Analysis of ‘Barton Fink’

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

Barton Fink: That’s a rationalization, Garland.

Garland Stanford: Barton, it was a joke.

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

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

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

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

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“Honey! Where’s my honey?” –Mayhew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barton Fink: Yeah.

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

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

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Detective Deutsch: You two have some sick sex thing?

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

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

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

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

Charlie Meadows: Because YOU DON’T LISTEN!

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[last lines]

Beauty: It’s a beautiful day.

Barton Fink: Huh?

Beauty: I said it’s a beautiful day.

Barton Fink: Yes. It is.

Beauty: What’s in the box?

Barton Fink: I don’t know.

Beauty: Isn’t it yours?

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

Beauty: Don’t be silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Blade Runner’

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: Quotes

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mercerism is a swindle!’ –page 165

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Blade Runner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Blade Runner 2049

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

*********

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

K: Yes, sir.

Interviewer: Recite your baseline.

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

*********

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

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

*********

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

K’: Things were simpler then.

*********

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

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

III: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps he’ll dream of his electric sheep.

IV: Blade Runner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roy: We’ve got a lot in common.

Sebastian: What do you mean?

Roy: Similar problems.

Pris: Accelerated decrepitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V: Blade Runner 2049

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***********

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

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

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

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

A system of cells interlinked.

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘The Thing’

I: Introduction

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norris (Hallahan): Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

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

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

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

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

MacReady: How you doin’, old boy?

Blair: I don’t know who to trust.

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

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

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

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

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

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

Childs: Well… what do we do?

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

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

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

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

Nauls (Carter) and Clark (Masur) playing pool; Norris (Hallahan), Bennings (Maloney), and Garry (Moffat) playing cards.

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

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

II: Unity of Opposites

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

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

MacReady (Russell)

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

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

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

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

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

The Thing, capable of taking on any shape and imitating any life form, as we see here in its cross between a giant insect and Norris’s head.

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

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

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

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

A research base in Antarctica: a lonely, isolated place, vulnerable to attack.

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

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

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

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

The Norwegian, trying desperately to kill the dog-imitation. Though this seems madness, yet there is method in’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Left to right: Childs (David), Dr. Copper (Dysart), Nauls (Carter), Clark (Masur), Garry (Moffat), and MacReady (Russell). No one trusts anyone, no one knows who is friend or foe. Friends and foes get confused.

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

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

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

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

Even the smallest part of The Thing–its blood–can exist as a complete entity, and thus as a formidable enemy.

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

IV: The Narcissistic Thing

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

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

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

The imitation of Palmer (Clennon), once exposed as such.

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

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

V: The Thing-in-itself

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

What is The Thing, in itself?

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

Das Ding an sich.

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

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

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

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

The seemingly omnipotent Thing is too terrifying to contemplate in its unmasked reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

Pink Floyd–The Wall is a 1982 film directed by Alan Parker and written by Roger Waters, with music from Pink Floyd‘s 1979 album, The Wall. It stars Bob Geldof in the role of Pink, an alienated rock star (modelled after Waters) who isolates himself from the world with a metaphorical wall built around him.

Indeed, the film is intensely metaphorical and semi-autobiographical (of Waters), with numerous surreal animated sequences done by Gerald Scarfe. It deals with themes of alienation, madness, and ultimately, fascism. It has little dialogue, with the song lyrics largely filling in the verbal narration.

The film was generally well-received (now having cult status), in spite of problems with production and its creators’ dissatisfaction with what resulted.

Here is a link to all the lyrics from the album.

The film begins in a hotel hallway, one side of it, with its wall and row of doors, being prominent. A maid is going from room to room with a vacuum cleaner. A song is heard about Christmas, and a little boy for whom the holiday is no different from any other, for Santa Claus forgot him. This is an indirect reference to Pink, who is then seen in his room, watching TV alone, remembering his dead father. She’d like to clean his room, and she knocks on his door, but he ignores her.

Pink (played by Bob Geldof).

Her attempts to open the door agitate him, making him think of the hell of having people around him, watching him. We then see images of running British soldiers fighting in WWII, juxtaposed with a running crowd of Pink’s fans at one of his concerts who are violently apprehended by cops for their unruliness, then with Pink’s fantasy of himself as a fascist leader at a rally with his crowd of followers, actually his fans at his concert. The sequence of images ends with the killing of his father in the war.

