horror film produced and directed by Bob Clark and written by A. Roy Moore. It was inspired by the urban legend “the babysitter and the man upstairs” and a series of murders that took place in the Westmount neighbourhood of MontrealQuebec. The film stars Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, and John Saxon, with Doug McGrath, Marian Waldman, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, and Nick Mancuso (and Clark) providing the voice(s) of Billy (with cameraman Bert Dunk providing Billy’s POV).

Black Christmas is considered an early example of a slasher film, having established most, if not all, of the genre’s tropes (murderer’s POV, holiday setting, final girl), as well as being a major influence on such films as John Carpenter‘s Halloween. While it initially got a mixed critical reception, the film’s reputation has improved over the years, and it is now considered by many to be one of the best horror films ever made. Two markedly inferior remakes were done in 2006 and 2019.

Here are some quotes:

“You’re a real gold-plated whore, Mother, you know that?” –Barb, on the phone

“Let me lick ya, you pretty piggy cunt!” –Billy, on the phone

Clare: [about the obscene phone call] Could that really be just one person?
Barb: No, Clare, it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call.

“Why don’t you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it, that will give you a charge?” –Barb, to Billy on the phone

“I’ll stick my tongue up your pretty pussy!” –Billy, to Barb on the phone

“You fucking creep!” –Barb, to Billy on the phone

“I’m going to kill you.” –Billy, to Barb on the phone

[after the mysterious caller hangs up] Clare: I really don’t think you should provoke somebody like that, Barb.
Barb: Oh listen, this guy is minor league. In the city, I get two of those a day.
Clare: Well, maybe. But you know that town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago.
Barb: Darling, you can’t rape a townie.

“Speaking of professional virgins, here we have the Queen of Vaudeville circa 1891.” –Barb, upon seeing that Mrs. Mac is coming inside the house

“Well, thank you, girls. It’s lovely, really…” [muttering] “Got about as much use for this as I do a chastity belt.” –Mrs. Mac, on her nightgown gift

“Little baby bunting/Daddy’s went a-hunting/Gonna fetch a rabbit skin to wrap his baby Agnes in.” –Billy, softly singing after having killed Clare

“I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys.” –Mr. Harrison, of Clare

“These broads would hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get up there!” –Mrs. Mac, of her sorority girls

“Oh goddammit, Claude, you little prick!” –Mrs. Mac, of her cat

“You know, for a public servant I think your attitude really sucks!” –Barb, to Sergeant Nash

Sergeant Nash: Excuse me? Could you give me the number at the sorority house? Please?
Barb: Yeah, sure. It’s, ah… Fellatio 20880. Fellatio. It’s a new exchange, FE.
Sergeant Nash: That’s a new one on me. How do you spell it?
Barb: Capital F, E, little L, L-A, T-I-O.
Sergeant Nash: Thanks.
Barb: Don’t mention it.

“Nash, you stupid son of a bitch! You’ve got a big goddamn mouth!” –Chris

“Filthy Billy, I know what you did, nasty Billy!” –Billy

Barb: Did you know, this is a very little known fact, but… did you know that there’s a certain species of turtle that… there’s a certain species of turtle that can screw for three days without stopping. You don’t believe me, do you? Well, I-I mean, how could I make something like that up?
Mrs. Mac: Ah, Barb, dear, ah, I-I-I-ah…
Barb: No, really! They just… three days, 24 hours a day, wha-voom! Wha-voom! Wha-voom! Can you believe that, three days? I’m lucky if I get three minutes! Do you know how I know this? Because I went down to the zoo and I watched them. It was very boring. Well actually, um, I, uh, didn’t stay for the whole three days, I went over and I watched the zebras, because they only take thirty seconds! Premature ejaculation!

“Alligators come through the gate, but goodbye leg if ya get away late! Lollies love to pop!” –Mrs. Mac, singing as she packs her suitcase

“Nash, I don’t think you could pick your nose without written instructions.” –Lt. Fuller

Billy: [referring to her potential abortion] Just like having a wart removed.
Jess: Oh, my God!

