Analysis of ‘Evil Dead’

Evil Dead is a supernatural horror/comedy movie franchise that began with the trilogy written and directed by Sam Raimi (with Evil Dead II co-written by Scott Spiegel, and Army of Darkness co-written by Ivan Raimi), produced by Robert G. Tapert, and starring Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams. I’ll be dealing with these three films, not the 2013 reboot or the TV series.

Here are some quotes:

The Evil Dead (1981)

“Oh go to hell, I’m not honking at you!” –Scotty

“I believe I have made a significant find in the Kandarian ruins, a volume of ancient Sumerian burial practices and funerary incantations. It is entitled Naturon Demonto, roughly translated: Book of the Dead. The book is bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. It deals with demons and demon resurrection and those forces which roam the forest and dark bowers of Man’s domain. The first few pages warn that these enduring creatures may lie dormant but are never truly dead. They may be recalled to active life through the incantations presented in this book. It is through the recitation of these passages that the demons are given license to possess the living.” –Voice on Recorder

[getting freaked out by the recorder]  “TURN IT OFF!!!” –Cheryl

[after being raped by the trees and running back to the cabin] “No, no it was the woods themselves!” [sobbing] “They’re alive, Ashley, the trees, they’re alive!” –Cheryl

“I know now that my wife has become host to a Kandarian demon. I fear that the only way to stop those possessed by the spirits of the book is through the act of…bodily dismemberment.” –Voice on Recorder

[after becoming possessed] “Why have you disturbed our sleep; awakened us from our ancient slumber?” [shouts] “You will die! Like the others before you, one by one, we will take you.” [falls to the floor] –Cheryl

“Why does she keep making those horrible noises! Her eyes. What’s wrong with her eyes? For God’s sake, what happened to her eyes???!!” –Shelly

[her face is smoking and scarred] “I don’t know what I would have done if I had remained on those hot coals, burning my pretty flesh.” –possessed Shelly

[singing] “We’re going to get you.
We’re going to get you.
Not another peep.
Time to go to sleep.” –possessed Linda

“Join us…” –Voice of Evil Force

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)

[Ash’s hand gains a life of its own.] “You bastards. You dirty bastards.” [sobs] “Gimme back my hand…GIMME BACK MY HAND!” –Ash

[Ash stabs his possessed hand with a kitchen knife, pinning it to the floor.] “That’s right…who’s laughing now?” [grabs the chainsaw and revs it.] “Who’s laughing now? ARRRGHH!!!” [cuts the hand off at the wrist.] –Ash

[to his freshly sawn off possessed hand] “Here’s your new home.” [He then places a bucket and a stack of books on it to trap the hand; the top book reads “A Farewell to Arms“] –Ash

**********

Bobby Joe: Honey…you’re holding my hand too tight.

Jake: (looks at her) Baby, I ain’t holdin’ your hand.

(Bobby Joe looks down at her hand, seeing Ash’s possessed right hand gripping it. As she screams, the lantern breaks, and she’s gone by the time another one’s lit)

**********

[upon gaining the chain saw in place of his lost right hand] “Groovy.” –Ash

**********

Henrietta: [her severed head wobbling on the floor] Hey! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll– [Ash steps on Henrietta’s head]

Ash[aims shotgun at her face] Swallow this. [shoots Henrietta’s head]

Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness (1992)

“Well, hello, Mister Fancypants. Well, I’ve got news for you, pal, you ain’t leadin’ but two things right now: Jack and shit… and Jack left town.” –Ash, to Duke Henry

“All right, you primitive screw-heads, listen up! See this? This…is my boomstick! – [continuing nonchalantly] – It’s a twelve-gauge, double-barrelled Remington. S-Mart’s top of the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That’s right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for about $109.95. It’s got a walnut stock, cobalt-blue steel, and a hair trigger. That’s right…shop smart: shop S-Mart…Ya got that?!” –Ash

“Now I swear, the next one of you primates even touches me…” [yells, shoots at the pit Deadite, then shoots again] –Ash

“Yo, she-bitch, let’s go!” –Ash, to demoness

[as he is about to kiss Sheila] “Gimme some sugar, baby.” –Ash

“Klaatu Barada NNNNNNecktie. Nectar. Nickel. Noodle. It’s an ‘N’ word, it’s definitely an ‘N’ word! Klaatu… Barada… N” [clears his throat into his hand, then pauses]  “Okay… that’s it!” –Ash

“Hail to the king, baby.” –Ash, to female customer in S-MART

The Evil Dead

Evil spirits haunt a forest where there’s a cabin that Ashley, Scott (Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker), Shelly (Theresa Tilly), and Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) are going to spend their vacation in. A demonic presence races over the ground, past the trees, and to a road where the five are in a car on the way to the cabin. The demon jerks the steering wheel in Scott’s hands, throwing the car onto the side of oncoming traffic…an approaching truck! Scott regains control just in time to swerve back onto his side of the road.

Scott is a rather obnoxious fellow, cursing at a couple of hitchhikers on the road just after his scary moment of having lost control of the car. Cheryl is quite high strung, and she senses the evil of the area before the others do. Their fear and trauma, symbolized by the demons, drives the five to fight with each other rather than bind together.

In a corner of the cabin, Cheryl tries doing some drawing, but a demon takes control of her hand and forces her to draw a crude rendering of the cover of the Book of the Dead (the original–and in my opinion, better–name for the movie) in jagged lines. A trap door to the basement moves, frightening her.

The point here is that the demons are already loose and preying on the five vacationers. No reading of the incantations in the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis is necessary to release the evil spirits: they’re already free and roaming about, within the woods.

When the five vacationers are sitting at the dinner table, about to eat, the trap door to the basement suddenly swings open, startling them. The basement can be seen to symbolize the unconscious, and the evil spirits can similarly be seen to represent the return of repressed bad internal objects (representations of other people in our minds), as WRD Fairbairn once discussed, and even compared to demon possession, as he does in section 5 of this paper.

The terrors that the five vacationers suffer thus represent the kind of traumas that separate us from each other, and make us want to fight with each other rather than come together in solidarity. The five of them look down into the dark shadows of the basement framed by the open trap door.

Cheryl imagines the noise was just from an animal down there (a perfectly reasonable speculation that cocky, mean Scott laughs at, saying it’s “the stupidest thing [he] ever heard of”), though her speculation is probably a denial of her inner fears that it was really a demon that made the noise.

Scott goes down into the basement, exploring the symbolic unconscious. Ash goes down later. They find, near a torn down poster of the film, The Hills Have Eyes (an interesting bit of foreshadowing), a tape recorder, a dagger with a skull carved into the handle, The Book of the Dead, and a rifle that Scott stupidly points at Ash, right after hiding in the darkness to scare him, just for the fun of being annoying.

The two men bring everything up and play the tape for all five of them, Cheryl being the most reluctant to hear. A man’s voice is heard, describing the demonic subject matter of the book. Since his words on the tape, and words in the book, have been found in the basement, a symbol of the unconscious, we can understand the words to be a representation of how Jacques Lacan said, “The unconscious is structured like a language.” The chanting of the ancient language can release the demons, symbolically the repressed bad internal objects (and the traumas associated with them), and it can send the demons back to the spirit world, as we learn in Evil Dead II.

The speaker on the tape is an older man, a researcher who has discovered the book and translated it. Since he believes in these evil spirits, I can’t believe he was stupid enough to use the incantations to release the demons. I think the chanting we hear him do on the tape is really an attempt to bind them and return them to the spirit world. He’s failed, speaking of having unwittingly “resurrected” them, and so the demons are flying wildly through the forest.

Recall that Cheryl makes her friends stop playing the tape, then Scott fast-forwards it before playing it again. We missed the part in between, where the man presumably tells his purpose in saying the incantations…I suspect an attempt to return the demons to the spirit world, not to release them.

The man speaking on the tape is apparently old enough to be the five vacationers’ father; his voice can thus be understood to represent the Name of the Father, introducing the Symbolic Order and bringing about the entrance into the world of language, culture, society, and law, the way to ensure (or at least promote) communication, connection, and amity between people; for his reciting the ancient language of the book–the language of the unconscious, or its system of symbols and signifiers–is an attempt to send the demons away from our world.

Cheryl, the odd-one-out of the five visitors, doesn’t want to hear the tape. She finds it frightening, and screams to have it shut off. Her terror symbolizes a rejection of society and community, and a rejection of the growth of Knowledge (-K) through linking with other people, what Wilfred Bion called attacks on linking, or what Lacan called foreclusion. These rejections of community and learning from experience, Lacan and Bion observed, can lead, in extreme cases, to a psychotic break with reality.

Accordingly, Cheryl is the first of the five to become traumatized by the demons (who symbolize bad internal objects, remember), and the first to be possessed. The chanting of the words on the tape is like being assailed with what Bion called beta elements, raw sensory data from the external world that Cheryl isn’t able to (and thus refuses to) internalize, process, and transform (through alpha function) into more soothing, emotionally acceptable thoughts, or what Bion called alpha elements. The beta elements are too painful, and too traumatizing, to process.

When an excess of beta elements is rejected and expelled from the mind, a beta screen is built, a wall that keeps external stimuli from entering the mind to be processed, so learning (through linking with other people) cannot happen. This beta screen is symbolized in the movie by the walls of the cabin, which keep out–to an extent, at least–the demonic forces (symbols of the traumatizing beta elements) that race about outside in the forest and try to get in the cabin. An excessively formed beta screen leads to psychosis, creating bizarre objects (hallucinatory objects that are really projections of the psychotic’s turbulent inner mental state); this lapsing into psychosis happens first to Cheryl when she goes out into the forest and gets raped by the trees.

Knowledge (Bion’s K) is normally acquired through links between people (object relations) in the form of projective identification, a projection of energy, personality traits, etc., from one person to be introjected by another; this originally happens between a mother and her baby, the latter not yet having its own thinking apparatus for processing unpleasant external stimuli (beta elements) and transforming them into pacifying thoughts (alpha elements); so the mother must do this processing (containing) for the anxious, fearful, frustrated baby through what Bion called maternal reverie.

Sometimes, though, this growth of knowledge through links between people doesn’t succeed, and the attacks on linking can, in extreme cases, lead to psychosis. That’s what’s symbolically happening to the five people in that cabin. Sometimes containment becomes negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), and projective identification (symbolized by demons taking possession of people in the film) is painful, instead of the soothing mother/baby relationship described in the previous paragraph. Instead of containing fears and anxieties, pacifying them, negative containment turns the bad feelings into a nameless dread: such is the fate of the five in the cabin.

Bion’s extension of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification–what he called the container (using feminine, yonic symbolism) and the contained (using masculine, phallic symbolism)–involves the expelling of one’s own traits, energy, feelings, etc. (the contained), into another person (the container), symbolically as in the act of coitus. So when the trees rape Cheryl, the evil spirits are projecting all their hostility, aggression, anger, and trauma into her, forcing her to introject it all, thus possessing her.

The demons force their vicious beta elements (the contained) onto her (the container), then she–back in the cabin with the other four–tries to expel those beta elements (symbolized by the viciousness of the demons) onto Linda and the others.

Ash listens to more of the tape recording (with headphones, so as not to upset Cheryl), as Scott was more willing to hear it when she wanted it turned off. Since the man on the tape–as I explained above–is a symbolic father for all five of them, speaking the language of the unconscious (what Lacan called “the discourse of the Other“) and providing the “talking cure” that pulls us out of the narcissistic, one-on-one relationship with Mother and brings us into a healthy relationship with society, the two young men’s willingness to listen to ‘Father’ on the tape means they will last longer against the demons (symbols of traumatized, psychotic states) than the three young women will. The men’s psychotic breaks with reality will come later, Ash’s especially.

Ash hears of the researcher’s wife (she being the symbolic mother: her demonic state will be made explicit in Evil Dead II, though the implication that she’s among the demons in this first film will be enough for now) having become possessed, and that the only way to stop the possessed is through dismemberment. I believe the man’s chanting was meant to expel back to Hell demons that had already been roaming the woods, but he failed, because the demons were provoked by the chanting (as they are after the tape recording is played, and it upsets Cheryl) to fight back and possess his wife.

The man’s resurrecting of the demons already roaming the woods was, in my interpretation, really an unintended provocation of them to manifest themselves even more, to stop him from finishing; had he been allowed to finish reciting all the incantations, he might have properly expelled them back to Hell. As I said above, I don’t believe such a well-educated, erudite man would ever be stupid enough to wake demons from their slumber.

His recitation of the ancient language is so emotive, with such dramatic conviction, that he must believe in their magical powers; he isn’t just enunciating the words out of scholarly curiosity. If he believes in their power, surely he isn’t just resurrecting the demons for the sake of doing only that…he hopes eventually to send them back to Hell.

In Evil Dead II, the beginning of a recitation of the mystical words first arouses an incarnation of them, then once recited in full, they’d be expelled back to the spirit world. What’s implied in the first film is made more explicit in the second one. I believe the researcher had already encountered demons earlier in his life, driving him to hope that, with the discovery of the Book of the Dead, he could send all the world’s devils back to Hell. He knew the risks of flooding the world with demons, but he foolishly took the risk anyway, with tragic results for himself, his wife, and the five in the cabin.

Symbolically, this failed attempt to send evil spirits back to Hell represents failed attempts to cure trauma. It may lie dormant, but it’s always there, ready to be triggered and brought out into the open again.

So possessed Cheryl picks up a phallic pencil (the negative contained) and stabs Linda in the ankle with it (the resulting bloody wound symbolizing a negative container yoni). Projective identification passes ferocious demonic possession onto Linda.

Prior to the attack on Linda, we see a touching love scene between her and Ash, when he gives her a necklace. This is the one substantial moment of love and bonding between two people in the whole film; but in the framework of this film, bonding can exist between no more than just two people.

He pretends to be asleep on the couch, with the necklace in a box. She sees it, and wants to take the box out of his hand. They alternate switching between giving each other furtive glances and pretending not to look at each other. This is a kind of mirroring. Then, he puts the necklace on her, and they go to a mirror to see how it looks on her.

This seeing of themselves in the reflection is an example of how Lacan saw the psychological implications of looking at oneself in the mirror, which he saw as a narcissistic moment in the Imaginary Order. Ash and Linda see the idealized image of themselves in the mirror, as a couple totally in love; but the reality of who they are, as fragmented, awkward people fighting each other, will be revealed soon enough.

One reason peoples of all cultures have venerated the dead is historically out of a wish to keep ghosts in the realm of the dead and not to trouble us in the land of the living. This was true of the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, including the Sumerians from the whom the Book of the Dead has come.

Another reason for ancestor worship is to strengthen the ties of kinship and community: in our modern, alienated Western society, in which Bion’s notion of “attacks on linking” is the norm, it’s easy to see why, in the film, the evil dead are running rampant in the forest, and why the researcher would want to return those spirits to the land of the dead, rather than release them on all of us in the physical world. Thus, this trilogy can be seen as an allegory about the breakdown of society, leading to the disintegration of the psyche.

After the attack on Linda, the spirits break the window to Shelly’s and Scott’s bedroom, and they take control of her. Scott investigates, and possessed Shelly attacks him, scratching deep, bloody cuts into the side of his head: more projective identification, his cuts being the negative container of her demonic rage, the negative contained. Soon enough, he’ll be possessed, too.

But for now, he must stop her, and he does it by chopping her body into pieces. This mutilation symbolizes the psychological fragmentation that introduces a psychotic breakdown. First, society breaks apart, then each individual falls to pieces, as symbolized by Shelly’s dismembered, bloody body parts lying and shaking on the floor.

Outside at night, we see a full moon in the enlarged form of a moon illusion; the symbolism of this huge moon intensifies, through its association with lunacy, the growing psychosis in the cabin and in the woods. A cloud of darkness begins to shroud the moon, symbolizing how Bion’s -K, a wish not to know, but to be in a dark cloud of ignorance instead, leads to psychosis.

Scott, traumatized from having killed his girlfriend, wants to leave. He goes out into the woods and learns just how right Cheryl was about the possessed trees when he himself is attacked by them, his face all slashed up by the branches. Again, the attacking, scratching branches are Bion’s negative contained, and Scott’s wounds are the container; this projective identification–a passing of the demons’ evil into him, all the more ensures that he is soon to be possessed.

The most heartbreaking possession of all, for Ash, is that of Linda. Her eerie giggling, like that of a naughty little girl, suggests the reliving of a childhood trauma of Ash’s, of being teased in the schoolyard during recess.

It upsets him so much that he slaps her hard several times, something he’d naturally never want to do to the woman he loves. What’s worse, deep down, he knows he has to kill her, but of course he can’t: he just freezes with that rifle pointed at her. Meanwhile, possessed Cheryl, locked up in the basement and banging on the door in hopes of breaking the lock, represents those repressed traumas in the unconscious, trying to come out. Locking her up in the basement represents failed attempts at repressing trauma, for she will come out eventually.

The psychoanalytic talking cure, something that would be symbolized in the movie by the completed chanting of the ancient Sumerian language (which I believe isn’t even fully achieved at the end of Evil Dead II), requires a long time of the patient’s continued free associations, dream analyses, etc., to bring about the eventual healing and ridding of psychopathological symptoms. At first, the bringing of traumas to the surface is painful, with lots of resistance from the patient; this resistance is symbolized by the demons attacking any reciters of the Sumerian text. If the recitation is finished, as it would seem to be by the end of Evil Dead II, the demons are finally sent back to Hell.

The demons trick Ash by making him think that Linda and Cheryl are back to normal (symbolically, a form of resistance as discussed above), but only for an ever so brief moment. They then go back to their demonic forms, with Linda singing, “We’re gonna get you,…” etc., in a nyah, nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah melody, just like childhood teasing in primary school.

Eventually, Ash has to do the heartbreaking thing and kill her, that is, after she’s stabbed him with a knife, working the negative container/contained mechanism of projective identification on him so he’ll be possessed at the end of the movie. We see him tensing, fidgeting in conflict and agitation as he holds the chainsaw over her; then we see the torment he feels digging her grave outside, and finally having to use the shovel to decapitate her when she leaps in the air in an attempt to pounce on him.

Projective identification is also symbolized by all that blood that is splattered all over his face and body. Possessed Cheryl manages to escape from the basement. Ash goes down there, into the symbolic unconscious, where he sees a surreal spectacle of blood oozing out of an electrical outlet, soaking a lightbulb with red, etc. This gore symbolizes the attempt by the mind to expel traumatizing beta elements. Then, he hears an old gramophone playing a recording of 1930s jazz; a film projector plays an old film against a wall. These two things symbolize old memories recorded and stored in the unconscious, along with all that trauma.

Finally, Ash goes back up to the ground floor, and there he has to fight off possessed Cheryl and now-possessed Scott. Ash is crawling on the floor, his leg held by Scott while Cheryl is hitting him with a poker from the fireplace.

All Ash has as anything to defend himself with are, absurdly, the Book of the Dead lying by the fireplace, and his necklace gift to Linda. He manages, after several unsuccessful attempts, to hook the necklace onto the book and drag it nearer to him.

