Analysis of ‘Falling Down’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick: Yes, sir?

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

Rick: We stopped serving breakfast.

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

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

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

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

Rick: (sighs) Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Lee: How much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Foster: I’m the bad guy?

Prendergast: Yeah.

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

Prendergast: Yeah.

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

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

D-FENS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loitering and trespassing on private property.

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

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

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

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

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

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

D-FENS, in gangland.

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

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

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

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

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

He’d like to order some breakfast.

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

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

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

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

Prendergast.

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

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

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

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

“You missed.”

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

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

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

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

Bill and Beth.

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

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

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

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

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

“London Bridge is falling down…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

Scarface is a 1983 crime film directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s a remake of the 1932 film, which in turn was loosely based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, itself based on Al Capone, who also had the nickname of Scarface.

In the 1983 version, Tony Montana (Pacino) is a Cuban criminal who immigrates to the US and lives in Miami, Florida. He rises to wealth and power in the criminal underworld there selling cocaine. He’s always been a bad man, but the acquisition of wealth and power estranges him from everyone around him, leading to his self-destruction.

The film got a negative response initially, with much criticism over its violence (also a criticism of the 1932, pre-Production Code film) and strong language (indeed, the 1983 film is one of those, like The Big Lebowski, in which the word fuck is heard more often than in most other films). Its critical reputation has improved over the years, though, thanks in part to its status as a cult classic, and now the film is generally praised.

Here are some quotes:

Tony Montana: You a communist? Huh? How’d you like it, man? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. Do you wanna be like a sheep? Like all those other people? Baah! Baah!

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t have to listen to this bullshit!

Tony Montana: You wanna work eight, ten fucking hours? You own nothing, you got nothing! Do you want a chivato on every corner looking after you? Watching everything you do? Everything you say, man? Do you know I eat octopus three times a day? I got fucking octopus coming out of my fucking ears. I got the fuckin’ Russian shoes my feet’s comin’ through. How you like that? What, you want me to stay there and do nothing? Hey, I’m no fuckin’ criminal, man. I’m no puta or thief. I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fuckin’ human rights, now! [slams desk] Just like the President Jimmy Carter says. Okay?

Immigration Officer #1: Carter should see this human right. He’s really good. What do you say, Harry?

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t believe a word of this shit! They all sound the same to me. That son of a bitch Castro is shittin’ all over us. Send this bastard to Freedom Town. Let them take a look at him. Get him outta here.

Tony Montana: You know somethin’? You can send me anywhere. Here, there, this, that; it don’t matter. There’s nothing you can do to me that Castro has not done. Nothing! […]

“You tell your guys in Miami, your friend, it’d be a pleasure. You know, I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” –Tony

“What I try to tell you? This country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman. That’s why you gotta make your own moves.” –Tony, to Manny

Tony: You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!

Elvira: A true capitalist if ever I met one. […]

[to the guests at the restaurant] “What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!” –Tony

“Okay, Sosa. You wanna fuck with me? You fucking with the best! You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You little cockroaches… come on. You wanna play games? Okay, I’ll play with you. You wanna play rough? Okay! Say hello to my little friend!” –Tony, with a grenade-launcher-equipped M16A1

The film begins with footage of Fidel Castro announcing that the Cuban government is letting go of thousands of Cubans who refuse to cooperate with the Marxist-Leninist revolution. This Mariel boatlift is sent to Miami, Florida.

A huge portion of those on the boat are criminals, like Tony and his friends. They come to the US with nothing, and have to fend for themselves in a country that has never cared for the poor in a meaningful way. Contrast this with revolutionary Cuba, which has provided housing for pretty much everyone, as well as free education, free healthcare (training superb doctors who often go to poor or wartorn countries to give the afflicted medical aid), and usually low unemployment rates. All of this, in a Third World country saddled with an economic embargo for almost sixty years now!

Tony tries to charm his way through US immigration, the officers there not buying a word of his lies. He speaks of all of his family being dead, when his mother and kid sister (Mastrantonio) live right there in Miami. He speaks of being oppressed by the Cuban communists, when he, representative of capitalists, is hardly one to judge the faults of any political or economic system.

The officers ask him about the scar on his left cheek: he says they should see what he did to the boy who gave him the scar when he was a kid. That scar is symbolic of a narcissistic scar, the childhood cause of Tony’s criminal pathologies.

Narcissism on a pathological level is typically rooted in childhood emotional neglect, abuse, and a lack of empathy from one’s parents, as Heinz Kohut observed in such writings as his book, The Analysis of the Self: “The mother’s responsiveness to the child’s needs prevents traumatic delays before the narcissistic equilibrium is re-established after it has been disturbed, and if the shortcomings of the mother’s responses are of tolerable proportions, the infant will gradually modify the original boundlessness and blind confidence of his expectation of absolute perfection. […]

“If, however, the mother’s responses are grossly unempathic and unreliable, then the gradual withdrawal of cathexis from the imago of archaic unconditional perfection is disturbed; no transmuting internalization can take place; and the psyche continues to cling to a vaguely delimited imago of absolute perfection, does not develop the various internal functions which secondarily re-establish the narcissistic equilibrium–either (a) directly, through self-soothing, i.e., through the deployment of available narcissistic cathexes; or, (b) indirectly, via an appropriate appeal to the idealized parent–and remains thus relatively defenseless vis-à-vis the effects of narcissistic injuries…In general…they consist in a hypersensitivity to disturbances in the narcissistic equilibrium with a tendency to react to sources of narcissistic disturbance by mixtures of wholesale withdrawal and unforgiving rage.” (Kohut, pages 64-65)

Now, while Tony’s mother is justified in being–to put it mildly–disappointed in him for his criminal ways, one shouldn’t find it hard to believe, knowing Kohut’s insights, that she was probably lacking in motherly love for him when he was a boy. Tony’s quick temper, his fury sparked by any slight, or by any sense of having been dishonoured, is the essential manifestation of his narcissistic wound, which is central to his personality.

He won’t have the Cuban communists telling him what to do, or what to think, though he’s perfectly content to tell his kid sister, Gina, what to do or think (i.e., not give up her ‘maidenly virtue’ to any man). Indeed, with all his mafia criminal activity in Florida, he’d do well to have the communists tell him what to do and think.

Now in the ‘free’ capitalist world of the US, Tony quickly comes to hate being a dishwasher at a local Miami restaurant. Granted, any worker would rightly complain of the alienation inherent in being a wage slave, helping a boss make profits and not getting the full fruits of his labour; but with Tony, the narcissistic injury of being a ‘lowly’ worker is too much for him. He wants to rise high in the capitalist world, and the upper echelons of capitalism are filled with narcissists.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, gangsters make a perfect metaphor for capitalists, people who get rich off of people’s craving for commodities, here symbolized by cocaine. Hence, Tony becomes a drug lord, killing his way to the top, as many capitalists have done.

Indeed, every rung of the ladder that Tony climbs, he kills people, has them killed, or at least alienates them: first, there’s Rebenga, the Cuban communist he kills so he and his friends can get green cards; then, there’s Hector, with the chainsaw. Hector’s dismembering of Angel Fernandez with the chainsaw perfectly symbolizes the psychological fragmentation, disintegration, and alienation from oneself that capitalism causes.

Next, there’s the murder of Omar, whose arguing with Tony exemplifies the alienation between competing employees. Finally, the killing of Frank Lopez, for his attempt on Tony’s life, demonstrates the alienation between worker and boss.

Tony is alienated from his family–first, from his disapproving mother, then from Gina, who grows sick of his overprotective attitude, really his sense of the patriarchal family’s honour being tarnished.

Indeed, alienation and social isolation permeate this film. Few people are real friends with each other. Men chase women only for sex and to acquire females as social jewelry, so to speak, as is the case with Tony pursuing Elvira (Pfeiffer)…not for love. Manny may feel a bit more for Gina than the women in bikinis he pursues with his laughable ideas of how to pick them up, but Tony’s gun ends the newlyweds’ love fast.

Elvira never feels anything for Tony, or for Lopez, for that matter; she just lives off their money and snorts their cocaine. She judges them and their work, just as a liberal judges capitalism, but enjoys all the privileges associated with it.

As mentioned above, Scarface is among those films in which the word fuck is said most frequently. Many objected to the film’s ‘excessive’ profanity, but I’d say there’s justification for the constant use of the word fuck, since it symbolizes the nature of human connection throughout the film. People fuck each other constantly, if usually only in the metaphoric sense.

The word‘s denotation as sexual intercourse–an entering and connecting of one person with another–is paired with its connotations of violence: one etymology of the word is from the Swedish focka, ‘to copulate, strike, push’). So this combination of denotative and connotative meanings gives us a hint as to the true nature of human relationships as seen in the movie–people connect, and they hurt one another.

This connecting to cause mutual grief suggests Wilfred Bion‘s extensions of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, that is, Bion’s concept of container and contained, symbolized respectively by a yoni and a phallus. One projects one’s pain into another, like a raping phallus entering a vagina, the contained entering the container, causing the container to hold all that psychological grief, and to become, to manifest, what is projected.

Normally, only a mother in what Bion called a state of reverie could contain the pain of her frustrated baby, and only a trained psychoanalyst like Bion could contain the pain of a psychotic, transforming that pain into something acceptable that is returned to the baby or psychotic, pacifying them. In Scarface, Tony forces others to contain his pain, which they cannot do; as a result, no pacifying return of the projections is possible.

Tony’s scar is a symbolic yoni, a container receiving narcissistic injury from his childhood, and from–I theorize–an unempathic mother who never contained his violent infantile projections in reverie. He therefore projects that pain onto others, symbolized by his every fatal gunshot or stab, and also in how he hurts and alienates his mother, through his criminality, and Gina, through his patriarchal overprotectiveness.

Indeed, Tony’s killing of Manny, after learning his friend has had his sister, is a projective identification causing her to be as violent as her brother has always been. She approaches him in a provocative state of relative undress, firing a gun at him and offering (in bitter sarcasm) her body for his incestuous pleasure. Tony ‘fucks’ Manny–with his bullet-ejaculating, phallic gun–for fucking Gina; she ‘fucks’ Tony back by firing an ejaculating, phallic pistol at him while offering herself to be literally fucked by him. Container and contained switch roles in this dance of relationships of symbolic sexual relations.

These relationships by fucking are explicitly connected with capitalism when Tony complains of the criminalization of drugs by the establishment. Capitalists don’t mind exploitation as long as they are the exploiters; but when the government intervenes and regulates, the capitalist feels exploited from the disrupting of his business, the lowering of his profits. Hence, Tony is enraged at the ‘unfairness’ of it all.

At least Tony acknowledges that this government interference can happen within the context of capitalism, unlike your average right-libertarian. Tony complains, “You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!” Elvira notes his hypocrisy, though, by calling him, “A true capitalist if ever I met one.” Capitalism is only good when it’s convenient for this or that capitalist.

Capitalism is also about expansion, and seeking out new markets in other countries, other parts of the world, resulting in imperialism. Hence Tony’s interest in doing more business with Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) in Bolivia. Sosa’s drug empire stretches throughout the Andes; Tony builds his in a number of major cities in the US, after he removes the small-potatoes drug lord, Lopez. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Sosa and his South American associates have their worries about a journalist who has been investigating their criminal activities. Sosa needs Tony’s help in killing the journalist, who is about to make a UN speech exposing Sosa. A car bomb is set up to kill the man, but his wife and daughters unexpectedly get in the car, too. Tony’s sense of honour is offended: he has no problem killing men, but to kill women and children would cause him intolerable narcissistic injury, so he kills Alberto the Shadow, the assassin operating the car bomb, instead. This infuriates Sosa, causing a mafia war.

This mafia war symbolizes inter-imperialist conflict, since Tony’s and Sosa’s cocaine businesses are those of capitalists from different countries, capitalists with conflicting interests. Tony, always snorting the commodity he sells, is full of narcissistic brashness, fighting to the end, even after the killing of Gina, who injures him with a gunshot.

At Sosa’s men, he fires a huge, phallic, grenade-launching M16A1, calling it his “little friend,” an ironic reference to this extension of his big dick. He narcissistically defies his killers, even after being wounded several times, saying, “You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!” Finally, a shot in the back from The Skull is the one narcissistic wound he won’t recover from.

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

Analysis of ‘Velvet Goldmine’

Velvet Goldmine is a 1998 musical drama film directed by Todd Haynes and written by him and James Lyons. It stars Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, and Toni Collette; it costars Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, and Michael Feast. It has music by Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Lou Reed (though these are often covered by other musicians), among others, as well as original songs. Though the film’s title is inspired by the David Bowie song, that song isn’t used in the movie.

The story is about a glam rock star from the 1970s named Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers), who fakes his own assassination and ‘disappears.’ What’s happened to him? Journalist Arthur Stuart (Bale) must find out, in a manner reminiscent of the search for the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane.

The film also includes a number of quotes from Oscar Wilde: those from The Picture of Dorian Gray interest me in particular, since Slade, like Gray, is a beautiful boy whose homoerotic, narcissistic charm and false public image leads to the suffering of many, especially his female love interest (Mandy Slade, played by Collette).

Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Here are quotes of Wilde’s used in the movie, all from The Picture of Dorian Gray, unless otherwise specified (the quotes aren’t letter perfect in the movie):

“I knew I should create a sensation, gasped the Rocket, and he went out.” –“The Remarkable Rocket,” the end

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” (Chapter 1, page 18) [In the film, Curt Wild says, “A real artist creates beautiful things and…puts nothing of his own life into them.”]

“Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack with sudden and strange surrenders.” (Chapter 5, page 76)

“Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.” (Chapter 8, page 119)

“There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own.” (Chapter 11, page 166)

“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.” (Chapter 20, page 252)

Slade and Curt Wild (McGregor)

Here are some quotes from the movie:

Opening text: Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.

“Histories like ancient ruins are the fictions of empires. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” –female narrator

“I want to be a pop idol.” –young Oscar Wilde

“Childhood, adults always say, is the happiest time in life. But as long as he could remember, Jack Fairy knew better.” –female narrator

“Rock music has always been a reaction against accepted standards. And homosexuality has been going on for centuries. At the moment having a ‘gay’ image is the ‘in’ thing, just like a few years ago it was trendy to wear a long grey coat with a Led Zeppelin record under your arm.” –Trevor (Slade’s guitarist)

“Everyone’s into this scene because it’s supposedly the thing to do right now. But you just can’t fake being gay. You know, if you’re gonna claim that you’re gay you’re gonna have to make love in gay style, and most of these kids…just aren’t going to make it. That line, ‘Everybody’s bisexual’, that’s a very popular thing to say right now. Personally, I think it’s meaningless.” –Curt Wild

“He thought he fucking was Maxwell Demon in the end – you know? And Maxwell Demon…he thought he was God.” –Curt Wild

“I want you because you remember.” –Lou

“He was elegance, walking arm in arm with a lie.” –Cecil, of Slade

“The doctors guaranteed the treatment would fry the fairy clean out of him. But all it did was make him bonkers every time he heard electric guitar.” –Cecil, of Curt Wild

“Heroin used to be my main man. You could be my main man.” –Curt Wild, to Brian Slade

“You all know me – subtlety’s my middle name. It’s as subtle as the piece of skin between my vagina and my anus – ooh la! la! Now what’s that called, I can never quite remember…No man’s land? Oh gosh – my geesh, dah-ling!” –Mandy Slade

“It’s funny how beautiful people look when they’re walking out the door.” –Mandy Slade

“Time, places, people,… they’re all speeding up. So, to cope with this evolutionary paranoia, strange people are chosen who, through their art, can move progress more quickly.” –Mandy Slade

Mandy Slade, played by Toni Collette.

While the film received only mixed reviews and was not a box office success, it has since become a cult classic, as it should be at the very least, for it is a superb film, visually and sonically gorgeous.

Brian Slade is a rock star reminiscent of David Bowie (during his Ziggy Stardust years) and Jobriath. He’s also bisexual, as is Curt Wild (McGregor), who’s based on Iggy Pop; and the two glam icons have a gay affair during the time they’re musically collaborating.

The film begins with a spaceship delivering a baby (Oscar Wilde), with an emerald pin clasped to his blanket, on the doorstep of the Wilde family in Dublin in 1854. This pin symbolizes the special talents of those who wear it, in particular the artistic gifts of LGBT people, whose suffering from the prejudice of mainstream society shapes the expression of those talents.

Genius is pain: the goodness of the one dialectically phases out from the evil of its opposite; the ouroboros‘s bitten tail of pain leads to the biting head of talent. I’ve discussed elsewhere how the ouroboros symbolizes the dialectical unity of opposites.

The ouroboros: I’d have the biting head and bitten tail represent the dialectical relationship between extreme opposites, while the length of its coiled body symbolizes a circular continuum of every intermediate point between those opposite extremes.

The next person to own the pin is gender-bending Jack Fairy, whom we see as a child being bullied by his male classmates in the schoolyard, all for such effeminate tendencies as wearing lipstick. As an adult, he will be admired by the glam rock community for his daring androgyny. He is a true original.

The glam rock fans of the 1970s like to put their ‘bisexuality’ on display…but are they really bisexual, or do they merely posture as such because of bisexual chic? Curt Wild, speaking to a TV reporter, thinks many of them are faking being gay. This notion of posturing, of having a narcissistic False Self, is a major theme in the movie…artificialityimage.

Slade’s identification with his persona, “Maxwell Demon” (paralleling Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ an alien who comes to Earth, saves it, and becomes a rock-and-roll star, only to be destroyed in the end), goes to the point of almost driving him mad; he fakes his murder to be freed from the persona (a liberating from one’s False Self that is comparable to Dorian Gray’s stabbing his portrait with a knife, only to end up killing himself). Then, Slade becomes…someone else…

This escaping from reality, and from its pain, to build up a false self-image, is a manic defence, a mask to hide behind. Be a performer, and forget the pain that comes from the alienating bigotry and social rejection of the ‘freaks’ of the world: gays, transwomen, etc. Only through the flamboyant lie of being a rock star can we ever accept society’s deviants.

If you aren’t a star, though, then you’re just a lonely, sensitive fellow like journalist Arthur Stuart.

Journalist Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale.

As a member of the largely closeted LGBT community, a closeting resulting from the AIDS scare of the mid-1980s that revived much of the homophobia that had been tamed somewhat in the 1970s, Stuart has little to smile about. The partying years of the glam rock era are no more; his hero–Slade–turned out to be a phoney to all his former fans; and so all Stuart has are the painful memories of a once-hopeful time (hopeful for gay liberation) long since dead.

And now he has to research those painful years for Lou, his newspaper editor.

He sits on the subway, moping and brooding over those years, while a few seats over from him, a child is wearing a mask of Tommy Stone, the current pop idol. That mask is symbolic, because in the end we learn that Stone is who Slade has become! Slade has replaced one mask for another; he’s gone from the fake image of a glam rock star to that of an 80s pop star.

As an appropriate soundtrack background to Stuart’s melancholy, we hear the sad piano notes beginning Slade’s “Hot One,” a song from Stuart’s past, lost and gone forever. The song, with its promo video, combines Slade’s openly-expressed bisexuality with the fantasy of being from outer space, a world far better than our shitty Earth.

Actually, “Hot One” is sung and performed by Shudder To Think, who also wrote and recorded “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the soundtrack CD version). It’s interesting how Rhys Meyers, playing Slade, is mouthing the words of “Hot One,” as well as lip synching “The Whole Shebang” (performed by Grant Lee Buffalo) and the covers of Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” and “2HB” (performed by The Venus in Furs, a fictional band for the movie, but with vocals by Thom Yorke); while Rhys Meyers himself sang “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the movie version), the cover of Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire,” and the covers of Cockney Rebel‘s “Sebastian” and “Tumbling Down.” These alternating singers symbolize the shift back and forth between Slade’s False and True Selves.

Slade, in his False Self persona as Maxwell Demon.

Consider the prettiness of the voices whenever Rhys Meyers is not singing, as opposed to the rawness of his own voice. Not to disparage the immense talent of the other singers (Rhys Meyers, too, sings well, of course, but just with a different style); but my point is that the pretty vibratos of Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think and of Thom Yorke can be symbolically associated with the poseur primness of Slade’s Maxwell Demon persona, while Rhys Meyers’s earthier sound symbolically suggests the real Thomas Brian Patrick Stoningham Slade hiding underneath.

Since Slade is modelled largely on Bowie, this alternation between pretty and raw voices can be seen as a parallel of Bowie’s sometimes rawer, higher register (which can be heard in much, if not most, of his singing on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as well as in other songs) and his more typical elegant baritone.

That ‘poseur,’ posturing voice is heard when Rhys Meyers’s Slade is mouthing the words of “Ladytron” to Collette’s Mandy, just before he steals her (and the emerald pin) from Jack Fairy. Recall the lyrics of the song: “I’ll use you, and I’ll confuse you, and then I’ll lose you…still, you won’t suspect me.” These words reflect the idealize, devalue, and discard phases of narcissists’ relationships with their victims…and these three things are exactly what happen to Mandy.

Since Slade is comparable to Dorian Gray in their narcissism, aestheticism, and libertine indulgence, so is his relationship with Mandy comparable to Gray’s with the actress Sibyl Vane. Gray loves Vane only when she acts well, that is, when she is not being herself; but when she does a poor performance of Juliet, showing obviously fake emotions because she’s too distracted in her love for him, he loses interest in her. (Wilde, Chapter seven, pages 97-102)

Similarly, Slade loves Mandy only when she does as much posturing (the American woman even faking an English accent) as he does. Later, he falls in love with the raw, real Curt Wild, she is doing less and less posturing, and Slade loses interest in her.

Slade has a love/hate relationship with his image; he’s told Wild, “A man’s life is his image.” He needs his phoney personae, but too much of living in them drives him mad. Dorian Gray has a similarly ambivalent relationship with the portrait Basil has painted of him: he envies and covets the permanence of its beauty, yearning to trade the impermanence of his own beauty with it; later, after the trade has been achieved, the picture’s growing ugliness, representing his growing sinfulness, makes him hate and fear the painting, since it’s a mirror to his soul.

Slade has also traded his True Self for the beauty of Maxwell Demon…later, Tommy Stone. And since Maxwell is paralleled to Bowie’s Ziggy, Tommy–in his white outfit, the next big image Slade has made for himself–can be paralleled with Bowie’s Thin White Duke, appearing in a white shirt from 1974-1977, right after Ziggy appeared. And as The Thin White Duke spoke in a pro-fascist way, there is Tommy Stone’s support for “President Reynolds” (sounds like right-wing Reagan) as “Excellent. Excellent. I think he’s doing brilliant work. He’s a–tremendous leader, tremendous spokesperson for the needs of the nation today.” (And post-Ziggy Bowie, as did Slade after the end of Maxwell, snorted a lot of cocaine.)

Slade repels his True Self, yet sees an idealized (i.e., fake!) version of it in Curt Wild’s raw energy. His falling in love with Wild is Narcissus adoring his reflection in the pond.

Wild’s excessive drug use, incompetence in the recording studio, and violent temper tantrums (to say nothing of Mandy’s jealousy) mean that Slade’s symbolic ‘True Self’ is unacceptable to his peers. When he loses Wild, he must lose his False Self, Maxwell Demon, too…for that False Self is a true demon, like Gray’s portrait.

Stuart’s also had to lose his False Self, the glitter-eye-makeup-wearing gay groupie of the band who covers T. Rex‘s “20th Century Boy” (actually performed by Placebo); and so now all he has is his melancholic, lonely True Self.

Curt Wild keeps screwing up in the studio.

Slade’s indulgence in his Maxwell Demon persona, pushed to the extreme of thinking he is Maxwell (“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person! Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth!”), is him going to the ouroboros’s biting head of extreme posturing. His love of earthy, real, proto-punk Curt Wild is Slade pushing past the biting head, over to the bitten tail of his ‘True Self,’ projected onto Wild, and therefore he’s not really being his True Self. This means Slade has not only gone past the serpent’s head to its tail, but he’s gone another circle around the ouroboros’s coiled body, back to the head. And since Wild can’t be the ‘True Self’ Slade needs him to be, their affair ends.

Similarly, teen Stuart–idolizing Slade, narcissistically identifying with him, and masturbating to pictures of Slade and Wild–shifts past the serpent’s biting head of an extreme False Self, and over to his True Self again, when his father catches him in his room and shames him for expressing his sexuality.

The fact is, all of us have a mixture of False and True Selves, and with this reality comes our place on the narcissistic spectrum. But since most of us have integrated our True and False Selves, our narcissistic tendencies are usually at moderate, healthy, mature, and realistic levels. It’s when the True and False Selves are polarized and split, the ‘ugly’ real self being repressed and/or projected onto other people, that’s when narcissism becomes pathological, resulting in hurting those around us. (I’ve written much about this problem elsewhere.)

The splitting of True and False Selves is a manic defence against dealing with our pain. Pushing these defences to extremes–the libertine hedonism of Slade in his orgies and cocaine-sniffing, and of Gray in his opium den–results in an explosion of pain, going from the ouroboros’s biting head to its bitten tail.

We can’t run away from the pain of such bigotries as homophobia and transphobia by escaping into a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll fantasy world; we must change our world as it is…not in the idealistic way Slade and Wild try to do and end up only changing themselves, but in the realistic way of changing all of ourselves, together, slowly but surely, through teaching people love…not the fake love of religious authoritarianism, but the real love of tolerance and open-mindedness.

Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine, Miramax Books/Hyperion, New York, 1998

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Popular Classics, London, 1994

Analysis of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 buddy drama film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by John Schlesinger and written by Waldo Salt, the film is based on the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It was rated R originally, then rated X for its treatment of adult subject matter (gender-bending gay men and other people deemed ‘degenerates’ of the seedier side of New York City) considered discomfiting to moviegoers at the time.

