Analysis of ‘Black Sabbath’

I: Introduction and Quotes

Black Sabbath, or I tre volti della paura (“The Three Faces of Fear”), is a 1963 Italian horror film directed by Mario Bava and starring Boris Karloff. It’s an anthology of three horror stories loosely adapted (or so it claims in the Italian credits) from tales by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, ‘Ivan Chekhov,’ and Guy de Maupassant: “The Telephone” (‘F.G. Snyder,’ in all probability a pseudonym for Bava and fellow screenwriters Marcello Fondato and Alberto Bevilacqua; in any case, the story is vaguely influenced by “Le Horla,” by Maupassant), “The Wurdalak” (Tolstoy), and “The Drop of Water” (‘Chekhov,’ but probably based on a story by Franco Lucentini).

The American version of the film moved “The Drop of Water” to the front; I prefer the original Italian ordering, as it gives the film a kind of ABA, ternary form in terms of theme–statement, departure, return. Furthermore, the prudish Production Code, while waning, was still in effect enough to censor the American version of “The Telephone,” removing the hints at a lesbian relationship between Rosy and Mary, and at the fact that Rosy is a call girl, vengeful Frank being her former pimp.

Having seen people lined up at the local cinema to watch the movie back in the late 60s, the heavy metal pioneers decided to name themselves after it (this renaming in English being a fortuitous choice for them, since it bears no relation at all to the film; the renaming was just to lull movie-goers over to it after the success of Bava’s Black Sunday); the band marvelled at how people are willing to pay to be scared. As a result, the band invented heavy metal, with its doom-and-gloom sound, as a kind of rock version of horror movie music, in contrast to the ‘happier’ hard rock of the likes of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Van Halen.

The film didn’t do well commercially or critically on release, but it has since seen its reputation improve. “The Telephone” is an early Bava attempt at giallo in film.

Here are some quotes:

“Come closer, please! I’ve something to tell you. Ladies and gentlemen, how do you do? This is BLACK SABBATH. You are about to see three tales of terror… and the supernatural. I do hope you haven’t come alone. As you will see from one of our tales, vampires – wurdulaks – abound everywhere. Is that one, sitting behind you now? You can’t be too careful, you know. They look perfectly normal, and indeed they are. Except… they only drink the blood of those whom they love the best. Ah… there I go, talking shop again! Let’s get on with our first tale.” –Boris Karloff, first lines

“You have no reason to be afraid.” –Mary, to Rosy

“What’s the matter, woman? Can’t I fondle my own grandson? Give him to me!” –Gorca, to Ivan’s mother

II: Unifying the Stories

So, why did Bava choose these “three faces of fear” in particular? Why these three stores, as opposed to any other three? If they were merely chosen at random, such a choice would seem to detract from the overall quality of the movie, one which is now ranked #73 on a Time Out poll of the best horror films. Surely, these three specific choices, and how they were crafted, have a meaning in itself.

Since the three stories are separated in terms of plot, time, and setting (the first in early 60s France, the second in 19th century Russia, and the third in London in the 1910s), the link uniting them seems to be one of theme.

Indeed, there are several themes that I’ve found uniting the three stories, especially the first and last in this ABA structure. The main theme is the relationship between fear and desire.

Lacan said that desire is “the desire of the Other,” meaning that we desire to be what other people desire (what we think they desire), and that we desire recognition from others. As for fear, Lacan said that our anxieties spring from not knowing what others want–“the sensation of the desire of the Other…Anxiety is the feeling of the over-proximity of the desire of the Other.” Hence, the link between fear and desire.

Is the desire of others a wish to rape or kill us? Is it their wish to absorb our identity into them and to make us one of them? Is it their wish to take from us what they lack? These are “the three faces of fear” that confront us–sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically–in this film.

III: The Telephone

Though a telephone is a means of communication, of connection, it’s paradoxically also a cause of alienation, since we use it to converse from far distances, making face-to-face communication impossible. This is the central problem of Rosy (played by Michèle Mercier), a pretty young call girl who gets a series of threatening phone calls at home one night from a mysterious person.

She hears the voice of a man who claims to be watching her every move in her apartment: knowing when she’s changed into her dressing gown, when she’s exposing her pretty legs, when she’s hidden her valuables. This knowing is an erotic link between fear and desire; it’s Freud‘s Eros connected with Thanatos, for though the caller craves her beautiful body, it’s to kill her, not to caress her.

She learns from the newspaper that Frank (played by Milo Quesada), her former pimp against whom she testified, has broken out of prison, and she understands that it’s he who has been calling her, wanting to kill her in revenge. She calls her former friend, Mary (played by Lydia Alfonsi), to come over to her apartment to help her feel safe; immediately after hanging up, she gets another threatening call, her victimizer knowing she’s just chatted with Mary on the phone.

Little does Rosy know that Mary, a lesbian admirer who’s had a falling-out with her, is the caller. Mary’s terrorizing of Rosy, to pressure her former lover to let her come back into her life–and into her home, which is symbolic of Rosy’s vagina–is a symbolic lesbian sexual assault. (I’ll return to this symbolism in “The Drop of Water,” the returning A of this ABA structure.)

So, the alienating effect of the telephone conversations, as opposed to Mary’s entering of Rosy’s apartment to talk to her face to face, represents the kind of object relations that WRD Fairbairn wrote about: the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration (Mary and Rosy, when face to face), the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration (Mary and Rosy when on the phone, with Mary’s desire to have Rosy again), and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration (Mary’s threats to Rosy, when impersonating Frank on the phone).

Put another way, Mary is torn between feelings of love and desire (her Libidinal Ego) for Rosy (Mary’s Exciting Object), and feelings of hate and resentment (Mary’s Anti-libidinal Ego) for the ex-lover who spurned her (Mary’s Rejecting Object). Mary’s claim of bearing no grudge is thus an obvious example of denial.

Mary has resolved her conflict between the Eros wish to kiss Rosy, on the one hand, and her Thanatos wish to kill Rosy, on the other, by making the threatening calls. On the one hand, Mary enjoys terrorizing Rosy, and on the other, she is goading Rosy to let her come in [!] her home. Mary’s putting of a knife under Rosy’s pillow suggests that Mary knows Frank is really coming over.

There is the ever-so-slight influence of Guy de Maupassant’s horror short story, “Le Horla” on “The Telephone.” The American bowdlerization of “The Telephone,” not only removing the hints at lesbianism and prostitution, but also making Frank into a ghost who sends Rosy a self-writing letter, makes the story a little closer to Maupassant’s, with its sense of an evil presence encircling, watching, and ultimately controlling the protagonist (who at the end attempts to kill his/her tormentor, but ultimately fails); I must say, however, that this alteration comes off as contrived when compared with the vastly superior Italian original, which needed no supernatural trappings of any kind.

The link between the influence of The Horla (loosely translated, “[that thing] out there,” hors-là), who wants to possess the body of the narrator, and “The Telephone” reinforces my interpretation that the encroachment into Rosy’s apartment is a symbolic rape, especially since I see Frank as a projection of Mary; her impersonating of him on the phone represents a wish-fulfillment to attack Rosy.

Mary gives Rosy a tranquilizer. We see Rosy lying on her bed, towards the end of her sleep; and the light of dawn (by which time the threatened killing of her is supposed to have already happened) is coming through a window. Mary is at a nearby desk writing a letter to Rosy, confessing that she was, in fact, her terrorizer: this was the only way she could be with Rosy again. I wonder–while Rosy was out, did Mary enjoy her? It seems unlikely that Mary would have passed up such an opportunity.

Then, Frank comes in and, thinking it’s Rosy at the desk writing the letter of confession, strangles Mary with one of Rosy’s stockings. Since I see Frank as a projection of Mary’s aggressive feelings towards Rosy, this killing can be seen to symbolize Mary’s Anti-libidinal Ego momentarily triumphing over her Libidinal Ego, meaning that it’s Mary who has wanted to kill Rosy after all. Still, that part of Mary that still loves Rosy wins out in the end, for the knife Mary put under the pillow is used by Rosy to kill her attacker, that projection of Mary’s killer instincts onto Frank, which is once again rebuffed by Mary’s Rejecting Object.

IV: The Wurdalak

A wurdalak is a kind of Slavic vampire that feeds on the blood of those it especially loves–its family and close friends. Here again we see the meeting of fear and desire.

This story is the most faithful of the three to its purported literary sources, in this case, Aleksey Tolstoy’s Family of the Vourdalak. Here we see Boris Karloff doing his thing, and hearing his lines dubbed into Italian is the only drawback of Bava’s original version.

Travelling Vladimir Durfe (played by Mark Damon) stops when he sees a decapitated corpse with an unusual dagger stabbed in its chest. Later, he comes to the cottage of a family, having taken the dagger with him. He enters the cottage and sees an empty space on a wall where the dagger is meant to be hanging.

One of the men of the cottage, Giorgio (played by Glauco Onorato), points a rifle at Vladimir and demands he return the dagger to the family. The dagger is an obvious phallic symbol (as is the rifle), and its not being in the possession of Giorgio’s family is thus a symbolic castration, a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire.

The rest of the family present themselves to Vladimir: Giorgio’s wife (played by Rika Dialina) and their little boy, Ivan; Giorgio’s younger brother, Pietro (played by Massimo Righi), and the men’s sister, the breathtaking Sdenka (played by Susy Andersen), with whom Vladimir is immediately smitten. More desire emerges.

A terrible fear is consuming the family: their old patriarch, Gorca (Karloff), has gone off to destroy a wurdalak. If the old man doesn’t return until after five days (ten days in Tolstoy’s story), then he’s become a wurdalak himself, and he must be destroyed, an agonizing task for his family.

Gorca does return, at just about the last moment when such a return would be safe…or has it been just slightly too late? He looks ghastly and pale, and he’s irritable. He also has a gory wound on his chest, a yonic hole, another symbolic castration, a lack leading to desire.

Indeed, he does feel desire: the creepy old man wishes to “fondle” his grandson, Ivan; the family must indulge him. Here we come to the uncomfortable symbolism of the wurdalak‘s craving of the blood of family–it represents incest, both literal and psychological, leading to enmeshment.

Sexual perversity is at the core of Black Sabbath, the merging of fear and desire: lesbian rape (bear in mind that I am not the one making moral judgements against lesbianism here, the film is; in 1963, homosexuality was far less socially accepted–I’m just exploring theme here), the symbolic necrophilia that I see in “The Drop of Water” (see below), and the vampiric incest in this story.

Vampire stories are a form of erotic horror, with phallic fangs biting into flesh and sucking out blood, leaving pairs of yonic wounds. Such attacks can be seen as symbolic rapes, a taking possession of the victims. I demonstrated such forms of erotic perversity as these in my novel, Vamps, and in my analyses of Martin and ‘Salem’s Lot. From this reasoning, I can conclude that the families of wurdalaks, craving the blood of their kin, are incestuous.