He thinks that throwing the book into the fire–instead of completing a recitation of the ancient language–will destroy the demons. The use of a necklace (the round glass pendant of which looks like a tiny mirror), in aid of getting the book symbolizes his dubious belief that his undying love for Linda, their one-on-one, mutually reflective relationship as felt in the Imaginary Order, will save him from the psychological fragmentation, the emotional falling apart, that the demonic world represents…Lacan’s formless, undifferentiated, ineffable, chaotic, and traumatizing Real Order.

Ash’s gazing on his own reflection in the mirror prior to this final confrontation, when he touches the glass and sees it rippling like the water of Narcissus‘ pond, should be enough to inform him of the narcissistic illusion of the reflected image, the self-absorbed world of the Imaginary Order. Ash will continue to use narcissism as a defence against the threat of fragmentation, as we’ll see in our analyses of the two sequels below.

As we know, the spirits–having given him the false confidence that he’s defeated them by throwing the book into the fire, with that spectacular, splattering disintegration in front of him–race through the forest, through the cabin, and finally onto him, possessing him at the very end of the movie…leading directly into the second film…

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn

This movie begins with an abbreviated recap of the events of the first movie, but much, if not most, of this recap actually contradicts what we saw before. We don’t see Cheryl, Shelly, or Scott at all; we’re under the impression that Ash and Linda alone went to the cabin for a romantic vacation, for we see only this couple in the car on the ride there.

What’s more, Linda is played by a different actress (Denise Bixler), and one with the shapely, curvaceous, buxom, ‘flawless’ looks of a model, rather than the wholesome, down-to-earth prettiness of Betsy Baker’s Linda. The scenery also has a more dreamlike quality (i.e., matte paintings for the forest landscape at night). Ash apparently can play the piano, and Linda can dance, twirling around with the grace of a ballerina. In other words, what we’re seeing on the screen is not so much Ash’s memory of what happened, but a fantasy, an idealizing of his one-on-one relationship with Linda, rather than his socializing with all his friends and sister.

Ash, having been taken by the demons at the end of the first movie, is now experiencing the same psychotic break with reality as the other four did. The trauma of having decapitated the woman he loves is more than enough to push him over the edge. His memory is selectively reimagining how he wants to remember what’s happened, and minimizing the painful parts to the best of his ability.

His willful forgetting of key elements from the first movie (his sister, Cheryl, being raped by the trees, then stabbing Linda in the ankle with a pencil; Shelly being chopped into pieces by Scott, who then–with Cheryl–melts into oblivion) is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to gain knowledge, process it and deal with it, rejecting such knowledge to the point of becoming psychotic.

When the demons enter Ash’s body, they send him flying through the forest until he hits a tree trunk, then falls, face first, into a large puddle. Now, it’s Ash’s turn to have the ugly face of the possessed; but the sun has risen, and the demons retreat until dusk. Ash is again given the false confidence that he’s safe, thanks to the sunlight; such confidence is false because we know the demons also attack in the daytime, as when they jerked Scott’s steering wheel, and when a flying “deadite” attacks Ash and the knights in AD 1300 at the end of this film.

His lying face down in the puddle reminds us of Narcissus staring down at his reflection in the pond. Indeed, over the course of this movie and the next, we’ll see Ash using narcissism as a defence against fragmentation, for he will be endlessly threatened with a psychological falling apart, the looming danger of falling into psychosis.

To follow my meaning, we must first understand how a narcissistic personality disorder functions. The grandiose self is only one half of it. The other side involves idealizing someone else, originally the infant’s primary caregiver (traditionally, its mother); then this idealization is transferred onto someone outside the family (e.g., one’s girlfriend), after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. The idealized other reflects grandiosity back to the self, like Lacan’s mirror in the Imaginary Order.

The idealized parental imago and grandiose self are the two poles that Heinz Kohut said were necessary to give the self structure, thus making a healthy personality in which narcissism is restrained and moderate. Lacking such a structure, one uses pathological levels of narcissism to defend against falling apart, as Ash does in this and the next film. After killing his girlfriend, his idealized ‘other self,’ Ash has only his grandiose self to hang onto as a defence against psychosis…an ever-looming threat.

A few significant things should be noted about the researcher and his wife as they’re understood in this sequel. Recall that the wife was possessed in the first film as a result of his reciting of the ancient language. In Evil Dead II, we learn that his name is Dr. Raymond Knowby. He, as I’ve stated above, is the symbolic father, an internal object from the basement/unconscious, and the name of the father brings one out of the dyadic, Oedipal relationship with the mother (here symbolized by Henrietta, Knowby’s wife) and into society. Knowby thus is Bion’s K, which helps one grow in knowledge and mental health…something Knowby would do if allowed to finish reciting the incantations.

During Ash’s fantasy-memory of the events of the first movie, we see the tape recorder on the ground floor, not in the basement. The former floor is the conscious mind, the latter the unconscious; so Ash’s ‘memory’ of the previous events is a consciously constructed fantasy, a preferred version of what’s supposedly happened.

Part of that fantasy is a photo of Knowby’s daughter, Annie, whom we’ll see with her boyfriend/colleague, Ed Getley, later. The fact that we see this photo of Annie on the desk beside the tape recorder–as opposed to no photo of her, and the tape recorder found in the basement, as in the first movie–means her arrival in the cabin is at least in part an element of Ash’s fantasy. So in Evil Dead II, it’s not always easy to distinguish his fantasy from reality.

Her blonde good looks are somewhat similar to those of Linda in this sequel, too, suggesting perhaps a wish-fulfillment on Ash’s part to be reunited–if not with Linda–at least with a similar-looking woman. Since she’s Knowby’s daughter, a fantasized potential union with her could strengthen the notion of her parents as symbolic parents-in-law of Ash, thus representing an unconscious Oedipal relationship with them.

His continued resistance against the evil dead, symbols of Bion’s traumatizing, agitating, and ejected beta elements, results in the creation of bizarre objects–hallucinatory projections of his inner psychotic state. I’m referring to the scene with the laughing deer head on the wall, and the laughing books, electric light, etc. Since these are all projections from him, he of course is laughing like a madman, too.

Part of his worsening psychotic state is his alienation from himself, as we see in his reflection in the Lacanian mirror, which reminds him of his having sliced up Linda with a chainsaw. The ideal-I in the reflection is being his judgemental super-ego, dumping a guilt trip on awkward, bumbling Ash, who looks in horror at the reflection.

His self-alienation grows when a demon possesses his hand, which attacks him by breaking dishes on his head in the kitchen. Its attempt to kill him with a meat cleaver forces him to stab it with a knife, then hack it off with the chainsaw.

Separating it from his body and trapping it under a garbage pail (weighing it down with a pile of books topped with A Farewell to Arms…yuk, yuk) won’t keep him safe from it. The comic aspects of this and the following movie should be understood–from the point of view of my interpretation–to represent the absurdity of delusional thinking.

The arrival of Annie and Ed (who expect to find her parents there), along with two country bumpkin locals (Jake and his pretty girlfriend, Bobby Joe) carrying their bags results in Ash–mistaking them in his psychotic disorientation for more demons–accidentally shooting Bobby Joe, grazing her left shoulder with the bullet. To what extent are these four arrivals real, and to what extent are they a part of Ash’s deluded fantasy?

To the extent that this meeting of five people is fantasy, and to what extent real, will determine how much of the alienation felt is still in Ash’s head, and how much of it is social alienation. In any case, this sequel continues the themes of social and mental breakdown seen in the first film.

For wounding Bobby Joe, and–as Annie et al wrongly assume when seeing the bloody chainsaw–causing the deaths of Dr. Knowby and Henrietta, Ash is locked up in the basement, as his sister, Cheryl, was in the first film. The other four play the tape and learn what really happened. Possessed Henrietta is woken up in the basement.

Since I see Dr. Knowby as the symbolic father of all in the story, residing as an internal object in the unconscious (symbolized by the basement, recall, where the tape recorder was originally found in the first film), I see his wife, Henrietta, as symbolizing the internalized object of the mother, in her good aspect as the object of Oedipal desire, and in her bad aspect as symbolized in her possessed form.

Ash begs the others to let him out of the basement before Henrietta gets him, since symbolically–as Melanie Klein conceived the bad mother internal object–she causes terrible persecutory anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position (a state of mind involving splitting Mother into absolute good and bad, and originating in the first few months of infancy, but which one can return to at any time throughout one’s life). Ash, trapped in the basement/unconscious, is experiencing archaic, primal, childhood trauma.

He’s let out, but possessed Henrietta is kept in there. Soon, we see her change back into her original, loving mother form, in an attempt to trick Annie into freeing her from the basement. This switch to original Henrietta shows the contrast between the good and bad mother that is part of splitting, the essence of the paranoid-schizoid position.

She sings “Hush, Little Baby” to Annie, reminding her of when she sang it to her when Annie was a baby. Since it’s actually the possessed Henrietta singing, we see here a kind of parody of the good mother’s soothing of her baby’s distress through maternal reverie (see above).

Because Henrietta is possessed of a demon, that means symbolically that both the good mother and the bad are united, which would be understood if one experienced the ambivalence of the depressive position; but in their traumatized state, Annie, Ash, et al can only see an archaic mother split into ‘good’ (the singing, loving Henrietta) and bad (possessed Henrietta). Hence, Annie denies she’s her mother. Annie is stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position.

Societal breakdown is once again symbolized by the continued infighting amongst the five people, especially when Ed becomes possessed. Ash runs off to find an axe, and Annie–wrongly thinking he’s just running away in fear–calls him a “fucking coward!” Ash returns and chops possessed Ed to pieces; apart from her screaming at all of Ed’s green gore, though, Annie doesn’t seem all that upset about her butchered boyfriend, which could be seen to tie in with her being a replacement Linda in Ash’s fantasies.

The ghost of Dr. Knowby appears, telling them to use Annie’s and Ed’s newly-found pages of the Book of the Dead to drive away the evil spirits, to save themselves and to save his soul (for his recklessness in having recited the ancient language). In his repentance over having unintentionally released the evil spirits, we see, in the ghost of Knowby, an integration of Klein’s notion of the good and bad father, the sadness in the ghost’s countenance a mirroring of Annie’s experience of the depressive position.

Bobby Joe screams when Ash’s possessed, disembodied hand is gripping hers; she runs out of the cabin and into the woods, to be grabbed by the trees (in a manner reminding us of what happened to Cheryl), then dragged away to her death.

Annie does the best improvised translating she can of those new pages she’d brought with Ed: they tell of a “hero from the sky” (who we later learn is Ash) landing in AD 1300, and saving the people of that time from the “deadites”; I see this as part of Ash’s narcissistic fantasy, his defence against psychotic fragmentation–it will be developed in the third film. Ash says this “hero from the sky” didn’t do a good job of defeating the demons; since I see this as all part of his grandiose fantasy, his saying the hero failed is just false modesty, his denial of his growing narcissism.

Reciting the incantations will first bring about an incarnation of the demons, then completing that recitation will open a time rift and send them back into the past. Note how Annie says nothing of sending the demons back to Hell, which I believe a better, and complete, translation would reveal (as the ghost of her father has suggested), if she were to have the time to do so. For whether they’re demons of the past or of the present, the demons are still with us, bad internal objects lingering in our trans-individual, collective unconscious.

Jake takes the rifle, points it at Ash and Annie, and demands that they go out into the woods and help him find his pretty girlfriend. As for reciting the incantations, Jake sees no value in that, so he takes the pages and tosses them into the basement with Henrietta, then forces Ash and Annie at gunpoint to go outside and look for Bobby Joe.

Jake’s refusal to allow the incantations (a symbol of the talking cure, recall) to be recited is representative yet again of Bion’s -K, a stupid, stubborn refusal to gain knowledge and link with people. He should be helping Ash and Annie; instead, he cares only about his girlfriend, who is a narcissistic mirror of his own grandiosity. He prizes his dyadic relationship with her over general community and society.

The racing demon rockets toward them and possesses Ash. Annie and Jack get back to the cabin, where he is killed and she is attacked by possessed Ash. He picks her up and throws her against a wall, knocking her unconscious.

He approaches her with intent to kill her, but fortuitously, he sees his necklace gift to Linda lying right next to Annie, whose motionless unconsciousness resembles death. Why is that necklace, by sheer chance, lying so close to Annie?

Since Ash has been having auditory and visual hallucinations (i.e., those bizarre object projections of his psychosis right before the appearance of Annie et al), it’s easy to believe that much of what ensues (as well as much of what precedes) is figments of Ash’s deluded imagination, too.

This is why I believe Annie could be a fantasy of his, a potential replacement of Linda. The sight of that necklace beside knocked-out, unmoving (i.e., seemingly dead) Annie reminds one, unconsciously, of truly dead Linda. Ash is unconsciously transferring his love of Linda onto Annie. His mourning of Linda when he picks up the necklace, combined with the unconscious hope of having Annie replace her, helps pull Ash out of his psychotic state (symbolized by the demon possession), and so he returns to normal.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self requires, on one end, an idealized parental imago (see above) and, on the other hand, a mirroring of one’s own grandiosity, in order to have healthy personality structure. If one end breaks down, a person relies ever so much more on the other end to compensate and maintain that structure. If both ends break down, there’s the threat of fragmentation, psychosis, and pathological levels of narcissism are thus often used as a defence against that fragmentation.

In these two films, Dr. Knowby and his wife, Henrietta, the symbolic idealized parental imagoes found in the basement/unconscious, have failed spectacularly to measure up to the parental ideal, he for releasing demons into the world instead of (as I speculate was his real intention) binding them and sending them back to Hell, and she for being the demonic bad mother.

Without the symbolic idealized parents, Ash can have recourse only to Annie as a replacement of Linda, to give him the empathic mirroring he needs in order to re-establish psychological structure and become emotionally healthy again. Her reciting of the pages, which symbolizes the talking cure that will pull Ash out of the traumatizing, formless, indescribable, chaotic Real Order and bring him back to the Symbolic Order of language, culture, custom, and society, further reinforces how important she is for helping him regain his sanity.

An interesting detail about that necklace is its round, glass pendant. Since glass gives off reflections, the pendant is like a miniature mirror. Thus, as a gift Ash gave to Linda, and now something lying next to unconscious Annie, it symbolizes that mirroring of love and empathy that helps Ash rid himself of being demonically possessed, and helps him, through narcissism, ward off the threat of fragmentation.

Annie comes to, he strenuously convinces her that he’s no longer possessed, and they work out their plan to retrieve the pages Jake threw into the basement with possessed Henrietta. They go into the toolshed, fit the chainsaw to Ash’s stump, and he uses it to saw off the rifle, which he puts in a kind of holster on his back. Fancying himself a bad-ass demon-destroyer now, he enjoys the flaring-up of his narcissism.

Groovy.

When he goes into the basement to find the soaking-wet papers (symbolically, the Lacanian language of the unconscious), he tosses them up far too easily to Annie (symbolically, bringing what’s unconscious up to consciousness), as if he were throwing up a softball; one would expect the pages to fly apart in the air, but with the blurring between psychotic fantasy and reality, and with his narcissistic overestimation of himself in that fantasy, anything seems possible. Part of Ash wants to be cured enough to fantasize an easy passing up of the pages.

In the final confrontation with Henrietta, symbolically the bad mother internal object from the unconscious, her neck elongates into a serpentine form. So here, she in a sense resembles Tiamat, the Mesopotamian sea-goddess who is usually described as a sea-serpent or dragon, and who as a primordial deity can be likened to the archaic mother.

Annie now sings “Hush, Little Baby” to the mother/monster, echoing the parody of Bion’s container/contained/maternal reverie that Henrietta did on her daughter. Annie’s containment of Henrietta’s demonic rage thus temporarily tames her, distracting her so Ash can hack her head and arms off with the chainsaw. This ends with a repudiating of the idealized parental imago (Ash blowing her head away with the rifle) and having only Annie to give him stability.

Ash and weeping Annie embrace, suggesting the potential of a love relationship between them. Now, Annie has only begun a reciting of the incantations from the pages, which bring the demons into the flesh. Symbolically speaking, this reciting brings the traumas out into the open, but it isn’t enough to heal them. She must be allowed to finish.

Part of Ash wants her to finish (Bion’s K), but another part of him (his disembodied, possessed hand) doesn’t (-K), for a thorough processing of all his traumas will be too painful for him to bear. So his demonic hand, holding the Kandarian dagger, stabs Annie in the back. Narcissistic Ash fancies himself a great hero, but he hasn’t saved anybody in this or the last movie.

Dying Annie struggles to continue reciting, and she manages to bring about the time rift to send the demons back into the past…but before finally succumbing to her death, has she really completed the reciting sufficiently to send the demons back to Hell? I don’t think so. If she has, surely the time rift would be closed up, at least.

All she’s accomplished is sending them…and Ash…back in time to AD 1300. Her death signals the last of his hopes for a love to replace Linda, to mirror his grandiosity. Totally lacking in what Kohut called healthy psychological structure, Ash is overwhelmed with the threat of fragmentation, a psychotic break with reality.

His only way to hang on now is to indulge in narcissistic fantasy, where as a man of the enlightened future, he can imagine himself as ‘superior’ to the “primitive screw-heads” of the year 1300. As the “hero from the sky,” he can indulge in a grandiose messianic fantasy. Narcissism is his last defence against fragmentation.

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell, whether he wants to be or not, is more or less synonymous with Ash, so calling this third film Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness is essentially the same as calling it Ash vs. Evil Dead, or whatever you want to call it. The story is now all about narcissistic Ash fighting his demons.

As with the second film, this one begins with an abbreviated recap, and reimagining of, the first two films. And as with Evil Dead II, this contradictory reimagining of Ash’s past is just that: a mix of fantasy and fact.

Ash introduces his place of work here–S-MART, a store that sells a variety of commodities, from hardware and housewares to rifles. In his narcissistic imagination, he portrays himself as the ideal employee: hair neatly combed back with a curl in front (a bit like Superman), and dutifully telling customers to “Shop smart: shop S-MART!”

As the ‘ideal employee,’ he’s imagining himself a better employee than many, if not most, of his co-workers. How Ash really is as a worker–be it in S-MART, or wherever he actually had a job prior to his fateful vacation in the cabin–is probably somewhere below that ideal; and given his goofy awkwardness, probably far below.

His wish to believe he’s better than most of his co-workers shows how his social alienation, and Lacanian self-alienation, now spill over into the Marxian concept of alienation; for his “Shop smart: shop S-MART” wish to gain his boss’s favour indicates at least some level of class collaboration.

His wish-fulfillment goes further: we learn that Linda also worked in S-MART; and instead of seeing either the original actress, with her natural, realistic beauty, or the one with the conventional, model-like beauty of the second film, we see Linda with the familiar face of a celebrity–Bridget Fonda, who had already established herself, as of 1992, as a major Hollywood actress in such films as Godfather Part III, Singles, and Single White Female. Thus, Ash’s narcissistic self-deceit extends to idealizing Linda even more, making her a movie star in his fantasies.