Ultimately, the film is relatable for its exploration of themes of loneliness, fantasy (including dissociation and drug use, as escapes from the ugliness of the real world), melancholia, poverty, and alienation. There’s a recurring manic defence against depression, guilt, and sadness in the film.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Lotta rich women back there, Ralph, begging for it, paying for it, too…and the men – they’re mostly tutti fruttis. So I’m gonna cash in on some of that, right?…Hell, what do I got to stay around here for? I got places to go, right?” –Joe Buck (Voight), to Ralph

“You look real nice, lover boy, real nice. Make your old grandma proud. You’re gonna be the best-looking cowboy in the whole parade.” –Sally Buck, to little Joe

“Well, sir, I ain’t a for-real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud.” –Joe, to Mr. O’Daniel

“I’m lonesome, so I’m a drunk. I’m lonesome, so I’m a dope fiend. I’m lonesome, so I’m a thief! I’m lonesome, so I’m a fornicator! A whoremonger!” –Mr. O’Daniel

[To taxi driver]HEY! I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here! [bangs hand on car] Up yours you son-of-a-bitch! You don’t talk to me that way! Get outta here! [to Joe] Don’t worry about that. Actually, that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance, you know.” –Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman)

“The X on the windows means the landlord can’t collect rent, which is a convenience, on account of it’s condemned.” –Ratso

“Got my own private entrance here. You’re the only one who knows about it. Watch the plank. Watch the plank. Break your god-damn skull. No way to collect insurance.” –Ratso

“The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did you know that? That’s a fact. In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got ’em in the, uh, gas stations over there. And ladies? You know that in Miami, you got, uh, you listenin’ to me? You got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita on a given day, there’s probably, uh, three hundred of ’em on the beach. In fact, you can’t even, uh, scratch yourself without gettin’ a belly-button, uh, up the old kazoo there.” –Ratso

“Not bad, not bad for a cowboy. You’re OK. You’re OK.” Ratso, to Joe

[to Joe] I’m gonna use ya. I’m gonna run you ragged…You and me can have fun together. It doesn’t have to be joyless.” –Mr. O’Daniel (John McGiver)

“I’ve prayed on the streets. I’ve prayed in the saloons. I’ve prayed in the toilets. It don’t matter where, so long as He gets that prayer.” –O’Daniel

“Do you love me, Joe? Do you love me? Love me? You’re the only one, Joe. You’re the only one. You’re better, Joe. You’re better than the rest of ’em. You’re better than any of them, Joe. You love me, Joe. You’re better than all of ’em. You’re the best, Joe.” –Annie […]

Cass: I hate to ask you, but you’re such a doll.

Joe: You know, Cass, that’s a funny thing you mentioning money. ‘Cause I was just about to ask you for some.

Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Huh?

Joe: Hell, why do you think I come all the way up here from Texas for?

Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with? Some old slut on 42nd Street? In case you didn’t happen to notice it, ya big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one helluva gorgeous chick.

Joe: Now, Cass, take it easy.

Cass: You heard it. At twenty-eight years old. You think you can come up here, and pull this kind of crap up here! Well, you’re out of your mind! […]

The film begins with a shot of a blank movie screen at a drive-in. As the shot backs away, we hear the sounds of gunfire in a ‘cowboys and Indians’ shoot-out in an old Western movie. The sound, but lack of cowboy movie visuals, reinforces the sense of fantasy, the fantasy Joe Buck (Voight) has of being a cowboy. But real life is no movie, and he is no real cowboy.

We see him showering and singing about the joys of leaving for New York, where he imagines he’ll prosper as a prostitute servicing rich but lonely older women. As he fantasizes, he’s already aware of the reality of his annoyed coworkers at a restaurant where he’s expected to be to wash the pile-up of dishes. He’s just quitting all of a sudden, and taking a bus to New York, in all irresponsibility.

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Texas as Joe is walking down the streets to catch the bus. This pleasant day symbolizes his enjoyment of his fantasizing about his glamorous life as a “hustler” in New York, ignoring the traffic as he crosses the road. A truck driver honks at the absent-minded dreamer.

Nilsson‘s “Everybody’s Talkin’” is heard as Joe is walking merrily along in his cowboy outfit, carrying his suitcase and radio. Even if he’d been given warnings about what problems he might have in New York, a city he’s never been to, and one he’ll be totally out of his element in, Joe wouldn’t have listened to them.

His fellow dishwasher, Ralph, asks what he’s “gonna do back East,” as if anticipating Joe’s future problems; but it doesn’t occur to Joe at all that there might actually be problems there. “I betcha it’s a mess back there,” Ralph warns in all prescience, though oblivious Joe just thinks he’ll “cash in on some of that.”

Nilsson sings, as if in Joe’s voice, “Everybody’s talking at me; I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind.” Joe won’t heed any warnings, because he “won’t let you leave [his] love behind,” his love being his dream of being famous in New York as “one helluva stud.”

“People stopping, staring, I can’t see their faces, only the shadows of their eyes.” Joe won’t heed people’s warnings, nor will he behold their disapproving facial expressions. He can barely make out the disapproving shadows of their eyes. He won’t face the reality of the disastrous future he’s walking into; he barely notices taxis or trucks about to hit him on the road. All he cares about is his fantasy, and his hopes of fulfilling it.

His fantasy is an escape from his painful past, one that included his mother giving him up as a child to his grandmother, the late Sally Buck. His relationship with her was a strange one, only superficially loving. She’d often leave him alone in the house, blowing him a kiss and dropping off a few dollars for him, to be with “a new beau,” the drunk Woodsy Niles. Sometimes she’d lie in bed with little Joe and kiss him: did she sexually abuse him? Is that why he wants to prostitute himself to older women?

Whatever was going on between little Joe and Sally, it’s certain that his family relationships were a failure. Her unexpected death on his return from the military has only increased his feelings of isolation. His sexual relationship with Annie, a girl with a reputation for being promiscuous (boys lined up to have sex with her), was also a failure that has contributed to his loneliness; for those boys who’d lined up to have her grew jealous of her preference for Joe, and so they got revenge on both lovers by surprising the two in a car when they were making love, and gang-raping her, forcing Joe to watch.

Her trauma resulted in her being institutionalized, and Joe was alone again. Throughout his life, he’s been taught that sex is a commodity, an exchange value rather than part of the value of a relationship with a mate. For these reasons, Joe can find only pain and loneliness in the Texas he’s grown up in; so he must leave to escape that pain, his dream of being a desirable “hustler” as his manic defence against the crushing depression he’d feel from facing that pain.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein first wrote about the manic defence as part of an infant’s dealing with the pain of transitioning from the paranoid-schizoid position (hostility towards the “bad mother” half of the split mother object in the baby’s mind) to the depressive position (involving guilt over that hostility, fear of the hated object being taken away and/or killed, and a wish for reparation when the infant realizes Mother is a mix of good and bad aspects). The manic defence, however, can be felt at any point in one’s whole life, and D.W. Winnicott expanded on Klein’s idea in a 1935 paper. We can see, in his description of the characteristics of the manic defence, how Joe Buck deals with his pain through an escape in sex.

Winnicott describes one aspect of this manic defence, which we can see as applying to Joe, in the following way: “Denial of the sensations of depression–namely the heaviness, the sadness–by specifically opposite sensations, lightness, humorousness, etc. The employment of almost any opposites in the reassurance against death, chaos, mystery, etc., ideas that belong to the fantasy content of the depressive position.” (Winnicott, page 132, his emphasis)

So, in order to protect himself from the pain of his childhood and failed relationship with Annie, Joe must assume the opposite feelings: hope, enthusiasm, excitement, and joy. To evade feelings of loneliness, he must seek the opposite, to be close to as many other people as possible, so close as to be intimately close, his naked body rubbing up against others in sex. To avoid the pain of reality, he must be constantly daydreaming, in a fantasy world, living inside his mind, ignoring the sobering outside world.

His loneliness is accentuated through his experiences with the others on the bus: he tries to chat with the driver, who ignores him; young women titter when he walks by in his cowboy outfit, his radio in his hands; and the only person who shows any real interest in communicating with him is a little girl who plays some coquettish peek-a-boo…not an appropriate client for his services, to put it mildly.

Elsewhere on the bus, a group of army men are singing “The Caisson Song,” with the enthusiasm of the brainwashed, but at least they have each other’s company. Women on the radio speak of how they want a stud in bed, and Joe is thrilled, but it doesn’t occur to him that these women don’t want a prostitute.

Wherever he sees himself in a mirror, he’s pleased to see a handsome cowboy…but even he knows he isn’t “a for real cowboy.” That mirror is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he sees only his idealized self, his ideal-ego, all together, unified, and cohesive; but this ideal-I is only an illusion, for his real self looking into the mirror is an awkward, fragmented, and unhappy man.

This real man is suited for the most menial of labour, like dishwashing, a job so lacking in glamour that he’s run away from it so quickly, no notice is even given to his boss. He quit because of the alienating nature of the job: it alienates him from any sense of pride in his work; it alienates him from his coworkers and boss; and it alienates him from his species-essence, or his sense of meaning in life. He hopes the cowboy image will restore all that he’s been alienated from, but he’ll soon be even more alienated in New York.

Indeed, as he wanders the streets with his money having run out, and his having been kicked out of his hotel, he walks by a restaurant and sees a dishwasher through the window, a frowning young blond who could be his twin. His reflection in the glass is seen beside the dishwasher, accentuating both their identity with each other and the Lacanian illusion of his reflection. His False Self and True Self are tragically juxtaposed.

Upon his arrival in New York City, he’s been going around trying to connect with his would-be female clientele, but of course with no success. In fact, his only success has been with a call girl who expects him to pay her! The big question ringing in the head of every viewer of this movie is, Where did Joe get the idea that scores of New York women want to pay a man for sex?

Finally, he meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman) in a bar; this is the one time we see the con man/cripple dressed well, for this first impression Joe gets of him is as Rico’s False Self; for most of the rest of the film, he has his more typical scruffy “Ratso” look, getting sicker and sicker. Thus, Rico is Joe’s double; we have the posturing duo of a “cowboy” and a ‘streetwise man with connections,’ both trying to escape their wretched condition.

As Joe is chatting with Rico in the bar about the disastrous hook-up with the call girl, and Rico is pretending to help Joe get the “management” he needs, we can hear the song “A Famous Myth,” by The Groop, playing faintly in the background. Indeed, it is a famous myth that anyone beyond the 1% will ever “fly so high.” This goes double for Joe’s fantasy of being a glamorous “hustler” or Rico’s fantasy of living the good life in Florida. Note the song’s juxtaposition, of the hopeful aspiration in the lyrics, with the sadness of that unfulfillable longing in the music. The manic defence fails again.

As Joe and Rico are talking and walking down the street on their way to Mr. O’Daniel’s place, we see Rico’s limp. In the famous scene of them crossing the road and a taxi almost hitting Rico, his shouting “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” (as opposed to him limping) is a wish fulfillment we later see in his Florida fantasy, when we see him actually running with Joe on the beach.

Mr. O’Daniel (played by the character actor, John McGiver) is Joe’s would-be connection with that coveted elder female clientele; but wearing that bathrobe and smiling that maniacal grin, O’Daniel comes across as some kind of sex pervert. When he says Joe will need his “strong back,” we wonder what for.

As it turns out, O’Daniel–who correctly notes that being “lonesome” is what leads to alcoholism, crime, drugs, and sex addiction–has his own manic defence against loneliness and depression: religion. Prayer, even in the toilet stalls, will cure sadness!

(Recall, in this connection, what Marx said about religion: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” [Marx, Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right])

Joe, whose childhood traumas remind him of the excesses of religious fanaticism, runs out of the apartment, another attempt to escape from pain. In his mad search for that cheat Rizzo, Joe dissociates in his thoughts, and what ensues is a melange of images of Rizzo found in the subway, Joe’s wish-fulfillment that he’s found the snake, with memories of Annie’s gang rape mixed in. Reveries, dreams, religion, and drug-induced hallucinations all represent the failure of fantasy as a manic defence cure for sadness.

Later, Joe’s money runs out, and he’s kicked out of his hotel room, an obvious example of private property. Homelessness is one of the abused children of private property and capitalism, and Joe has joined Rico as one of those children. Desperate, Joe resorts to gay prostitution (something, in the novel, that he is indifferent to because of having been a victim of homosexual gang rape).

He allows a young man (Bob Balaban) to perform fellatio on him in a movie theatre for $25, which the boy, it turns out, doesn’t even have. Joe tries fantasizing about sex with Annie to get excited during the blow job. His feelings of degradation are mirrored by the science fiction movie playing: in it, an astronaut is cut off from his spaceship, depriving him of his oxygen supply as he drifts off, lost in space. Joe feels similarly lost, his dream of being a lady-pleasing stud also losing oxygen.

The phallic spaceship comes apart into halves, symbolizing castration, as does the severing of the connection of the ill-fated astronaut to his ship. Since engaging in gay male sexual activity is traditionally associated with a loss of manhood, and cowboy-stud Joe believes in such traditional societal narratives, he feels himself to be symbolically emasculated.