This juxtaposition is significant in how it identifies and equates these three groups. Soldiers, as patriots, are fans of their country, fans (that is, fanatics) to the point of being willing to kill for the fatherland. Fans of a rock star idolize him to the point of stampeding in a concert venue (the kind of thing that can lead to such tragic accidents as the trampling-to-death of eleven Who fans at a Cincinnati concert in 1979, the same year The Wall was released as an album) and being willing to believe or do whatever the rock star wants. Fascists are a kind of military rock star, if you will: charming, hypnotizing, and manipulating their followers to do whatever the leader wants them to do, as Hitler demonstrated.

Pink’s estrangement from the world is rooted in several childhood traumas: his bullying teachers, his over-protective mother, and most importantly, the death of his father as a soldier in WWII, before Pink was even at an age to have known him.

These three sources of trauma all involve, in one sense or another, Pink’s relationship with authority, how that authority has dominated his life. How his mother and the teachers have oppressed him is obvious; how his dead father has done so requires further explanation.

Pink as a boy (played by Kevin McKeon).

While Pink’s father’s death in WWII is autobiographical, in how Waters’s father also died as a soldier in that war, the death of Pink’s father can also be symbolic of the death of God the Father. Note that Waters, unlike his late father, is an atheist. Thus Pink’s father can be seen on one level as symbolic of Church authority, its validity dead to both Pink and Waters, yet still weighing down on them.

On the other hand, the literal death of Pink’s (and Waters’s) father is still troubling the rock star decades later. This goes way beyond mere mourning: this is melancholia, which leads to a discussion of Freud‘s reflections on the matter in Mourning and Melancholia.

As Freud conceptualized it, mourning and melancholia share almost all of the same traits, except that only in melancholia is there also a profound self-hate. Freud theorized that this self-hate results from ambivalent feelings towards the lost loved one, a mix of unconscious hate and hostility with the expected love for him or her, if not a pure, though repressed, hostility. The lost loved one has been internalized, introjected into the mourning subject (the self), and is now an internal object; so any hate or hostility felt for the object (the other person) is now felt for the self, who reproaches himself for having ‘willed’ the death of the loved one.

Freud explains: “If one listens patiently to a melancholic’s many and various self-accusations, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love. Every time one examines the facts this conjecture is confirmed. So we find the key to the clinical picture: we perceive that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego.” (Freud, pages 256-257)

Daddy died in the war.

Freud’s insights here became part of the origin of object relations theory, as further developed by Melanie Klein, DW Winnicott, WRD Fairbairn, Wilfred R Bion, and others. The point I’m making about Pink (and Waters, presumably) is that he feels as though the ghost of his father is still inside him, tormenting and oppressing him.

Pink feels as though his father abandoned him by dying when he was a baby:

Daddy’s flown across the ocean
Leaving just a memory
A snapshot in the family album
Daddy, what else did you leave for me?
Daddy, what d’ya leave behind for me?
All in all, it was just a brick in the wall
All in all, it was all just bricks in the wall

This has led to feelings of hostility towards his father–as well as a longing for him. Thus, Pink’s hostility is redirected back at him, oppressing him, because he has internalized his father.

Freud explains: “…identification is a preliminary stage of object-choice, that it is the first way–and one that is expressed in an ambivalent fashion–in which the ego picks out an object. The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. […]

“Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism. It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning. The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open. Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it.” (Freud, pages 258-260)

Young Pink identifying with his father by wearing his army hat.

We see a visual manifestation of Pink’s identifying with his father in the scene when he, about ten years old, goes through his father’s old things, puts on his dad’s uniform (which, of course, is far too big to fit), then sees himself in the mirror. The image alternates between seeing the boy’s reflection and seeing his father in the uniform.

This is Lacan‘s mirror: young Pink looks awkward in his father’s uniform, and the image of his father, alternating with that of himself, in the reflection represents the alienation of oneself from the reflected image. His father looks perfect, even ideal, as a war hero, in the uniform; but that uniform is awkwardly too big on the boy. His father is his ideal-I, but his imperfect approximation to that ideal means he is alienated from his ideal and from himself.

Since I’ve argued that his dead father symbolizes dead God, too, then we see atheist Pink (a stand-in for atheist Waters) as alienated from God the Father, particularly in the scene with him (about the age of six) and his mother in church. Only she prays; he shows no interest in religious matters. He does, however, play with a toy fighter airplane, thus showing his wish to be a warrior like his father (though it was a fighter plane that killed his father, so the boy’s playing with the toy plane could also be seen as an unconscious wish to do away with his father, a reflection of that ambivalence of love and hostility). Once again, Pink is alienated from an ideal Father, though trying to identify with his real father (from whom he is also alienated).