The quick recap of the horrors of the first two films is not only for the sake of pacing and getting on with beginning this third story: it’s also because, as I see it, the less detail that Ash needs to go over, the less painful it will be for him. Wilfully forgetting exactly how he acquired his traumas is, once again, Bion’s -K; knowing too much hurts too much.

In his AD 1300 fantasy (note how it isn’t, say, 1301, or 1318), Ash is in chains and being taken to a castle to be thrown into a pit of “deadites.” Narcissists like fancying themselves as victims as much as they like fancying themselves as dashing heroes.

When I describe Ash as ‘narcissistic,’ I don’t mean it in the sense of malignant narcissists who lie, manipulate, and do smear campaigns on their victims. I’m referring to Ash’s change of character as his way of coping with all the traumas he’s suffered: the deaths of his sister and girlfriend, as well as those of Scott and Shelly; also, there are the traumatic disappointments in the symbolic parents of Knowby and Henrietta.

Because of these shocks, Ash has gone from being the unassuming, nice guy of the first film, next to having a psychotic breakdown in the second film, and now, finally to cope with all of this pain, he’s become cocky and belligerent. This is the comic, amusing Ash who’s entertained us, and whom we all love, but that doesn’t change how grandiose he’s imagined himself to be. Indeed, it’s that combination of cocky and awkward that we, as an audience, identify with, and that’s why we love Ash so much…he’s human.

He looks down on the people of 1300 as “primitive screw-heads” and “primates” because seeing himself as above the average person is the only way he can hang on. Since he is, in reality, a careless, bumbling fool, the only way he can feel superior is to indulge in a fantasy world where the average person is ‘behind’ him by almost 700 years.

In the pit, when he has to fight off the possessed, and the wise man tosses down his chainsaw, note how Ash jumps up and effortlessly fits his stump into the chainsaw, all in one flawless attempt. Note how we hear the Early Modern English of writers like Shakespeare, rather than the Middle English of 1300, earlier than even Chaucer. What we’re seeing in this film is not a representation of time travel back to that year, but rather Ash’s fantasy, what he thinks it might have been like.

In this fantasy, Ash is the dashing hero who is waited on by beautiful women who serve him grapes, wine, and roasted meat. The lovely Sheila quickly switches from wanting to kill him to wanting to kiss him. He’s loving every minute of it, needless to say.

The comical absurdity of his fantasy reaches the point of looking like the cover of a Harlequin Romance when he, with his muscular chest showing and his hair blowing in the breeze, holds Sheila and says, “Gimme some sugar, baby,” and they kiss. Ash gets some ass: he’s no longer interested in finding a new love to replace Linda; he connects with women now only out of pleasure-seeking.

Note how this movie is not, essentially, a horror film like its predecessors: it’s a comedy/adventure/fantasy with the trappings of horror in the form of “deadites,” skeletons, etc., and even they are comic rather than frightening. This change in genre is due to the fact that Ash, in his bordering between narcissism and psychosis, is no longer engaging with the real world. He says he wants to go back to his world in the early 1980s…but does he really?

The people of this world cohere socially much better than we’ve seen in the first two films; there’s hostility only between Duke Henry the Red’s people and those of Lord Arthur, as well as, of course, between man and the “deadites.” But this world isn’t real–it’s all in Ash’s imagination.

The wise man tells him that, in order to return to the present time, he must find the Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon, for that book has the magical incantations and formulas to send him back. Since the words in the book symbolize talk therapy, we see again that the only way to be cured of trauma is to face it, to talk one’s way through it. The unconscious is structured like a language, it’s the discourse of the Other. One is cured through a building of knowledge…K.

The wise man tells Ash that, when he finds the book, before taking it, he must say words humorously similar to, “Klaatu, barada, nikto,” a reference to the words of Earth’s salvation in The Day the Earth Stood Still. This allusion is further proof that what Ash is experiencing is fantasy, the details of this dream-world coming from his memory and imagination rather than from the external world.

Still, while the wise man is importuning Ash to memorize the exact words through repetition, Ash displays more -K, his refusal to learn by committing the words to memory. He arrogantly assumes he’s already learned the “damn words,” but talking things through properly, using all the resources of the language of the unconscious to articulate emotion, is crucial to curing trauma and restoring mental health.

Ash rides his horse into a forest (suddenly, he knows how to ride a horse), where he finds himself chased by the racing demon of the first two films. As with Cheryl running to the cabin after being raped by the trees, and Ash rushing back to the cabin after discovering the ruined bridge in Evil Dead II, he–having fallen from his horse–is trying to run away from trauma instead of facing it.

He runs to a windmill, the farcical scene reminding us of that of another deluded, bumbling narcissist who fancies himself a great hero, Don Quixote. Ash gets inside and closes the door behind him, imagining he’ll be as safe from demonic possession as he supposedly was in the cabin of the first two films. The windmill’s walls, like those of the cabin, are a beta screen keeping out traumatizing beta elements (see above).

His being chased by a demon in the forest and using a shelter to protect himself from it suggest what’s really happening to him, as opposed to his medieval fantasy. The windmill is one of his many hallucinations; he’s really alone in the 1980s, having run through the woods and back into the cabin. No horse, no hero…just Ash.

Inside, he sees his reflection in a mirror in the darkness. Thinking it’s someone else, he runs at it and smashes it into pieces. This, once again, is Lacanian self-alienation, between oneself and the specular image. It’s Ash in the reflection…yet it isn’t Ash.

Miniature, demonic versions of Ash emerge from his reflections in the shattered pieces. These are more of what Bion called bizarre objects (see above for links), hallucinated projections of Ash into the external world. They’re a result of the excessive use of a beta screen (the windmill’s walls) to keep out traumatizing beta elements (the demons).

These mini-Ashes attack him, making him trip, bang his head, fall, burn himself, and get a pail stuck on his head. His bumbling reactions to his attackers symbolize the difference between the dashing hero, the ideal-I he saw in the unified, original mirror reflection, before he ran at and broke it, and the clumsy, uncoordinated, fragmented self that Ash really is.

He projects his fragmentation symbolically onto the pieces of broken glass, then into the mini-Ashes who have come out of them. He also projects and denies the bad parts of himself onto the mini-Ashes. Such projection and denial are part of what Kohut called the vertical split of the ego into the grandiose part of the self and the rejected part.

One can project and deny all one wants, just as one can try to repress one’s trauma (as symbolized by locking Cheryl up in the cabin basement), but those bad parts of the self are still, and always will be, part of oneself for as long as the trauma isn’t treated. Hence, one of the mini-Ashes goes down his throat and back inside him, right after they all give him the Lilliput treatment.

He runs outside with an eye having grown by his shoulder, and out there we see the giant moon illusion we’d seen in the original movie…another suggestion that the windmill and medieval world are all just delusions and hallucinations of his. That moon is again, a moon of lunacy, symbolizing his still-psychotic state.

A second head grows out of the spot where the eye was, and soon a second body grows beside Ash’s original; then the two come apart. A good Ash, and a bad one: he has projected his undesirable half again, in a narcissistic attempt to be only the hero.

That the bad Ash and the mini-Ashes are all comical in nature shows how good Ash, in his narcissistic imagination, deflates the worth of the bad Ashes, big and small; just as the army of skeletons, soon to be seen, are also made to look ridiculous. Ash is projecting his bumbling foolishness, as well as his bad side, onto all of them.

After beating bad Ash (by disfiguring his face with a gunshot) and burying him, good Ash finds the Necronomicon…three books! The consequences of his -K are apparent when he forgets the exact wording of the three-word formula to take the correct book and leave the area safely. Symbolically, his failure is a restatement of the theme presented throughout this trilogy: the talking cure, which brings us out of the trauma of the Real and back into the culturally shared signifiers of the Symbolic, must be followed–to the letter, as it were–to its completion, not left halfway.

Once again, narcissistic Ash thinks he’s projecting his foolishness onto others, but the foolishness is always his own. His stealing of the book, while faking the enunciation of the three words, causes the raising of the dead, who are now headed for him and the castle to retrieve it.

Ash is now despised by Arthur, the wise man, and all the people in the castle. Arthur calls him a “braggart,” and a “coward.” But since this is Ash’s fantasy, this negative feeling towards him cannot last long; so he proves his mettle in not only leading the men to protect the book and the castle, but also to train the men in wielding spears (another skill he’s suddenly endowed with), and to have Duke Henry the Red’s men help.

Sheila is captured by a flying deadite, taken to the risen bad Ash, and possessed of a demon. The two will lead an army of comical skeletons to attack the castle. In the ensuing battle, Ash proves his bravery with a sword (yet another suddenly acquired skill…more narcissistic fantasy), and his ingenuity with modern science (quickly gleaned from textbooks conveniently found in the trunk of his car…even more narcissistic fantasy).

With the defeat of bad Ash and the skeletons, Sheila is restored to her original beauty, and–thanks to the help, however belated, of Duke Henry the Red’s men in the fight–the two groups of people become friends. Since this trilogy has mainly been about the breakdown of society through shared trauma, this anomalous amity between people is just more of Ash’s wish-fulfilling fantasy.

When Ash is about to be returned to his own time, he is given precise instructions on how to prepare for his travel ahead through time. But once again, he fails to pay attention to detail (-K), and depending on which ending you see, he either returns to the present while bringing the possessed with him, right into S-MART, or he sleeps too long and wakes in a post-apocalyptic world.

Both endings are acceptable: either he resumes his narcissistic fantasy of being a dashing hero and ladies’ man in today’s world (leading to Ash vs. Evil Dead), or he witnesses the horrific conclusion to how collective trauma (and how oversleeping symbolizes -K, a refusal to learn from history) leads to social breakdown, then ultimately to the annihilation of the human race, which is a truly evil dead.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on ‘Joker’

Arthur Fleck is my hero.

Sorry, I’m a bit of a joker sometimes…HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!

I finally got around to seeing Joker today. Wow! What a powerful film. Though set in the early 1980s, it’s as relevant to today’s times as any movie can be. Indeed, it’s the first Hollywood movie in a long time (to my knowledge, at least) that has genuine balls.

Contrary to what some of the knuckleheads in the mainstream media have either said or implied, Joker very much has a message. And no, that message is not for sexually frustrated, right-wing men to go out doing mass shootings. The film’s message is firmly left-wing: all out war against the bourgeoisie, and that’s what the ruling class–for whom the mainstream media works–feels truly threatened about.

No, I’m not advocating everyone wearing clown masks going on mass murder rampages, and busting things up. I believe in an organized, well-planned revolution that will result in giving people like Arthur Fleck what they need: decent medical and psychiatric care, guaranteed employment, etc. In short, I seek to eliminate the class system that deprives the have-nots, and which causes the alienation that causes so much of Fleck’s suffering.

I can’t do a proper analysis of this film until it comes out on DVD; then I can watch it twenty to thirty times or so, and savour every detail of this masterpiece, mining it for themes and symbolism. Until then, these preliminary remarks will have to do: after all, so much has already been said about the film in newspaper articles and videos.

Go see the film if you haven’t yet…no, chances are, you won’t become a murderer.

Analysis of ‘Se7en’

Se7en is a 1995 neo-noir thriller written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher. It stars Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow, with R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, and Richard Roundtree.

A serial killer known only as “John Doe” (Spacey) targets his victims based on each of them being guilty of committing one of the seven deadly sins; and two detectives, Lieutenant William Somerset (Freeman) and David Mills (Pitt), must track Doe down before he completes his grisly sermon, to teach people not to trivialize the deadly sins.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines]

Detective Taylor: Neighbors heard them screaming at each other, like for two hours, and it was nothing new. Then they heard the gun go off, both barrels. Crime of passion.

William Somerset: Yeah, just look at all the passion on that wall.

*********

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a homicide.” –Mills, of the ‘Gluttony’ victim

“Long is the way, /And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, Lines 432-33.

“Fuckin’ Dante… poetry-writing faggot! Piece of shit, motherfucker!” –Mills, banging a book in frustration

“‘One pound of flesh; no more, no less. No cartilage, no bone, but only flesh.’ Merchant of Venice.” –Somerset, of the ‘Greed’ victim

“He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take…and he still has hell to look forward to.” Dr. Beardsley, of the ‘Sloth’ victim

*********

Somerset: Victor’s landlord said there was an envelope of cash in the office mailbox the first of every month. Quote: “I never heard a single complaint from the tenant in apartment 306, and nobody ever complained about him. He’s the best tenant I’ve ever had.” End quote.

Mills: Yeah, a landlord’s dream: a paralyzed tenant with no tongue.

Somerset: Who pays the rent on time.

*********

“It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don’t make that mistake.” –Somerset, to Mills

*********

[Mills and Somerset are reading through the FBI results] MillsModern Homicide InvestigationIn Cold BloodOf Human Bondage … bondage?

Somerset: Not what you think it is.

Mills: Okay. The Marquis de-Shaday …

Somerset: It’s the Marquis de Sade.

Mills: Whatever. The Writings of Saint Thomas Aqua-something.

Somerset: Saint Thomas Aquinas? There it is. He wrote about the seven deadly sins. Is that it?

Mills: Yeah.

*********

Somerset: We must forget our emotion. We must focus on the details.

Mills: I feed off my emotions. How’s that?

*********

“It’s impressive to see a man feed off his emotions.” –Somerset (annoyed), of Mills

“What sick ridiculous puppets we are / and what a gross little stage we dance on / What fun we have dancing and fucking / Not a care in the world / Not knowing that we are nothing / We are not what was intended.” –Somerset, reading from one of John Doe’s journals

“On the subway today, a man came up to me to start a conversation. He made small talk, a lonely man talking about the weather and other things. I tried to be pleasant and accommodating, but my head hurt from his banality. I almost didn’t notice it had happened, but I suddenly threw up all over him. He was not pleased, and I couldn’t stop laughing.” –Somerset, reading from one of Doe’s journals

“I admire you. I don’t know how you found me, but imagine my surprise. I respect you law enforcement agents more every day.” –Doe, to Mills on the phone

“Get this thing off of me! Get this thing off of me!…He – he put that thing on me…! He made me wear it!…He told me to fuck her, and…and I did! I fucked her! He had a gun in my mouth! The fucking gun was in my throat! FUCK! Oh God, oh God…please help me. Help me. Please help me.” –Crazed Man in Massage Parlour, wearing a strap-on with a blade, which Doe had made for him

***********

Mills: You know, see, you bitch and you complain and you tell me these things – if you think you’re preparing me for hard times, thank you, but…

Somerset: But you got to be a hero? You want to be a champion. Well, let me tell you, people don’t want a champion. They wanna eat cheeseburgers, play the lotto and watch television.

Mills: Hey, how did you get like this? I wanna know.

Somerset: Well. [sighs] It wasn’t one thing, I can tell you that.

Mills: Go on.

Somerset: I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was a virtue!

Mills: You’re no different. You’re no better.

Somerset: I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not! Hell, I sympathize; I sympathize completely. Apathy is a solution. I mean, it’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It’s easier to steal what you want than it is to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs: it takes effort and work.

***********

Dr. O’Neill: He cut off her nose…

Somerset: …to spite her face. [Of Doe’s murdering the “Pride” victim]

***********

“Detective. Detective. DETECTIVE! You’re looking for me.” –Doe, to Mills

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” –Doe

***********

David Mills: Wait, I thought all you did was kill innocent people.

John Doe: Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man…a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you’d point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him; a man, who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn’t be able to finish your meal. After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must have been secretly thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets!

David Mills: Murderers?

John Doe: A woman…

David Mills: Murderers, John, like yourself?

John Doe: [interrupts] A woman…so ugly on the inside she couldn’t bear to go on living if she couldn’t be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually! And let’s not forget the disease-spreading whore! Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed…forever.

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

“It seems that envy is my sin.” –Doe

“Become vengeance, David. Become wrath.” –Doe

[Last line] “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” –Somerset (voiceover)

What must be noted about the deadly sins is that they are emotions, passions. Pride is excessive self-love; wrath is excessive anger, uncontrollable rage; envy (invidia) is a hateful looking on (the evil eye, as it were) at those more fortunate that oneself, and wishing to cut them down; greed is a passion for limitless wealth and luxurious possessions, “the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10); gluttony is a passion for food; lust is an excessive desire for sex (e.g., having multiple prostitutes every night); and sloth, an unwillingness to do anything for the common good, can be seen to be rooted in the emotion of despair, sadness.

We all experience each of these seven feelings at one point or another in life, and it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to feel a little of these emotions, provided we control them instead of vice versa. They become deadly sins when they’re allowed to run wild inside ourselves, driving us to hurt other people.

So the main theme of this film is unrestrained emotion. Doe imagines all seven of his victims to be guilty of allowing their emotions to get the better of them, when really it’s debatable if all of the victims have such poor self-control (though lack of control is certainly true of the men labelled with sloth, wrath, greed, and…envy!).

Is “the disease-spreading whore” guilty of lust, or–far more likely–is she an exploited, poor woman forced to have sex so she can live? Is the model really all that proud of her looks, or does she swallow the pills knowing her only way of making a living has been cut off from her (even modest people wouldn’t want to go through life disfigured)? Does the glutton have an eating disorder, does he have a genetic disposition to obesity, or does he overeat as a manic defence against his own sadness?

Now, the “infamous” defence lawyer (Eli Gould, the “Greed” victim)–having had Victor (the “Sloth” victim) acquitted, and having habitually lied to have other guilty men go free, so he can make bags of money defending them over and over again–is as guilty as Doe says he is, as is Victor…and two others. Still, some sins have been exaggerated.

On the other hand, Doe’s envy isn’t limited to Mills and his “simple life.” Perhaps Doe’s strict religious upbringing has forced him to repress his own desires to the point that he envies the rest of the world for being free to indulge in sins he mustn’t allow himself to indulge in. He hates the glutton’s over-enjoyment of food, so he kills him. Perhaps he secretly lusts after the prostitute (or prostitutes in general), and envies the men who pay to enjoy her, so he has someone make the strap-on with the blade. Perhaps he fell in love with the model, but she broke his heart, and he envies her boyfriend.

The seven deadly sins are so destructive because any surrender to one sin can lead to committing another. Doe’s envy clearly leads to his anger towards “a world this shitty.” The Christian morality he imagines he is adhering to (remarkable self-deceit for a multiple murderer) gives him pride, a sense of superiority over the “common” sinners. That he imagines God has chosen him to kill sinners is outrageously arrogant. His strict sexual morality, the repression of his desires, makes his lusting after prostitutes not only possible, but almost bordering on probable (perhaps “the disease-spreading whore” gave him an STD). Doe also seems, in a way, to be succumbing to sloth.

What would drive a conservative Christian (apart from Western imperialists and their crusading in such things as Zionism and the “War on Terror,” but I digress) to become a multiple murderer? As Somerset cautions Mills, we shouldn’t dismiss Doe’s pathology as mere madness. That would be ignorant. We have to look for causes, traumas, disappointments…despair.