Sergeant Nash: [after Sergeant Nash calls the sorority house] Who is this?
Jess: It’s Jess.
Sergeant Nash: Ah, Ms. Bradford, eh, this is Sergeant Nash. Are you the only one in the house?
Jess: No. Phyl and Barb are upstairs asleep. Why?
Sergeant Nash: All right. Now, I want you to do exactly what I tell you without asking any questions, okay? [Jess tries to ask something] No, no, no… no questions. Now, just put the phone back on the hook, walk to the front door and leave the house.
Jess: What’s wrong?
Sergeant Nash: Please, Ms. Bradford, please just do as I tell you.
Jess: Okay. I’ll get Phyl and Barb.
Sergeant Nash: No, no, no! Don’t do that, Jess… Jess, the caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house!

While Christmas is supposed to be a time of love and togetherness, in this film, feelings of alienation permeate the story from beginning to end. The alienation felt by Billy, the killer, is just the tip of the iceberg on these cold December nights.

At the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house on 6 Belmont Street, the sorority sisters are having a Christmas party. Jessica Bradford (Hussey–in Lee Hays’s 1976 novelization, Jess’s surname is Bradley) answers the phone; the mother of Barbara Coard (Kidder–Barbara Pollard in the novelization) wants to talk to her. At the end of the phone conversation, Barb is frowning (she’s so mad at her mom, she calls her “a gold-plated whore”); she’s been drinking, as usual, and she hopes that Jess, Phyllis Carlson (Martin–Phyllis Thompson in the novelization), and Clare Harrison (Griffin) will go skiing with her, in compensation for what Barb knows will be a minimal family get-together this Christmas. Her drinking, as is that of Mrs. MacHenry (Waldman), the sorority mother, is a manic defence against facing her unhappiness.

Phyll’s boyfriend, Patrick (played by Michael Rapport), will be annoyed that she won’t be available for him if she goes skiing with Barb. He’ll have to dress up as Santa for a charity gift-giving for poor kids, whom he calls “little bastards.” Already we have a sense of alienation at a time when alienation should be the last thing on people’s minds.

Speaking of swearing Santas, Billy is an evil Santa Claus of sorts, when we consider how he gets into the house by climbing up a trellis along the side of the house and entering the attic, which parallels Santa’s going down the chimney–as much a surprise breaking-and-entering of a house, when you come to think about it, as Billy’s is. He will proceed to go down from the attic to hide in the shadows of the second floor (little kids never see Santa coming, either), to make obscene phone calls to the girls, and then–instead of giving gifts–he’ll take lives.

Indeed, obscenity permeates this film as much as alienation does. We hear a consistently recurring array of four-letter words throughout the film, especially during the first of Billy’s phone calls, during which he tells of his wish to perform cunnilingus on and receive fellatio from the girls. They listen to his grunting voice with fear…and fascination–this latter feeling especially being Barb’s.

Indeed, tipsy Barb trivializes the words of the “pervert,” saying “he’s expanded his act,” which is “not bad,” and he’s “the fastest tongue in the West.” When sweet, virginal Clare warns bad-girl Barb not to provoke the man Jess calls “the Moaner,” telling of a recent rape in the town, Barb shows Clare a similar contempt. (Actually, Barb is getting back at Clare for not going skiing with her.)

This preoccupation with obscenity during the holiday season, presumed to be a time of innocent pleasures, is symbolic of the moral obscenity that Christmas in the modern world has become. Largely no longer a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ (which in turn was a Christianizing of the pagan Winter Solstice, a celebration of the rebirth of the sun god), Christmas has become a consumerist excuse to go shopping and spend a lot of money so capitalists can make big profits. And with capitalism comes alienation.

We see the problem of Christmas consumerism dramatized in Mrs. Mac’s entry into the sorority house lugging all those gifts. As it says in the novelization, “Shopping! Last minute shopping. Serves me right for waiting. Oh, my God, the people who are buyers for these shops must take tacky lessons. I’ve never seen such garbage in all my life. And the prices . . .” What’s more, she is a middle-aged version of Barb: she’s a foul-mouthed alcoholic the source of whose emotional problems, I suspect (as I also do of Barb), is a lack of sexual fulfillment.