The irony of Joe’s belief in the macho cowboy, John Wayne stereotype, his ideal-ego that he sees in the mirror, is that Rico disillusions him by telling him that only gay male prostitutes dress like cowboys. Joe’s manic defence has never protected him from his self-loathing.

Rico has his own manic defences, apart from his con man/thief persona. Just as Joe dreamt of leaving Texas to find his would-be haven in New York City, so does Rico dream of leaving the hell of New York for the would-be paradise of Florida.

And just as Joe has had painful relationships with his neglectful mother and his grandmother, who suddenly died on his return home from the military, so does Rico suffer the memories of his disappointing late father, a shoe-shiner who “was even dumber than [Joe],” and whose headstone should say “one big, lousy X,” just like the building he and Joe are squatting in. They’ve been “condemned by order of City Hall,” part of the bourgeois state that protects private property and throws people like Joe and Rico out onto the street for not having made more of themselves.

The loss of, or traumatic disappointment in, parental objects results in a splitting of the personality into ego-segments that WRD Fairbairn called the Libidinal Ego (connected to the Exciting Object) and an Anti-libidinal Ego (connected to a Rejecting Object). Joe’s pursuit of older women as clients represents the former ego/object configuration, while Rico’s misanthropic rebuffs (e.g., “Take your hands off of me!” at the party) represents the latter ego/object configuration.

This libidinal or anti-libidinal retreat into a world of exciting or rejecting objects is another escape into fantasy, a refusal to face the real world, where Fairbairn‘s concept of the Central Ego is linked to an Ideal Object (“ideal” because it is best to be in relationships with real people [“objects” in relation to oneself, the subject] in the external world, as opposed to the fantasy life of the internal, mental world). At least Joe and Rico have each other as Ideal Objects…that is, until the end of the movie.

One comical scene shows Joe and Rico in their non-heated home, the condemned building, shivering in the winter and dancing to a commercial jingle on Joe’s radio about “Florida orange juice…on ice.” An icicle is hanging from a tap, and Rico’s fantasy of the warmth of Florida makes the jingle into a cruel musical joke on his manic defence.

Another escape attempt from their melancholy comes in the form of a party held by artsy siblings “Hansel and Gretel McAlbertson.” At this party, we can see the difference in the manic defence’s degree of success or failure in Joe vs. Rico. Joe (Libidinal Ego) bogarts a joint that he naïvely thinks is just a regular cigarette, then he’s given a pill to augment his high (Exciting Object). Rico (Anti-libidinal Ego), on the other hand, remains misanthropic, stealing food and picking pockets, and scowling at all the other guests (Rejecting Object). Elephant’s Memory‘s psychedelic “Old Man Willow” is heard in the background.

A woman Hansel is filming grins and says, “I love everything in the theatre. I would like to die on the stage.” Of course: the theatre is a staged illusion, an escape from the pains of the real world; hence, “to die on the stage,” the final, sad acquiescence to reality, would at least be a happy death.

Joe’s brief escape into the euphoria of drugs ends with him scoring with a woman guest (Brenda Vaccaro, another Exciting Object for his Libidinal Ego) at the party, but also with his worries over Rico’s declining health. This worry, along with perhaps the effect of the marijuana and the pill, affects his ability to get an erection for the woman in her bed; hence, the look of abject terror on his face.

Winnicott wrote of the “ascensive” quality of the manic defence (Winnicott, pages 134-135), which can be symbolically associated with an erection. Joe’s failure to get it up thus represents his failed escape from melancholy through sex. Rico never succeeds in escaping his own sadness, especially on that bus ride to Florida; and Joe is so psychically conjoined to Rico, that Rico’s failed escape becomes Joe’s, too.

Rico refuses to accept the reality of his worsening illness; he’d rather be sick and risk dying in sunny Florida than get well in a New York hospital, which could lead to cops and to his incarceration. Desperate to get money for the bus ride, Joe assaults (and possibly kills) a client (Barnard Hughes) to steal all of his money.

The beautiful sight of bright, warm, sunny Florida–Rico’s manic defence against his melancholy, and ironically similar to the sunny Texas that Joe escaped from at the film’s beginning–is tragically contrasted with the continuing decline of Rico’s health. His body’s in pain, he wets his pants, and he’s sweating all over; this symbolizes his psychological disintegration–his body is trying to project his self-hate, just as he was projecting it onto all the people he was robbing, cheating, and rejecting at the party.

Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia, wrote of the similarity between the two, but with the one crucial difference being that, with normal mourning, one fully loves the deceased, mourned love object, whereas with melancholia, the unconscious source of one’s sadness comes from a mix of love and hate for the deceased. One internalizes the deceased–that is, identifies with the object through introjection; so the hated aspects of the object become the hated self, hence the mysterious source of one’s sadness. (Freud, pages 254, 256-260)

Both Joe and Rico have this melancholy after having lost and mourned family members who were far from ideal. Unconscious hostility to Sally Buck and to Rico’s father are thus introjected, and Joe and Rico hate themselves.

Nonetheless, even Freud acknowledged the presence of mania as having a dialectical relationship with melancholia: “The impression which several psychoanalytic investigators have already put into words is that the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’, but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside. Our second pointer is afforded by the observation that all states such as joy, exultation, or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania, depend on the same economic conditions.” (Freud, page 263)

Some, like Joe, are more successful with the manic defence, while others, like Rico, fail at it, and also fail at projecting their self-hate onto others (e.g., Rico‘s homophobia and misanthropy in general). For these reasons, Rico dies while Joe lives, but now Joe has a new loved one to mourn, and to be melancholy about.

The Midnight Cowboy theme, the lead melody of which is played on Toots Thielemans‘s chromatic harmonica, symbolizes this ‘happy sadness’ of the manic defence perfectly. Though a profoundly sad piece of music, the theme is melodically based on paralleled major 7th chords (save the G dominant, so C maj. 7, A-sharp maj. 7, G-sharp maj. 7, C-sharp maj. 7, G7). Major scales and chords seem to sound ‘happy,’ or ‘bright’ (like the sunny skies in Texas and Florida) as opposed to the ‘sad,’ or ‘dark’ (like the darkness inside Joe’s and Rico’s hearts, or the shadows in wintry New York) minor scales and chords. Here, the major melodies are sadder than Nigel Tufnel‘s D minor.

In sum, the movie’s whole message is that, no matter how hard we try to escape our sadness and loneliness with pleasure-seeking or fantasy, we can’t. Our melancholia can be cured only by confronting it.

D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers, Brunner-Routledge, London, 1992

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

Analysis of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

A Clockwork Orange is a 1962 dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess that was adapted into a film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. I’ll be discussing and comparing both. The story is narrated by its fifteen-year-old sociopathic protagonist, Alex the Large (DeLarge in the movie, played by Malcolm McDowell, who almost a decade after would play another psychopath, one from ancient Rome), a boy whose interests include drinking drug-laced milk with his “droogs” (Georgie, Dim [Warren Clarke], and Pete), beating people up (“tolchocking,” or “ultra-violence”), gang raping women (“the old in-out, in-out”), and listening to classical music, especially Beethoven.

In this futuristic world, the wayward teens speak a Russian-influenced argot called nadsat (<<If your nadsat is a little rusty, click the link provided [or this one], for I’ll be using quite a few of these words [I’ve italicized them, even in the quotes].). The central theme of the story is the dialectical tension between freedom and restriction, physical or mental, and how one may effectively–or ineffectively–resolve this tension, with or without harming society or the individual.

Here are some quotes:

From the novel: “What’s it going to be then, eh?” (Burgess, page 5)

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. (page 5)

Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name -A CLOCKWORK ORANGE- and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ (page 21)

‘ – The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen – ” (page 21)

So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?’ (page 100)

‘Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?’ –Prison Chaplain, to Alex (page 76)

From the film:

Irish Drunk: Can you spare some cutter me brothers? Go on, do me in, you bastard cowards! I don’t wanna live anyway. Not in a stinking old world like this.”

Alex: Oh? And what’s so stinking about it?

Drunk: It’s a stinking world because there is no law and order anymore. […]

“Ho, ho, ho! Well if it isn’t fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, ya eunuch jelly thou!” –Alex

[While listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

“As an unmuddied lake, sir. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.” –Alex, to Deltoid

“You needn’t take it any further, sir. You’ve proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I’ve learned me lesson, sir. I’ve seen now what I’ve never seen before. I’m cured! Praise God!” –Alex, during the application of the Ludovico technique

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” –Chaplain

In the Korova Milkbar, Alex and his droogs are drinking their “milk plus something else,” laced “with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches,” wondering what to do that night. In the novel, the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” is repeatedly asked. The crimes they commit ultimately derive from boredom and sloth, a lack of purpose or direction in life. The boys also have too much freedom in their lives.

Excessive freedom, as Erich Fromm observed in Escape From Freedom, results in a sense of instability and unsureness, causing an anxiety that authoritarian rule would relieve one of. What are you supposed to do with yourself if you can do absolutely anything? A list of dos and don’ts provides a comforting structure, hence excessively free people (or, at least, people perceiving themselves as having too much freedom) tend to run back to forms of authority like fascism.

The violence of fascism can be symbolically seen in the droogs‘ crimes, as well as in their uniform-like outfits: in the novel, back tights, waistcoats with big shoulder-pads, “flip horrorshow boots for kicking,” and white cravats (pages 5-6); in the film, the iconic white outfits, black hats, codpieces, and black boots.

The ineffectual law enforcement of the government at the beginning of the story results in the droogs’ getting away with so much violence and rape; symbolically, this lax governance corresponds to a failed attempt at a left-libertarian society (Kubrick and other critics considered the society of his film to be initially like a failed socialism–the Russian-like nadsat symbolizes this sovietism, too, as does the pro-worker art that is defaced by graffiti).

In contrast, the later government’s use of the Ludovico technique on Alex, with its strict suppression of his criminal urges, symbolically suggests the rigidity and repression of fascism. The extreme left is not similar to the extreme right (as the horseshoe theory gets so absurdly wrong), but the one extreme dialectically phases into its opposite, as I’ve explained elsewhere.

The dialectic of freedom vs. restrictions is resolved with the idea that my right to swing out my arm, with my hand balled in a fist, ends where your face begins. Alex and his droogs, of course, have no respect for this resolution. Individual freedom to do whatever he wants is all that matters to Alex, even to the point of taking pleasure in hurting others.

Sadean delight in cruelty is shown in the film, not only with Alex and his droogs, but also with Billyboy and his droogs when they strip a beautiful “weepy young devotchka” naked and get ready to gang-rape her while a merry passage from Rossini‘s “Thieving Magpie” is heard in the soundtrack. This enjoyment in causing pain is especially evident during the “surprise visit,” when Alex gets ready to rape the “subversive” writer’s wife while singing “Singin’ In the Rain,” dancing, and slapping her and kicking her husband, forcing him to watch the rape.

In spite of how dreadful a human being Alex is, we nonetheless find ourselves liking and sympathizing with him, not just because he’s our “Friend and Humble Narrator,” but because he’s cultured and witty. His clever use of nadsat incorporates the archaisms of Elizabethan-era English, giving his already silver tongue an almost Shakespearean poetry. Then, of course, there’s his love of classical music–Beethoven in particular.

Normally, we stereotype punks as, for example, punk rockers; we look down on criminals as ‘low-life scumbags’; we think of sadists as brutish, unthinking monsters. That we can’t dismiss Alex in this way makes him all the more disturbing…for psychopaths are known for their dangerous charm. The juxtaposition of sadism with high culture is symbolic of the oppression of the ruling class. Nazis were art connoisseurs…though their reasons for liking or disliking this or that artwork were contemptible ones.

The sociopathic characters in the Marquis de Sade‘s explicit novels are cultured people in the upper classes: before and after their torture-laden orgies, they dine on sumptuous feasts, drink fine wine, wear beautiful 18th-century garments, and live in ornately decorated mansions. Sade’s satirical point in presenting his wicked characters in such finery was to allegorize the ruling class’s oppression of the people.

Alex is no aristocrat, but he has the narcissism of one. It shouldn’t be hard (pardon the expression) to know what he’s referring to in calling himself “Alexander the Large” (especially in the context of his raping the drunken ten-year-old “ptitsas” in his home while listening to Beethoven–page 39). As a pun on Alexander the Great, this moniker of Alex’s also embodies his egotism by comparing his assaults and rapes to the ancient Macedonian’s conquests and massacres. Alexander, ‘defender of men,’ defends individual freedom and culture by destroying those of other people; just as imperialism rationalizes its evil by claiming ‘to civilize the world.’

Alex has no illusions that what he’s doing is in any way moral, though. He knows his criminality is wrong; he does it anyway, because he enjoys it. Sade’s libertine characters also openly admit that they commit crimes, for criminal behaviour adds to their arousal. Deep down, we all like Alex because he dares to do what we’re too chicken to do.