A Christian is supposed to have no illusions about the enormity of sin in the world. His faith in God and Christ is supposed to give him the patience and strength to bear the horrors of everyday life. A Christian is supposed to combat sin by doing good, by setting an example. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Doe, on the other hand, sets a bloody example, because he is full of hate…but who does he really hate?

Doe’s motive for murder seems to be based on his knowledge of the bestial sin he feels inside of himself: his pride from seeing himself, a man of faith, as better than the sinners around him; his anger at the sin he sees everywhere; his envy of other people’s happiness; and his possible (if not probable, given his life of sexual repression) lust after prostitutes and the model. His awareness of the evil inside himself, coupled with the blood of Christ having never tamed the beast inside him (despite his faith), must have led to at least a faith struggle he’s denying in himself, if not outright despair…sloth.

He adamantly denies his loss of faith, as he denies his sinning (pride, anger, sloth, and lust) in any ways other than envy; he projects these other sins onto other people, regardless of whether they’re actually guilty of them or not. He rationalizes his pride and wrath, cloaking these sins in the garb of righteousness. He postures as one with pious control over his emotions; underneath that posturing is a repressed, disavowed sloth.

A feeling of sloth (i.e., apathy, despair, and depression) pervades the film, in the literal and symbolic senses. It frequently rains, symbolic tears of the despairing. Somerset is a jaded old cop soon to retire, to end his work. He’s seen so much crime and misery that he sees little reason to think the human condition will ever improve. He hasn’t completely succumbed to sloth, but he’s pretty close to it.

The one with the fiery passion is his idealistic but bad-tempered [!] partner, Mills. We see a dialectical relationship between his idealism and Somerset’s disillusion, for when Doe provokes Mills to his raging extreme, his devastation at the film’s end is his having gone past the serpent’s biting head of extreme rage, a rage over the destroying of his hopes and dreams, to the serpent’s bitten tail of despair, over his having become the very kind of criminal he was supposed to be trying to stop.

(Recall how I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical unity of opposites. The coiled serpent, as I see it, represents a circular continuum, the extreme opposite ends of which are seen where its head bites its tail.)

The moderation of Somerset’s jadedness is what keeps him from reaching the extreme of slothful despair. He flings a switchblade at a dartboard, one time almost hitting the bullseye, at other times hitting further away from it–all times missing the mark (hamartia, or sin). He’s far from perfect, but still a reasonably good man.

Seven does not only refer to the deadly sins; it can also refer to the first seven days of Biblical Creation, the seventh being the day God rested. (Recall Somerset’s words to Mills in this regard: “Well, over the next 7 days, Detective, you’ll do me the favour of remembering that.”) Somerset will retire, finishing his work, as God did at the end of the sixth day; Doe wants to die (i.e., his goading of Mills to shoot him)…eternal rest, after finishing “God’s good work,” or seven days of creating homicides (from the discovery of the “Gluttony” victim on Monday to his death as “Envy” on Sunday).

John Doe freely admits to his personal desire “to turn each sin against the sinner,” as he rationalizes it. The fact that the Marquis de Sade–a fanatically atheistic writer of blasphemous, pornographic fiction in which libertines delight in raping, torturing, and murdering their victims (often underage ones!), then philosophize about how crime is necessitated by Nature–is among Doe’s reading, borrowed from the library, should tell you what kind of a “Christian” he is.

Indeed, Doe enjoys terrorizing and torturing his victims before killing them; hence, the gun pressed against the head of the “Gluttony” victim as he makes the fat man eat until his gut bursts…including eating “little pieces of plastic” (according to the police captain [Ermey]). Monday: the first day.

Then, he forces the “Greed” victim, at gun point, to cut out a pound of his own flesh. The victim’s first name, Eli, is Hebrew in origin; though Gould is Anglo-Saxon, it could easily be an Anglicizing of, say, Goldberg (Glenn Gould, his family surname having originally been Gold, was at times mistakenly thought to be Jewish). Added to this is, from a scanning of the photo of Eli lying dead from his gory wound, the perception of Semitic facial features. I mention these details to suggest, along with the allusion to The Merchant of Venice, Doe’s implied Christian antisemitism, with the stereotype of the ‘greedy Jew.’

A careful reading of The Merchant of Venice will show, however, that Shylock was not being greedy (How could he profit from a pound of flesh?), but vengeful, just as John Doe is being vengeful in killing Gould. However greedy Gould may be, cutting out a pound of his flesh is not, in his case, an appropriate way “to turn [the] sin against the sinner.” If Doe imagines it is, it’s really just him projecting his own wrath onto Gould, making him turn wrath and vengeance against himself. Tuesday: the second day.

Fingerprints on a wall in Gould’s office, behind an abstract painting Doe has turned upside-down, print out the message, “HELP ME.” This is assumed to be Doe asking for help for himself; instead, it leads us to Victor (real name, Theodore Allen), the “Sloth” victim, whose hand Doe has cut off to print the “HELP ME” message on the wall.

Though tied to a bed and kept barely alive over the course of a year (i.e., as if he were too lazy to get out of bed), Victor’s sloth doesn’t come in the form of idleness. Having been given “a very strict Southern Baptist upbringing” (Raised in a strict Christian environment? Sounds familiar.), Victor has lost his faith and turned to a life of crime (armed robbery, drug dealing, and sexually assaulting minors). Again, his loss of faith and turning to a life of crime sounds a lot like projecting John: “HELP ME” seems to be Doe asking for help for himself after all. Wednesday: the third day.

Somerset, Mills, and a SWAT team led by California (McGinley) find Victor’s apartment under the assumption that he’s the seven-deadly-sins killer, only to realize he’s the “Sloth” victim; this mistaken identity reinforces the idea that Doe has projected his sloth onto Victor, however slothful his victim may have been in real life (Victor’s indulgence in drugs and pederasty seems to be a manic defence against his sadness). Victor isn’t quite dead: he gasps for life, shocking all the cops in the room. This shows how the suffering in sloth is really a living death.

Right after Somerset warns Mills to control his emotions, the latter lets his rage fly out of control in front of a man taking pictures of him. The photographer, we later learn, is the killer, having captured Mills in a state of wrath.

Recall that there’s a sad tone throughout this film, with the tears of all the angels in heaven, as it were, falling to the earth in the form of rain. Mills’s wife, Tracy (Paltrow) is sad and lonely in her apartment, knowing nobody in this town that she and her husband have just moved to–apart from Somerset, whom she phones and asks to get together with to talk about what’s troubling her. Thursday: the fourth day.

Somerset and Tracy chat in a restaurant: we learn she’s pregnant and unsure if she should keep the baby (she hasn’t told David). Somerset wouldn’t want to bring a child into the ugly world he sees around him, but he regrets a decision he once made to have his former partner have an abortion.

It’s interesting, just to note in passing, when Somerset and Mills discuss the “Sloth” victim’s landlord, who considers Victor to have been the perfect tenant. As long as the rent is paid on time and there are no complaints about him making any noise, etc., he can be as despairing, directionless, and slothful as he likes.

Somerset and Mills later go get a printout of whoever has been borrowing books about the seven deadly sins, crime, etc., from the library, thanks to the help of an FBI man. Doe’s reading tastes range everywhere from Sade to Aquinas: he’s educated, cultured, and psychopathic. The detectives may not have his real name, but now they know where he lives.

After the incident when Doe shoots at them, Mills chases him through his apartment building and in the rain, and Doe hits him on the head, bloody-faced Mills returns to the apartment building and in one of his rages kicks open Doe’s door. The cops search his apartment, finding a glowing red Cross and hundreds of notebooks of Doe randomly pouring out his nihilistic thoughts on paper; but not one fingerprint is found anywhere.

They do discover Doe’s many photographs, though, including those of “Gluttony,” “Greed,” a prostitute, and Mills. Unlike the many photos of Victor’s transformation from a normal-looking man to a degenerated, virtual corpse (symbolizing how sloth slowly destroys a man), the pictures of the other sinners catch them in a fixed state at the moment, as if that’s all there is to these people. Everyone else is just a static stereotype of a sin in Doe’s mind: only through sloth, a projection, recall, of Doe’s true mental state, do we see how a normal person gradually turns evil. Friday: the fifth day.

Somerset and Mills find the place where the strap-on has been made. We sense again the sloth of society in general when we see how the maker is unconcerned with the implications of having made such an awful thing; similarly, there’s the sloth of the man in the booth of the “massage parlour,” who lets men bring suitcases and bags of questionable things, like the strap-on, for use with the prostitutes.

At a bar together that night, Somerset and Mills discuss the contrast between the jadedness of the former vs. the idealism of the latter. In spite of all the sobering experiences Somerset has had over the years, Mills still won’t give up on his ideals. Somerset can sympathize with the slothful attitude, for how much easier it is to have such an attitude than it is to cope with life, but he hasn’t completely given up on the idea of trying to help, even though he’s retiring.

If we see Mills’s passion for making a difference as a cop as being near the biting head of the ouroboros (i.e., at the neck, so to speak), and we see absolute despair as being at the tip of the bitten tail, we can see Mills as being closer to that tail than is Somerset, who is further along the length of the serpent’s body, past the bitten tail and in the hind-to-middle area. Somerset has numbed to the suffering; for Mills to despair, though, all he needs is a little push. Saturday: the sixth day.

The large photo of the beautiful model, the “Pride” victim, is seen over her bloody, disfigured body in bed. Again, Doe imagines her sinful state to be a static, unchanging thing, as seen in that one photo.

When Doe gives himself up to the police and we see his bloody hands, we discover why he leaves no fingerprints anywhere. He’s been cutting them off, annihilating any knowledge of his true identity just as he has done by going by the anonymous name of “John Doe.” These two acts symbolize his wish to annihilate himself, just as he wants Mills to kill him. He wants to die because of his sloth and despair, however repressed they may be in a man who consciously still considers himself a faithful Christian.

As Somerset, Mills, and Doe go in the car to where the delivery of the box will occur at 7:00 in the evening (a bit after 7:01, actually–the delivery man misses the mark of Doe’s desired delivery time), Mills vents his rage on Doe. When Mills calls Doe’s victims “innocent people,” however, it’s Doe’s turn to be angry.

Any suggestion that his victims didn’t deserve to die for their faults, whether real or imagined by him (surely even the worst of these at least deserved a trial, and not so sadistic a killing!), triggers Doe, since he’s been projecting his own sinfulness onto them. His affectations of piety are really his narcissistic False Self, reaction formations of him pretending to intend good, a mask hiding his pride.

Doe’s anger rises to such a pitch that, ironically, it’s Mills who tells him to calm down; then, when Doe provokes Mills about the life he’s been allowed to keep having (after the killing of Tracy and the unborn child), Mills releases his fury once again.

Deep down, Doe wishes he could have the innocence of a child, as Jesus said we need to have to enter heaven (Matthew 18:3). It isn’t just Mills’s simple life that Doe envies; he also envies Tracy’s sweetness and the innocence of the unborn child. Now, Doe’s envy shifts into the Kleinian version.

While Doe has projected his sinfulness onto his victims, and onto all of the bad people in the world around him, he would also engage in projective identification, that is, project what he imagines is his Christian goodness onto the unborn child. Still, he cannot extricate himself from his own sinfulness, so that evil part of himself will still be inside the unborn child; then, when he’s projectively identified with the child, his Kleinian envy will make him wish to spoil the mother’s goodness. This is part of Doe’s phantasy, part of what drives him to kill Tracy and the unborn child. And in this connection, killing the unborn child is thus again the fulfillment of his wish to kill his projected self.

When Mills realizes his wife’s head is in the box, the despair is overwhelming. We all know he won’t be able to refrain from shooting Doe; there’s no hope that he’ll be able to control his hunger for vengeance, because any man would want to avenge the murder of the woman he loves, even men with much better control of their anger.

The enervation of sloth implies a lack of emotion, a numbness; but this is a superficial observation, for sloth comes from a deep sorrow, an unconsolable sadness stemming from a feeling of hopelessness, of despair…from a sense of wondering what the point is in even trying. Hence, sloth is as unrestrained an emotion as pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust are. Mills is about to go from one extreme emotion (wrath) to another (sloth); he’s shifting from the biting head of the ouroboros to its bitten tail, from an extreme urge to do something to an extreme realization of the futility to do anything.

When Doe sees Mills walk over to him with the gun, about to put a bullet in his head, he closes his eyes, knowing he’s about to come to rest: “to die, to sleep,/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 60-64). Doe’s despair is like that of the Dane. Sunday: the seventh day.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, the day of rest. Doe has finished his work: he has seen all the mayhem that he has made, and it is very good (in his twisted imagination, anyway). Now he can rest. Somerset is about to retire, and rest. Mills will rest in prison for murder. Doe, in driving Mills to despair and devastation, has killed him, too.

Mills’s sloth is a living death, like moribund, gasping Victor tied to that bed. Mills’s despair is not only from losing the family he loves, not only from losing his freedom outside prison walls, but worst of all, from losing his ideal of being able to fight crime, knowing he’s no better than the “fucking crazies” he despises and wants to put in jail.

Ira furor brevis est.

Analysis of ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Reservoir Dogs is a 1992 crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, and Lawrence Tierney. A neo-noir film, it is to a large extent inspired by The Killing by Stanley Kubrick.

With Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs helped cement Tarantino’s reputation as a fresh, new talent. This is especially so with respect to his scriptwriting, given its rapid-fire dialogue–that is, the pornographic profanity, the breaking of politically-correct taboos (i.e., Tarantino’s fetishizing of such slurs as “nigger”), as well as the embracing of gratuitous violence, and the plethora of pop culture references.

Here are some quotes:

“Let me tell you what Like a Virgin is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.” –Mr. Brown (Tarantino)

“Shit, you shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” –Mr. White (Keitel)

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

Nice Guy Eddie (Penn): C’mon, throw in a buck!

Mr. Pink (Buscemi): Uh-uh, I don’t tip.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t tip?

Mr. Pink: I don’t believe in it.

Nice Guy Eddie: You don’t believe in tipping?

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

Mr. Blonde (Madsen): Nobody’s going anywhere.

Mr. White[about Mr. Blonde] Piss on this fucking turd! [To Mr. Pink] We’re outta here.

Mr. Blonde: Don’t take another step, Mr. White.

Mr. White[screams] Fuck you maniac! It’s your fuckin’ fault we’re in so much trouble.

Mr. Blonde[calmly to Mr. Pink] What’s this guy’s problem?

Mr. White: What’s my problem? Yeah, I gotta problem. I gotta big fuckin’ problem with any trigger-happy madman who almost gets me shot!

Mr. Blonde: What the fuck are you talking about?

Mr. White: That fucking shooting spree in the store, remember?

Mr. Blonde[shrugs] Fuck ’em. They set off the alarm. They deserved what they got.

Mr. White: You almost killed me! ASSHOLE! If I had any idea what type of guy you were, I never would’ve agreed to work with you.

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?

Mr. White: What was that? I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Would you repeat it?

Mr. Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite? [throws away his drink]

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

Joe (Tierney): Here are your names… [pointing to each respective member] Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink: Why am I Mr. Pink?

Joe: Because, you’re a faggot, alright?! [Mr. Brown laughs]

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

Mr. Brown: Yeah, but Mr. Brown? That’s a little too close to Mr. Shit.

Mr. Pink: Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy.

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

“I’m hungry. Let’s get a taco.” –Mr. White, to Mr. Orange

“The man you just killed was just released from prison. He got caught at a company warehouse full of hot items. He could’ve fuckin’ walked. All he had to do was say my dad’s name, but he didn’t; he kept his fucking mouth shut. And did his fuckin’ time, and he did it like a man. He did four years for us. So, Mr. Orange, you’re tellin’ me this very good friend of mine, who did four years for my father, who in four years never made a deal, no matter what they dangled in front of him, you’re telling me that now, that now this man is free, and we’re making good on our commitment to him, he’s just gonna decide, out of the fucking blue, to rip us off? Why don’t you tell me what really happened?” –‘Nice Guy’ Eddie, about Mr. Blonde

I see this film as an allegory of the contradictions between different facets of capitalism, similar to my analysis of The French Connection. The LAPD cops represent the state-regulated version of capitalism; and Joe Cabot, his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie, and the six men hired to rob a jewelry store of diamonds, represent the deregulated, “free market” version. Both groups are after a coveted commodity, and both groups use violence to get it. Recall that I see the mafia (criminal businesses) as symbolic of capitalism, and the police, of course, protect the bourgeois state.

The story takes place in the early 1990s, around the time of the dissolution of the USSR (not that Tarantino, filming in 1991, would likely have known that that dissolution was coming, of course, but it’s still an interesting coincidence). Pop culture references are made to music from the 1970s (i.e., the nostalgic K-Billy [KBLY] radio station) and the 1980s (Madonna songs), as well as to 60s and 70s movies (with Lee Marvin and Pam Grier) and TV shows (Get Christie Love! and Baretta). The 70s and 80s were a time when regulated capitalism in the US was beginning to cede to the “free market.” Nostalgia going as far back as the 60s suggests a desire to go back to a happier time.

Along with this symbolism of the economic shift to the right is a cultural shift in that direction, heard in the characters’ casually racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is described by Mr. Brown exclusively in terms of macho phallicism, when the actual metaphor for the song is the hymen (or rather, the simile for the song is virgin). Madonna herself wrote to Tarantino in response to his amusing, but ultimately wrong, interpretation of her song: “Quentin, it’s about love, not dick.” While it’s certainly entertaining hearing Brown talk about how the “fuck-machine” apparently felt vaginal pain during sex with the “John Holmes motherfucker,” the fact that she sings, “Feels so good inside” doesn’t exactly help Brown’s argument.

This macho rejection of a “sensitive,” “nice fella” represents a moving away from the cultural ideals of the 1960s and 70s, which was in its beginning stages in the 1990s, but would soon balloon into the aggravated hyper-masculinity of people like Roosh V today.

An early example of the casual racism of these thieves is how Mr. White gets annoyed with Joe about his old address book and talking about a Chinese girl named “Toby”; White calls her “Toby Jap I-don’t-know-what,” ignorant of any differences between Chinese and Japanese.

Now, this kind of off-colour language may have been humorous and understandable on some level at the time, that is, as an inevitable reaction to the strident political correctness prevalent in the late 1980s and early 90s; but when allowed to slide as it has since then, it’s a slippery slope from the mere verbal naughtiness of back then to the blatant, shameless white nationalism and neofascism of today, as seen in the recent shootings and the rise of the far right in the US, Ukraine, Brazil, Poland, and elsewhere.

Next, Mr. Pink discusses why he doesn’t tip. He says he doesn’t tip “automatically” just because “society says [he has] to,” but he will “give them something extra” if the waitresses “really put forth the effort.” This is the essence of the bourgeois attitude to the worker: try to get as much work out of the proletariat as possible, but also pay them as little as possible.

Granted, all the other men at the table (save Mr. Orange, who we don’t yet know is an undercover cop), personifying “free market” capitalism in my allegory, argue in favour of tipping; but this variation only goes to show you how, as Ha-Joon Chang argued in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, there is no one objective definition of the “free market.” There are as many different lines to draw where ‘legitimate taxation and regulation’ (i.e., to limit profitability) ends as there are market fundamentalists.