This incestuous desire goes way beyond children’s Oedipal desires for their parents, but it shares the same Oedipal narcissism. One regards one’s whole family as a possession to gratify only one’s own desires, never an outsider’s desires, such as those Vladimir has for Sdenka. For this reason, she feels she cannot escape with him, for Gorca owns her.

Similarly, even before Ivan’s mother has been made a wurdalak, she is so attached to him that, knowing he’s a wurdalak, she won’t let Giorgio destroy Ivan; she would kill herself before allowing that to happen. She takes a knife and stabs Giorgio instead, then opens the door to let her vampire son (and Gorca) inside the house, risking the turning of her entire family into wurdalaks. Such extreme, irrational, overprotective love, going beyond even her love of her husband, suggests a Jocasta complex.

Vladimir’s love for Sdenka offers her the hope of escaping this narcissistic, emotionally abusive family. She runs away with him, stopping at an abandoned cathedral, but the wurdalak family–Gorca, bitten Giorgio and his wife–find her there and, biting her, force her to return with them.

The enmeshment of the abusive family is complete: they just have to ensnare Vladimir with a bite from Sdenka when he returns to their cottage.

V: The Drop of Water

This story is claimed to be based on one by ‘Ivan Chekhov,’ though the actual source is “Dalle tre alle tre e mezzo” (“Between Three and Three-thirty”), by Franco Lucentini, under the pseudonym of P. Kettridge. This third part of the movie shares enough thematic similarities, by my interpretation, to “The Telephone” to indicate a return to A in the film’s ternary form.

Helen Chester (played by Jacqueline Pierreux), a nurse in 1910s London, is in her flat one night; just as Rosy, in “The Telephone,” has returned to her apartment, in early 60s France, at night. In both stories, the protagonist is a woman in modern western Europe, at home at night. Both of them receive irritating phone calls at the beginning of the story.

The caller requires Helen immediately to go to the home of an old medium who has just died; the caller, the medium’s timid maid, needs Helen to dress the body and prepare it for burial. Annoyed, Helen goes over there.

The maid is too afraid to go near the body of a woman who has tampered with the spirit world, so Helen must do all the work unaided. The body has a grotesque, eerie grin on its face. On its finger is a sapphire ring that Helen covets.

Since the maid isn’t there to see Helen’s act of petty larceny, the nurse thinks she’s safe in pulling the ring off the corpse’s finger and stuffing it in her blouse. As soon as she wrests the ring off the dead medium’s finger, though, it falls on the floor; and when she goes down to find it, the corpse’s hand drops on her head, knocking over a glass of water and causing it to spill and drip water on a tray. Then a buzzing fly is seen on the finger where the ring was. It’s as if the medium’s soul has passed by metempsychosis from her body into the fly, so it can pester Helen in revenge for stealing the ring.

Now, to be sure, it is a nice ring, but is it nice enough to steal? I suppose; but would the ghost of the medium be so enraged with Helen’s theft as to want to torment her to the point of making her choke herself to death…over a ring?…over something the medium cannot take with her into the afterlife?

I believe the theft of the ring is symbolic of a far worse outrage, and the medium’s involvement with spirits, likely including evil ones, makes such an outrage plausible, if only symbolically expressed. I see the ring as a yonic symbol, the band representing the vaginal opening, and the sapphire representing either the clitoris or the hymen.

Helen’s theft of the ring, her having been under the demonic influence of one of the spirits with whom the medium has made a dangerous acquaintance, thus symbolizes a lesbian, necrophiliac rape. This symbolism would link this last story thematically with the first one (Mary’s presumed having of Rosy while the latter has been tranquilized), and such an outrage on the corpse would give the medium’s ghost sufficient motive for revenge against Helen.

The spilled glass of water, like those glasses of alcohol Helen drinks in her apartment, would thus also be yonic symbols of her sapphic, sapphire desires [!]. We also see in all of this the link between fear and desire; for right after she slips the ring on her finger and admires it, a symbolic vaginal fingering, she starts noting all the strange, frightening occurrences: the pesky fly having followed her home; the sound of dripping water, symbolic of vaginal discharge, heard everywhere; the power outage (indeed, that light outside her window, flashing on and off, can be seen to symbolize the bright fire of never-fulfilled desire when contrasted with the darkness of fear); and the medium ghost’s appearances, all to terrify Helen.

The link between fear and desire here is in Helen’s guilt over her theft of the medium’s symbolic yoni, her symbolic rape of the corpse. Helen goes mad with guilt, what she sees and hears being visual and auditory hallucinations, and in her madness, she chokes herself to death.

The next morning, a pathologist and doctor discuss Helen’s discovered corpse with her landlady (played by Harriet White Medin), who the night before had to break open the door to discover what Helen’s screaming was all about. Just as Mary pays with her life for Rosy’s symbolic rape, the forced entry into her apartment, and her projection of Frank trying to kill Rosy, so has Helen paid with her life for her symbolic rape of the dead medium.

A cut, or bruise, on Helen’s ring finger indicates that the ring has been pulled off. One may assume that the medium’s ghost has taken it back; but as I said above, the ghost has no use for a ring in the afterlife. I suspect that the landlady, having an agitated look on her face when hearing the sound of dripping water, has stolen the ring.

After all, Helen’s corpse now has an eerie grin just like that of the dead medium. A fresh, white dress is laid out on her bed, just as the maid left one out for the medium. All of these observations suggest a passing-on of the evil from victim to victim, suggesting in turn that, while alive, the medium outraged a previous female corpse, taking the sapphire ring while under the influence of an evil spirit; and now the landlady will be terrorized by Helen’s ghost, and when the landlady dies with an evil grin of her own, yet another woman will snatch the ring [!], and so on, leaving a bruise on the landlady’s finger, symbolic of the injured vaginal walls of a rape victim.

Such passings-on of evil have been observed in the other two stories: Mary’s resentment against Rosy is passed, projected onto Frank, and their aggression is passed on to Rosy, who kills him, with his own killing of Mary being symbolic of her self-destructive lust; the evil of the wurdalak is passed onto Gorca, then to Ivan, to Giorgio and his wife, and finally to Sdenka and Vladimir. Finally, the ghoulish lust for the yonic ring is passed on from woman to woman.

All violent forms of sexuality, three faces of fear, merged with three faces of desire.

Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

Pet Sematary is a 1983 supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, the one he considered his scariest (King, page ix) because of a real-life situation in which his toddler son ran off to a road and almost got hit by a truck (page xi). It has been made into two film adaptations, the 1989 one starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, and Fred Gwynne; and the 2019 version starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.

Here are some quotes from the 1989 film, the screenplay written by Stephen King:

“But he’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat… let God get His own if He wants one… not mine.” –Ellie Creed, afraid of her cat, Church, dying on the road in front of the Creed’s home

“The barrier was not meant to be crossed. The ground is sour.” –the ghost of Victor Pascow

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.” –Jud Crandall

Louis: Has anyone ever buried a person up there?
Jud: Christ on His Throne, NO! Whoever would!?

“Today is thanksgiving day for cats, but only if they came back from the dead.” –Louis Creed

“I knew this would happen. I told her when you were first married you’d have all the grief you can stand and more, I said. Now look at this. I hope you rot in hell! Where were you when he was playing in the road? You stinkin’ shit! You killer of children!” –Irwin Goldman, at Gage’s funeral, to Louis…then punches Louis

Louis: I’ll bite, Jud. What’s the bottom of the truth?
Jud: That, sometimes, dead is better. The person that you put up there ain’t the person that comes back. It might look like that person, but it ain’t that person, because whatever lives on the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain’t human at all.

Rachel: It’s okay, Ellie! You just had a bad dream.
Ellie: It wasn’t a dream, it was Paxcow! Paxcow says daddy is going to do something really bad!
Rachel: Who is this Paxcow?
Ellie: He’s a ghost, a good ghost! He was sent to warn us!

“Rachel, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. And now I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again… Never get out of bed again…NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!” –Zelda Goldman

“I’m coming for you, Rachel… And this time, I’ll get you… Gage and I will both get you, for letting us die…” –Zelda, who then cackles

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

The deliberately misspelled title is derived from an actual pet cemetery whose sign had the same misspelling, made by a child (page x). In the story, as in the real pet cemetery (it’s safe to assume), a number of the grave markers of the children’s dead pets have other misspellings; these all give a sense of the innocence of children who must learn to come to grips with loss.

I see another possible interpretation of the “Sematary” spelling, that it is a pun on seminary, or a school of theology. To study God is to study life’s meaning, as well as the mystery of death, the afterlife, and how to cope with suffering and loss. In this connection, recall the surname of the protagonist, Creed (the Christian belief system), and the name of their cat, Winston Churchill, usually shortened to Church. Pets are churches that, through their deaths, teach children about loss.

There are two cemeteries in the story, the good one (the Pet Sematary) and the bad one (the Micmac burial ground). The good one helps children deal with their grief and to learn to accept loss; but the bad one, which resurrects the dead and transforms them into demonic versions of their former selves (because the ground is inhabited by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the First Nations tribes of the area), is for those who cannot accept the loss of loved ones.

So, the Pet Sematary is a kind of seminary, if you will, teaching children how to process the grief they feel after losing their beloved pets. The children can imagine that their pets are going from there to ‘dog [cat, hamster, etc.] heaven.’ The misspellings on the sign and grave markers, as I said above, show us the sweet naïveté of these children in their contemplation of God-like things; for as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pet Sematary is in a forest at the end of a long path from behind the house that the Creed family has just moved into. The religious often speak of following the right path to salvation, and the wrong path to damnation. There’s the path to the Pet Sematary (“It’s a safe path…You keep on the path and all’s well.” –page 39), and there’s also that road in front of the Creeds’ new house, where the Orinco trucks dangerously speed by, often killing people’s pets, thus filling up the Pet Sematary.

The inevitability of these trucks going by, something that happens regularly, is symbolic of the unescapable reality of death. Each truck is a juggernaut–not the actual Jagannath of the Hindus–but the apocryphal interpretation that Western observers made of it centuries ago: the idea that the chariot carrying the Hindu idol went non-stop down the road, and ecstatic worshippers threw themselves on the road to be crushed under the wheels of the chariot, in a rite of human sacrifice.

The name of the company printed on the trucks, Orinco (almost an anagram of the Cianbro truck King saw almost hit his little boy–page xi), sounds like a pun on Orinoco, the South American river whose name is derived from a term meaning “a place to paddle,” or a navigable place. Well, the road is good for Orinco trucks to drive on, since nothing can stop those juggernauts…nothing can stop death. The trucks are one with this road of death, a kind of via dolorosa.

So, the path to the Pet Sematary is a way to get to (pet) heaven, and the road the Orinco trucks drive on is a kind of highway to hell…or at least to Sheol. Then there’s the way beyond the Pet Sematary, the deadfall leading up to the Micmac burying ground, an evil sublation of the thesis–the Pet Sematary leading to eternal life for pets–and the negation of that thesis–the Orinco truck road to death. The Micmac burial ground is a place of living death.