We also have to consider Alex’s possible unconscious motives for committing heinous crimes. He’s obviously intelligent: why is he pressing his luck with the law? Even after Deltoid warns him that he’s getting dangerously close to being arrested (page 33), he still tempts fate…even to the point of antagonizing his fellow droogs (pages 25-27; 44-45), in whom he needs to have an unshakable trust. His wild rashness can’t just be reduced to youthful impetuosity.

Part of Alex’s unconscious is in conflict with his wish to be wild and free: part of him wants to be restricted. Recall Fromm’s analysis of the fear of freedom; people want a sense of structure, of where their place is in the world. Freedom from restrictions doesn’t often lead to a freedom to grow and fulfill one’s potential, to live in love and harmony with humanity. Freedom from, without the to following soon after, leaves a void.

Fascism and repression tend to fill that void. Fromm explains “the dialectic quality in this process of growing individuation. […] one side of the growing process of individuation is the growth of self-strength […] The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. […] When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, pages 28-29, his emphasis)

“We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.” (Fromm, pages 34-35)

Alex is smart enough to know that lashing out at his droogs will give the three of them motive for revenge. He’s been punished by the law before, though he’s “been out of the rookers of the millicents for a long time now” (Burgess, page 33); he has no reason to believe he’ll never get caught again, especially when he has to rely on three frienemies.

In prison, he has his structure, but no matter how much of the Bible he reads (which is just to be entertained by the violent parts), or how much advice he receives from the chaplain (Part Two, chapter 1), he still has no inclination to be good. In fact, Alex quickly tires of the physical restrictions he has around him, and mentally, he’s as free to be as wicked as ever; for prison overcrowding drives him to beat a new cellmate to death, or so is he blamed for it, anyway (Part Two, chapter 2). This, in the novel, is what causes him to be chosen to receive the Ludovico technique.

Despite what he says about wanting to be good (page 66), I’d say he only wants to change the nature of his restricted freedoms, from physical bonds to mental ones. So all of this switching from one kind of freedom/restriction dichotomy to another is just the sublation of the dialectical unity in opposition that Alex is trying to resolve.

Part of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction is how one man’s exercise of such ‘freedom’ (licence, really) is another man’s bondage…to suffering. Alex’s freedom to beat up or rape his victims becomes their bondage to trauma. One opposite offsets the other; thus, they’re balanced in the Brahman of universal oneness.

When Alex has had the treatment turn him into “a clockwork orange,” that is, organic and natural-looking on the outside, but mechanical and inhuman on the inside, making him an automaton incapable of moral choice, he gets a karmic exchanging of the victim/victimizer roles, of enjoyer of freedom vs. victim of traumatic bondage.

From here on, we get the antithesis of all that we had from the beginning, and the opposites are paralleled especially in the movie. Instead of Alex and his droogs beating up a derelict, the derelict and his “droogs,” if you will, beat up clockwork Alex. Instead of him dumping Dim and Georgie into water, they–as corrupt cops–dump him in water (in the novel, Dim and Billyboy are the police who brutalize him–Part 3, chapter 3). Karma.

Instead of Alex terrorizing the “writer of subversive literature” (F. Alexander [another ‘defender of men’], played by Patrick Magee, who–in an interesting twist of irony–played the Marquis de Sade in the film version of Marat/Sade several years earlier) in his “HOME” and destroying his ‘Clockwork Orange’ writing, F. Alexander–Alex’s doppelgänger–sadistically terrorizes the boy by playing Beethoven’s Ninth (in the novel, it’s “the Symphony Number Three of the Danish veck Otto Skadelig”–page 130) and forcing him to hear it in a locked-up room, after the Ludovico technique has conditioned him to feel sick whenever hearing his beloved music. Karma, karma, and more cruel karma.

Instead of unconsciously trying to have himself incarcerated, Alex consciously tries to liberate himself from the hell of life, “the tortures of the damned” (in the novel, he even goes to the library to research how to kill himself painlessly–page 112).

Finally, he’s hospitalized instead of imprisoned, given “the best of treatment” instead of exposed to the tolchocking of cellmates, and had the Ludovico conditioning removed from him instead of put into his body. The self-serving government that made his body a concentration camp for his mind now gives him a job in exchange for forgiving them, so they can hope to be reelected. He’s “cured all right.”

Though the film excluded chapter 21, which the American editions of the novel had also excised until 1986; in a way, the final scene–of Alex fantasizing giving his grinning, willing bride [as I suspect she is] “the old in-out, in-out” in front of applauding onlookers (who, dressed formally, seem like wedding guests to me)–is the implied ending of the final chapter.

Eighteen years old now, and with a new trio of droogs, Alex is inspired by a conversation he has with his old droog Pete and his new wife (pages 145-146), and decides it’s time to grow up and give up on the life of crime. He ought to settle down and get married, too. Will his future son become a criminal, though?

“That’s what it’s going to be then, brothers…”

However lame this final chapter may be to readers who prefer licking their lips over dystopian writing with darker endings, it does make an important point about freedom: in choosing to give up on crime on his own initiative, Alex is demonstrating Fromm’s ideal about freedom to; Alex is going to use his freedom from restrictions, physical and mental, to be free to become a good, productive member of society.

And this is the final sublation of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction: one freely chooses to restrict oneself from doing wrong to others. When I swing my fist, I stop myself from making it meet your face. Instead of a morally lax society that is too lenient on criminals, or one that’s repressively authoritarian, we have a society that understands the need to have a mix of freedoms and restrictions.

As Fromm explains, “submission is not the only way of avoiding aloneness and anxiety [resulting from excessive freedom]. The other way, the only one which is productive and does not end in an insoluble conflict, is that of spontaneous relationship to man  and nature, a relationship that connects the individual with the world without eliminating his individuality. This kind of relationship–the foremost expressions of which are love and productive work–are rooted in the integration and strength of the total personality and are therefore subject to the very limits that exist for the growth of the self.” (Fromm, page 29, his emphasis)

So, the individual still is an individual, but one connected with the world. Limits exist, but for the growth of the self. This is that mix of freedoms and restrictions, the final synthesis of freedom vs. bondage. One isn’t merely free from evil, but free to do good. One is an orange, but sweet on the inside.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, London, 1962

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Unscrupulous Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

Sam, played by Dooley Wilson.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

Signor Ferrari, played by Sidney Greenstreet.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Casablanca is a prison.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Crime doesn’t pay, Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre)…if you’re on the wrong side.

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt).

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.

Analysis of ‘The Dead Zone’

The Dead Zone is a supernatural thriller novel by Stephen King that was published in 1979. It’s about a man, Johnny Smith, who has psychic powers of precognition and clairvoyance, which give him visions of the past or future of whomever he touches.

David Cronenberg directed a film adaptation, with Christopher Walken as Smith, in 1983. A TV series with Anthony Michael Hall as Smith was produced in the 2000s. I’ll be referencing the novel and Cronenberg’s film.

Here are some quotes, from the novel:

“But the people didn’t elect buffoons to Washington. Well—hardly ever.” (p. 199)

“Did I grow a third eye?” –Johnny, p. 98

Nothing is ever lost, Sarah. Nothing that can’t be found.” (p. 402)

“It’s been my experience that ninety-five percent of the people who walk the earth are simply inert, Johnny. One percent are saints, and one percent are assholes. The other three percent are the people who do what they say they can do.” –Roger Chatsworth, p. 285

“PRECOGNITION, TELEPATHY, BULLSHIT! EAT MY DONG, YOU EXTRASENSORY TURKEY!” –hate letter to Johnny, p. 181

Well, we all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.” –Johnny’s letter to Sarah, p. 401

“…some things are better lost than found.” –Dr. Sam Weizak, to Johnny, p. 223

From the film:

‘”Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!’ –Johnny Smith

“I need your support, I need your expertise, I need your input, and most importantly, I need your money.” [laughter] –Greg Stillson

“I have had a vision that I am going to be President of the United States someday. And nobody, and I mean nobody is going to stop me!” –Stillson

“Let’s send Greg Stillson to the United States Senate – and mediocrity to hell!” –Stillson […]

Johnny Smith: I’ve been tutoring this boy named Stuart. In the vision, I saw him drown. But that’s not the point. In the vision, something was missing.

Dr. Sam Weizak: How – how do you mean?

Johnny Smith: It was like… a blank spot, a dead zone.

Dr. Sam Weizak: First of all, tell me, did the boy, in fact, drown?

Johnny Smith: His father wanted him to play hockey. I talked him out of it. The boy’s alive.

Dr. Sam Weizak: Ah. Yes. Don’t you see how clear it is? Not only can you see the future, you can…

Johnny Smith: I can change it.

Dr. Sam Weizak: You can change it, exactly. Here. Yes, John. That is your… your “dead zone.” The possibility of… of altering the outcome of your premonitions. It’s fascinating. Let me make a note. […]

Johnny Smith: [touching the mother of serial killer Frank Dodd] You knew? Didn’t you?

Henrietta Dodd: You… you’re a devil, sent from Hell!

Henrietta Dodd (played by Colleen Dewhurst), mother of cop/serial killer Frank.

In spite of his special powers of knowing what most people couldn’t know, Johnny also has a limit to that unique knowledge, a realm of unknowing that he calls the dead zone: ‘The tumor lies in that area which I always called “the dead zone.”‘ (p. 396) This leads us to a central theme in the novel, a dialectical understanding of the relationship between knowing and unknowing. The biting head of the ouroboros (where dialectical opposites meet) of extrasensory knowledge leads to the bitten tail of unknowing.

Connected to this yin-and-yang concept of knowledge and ignorance is the relationship between organized religion–an authoritarian establishment often associated with superstition and fundamentalist bigotry towards any other forms of knowledge contradictory to its dogma–and intuitive mysticism and spirituality. Johnny’s mother, Vera, adheres to the former; Greg Stillson peddles the former as a Bible salesman in the 1950s; and Johnny demonstrates the latter with his psychic powers.

In this connection, consider what the Tao Te Ching says: “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness.” (71) Also, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (56) Vera’s overconfidence in the ‘truth’ of her Christian fundamentalism, with her attendant neuroticism, demonstrates how she thinks she knows the truth, but doesn’t. Johnny’s admitted “dead zone” of unknowing, along with his unassuming nature, evading the spotlight, shows how he knows, because he doesn’t know.

Added to this virtue is Johnny’s loving, empathic nature. Those who insist on fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical prophecy, obsessing over how Scripture supposedly warns us of 20th and 21st century evils, things its writers couldn’t possibly have known, ought to recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Sarah Hazlett (née Bracknell–played by Brooke Adams) and Johnny Smith (Walken).

Johnny has oceans of this love: he has it for his father, his mother (as irritating as her fundamentalism may be), and for his girl, Sarah, whom he would have married, if not for his car accident and four-and-a-half-year coma, a kind of extended stay in the belly of the great fish, making Jonah‘s sojourn a mere pit-stop in comparison.

In relation to the rest of the events of the story (and to Jonah’s, and to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to which Johnny’s coma is symbolically associated), the timing of Johnny’s coma is unusual. The coma occurs towards the beginning of the novel/film, before his hesitancy to use his abilities for the good of the world; whereas Jonah’s wish to escape having to obey God’s command preceded his time in the belly of the great fish. The same goes for Jesus’ harrowing of Hell, between his death and resurrection: this harrowing occurs towards the end of the four Gospels, after his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, and after his spiritual struggle in Gethsemane, as we know.

Johnny’s name is a pun on Jonah; it also shares a J with Jesus (Yeshua being a variant of Joshua). Johnny is a teacher, with a good heart, like Jesus (who was often called ‘rabbi’), and also like carpenter Jesus, he’s a man of modest means. Contrast Johnny with Trump-like, narcissistic Stillson, whose ambition is to become the US president one day, and to prove his daddy wrong, that he’s better than Daddy claimed he is (‘…his father was…bellowing, “You’re no good, runt! You’re no fucking good!”‘p. 9).

Heinz Kohut wrote of how the narcissistic personality grows from a lack of parental empathy, and this is clearly what Stillson lacked in childhood. Johnny, in contrast, has deeply loving parents, instilling a self-love in him that cultivates humility. Just as there’s a dialectical relationship between knowing and unknowing, so is there such a relationship between humility/self-love and narcissism/self-hate.

Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen), the man who would be president.

As it is within, so is it without: Johnny gives out love as best he can to the world, even when cruel, bad luck takes away his job and the love of his life (ironically and dialectically, right after his amazingly good luck on the Wheel of Fortune); Stillson, on the other hand, abuses a dog (when selling Bibles!–pp. 5-7), and bullies those around him to make them comply with his ambitions (e.g., Chapter 18). Even in the alternate future Johnny prevents, with Stillson achieving his presidential ambition, he chooses nuclear genocide over diplomacy with the Soviets. Johnny projects and introjects good, Stillson, evil, regardless of good or ill fortune.

In the end, though Johnny dies, his spirit is felt by Sarah: his Christ-like spiritual body (i.e., his hand–p. 401) touches her. In the novel, we don’t read of Stillson’s suicide, as we see it in the film; he is, however, spiritually destroyed by the scandal caused by his using a child as a human shield against Johnny’s rifle. In the end, Greg is still just the son of his contemptuous father. Johnny, however, is more of a son of God, not just through his abilities, but also through his selfless sacrifice for humanity.