Furthermore, the whole concept of tipping has historically been a ploy used by bosses to keep hourly wages as low as possible, especially for blacks and women, so even the ‘generosity’ of the other tipping men isn’t as altruistic as it might seem. Mr. Pink is simply the extreme version of the right-wing libertarian, who in his saying “society says you have to [tip waitresses]” sounds as though he means ‘socialism says you have to pay workers more.’

Pink is annoyed that, as a former minimum-wage worker, he had a job not “deemed tip-worthy”; so instead of showing solidarity with shafted workers, he’d rather support a “free market” version of the same capitalism that’s shafted him and waitresses. Indeed, he imagines that, just because the waitresses are making minimum wage (which, incidentally, can be as low as $2.13 an hour!), “these ladies aren’t starving to death.” Not taken into account is the fact that wages have stagnated since the 1970s, while the cost of living has steadily risen since then. What’s worse, Clinton would kill welfare several years after the making of this film.

Libertarian Pink is opposed to how “the government fucks [waitresses] in the ass on a regular basis” by taxing their tips, but he won’t “help out with the rent.” (Pink has missed out on his true calling: he should have been a landlord.) Note how, in Pink’s opinion, it’s government, and not the capitalists who control the government, that is at fault–a typical libertarian argument.

Mr. Orange, as an undercover cop who–in my allegory–represents the state-regulated version of capitalism, is “convinced” of Pink’s argument and wants his dollar back; here we see how blurred the line is between so-called corporatist and “free market” ideology.

As the men walk outside the restaurant and go off to commit the robbery in that iconic slow-motion scene, we hear the song “Little Green Bag,” by George Baker Selection. The song is about the wish to acquire American dollars, not weed! (“Lookin’ back on the track for a little greenback,” etc. One is “Lookin’ for some happiness” of the kind that money is believed to give people.) So, properly understood, this song is a perfect soundtrack to a movie about an attempt to acquire diamonds.

The thieves would steal diamonds to exchange them for greenbacks, another exchange value. Commodities as exchange values are what capitalism is all about: one produces commodities for profit and accumulation, not to provide use-values for people, this latter goal being what we socialists want.

And just so we’re clear, the jewelry stores that acquire and sell diamonds aren’t exactly innocent, either; nor are the police who protect the interests of the owners of those stores. All too often, diamonds are mined by African slaves, those “damn niggers” the thieves keep denigrating.

We see the preparations for the robbery. We see its aftermath: but we never see the robbery itself. Capitalism, in its regulated or deregulated forms, similarly conceals such things as theft of wages (e.g., tipping, or lack of tipping, to allow bosses to overwork and underpay workers in the service industry), imperialist plunder of resources in the Third World (e.g., those diamonds in Africa), and concentration of wealth upwards to the 1%.

Mr. Brown dies with blood in his eyes from a gunshot (a similar fate happens to Clarence Worley, who dies with blood in his eyes, in the original script for True Romance [p. 128], Tarantino having identified with Clarence [p. x]). At the end of the film, Joe says Mr. Blue is “dead as Dillinger,” a role played by a young Tierney in 1945.

Mr. Orange is dying from a gunshot in the belly. Mr. White tries to comfort him as he drives him to the rendezvous, a warehouse Joe owns. White lays Orange on the floor in the warehouse; Orange is bleeding profusely, but White doesn’t even attempt to clean or dress the wound by making an improvised bandage out of, say, his shirt. Granted, we may not expect a thief to know how to make a proper bandage, but Mr. White could at least try to make one!

Instead, White says he can’t do anything for Orange, but as soon as Joe appears, White promises he’ll urge their boss to get a doctor for Orange. Since these characters represent neoliberal capitalism in my allegory, their pitifully inadequate response to Orange’s dying can be seen to represent the utter failure that is the American healthcare system, the only non-universal healthcare system in the First World.

Pink storms into the warehouse, already convinced that someone has set them up by informing the police of the planned heist. The ensuing inability of the thieves to trust each other is symbolic of the alienation that capitalism causes: instead of trying to help each other (the “solidarity” that, ironically, Pink pleads for, but which neoliberal politics will always preclude), everyone is fighting.

When we see police in their uniforms enforcing the law, we see a quasi-fascistic authoritarianism imposing its will on us. In the case of the thieves, however, we see a similar, if not even greater, uniformity and rigid following of rules: the six men wear identical black suits, with white shirts, thin black neckties, and black sunglasses–in effect, a uniform; furthermore, they must refer to each other only by their colour names. Not only must they never reveal their real names, the six mutual strangers must never reveal any personal information about themselves.

These personifications of libertarianism and neoliberalism, ironically, are more rigid and oppressive with rules that most of us are, even cops; they’re also more mutually alienated from not being allowed to get to know each other. Bosses Joe and Eddie are free to wear whatever they want, to be addressed by their real names, and to discuss whatever they want, but then again…they’re the bosses, not the grunts doing the difficult work and heavy lifting.

Pink and White discuss the violent excesses of Mr. Blonde, who we learn is a trigger-happy psychopath who has shot and killed a number of innocent bystanders at the jewelry store, his reason being that the alarm was set off by one of them. When Pink is contemplating which of the men could have tipped off the police, he’s sure that Blonde can’t possibly be the rat, since he’s “too fuckin’ homicidal to be workin’ with the cops” (an odd observation to make, given how trigger-happy way too many cops are). Furthermore, it’s telling how Pink, personifying an extreme version of libertarian capitalism in my allegory, considers a psychopath to be on the level.

Indeed, Pink outdoes the other thieves in their callous attitude toward dying Orange by adamantly refusing to help White (the only thief who halfway cares about Orange) take him to a hospital, all because White went “against the rules” by telling Orange his real name (Larry) and where he is from.

As we’re drawn into the world of these characters, from Orange’s injury to Pink’s fears of a set-up, then to the introductions to the backgrounds of White, Blonde, and Orange, and finally to Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) pleading for his life when Blonde–having slashed his face and cut off his ear–prepares to burn him alive, we find ourselves actually sympathizing with these men.

As with the temptation to sympathize with D-FENS (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to sympathize too much with these thieves and murderers, as charming as they may be in their idiosyncrasies and their wit. For that’s the thing about the whole resurgence of the right ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union: there’s a charismatic appeal to notions of ‘individual liberty,’ something that actually translates to licence, which in turn is used for selfish ends.

Since I allegorize Reservoir Dogs as a conflict between the regulated (cops) and deregulated (thieves) versions of capitalism, I find the film cleverly lures us into caring for these criminals and cops, these symbols of oppression in the world (as does Falling Down with D-FENS). Not that it’s these films’ intention to do so, of course; I imagine the writers and directors are trying to do a kind of psychological experiment on the audience, to see where our loyalties truly lie.

This leads to a discussion of the major themes of this film: loyalty and betrayal. White has been trying to show loyalty to Orange by insisting that Eddie call a doctor to help Orange, all the time not knowing that Orange, an undercover cop, has betrayed them all.

Joe and Eddie are touched by Mr. Blonde’s loyalty when he, “caught in a warehouse full of hot items,” never betrayed Joe and Eddie, “no matter what [the cops] dangled in front of him.” Again, psychopathic Blonde, or “Toothpick Vic,” is deemed “a good fella” by his capitalist mafia bosses.

If, Dear Reader, you think my allegorizing of the conflict between the cops and thieves, as representing the contradictions of capitalism, is just me imposing a Marxist agenda on the film, consider the thieves’ extensive use of language related to capitalism: job, “do some real work,” business, boss, professionals, etc. As with The Godfather, I equate the mafia with capitalists; that the police, in protecting bourgeois private property, protect the capitalist class, should be too obvious to need elaborating on.

Nostalgia not only for 60s and 70s music, movies, and TV, but also for comic books that originated in the 1960s (The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer), represents a wish to escape the ugly realities of today, to go back to a time before neoliberalism took root.

Mr. Orange, or Freddy Newendyke, meets with Holdaway, the only black person in the whole movie, to discuss the plan to slip Freddy in with the thieves and set them up. Holdaway is wearing a Maoist cap and a red Che Guevara shirt: I’m not about to say that he represents communism, as tempting as that would be.

He’s a left-leaning liberal dressed that way to look edgy, as far as I’m concerned. His involvement with the police set-up is not even symbolically like a socialist revolution; in helping the police, Holdaway is on the side of those I allegorize as representing the regulated version of capitalism. Holdaway represents reform, not revolution. Lots of moderate leftists (e.g., social democrats) work within the system to curb its excesses without making the fundamental changes needed, all while posing as radicals.

While Holdaway is posing as a radical in those clothes, so is Freddy posing in front of Joe and Eddie, pretending to be a thief with an amusing anecdote about selling a bag of marijuana and almost being caught with it by police in the men’s room. This being of one political persuasion, while acting as if being of another, represents how slippery all reactionary politics are. In order to preserve the class structure of society, the liberal will on one occasion pose as a radical progressive (Holdaway), and on another occasion pose as a libertarian (Freddy as Mr. Orange). Betrayers by definition pretend to be loyal.

In this reactionary world, people other than white males tend to be marginalized, as we see in a movie with an almost all white male cast. The only two women we see, in exceedingly brief roles, are in cars–one stolen by Pink, the other by White and Orange–we don’t even really see the women’s faces (in a deleted scene, a woman named Jodie works with Freddy and Holdaway–pages 80-82 in the script).

The police in “the commode story” prove to be every bit as crude and offensive in their language as the thieves (i.e., the cop who mentions the “sexy Oriental bitch”; this same cop threatens to shoot her boyfriend “in the face”). In my allegory, regulated capitalism (the police) isn’t much kinder than the deregulated variety (the thieves).

Now, the blurry distinction that I see between regulated and deregulated capitalism is seen as much more sharply distinct from the point of view of the people in these opposed pairings. Hence, as Orange watches, with a pained expression, White shooting the cops in the car pursuing them, Orange feels as though he is betraying those cops because he can’t blow his cover and shoot White. Blonde’s torturing of Nash, however, pushes Orange over the line. He must show at least one instance of loyalty to the cops, and so he shoots Blonde.

When Eddie, Pink, and White return to the warehouse at the end of the movie, Orange has to fake loyalty by making up an excuse for killing Blonde by claiming he was going to kill them all and steal the diamonds. Eddie, knowing Blonde’s tested and true loyalty to him and his father, knows Orange must be lying, and therefore Orange is the one who has actually betrayed the thieves.

Here we see the conflict and contradiction between loyalty and betrayal, all coming to a head. White, feeling responsible for Orange’s having been shot, can’t accept the idea that he is the traitor. With Joe now among them and pointing a gun at Orange, the ensuing Mexican standoff of White pointing a gun at Joe and Eddie pointing a gun at White, underscores this extreme contradiction of loyalty and disloyalty.

White wants to stay loyal to Joe (“Goddamn you, Joe. Don’t make me do this.”), but not at Orange’s expense; this tension goes double for Eddie and his loyalty to his father over his friendship with Mr. White (“Larry, it’s been a long time, a lot of jobs. We’ve been through a lot of shit. You respect my father and I respect you, but I will put bullets in your heart if you don’t put that fucking gun down now.”).

After all three shoot each other (Joe having shot Orange), Orange must admit to his hitherto protector, now-wounded Larry, that he’s really Freddy…a cop. The betrayer must admit his guilt to the man who is about to stop being loyal to him.

The movie ends with a novelty song by Nilsson called “Coconut.” The lines, “Doctor, ain’t there nothing I can take…to relieve this belly ache?” remind us, as a form of black comedy, of Mr. Orange’s bullet in the gut. The song’s story is of a “silly woman” who mixes lime in a coconut, drinks it (to treat a stomachache), and feels worse instead of better; then in the middle of the night she calls an exasperated, reluctant doctor for help, getting him out of bed. He prescribes the very lime in the coconut drink to treat the stomachache that it causes. Thus, the song reminds us of how Orange never gets the medical help he needs…just as how so many poor Americans never get it.

Consider the following: the intermixing of police with criminals (Freddy’s undercover work); the police’s knee-jerk shooting of people (Freddy’s immediate shooting of the woman who’s shot him; the cops shooting Larry immediately after he’s shot Freddy), showing that the homicidal cops are in principle no better than the criminals they’re chasing; the cops’ use of crude, offensive language (Holdaway referring to “that invisible bitch“); and finally, all this struggle over diamonds (mined either by African slaves, or in all likelihood at least, by an exploited, overworked, and underpaid Third World proletariat; that is, the full fruit of their labour has been stolen from them).

The ‘legitimate’ capitalists that the cops work for, therefore, are no less thieves than Joe’s criminal gang. The cops fight one group of thieves to protect another group of thieves. All these considerations show how blurred the distinction really is between, essentially, two capitalist mafia organizations–those who obey and enforce bourgeois laws, and those who disobey them. Still, people imagine there’s a huge difference between conservatives and liberals: believers, respectively, in the deregulated and regulated versions of capitalism.

The obeyers (cops and their capitalists) and disobeyers (Joe’s men) in this film thus can easily be compared, respectively, to the kind of left-leaning’ Keynesian capitalist who regulates the economy to curb the excesses that an unbridled market results in, and that very right-wing, unregulated “free market” that leads to the chaos, violence, alienation, suffering, and death that has resulted after this latter form of capitalism really came into its own–right around the time of Reservoir Dogs‘s release in January, 1992.

Clowns to the “left” of us, jokers to the right: here we are, stuck in the middle with them.

Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, Faber and Faber, London, 1996

Analysis of ‘Black Swan’

Black Swan is a 2010 psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz. It stars Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance as ballerina Nina Sayers, with Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder.

The story, with its overarching themes of duality, dualism, and the dialectical relationship between opposites, is strongly influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double. Nina’s double is her dialectical opposite, Lily (Kunis); and just as the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s story is paranoid about his double’s attempts to take over his life, so does Nina have persecutory anxiety about Lily supposedly scheming to take the role of Swan Queen away from her.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Nina (Portman): I came to ask for the part.

Thomas (Cassel): The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.

Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.

Thomas: Really? In four years, every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?

Nina[whispers] I just want to be perfect.

Thomas: What?

Nina: I want to be perfect.

Thomas[scoffs] Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.

Nina: I think I do have it in me.
************

Nina: Beth! I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving the company.

Beth (Ryder): What did you do to get this role? [about Thomas] He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What did you do to change his mind? Did you suck his cock?

Nina: Not all of us have to.

Beth[chuckles] You fucking whore! You’re a fucking little whore!

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

Thomas: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.

Nina: I’m sorry.

Thomas[yelling] Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!

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

“That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.” –Thomas, to Nina

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


Lily (Kunis): [about Beth] I can’t believe he calls her that. It’s so gross.

Nina: I think it’s sweet.

Lily: Little princess? He probably calls every girl that.

Nina: No way! That’s just for Beth.

Lily: I bet he’ll be calling you little princess any day now.

Nina: I don’t know about that.

Lily: Sure he will. You just got to let him lick your pussy.

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

Erica (Hershey): What happened to my sweet girl?

Nina: She’s gone!

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

Nina: You put something in my drink.

Lily: Yeah.

Nina: And then you just took off in the morning?

Lily: In the morning?

Nina: Yeah, you slept over.

Lily: Um, no. Unless your name is Tom and you got a dick.

Nina: But we…

Lily: But we what, Nina? [pauses] Wait, did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?

Nina[whispers] Stop it.

Lily: Oh my God. Oh my God! You did! You fantasized about me!

Nina: Shut up!

Lily[gasps] Was I good?

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

Erica: This role’s destroying you. [Nina violently pushes Erica aside]

Erica: No! Please! You’re not well!

Nina[yelling] Let go of me!

Erica: You can’t handle this!

Nina: I can’t? I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!

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

“I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” –Nina

One visual cue to take note of throughout the film is the preponderance of blacks, whites, and greys, in clothing especially, but also in interior designs. Black and white have the traditional symbolism of, respectively, evil and good, sin and innocence, etc. Grey, as a mixture of black and white, can thus be seen as an integration, or a sublation, of the black and white thesis/antithesis.

Nina, the “sweet girl,” wears mostly white clothes, as well as her lightest of light pink coat and light-grey track pants. As she gradually loses her innocence over the course of the film, she’ll be wearing darker, greyer clothing until she’s fully transformed into the Black Swan, the evil twin, as it were, of the White Swan. Appropriately, at the beginning of the film, she dreams of dancing as the White Swan; that she’s being eyed predatorily by Rothbart, the evil owl-like sorcerer, already shows her repressed sexuality, for deep down in her unconscious, she wants to be seduced.

Nina’s mother, Erica, is always in black, except for an outfit that’s a combination of black and dark grey, worn once in the middle of the film–black enough. We’ll see the significance of these black clothes on Erica later.

Erica seems to be a generally good mother, though she is in many ways frustrating for Nina, too. Erica’s overprotectiveness and lack of respect for her daughter’s privacy force Nina to take on an exclusively “sweet girl” persona…a white swan. With Erica’s domineering overprotectiveness comes a repression and disavowal of Nina’s sexuality.

This disavowal of her sexuality comes in the form of projection. Nina tends to see people in black clothes, sometimes young women with Nina’s hallucinated face superimposed on them, as in one example in the subway station. The sexual brazenness she sees in some of these black-clothed people (Lily, and in particular, a lecherous old man on the subway making obscene gestures at her) is really a sexuality inside herself that she doesn’t want to accept. She’s the white swan “sweet girl,” so she projects that sexuality onto others through her hallucinations. An important question here is: where do we draw the line between what she actually sees and what she hallucinates? (I suspect that she hallucinates a lot more often than the times she obviously does.)

Thomas, the artistic director of her ballet company, wants to do a production of Swan Lake in which the same dancer will play both the white and black swans. This would be a challenge for any dancer, but it is especially so for Nina, who will have to integrate her white side with her disavowed, forbidden black side. She will have to discover some very dark shadows inside herself.

Naturally, as she does this uncovering, this integrating of white and black, she’ll experience conflict and resistance. Part of her must do this integrating to be worthy of dancing the part, and part of her will be terrified of discovering the dark sexuality hidden inside herself, a sexuality her mother forbids her to express, as we’ll soon see. Projecting that sexuality onto others, certain black-clothed others in particular, will achieve this purpose…for a while…

Thomas, as an agent of this integration of black and white, accordingly wears combinations of black, grey, and white. He makes demands on Nina to open up sexually, to loosen up on her meticulous, perfectionistic ballet technique in order to dance more freely as the uninhibited Black Swan. She mustn’t be all Apollonian discipline; she must also be Dionysian passion and fire. Nina can’t adjust at first, though her doppelgänger Lily, with her pornographic mouth and frank sexuality, can do it naturally, effortlessly. Lily usually wears black clothes; she even has a tattoo of black wings on her back.