The constant use of sexual language–especially by a middle-aged woman who presumably was raised never to use dirty words, back in the years when the prudish Production Code didn’t allow their use in movies–suggests repressed sexual frustration that resurfaces in the conscious mind in the substitutive form of obscene language. Mrs. Mac, I’m guessing, has been a widow for many years, and her lax attitude towards the carefree sex life of the sorority sisters is a projection of her own wish to be sexual.

In the alienated modern world, the physical contact of promiscuous sex (or at least the wish for it) is a perverse compensation for the kind of close human connection (physical or not) that should exist between people, especially at Christmastime. For lonely, alienated people like Barb and Mrs. Mac, drinking and indulgence in obscene language are substitutes for that needed contact: drinking can be linked to an oral fixation connected with a wish to give or receive oral sex (recall Barb’s fascination with Billy’s obscene phone call, as well as her telling dim-witted Sergeant Nash [McGrath] that the “new exchange” includes the word fellatio).

Note in this connection what WRD Fairbairn had to say about pleasure-seeking (e.g. drinking, sex) as a poor substitute for the nurturing of loving relationships with other people, what he called ‘object-relationships.’ Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

Furthermore, while Christmas is the time of the Virgin Birth, the perverse world of Black Christmas doesn’t have holy virgins, but bitter, potty-mouthed ones. If they aren’t literal virgins, they are at least symbolic ones in the form of sexually frustrated women and Billy, a presumed incel. On the other side of the coin, Jess, pregnant with the child of her pianist boyfriend, Peter Smythe (Dullea), would rather have an abortion than give birth…during the time of the celebration of the Holy Birth.

So what we have in Black Christmas is a dialectical clash of tradition with modernity: sorority sisters who used to be all virgins are now in sexual relationships with young men, much to the chagrin of Clare’s conservative father, Mr. Harrison (played by James Edmond); families that used to be close are torn apart; only a year after Roe vs. Wade, when huge masses of people still regarded abortion as murder, Jess wants to terminate her pregnancy; people frequently curse when before they only sparingly did, which was not so long before the 1970s; and finally, men’s dominance over women is beginning to weaken.

Indeed, just as Barb and Mrs. Mac are female doubles, so are Billy and Peter male doubles. Apart from the suspicion that Peter is the murderer, both young men are a kind of inadequate male who tries to compensate for his weaknesses by controlling women–Billy by terrorizing and murdering them, and Peter by posturing as a patriarch whose ‘proposal’ of marriage to Jess is essentially a command.

Jess bravely refuses to be imprisoned in marriage and motherhood, a sacrificing of her own dreams of a career. Peter claims she can still do anything she wants while married and having the baby, but we all know how disingenuous such a claim is: motherhood and career are on a collision course, and she would far likelier acquiesce to the domestic duties than Peter would become a househusband.

As I said above, Billy’s way of compensating for his inadequacies, that is, his way of dominating women, is to terrorize and kill them. When Barb refuses to be intimidated by his obscene phone call, the insecure male resorts to threatening to kill her, which of course he does later on. But first, he goes after Clare, Mrs. Mac, and a school girl whose body is found in a park during a community search of the area one cold night.

The way Clare and Mrs. Mac are killed suggests a grisly parody of Christmas decorations: Clare’s head is wrapped up in plastic, like a gift Billy has given himself; and Mrs. Mac has a hook in her neck, making her head into a kind of ball ornament hung on a Christmas tree.

The murder weapon used on sleeping Barb is an interesting one: the horn of a unicorn statuette is stabbed into her gut. The choice of the unicorn reinforces my theory that she is, if not a virgin, at least scarcely sexually experienced, “lucky if [she can] get three minutes” of sex. We all know of the association of unicorns with women’s virginity, which in this film lacks its traditional association with maidenly virtue, but rather is something to be embarrassed about in our modern-day world.

The symbolism of the unicorn, as used in this movie, goes beyond its mere association with a maiden’s virginity, though. Recall that Black Christmas, as opposed to the traditional, sweet and innocent white Christmas, subverts and perverts the wholesome ideas associated with the holiday. Such is the way the unicorn symbolism is used here; but to understand this subversion, we must first explore the old traditions about unicorns, virgins, and the Christian faith.