Indeed, in many ways, Johnny’s life can be paralleled with Christ’s, though the order of events seem scrambled, reversed, or even of a contrary nature when compared to the narrative of the Gospels. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s ‘death-and-resurrection’ coma occurs towards the beginning, rather than at the end, of the story. His final act of sacrifice to save humanity involves trying to kill a malefactor (Stillson) rather than save one, as Jesus does when he says, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When Johnny is shot, a bullet hits him in the hand (in the movie), suggesting the stigmata. According to the novel, the last bullet to hit him goes “into the left side of his midsection” (p. 384), comparable to the spear stuck in Christ’s side (John 19:34), the last piercing of his skin. Stillson’s use of the child as a human shield suggests the self-centredness of the other crucified malefactor: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Luke 23:39)

Johnny and Sarah never stopped loving each other.

Sarah’s relationship with Johnny, still a love relationship after she married Walt Hazlett during Johnny’s coma, is an illicit one, since she commits adultery by sleeping with Johnny. Her adultery invites comparison with Mary Magdalene, who visited Christ’s tomb when he, risen from the dead, spoke her name (John 20:16). The comparison is clearer when Sarah feels the hand of Johnny’s spirit on her neck (p. 401)

So Johnny is the Jesus of anti-authoritarianism, symbolically in his ‘death-resurrection’ coma happening at the beginning of the story, rather than at the end, as in the Gospels; in his salvific assassination attempt on Stillson; in the superiority of Johnny’s psychic powers to the dogma of Christian fundamentalism.

“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Johnny may have a dead zone, but he still has more in him than mortal knowledge, for he is full of love for humanity.

And even Vera’s unknowing has its limits, for she is right that Johnny should use his divine gift to help humanity. He is reluctant to at first, and in this way his struggle parallels Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, or Jonah’s attempted flight from God.

But Johnny eventually relents, helping the police catch a serial killer/rapist, who as it turns out is a cop himself, Frank Dodd! Here again, we see the anti-authoritarian Jesus in Johnny, exposing a killer among the authorities, the cops–something that upsets Sheriff Bannerman, who has held Dodd in high regard up to this point. This anti-authority Johnny is in this respect like anti-authoritarian Jesus, who exposed the moral hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the legal and religious authorities of his time. (Matthew 23)

Frank Dodd’s suicide, as envisioned in the film.

Dodd, as a serial killer/rapist, is of the Norman Bates/Ed Gein variety: he lives at home with his mother, Henrietta, from whom he’s received his pathologies, in particular, the notion of “those cheap slutty women that’d be happy to give a nice boy like my Frank an incurable disease” (p. 252). Henrietta is so obsessed with ‘protecting’ her son from “those cheap slutty women” that she “put a clothespin on it so [little Frank would] know how it felt…when you got a disease. A disease from one of those nasty-fuckers, they’re all nasty-fuckers, and they have to be stopped…” (p. 240)

The attitude that Dodd got from his mother, that ‘all women are whores,’ while his mother is apparently the only feminine angel (she who pierced his dick with a clothespin when he was a child!), is an example of psychological splitting, a common defence mechanism, but one here that is taken to a pathological level.

Thus we see in Dodd, as we see in Stillson, a common origin of authoritarian thinking: toxic parenting (consider Philip Larkin‘s famous poem in this regard). The Biblical injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is transferred, by the victims of toxic parents, onto a similarly pathological honouring of authority figures–police, politicians, and religious leaders, even to the point of revering scriptural conceptions of divinity.

Now, Johnny has quite a flawed mother, one whose religious excesses he even compares to Henrietta’s pathologies: “there was something in her eyes, narrowed to glittering slits in their puffy sockets, that reminded him unpleasantly of the way his mother’s eyes had sometimes looked when Vera Smith was transported into one of her religious frenzies.” (p. 251)

Johnny having one of his visions.

But Vera’s faults don’t cause Johnny to split his internal and external worlds into narcissistic idealizing and devaluing, as Stillson’s and Dodd’s parents do. Johnny’s psychic gift symbolizes his empathy, for it connects and unifies him with the external world, rather than alienates him from it. His precognition and clairvoyance also link the past, present, and future for him. Finally, the paradox of his knowing and unknowing, his psychic authority (coupled with his spiritual anti-authoritarianism), the living death of his coma, and his saving of the world by trying to murder Stillson, all show how his actions unify opposites.

Thus, Johnny symbolizes the ideal that I call The Three Unities, those of Space, Time, and Action, a spirituality free of the authoritarianism of organized religion. This dialectical monism is similar to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, an ineffable, inscrutable notion of Ultimate Reality that is attained only through an “abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” (Grotstein) This abandonment of understanding almost sounds like a giving-up of knowledge…the dead zone for accessing divine knowledge? Attaining knowing through a cloud of unknowing? How dialectical!

To return to the Christian symbolism of the story, I find it interesting to compare Johnny’s suffering with Jesus’ passion. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s coma is a symbolic death and resurrection. Jesus’ physical suffering–his scourging, the crown of thorns, the nails through his hands and feet, and the torture of slowly dying on a cross (hence the term excruciating)–is the temporal opposite of Johnny’s psychological suffering–losing Sarah, losing four and a half years of his life, losing his teaching job, and losing his ability to walk normally–which comes after his coma.

This reversal of events symbolizes how Johnny’s a kind of ‘anti-Jesus,’ if you will (not an antichrist, of course!), in that his miraculous acts, his self-sacrifice, and his love of humanity don’t result in a new religion exploiting his memory to establish yet another authoritarian institution. His dead zone, emphasized in the story to the point of being its title, shows how important it is to stress the limitations of one’s talents and knowledge, which is the true basis of humility.

If we pretend we don’t have those limitations, we become like the “slick” Dodd (p, 240), or “The Laughing Tiger” Stillson (p. 293), men whose overweening pride collapses into shame, as when Dodd confesses (p. 255) and kills himself, and in the aftermath of Stillson’s use of a child as a human shield. Tragic irony for the hubristic.

(By the way, another bit of paradoxical irony is seen in how narcissistic Stillson is compared to Trump, and in many ways correctly so, of course: yet, where Stillson as president endangers humanity by wanting to start nuclear war with Russia, Trump’s relative reluctance to show hostility to Russia is what makes the political establishment dislike him. As I’ve argued elsewhere, though, our reasons for disliking him should be the same reasons for disliking that political establishment: they’re all authoritarian narcissists, and they’re all dangerous…but hey! What do I know?)

Stephen King, The Dead Zone, Signet Books, New York, 1979

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, Shambhala, New York, 1961

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

Analysis of ‘The Entity’

The Entity is a 1982 supernatural horror film based on the 1978 novel of the same name by Frank De Felitta, which in turn was based on the Doris Bither case. Bither claimed to have been repeatedly raped by a trio of spirits–two holding her down while the third raped her–over a period of many years, the assaults eventually becoming less and less frequent until, apparently, they finally stopped altogether.

The film stars Barbara Hershey as Carla Moran, who is based on Doris Bither. It also starred Ron Silver as psychiatrist Dr. Phil Sneiderman; Alex Rocco played Carla’s boyfriend, Jerry Anderson, David Labiosa plays her son, Billy, Jacqueline Brookes played parapsychologist Dr. Elizabeth Cooley, and George Coe played psychiatrist Dr. Weber.

Here are some quotes:

“Welcome home, cunt.” –The entity, to Carla

Carla Moran: I mean I’d rather be dead than living the way I’ve been living. Do you understand that?

Phil Sneiderman: Yes, I can understand that. Yes. I also understand that I care very much what happens to you. Very much. And I know that in your heart you know the difference between reality and fantasy. Carla, look at me, Carla – our reason, our intelligence: That’s the only thing that distinguishes us between any other species of animal, Carla – I care about you! Carla, don’t close yourself off now. It’s real important, real important that you maintain contact with at least one person that really cares about you.

Carla Moran: I don’t know what you’re saying.

Phil Sneiderman: I’ll tell you what I am saying! That you and I can make that contact.

Carla Moran: [softly] I don’t want to make that contact. […]

Cindy: Beautiful day outside, isn’t it? Nothing like good old southern California for lots of sunshine!

Carla Moran: I was raped.

“All right. All right, bastard. I’ve finished running. So do what you want. Take your time – buddy. Take your time. Really, I’m thankful for the, uh… rest. I’m so… tired of being scared. So it’s all right, it really is, it’s all right. You can, uh, do anything you want to me, you can, uh, torture me, kill me, anything. But you can’t have me. You cannot touch me.” –Carla

Thematically, we’re dealing with the conflict between acknowledging internal and external reality, which is symbolized by an external force–oh, so literally–coming inside Carla. What is this entity, and where did it come from? Outside of her, as seems most obvious; inside her, as the psychologists assume…or both? That is to say, is it a thrusting back and forth…”a little of the old in-out, in-out”?

On its first attack, the entity punches her in the face with an invisible fist, yet very visible blood is seen on her mouth. As it rapes her, and during its every attack, we hear this pounding music, suggestive of stabbing phallic thrusts. Then the music stops, the entity leaves her, and she’s screaming…but no man is ever seen on top of her.

The second attack involves no assault on her body, but rather on her house, which shakes as if during an earthquake. Her house thus symbolizes her internal mental world…and her vagina. The house shakes, her room shakes, the room’s walls shake…vaginal walls.

She, her son, and two daughters race out of the house and into her car. They go to the house of her friend, Cindy Nash (Maggie Blye), and sleep there for the night. Needless to say, Carla is reluctant to go back home; she’s also hesitant about seeing a psychiatrist, whose probing [!] might bring out some traumas from her past that she doesn’t want to have to deal with.

Carla Moran and her son, Billy.

Back at home at night, finally, she and her kids hear a frightening sound, that of scraping against metal. Suspecting her invisible attacker, they search for the source of the sound, which seems to be a pipe from under the house. A pipe…how appropriately phallic.

Still, the entity seems to attack only in the yonic symbol of her internal world, her home. Then, when she’s driving, it takes control of her car; riding in her car, it rides her…and drives her crazy after making her almost crash into other cars. The entity thus no longer resides only in her internal world; it is also in her external world, though inside her car. Here we can see the dialectical tension and unity between internality and externality.

Finally, she goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Sneiderman. He insists the whole thing is just a delusion she’s having, brought on by repressed traumas she has been trying to project onto the external world. Still, she can’t imagine how she’s been able to cause certain of her bodily injuries, which seem too inaccessible to be self-injury. It must be an external force!

Sneiderman goes into her home and looks around (since her home symbolizes her vagina, his entering has obvious sexual symbolism). He learns about her childhood, with an overzealously religious father who said “thee” and “thou” so often, she as a little girl thought his speech was modern English! He also held her inappropriately. A-ha! thinks Sneiderman.

Carla and Dr. Sneiderman.

Her later relationships with men–who, except for Billy’s father, are typically considerably older than she–have been short-lived. She seems afraid to commit to a long-term relationship; her current one with her boyfriend, Jerry, seems to be following this pattern (indeed, he’ll leave her as soon as he’s aware of the entity’s raping of her).

Sneiderman is touched by Carla, though. His countertransference, that is, his personal feelings as a therapist for his patient (as opposed to vice-versa), is going wild. She’s a beautiful woman. Now, he may be a professional therapist, but he’s also a man. He says he cares for her, but there’s surely more to his feelings for her than that.

I don’t mean to suggest that his feelings for her are merely physical. His countertransference is causing him to make wild speculations about her unconscious motives for having her “delusions” of being raped by a trio of incubi (i.e., the two “smaller” entities holding her down…her daughters, as Sneiderman would have it?–and the big one raping her…Billy, as Sneiderman thinks…or the ghost of her dead father, or of Billy’s father, as I speculate?); but he’s no creep. Her beauty, combined with her vulnerability and pain, with which he empathizes, are the roots of his desire for her, which he suppresses and rationalizes as concern for her well-being.

Nonetheless, his overemphasis on her problem as being internal is what turns her away from him. During her sleep one night, the entity has her, its invisible fingers pressing against her breasts (a prosthetic body was created for Hershey to achieve the invisible rape effect). It causes her to enjoy an erotic dream, causing her to orgasm. Her unconscious likes the sex!

Carla, being raped by the entity.

When she wakes up, she’s so ashamed of the pleasure she’s been manipulated to feel that she smashes all the mirrors in her room. She’d hate to think the woman she sees in the reflection is the real her, so alienated does she feel from the image, especially as against her own body, which she feels herself to have so little control over. The last thing a rape victim wants is to be made to feel that she “wanted it.”

In this connection, the evident phoniness of the prosthetic body–however painstakingly the special effects technicians worked to make it look real–seems symbolically appropriate: is this the real her, or is it a fake her?–ditto for the woman in the reflection. Which is her reality–inner, or outer?