Look at the two girls’ four-letter names, Nina and Lily. They have paralleled repeats of consonants, ls and ns, letters close to each other in the alphabetic sequence; both names’ second letter is an i, and both names end with an a or a y, two vowels at almost opposite ends of each other in the alphabet. Lily only seems to be Nina’s polar opposite, but she’s actually her dialectical opposite, for in the sublation of contraries, there is a unity. Nina does have Lily’s wild sexuality: it’s just repressed and disavowed, for reasons I’ll speculate about later.

Nina’s unwillingness to learn how to dance the Black Swan with the free sexuality that Thomas wants represents what Wilfred Bion called -K, a negation of the desire to gain knowledge (K) by linking between oneself and others (Bion, p. 47ff.). All those external stimuli that arouse sexual feelings are rejected by Nina, like Bion‘s beta elements: raw, external sensory data that aren’t processed in the mind or turned into thoughts.

Many consider this film an allegory of the agony one feels in the search to attain artistic perfection. Nina certainly is striving, to the point of self-destructiveness (as her predecessor, Beth, has), to be the perfect ballerina; but her quest isn’t so much about dancing perfectly as it is about becoming someone else–actually, being her True Self (in DW Winnicott‘s sense of the term).

Black Swan is Nina’s journey towards self-knowledge, and this journey is terrifying for her because it means revealing feelings she is ashamed of–her repressed sexuality, which is, to at least a great degree, lesbian.

Recall “how pink! So pretty” that grapefruit half is that Nina’s mom serves her for breakfast at the beginning of the film. At this early point in the story, only the unconscious mind of that “sweet girl” would be able to see the vulva symbolism of the pink inside of the grapefruit.

When Thomas awakens her sexuality with that hard kiss he gives her in his office (which she rejects by biting him), then later he invites her to his home at night for a drink–and he talks about sex with her–we assume he is being the stereotypical male lecher trying to take advantage of a pretty young woman, offering her career advancement in exchange for a sexual favour. Actually, though, he doesn’t take her to bed. He’d have her masturbate in her home instead.

This awakening to self-knowledge (Bion’s K) is, so to speak, the ‘Biblical kind of knowing,’ and Nina is conflicted about it. She tries masturbating the next morning, but she sees her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. This would seem to be yet another example of her mother not respecting her boundaries and invading her privacy. I suspect, however, that this is actually another of Nina’s many hallucinations, a convenient excuse to stop exploring her sexuality, for Erica would never approve of it.

It’s interesting that we never learn of Nina’s father–he’s not mentioned even once, at any time in the film. There’s a good possibility that Erica has raised Nina all the way, or almost all the way, from infancy; perhaps a man got Erica pregnant and abandoned her, forcing her to give up on her dreams of being a ballerina herself, and causing her to be overprotective of Nina for fear of her being seduced, knocked up, and thrown over in the same way. Recall Erica’s warning to Nina about Thomas and his “reputation” with women: “I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.” Whatever the cause of her repressions of Nina, Erica has been, essentially, Nina’s one conduit to knowledge of the world, having stifled the growth of Nina’s sexuality.

Bion’s theory of thinking and learning is based on developments of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, which involves projecting feelings and ideas into another to the point of making the other feel and think those feelings and thoughts. A baby isn’t able to think and process external sensory stimuli (Bion’s ‘beta elements’) for himself, so he must expel and project the distressing ones, pushing them into his mother, who as a “good enough mother” can contain them, process them in maternal reverie, and return them to her baby in a form acceptable to him, pacifying him. Erica, I suspect, didn’t sufficiently contain baby Nina’s anxieties and frustrations, which, instead of being pacified, became a “nameless dread“; hence, her current pathologies.

Object relations theorists like Klein wrote of how we all make internalized objects of our early caregivers, i.e., our parents. These internal objects reside in our minds like ghosts in, so to speak, the haunted houses of our heads; they are homunculi in us. In fatherless Nina’s case, there is only one foundational object introjected into her mind: Erica.

Sometimes, Erica is the good mother, caring for Nina and protecting her (or at least trying to) from external dangers (sexually predatory men) and internal ones (Nina’s scratching and self-injuries). Of course, Erica carries that protection way too far, and far too often, making her into the bad mother.

Since Black Swan is a movie about duality, it’s important to note this good/bad mother duality in Erica, which Nina has internalized. Erica’s repression of Nina’s sexuality, infantilizing her (Nina, on two occasions, calls Erica “Mommy”), is another big part of the bad mother that frustrates Nina.

This frustration results in the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (white swan) and absolute bad (black swan). Thomas’s insistence that Nina dance both black and white swans necessitates an integration that threatens her ego defences, causing her psychotic break with reality.

Nina would resist this knowing (-K) of the integration of white and black; she’d rather be all-white, so all impulses and excitations (beta elements) luring her towards the black (which she nonetheless must accept if she’s to succeed in Thomas’s production) are frightening things she must eject from herself and project onto others (i.e., Lily).

The problem is that if Nina keeps rejecting these beta elements over time, never processing these taboo thoughts or allowing them to settle in her mind as alpha elements, the rejected beta elements will accumulate and become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of herself (e.g., those talking pictures in Erica’s room). If Nina doesn’t accept her dark side, she’ll go mad.

I’ve mentioned Nina’s lesbian tendencies; recall the gossiping dancers who note her staring at Veronica. Then there’s Nina’s obsession with black-clothed Lily, and that notorious sex scene in which Lily performs cunnilingus on Nina. She’s not only hallucinated the entire lovemaking, but also superimposed her own face on lip-smacking Lily’s. Nina is constantly projecting her inner dark side.

According to classical psychoanalytic theory, children go through an Oedipal phase, usually loving and desiring the opposite-sex parent and hating the same-sex parent, wishing to remove this latter one out of jealousy. These children normally outgrow this phase and develop heterosexual feelings for people outside the family. Some people have a negative Oedipus complex, a homosexual version; again, in the best of circumstances, they’ll outgrow it and have gay relationships outside the family.

In Nina’s case, however, a father with whom she can pass through an Oedipal phase is out of the question. She is in no Oedipal love triangle, only a dyad. All she has is her mother–the good mother who serves her a “pink” and “pretty,” vulva-like grapefruit, and the black-clothed bad mother who disapproves of her ever being involved with boys.

Some bloggers have speculated that Erica has sexually abused Nina, thus causing her pathologies. It’s an interesting, even compelling, theory; but just as Freud downplayed and modified his seduction theory to accommodate what he considered to be the much more universal Oedipus complex, so must I respectfully disagree with those bloggers.

Though Erica’s relationship with Nina is inappropriately close, the daughter clearly being an extension of her mother’s will, I don’t see sufficient evidence of even implied sexual abuse. Furthermore, such a theory doesn’t harmonize with the symbolism of Nina as the “sweet girl,” the innocent, virginal white swan. The trauma of child sexual abuse is centred around a forceful robbing of the child’s innocence. On the contrary with Nina, it’s her innocence that Erica is so preoccupied with preserving.

I argue, instead, that Nina’s psychopathology is based on a combination of sexual repression (from Erica the bad mother) and an unresolved, repressed negative Oedipus complex (Erica the all-too-good mother). The dialectical relationship between these polar opposites is like the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros that I’ve used so many times before to represent the unity of opposites, how one phases into the other.

Bion elaborated on the Oedipus myth by focusing on how reluctant Tiresias was to tell the incestuous, patricidal Theban king that it was he who killed his father Laius (Bion, p. 45ff.). This reluctance to impart or acquire knowledge (-K) is seen in Nina’s not wanting to come to terms with her unconscious Oedipal feelings for her mother.

One way of avoiding those feelings, as we’ve seen, is through projection, that is, to project the internalized object of Nina’s mother onto Lily. In the lesbian sex scene fantasy, Nina has an acceptable sexual substitute for Erica in Lily; Nina has displaced her desire onto an object outside her family. Another way for Nina to disavow her negative Oedipus complex is through reaction formation, i.e., through being hostile to her mother (even physically hurting her), to mask her unconscious desire for her.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Nina’s barring Erica’s entry into her bedroom with her imagined lovemaking with Lily represents the basic schizoid position (p. 8ff.) that WRD Fairbairn wrote about. In Nina’s relationship with Erica on the one hand, and with Lily on the other, we see Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego (Nina) and Rejecting Object (Erica), and the Libidinal Ego (Nina) and the Exciting Object (Lily). What we don’t see is the Central Ego (Nina) with the Ideal Object (anyone), this last object being ‘ideal’ because a real person in the external world is ideally who one should have a relationship with.

Lily, the Exciting Object of Nina’s libidinal desires, isn’t in the room; she’s only an internalized object in Nina’s mind. Even her mother, as the despised, unwanted object rejected by Nina’s ‘anti-libidinal’ feelings, isn’t wholly the bad mother that Nina imagines her to be: Erica’s only partly a bad mother, but also partly a good mother. Nina must come to grips with this duality.

Nonetheless, in order to prevent herself from knowing (-K) about her Oedipal desires, Nina must imagine Erica to be all bad, and must reject her even when she’s trying to do good (i.e., help Nina when she’s obviously going mad, and stop her self-injuries). Hence, Nina’s schizoid position–or as Klein called it, the paranoid-schizoid position. In Nina’s splitting of the internal object into absolute bad (this is Lily now, for Nina imagines her to be trying to steal her role as Swan Queen) and absolute good (Erica, the good side of whom is ignored, physically attacked, and treated derisively: “I’m the Swan Queen! You’re the one who never left the corps!”), she is about to get very paranoid.

Though Nina has struggled to avoid the integration of white and black, and thus to know herself (-K), she has also, in her quest to perfect the role of Swan Queen, been forced to approach that self-knowledge (K). Nonetheless, just as Oedipus’ quest for knowledge of the truth destroyed him (as Tiresias warned him it would), so is Nina’s quest destroying her. After all, who would want to have conscious knowledge that he or she had incestuous desires for his or her mother?

In her drive to attain perfection, her ballerina ideal, Nina sees herself in the mirror and hallucinates that her reflection is moving in ways that she herself is not. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which one’s clumsy self, unable to match the perceived perfection in the reflection, is alienated from that graceful image.

On the one hand, Nina is alienated from herself when she sees her reflection, but when she faces other people–as if they were her mirror reflection–she often sees herself (as a result of projective and introjective identification). These hallucinations make this normally graceful ballerina as clumsy as those psychologically fragmented infants seeing themselves in Lacan’s mirror for the first time.

Nina thus in a larger sense has many doppelgängers: her main one is Lily, of course, but there are also the pairs of Nina/Erica, Nina/Beth, Nina/Veronica, and ultimately, Nina White/Nina Black. The film expresses the universal idea that the self, or subject, is seen in the other, or object, and vice versa. Lacan’s mirror reflects the self/other dialectic.

Though Nina’s white and black sides are integrating, she’s still conflicted about it, and she’s still resisting the integration. She projects her black onto Lily and Erica, and she projects in the forms of vomiting into toilets, self-injury, and pulling a hallucinated black feather out of her back.

Though Erica is as annoyingly overprotective as always, she–as the good mother–is justified in trying to intervene when she can see that Nina is clearly going insane. In her bedroom, after slamming the door on Erica’s fingers, Nina hallucinates that her legs have transformed into those of a swan’s, bending backwards. Though symbolically this could be seen as a positive, in that she’s transforming into the Black Swan and thus mastering the role, it also represents, apart from her obvious psychotic break with reality, a fear of never being able to dance again (i.e., broken legs).

Her suffering from the paranoid-schizoid position is at its peak when she rushes over to the ballet company to ensure that she, and not (she imagines) usurping Lily, will perform as the Swan Queen.

During her performance as the White Swan, she hallucinates seeing her own face on one of the heads of the corps de ballet, giving her a jolt and causing her male dancing partner to drop her onstage. Weeping as she returns to her dressing room, she hallucinates seeing Lily get ready to play the Black Swan, when of course she’s really seeing a projection of her black half. Thinking she’s stabbed Lily with a piece of broken glass from a mirror, she’s actually stabbed herself in the gut with it.

She goes back onstage as the Black Swan, fully transformed. No longer is she in conflict about it; she fully accepts and embraces her dark side. She even hallucinates seeing her arms turn into black wings, and she grins at the transformation. Never does she notice her stab wound; nor does the audience, who loves her performance.

She goes offstage and kisses Thomas hard on the mouth, as if she were Lily. Finally, she is seducing him, instead of the other way around. He, just old enough to be her father, provides her with a symbolic positive Oedipal object, awakening her hitherto repressed heterosexual side, which was also awakened earlier in the dance club scene, with those young men, “Tom and Jerry.”

Back in her change room, Nina must become the White Swan again; not just for the sake of the ballet, but because she can be neither only black, nor only white. Lily…dressed in an all white ballet outfit!…appears at her door to congratulate her on her superb dancing. Nina realizes she never stabbed Lily.

Pulling out a shard of mirror glass from her bleeding gut, Nina weeps. Her persecutor has never been Lily, nor has she even been Erica in her bad mother mode. Nina’s persecutor has been herself the whole time, as the bad internal object of her mother.

Fully integrated now, Nina no longer sees people in terms of all good or all bad, for she understands how illusory her projections are. Lily is in white, but still brazenly sexual and using four-letter words, for she never was “all black.” Nina has merely imagined her to be that way…as she has imagined her mother to be.

Nina weeps copious tears as she prepares to go back onstage as the White Swan (presumably having bandaged her stomach as best she can), for she has switched from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. By stabbing herself, Nina was trying to stab the bad mother object inside herself, something projected onto Lily. Now she fears having killed her internal mother object, which means also killing herself. Thus sobbing Nina feels depressive, rather than persecutory, anxiety.

Back onstage, she has a sorrowful face as she dances in the finale, as brilliantly as always. Red is visible on her belly, the blood gushing out of a vulva-like wound suggesting the symbolic breaking of her hymen, her loss of virginity and innocence.

Is her mother–the good mother–watching her in the audience, tearfully moved by her performance, or is Nina just imagining her there, as part of her depressive wish for reparation with Erica? Either way, though she needs to be rushed to hospital, she is perfect…not just from a great performance, but perfect in that she’s complete–not half a woman, but both white and black.

Analysis of ‘Office Space’

Office Space is a 1999 comedy film written and directed by Mike Judge (who also plays a small role as a restaurant manager). It stars Ron Livingston, Gary Cole, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, and Diedrich Bader. It’s based on cartoon shorts named “Milton” that Judge created for Saturday Night Live back in the mid-1990s.

Though a box office disappointment, Office Space has since become a cult film.

Here are some quotes:

“Mother…shitter…Son of an…ass. I just…” –Samir (Naidu), stuck in traffic

“Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. *JUST* a moment.” –Nina (repeated line)

“Hello, Peter. What’s happenin’?” –Bill Lumbergh (Cole)

“…So, if you could do that, that would be great…” –Lumbergh

***********

Female Temp: Michael…Bolton?

Michael Bolton: Yeah, that’s me.

Female Temp: Wow! Is that your real name?

Michael Bolton: Yeah.

Female Temp: So are you related to that singer guy?

Michael Bolton: No. It’s just a coincidence.

Female Temp[visibly disappointed] Oh.

Samir Nagheenanajar: No-one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It..it’s not that hard. Na-ghee-na-na-jar…Nagheenanajar.

Michael Bolton: Well, at least your name isn’t Michael Bolton.

Samir Nagheenanajar: You know, there is nothing wrong with that name.

Michael Bolton: No, there was nothing wrong with it, until I was about 12 years old and that no talent ass-clown became famous and started winning Grammys.

Samir Nagheenanajar: Why don’t you just go by Mike instead of Michael?

Michael Bolton: No way, why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.

***********

Peter Gibbons: What would you do if you had a million dollars?

Lawrence (in all seriousness): I’ll tell you what I’d do, man: two chicks at the same time, man.

Peter Gibbons[laughs] That’s it? If you had a million dollars, you’d do two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Damn straight. I always wanted to do that, man. And I think if I were a millionaire I could hook that up, too, ’cause chicks dig dudes with money.

Peter Gibbons: Well, not all chicks.

Lawrence: Well, the kind of chicks that’d double up on a dude like me do.

Peter Gibbons: Good point.

Lawrence: Well, what about you, now? What would you do?

Peter Gibbons: Besides two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Well, yeah.

Peter Gibbons: Nothing.

Lawrence: Nothing, huh?

Peter Gibbons: I would relax, I would sit on my ass all day, I would do nothing.

Lawrence: Well you don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin, he’s broke, don’t do shit.

***********

“Hello Peter, what’s happening? Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmkay?…oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we need to sorta play catch up. Thanks.” –Lumbergh

“So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” –Peter

***********

“What would ya say…ya do here?” –Bob Slydell

“Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?” –Tom Smykowski

***********

“I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be.” –Peter

“You see, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” –Peter

***********

Bill Lumbergh: Milt, we’re gonna need to go ahead and move you downstairs into storage B. We have some new people coming in, and we need all the space we can get. So if you could just go ahead and pack up your stuff and move it down there, that would be terrific, OK?

Milton Waddams (Root): Excuse me, I believe you have my stapler…

***********

Peter Gibbons: It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing. It’s about all of us. I don’t know what happened to me at that hypnotherapist and, I don’t know, maybe it was just shock and it’s wearing off now, but when I saw that fat man keel over and die – Michael, we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.

Michael Bolton: I told those fudge-packers I liked Michael Bolton’s music.

Peter Gibbons: Oh. That is not right, Michael.

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

[drunk singing] Back up in your ass with the resurrection.” –Samir

Tagline: Work sucks.

That this film is a searing indictment of capitalism is so obvious, it hardly needs mentioning. There are, however, certain nuances that deserve mention, in particular, how liberalism acts as an illusory cushion of capitalism, which we see, for example, in the ‘soft’ bossing around of the managers, among other such examples.

The agonizingly slow commute to work in the morning, with the frustration felt by Peter and Samir is symbolic on so many different levels. No progress is made getting closer to their job at Initech, except in movements so slight that an old man using a walking frame gets further ahead than the cars.

This inability to move forward symbolizes how all liberal attempts to reform capitalism do nothing substantive to help the working class. Peter tries making quick lane changes to take advantage of openings in the road, only to find himself stuck in a newly stagnant line, the one he’s left now moving. Samir just curses ungrammatically (see first quote).

The image of a bunch of people in their cars, close to but cut off from each other, is a powerful symbol of the alienation of workers from each other, of social alienation in general. Michael Bolton (Herman) attempts an escape from this misery through a narcissistic identification with the rappers he’s listening to in his car (part of a desperate attempt to forget having such an ill-starred name). The absurd phoniness of this is exposed when he, a white man, turns the music down, stops rapping along, and fearfully locks his car door…because a young black man is approaching. Liberal sympathy for blacks is so hypocritical.

The boss, Bill Lumbergh, arrives at Initech in his Porsche, then looks back at it in admiration as it sits in his designated parking space. (One is reminded of memes like this.) Peter has to park further away from the building, and so he is seen plodding toward it, just like Shakespeare‘s “schoolboy…creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.”