There’s an old medieval tradition about entrapping a unicorn by using a naked virgin. The unicorn lies in her lap, and hunters catch it, kill it, and use its horn and body for their medicinal properties. Here, the unicorn represents Christ by lying with its horn in the lap of the virgin, which in turn represents the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary; and the hunters who kill it represent, on the one hand, the Romans who crucified Christ, and on the other hand the Church in which one takes Communion (i.e., using the unicorn’s medicinal properties).

In our Black Christmas perversion of this tradition, however, the unicorn isn’t the Saviour, but rather the murder weapon. Here, Jesus doesn’t save; He kills. The unicorn’s horn doesn’t lie in the virgin’s lap; it’s stabbed into her gut. The virgin isn’t Holy Mary, the Mother of God, but sexually frustrated, dirty-minded drinker Barb, who’d have drunk all the wine Christ made from water at the wedding at Cana. And the hunters are neither the Romans nor the Holy Church, but rather they are represented in deeply disturbed Billy.

It’s interesting in this connection to note how Billy, our Satanic Santa, says, “Agnes, it’s me, Billy” while holding the unicorn statuette that otherwise would represent Christ. Apart from the fact that Agnes is a Christian saint, the name sounds like a pun on agnus, as in Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In this film’s perversion of Christian traditions, the only thing Billy is taking away are human lives from the world…and in this scene, he’s taking away sinner Barb’s life while a chorus of children are singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (“O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”) on the front porch of the sorority house.

…and who is Agnes, and what are all those voices Billy is using in his creepy phone calls? On one level, one could imagine him to be possessed of demons, this Satan Santa, as contrasted with the spirit of St. Nicholas. (In the novelization, Billy frequently says he wishes someone could stop him from killing, as if devils are forcing him to do it.) On another level, he seems to be impersonating the voices of his parents and little sister, Agnes, as if repeatedly reliving a childhood trauma.

Now, does this idea that Billy could be demonically possessed contradict the idea that he is reliving a childhood trauma by mimicking the voices of his family members? I don’t think so…not if one sees possession as symbolic of his family members as internal objects haunting his thoughts every day and night.

In his paper on the repression and return of bad objects, Fairbairn makes an interesting comparison of them to demons possessing someone. “At this point it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn, page 67)

Did Billy, as an already dangerously disturbed little boy, sexually abuse his sister Agnes? Did he kill her? Is the former crime what he’s alluding to by saying, “Don’t tell them what we did,” and “pretty Agnes”? Is he tormented with guilt for what he did, yet–having his family’s object relations as his social blueprint, as it were, for all subsequent relationships–compelled to repeat the same violence with all other females, they being, in his mind, recurring versions of Agnes?

To ease his guilt and torment, he uses regression to a childish state as a defence mechanism, hence the babyish voice he often uses. Since Christmas is a time especially appealing to children, and a time we all nostalgically look back on to remember our own happy childhoods, Black Christmas uses Billy’s childish regression as yet another perverse parody of such childlike feelings.

Peter, as a double of Billy, is also showing signs of mental instability. The very thought of Jess aborting their baby is enough to shake him up so badly that he completely blows it at his piano performance in front of his stony-faced judges. Does he hit pretty much every key wrong, or is he playing an atonal piece, like one of those of Schoenberg, yet he and the judges know the piece so well that they can hear the difference between the exact pitches of the expected dissonant notes and tone clusters and Peter’s many mistakes? Either way, those discords–combined with Peter’s later smashing of the piano and the bansheelike, scraping, creepy piano effects of the soundtrack, heard whenever the killer is near–reinforce not only the doubling of Peter and Billy, but also the fear that Peter could indeed be the killer.

Though Peter is obviously no virgin, his fear of Jess getting an abortion means the danger, in his mind, of him failing to be a procreator. In traditional, patriarchal societies, it is considered as shameful for a man as it is for a woman to be childless. Since Peter has failed to create music, his failure to create a child will be emotionally disastrous for him. Such a failure will be tantamount to him remaining a virgin.