Along with this observation, there’s another interesting image to compare the prosthetic nude body to: earlier, in the scene where she’s raped in the bathroom, we see her undress through two mirror reflections, with real breasts and buttocks exposed. If the mirror reflects an outwardly projected reality, an external reality, while her actual body being raped is shown with the prosthetic body, representing her internal reality, what does this say about which is real–the internal, or the external? Her, or what’s projected?

She tells Sneiderman how ashamed she feels about having orgasmed during the dream; he tells her his Freudian interpretation, that she’s afraid of her desires. This interpretation offends her, especially when he carries it to the extreme of suggesting she has incestuous desires for her handsome son, Billy, who’s the “spitting image” of his “exciting” father. Thus, she stops the treatment with the psychiatrist.

Carla, having her erotic dream.

(It should be noted that her dream, as it was in the novel, was supposed to be of her having committed incest with Bill; this was removed from the film for fear that the controversial content would have been fiercely objected to. In other words, Sneiderman’s interpretation isn’t as outrageous as it seems. I wonder if the entity is Billy’s father, the drunk, dope fiend who died in a motorcycle accident, for which she “thanked God.” If so, is the entity raping her in revenge for her being glad he died? Is it tormenting her by tricking her into thinking the dream was a wish-fulfillment?)

She sleeps over at her friend Cindy’s home again; the entity attacks the house, soon enough after Cindy and her husband leave, that they notice the attack and return. Carla has tears of joy in her eyes when Cindy confirms that the attack was real. This is what trauma victims so desperately need–validation, not being told “it’s all in your head.” The attacks of the entity, external ones, symbolize the real traumatic events that have occurred to cause the victim to relive her internal mental hell, over and over again.

Another thing has been noted, first when Billy tries to get the invisible rapist off of her, then when the parapsychologists do tests in her home: the entity shoots electricity and laser-like lights in the air. It’s like the hurling of lightning bolts. This leads us to a discussion of Zeus symbolism.

In Greek myth, Zeus–hurler of lightning bolts–used to prey sexually on pretty maidens, his ravishing of them eerily similar to what the entity is doing to Carla. His Roman name, Jupiter, is a derivation from Dieus Pater, or ‘day/sky-father‘ (outside, in the sky). Here, we can see a symbolic link between the entity and Carla’s lecherous father, who I assume is dead by the time the story begins, thus making it possible his ghost is the entity.

The entity’s ‘Zeus’ lightning.

Now, the fact that, on the one hand, she calls the entity (i.e., ‘Jupiter’) a “bastard,” while also thanking God–another sky-father–for the parapsychologists’ protecting of her from the entity (she also thanked God for the death of Billy’s father, recall), suggests the splitting of ‘Father’ into absolute good and bad objects. (I’m also reminded of the last line in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy“: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”)

So, anyway, we now go from investigating Carla’s problem from the internal perspective (Sneiderman) to the external one (Dr. Cooley and her associates, who are as careful as possible in their assessment of Carla’s story, trying to be scientific about it). Sneiderman dismisses them as superstitious “schmucks,” though some today regard his Freudian analysis as being the superstition. Sneiderman does all he can to thwart the parapsychologists, imagining he’s the one who has the scientific authority to deal with Carla’s problem properly, when really it’s just a matter of his sexual jealousy.

Her boyfriend, Jerry, goes to her home one night, only to find her being raped by the entity. Again, we see that prosthetic body being felt up. It’s interesting to note that the prosthetic is used only later in the film, when she is doubting Sneiderman’s notion that her problem is internal, or ‘all in her head.’ As I said above, the unreality of the prosthetic body can be seen to symbolize the perceived falseness of the internality interpretation.

Now, it’s the parapsychologists’ turn to prove the externality thesis, being the negation of the internality thesis. They plan to prove that the entity has mass by freezing it in liquid helium. If they can capture the entity, they’ll prove its physicality and show it isn’t just a “psychic projection.”

The parapsychologists, with Dr. Cooley in the centre.

The dialectical battle between the internality thesis and the externality negation of Sneiderman’s interpretation is symbolized by his struggle to convince Carla to give up on her reliance on Dr. Cooley et al. He fears the parapsychologists are indulging her delusions, making them worse. While his countertransference is clouding his judgement, though, there is a legitimate argument to be made that Cooley is exploiting Carla in order to promote and validate parapsychology.

The entity appears in the parapsychologists’ controlled environment, made to look like Carla’s home. In this place, Carla is being used as bait to lure the entity into being frozen in the liquid helium. They capture it in a mountain of ice, awing every observer; but the entity breaks free, depriving them of their coveted proof. Though Sneiderman’s associate, Dr. Weber, witnesses the phenomenon, he refuses to admit that it’s explicit proof of paranormal activity, which angers Cooley. (Technically, other explanations are possible.)

So, neither the internality thesis of the psychoanalysts nor the externality antithesis of the parapsychologists have demonstrated conclusive proof of their theories; both, however, have presented persuasive cases, to at least a large extent. So, what shall be our conclusion?

A sublation of the internality/externality contradiction seems the best answer. The entity symbolizes an externally-produced trauma introjected into the victim. Thus, Carla’s trauma is in her head, but not born there.

The source of her trauma is both inside AND outside her.

The worst thing anyone can say to a trauma victim is, “It’s all in your head. Get over it!” No: something real and evil was imposed on the victim, though most of us can’t see the cause, which is symbolized in the movie by the invisible entity raping Carla. A study of object relations theory can reveal how we all internalize imagos of our parents; these internal objects become blueprints, as it were, for all of our subsequent relationships.

The abuse Carla suffered from her father became a blueprint for all her future failed relationships: her teen husband and father of Bill; the father of her daughters, the man who left her; and Jerry, who couldn’t tolerate living with a woman being repeatedly raped by an incubus. The entity can represent any, or all, of these men as her internalized objects.

The best way to understand the human personality is not as one isolated from the world, but as one related to other people, with whom we all project and introject positive and negative energy and influences. Thus, what we are is both internal and external energy flowing into and out of us, over and over again throughout our lives. This passing of energy in and out of us, back and forth between people, is well expressed in Bion‘s elaborations on projective identification, what he called container and contained. The container receives projections, which are the contained.

The weeping, frustrated infant projects its hostility onto its patient and loving mother, who receives its energy while soothing it. Bion called this attitude of the mother a state of reverie; in taking the baby’s negative energy and transforming it into good, the baby can then receive it back and find peace. Similarly, a therapist can be a container for a psychotic patient, receiving and tolerating his hostility and attacks, helping him to be calm.

Sneiderman and Carla.

Appropriately, the container is the feminine symbol, the yoni, and the contained is a phallic, masculine symbol. Thus, the entity’s rapes of Carla are a vivid symbol of a violently extreme version of this movement from the external to the internal. The transference and countertransference between Carla and Sneiderman also reflect container/contained, especially since his desire for her makes him yet another entity to be feared by her.

As her therapist, he should be her container, receiving and accepting all of her projections, anxieties, and frustrations. He should be patient and forbearing, so all that fear and frustration can be transformed, tamed, and returned to her, healing her. Instead, he lets his countertransference interfere with his capacity to help her effectively, thus exacerbating her problem and alienating her from him. She doesn’t need to hear classical Freudian hooey…she needs his empathy, to have her experiences validated.

Sneiderman won’t be her container, but the parapsychologists all too eagerly want to be the entity’s container…though the aggressiveness with which they go about it causes them to lose it. Carla touches on a possible solution when she’s arguing with Sneiderman about whether or not to be committed to a mental hospital: she says she’ll cooperate with the entity.

Now, obviously, cooperating with a rapist is never defensible; but if we see the rapes as symbolic of the container/contained relationship between inner and outer reality, between subject and object, self and other, we can begin to understand why, after the movie ends, the attacks on Carla become fewer and fewer. By containing the entity’s projective identifications, by tolerating them, she can tame them and return its hostile energy back to it, calming it.

So at the end of the movie, when she walks into her house and hears the entity say, “Welcome home, cunt” (note the juxtaposition of its last two words, as indicating the house as a symbolic yoni), we see a look of resigned acceptance on her face. She knows that the only way to defeat the entity is to play its game, with a dynamic interplay of container/contained, a shifting back and forth between internality and externality (symbolized by her entry into the house, then exiting it soon after).

She can have victory only through surrender–winning through losing. As with the mother and her bawling baby, Carla must be in a state of reverie, as when she orgasmed during her erotic dream, to calm the rage of the entity. Her submission to a spectral rapist, though, is what gives The Entity such a frightening ending; for what woman in her right mind would ever be willing to submit to such traumatic horror?

Analysis of ‘The French Connection’

The French Connection is a 1971 crime thriller directed by William Friedkin (who did The Exorcist two years later), and starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, and Tony Lo Bianco. The film is a fictionalized dramatization of The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, a 1969 book about a famous 1962 drug bust.

In fact, Eddie “Popeye” Egan (whose fictionalized counterpart was played by Hackman–Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle) plays a supporting role as Doyle’s supervisor, Walt Simonson. Egan was also a technical supervisor for the film, as was his real-life partner, Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso (the film’s counterpart for whom was played by Scheider–Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Grosso also appeared in the film, playing a federal agent named Klein.

Widely considered one of the best films ever made, The French Connection also boasts one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed, a deliberate–and successful–attempt to outdo the famous car chase scene in Bullitt. Indeed, chasing…pursuit…is a major theme in this film.

Here are some famous quotes:

“All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” –Doyle, to black perp […]

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: You dumb guinea.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: How the hell did I know he had a knife?

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust a nigger.

Buddy “Cloudy” Russo: He could have been white.

Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle: Never trust anyone! […]

“Yeah, I know Popeye. His brilliant hunches cost the life of a good cop.” –Bill Mulderig […]

[analyzing drug shipment] “Blast off: one-eight-oh.” [as thermometer keeps rising] “200: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Two ten: U.S. Government certified. Two twenty: lunar trajectory, junk of the month club, sirloin steak. Two thirty: Grade A poison.” [when the thermometer tops at 240] “Absolute dynamite. Eighty-nine percent pure junk. Best I’ve ever seen. If the rest is like this, you’ll be dealing on this load for two years.” –Chemist

There are three distinct groups of people in this film: the wealthy French/US heroin dealers led by Alain Charnier (played by Rey, and based on Jean Jehan), whom Popeye charmingly calls “Frog One,” as well as Americans Boca and Weinstock; the New York City Police, including Popeye, “Cloudy” (Scheider), Bill Mulderig (played by Bill Hickman), and Simonson; and there are the black drug dealers and junkies who are bullied by the cops.

These three groups can be seen to symbolize the upper, middle, and lower classes of society. The wealthy French drug dealers, along with their American counterparts (such as upwardly-mobile Sal Boca [Lo Blanco], Joel Weinstock [Harold Gary], etc.) are, of course, mafia…and mafia are capitalists, as I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

The cops represent the middle class that envies the ruling class and wants to supplant them, while they also despise the poor, as symbolically made clear in the cops’ racism against blacks and Latinos. The conflict between cops and mafia on the one side, and between cops and blacks on the other, thus symbolizes class conflict in general.

After a brief opening scene in Marseilles, in which an undercover French cop has been seen trailing Charnier, then is killed by Pierre Nicoli (played by Marcel Bozzuffi), Charnier’s bodyguard/hitman; we go over to Brooklyn, where Doyle is dressed as Santa, and Cloudy is pretending to be a hot dog vendor. They’re outside a bar filled with blacks, at least some of whom are drug addicts/pushers.

Doyle, as Santa, is entertaining a group of little black boys, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ with them. Given what he and Cloudy are about to do regarding the black junkies in the bar, we should note the phoniness of Doyle’s attitude towards these kids.

Blacks and other racial minorities know better than anybody about the cruelties of police brutality, rooted in racial prejudice. Although “Popeye” was originally Eddie Egan’s nickname, and it had nothing to do with the cartoon character; his counterpart in the film is fictional enough to allow the false association with the cartoon hero, a false association especially justified when seen in light of Doyle’s introduction to us dressed as another children’s hero, Santa Claus.

When we see the cops as representatives of the middle class, or the upwardly-mobile petite bourgeoisie, we can see Doyle’s avuncular phoniness in its proper light. He pretends to be kind to the black boys because it’s part of his job; later, he’ll make no secret of his racism against blacks, Italians, Jews, the French, and Latinos (listen for his racial/ethnic slurs against all of these groups throughout the film).

Bourgeois liberals pretend to be kind to the less fortunate as long as their own class status isn’t threatened; when it is, though, they show their true colours, and the hero costuming is thrown aside, as it is when Doyle and Cloudy chase the knife-swinging black junkie, who slashes at them only in self-defence.

Only people as naïve as children would be fooled by the fake kindness of a petite bourgeois who ultimately keeps the class structure of society intact through force. This Popeye, this Santa, is no hero.

Doyle and Cloudy catch the guy, a representative of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat, and they engage in a kind of word salad to disorient him and manipulate him into confessing his crimes: “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” We see and hear this manipulation of our feelings with language all the time in the media, which distracts us with nonsense, so we won’t see the true nature of class relations around us.

Don Ellis‘s dissonant music for the film perfectly captures this sense of class conflict, as well as the seedy, slimy underbelly of New York.