The theme of worker alienation is further developed in the layout of the Initech office, with its maze of cubicles separating everyone like the walls of jail cells. Peter is nagged by Lumbergh, Dom Portwood (played by Joe Bays), and another manager on the phone for having forgotten to put a new cover sheet on their TPS reports, a new policy for which he seems not to have received the memo. What should be noted about this nagging is how ‘gentle’ it is: nobody in management openly expresses anger with Peter; a conservative boss would be more inclined to growl at him for the mistake, whereas we have a more liberal representation of capitalism here, with its ‘have a nice day’ smiley face. It’s no less irritating to have to put up with, though.

Other annoyances for him include a woman repeating “Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking. Just a moment,” in the exact same intonation every time, like an automaton. Furthermore, Milton won’t be cooperative and turn his radio down as a favour to Peter. The proletariat is a mutually-alienated and alienating set of human machines.

This worker alienation is intensified when Peter’s exasperation is mocked by a temp saying he has “a case of the Mondays.” This unsympathetic attitude toward the first and worst day of the workweek and its drudgery is repeated by an irritatingly cheerful waiter at a restaurant that Peter, Michael, and Samir escape to. Peter’s next-door neighbour Lawrence understands that “You’d get your ass kicked” saying someone has “a case of the Mondays.”

The point is that in showing no empathy for one’s fellow workers and their frustrations starting yet another oppressive workweek, a worker talking about “a case of the Mondays” is, however indirectly, being sycophantic to his or her boss, an attitude of class collaboration, which actually is an attitude promoted by fascists.

If the workweek didn’t involve long hours (i.e., over eight hours a day on average, as is typically the case in East Asian countries like Taiwan, where I live, where people work some of the longest hours in a year, with stagnant wages) and low pay, “the Mondays” wouldn’t be so bad.

This kind of problem is but a small taste of what we socialists might call ‘the tyranny of work.’ Right-wingers scoff at such a concept, straw-manning our argument by claiming that we dream of a utopia in which we never have to work, and everything we want is handed to us on a silver platter. THIS IS NONSENSE. We socialists are so in favour of work that we aim for one hundred percent employment; we just want better working conditions, better pay, and reasonable hours.

It’s the right-wingers who want to keep a reserve army of the unemployed, “to scare the shit out of the middle class” (as George Carlin once said) and make them work harder out of fear of being fired. Hence, worker sycophancy to bosses, class collaboration, alienation between workers, the tyranny of work, and “a case of the Mondays.”

Adding to the tension at Initech is the introduction of “the Bobs,” Slydell (played by John C. McGinley) and Porter (played by Paul Willson), who are “efficiency experts” pressuring each member of the staff to justify his or her employment. Anyone whose job is suspected of being in any way redundant risks being fired.

The tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) pressures capitalists to maximize profit; so when capitalists feel the pressure to cut costs, it’s the workers who feel the cut of the knife first. All the boss needs is a reason to fire you: the Bobs provide that reason.

Of course, when Lumbergh introduces Bob Slydell to the Initech staff, he does so with his usual phoney attempts at seeming congenial, saying the workers must ask, “Is this good for the company?” (Translation: are their jobs worth saving?)

Even the most sycophantic employees can smell the danger to their jobs; so when Lumbergh reminds them that “next Friday is Hawaiian Shirt Day,” as if this would raise worker morale by even as much as a millimetre, the faces of the entire staff present keep their frozen frowns. Even Lumbergh has an awkward expression, knowing his attempt to cheer them up has failed miserably.

This attempt by management to put a happy face on such a blatantly cutthroat act is typical of the liberal approach to capitalism; at least conservatives are honest (more or less) about wanting to screw workers over.

We see something similar going on in Chotchkie’s, the restaurant that Peter, Michael, and Samir go to, where Joanna (Aniston), a waitress Peter likes, is being nagged by her manager, Stan (Judge), about not wearing enough flair. He doesn’t directly order her to wear more; he asks if she wants to express herself, and says that the management encourages such ‘self-expression’ by wearing more flair.

Again, this is liberalism concealing capitalist dominance over workers by pretending to be progressive. “I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to express yourself,” Stan says to Joanna. (Translation: I thought I remembered you saying that you wanted to dress flashier to draw more customers in so we can make a larger profit.)

That irritatingly cheerful waiter, Brian (played by Todd Duffey), is favoured by Stan because of his “thirty seven pieces of flair” and his “terrific smile.” Again, this is the liberal way of being a capitalist: put on an outer façade of friendliness and goodwill, but inside, be a total prick.

Each working day gets worse and worse for poor Peter until Friday, when his worst fears are realized: Lumbergh wants him to work on Saturday. Worse yet, on Sunday, too! Lumbergh’s stretching of his back when he asks Peter to work on Sunday suggests it’s actually difficult for him to ask…well, almost difficult.

That night, Peter goes to a hypnotherapist. He’s at the lowest of the low, near despair. The hypnotherapist is a big, heavy fellow who looks far from physically healthy. In the middle of getting Peter into a deep state of trance, the obese man has a heart attack, falls to the floor, and dies right there.

If you’ve read my posts on how I interpret the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use it to represent the dialectical relationship between opposites, which meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and the coiled middle of its body represents all the intermediate areas between these opposite extremes on a circular continuum. Peter, having hit miserable rock bottom (the bitten tail), wakes up from his trance in a blissful state (the biting head). All of his anxieties have magically disappeared.

The next morning, he ignores his alarm clock and answering machine messages from Lumbergh, who asks why he hasn’t shown up for work on Saturday morning. With a blithe smile on his face, he couldn’t care less.

Instead of going to work, Peter goes up to Joanna at Chotchkies’s and asks her if she’d like to join him for lunch in another restaurant. They bond over their shared liking of Kung Fu and disliking of their bosses.

Meanwhile, the Bobs plan to fire Tom Smykowski (played by Richard Riehle), Samir, and Michael. This is even after the last of these three has degraded himself to pretending to like the music of his namesake, a pop singer Slydell likes so much that he “celebrate[s] the guy’s entire catalogue.” (This is brilliant character acting by McGinley, by the way: imagine the method-acting work he had to do to dumb his musical tastes down that much!).

And as for poor Milton Waddams, who keeps having his desk moved by Lumbergh, he was already laid off a while back, but neither did anyone inform him nor did he stop receiving pay-checks, due to a glitch in accounting. The Bobs have fixed the glitch, and nothing else is being done. Lumbergh will keep him on as his own personal slave.

This leads to a discussion of workplace bullying in Initech. We saw a form of this bullying with the managers on the one side, and Peter and Joanna on the other. With Lumbergh and Milton, though, workplace bullying is taken to a whole new level. Minor forms of this bullying include his being the only staff member not to get a piece of Lumbergh’s birthday cake, and Lumbergh wresting Milton’s fetishized Swingline stapler away from him.

(As for that birthday party, note how the moping staff mumbles the Happy Birthday song, except for such grinning boot-lickers as Nina; while Lumbergh looks on with a smug smirk as if to say, ‘N’yeah, if you could just go ahead and keep on kissing my ass, that would be great, m’kay? You wouldn’t want your job security to be jeopardized in any way, would you?’)

To add insult to injury, cake-deprived Milton not only hasn’t received his pay-check, he is also asked by Lumbergh to move his desk again…into the basement! In the basement, he’s asked by Lumbergh to get a can of pesticide and spray the cockroaches; though this of course isn’t part of his job description, since Milton’s become Initech’s unpaid slave, why not?

This carrying-on, to a comical extreme, of the bullying of Milton is symbolic of all that a wage slave has to suffer in any job in capitalist society, be it a job like that in Initech or in a sweatshop in the Third World. Milton and Peter have become the most class-conscious of all the employees in Initech, and while Peter’s “religious experience” is wearing off (that is, he has shifted from that blissful place at the ouroboros’s biting head down to the upper middle of its coiled body, enlightened but dissatisfied), he is still motivated to stick it to the Man, as he was in his ignoring of Lumbergh and his outrageous bluntness during his interview with the Bobs.

Peter, Michael, and Samir decide to fight back at management by stealing fractions of cents from the company’s accounts and putting the stolen money into an account of their own. A miscalculation–a wrongly-placed decimal point, it seems–means they take out much more than the unnoticeable amount they’ve intended.

This appropriating of money is a step in the right (left, rather) direction towards the road to revolution, but it isn’t enough. The exploitive structure of capitalism, here symbolized by the Initech building, must be brought down. Peter, Michael, and Samir are too chicken to go through with this (though their evisceration of a hated photocopier is a delight to watch).

Here’s where Milton comes in…sort of.

We never take seriously the milquetoast’s threats to burn the Initech building down…until it finally does burn down, we like to think, at his hands. Up to this point, Peter has been moving further clockwise along the length of the ouroboros, that is, he’s been growing less and less happy, and approaching the bitten tail of despair when he decides to take full responsibility for having stolen the money. He slips a check for the full amount of money taken, along with a written confession, in an envelope under the door of Lumbergh’s office.

We see the cyclical return of his deep sadness when he apologizes to Joanna for having judged her for sleeping with (he mistakenly thinks, Bill) Lumbergh. He asks why he can’t just be happy, though he’d be happy with her.

Luckily for him, the burning down of the Initech building means the destruction of the evidence of his theft of the money; so Peter has again shifted past the serpent’s bitten tail of despair and returned to the biting head of happiness. Milton waddles away with a…guilty?…look on his face and the check in his pocket.

Peter’s, Michael’s, Samir’s, and Milton’s problems with Initech are over, but not their problems with wage slavery and capitalism in general. Michael and Samir get jobs in Intertrode, which by its name alone sounds as bad as Initech, if not worse. Peter would rather work with Lawrence as a menial labourer, a not-so-glamourous job with lower pay, but at least Peter’s out in the sun.

One cannot end capitalism only locally, but rather internationally. The burning down of the Initech building provides only temporary relief. To end worker suffering, the hierarchical structure of Intertrode (aptly called “Penetrode” by Peter), and every other manifestation of private property must be abolished. Even the hierarchy of Peter’s new job with Lawrence must be done away with.

There’s a deleted scene of a foreman telling Peter and Lawrence, in fluent Lumberghese, “Yeah, if you guys could just go ahead and sorta pick up the pace a little bit, that’d be great.” Peter is again slipping down from the biting head of bliss, down the length of the serpent’s body, to a not-so-happy frame of mind. I’m guessing one of the reasons they cut this scene was that liberal Hollywood, apart from allowing Peter’s story to have a straightforwardly happy ending, would have us all think that there are still some decent jobs out there in Capitalistan.

In the final scene, Milton has spent his newly-acquired booty on a much-needed vacation to a resort in Mexico. Relaxing on the beach, he complains to a waiter about having been given the wrong drink, and one with salt. The waiter, exasperated with the petty gripes of the spoiled “gringo,” must apologize, but then leaves Milton without correcting his order.

Annoyed at seeing the Mexican walk away, Milton mumbles, “I won’t be leaving a tip, ’cause I could…I could shut this whole resort down. Sir? I’ll take my traveler’s checks to a competing resort. I could write a letter to your board of tourism and I could have this place condemned. I could put…I could put…strychnine in the guacamole. There was salt on the glass, BIG grains of salt.”

Sorry, Milton: you aren’t the victim this time. There’s a huge difference between the proletariat in the First World and that of the Third World. A labour aristocracy exists, thanks to capitalist imperialism, that divides the workers of the world (i.e., workers in developed countries vs. those in developing countries) and stops us all from uniting in international solidarity. Mexican workers have it much worse than you do, Milton.

Helping only workers in the First World, at the expense of those in the Third World, isn’t legitimate socialism: it’s mere liberalism, not all that much different in principle from the snarky would-be charm of Lumbergh and Stan. We can do a lot better than that; so, to you liberals out there, if you could go ahead and try to help us out with making real progressive change, that would be great, m’kay? Thanks.

Analysis of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Rosemary’s Baby is a 1968 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski (with Repulsion and The Tenant, it’s part of his ‘Apartment’ trilogy) and based on the Ira Levin novel of the same name. It stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, and Sidney Blackmer, with Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, and Charles Grodin.

I haven’t read Levin’s novel, but apparently I don’t need to. For Levin himself wrote of Polanski’s movie, “The result was possibly the most faithful film adaptation ever made. It incorporates whole pages of the book’s dialogue and even uses specific colors mentioned. It was not only Polanski’s first Hollywood film but also the first one he made based on someone else’s material; I’m not sure he realized he had the right to make changes. His understated directorial style perfectly complemented the style of the book, and the casting couldn’t have been better. I’m one of several people who claim credit for first suggesting Mia Farrow for the leading role.”

Speaking of quotes, here are some from the film (except as indicated):

“Awful things happen in every apartment house.” –Rosemary (Farrow)

“Are you aware that the Bramford had rather an unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century? It’s where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. And Keith Kennedy held his parties. Adrian Marcato lived there too…The Trench sisters were two proper Victorian ladies – they cooked and ate several young children including a niece…Adrian Marcato practiced witchcraft. He made quite a splash in the 90s by announcing that he’d conjured up the living devil. Apparently, people believed him so they attacked and nearly killed him in the lobby of the Bramford…Later, the Keith Kennedy business began and by the 20s, the house was half empty…World War II filled the house up again…They called it Black Bramford…This house has a high incidence of unpleasant happenings. In ’59, a dead infant was found wrapped in newspaper in the basement…” —Hutch (Evans)

***********

‘”Sometimes I wonder how come you’re the leader of anything,” she said. A bump on the other side of the wall woke Rosemary, and Mrs. Castevet said, “And please don’t tell me what Laura-Louise said because I’m not interested!” Rosemary turned over and burrowed into her pillow.

‘Sister Agnes was furious. Her piggy-eyes were squeezed to slits and her nostrils were bubbling the way they always did at such moments. Thanks to Rosemary it had been necessary to brick up all the windows, and now Our Lady had been taken out of the beautiful-school competition being run by the World-Herald. “If you’d listened to me, we wouldn’t have had to do it!” Sister Agnes cried in a hoarse midwestern bray. “We’d have been all set to go now instead of starting all over from scratch!” Uncle Mike tried to hush her. He was the principal of Our Lady, which was connected by passageways to his body shop in South Omaha. “I told you not to tell her anything in advance,” Sister Agnes continued lower, piggy-eyes glinting hatefully at Rosemary. “I told you she wouldn’t be open-minded. Time enough later to let her in on it.” (Rosemary had told Sister Veronica about the windows being bricked up and Sister Veronica had withdrawn the school from the competition; otherwise no one would have noticed and they would have one. It had been right to tell, though, Sister Agnes notwithstanding. A Catholic school shouldn’t win by trickery.)

‘”Anybody! Anybody!” Sister Agnes said. “All she has to be is young, healthy, and not a virgin. She doesn’t have to be a no-good drug-addict whore out of the gutter. Didn’t I say that in the beginning? Anybody. As long as she’s young and healthy and not a virgin.”‘ –Minnie Castevet (played by Ruth Gordon in the film), actually (close to the end of Chapter 4 in Levin’s novel)

*********

Roman: No Pope ever visits a city where the newspapers are on strike.

Minnie: I heard he’s gonna postpone and wait till it’s over.

Guy: Well, that’s show-biz.

Roman[chuckling with his wife] That’s exactly what it is. All the costumes or rituals, all religions.

Minnie: Uh, I think we’re offending Rosemary.

Rosemary: Oh, no.

Roman: You’re not religious are you my dear?

Rosemary: I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don’t know. He is the pope.

Roman: You don’t need to have respect for him because he pretends that he’s holy…A good picture of the hypocrisy behind organized religion was given I thought in Luther.

*********

[referring to Rosemary] “As long as she ate the mousse, she can’t see nor hear. She’s like dead now.” –Minnie

“This is no dream, this is really happening!” –Rosemary

“Tannis anyone?” –Rosemary

*********

Rosemary: I dreamed someone was raping me, I think it was someone inhuman.

Guy: Thanks a lot. Whatsa matter?

Rosemary: Nothing.

Guy: I didn’t want to miss the night.

Rosemary: We could have done it this morning or tonight. Last night wasn’t the only split-second.

Guy: I was a little bit loaded myself, you know.

*********

[about having sex with Rosemary while she was passed out] “It was kinda fun in a necrophile sort of way.” –Guy (Cassavetes)

[describing how her pregnancy feels] “It’s like a wire inside me getting tighter and tighter.” –Rosemary

“I’m having a party for our old…I mean our young friends – Minnie and Roman are not invited. Neither is Laura-Louise nor is Dr. Sapirstein. It’s gonna be a very special party. You have to be under 60 to get in.” –Rosemary

“Dr. Sapirstein is either lying or he’s, I don’t know, out of his mind. Pain like this is a warning something’s wrong…And I’m not drinking Minnie’s drink anymore. I want vitamins in pills like everyone else. I haven’t drunk it for the last three days. I’ve thrown it away…I’ve made my own drink…I’m tired of hearing how great Dr. Sapirstein is.” –Rosemary

“Pain, begone, I will have no more of thee!” –Rosemary

“Now! That’s what I call the long arm of coincidence!” –Minnie

“Witches…All of them witches!” –Rosemary

**********

Roman: Rosemary –

Rosemary: Shut up! You’re in Dubrovnik. I don’t hear you. [She slowly walks over to the cradle, sees her child in the bassinet – her eyes widen in terror] What have you done to it? What have you done to its eyes?

Roman: He has his father’s eyes.

Rosemary: What are you talking about?! Guy’s eyes are normal! What have you done to him? You maniacs!

RomanSatan is his father, not Guy. He came up from hell and begat a son of mortal woman. [Coven members cheer ‘Hail, Satan!’] Satan is his father and his name is Adrian. He shall overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples. He shall redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured. Hail, Adrian! Hail, Satan! Hail, Satan!

Minnie: He chose you out of all the world – out of all the women in the whole world, he chose you. He arranged things, because he wanted you to be the mother of his only living son.

Roman: His power is stronger than stronger! His might shall last longer than longer.

Japanese man: Hail, Satan!

Rosemary: No! It can’t be! No!

Minnie: Go look at his hands.

Laura-Louise: And his feet.

Rosemary: Oh, God! [She drops her knife]

Roman: God is dead! Satan lives! The year is One, the year is One! God is dead! Why don’t you help us out, Rosemary? Be a real mother to Adrian. You don’t have to join if you don’t want to. Just be a mother to your baby. Minnie and Laura-Louise are too old. It’s not right. Think about it, Rosemary.

Rosemary: Oh, God!

*********

[The baby starts to cry. Rosemary watches as Laura-Louise roughly rocks the bassinet, and then slowly walks over.]

Laurie-Louise[To Rosemary] Get away from here! Roman!

Rosemary: You’re rocking him too fast.

Laurie-Louise: Sit down. [To Roman] Get her out of here. Put her where she belongs.

Rosemary: You’re rocking him too fast. That’s why he’s crying.

Laura-Louise: Oh, mind your own business.

Roman: Let Rosemary rock him. Go on, sit down with the others. Let Rosemary rock him.