The next authoritarian source of his traumas is his school life. One teacher in particular is abusive, giving bad kids canings and humiliating Pink by reading one of the boy’s poems aloud in class. The poem in question is the song lyric from ‘Money.’

Money, get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack […]

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

The abusive teacher (played by Alex McAvoy).

The teacher calls the boy’s writing “absolute rubbish,” and demands that he focus on his lesson. Since ‘Money‘ is a critique of capitalism, and the teacher is invalidating the poem, we see in this scene how capitalism stifles creativity. (I’ve briefly discussed this stifling in other analyses.)

The abusive teacher shouldn’t be seen as just a tyrannical entity unto himself, though, for he has a domineering wife he has to put up with every day at home. People receive abuse, then pass it on to others. Pink himself does this, in his emotional neglect of his wife, driving her into the arms of another man; in his terrifying of the groupie by busting up his hotel room in a manic rage; and finally, in his fantasy as a fascist who inspires violence in his followers.

After Pink’s humiliation in the classroom, he daydreams about the suffering of his oppressed classmates, who are all seen marching–looking like automatons and wearing grotesque masks of school conformity–towards a meat grinder (the shadows of which ominously show the fascist hammers to be seen later, an indication of what excessive conformity can lead to) spewing out shit-shaped meat. Ultimately, Pink fantasizes about a student revolution, involving the teacher getting his comeuppance.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

The surreal nature of this scene, as with all the cartoon sequences, shows how all of this is Pink’s unconscious phantasy. Indeed, this whole film is about the turbulent, conflicted world of the unconscious.

What’s interesting, given the teacher’s henpecked attitude towards his wife, is how he could be seen as a substitute father for Pink. As a violent, bullying authoritarian, the teacher certainly embodies the stereotype of the conservative father; as such a substitute father, the teacher would thus be a disappointing, alienating one, disillusioning Pink from his ideal father and–through his identification with his father–driving him towards his own authoritarian, fascist fantasies. The teacher’s submission to his wife also parallels Pink’s own submission to his mother, suggesting an equating of one woman with the other.

This observation leads us to the third source of Pink’s traumas, that of his over-protective mother. She is oversolicitous about him getting sick, fretting in a conversation with the doctor. We see the boy climb in bed with her, indicating his unresolved Oedipal relationship with her.

Pink’s mother (played by Christine Hargreaves).

Mama’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you.
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby,
Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall.

Mother do you think she’s good enough, for me?
Mother do you think she’s dangerous, to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Ooh ah,
Mother will she break my heart? Hush now baby, baby don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you.
Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through.
Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in.
Mama will always find out where you’ve been.

Because of this Oedipal relationship, Pink will find it difficult to have intimate relationships with women, for no woman could ever replace Mama. Small wonder his marriage is a disaster, as is his picking up of the groupie. He shows hardly any sexual interest in women at all. One wonders: is Pink a virgin?

Pink and his estranged wife (played by Eleanor David).

Though Pink is emotionally neglectful of his wife, a residual part of him still wants to connect with her, hence the number of long-distance calls he makes to her from hotels or pay phones while he’s on tour. Nonetheless, his attempts to connect with her are too little, too late. She’s already in bed with another man, and Pink knows.

Through his constant melancholia, he already hates himself (really an introjection of the bad father object he’s angry with for having abandoned him by dying in the war, as explained above). Since being cuckolded has always been a crushing source of shame for men, Pink finds his wife’s being with another man to be an unbearable intensifying of his self-hate.

This is not “just another brick in the wall”: this is many scores of bricks. Hence, the cartoon sequence with the all-enveloping wall, a screaming head emerging from the bricks.

This wall represents what Fairbairn called the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration that all of us have as a part of our personalities, though people like Pink have it far worse than the average person. According to Fairbairnian psychoanalysis, the libido seeks objects (i.e., other people to have relationships with); but after experiencing disappointments in relationships, or the kind of trauma Pink has endured, the ego splits into three parts–the original, Central Ego that seeks real bonds with other people (the Ideal Object), the Libidinal Ego that seeks pleasure (the Exciting Object), and the Anti-libidinal Ego that builds metaphorical walls (keeping the Rejecting Object away).