That the Pet Sematary and the evil land of the Wendigo, leading to the Micmac burying ground, are closer together than the former is to the road suggests my ouroboros symbolism for the dialectical relationship between opposites (see these posts to understand my meaning)–the closeness between the Pet Sematary’s heavenly Godliness, if you will, and the devilish hell of the Micmac burial ground.

When Jud Crandall (played by Gwynne in the 1989 film, and by Lithgow in the 2019 one) takes Louis (Midkiff, 1989; Clarke, 2019) past the Pet Sematary and up the deadfall–“the barrier [that] was not made to be broken,” page 161–there’s a further trek of “Three miles or more” (page 164) to the burial ground, but before long one senses a hellish, demonic presence among the eerie animal sounds one hears (pages 166-169)…the Wendigo. They may be a while before getting to the burial ground, but they’re already in a kind of hell…Little God Swamp, or Dead Man’s Bog.

The dangerous climb up the unstable branches of the deadfall represents that meeting place where the teeth of the ouroboros bites its tail (symbolizing the meeting of the opposites of life and death, of heaven and hell), that meeting of opposites where, paradoxically, too much careful and nervous climbing leads to falls and injury, whereas climbing that is “done quick and sure” (page 161), never looking down, results in a miraculously safe and successful ascent.

That barrier is not made to be broken because it is so easy to break. Victor Pascow himself–a jogger hit by a car and killed before Louis can save him (page 89)–breaks the barrier to warn Louis never to break it, in thanks to the doctor for at least trying to save his life.

Jud advises Louis to have Church fixed (pages 23-24) because fixed cats “don’t tend to wander as much,” and therefore the risk of him running across that treacherous road, and getting crushed under the wheels of one of those Orinco trucks, will be lessened. The castrating of the cat, though, does nothing to prevent him from suffering the very fate Louis has tried to prevent. His daughter, Ellie (Berdahl in the 1989 film; Jeté Laurence in the 2019 film), loves Church so much that she will be heartbroken to learn he’s dead.

All of this leads us to a discussion of desire and the inability to fulfill it. Lacan considered the phallus to be the most important of the signifiers, since its lack (through symbolic castration) leads to desire, which can never be fulfilled. For Church, desire means the wish to roam and run about freely, whether fixed or not, whether the fulfillment of that desire is or isn’t excessive, transgressive, or dangerous (i.e., the racing across the road as symbolic of jouissance).

For humans, desire is symbolically expressed in being the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, though we can apply Lacan’s idea more generally–that of desire as ‘the desire of the Other’ (i.e., wanting to fulfill the desires of other people, wanting others’ recognition)–to the desires of the Creed family and Jud. Louis fixes Church in the hopes of keeping him safe, for Ellie’s sake; but when Church is killed, Jud has Louis take the corpse to the burial ground for her sake, too.

Louis, whose father died when he was three and who never knew a grandfather (page 3), has had strained relationships with father figures, particularly with his father-in-law, Irwin Goldman (played by Michael Lombard in the 1989 film). Irwin actually took out his chequebook and offered Louis a sum of money so he wouldn’t marry Rachel (page 146)!

If we see Louis’s love for her as a transference of Oedipal love for his mother, then his hostility to Irwin can be seen as a transference of Oedipal hate toward the father who left this world before Louis could even get a chance to know him. And Irwin’s disapproval of Louis marrying Rachel can thus be seen as a symbolic Non! du père, in turn resulting in Lacan’s notion of the Oedipally-based manque.

Louis has an even better reason to hate Rachel’s parents when he learns that they made her, as a little girl, take care of her sick older sister, Zelda, whose spinal meningitis made her so deformed and ugly that the sight of her traumatized little Rachel…especially when she found Zelda dead in her bed!

But in Jud, “the man who should have been his father,” Louis has found a good father figure, someone onto whom he can transfer positive Oedipal feelings (page 10). So when Jud, influenced by the Wendigo of the Micmac burying ground, has Louis bury Church there, Louis goes along with it, against his better judgement. After all, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he?

Lack gives rise to desire: Church’s castration, meant to keep him safe from the trucks, drives him to run across the road, to the point of him getting killed by a truck after all; “Cats lived violent lives and often died bloody deaths…Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there.” (pages 52, 53) The Creeds’ lack of a cat drives Jud, feeling compassion for Ellie, to have Louis bury the cat in the burial ground, though Jud knows it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do. And Louis, lacking Gage after he is killed by an Orinco truck, is driven to exhume his son’s corpse and–with all the pain and exhausting work it involves–to rebury him in the burial ground. Then he’ll do the same with Rachel after demon-Gage kills her.

All four of these lacks lead to desires, which are excessive wants. The barrier that isn’t made to be broken is, symbolically, the barrier to jouissance, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desire. We all have basic, biological needs, and as we learn language, social customs, culture, etc., in entering the Symbolic Order, we use language to make demands; but demands, especially the demand for love, are never expressed completely through the limitations of language, so some of that need and demand is never fully satisfied.

The residual lack gives rise to desire, an excess that’s never fulfilled. This remainder, incapable of being symbolized in language, is in the realm of the Real Order, a traumatic world symbolized by the frightening, inarticulate animal cries in the land of the Wendigo and the Micmac burial ground…”the real cemetery.”

The Buddhists teach us that suffering is caused by desire, attachment to things in a universe where all things are impermanent. The reality of death is an impermanence too painful for Louis Creed to bear, so his lack of Gage and, at the end of the novel, Rachel, drives him to feel a desire so excessive as to want to use the burial ground to raise them from the dead.

One cannot have the originally desired object–the Oedipally-desired parent, a universal, narcissistic desire, since, as a child looking up into the eyes of that parent, he or she is looking in a metaphorical mirror of him- or herself, a manifestation of the Imaginary Order–so one spends the rest of one’s life searching for a replacement of that object, the objet petit a. This replacement can never be a perfect substitute for the original, so desire is never fulfilled.

The demonic replacements of Church, Gage, and Rachel can be seen to represent the objet petit a, for they, of course, can never replace the originals…though Louis does all he can to have them replace his lost loved ones. When Jud’s wife, Norma, dies, he wisely accepts her death and never even considers burying her in the Micmac burial ground; but its demonic influence drives him to desire to have Church buried there, for Ellie’s sake, since desire is of the other, to wish to fulfill what one believes others want. Similarly, Louis reburies Gage there in part out of a wish to fulfill what he at least imagines is what Rachel would want…to have her little boy back (“She cried his name and held her arms out.” –page 527).

So, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desires, jouissance, symbolized by the demonic resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel, is another example of the dialectical relationship between opposites–pleasure/pain, bliss/suffering, heaven/hell, life/death–as I would represent with the head of the ouroboros biting its tail. In passing into jouissance‘s indulging in transgressive pleasure, one goes past pleasure and suffers pain; whereas in the Pet Sematary, one learns to accept loss.

Young Jud originally buried his dog, Spot, in the Micmac burial ground (page 181); then, when he saw what trouble the resurrected dog was, he came to his senses, killed it, and buried it in the Pet Sematary (page 45). The problem is that the desires kindled by the Micmac burial ground are addictive, like a drug–hence, Jud’s ill-advised taking of Louis there with dead Church.

One always wants more, that ‘surplus value,’ or the plus-de-jouir that Lacan wrote about. When animals are brought back, their demonic nature is usually not so bad as it is with resurrected humans (“…because Hanratty had gone bad, did that mean that all animals went bad? No. Hanratty the bull did not prove the general case; Hanratty was in fact the exception to the general case.” –page 390); again, as with the animals buried in the Pet Sematary, they act as a kind of warning to us not to play around with life and death, especially not with human beings.

There is our attachment to what we can’t keep, what we love; and there’s what we wish we never had, what we hate, yet what we must have at least sometimes in our lives. The Buddhists speak of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed represents all those things and people we want in excess, because we want to keep them, but must one day let go of them–still, we won’t want to let go of them: hence the resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel.

Hatred represents what we wish would be gone, but must have, hence Rachel’s trauma in dealing with Zelda, and her shame at feeling glad her sick sister finally died…but the painful memories live on, haunting her, for she can’t get rid of Zelda until she’s properly processed her pain. Hatred is also in Irwin’s refusal to accept Louis as a son-in-law.

Delusion is the false belief that things can be permanent, hence Louis’s reburying of Church, Gage, and Rachel. Even though he sees how evil resurrected Gage is, Louis still fools himself with the belief that resurrected Rachel will be better, because apparently he waited too long with Gage. “Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel…” (page 556)

So, the message of the novel is that we can’t force our desires onto the world…but we can’t help doing so, even though doing so will only make our suffering worse. We know this, but still do it. “Sometimes, dead is better”…but we refuse to accept it.

The sweetness and innocence of children and animals, as expressed in the Pet Sematary–that seminary, if you will, that teaches us to have the misspelling simplicity of a child entering the kingdom of heaven–turns rotten, into Oz the Gweat and Tewwible (pages 510-511, 513ff), if we try to bend the world to our will. The Wendigo makes all the difference.

As we already know, the Micmac burial ground is a demonic double of the Pet Sematary, with their spirals (pages 386-387, 498) and graves curling like the coiled, serpentine body of the ouroboros; the land of the murderous, greedy, cannibalistic Wendigo that so frightens Louis on his way to rebury Gage, is right where the serpent’s teeth bite into its tail, the abyss where heaven and hell meet.

It’s so easy for the sweet and innocent to phase into their opposite, the Gweat and Tewwible.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary, New York, Pocket Books, 1983

Analysis of ‘The Boys from Brazil’

The Boys from Brazil is a 1978 thriller film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and written by Heywood Gould, based on Ira Levin‘s novel of the same name. It stars Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, with James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Walter Gotell, Michael Gough, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, and Jeremy Black.

Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck) is trying to revive Hitler by cloning him 94 times and paralleling Hitler’s life by, at this point in it, having all the clones’ adoptive fathers killed when the clones (played by Black) are around thirteen/fourteen years old. Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) has learned of the planned assassinations and is trying to piece together what Mengele is doing.

While the film had a generally positive reception, with praise for Peck’s and Olivier’s performances, some critics have considered the plot to be dubious, even ludicrous, and the acting to be inane and overwrought, with bad imitations of accents. I consider this film worth analyzing, though, because it can be seen as an allegory on the danger of a revival of the far right, which has been happening in recent years in many parts of the world. Hence, though this film’s praise has been far from universal, it is an extremely relevant one for our times.

Here are some quotes:

Barry Kohler: Okay, I’m running it down now. It will only take a second.
Ezra Lieberman: Take your time, old men don’t go back to sleep once they’ve been awakened.