Laura-Louise: Well, she’s liable to –

Roman: Sit down with the others, Laura-Louise. [To Rosemary] Rock him.

Rosemary: Are you trying to get me to be his mother?

Roman: Aren’t you his mother?

Apart from the obvious theme of paranoia, a recurring one in this movie is intrusion, introjection. Rosemary and her husband, Guy, move into an apartment in New York, a place with a strange history that their friend Hutch tries to warn them about. A previous tenant, an elderly woman, has left a written message about not being able to cope: “I can no longer associate myself.”

The couple’s elderly next-door neighbours, Roman and Minnie Castevet, are unusually nosy. They have a superficial charm; we often see them wearing brightly coloured clothes (Minnie wearing bright makeup), an unusual look for older people, whom one would assume would dress more modestly, not so ostentatiously.

The Castevets have taken in a young woman (Terry Gionoffrio, played by Victoria Vetri) who has been recovering from a drug addiction, but whose mental health is still shaky. They have given her a pendant, the inside of which is filled with foul-smelling ‘tannis root.’ It represents the introjected presence of the Castevets; always there with the girl, controlling her. “Ro” will get such a necklace soon. Terry kills herself by jumping off the apartment building. Minnie Castevet, when seeing her body on the sidewalk at night, tells the onlooking police, Rosemary, and Guy that the girl was happy, denying she had any problems.

The Castevets invite Rosemary and Guy to have dinner in their apartment. Roman boasts of having been to every city in the world. One is reminded of Job 1:7, “And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” This connection with the devil becomes more pertinent when Roman speaks ill of all world religions, condemning their sanctimony and hypocrisy.

While a criticism of the hypocritical morality of organized religion is generally warranted (consider the largely unpunished Catholic priesthood, guilty of the sexual abuse of children, to see my point), the Castevets and their elderly inner circle are hardly any better. In fact, they have a religion of their own…Satanism! What’s worse, Rosemary’s husband is about to join their clique.

A struggling actor, Guy makes a deal with the devil to further his career: have his wife get pregnant and give the baby over to the Satanists, she of course knowing nothing of the conspiracy. First, she is given one of those smelly necklaces, which she’d rather not wear, but which Guy urges her to wear.

On the night they plan to have her conceive, Minnie gives her and Guy cups of a special chocolate mousse treat. Rosemary’s has “a chalky aftertaste,” making her reluctant to eat it all. She tricks Guy into thinking she has eaten it all, when she’s only eaten some. The funny aftertaste comes from the fact that her mousse was drugged: since she hasn’t eaten it all, she’s only partly drugged and when Satan rapes and impregnates her during the Castevets’ ritual, she screams, “This is no dream! This is really happening!”

The foppishness of the Castevets in their brightly coloured clothing, Roman’s bragging of having been everywhere, and Minnie sticking her nose in Rosemary’s business, all combined with their Satanism, represent pathological narcissism and psychopathy. Recall that Satan’s original sin was his overweening pride, regarding himself as too superior to need to bow before Adam and Eve, or to be subject to God’s Son, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan’s pride thus prompted the War in Heaven and the expulsion of the fallen angels from heaven and into hell. Similarly, the Castevets proudly believe their religion to be superior to the conventional faiths.

Part of narcissism is narcissistic abuse, which involves projecting one’s own evil or faults onto the victim. This projection includes projective identification, which extends into making the victim incorporate, embody, and manifest the projections, as Rosemary is doing by wearing the smelly necklace, eating the drugged, funny-tasting mousse, drinking the daily health drink Minnie prepares for her, and–of course–having the baby. Satan’s penetration inside her, during the rape and impregnation of her, is a graphic symbol of all this projection and introjection of evil.

The horror of her having this beast on top of her, moving in and out of her, makes her fantasize of the opposite, of seeing and receiving forgiveness from the Pope, as a way to cope. Her fantasy symbolizes the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good and bad. Something similar has happened in her dreaming that a nun was speaking Minnie’s angry words to Roman over Terry Gionoffrio’s suicide. This splitting also represents a failed attempt to reconcile the real evil around her with her fantasized good.

It is often said of Rosemary’s victimization that it represents feminist issues about male oppression of women throughout history. After all, her husband conspires with the Satanists to control her reproductive system, standing by as Satan rapes her, to bear the Antichrist. I must to an extent disagree with this interpretation, and I’ll give my reasons.

Firstly, since the root cause of women’s oppression has been the patriarchal family–i.e., to ensure patrilineal succession, one must be sure that a woman’s husband is the father of all of her children–she must be a chaste, bashful virgin on her wedding night, sexually blinded to any interest in other men, and sacrificing her intellect so that motherhood can be her only vocation…all to assuage the paranoia her husband feels of the possibility of being cuckolded. Guy, however, wilfully participates in a Satanic ritual that leaves him a cuckold…he even sees it happen before his very eyes!

Secondly, Rosemary isn’t the only victim in the movie. In fact, two of the other major victims are men: Donald Baumgart, an actor blinded by a spell so Guy can replace him and get his big acting break; and Hutch, who is killed for having tried to help Rosemary.

Finally, many of the Satanists who victimize Rosemary are women–not only Minnie, but also Laura-Louise (played by Patsy Kelly) and Mrs. Gilmore (Hope Summers), among others. In fact, Minnie’s nagging of Roman indicates who is the dominant one of the Castevets; remember when she says she wonders how Roman could be the leader of anything, Rosemary dreaming that an angry nun is doing the wondering instead.

Now, it is far from me to imagine that a patriarchal marriage would be preferable to the one causing Rosemary such victimization here; but her being manipulated into having a baby other than her husband’s, especially when he witnesses the adulterous sex with a group of Satanists as naked as he and his wife are, is diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of patriarchy. Guy even takes her wedding ring off her finger prior to the Satanic sex-ritual, suggesting a temporary respite from patriarchal marriage.

To understand the root of her victimization, even though it has some of the features of the usual forms of female oppression, we have to look elsewhere. I see that root in narcissistic abuse, and in the authoritarian lording of the older generation’s worldview over that of the younger generation. Recall how ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty‘ was a popular saying of the counterculture of the late 1960s.

These two elements–narcissism and aging–are interrelated in the context of this film, for research has shown that narcissism in people gets worse as one gets older. The original sources of narcissistic supply–the beauty, intelligence, and strength of youth–fade away with age, and this fading away becomes a source of narcissistic injury and rage, which can be assuaged only by gaining feelings of power over others in new, compensating ways.

Furthermore, the birth of the baby means that these elderly Satanists can vicariously experience youth anew. They’ve been projecting their evil into Rosemary via her womb. The ugliness of the newborn baby will be a symbolic projection of the Satanists’ moral ugliness.

As the fetus grows in her womb, Rosemary finds herself experiencing unbearable pain. This pain symbolizes the effects of the emotional abuse she is suffering, a suffering compounded by her tormentors’ repeated invalidation and minimizing of it. This is typical of narcissistic abuse.

Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Bellamy), who refuses to give Rosemary pills and instead has Minnie make the ‘health drink’ (though later, he’ll change his tune almost unnoticeably and allow pills), dismisses her pain, saying it will go away soon (it won’t). Guy won’t acknowledge how ghastly and pale she looks; instead, he criticizes only her decision to cut her hair short in a Vidal Sassoon style.

Rosemary arranges to have a party with only her and Guy’s younger friends, a plan Guy looks askance at, but she defiantly insists on. Minnie tries to stick her nose in, but Ro won’t let her. At the party, she breaks down and weeps from the pain in the kitchen, in front of her girlfriends, who insist she stop seeing “that nut,” Dr. Sapirstein. She fears the baby will die.

After the party, she has a fight with Guy over her wish to see Dr. Hill (Grodin) instead of Sapirstein. This resistance to allow her to make contact with anyone outside of the circumscribed social circle is another feature of narcissistic abuse.

In the middle of this argument, her pain suddenly stops, and she can feel the baby moving inside her. To her joyous relief, it’s alive! From now on, she willingly drinks more of Minnie’s health drink, and acts as if everything’s back to normal, which of course it isn’t. These up-and-down cycles of narcissistic abuse are common; Rosemary is just experiencing the ‘honeymoon’ stage at this moment.

As anyone who has experienced emotional abuse knows, the ‘honeymoon’ doesn’t last long, and Rosemary’s experience is no exception. Hutch falls into a coma induced by a spell in which the Satanists have used a stolen glove of his; then, he dies. Before his death, though, he has made sure she receives a book called All of Them Witches. He has also rather cryptically said, “The name is an anagram.”

At first, she thinks he meant the name of the book, and with Scrabble tiles she rearranges the letters of the title to get some interesting, though incorrect, messages: “Comes with the Fall,” and “Elf shot lame witch.” Then she realizes, after having leafed through the book and seen old black-and-white photos from the nineteenth century of Adrian Marcato (who looks eerily similar to Roman) and his son, who if still alive in the 1960s would be about Roman’s age.

The son’s name is Steven, so when Rosemary rearranges the letters of Steven Marcato, she indeed gets Roman Castevet. Now, her paranoia–however justified it may be–shoots through the roof. The anagram symbolizes the rearrangement of personality traits to create Roman’s False Self out of his True Self.

She remembers not only her previous pain, but also the chanting and recorder-playing heard through the thin wall separating her bedroom and the Castevets’ apartment…how like Satanic rituals. After reading about how witches use blood–including babies’ blood!–in their rituals, she puts all the pieces together: Guy’s friendship with the Castevets, and his subsequent success as an actor, means he must have made a deal with them to give them her baby in exchange for helping him become a star!

A paradox typical of victims of emotional abuse occurs: though she isn’t at all deluded in her belief that the Castevets el al are witches, what she’s experiencing is nonetheless truly maddening. Furthermore, she’s portrayed as insane by her abusers, who know perfectly well that she sees the truth about them.

A narcissist collective of flying monkeys will do whatever they have to do to ensure that their ‘version’ of the truth is the generally accepted version, no matter how harmful their version of that ‘truth’ is. This kind of circumscribing of the truth is exactly what Guy, the Castevets, Dr. Sapirstein, et al are doing to ensure that no one takes Rosemary’s side of the story seriously.

Thus ‘Satanists’ and ‘witches’ make perfect metaphors for collective narcissists: they’re twisted and evil, and they use lies to cast spells on anyone outside their ‘coven’ to make the outsiders believe whatever they want them to believe. Rosemary, as the justifiably paranoid victim, with all of the Satanists’ evil introjected into her (the Antichrist baby, the ‘health drink,’ the ‘devil’s pepper’ necklace, the pills, and Laura-Louise’s milk-poison–“…we’ll kill ya – milk or no milk!”), is never listened to or helped, like a typical victim of narcissistic abuse.

Rosemary’s role as a victim of narcissists is also a paradoxical one. Her portrayal by her abusers as having gone mad puts her in the role of scapegoat, or of the identified patient who is always ‘acting up’ and ‘causing trouble.’ On the other hand, as the mother of Satan’s child, she is also idealized by the Satanist coven as a kind of golden child, the Non-virgin Rosemary, Mother of Gog. This latter aspect will become especially apparent at the very end of the film.

These interchangeable scapegoat/golden child roles suggest that Rosemary is a symbolic daughter to the Castevets, with Guy as their symbolic son. Since he has been welcomed into the Satanic circle, he’s the Castevets’ golden child, making her–relative to him–the scapegoat whose perspective is never listened to.

As she gains more and more Knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s K) about witchcraft in her reading, the Satanic clique–especially Guy–reject what she’s learned (-K); Guy even throws away All of Them Witches, patronizingly claiming that doing so is for her own good, that this gaining of Knowledge is harming her.

The rejection of newly-acquired Knowledge, Bion’s -K, is motivated by the Kleinian notion of envy, in particular, the infant’s unconscious desire to destroy and spoil the goodness in the good object, its mother. This is what the unborn Antichrist is doing to its mother, by making Rosemary physically, then mentally, ill.

Envy, just like pride, was a major motive of Satan’s in John Milton‘s Paradise Lost. When the devil, having just been thrown into hell with the other rebel angels, learns of God’s plan to create Adam and Eve, he wants to go up to earth and figure out how he can spoil the goodness of God’s creation (Book II, lines 330-389). Rosemary and Guy in this regard are like Adam and Eve, and the Castevets et al are a collective devil. Their envy, like that of proud Satan, is an envy typical of the pathological narcissist, too.

Another thing narcissists are apt to do is pretend to be the pitiful victim. As Rosemary’s suspicions are growing, and she tells Sapirstein about them (not yet knowing, of course, that he’s a smelly-necklace-wearing Satanist, too), he tells her that Roman has only a short time left to live. Instead of feeling mad at him, she’ll be compelled to feel sorry for him, since one of his flying monkeys (Sapirstein) has passed on the bad news to her.

She imagines she’s protecting her unborn–and presumably human–baby, but it won’t contain her love, since she wants to thwart the plans of the Satanists. Her refusal to join their group makes the baby feel as though its life is endangered; as the Antichrist, it presumably has the supernatural ability to sense its mother’s hostility to the coven that’s been looking out for it, i.e., to sense this danger with neither the need of sensory indications nor of the mature intellect for processing the information as normal people would. Thus, it projects its fear of annihilation onto her.

Instead of container/contained enhancing the baby’s growth by learning and cultivating self-soothing, there’s minus container/contained (Bion, pages 96-99) intensifying its fear, turning it into a nameless dread. As with -K, Bion says that minus container/contained “asserts the moral superiority and superiority in potency of UN-learning.” (Bion, 98) The unborn baby rejects any insight his mother would give him.

The Satanists restrain Rosemary with a sedative after having gotten Dr. Hill to help get her back in their clutches; and after she’s given birth, they give her a diet including pills and milk, all to keep her in their control. For the whole purpose of narcissistic abuse is to have power and control over the victim.

Rosemary, however, refuses to take the pills, knowing they’re more forms of evil she’s being made to introject. Her defiant resistance, in spite of how insane it makes her look, is what keeps her good, keeps her human.

Once the collective projection of evil, the Antichrist baby, has been delivered, and therefore no longer an introjection she’s carrying inside herself, the Satanists are content with it and no longer need her. She, it seems, will be slowly poisoned to death with the pills and whatever has been mixed in with that milk. They tell her the baby died so, after mourning, she won’t have any more interest in it.

Still, she can hear a baby crying in a nearby room, so she wants to investigate, taking a knife and discovering a secret passageway through her closet to the Satanists’ apartment. This connection between apartments represents how the narcissist considers his victim to be an extension of himself; recall how the Satanists can sneak into her apartment after she’s locked the front door.

Her sense of isolation in her bedroom is a motif shared in Polanski’s other two ‘Apartment’ films, Repulsion and The Tenant. Her knife symbolizes her wish to get revenge on the Satanists by projecting her pain into them, making them negative containers that introject her hate of them.

She barges into the room where the Satanists all are, including the crying baby and a number of guests from other countries. Roman is has healthy as ever, his trip to Dubrovnik a lie.

Now, it’s Rosemary who is projecting herself into the Satanists’ personal space. Laura-Louise screams, and the others sit awkwardly as they watch her entrance…especially Guy, who’s avoiding her eyes in embarrassment. That knife in her hand is a powerful symbol of such a projection, a malign contained element threatening to be vengefully stabbed in their hearts, a collective malign container.

She looks into the cradle and sees the monster inside. This thing was in her womb for nine months! A mother naturally wishes to see herself in her beloved baby, but Rosemary cannot see her reflection in such hideous eyes.

She projects the fault onto the Satanists, assuming they have deformed her and Guy’s son; but Roman drives home the point that I made above, that her husband is not the father…Satan is.

Satanists aided in this birth, in which the patriarchal Christian faith has had no involvement whatsoever. There is no patrilineal succession from Rosemary’s husband to her son. The conceiving was outside the bonds of patriarchal wedlock. The evil that the Satanists represent is a formidable, horrifying one, but not a patriarchal one, in spite of the rape and the exploiting of a woman’s reproductive system. (The Virgin Mary may have conceived and given birth to a son of whom Joseph wasn’t the biological father, but unlike with Rosemary, there was no sex involved in that mythical conception, either.)

Guy hides his face in shame not because Satan has made him a cuckold (the male patriarch’s greatest fear), but because he knows he has sold his soul to the devil to advance his career. The traditional male role, with its pressure to make as much money as possible to provide for the family, and to repress feelings that are associated with weakness, makes many men feel as though they’ve sold their souls for money and the pretence of being ‘tough.’ This is part of why, to ensure needed equality for women, we must abolish sex roles, or at least minimize their divisive influence in our lives.

The shame that Guy feels doesn’t, however, excuse him of the vile thing he has done to his wife. He deserves a lot worse than being spat on. His job as a professional actor is symbolically fitting, as his success rests on being a pretender, a big phoney.

The trauma she feels, over having been manipulated into giving birth to such a beast, is overwhelming. The Satanists’ projection of their evil into innocent Rosemary allows them to function normally in society. She is falling apart inside, but they can keep their cool. This ability to project shame onto others is the essence of narcissistic abuse, the real evil symbolized by Satanism here.

She drops the knife, its point stabbing into the wooden floor, the symbolic fulfillment of her wish to injure the Satanists by forcing them to contain the pain they’ve made her contain; Minnie unabashedly pulls it out of the floor and rubs the mark as if removing a smudge. This action shows how well a narcissist can keep his or her cool, because the shame has been projected elsewhere.

The narcissistic façade of calm, collected superiority is a defence against psychological fragmentation; the Satanists can wear this façade, but neither Rosemary–in whom the introjected evil has only just been removed, but still remains a traumatic memory–nor the crying baby Adrian, who is the embodiment of that evil, can wear it.

Adrian’s distress cannot be contained by Laura-Louise, what with her clumsy, hurried rocking of the bassinet; only Rosemary, his mother, can contain it. So Roman, like the tempting devil himself, hoovers her into the devil-worshipping cult by goading her into rocking the baby instead.

Teary-eyed, she acquiesces.

The Satanists watch the, to them, touching scene as she looks lovingly at her baby and contains his distress in maternal reverie (i.e., as his container, she transforms that distress [the contained] into emotional peace by mentally processing his fears for him, then returns the transformed feelings back to him). In other words, she has to take terrifying feelings and make them into soothing ones.

She must also nullify her own fears and accept her lot. How can one do that among devil-worshippers?

This is the scariest moment of the whole film: by accepting her role as his mother, she is now thoroughly enmeshed in the narcissistic Satanic cult. To keep from falling apart, she must become one of them.

She must delude herself that the bad internal object, of which the unborn child was the symbol, is actually a good object; she has learned to love Antichrist-Adrian (as Winston Smith learns to love Big Brother), as terrifying as he is.

She must love the Antichrist… she has no escape.

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.

**********

“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)

**********

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.

**********

“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

**********

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.

**********

[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

**********

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.

**********

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

**********

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

Charlie Meadows: Because YOU DON’T LISTEN!

**********

[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

*********

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

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

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

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‘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)

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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.

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

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

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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. “‘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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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 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)

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.

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.

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.