Because of his wife’s infidelity, Pink’s Anti-libidinal Ego is going into overdrive, rejecting all contact with anyone. Furthermore, as a surreal part-animation sequence shows, he is also experiencing persecutory anxiety, as if his wife is vengefully attacking him for neglecting her…and, even, abusing her…

How could you go?
When you know how I need you
To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night

Still, small residual amounts of the other two thirds of his fragmented psyche remain. What’s left of his Central Ego later asks, “Is there anybody out there?” to any possible manifestations of the Ideal Object. His Libidinal Ego, as moribund as it is, also seeks out the Exciting Object in the form of a groupie.

This pleasure-seeking is a manic defence aimed at getting him to forget his pain. The attempt fails miserably, of course, because pleasure-seeking results from a failure to build relationships with others, as Fairbairn noted: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140).

Pink’s groupie (played by Jenny Wright).

Freud also noted how manic pleasure-seeking is an attempt, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, to deal with grief: “…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)

That this attempt at pleasure-seeking with a groupie is doomed from the start is seen in the fantasy visuals of a group of girls arriving and seducing security guards, symbols of Pink’s super-ego, in turn an internalizing of his domineering, moralizing, overprotective mother. Pink’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s approximation to Freud’s id) fantasizes that the Exciting Object (the groupies), by seducing the super-ego/security guards, will free his libido to enjoy the girls, which of course will never happen, because…Mama. The song, ‘Young Lust,’ with the lyrics, “Ooh, I need a dirty woman/Ooh, I need a dirty girl,” is so obviously non-Pink Floyd in nature (the song is actually a parody of arena rock) that it can be understood as a sarcastic attitude of celibate Pink.

The surreal animation sequence, of copulating/cannibalistic flowers, is a far more accurate representation of Pink’s attitude towards sex. A phallic flower, symbolizing Pink, is hesitant before entering a yonic flower, representing his wife, or any female partner. When intercourse is achieved, the ‘female’ flower devours the ‘male’ with her ‘vagina dentata.’ Next, we see the creation of the wall with its screaming head. The animation ends with a hammer (having formed from a raised fist, the kind symbolic of socialism), then we see a store window broken with the same, portentous kind of hammer, reminding us of when the Nazis attacked Jewish stores.

Alienation and self-hate can, and often do, lead to fascism. What’s more, fascism tends to lead people astray from socialism, hence the fist morphing into a hammer.

Self-hate also leads to a rejection of humanity, of neediness of anyone or anything, because the hate, unbearable as it is, gets projected outwards:

I don’t need no arms around me
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don’t think I need anything at all
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all

Thus, he’s rejected the groupie, despite her attempts to contain his tormented, loner self by sucking on his fingers, to take in his pain and hold it, as a mother would her baby’s anxieties in a state of maternal reverie. Still, he won’t be contained, so he flips out, terrifying her and smashing everything in the hotel room, a projection of his self-hate.

Run to the bedroom
In the suitcase on the left
You’ll find my favourite axe
Don’t look so frightened
This is just a passing phase
One of my bad days
Would you like to watch TV?
Or get between the sheets?

Later, he arranges all of his smashed property into some kind of work of art (the only substantial example of creativity we ever see him engage in) on the floor. Broken records and guitars, cigarettes, and other things are spread out on the carpet in rectangular shapes and straight lines.

Then he goes into the washroom to shave. His looking at himself in the mirror parallels when he, as a boy, looked at his reflection in his father’s uniform. His reflection, in Lacan’s mirror, represents an idealized, coherent, unified person that the man looking at it–being a fragmented, awkward man who’s falling apart inside–would like to measure up to.

To attain the mirrored ideal this time, though, instead of adding to his imperfect self (i.e., wearing his dad’s uniform), Pink feels he must remove unwanted, disliked things from himself (shaving his chest and eyebrows, cutting himself many times). His self-hate is growing: all that shaved hair represents the ugliness in himself that he hates; also, his self-hate expresses itself through his self-injury with the razors.

This removal of unwanted hair reminds us of how women suffer to be beautiful, shaving their legs, armpits, pubic hair, and (in the case of such medieval/Renaissance fashions as those typified by the Mona Lisa) even eyebrows. Pink’s self-hate is women’s everyday self-hate, introjected from society; his very name makes us think of the stereotypical girls’ colour.