“[Mengele was] the chief doctor of Auschwitz, who killed two and a half million people, experimented on children – Jewish and non-Jewish – using twins mostly, injecting blue dyes into their eyes to make them acceptable Aryans… amputating limbs and organs from thousands without anesthetics.” –Lieberman, speaking to Sidney Beynon about why he is searching for Josef Mengele

Sidney Beynon: Have you any idea how many men in their mid-60s die every day?
Ezra Lieberman: I try not to think about it.

“Would you like me to tell you who really killed him? God. To set free a stupid little farm girl after twenty-two years of unhappiness. Do Nazis answer prayers, Herr Lieberman? No, that is God’s business and I have thanked Him every night since He pushed Emil under that car. He could have done it sooner, but I thank Him anyway.” –Mrs. Doring (Rosemary Harris), to Lieberman

Lofquist: Good God man, you are an officer of the SS! Have you forgotten? ‘My honour is loyalty.’ Those words were supposed to be engraved on your soul.
Mundt (Walter Gotell): It isn’t Lundberg…[throws Lofquist off the dam, watches him fall to his death]…and it doesn’t have to be Saturday.

“Are you, my SD Chief of Security, telling me that a project twenty years and millions of dollars in the making will be dropped because of this insignificant impotent old Jew?” –Mengele, to Seibert

“You’re not a guard now, madame! You are a prisoner! I may leave here today empty handed. But you… are not going anywhere.” –Lieberman, to Frieda Maloney

“He betrayed me, he betrayed you, he betrayed the Aryan race!” –Mengele, of Mundt

Gertrud: [Mengele has just knocked Mundt to the floor] Get a doctor!
Dr. Josef Mengele: I *am* a doctor, idiot.
Gertrud: Don’t you come near him!
Dr. Josef Mengele: Shut up, you ugly bitch.

Eduard Seibert: [after discovery of Mengele’s plan by Lieberman] The operation has been terminated.
Dr. Josef Mengele: Terminated… by whose authority?
Eduard Seibert: General Rausch… and the Colonels.
Dr. Josef Mengele: [enraged] I told you… I told you from the beginning! Kill him! Kill him! It would have been so easy!

Eduard Seibert: Your operation has been cancelled.
Dr. Josef Mengele: No, *your* operation has been cancelled! Mine continues. [raising his hand] Heil Hitler.

Professor Bruckner: Cloning. What if I were to tell you that I could take a scraping of skin from your finger and create another Ezra Lieberman?
Ezra Lieberman: I would tell you not to waste your time on my finger.

[Bruckner begins listing the boys’ common features on a chalkboard] Professor Bruckner: Now, Mengele would certainly know that every social and environmental detail would have to be reproduced. Thus, if the parents were divorced when the boy was ten, this would have to be arranged…
Ezra Lieberman: [in horrified realization] Dr. Bruckner… the one who is cloned, the donor, he has to be alive, doesn’t he?
Professor Bruckner: Not necessarily. Individual cells, taken from a donor, can be preserved indefinitely. With a sample of Mozart’s blood, and the women, someone with the skill and equipment could breed a few hundred baby Mozarts. My God… if it’s really been done, what I’d give to see one of those boys. [turns around and sees the room is empty] Herr Lieberman?

“Not Mozart. Not Picasso. Not a genius who will enrich the world. But a lonely little boy with a domineering father, a customs officer who was 52 when he was born. And an affectionate doting mother who was 29. The father died when he was 65 when the boy was nearly 14… Adolf Hitler.” –Lieberman, to Bruckner

Ezra Lieberman: Did you kill Wheelock?
Dr. Josef Mengele: [sarcastically] No, he’s in the kitchen mixing us some cocktails!

“Do you know what I saw on the television in my motel room at one o’clock this morning? Films of Hitler! They are showing films about the war! The movement! People are fascinated! The time is ripe! Adolf Hitler is alive!” [Takes photo album and places it on his lap] “This album is full of pictures of him. Bobby Wheelock and ninety-three other boys are exact genetic duplicates of him, bred entirely from his cells. He allowed me to take half a liter of his blood and a cutting of skin from his ribs.” [laughs] “We were in a Biblical frame of mind on the twenty-third of May 1943, at the Berghof. He had denied himself children because he knew that no son could flourish in the shadow of so godlike a father! But when he heard what was theoretically possible, that I could create one day not his son, not even a carbon-copy but another original, he was thrilled by the idea! The right Hitler for the right future! A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000s!” –Mengele, to Lieberman

Dr. Josef Mengele: You are a clever boy. Are you not? You do not do well at school, but it’s because you are too clever. Too busy, thinking your own thoughts. But you are much smarter than your teachers, hah?
Bobby Wheelock: My teachers are nowhere.
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are going to be the world’s greatest photographer, are you not? Have you ever felt superior to those around you? Like a prince among peasants?
Bobby Wheelock: I feel different from everyone sometimes.
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are infinitely different. Infinitely superior. You are born of the noblest blood in the world. You have it within you to fulfill ambitions one thousand times greater than those at which you presently dream, and you shall fulfill them, Bobby. You shall. You are the living duplicate of the greatest man in history. [raising his hand in a heil motion] Adolf Hitler.
Bobby Wheelock: Oh man, you’re weird.

Dr. Josef Mengele: Bobby!
Bobby Wheelock: [screaming] You freaked out maniac! [to dogs] Bite!

David Bennett: We have the right and we have the duty.
Ezra Lieberman: To do what? To kill children?

The movie begins in Paraguay where Barry Kohler (Guttenberg)–a former member of the militant Young Jewish Defenders, but who now works alone, like Lieberman–has been tracking down members of the far-right Comrades organization. Through the help of a Paraguayan boy named Ismael (played by Raul Faustino Saldanha), Kohler is able to plant a bug to record a meeting of these ex-Nazis, chaired by Mengele in his mansion.

What is significant about having so much of this story associated with South America (Hitler clone babies born in Brazil, these Nazis in Paraguay) goes far beyond the obvious fact that many ex-Nazi war criminals went there to hide and avoid being brought to justice. Fascism is the logical extreme of capitalism and imperialism; and South America, as “the backyard of the US,” has been dominated by the US for decades and decades.

Any attempt by South, Central, and other Latin American countries to liberate themselves from the yoke of US imperialism, through democratically electing leftist governments, is thwarted either by CIA-influenced coups (Chile in 1973, Bolivia in 2019, Guatemala in 1954, to give a few examples) that install right-wing dictatorships, or it is sabotaged through starvation sanctions (Venezuela). So a movie with Nazis in the land of Operation Condor is chillingly fitting.

Kohler and Ismael are discovered for having bugged the room where the meeting is held. As Mengele is walking before a lineup of the Latino servants (including Ismael) while holding the removed bug, it is interesting to see the stark contrast between the Nazis, as domineering members of the white bourgeoisie, and the swarthy servants, as the intimidated proletariat.

Oh, the difference between the First and Third Worlds. Mengele is aptly wearing a white suit.

Kohler and Ismael are killed, but Mengele, before giving the order to kill the boy, gives him an avuncular smile–another chilling contrast.

Gregory Peck researched his role thoroughly, for he shows the same affected charm to children that Mengele was known to have shown. Back when Mengele was doing his sadistic medical experiments on Jewish and Romani children in the Nazi concentration camps, he was called the “Angel of Death.”

He charmed the little kids (typically twins), giving them candy, etc., before doing such sick things to them as injecting blue dye into their eyes (to make them “acceptable Aryans”), amputating limbs, removing organs, or sewing kids together–without anaesthetic–to make them into conjoined twins. One story of him doing this last, cruel operation on a pair of Roma children, who later died of gangrene after days of being in agony, is especially heart-breaking.

Lieberman has received the tip from Kohler about the planned murders of those 94 men (Europeans, Canadians, and Americans, mostly civil servants), and he begins his investigation. The problem is, Lieberman is no longer listened to or taken seriously. Such a change in fortune is symbolic of mainstream liberal society’s growing apathy to the dangers of fascism. Sidney Beynon (Elliott) finds Lieberman annoying, and tries to avoid him.

Similarly, over the past ten years, there has been minimal outrage over the US’s replacing Yanukovych‘s Ukrainian government with one tolerating neo-Nazis, or over far-right politician Marine LePen‘s near victory in France, or the fascist rumblings in Poland, Greece (though suffering a setback, Golden Dawn could rise again), Austria, or Spain…to say nothing of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Añez in Bolivia, or, of course, Trump, with his concentration camps for immigrant kids, his apologist attitude towards the right-wing militias attacking BLM protestors, and the federal officers shoving Portland, Oregon protestors into vans to be taken God knows where.

As Lieberman interviews the widows (Harris, Meara) of the men killed so far, certain patterns emerge: the murdered fathers are in their mid-sixties, while the mothers are much younger. Each family has a son about 13 or 14 years old…and the boys look exactly alike! Even their personalities are similar: gruff, rude, belligerent…the hallmarks of a spoiled child. The fathers are similarly gruff and harsh-tempered, and the mothers generally dote on their boys.

When Lieberman learns that the boys are adopted, that’s when he starts to put it all together. Furthermore, the adoption arrangements were done by Frieda Maloney (Hagen), an ex-Nazi who, as a guard in a camp, “strangled young girls with their own hair, bayonetted infants,” and who is now incarcerated. He goes to the prison holding her and interviews her there, tolerating her antisemitic taunts as best he can.

Through this interview, he learns where and when a victim will soon be hunted down: a man named Henry Wheelock (Dehner) in Pennsylvania, owner of a number of Doberman pinschers trained to attack and kill anyone who might threaten his life.

Meanwhile, General Rausch and the colonels leading the Comrades organization are getting nervous about what Lieberman is finding out, so they finally terminate Mengele’s operation, infuriating him and making him carry on alone. The lack of commitment of Colonel Eduard Seibert (Mason) and the others to the Nazi cause parallels, on the other side of the political spectrum, Lieberman’s lack of commitment to the antifascist cause at the end of the film, when he refuses to give David Bennett (Rubinstein) the list of names and addresses of all the Hitler clones so the Young Jewish Defenders can kill them.

Lieberman learns about cloning through an expert on the subject, Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz, who incidentally also played Hitler, decades later, in Downfall). Though many critics considered the film’s portrayal of the cloning of a man to be scientifically ludicrous, I think we should focus instead on what the cloning symbolizes.

While fascism today obviously isn’t and cannot be the same as it was back in the 1920s and 1930s, the same basic ingredients for its resurgence today are here as they were back then. Fascism is an ideology promoted and allowed to grow by the ruling class whenever their power and privileges are threatened by a working class uprising.

Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al all rose to power as a response to failed socialist revolutions in their respective countries. Similarly, in today’s world, left-wing anger towards the excesses of neoliberalism has resulted in right-wing reactions like Trump, Bolsonaro, Añez, etc. They’re not exactly the same as the old Nazi reactions of the 1930s, of course, but neither are the Hitler clones exactly the same (in personality) as Hitler.