I suspect Sergeant Nash is a virgin, too. His slow-wittedness and insensitivity to people’s urgent needs will make him totally unappealing to women…and even the average virgin knows what fellatio means! His assumption that missing Clare is shacked up with a boyfriend–so offensive to Chris (Hindle), her actual boyfriend, who doesn’t want her conservative father to think of him as the kind of man who wants to corrupt her–is a projection of his own wish to get laid once in a while.

Mrs. Mac, as I’ve noted above, is at least symbolically a virgin. The nightgown her sorority sisters buy her, in its hideousness, is as useful to her “as…a chastity belt,” that is, it’s of no use to her at all. She doesn’t need a chastity belt; she already isn’t getting any, and as with Barb, her dirty mouth is a reaction formation against her never doing anything dirty in bed.

Now, this lack of, or far too scanted, sexual connection is symbolic of a scanted human connection, a lack of connection that’s particularly conspicuous during the holiday season, when human connection is supposed to be at its height…or so society would condition us to think. This symbolism brings us back to the theme of alienation I brought up at the beginning of this analysis.

Telephone calls are a perfect symbol of how mutually alienated people try to connect. One talks with someone from far away. Communicating face-to-face is far better. As Jess says in the novelization, telephone calls are “so damned impersonal”…and what is Billy’s choice method of communication?

This sense of social distancing vitiates the holiday spirit, but in Black Christmas, togetherness is also subverted and made perverse. Billy’s imitating of the voices of his family members is a perverse parody of the notion of family togetherness, when we know he’s up there all alone in the attic. If those voices are meant to indicate demonic possession, we have in that a perversion of the notion of the Christmas spirit; just as Barb’s and Mrs. Mac’s alcoholism can be seen as such a perversion, for as Ian Anderson once sang, “That Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”

This perverse sublation of togetherness and alienation is at its height when we consider how those obscene phone calls are coming from the house. So close, yet so far away. Nash’s blunt telling Jess what we, the audience, have known from the beginning, is considered one of the scariest moments in horror movie history. It’s so scary because we empathize with Jess’s shock at learning not only the proximity of the killer, but also presuming that her boyfriend–in the house at the time of a previous call, which supposedly has eliminated him as a suspect–is in fact the killer.

We the audience feel this empathy for her in a film in which all the characters generally show far too little empathy for each other during a season that’s supposed to inspire a maximum of love. Phyll tearfully empathizes with Mr. Harrison over his fears of what’s happened to Clare; Chris empathizes, too. Even Nash shows some sympathy for Jess when he clumsily tells her not to go upstairs to see if Phyll and Barb are OK (they’re dead). But none of this empathy is anywhere near enough.

We never properly see Billy’s face: we see only a shadowy silhouette, Seventies hair, and his piercing eyes (when he raises the unicorn to stab Barb, and when his one eye is seen through the door crack). The moviemakers wanted us to know as little about Billy as possible, to make him scarier. This lack of knowing who he is reinforces the sense of alienation; yet the innovative use of POV shots, making us see the world through the killer’s eyes, perversely makes us…almost…sympathize with him. Again, in this presentation of Billy, we see the perverse sublation of empathy for and alienation from him.

Such a sublation is indicative of our own alienated world: we aren’t connected to each other, so we don’t know each other as we should. We’d prefer to know each other perversely, though, ‘in the Biblical sense,’ as Barb and Mrs. Mac do. (Is Mrs. Mac’s affected charm on Mr. Harrison, apart from her wish not to get into trouble for her laxity with the sorority girls, used out of a hope that he’ll pursue her, while her giving him the finger is from her frustration with his conservative prudery and lack of interest in her, his unwillingness to respond to her ‘come hither’ signals and cues?)

Billy chases Jess into the basement, the dialectical opposite of the attic. She’ll be the killer of an innocent this time (Peter may be a sexist jerk, but he isn’t Billy), with that phallic poker in her hands. Indeed, as an early example of a final girl in an early slasher film, Jess is quite a prototypical movie feminist. She not only bravely confronts (and vanquishes he whom she believes to be) the killer, she has earlier defied Peter in refusing to back down from getting an abortion, as well as refusing to give up her career dreams just to be a mother.