Pink is back watching his TV, like all of us zombies staring at the idiot box, or these days, at our phones, tablets, and laptops. His unconscious wanders about in a dreamlike state: we see young Pink wandering about the fields of WWII, seeing the bloody bodies of the soldiers; evidently, he’s still looking for his dad.

Young Pink here represents Fairbairn’s Central Ego, seeking the Ideal Object of his father. He goes through a military hospital, finding present-day Pink (representing the Anti-libidinal Ego) going mad, and he sees adult Pink watching TV in the field, with those ominous hammers among the tall grasses and bushes.

Pink’s manager (played by Bob Hoskins) breaks through the hotel door with a group of men, all of them needing Pink to get ready to perform at a concert that night. Shocked at the sight of Pink in his mentally broken-down state, they give him a shot of something to bring him back so he can do the show. We hear the song ‘Comfortably Numb.’

As the song is playing, Pink goes through a series of memories of everything that has traumatized him, including a time when young Pink found a huge rat in a field and wanted to take care of it at home. Naturally, his mother would never have a rat in her house; but this being one of the few times Pink has ever connected with another living thing, he is deeply hurt by his mother’s rejection of it.

The assonance of the line “I have become comfortably numb” expresses the ‘pleasure’ of feeling immune to any emotions, since they can only cause pain for Pink. Emotional numbness is a common avoidance symptom of PTSD sufferers.

As David Gilmour‘s second guitar solo is playing and Pink is carried from the hotel to a car taking him to the show, he hallucinates that his body is melting and decomposing. This symbolizes his psychological fragmentation, his disintegration, his falling apart. The imagery of worms, which eat away at corpses, add to this sense of Pink’s self-destruction.

In the car on the way to the concert, Pink finds the one and only way to protect himself from fragmentation: to take on the narcissistic False Self of posing as a fascist.

Narcissistic defences against fragmentation are far from the only reasons Pink has for fantasizing about fascism. Recall that one of his main problems is self-hate, which he tries to project outwards. Hatred for “any queers” out there, anyone who “looks Jewish,” every “coon,” and anyone “smoking a joint” is an obvious projection of his self-hate, as is the case with any Nazi.

But there’s a deeper thing going on in Pink’s unconscious: recall that hostility to his father, introjected and now an internal object, thus becoming self-hate. Instead of facing his taboo hate against a father he feels abandoned him by dying fighting fascism, he fantasizes that he is his father’s ideological foe. (Obviously, his father’s death wasn’t really an abandoning of him, but we aren’t concerned with physical reality here, only with Pink’s mental and emotional representation of reality.) In Pink’s mind, it’s better to be a fascist than not to “honour thy father and thy mother,” a Biblical morality no doubt reinforced throughout his childhood by his domineering mother.

Then there’s the relationship between fascism and capitalism. Roger Waters, as a rock star whose left-wing father fought fascism, has always had ambivalent feelings about his wealth, and Pink represents him in this autobiographical film. Waters’s writing of ‘Money’ represents this ambivalence, for though the love of “money, so they say, is the root of all evil today,” Waters (and therefore, Pink too, no doubt) naturally likes the luxuries capitalism provides those in the upper classes. Waters and Pink have wrestled with the guilt of this craving for lucre, for–Dengists aside–socialists tend to frown on the personal accumulation of wealth and capital.


Pink the fascist.

Along with Waters’s/Pink’s ambivalence towards capitalism is fascism’s unholy alliance with the profit motive. Consider Big Business’s financing of Hitler in their hopes that the Nazis would crush the Soviet Union (something Churchill also hoped for, especially after the Nazi defeat, and Pink’s father fought under Winston’s leadership). Consider MI5’s paying of Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in the imperialist First World War, and capitalists’ glee that his fascists crushed the socialists in Italy back in the early 1920s.

Finally, the cult of personality that fascist leaders use to hypnotize the masses is not all that far removed from the hero worship that rock fans engage in, and that rock stars use for their financial gain and narcissistic supply. For all of the above reasons, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see an ‘anti-establishment’ rock star embracing far-right thinking.

Now, Pink’s projection outward of self-hate, inciting his fans to attack ethnic and racial minorities in England, can’t be expected to last long, since identifying with some of the world’s most despised people is hardly a cure for self-hate. So, a vision of those marching hammers is enough to make Pink scream, “Stop!”

Personified hammers: the only way humanity can be together, in Pink’s mind, is to be mindless automatons, without individuality, acting as instruments of destruction.