Bobby Wheelock, the closest approximation the movie offers to Hitler, is a photographer, not a painter. Though his father, Henry, has a gruff personality comparable to that of Alois Hitler, and Henry has racist attitudes of his own (he claims that it’s “the niggers” that Americans need to worry about, not the Nazis [!]), Bobby clearly loves his adoptive father, and avenges his murder by sicking his Dobermans on Mengele (ironically making ‘Hitler’ the hero of the film). When Alois died, however, little Adolf wasn’t exactly heartbroken, for now he could freely pursue his dream of becoming an artist and be spoiled by his mother, Klara.

A number of details about Hitler’s life don’t seem to have been paralleled in the clones. Little Adolf had a younger brother, Edmund, whose death had a profound effect on the future Führer. While Edmund was alive, little Adolf was a happy, confident boy who did well at school; after Edmund died, little Adolf grew bitter and morose, and his academic performance declined, leading ultimately to his quitting high school at about 16, his underachievement as a young man, and the frustration he must have felt from his failures.

Furthermore, Alois Hitler was a patriotic Austrian, loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy; whereas Adolf cultivated German nationalism, which I suspect was, at least unconsciously, meant as a big “screw you” to the father who had beat him and tried to dominate his life. I suspect that the Anschluß gave Hitler glee from the thought of dominating the country Alois had so loved.

None of these historical issues are dealt with in the film. (If they are dealt with in Levin’s novel, which I haven’t read, anyone who has read it can enlighten me in the comments below–I’d appreciate that.) It seems odd that families capable of having their own kids (i.e., ‘Edmund’ equivalents) would be eager to adopt, even to the point of being rejected by adoption agencies until the Comrades organization offered them babies. And how would every adoptive father’s nationalism be guaranteed?

Still, with all these differences from the life of the actual Hitler, the clones still seem dangerously close to their original, especially Bobby Wheelock, who in an added final scene (with a similar ending in Levin’s novel), admires his photos of the bloody Nazi and Jewish visitors to his house, and gazes with awe at Mengele’s jaguar-claw bracelet.

The scene before that one, with Lieberman in hospital and Bennett visiting him, disappointed a number of critics. Bennett and the Young Jewish Defenders want to find and kill the boys, while Lieberman takes on the wishy-washy liberal attitude that killing innocent children makes the killers no better than Nazis.

The point is that the Hitler clones are too dangerous to be left alive, free to develop, grow to adulthood, and be whatever kind of men they will be. The cruelty of killing teenage boys must be weighed against the cruelty of allowing 94 potential fascists to rise up and, quite possibly, take over the world, then kill millions of Jewish, Roma, and other children.

The logic of killing the Hitler clones is understood in a symbolic, not a literal, sense. The clones symbolize the resurgence of fascism, something we’re seeing today, as I pointed out above, and something Levin was prophesying. That the boys are clones is symbolic of how like-minded far right-wing thinkers are: embracing capitalism, hating foreigners, pushing for state authoritarianism and ultra-traditionalism, promoting patriotic historical narratives, using violence to achieve their ends, and not thinking independently.

In contrast, the ideological differences between different leftist groups (anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, etc.) are huge…hence, our difficulties in uniting against the right. Moderate conservatives, and even some liberals, find reason to unite with (or at least wink at) fascism if their class privileges are threatened; hence, the current revival of fascism that Levin’s novel and this film are warning us about.

What many fail to appreciate is that fascism never really died…it just went underground, as the Comrades organization represents in the movie. The Nuremberg trials were more of a show than anything else. Many ex-Nazis not only went unpunished, but were given jobs in the American and West German governments, the rationalization being that they were needed to help fight the communists during the Cold War. Small wonder East Germans built the Berlin Wall, calling it the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart.

So, when Mengele says that his clones are “A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000s,” we should understand what he means in an allegorical sense. The novel and film should be seen as a prophecy for our times. When Mengele tells Lieberman he was in his motel watching TV programs about Hitler, and that “People are fascinated!” and “The time is ripe,” this should be understood as a foretelling of the contemporary resurgence of fascism.

If Peck’s Mengele and the other Nazis in the film seem absurd to you, consider how absurd fascist ideology is in general. ‘If your life is hard, don’t blame the rich–blame foreigners for taking away your jobs! Blame the Jews: after all, capitalism is bad only when they practice it! Fight imperialist wars to strengthen the Motherland–get your aggression and hatred out of your system in that way!’ Far too many people take these idiotic ideas seriously, so the film’s over-the-top acting is fitting.

On the other hand, there’s the liberal who either trivializes the fascist threat, or ignorantly equates fascism with communism: this is the thanks the Red Army gets for having done most of the work defeating the Nazis, losing about 27 million Soviet lives.

This is why studying history is so important.

Analysis of ‘The Last of Sheila’

The Last of Sheila is a 1973 murder mystery film written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and produced and directed by Herbert Ross. It stars James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett, James Coburn, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welsh.

Sondheim and Perkins were inspired by the scavenger hunt games they used to play with their friends back in the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of games we see Clinton Greene (Coburn) play with his guests in the film–Philip Dexter (Mason), Alice Wood (Welsh), Lee Parkman (Hackett), Anthony Wood (McShane), Christine (Cannon), and Tom Parkman (Benjamin)–aboard his yacht on the French Riviera. These games involve searching around such places as hotels, etc., to find clues to solve tricky mysteries.

But the game Clinton wants to play–“The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game” (named after his late wife [played by Yvonne Romain], a Hollywood gossip columnist who was mysteriously killed, a year before the film’s main action starts, by a hit-and-run killer…one of the guests on Clinton’s yacht)–involves real pieces of gossip about his guests, embarrassing secrets that, in some cases, provoke a guest or two to try to murder him.

Here are some quotes (WARNING–SPOILERS AHEAD!):

“Sheila. Sheila, come on back!” –Clinton

“What do you mean, what do I mean? This is the same b-group that was at your house the night Sheila got bounced to the hedges.” –Christine, on the phone with Clinton

“Darling, I must hang up now. One of my cast is peeing on my leg. Something Garbo never did, even at her moodiest. Bye now.” –Philip, with a little girl sitting on his lap

“Who did this room? Parker Brothers?” –Lee, on entering Clinton’s yacht

“What a game! And now, Tom gets to write it; Philip gets to direct it; and what’s-her-face, I mean, ah, my new client, Miss Alice Wood, gets to thrill you as Sheila Greene. Who rose from call girl to columnist… Ha-ha-ha.” –Christine, to Tom and Lee

“Well, I’m thinking of calling it…don’t be shocked, now: The Last of Sheila. Fox is interested, Paramount‘s interested. The perfect woman’s picture. Every bit as big as Love Story.” –Clinton

“Do you think we’ll ever hear the last of Sheila?” –Lee

“There’s nothing worse than a hustler with bad timing.” –Christine, on Anthony’s failed attempt to be made an associate producer for Clinton’s ‘Last of Sheila’ film project

Christine: [while suntanning] I have to do 25 minutes on my stomach.
Alice: To make up for the 25 minutes you spent on your back, last night?

Christine: I’m here because I’ve got a client to keep, and one to get. What’s your excuse?
Lee: I’m trying to hold on to a husband… who’s trying to hold on.
Christine: With your money?

“Honey, would you drop me down a Tab? My mouth is so dry, I feel like they could shoot ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in it.” –Christine

Clinton Greene: [Gesturing to a small island not too far from his yacht] You like it? [They all look, while Clinton beams proudly] I love it. Tiny, tiny islands fascinate my ass. I’ve got this crazy broker in London that sends me these brochures on all the islands for sale all over the world. Little impoverished islands. A few thousand dollars cash, and you’re practically king to six shepherds and their families. Or whatever. I read every word on every island. Then you know what I do? I tear them neatly in half and drop them in the wastebasket. Then I say to myself…
Christine: [interrupting] I’m still weak, Clinton, but I’m eating solid food.
Clinton Greene: I say to myself, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s to have my island speech interrupted.” [continues] I say to myself: “No, you poor people… you don’t deserve a good king like me.” That’s what I say!

Lee: Have I ever told you how sweet you were to me, when I was a child?…at Daddy’s legendary Sunday lunches.
Philip: I can still see you on Olivia de Havilland‘s lap.
Lee: It’s funny, you know, she was one of the few people that Sheila ever had anything good to say about.

“Just enough time for me to get dressed as a catamite, if I knew what it was.” –Christine, waiting to get ready to play the game and search for who has the ‘HOMOSEXUAL’ card

“Do you think there’s a homosexual aboard the yacht?” –Lee, asking Tom

“It was more than a game. It was a private joke.” –Tom

“It was an accident! It was an accident, I swear, Clinton! I was DRINKING!” –Lee

“The last of Sheila should be an A. Hit and run doesn’t begin with an A, does it, Tom?” –Philip

“I don’t have any gloves.” –Tom, with puppets on his hands, ready to strangle Philip

“Dictate it tomorrow when you can get a secretary. You know, he killed her, she killed him.” –Christine, just after Tom’s attempted murder of Philip

“Well, I think I’ll turn in. I’m almost dead on my feet. So much to do tomorrow and still a few pages to type tonight.” –Philip, implying a warning to Tom not to make a second attempt to kill him

“In these perilous times, one can’t be too careful.” –Philip

“Honey, let me hit you with a couple of names. Yul Brynner is Clinton. Paul and Joanne as Tom and Lee! I know, I hope it has enough content for ’em. Who have I got for Alice? Oh, I know, Carly Simon. I mean the soundtrack album alone will pay for her clothes. Now, now don’t scream. Virna Lisi. No, darling, as me!” –Christine

Beyond being a witty murder mystery (which generally got positive reviews, such as this one by Roger Ebert), The Last of Sheila is also a satire of the sins of bourgeois liberal Hollywood. We’re dealing here with people who are proud and narcissistic, who enjoy spreading rumours about the faults of others. They pretend to be progressive, but really it’s all about raising their social status, trying to get back on top, not wanting to be has-beens anymore.

Sheila, who has bashed people time and time again in her gossip column over the years, doesn’t take it as well as she dishes it out; so after hearing an unwelcome remark from Clinton during a conversation at a party in the Greenes’ home in Bel Air, she storms outside and walks it off in her neighbourhood that night. A driver who is obviously extremely inebriated slams into her, kills her, then drives away. The driver’s identity isn’t known…until a year later, when Clinton invites his guests to his yacht on the Mediterranean to play his new game.

He also wishes to begin a new film project, The Last of Sheila, and is offering his guests jobs in it. Alice is an actress; Tom is a screenwriter frustrated with only doing rewrites of others’ work; Anthony is Alice’s husband and manager, and hopes to be an associate producer for the new film; Christine is a talent agent; Philip is a “has-been” director; and Lee, Tom’s wife, is…well, rich.