So, in being Jess’s antifeminist adversary, Peter is in this additional way a double of misogynist Billy. Yet, in being in the basement and killing Peter, rather than Billy descending from the attic and killing girls, Jess is dialectically playing the killer’s role.

We can understand the dialectical relationship between the attic and the basement when we consider what they, as well as the ground and second floors, represent psychoanalytically in terms of Fairbairn’s endo-psychic personality structure. The ground and second floor of the sorority sisters’ house, being where, of course, the vast majority of the socializing happens, represents Fairbairn’s notion of the Central Ego (roughly equivalent to Freud‘s ego), linked to the Ideal Object (“ideal” because people seeking relationships with real people in the real world, as opposed to the loved and hated objects of one’s imagination, is the desired…and therefore healthy…form of object-seeking).

In contrast, the attic represents Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (roughly equivalent to Freud’s id), linked to the Exciting Object (e.g., movie stars, sports heroes, rock and pop stars, porn stars, etc.). Billy’s pathological libido targets sorority girls with obscene phone calls, then after killing Clare and Mrs. Mac, he brings their bodies (his Exciting Objects) up into the attic. He kills them because he wishes to possess them. Were the police not to intervene, Billy would bring the bodies of Barb and Phyll up into the attic, too…as I imagine he’ll do with Jess, assuming he really kills her in the end.

The basement represents Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego (vaguely comparable to Freud’s harshly judgemental superego), linked to the Rejecting Object, or Internal Saboteur. Jess, assuming Peter to be the killer, not only rejects his advances towards her in the basement, but also bashes his brains in with the poker.

Though opposites (i.e., the top and bottom of the house), the attic and basement share a dialectical unity in terms of their symbolism as unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships between the self and other, or the subject and object. One isn’t supposed to relate to others in a fantasy world of imagination, be they such desirable objects as, say, pornographic models and actors/actresses–Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object–or the hated people of one’s imagination–Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object or Internal Saboteur. We’re supposed to relate to real people in the real world–Central Ego/Ideal Object.

Though most of the action of the film takes place on the ground and second floors, crucial plot points occur in the attic and basement: Billy’s entry into the house through the attic window, his hiding up there, his ‘decorating’ of the attic with Clare’s and Mrs. Mac’s corpses, his temper tantrum up there as a vivid indication of how disturbed he truly is, and Jess’s climactic confrontation with Peter in the basement. These crucial scenes thus direct the plot and character development of the film.

The secondary importance of the scenes on the ground and second floors, as much as they make up the majority of the film, symbolize how much lesser is the functioning of the Central Ego and Ideal Object, which is indicative of the extent to which alienation pervades the story. Indeed, we see a lot of alienation even on those two floors.

And this brings us to the final scenes of the film. The police arrive at the house, and a doctor sedates Jess. Since it’s assumed that Peter is the killer, the police see no need to search anywhere else in the house. Phyll’s and Barb’s bodies are taken away, and Lt. Fuller (Saxon) leaves with most of the other police to talk to news reporters at the police station, leaving only one policeman to stand guard outside, on the front porch of the house.

Now that he knows that a murderer has killed a few sorority girls, Mr. Harrison so fears the worst for Clare that he goes into shock. The doctor and Chris have to take him out of the house, Chris trying to reassure him that there’s hope that his daughter may still be alive.

This leaves sleeping, sedated Jess all alone on the second floor of the house. The camera slowly moves over to Clare’s room, then up to the attic, where Billy still is, and where his first two victims’ bodies remain as ghoulish ‘Christmas decorations’ to be seen through the window.

Whatever Jess’s fate ends up being, her being left alone in the house with the still-undiscovered killer, who ends the film with that ominous telephone ringing, perfectly sums up the alienation that the film so unflinchingly expresses. This black Christmas is one that’s dialectically opposed to the white Christmas that’s supposed to be what the holiday’s all about: estrangement instead of togetherness, frustrated lust instead of fulfilled love, fear and terror instead of “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” modern despair instead of the familiar comforts of tradition, and death instead of birth. Such alienation and loneliness add a chilling depth to the horror of the film.

Silent night, evil night.