We next see Pink reading in a toilet cubicle of a public washroom, of all places, sitting next to a toilet. His self-esteem is so low, he’s literally on a level with shit. One of those security guards, who as I mentioned above in their encounter with the groupies, represent Pink’s super-ego, opens the door to the toilet cubicle to find him there.

Recall that the adult Pink represents his Anti-libidinal Ego, which Fairbairn devised to replace, and therefore make approximately equivalent to, Freud’s super-ego. Fairbairn originally called the Anti-libidinal Ego the Internal Saboteur, and it’s easy to see how Pink has sabotaged his whole inner emotional life. Furthermore, the overly judgemental, moralistic super-ego is essentially an inner critic, tearing down one’s self-esteem, often requiring one to build a protective wall around oneself, as the Anti-libidinal Ego does by rejecting people and pushing them away. Thus, in Pink we see a fusion of Freud’s and Fairbairn’s concepts of aspects of the human personality.

Fittingly, when the door to the toilet stall is opened, we don’t see Pink reading beside the toilet anymore, but instead we see the beginning of an animated sequence, with the enveloping wall, guarded by the hammers, and a doll-like figure lying against the wall. Here is Pink at his most vulnerable, and his cruel super-ego is about to judge him.

He is accused of daring to show feelings (Egad!), and he is judged, in turn, by that abusive old schoolteacher (who in turn is abused by his puppet-master wife in a kind of S and M fantasy), Pink’s wife (who calls him a “little shit”), and his mother. These three are all internalized bad objects who–having been repressed before–have now returned to torment him.

The conclusion that Pink has gone mad is expressed in a predictably judgemental way, using slang euphemisms and lacking any compassion:

Crazy
Toys in the attic, I am crazy
Truly gone fishing
They must have taken my marbles away
(Crazy, toys in the attic, he is crazy)

The judge declares his wish to defecate, he’s so disgusted with Pink’s inadequacies. The final judgement? “Tear down the wall!” Now, tearing down the wall is a necessary condition in helping Pink, but it’s far from being a sufficient condition, for the wall’s removal alone won’t reunite him with humanity–it will only expose him to humanity’s judgements. And in his fragile emotional state, such judgements would be disastrous for him, causing him either to succumb to fragmentation, or simply to build another wall.

Ultimately, the true source of his trauma–his ambivalent, love-hate attitude towards his father, the root of his melancholia–has not been processed or healed. This healing must occur, though. His unconscious hostility to his father–for not being there with him when he grew up–was never brought up to his conscious mind. Without that processing and healing, he’ll never be able to rejoin humanity.

So, what should we make of the ending? The three children in this scene can be seen as aspects of Pink’s inner child. The girl’s collecting of milk bottles suggests a wish to return to being nurtured by his mother; the dark-haired boy’s emptying of the Molotov cocktail could represent a wish to end all hostility. But the blond-haired boy, collecting bricks and putting them in a toy truck, seems to represent a wish to use them to rebuild the wall.

The message of Pink Floyd–The Wall, as I see it, is about the relationship between internal and external pathologies. We start with childhood traumas, in this case, Pink’s mourning and melancholia over his lost father, then his domineering, over-protective mother, his abusive schoolteachers, and finally, his explosive reaction to his wife’s infidelity. From here we go from his inner world to the outer world.

As a rock star, Pink enjoys the luxurious lifestyle of the rich, a product of capitalism, which also, by the way, reinforces alienation, a social estrangement Pink is already suffering. This combination of rejecting people, but enjoying material objects–like the smashed-up ones he makes into a work of art on the carpet of his hotel room, or the buildings, cars, stereos, and TVs seen as part of the wall in one of the animation sequences–exacerbates the inner problem by making it into a social one. When this problem comes to a head, we can find ourselves faced with a rise in fascism.

Shall we buy a new guitar
Shall we drive a more powerful car
Shall we work straight through the night
Shall we get into fights
Leave the lights on
Drop bombs

Look at our world today: the number of Pinks out there is disturbing. Alienated people, from broken or abusive families, stare at TVs instead of connecting with others; people who worship rock stars, celebrities, and authoritarian demagogues, blindly following them instead of thinking for themselves. These idolized narcissists, typically members of the capitalist class, feed on our insecurities, separating us and making us fight with each other when we should unite. We need to tear down the walls, but if we don’t heal our old wounds, those bricks will just get collected and used to build new walls.

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

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

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.