All of these guests have truly gossip-worthy faults, each of which is suggested as they are introduced at the beginning of the movie. Alice is seen in a gift shop, looking at things she seems tempted to sneak into her purse and walk out with. Tom is seen in a photo with Clinton, the two men seeming a bit too close and familiar with each other. Anthony, taking Alice away from annoying reporters, knocks one of them down. Christine is seen in her office, her gossipy mouth rattling off like a machine gun. Philip, directing a commercial with a group of cute little girls, has one of them sitting on his lap. Lee is seen with a drink in her hand; surprisingly, it’s just ginger ale.

One recurring theme in this film, apart from the obvious one about gossip, is that of the stark difference between appearance and reality. Those who seem good are actually bad, and vice versa. Be leery of those who would seem sleuths, when in fact they’re, in varying degrees, the guilty.

Similarly, though Clinton is offering his guests jobs for his new Sheila movie project, he’s actually exploiting their desperate need and hope to get back in the good graces of the Hollywood power establishment. He is thus the quintessential capitalist, knowing he can taunt them again and again, and get away with it. He is thus also the typical unlikeable murder victim.

Clinton’s very game for them to play involves “six pretend pieces of gossip” that are all very real, but not given to those who are guilty of those embarrassing secrets. (More spoilers ahead!) It’s his fun way of making his guests squirm.

The embarrassing secrets are printed on small, white rectangular cards saying, “You are a…SHOPLIFTER, HOMOSEXUAL, EX-CONVICT, INFORMER, LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER, and ALCOHOLIC.” These secrets thus are presented as labels, suggesting that each person guilty of such a secret is perceived as having his or her whole identity bound up in that label, when actually, these are just things that each of them at one point in his or her past was guilty of.

Alice was caught shoplifting back when she was a teen, and Philip bailed the pretty girl out…then he did other things with her. Tom, actually married to Lee and having an affair with Alice, had a brief gay fling with Clinton after Sheila was killed. Anthony has twice done time for assault. Christine gave some names to the HUAC. Lee “was AA for a while.”

So Clinton’s game, on the surface, is just a fun scavenger hunt to amuse his guests during their vacation in the south of France. But just as the job offer in the movie project–with better billing for those who score better in the game–is just what the guests need to repair their damaged careers and reputations, while it’s really just Clinton exploiting their desperation, so is the game a sadistic exploitation of their insecurities. What seems good is really bad.

Now, are any of those secrets damaging enough to their reputations to be a motive to murder Clinton? During the day, in between the nights of the hunts for the owners of the SHOPLIFTER and HOMOSEXUAL cards, Clinton and his guests are all either on the yacht or swimming by it (in the latter case, Clinton and Christine). Clinton is especially loud out there, taunting Tom and Philip about their flagging careers, while Christine alternates between singing and calling out to Vittorio (played by Pierre Rosso), the captain of the yacht’s crew, each member of which wears a white T-shirt with SHEILA printed on it.

Someone turns on the yacht’s propellors, almost killing Christine, who’s unlucky enough to have been floating too close to them. There’s no reason for anyone to want to kill her: as she herself later observes, they aren’t in Hollywood, where her informing ruined the careers of many. Clinton must have been the intended target, given what a few guests have already surmised about the cards’ secrets.

But which of the guests has a secret embarrassing enough for him or her to want to kill Clinton before it is outed? Philip’s having helped out teen Alice…in more ways than one…is a strong motive, but then there was that hit-and-run killing of Sheila.

Someone will demonstrate that strong enough motive to murder Clinton during the scavenger hunt on a small island with a castle in which a group of monks once lived, centuries ago. Indeed, Clinton et al will be wearing monks’ robes as they search for clues to determine who has the HOMOSEXUAL card.

What’s interesting about the monastery scene is how it symbolizes what I said earlier about seeming good while secretly being sinful. According to a brochure read by Anthony, the monastery was inhabited by “perverts, onanists, catamites, and other riff-raff of the day.” Seeming devotees to God were really engaging in sexually transgressive behaviour, hence Clinton’s choice of the island for the hunt for the owner of the HOMOSEXUAL card.

Clinton and the others will wear monks’ robes, symbolically hiding their sins in holiness. Clinton’s “island speech,” given earlier on his yacht, demonstrates the narcissism of the capitalist who would imperialistically buy and own an island, but then decline to, feeling he’s too good to be the king of the lowly, poor inhabitants of that island.

In this castle of supposed holiness, the murder is committed, the ultimate contrast between seeming saintliness and actual wickedness. Furthermore, there’s the contrast between the apparent murder of Clinton (his face bashed in with a large candlestick while he sits in the priest’s box), and his actual murder (having been stabbed from behind with an ice pick).

Back in the yacht the next day, after discovering Clinton’s body, him apparently killed from a loose rock having fallen and hit him on the head, there is the first of two solutions as to how he was really killed, and by whom. This solution, provided by Tom, is the seeming explanation, as opposed to the actual solution given by Philip at the end of the movie.

The contrast between what seems to be and what is is made especially clear by what a nice man Tom seems to be, the clever sleuth, and the man he really is, as discovered at the end of the movie: not so nice, and not all that clever, either.

An example of how Tom can make himself into the ‘nice guy’ is by claiming that Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card applies to him. Of all the six cards, this one is the least damaging to one’s reputation (the fact that the screenwriters were both LGBT men helps in this regard). What’s more, Clinton, surely aware of how the gossip would fly out everywhere, seemingly isn’t worried about people finding out about his gay affair with Tom; we even see him caress Tom’s cheek publicly, on the yacht, when telling him that his card would be played out last, on Saturday.

As of the beginning of the 1970s, progressives in significant numbers were no longer joining conservatives in regarding homosexuality as a vice. We can see the Hollywood liberal hypocrisy here as evident in Anthony’s reaction to Tom’s claim to that card. By claiming the HOMOSEXUAL card, Tom is “in the clear”: he needn’t fear the nastier labels of the remaining cards.

Why does Tom have “the exclusive right to that card?” Anthony angrily asks. When Tom, in his answer, implies the possibility that it could also apply to Anthony, the latter senses a slur on his manhood–hence the hypocritical Hollywood liberal attitude to homosexuality: ‘it’s OK to be gay, but don’t call me one.’

As we go through who lays claim to the other cards–Alice, after being pressured by Tom, irritably admits to being the SHOPLIFTER, and Christine to being the INFORMER–the tension builds. The tension is especially high, since Tom has revealed that his card says, “You are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER.”

It’s implied that Tom has been hoping to label Anthony with this card, and thus to make him seem Clinton’s murderer; certainly this is what Anthony thinks Tom is doing. But Anthony triumphantly claims the EX-CONVICT card, leaving the LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card for Philip, and HIT-AND-RUN for…

Lee tearfully breaks the tension by admitting that when her car hit Sheila, she was “too drunk to drive.” She also believes that, after confronting Clinton in the priest’s box and begging him to stop the game (with a confused look on her face from hearing Clinton’s voice cruelly refusing to stop, but also from seeing his motionless body in the darkness, his lips not seeming to be moving, either), she accidentally killed him by smashing open the door to the confessional and hitting him in the face with that big candlestick.

So, the guilty party seems to have been sought in Anthony, but has been found in Lee, who, sobbing, leaves the others, taking with her a bottle of Jim Beam, and goes off to her cabin to drink her guilt and shame away. Later, she is discovered in the bathtub with slashed wrists.

Remember, though, that nothing is as it seems in this movie. Anthony may have a criminal record, but he is guilty of no wrong-doing in this story. The murder mystery only seems to have been solved. Tom has come across as a nice guy, and as gay; but he’s actually having an affair with Alice, and with Lee dead, Tom is free to have Alice and to inherit Lee’s estate of $5,000,000. Finally, we are only assuming that Lee has slashed her own wrists.

It’s far less unpleasant to think that the deaths of Sheila and Clinton Greene are the result of accidental killings, and that Lee’s death is a tragic suicide brought on by overwhelming guilt, than it is to contemplate that these deaths (at least two of them) were deliberate murders. The real killer of Clinton, imitating his voice in the confessional when provoking Lee, is projecting his murderous intent onto her by pretending she cared only about the damage to her car when it hit Sheila.

Given the nasty gossip that Sheila was spouting over the years in her column, much (if not almost all) of which must have inspired Clinton’s gossip cards, Lee’s not having seen Sheila when she hit her could have been unconsciously motivated, a Freudian skid, if you will.

Removing the exploitative Greene dynasty, so to speak, from the lives of the guests on the yacht (not the mention Clinton’s crew) might have been more liberating had the ‘removers’ shown more solidarity and comradeship. Instead, their motives are of pure selfishness: they’ll all make the Sheila film without Clinton, Tom will get Alice as well as Lee’s money, and none of them will have to put up with Clinton’s verbal bullying anymore.

In the end, the character with by far the most shameful secret–LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER–is the one to get to the truth of what has happened to Clinton and to Lee. Philip learns that the killer dropped a cigarette in the priest’s box, making Clinton bend down to get it while the killer pulled out an ice pick and stabbed Clinton in the back. The killer then imitated Clinton’s voice, fooling Christine and Lee.

Next, Philip discovers a photo, put in plain view on a wall by the yacht bar, of all six guests meticulously posed by Clinton under the letters of SHEILA as painted on the side of his yacht. Philip is under the S, Alice under H, Lee under E, Anthony under I, Christine under L, and Tom under A. Philip also remembers that on the first day, Clinton said they don’t have to move (e.g., search around the city or the monks’ castle to find the clues to everyone’s cards) to play the game…if they’re smart enough.

Philip also remembers that Tom crumpled his card on the first day, while his HIT-AND-RUN KILLER card is not crumpled. The first hunt was for Philip’s SHOPLIFTER card, and the second hunt was for Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card. These two initial letters spell out SH, leading Philip to speculate that Lee’s EX-CONVICT card, Anthony’s INFORMER card, Christine’s LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card (the redundant word LITTLE was needed to provide the L)…would spell out SHEIL…

But then there’s Tom’s…HIT-AND-RUN KILLER? The last of Sheila should be an A, not an H. Then we recall Tom’s crumpled card, which actually was ALCOHOLIC, a most fitting secret for Lee. Tom thus is the murderer of both her and Clinton.

Now, even though Philip has proven to be the truth-telling sleuth of the movie, this doesn’t mean that he’s completely innocent, either. Never is what seems to be true actually the truth. He is the one, by his own admission, who turned on the propellor while Clinton was splashing about in the water beside the yacht. Tom, meanwhile, had Guido (played by Serge Citon) to vouch for his alibi, and thus Tom could be encouraged to carry on with his own murderous plans after Philip’s failure.

Just before Tom attempts to kill Philip, he says that Clinton’s crew are all ashore celebrating the death of their boss (i.e., no one is onboard to stop Tom from killing Philip…or so Tom thinks). But of course the killing of Clinton can in no way even symbolize a socialist revolution (Clinton’s crew are really no better off now than they were before); a bourgeois has killed a bourgeois, and Philip, Christine et al are going to get rich making Clinton’s film without him.