Let’s now consider the drugs themselves, and what they mean in the context of this movie. Whether they’re heroin, pills, or marijuana, it doesn’t matter: they’re a commodity, representative of all commodities–use-values for all of us who need them or are addicted to them (in whatever way they may be addictive–literally as drugs, or a necessity or craving of some other kind), and exchange values for those who sell them, ultimately the ruling class of capitalist mafias.

Speaking of exchanges–and remember that in our imperialist, modern world, these exchanges often happen between countries–an exchange is being planned between Charnier’s heroin dealers in France and the American dealers in New York, including Sal Boca and Joel Weinstock.

These capitalists are the middle men who produce nothing, but make a huge profit in the exchange. They make a fortune exploiting the drug addicts with their commodity, while whoever makes the commodity is, in all probability, paid little in proportion to the value of the commodity they make–in this film’s case, some of the best quality heroin of the time.

Of all the people to be judging and attacking the black junkies, Popeye Doyle and cops of his ilk are the last who should be doing it. Doyle has a drug of his own–alcohol–and on top of that, he’s a womanizer, chasing pussy as much as he chases perps. The juxtaposition of these two pursuits should help us understand his real reason for doing it…desire.

He’s hardly stopping the “bad guys,” for he’s hardly any better than they are. Apart from his addiction to alcohol and women, he’s trigger happy, his violent excesses resulting in the needless deaths of his fellow cops, and he’s willing to shoot perps in the back. Some would call that murder, save for the police’s licence to kill.

As a cop, and as a womanizer, Doyle is a predator. A deleted scene shows him in his car, going after a pretty girl riding a bicycle (about 12 minutes into this video); as part of his plan to seduce her, he accuses her of breaking the law on her bike. He also takes her bicycle to ride around backwards on it, to harass her for the fun of it, as well as to manipulate her into bed. Some would say his behaviour borders on, if not lapses into, sexual assault.

So when we see him eyeballing, following, and chasing perps, whether by foot or by car, his pursuing shouldn’t be so naïvely misconstrued as a “good guy” going after the “bad guys.” I would compare Doyle to a character in Buddhist myth, namely, Ańgulimāla.

Having already killed almost a thousand victims, Ańgulimāla wanted his thousandth kill to be either the Buddha or–egad!–his mother. He chose the former, whom he chased after. Odd thing, though: the Buddha walked slowly while his would-be murderer raced after and could never catch up to him. Instead, the Buddha got further and further away from him!

Charnier’s calm elusiveness, if not his morality, can be compared to that of the Buddha. Doyle’s rage and frustration–as well as his immorality–from racing after and never catching “Frog One” is easily comparable to that of Ańgulimāla. Doyle is the archetypal “bad cop” to Cloudy’s “good cop.” Cloudy follows the rules, Doyle disregards them. Still, Cloudy supports his partner, just as bourgeois liberals, despite their “progressive” stance, defend the capitalist system. (Consider “progressive” Elizabeth Warren’s support of Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

Since I consider the cops to be an allegorical representation of the middle class, this lawful “good cop” and lawless “bad cop” can also be seen to represent two different kinds of capitalist: respectively, the liberal who advocates a ‘kinder, gentler’ capitalism (Cloudy), and a deregulated “free market” capitalism (Doyle), the neoliberal kind that not only fails to stop the ruling, haute bourgeoisie (Charnier), but actually reinforces neoliberalism‘s brutality and cruelty (Doyle’s violence).

What is Doyle’s reason for taking Cloudy to the Copacabana, a bar with rich mafiosi at one table, beginning the chain of events that lead to the heroin bust? Doyle wants to go there because of desire, his wish to get drunk and chase skirt. Here we see, in a symbolic sense, the root cause of his hunger to catch “Frog One”: Doyle is projecting, onto Charnier et al, his own desire for power over others. There’s a fine line between cop and criminal.

To be fair, there are always some individual good cops out there who honestly, though misguidedly, wish to do their part to make the world a better place by fighting crime. Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the purpose of law enforcement (outside the militsiya of the USSR and Soviet Bloc countries) is to protect the private property of the capitalist class. Doyle’s predation on Charnier is just a symbolizing of how capitalists, big or small, sometimes step on each other as well as on the poor.

Drug addiction should be considered a health issue rather than an excuse to lock people up. Junkies should be put into rehabnot behind bars, then exploited as prison slave labour. That cops like Doyle and Cloudy go after both the sellers and the buyers of dope shows they aren’t interested in doing what’s right: they only want to have power over others, then after (hopefully) successful busts, they can climb up the ranks of the police force.

By catching Charnier, Boca, et al, Doyle hopes to mend his shattered reputation as a cop. He’s accidentally caused the death of another cop, something about which federal agent Bill Mulderig won’t stop taunting him. Doyle’s wish to improve his social status is the motivation behind any bourgeois, from petite to haute.

Many in the middle class, be they left-leaning liberals or right-wing libertarians, despise the ruling class; but they hate the elite for the wrong reasons (feeling envy and indignation that the elite got to the top unfairly, while thinking that having a top-down society is still defensible), and/or their approaches to ending the inequality are hopelessly wrongheaded.

Doyle’s and Cloudy’s failure to catch Charnier, coupled with the largely minimal punishments meted out to the other criminals, symbolizes how the middle class’s conflict with the upper classes ends in failure every time. The global proletariat, united in solidarity, is the only hope in defeating the rich.

As Doyle and Cloudy are eyeing the mafia patrons at a table in the Copacabana, The Three Degrees are singing Jimmy Webb‘s “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon.” Everybody enjoys the electric performance of this black female trio, Angie Boca–in a blonde wig–clapping and shouting, “More!” In mostly white bourgeois society, being talented performers is just about the only way blacks can be included. Everybody fantasizes that he can get up as high as the moon, a lunatic land of filthy lucre, but few really get to go there in the real world. We’re just stuck down here on the Earth.

Sal Boca is upwardly-mobile, too, and with a dirty past (like Doyle); and he hopes that with this heroin deal, he and Angie can rise up to the ranks of the ruling class. Envious Doyle will do all he can to thwart Boca’s and Charnier’s hopes; Doyle is envious Cassius, Cloudy is well-meaning Brutus, Boca is rising Mark Antony, and Charnier is all-powerful Julius Caesar.

Doyle and Cloudy go into another bar frequented by black dope addicts, whom the two men bully, then they ruin their drugs. Since, as I’ve argued above, the black junkies represent the oppressed proletariat, and their drugs represent commodities in general, the ruining of them by the cops–who represent the middle class/petite bourgeoisie–represents capitalism’s depriving of the poor of the necessities of life. Addiction in this movie symbolizes hunger.

A black informant, who pretends to be another junkie bullied by Doyle (yet receives real punches and shoves), tells the cop about a major shipment of heroin to come in a week. The informant thus represents class collaboration.

All the local addicts have been going through a relative dry spell, with very little, if any, junk to enjoy; but when this heroin arrives, their troubles will be over…or so they hope. This lack of drugs, again, represents hunger and starvation, especially the kind suffered in the Third World. So, again, the drug bust, from the point of view of the addicts, represents every thwarted attempt developing countries make to improve their lot, i.e., through electing leftist governments overthrown by the US.

Charnier and his heroin business, however, must not–through the analogy of the above three paragraphs–be confused with any kind of liberation movement. Their profiting off of the addictions of the blacks represents the capitalist system’s enslaving of all of us to the need for commodities as exchange values. The junkies’ addiction is just commodity fetishism, which is also symbolized by the chemist’s assessment of the quality of the heroin about to be sold to the American dealers. We’re in awe of the value of the final product, but we pay no attention to the process of creating that value…which has come from workers.

Allied to this fetishizing of the commodity of heroin is how it can be compared to soma in Brave New World. The high is a religious-like ecstasy, and as we know, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Charnier, the supplier, is thus like a false spiritual leader, a fake Buddha, if you will, who calmly eludes the racing, raging Ańgulimāla that is Doyle in the subway. Like the cops, Charnier only seems good, that is, from the junkies’ point of view, since they so crave his ‘soma.’ (<<Every junkie gets to go to a moon of a different kind.) People at the top of any hierarchy–political, religious, etc.–can fool the masses into thinking they make good leaders.

Note how oppressors of the lower classes can be as masochistic as they are sadistic. Doyle seduces the girl on the bike, but she uses his handcuffs to chain him to his bed. He seems rather amused when he calls her a “crazy kid.” Similarly, there’s a deleted scene (starting at about 5:40 here) in which Nicoli pays a prostitute to whip him; nonetheless, he threatens her by grabbing her at the throat when she complains that he’s fifty dollars short. The upper classes always cheat the working class, including sex workers.

Recall the corrupt ones in power in Sade‘s erotic writing, who enjoy receiving as well as giving pain. Many examples can be found in Juliette. Recall also Freud’s words, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality). Finally, recall Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, which can be symbolized by these ‘sadomasochistic’ scenes.

The sadist in Nicoli comes out again when he opts to shoot Doyle, even when it seems unnecessary and even dangerous to Charnier. After the failed attempt in a sniper shooting, which kills a mother standing near Doyle just outside his home, it’s the cop’s turn to display his sadistic tendencies in the famous car/train chase scene.

While catching the sniper before he can have a chance to strike again is understandable, the lengths Doyle is willing to go to in order to catch Nicoli are far beyond reasonable. He knows perfectly well how outrageously he’s breaking the law in his pursuit, but he does it anyway.

Beeping the car horn in an endless ostinato, he drives through red light after red light, cutting other drivers and pedestrians off, and speeding like a maniac. He’s the classic case of a driver who thinks he ‘owns the road.’ This is reckless driving in the extreme, endangering people’s lives on every inch of the road he’s going over in the car he’s commandeering.

What he’s doing isn’t about the cops catching a perp–this is a personal vendetta. The hunter and hunted have simply switched roles: it isn’t ‘the good guys’ going after ‘the bad guys.’ This chase symbolizes, as does the rest of the movie, the class conflict between the rising petite bourgeoisie (Doyle et al) and the haute bourgeoisie (Charnier et al), while the proletariat (the junkies) gain nothing in the exchange.

That Doyle is no less a criminal than Nicoli is clear when the former shoots the latter in the back. At such close range, from the bottom to the top of a staircase, Doyle could have shot Nicoli in the leg or the arm; he chooses the back because he wants to kill him, just as he wants to kill Charnier (which he does at the end of French Connection II), and just as he doesn’t care at all if he kills or injures anyone during the car/train chase.

Police advisers on the set objected to Doyle’s shooting of Nicoli precisely on the grounds that it’s murder, but Friedkin defended the shooting, knowing that such a move is exactly what the real Popeye, Egan, would have done…and this should tell you something about real cops.

Note how, throughout this movie, we never see the production of the heroin, nor the use of it by the junkies; we only see the circulation process of the commodity, an issue focused on in Capital, Vol. II, something the capitalist would prefer to get through as quickly as possible, to bring about the turnover and put his capital back into production. A speed-up of the “switch” is what Charnier wants, surely not only for his own safety from the predatory cops, but also to keep his business moving.

This circulation process of exchanging a commodity for money (C-M), or money for a commodity (M-C), is the focal point of capitalism. So we learn of the heroin smuggled into the US in the car of French TV personality Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), hidden in the rocker panels, as well as the plan to sell it to Weinstock and Boca.

When the “switch” happens, we see the full explosion of class conflict, of “one capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), as symbolized in the shootout in the abandoned factory between the cops and the American and French mafiosi. Cloudy shoots Boca, and Doyle follows Charnier into a filthy, abandoned warehouse.

Mulderig–who, recall, has been taunting Doyle about having killed a cop–is also looking around the filthy place, its filthiness symbolic of the destruction and decay caused by the ownership of private property. Trigger-happy Doyle hears Mulderig and, thinking he’s Charnier, shoots him. Feeling not even the slightest remorse, and probably glad he killed him (Was the shooting a kind of Freudian slip?), Doyle continues hunting Charnier, whom he never catches.

A gunshot is heard offscreen, presumably Doyle’s, since he so badly wants to kill Charnier. This is the way the film ends, not only with a bang, but also a whimpering horn. The French Connection is thus, in a way, like the French Revolution: the middle class (symbolized by Doyle et al) takes on the aristocracy (symbolized by Charnier et al), but the bourgeoisie (be they petite or above), by their very nature, never create the justice they claim to fight for…since they never really wanted it, anyway.

The French Revolution removed the monarchy, but ended up, after a bloodbath, in the dictatorship of Napoleon. Similarly, Charnier is never caught, and is presumed to be back in France; so he can continue running his heroin empire. And though Doyle and Cloudy are taken out of the narcotics bureau, cops will still go around busting junkies instead of helping to end the problem of addiction in general. This symbolizes how the same class structure stays intact, regardless of whether the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy is at the top.

Ask the Communards, or the gilets jaunes, what they think of the ‘liberal democracy’ that replaced the French monarchy, with Macron as the new Napoleon. The new boss is essentially the same as the old boss…because he is a boss. Violence is always there, too. Hence the bang, and the whimper.