Instead of seeking justice for Clinton and Lee, Philip and Christine (the latter having come up from her cabin on the yacht and, just in time, interrupted Tom’s attempt on Philip’s life) decide to blackmail Tom into using all of Lee’s money to finance the Sheila film. Tom won’t even get to write the screenplay: Philip wants the first draft to be written by an outsider. Tom will have to do rewrites again. What’s more, Philip that very night will type up a sealed letter to his lawyer–to be opened in the event of his death–exposing everything Tom has done, if he ever tries to kill Philip again.

The violence we see in this movie, that of bourgeois against bourgeois, shows not only the hypocrisy of the narcissistic Hollywood liberal–who would seem to be doing right, but who in reality is as exploitive as any other capitalist–but also the poisonous lack of solidarity between people. There isn’t even a sense of loyalty in the guests’ marriages, with these adulterers and adulteresses.

All these narcissists care about is rising up, so they have no qualms about stepping on others, in the forms of murder or gossip, to achieve their ascent. Small wonder we hear Bette Midler‘s song “Friends” as an ironic ending to a film with so much alienation in it.

You gotta have friends, Tom.

Tom had some friends, but they’re gone…

Analysis of ‘A Shock to the System’

A Shock to the System is a 1990 American black comedy crime thriller written for the screen by Andrew Klavan and directed by Jan Egleson, based on the 1984 novel by British author Simon Brett. The film stars Michael Caine and Elizabeth McGovern, with Peter Riegert, Will Patton, John McMartin, and Swoosie Kurtz.

The film’s delightfully quirky soundtrack was composed by Gary Chang, with its string quartet pizzicatos, marimba, etc. The tagline, “Climbing the corporate ladder can be murder,” is apt, for it encapsulates perfectly the predatory capitalism that is satirized in the film.

Here are some quotes:

It all began one night when the lights went out. –Graham Marshall, voiceover, opening line

Beggar #1: Hey buddy, gimme a buck, willya? What do you make, a million a year?
George Brewster: [handing beggar a pittance] City’s getting to be like Calcutta.

“The whole point of these takeovers is to sell off the assets, and put old farts like me out to pasture. I can hear the fat lady singing, Graham. I can hear her singing.” –Brewster

“Space invaders, Graham. The new people – all gadgets and the bottom line. Stop them early, or they’ll run right over you! ‘We can be more efficient than such-and-such a program…’ Blah blah blah, it’s all bullshit, Graham, soup to nuts. It’s code for mass firings and low quality. Just melt the market dry, and get out. I mean, if our system wasn’t any good, why did they take us over in the first place? Christ!” –Brewster

Robert Benham: Gentlemen, gentlemen… you don’t understand! We are the young, the proud! We shouldn’t be ashamed of success! We should say, “Yes, I *have* a boat. I *have* a country home. I *have* a girlfriend named ‘Tara’!” Say it with me, brothers.
Executive #3: I do have a Mercedes.
Executive #2: I have a condo with a pool.
Executive #1: I have a personal sports trainer.
Graham Marshall: I have a wife, a mortgage, and two dogs.

“What the hell is going on out there, George? Did somebody die or lose money or something?” –Graham

Graham Marshall: I didn’t get the job, Leslie. The promotion… I didn’t get it.
Leslie Marshall: No, of course you got it, Graham. You always get it.
Graham Marshall: I’m sorry. I know what it meant to you.
Leslie Marshall: No, you don’t, Graham. I really don’t think you do know how much it meant to me!
Graham Marshall: [voice-over] That’s when he realized she… was a witch.

“I think it’s rotten, Mr. Marshall. The only reason you didn’t get that job is ’cause they didn’t give it to you!” –Melanie O’Conner (played by Jenny Wright)

He was perfect. She was perfect. The house was perfect. The boat was perfect. The American dream. –Graham, voiceover, speaking of Benham, his country home, his boat, and his beautiful girlfriend, Tara

“My father had it all figured out. He was a London bus driver. And when I was a boy, he used to take me over the river to Mayfair, where the rich people lived. And he used to say to me, ‘Son – there is no heaven. Here is the closest you will ever get. Life, here, is sweet. Life, back over there, is hard. So live over here, son!'” –Graham, to Stella

The world, as they say, had become his oyster. Now he was going to pry it open. –Graham, voiceover

Graham Marshall: I will try and put this as politely as possible, Henry… what the fuck are you doing in my office?
Henry Park: Bob says I’m supposed to help out with the reorganization report.
Graham Marshall: Uh huh. Let me rephrase the question. — [shouts] –What the fuck are you doing in my office?
Henry Park: Bob just thought it was crazy not to have a computer in here.
Graham Marshall: It’s not the *computer*, it’s you and your goddamn desk!

Graham Marshall: [shouting] Why don’t you bring Henry Park in here, huh? Why don’t you bring Melanie in to make sure the phone gets answered? Hell, we could bring in the whole goddamn New York Knicks, just to make sure your trash hits the basket! How’s that?
Robert Benham: If I thought I needed an assistant to do my job…
Graham Marshall: Meaning what? That I don’t do *my* job? Then why don’t you have me removed, Bobby Boy?
Robert Benham: Because you’re too senior in the company to be fired for anything less than gross insubordination.
Graham Marshall: So you’ve decided to have me removed piece by piece. A privilege here, a responsibility there – never enough to fight over, just a subtle drain of power, right? [Menacing] Well, let me tell you something, Bobster. You don’t know the first fucking thing about power. I have more power in this hand than *all* you fucking know!

“Abra kadabra. Shalakazam. Bye-bye, baby. Boom.” –Graham, repeated line

He felt like one of those gods who appeared to maidens in human form. He knew he’d been great. Ah, Stella… such a sweet girl, really. He’d have to be sure to reward her for being in the right place at the right time. –Graham, voiceover

Lieutenant Laker: He was your superior, wasn’t he?
Graham Marshall: No, he was my boss.

“You know, sudden death hasn’t been all bad to you.” –Laker

“Whoa, let’s not all panic – you, you, and you panic; the rest stay calm.” –Graham

There was only one tiresome detail. Jones. He just wouldn’t let go of that corner office. [sputtering Cessna flies by] Abracadabra, Shalakazam. Bye bye, baby. –Graham, voiceover, last lines

Graham Marshall (Caine) is an executive in an advertising company in New York City, and he’s expecting a promotion. This promotion will be a great relief to him financially, since his expenses (his mortgage, and his wife’s extravagant spending–that is, her exercise machine, their dogs, etc.) are like a ball and chain around his leg.

Little does he know that the top dogs of his company have no intention of giving him that promotion (he’s seen as too soft, like George Brewster [McMartin]); still, they take him out to lunch and regale him as if they don’t know anything about who will really get the promotion–a cocky yuppie by the name of Robert “Bobby” Benham (Riegert).

Upon hearing the disappointing news, Graham goes about for the rest of the day with a black cloud over his head. Normally, he’d give generously to the many homeless men who appear numerous times throughout the movie; fatefully, he doesn’t feel generous on this particular night.

The homeless, for obvious reasons, have much better reasons to be discontented than Graham has, but this means nothing to him at the moment. On this particular occasion, the homeless man, facing Graham at a train station, has chosen the wrong man to be irritable with, and Graham pushes him, causing him to fall on the train tracks, just as a train is coming by, killing him.

Graham is like the liberal who, as long as all is going reasonably well for him, will show generosity to the poor; but when things go wrong for him, he becomes mean-spirited, and even violent. Don’t mess with his class privileges (i.e., that promotion he has earned and should have gotten), and he’ll be good to you. When, however, the liberal doesn’t get what he wants…for example, his preferred presidential candidate elected, he’ll bang the war drums as loudly as a conservative will.

It’s fitting that, though Brett wrote the novel in 1984, the film should have been made in 1990, when the Soviet Union was soon to be dissolved and Bill Clinton would be president in a couple of years. Granted, Reagan and Bush Sr. did plenty of damage to the working and middle classes in the 80s; but it was the Democrat shift to the right in the 90s, spearheaded by the Clintons and causing such damage as NAFTA, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the manipulation of the 1996 Russian election to keep Boris Yeltsin in power, and the “humanitarian war” in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, that the shit really hit the fan.

Now, Graham’s killing of the homeless man (symbolic of bourgeois liberals’ wars on the poor and imperialism in general, as noted in the above two paragraphs) is, of course, accidental and shocking for him. He goes home shaking and terrified, even thinking he has torn a hole in his shirt–the unconscious wish-fulfillment of a mild punishment to assuage his guilt. But…he has gotten away with the killing. He can do it again.

As Virgil (played by James Gandolfini) observed in True Romance, “Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest.” It only gets easier after that, and Graham finds himself especially easing into the “murders and executions” that Patrick Bateman of American Psycho indulged in. Such is the nature of capitalism, especially in its late stage, imperialistic, monopoly form.

On his way home transferring from train to train that night, Graham sees a man emerging from the steam from a train. For a split second, he imagines it’s the homeless man he’s pushed onto the tracks, but he’s really a worker in the train system. For our purposes, it actually makes little difference whether the man is a member of the lumpenproletariat or the proletariat: poor is poor in the eyes of capitalists like Graham; he steps on both types, though in different ways.

To add to Graham’s frustrations, he is henpecked by his conservative wife, Leslie (Kurtz), who makes demands on him to be an ever bigger wallet. This doesn’t give him any special right to plot to kill her, of course, but the pressure she puts on him to earn more is the last thing he needs after having been passed over for a promotion. Because of her attitude, he imagines her to be “a witch,” draining him of his power.

In his narcissistic imagination, Graham fancies himself a sorcerer, able to bend any circumstance to his will, including the seduction of women. His killing of Leslie–tricking her into electrocuting herself in the basement by yanking on the string of a lightbulb with one hand while holding onto a slimy, wet pipe for balance with her other–will free his magical powers of the control of the “witch.”

Light is a recurring motif in this film, coming in the forms of the basement light bulb, electrocution (Graham’s near death from it at the film’s beginning, as well as Leslie’s actual death from it), lit matches, and cigarette lighters. These lights are representative of social and economic power, Graham’s wish to have it, and his envy of other people’s use of it, especially at his expense.

Beyond his fancying of himself as a sorcerer, he also imagines himself to be like Zeus in his seduction of maidens (i.e., Stella Henderson, played by McGovern, as well as his potential seduction of Melanie O’Conner [played by Jenny Wright, who also, incidentally, played a groupie in Pink Floyd–The Wall]). The electrocutions thus can be likened to Zeus’ lightning. In zapping Leslie, ‘Zeus’ was getting rid of his nagging ‘Hera.’

Benham requiring Graham to light his cigars, just as mild-mannered George Brewster has done (even to the point of buying Graham the lighter with which he’d light Brewster’s cigars), is like Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus to give to man. A great sorcerer/god like Graham should not have his fire taken from him for the use of mere mortals like Benham!

So, to reach the only truly existing heaven in Graham’s world, the corporate Mount Olympus, he must crawl from the darkness of his humbler beginnings (“a wife, a mortgage, and two dogs”) and up into the light. I once again must quote Satan’s words from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “long is the way/And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Graham, Satan of capitalism, must use the fire of lit matches to blow up Benham’s boat to reach the top of Olympus.

To repeat another relevant quote: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929, as Graham does to Benham and, at the end of the film, to Jones [played by Sam Schacht]). This wiping out of executives is also comparable to the usurpations of Greek myth. Benham’s replacement of Brewster is like Cronus‘ taking of the heavenly throne from Uranus. Graham’s violent killing of Benham and Henry Park (played by Philip Moon) parallels Zeus’ defeat of Cronus after the ten-year Titanomachy. And Graham’s killing of Jones in his Cessna is like Zeus defeating such adversaries as the Giants and Typhon, further consolidating his Olympian power.

It’s especially fitting that Brewster should be compared to Uranus, who was castrated by Cronus. The whole reason that Brewster is replaced is because he is weak. As a ‘kinder, gentler capitalist’ who wants to save his employees’ jobs and not ‘trim the fat’ from the company, he is seen as ineffectual, not conducive to the growth of the business empire. Brewster, in this sense, is the Jimmy Carter of capitalist leaders, not fighting any wars during his…brief…term.

Graham, however, is potent both sexually and as an executive, rather like that Democrat of the 1990s. He may have seemed like a softie, like Brewster, but when Graham has his chance, he shows his true colours. His imitating of Brewster’s voice on the phone, as part of his scheme to kill Benham, is symbolic of how bourgeois liberals like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden pretend to be gentle and progressive, when really they’re as right-wing as Reagan, Trump, and the Bushes.

People like Lt. Laker (Patton) of the Connecticut police, as representatives of the government, sometimes try to soften the effects of capitalism by bringing to justice those who abuse the system, men like Graham; but they fail far more often than they succeed. Laker is in this sense like Brewster, representative of those who would smooth over the sharp edges of capitalism, but who fail because its cruelties are inherent in the system. Only a revolutionary death blow to capitalism will end its cruelties…and who has the willpower to do that?

We hear Caine’s voice as the narrator of the story, meaning Graham is telling it; but all the way through the narration, except at the end, we hear Caine refer to Graham in the third person. Only when he has succeeded in thwarting Laker’s attempts to build a case against him, does Graham’s voiceover finally speak in the first person.

This switch from third to first person represents the switch from his initial alienation from himself, from his species-essence, to his feeling of comfort with his identity, his oneness with it, at the end of the film. For though Graham is a capitalist, he also has bosses over him, and the only way to end worker alienation is to remove one’s bosses.

Too bad that he, as a boss himself, is now causing the same estrangement for those under him, for people like Stella, who is shocked in the end to learn he’s a murderer. And though he promotes her, his sending of her to the company’s Los Angeles office, causing their geographical separation, is symbolic of that alienation.

The film’s ending differs greatly from that of Brett’s novel, but the changes the film makes are good ones. Brett had Graham’s mother-in-law, Lillian (played by Barbara Baxley), scheme to have him charged with murder for a crime he hasn’t committed, in revenge for the killing of her daughter, Leslie. In the novel, Graham originally makes an attempt to poison Leslie’s whiskey bottle, but the drink turns blue, so he abandons the attempt. However, Lillian discovers the poisoned whiskey, and in a fit of mental instability publicly kills herself by drinking it, having those who see her drink it know that he poisoned it.

There are two problems with Brett’s ending: first, the notion that Lillian goes crazy and publicly poisons herself just to get revenge on Graham, ironically causing him to be convicted of a crime he hasn’t committed (as opposed to his previous getting away with crimes he is guilty of), strains credibility and comes off as “awfully contrived,” as one critic noted (Graham’s getting away with killing Leslie, Benham, Park, and Jones is already stretching things as it is).

Second, the film’s ending, with the bad guy prevailing, works better as black comedy. Besides, Graham’s success also works better as an allegory of capitalism, for indeed, the capitalists and imperialists have been getting away with crime after crime against the poor, and with war crime after war crime against all the countries that the US and NATO have bombed.

Bill Clinton not only got away with the bombing of the former Yugoslavia and the demonizing of Slobodan Milošević, but he also has a statue of himself in Kosovo, where there’s a huge NATO/US military base! Not only did George W. Bush get away with the illegal invasion of Iraq, killing about one million Iraqis, but he has also recently been rehabilitated by such liberals as Ellen DeGeneres, merely because he isn’t Trump! Though Obama continued, extended, and expanded Bush’s wars, use of drones, surveillance (i.e., the Patriot Act), etc., he is lionized by liberals as being an exemplary president, undeservedly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize…and every day of his administration was at war somewhere, including the bombing of seven countries in 2016.

I wonder how Trump will be rehabilitated in the 2030s.

These men, like Graham, all got away with their crimes. That’s the magic of capitalist imperialism, the supremacy of Zeus.

Abra-cadabra, shalakazam, bye-bye, baby…boom!

Analysis of ‘Lolita’

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was made into two movie adaptations, the first one (1962) directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a screenplay by Nabokov (of which “only ragged odds and ends” were used in the film [Nabokov, page xii]; in spite of his having been credited with writing the screenplay, it was actually rewritten by Kubrick and James B. Harris). The second adaptation (1997) was directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Stephen Schiff. There have also been stage and musical adaptations of the novel, as well as an opera.

I’ll be basing this analysis on the novel, Nabokov’s screenplay (his “vivacious variant” of the book [Nabokov, page xxiii]), and the two movies. Though the story is controversial for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl, “not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov, page 4).

Here are some quotes:

Lolita

I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, 
Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Foreword, by Dr. John Ray, Jr., PhD.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –Part One, Chapter 1, opening lines

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the deadly little demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. –Part One, Chapter 5

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set… –Part One, Chapter 2

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other… –Part One, Chapter 3, of Humbert and Annabel

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” –Part One, Chapter 5

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time… –Part One, Chapter 5

Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! –Part One, Chapter 8

Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had. –Part Two, Chapter 1

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. –Part Two, Chapter 36

Lolita: a Screenplay

The CAMERA also locates the drug addict’s implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws. –Prologue, page 1, in Quilty’s home

“My mother was an Englishwoman. Her death preceded that of my father by two decades: she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.” –Humbert’s voice, Prologue, page 4

“I loved her more tenderly than Tristan adored Isolde, more hotly than Petrarca desired his Laura, more romantically than Poe loved little Virginia.” –Humbert’s voice, speaking of Annabel, Prologue, page 6

QUILTY: Say, didn’t you have a little girl? Let me see. With a lovely name. A lovely lilting lyrical name–
CHARLOTTE: Lolita. Diminutive of Dolores.
QUILTY: Ah, of course: Dolores. The tears and the roses.
CHARLOTTE: She’s dancing down there. And tomorrow she’ll be having a cavity filled by your uncle.
QUILTY: I know; he’s a wicked old man.
MISS ADAMS: Mr. Quilty, I’m afraid I must tear you away. There’s somebody come from Parkington to fetch you.
QUILTY: They can wait. I want to watch Dolores dance. –Act One, pages 57-58

CHARLOTTE: Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the piazza? Or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?
HUMBERT: Tooth. –Act One, page 69

HUMBERT: Other commentators, commentators of the Freudian school of thought. No. Commentators of the Freudian prison of thought. Hm. Commentators of the Freudian nursery-school of thought, have maintained that Edgar Poe married the child Virginia Clemm merely to keep her mother near him. He–I quote–had found in his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm the maternal image he had been seeking all his life. What piffle! Listen now to the passion and despair breathing in the letter he addresses to Virginia’s mother on August 29, 1835, when he feared that his thirteen-year-old little sweetheart would be taken away to be educated in another home. “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter….My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away….My agony is more than I can bear….for love like mine can never be gotten over….It is useless to disguise the truth….that I shall never behold her again….” –Act One, pages 70-71

HUMBERT: Where exactly did he take you when you gave me the slip?
LOLITA: Yes, that was awfully mean, I must admit that. He took me to a dude ranch near Elphinstone. Duk-Duk Ranch. Silly name.
HUMBERT: Where exactly? What highway?
LOLITA: No highway–a dirt road up a small mountain. Anyway–that ranch does not exist any more. Pity, because it was really something. I mean you can’t imagine how utterly lush it was, that ranch, I mean it had everything, but everything, even an indoor waterfall. You know when Cue and I first came the others had us actually go through a coronation ceremony.
HUMBERT: The others? Who were they?
LOLITA: Oh, just a bunch of wild kids, and a couple of fat old nudists. And at first everything was just perfect. I was there like a princess, and Cue was to take me to Hollywood, and make a big star of me, and all that. But somehow nothing came of it. And, instead, I was supposed to cooperate with the others in making filthy movies while Cue was gadding about the Lord knows where. Well, when he came back I told him I wanted him and not that crowd of perverts, and we had a fight, and he kicked me out, and that’s all.
HUMBERT: You could have come back to me. –Act Three, pages 207-208

Lolita (1962)

Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?

Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn’t have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He’s…
Humbert[Bangs on the table loudly with the paddle] Lolita?!
Quilty: Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares? [Humbert draws a gun] Hey, you’re a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don’t think I want to play anymore. Gee, I’m just dyin’ for a drink. I’m just dyin’ to have a drinkie.
Humbert: You’re dying anyway, Quilty. Quilty, I want you to concentrate – you’re going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.

Charlotte: My yellow roses. My – daughter….I could offer you a comfortable home, a sunny garden, a congenial atmosphere, my cherry pies.
[Humbert decides to rent the room]
Charlotte: What was the decisive factor? Uh, my garden?
Humbert: I think it was your cherry pies!

“Mind if I dance with your girl? We could, um, sort of swap partners.” –John Farlow, to Humbert, about Charlotte, with whom he leaves to dance

“Did you know that you’ve had the most remarkable effect on her. Did you know that?…she’s begun to radiate a certain glow. When you get to know me better, you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded…In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded.” –Jean Farlow, to Humbert

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. –Humbert, voiceover

Lolita: Hi!
Charlotte: Darling, did you come back for something?
Lolita: Mona’s party turned out to be sorta a drag. So I thought I’d come back and see what you two were doing.
Humbert: We had a wonderful evening. Your mother created a magnificent spread.

The wedding was a quiet affair. And when called upon to enjoy my promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity, to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse, daintily running along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. –Humbert, voiceover

Charlotte: Oh Hum, hum-baby, you know, I love the way you smell. You do arouse the pagan in me. Hum, you just touch me, and I-I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

You must now forget Ramsdale and push our lot and poor Lolita and poor Humbert, and accompany us to Beardsley College where my lectureship in French poetry is in its second semester. Six months have passed and Lolita is attending an excellent school where it is my hope that she will be persuaded to read other things than comic books and movie romances. –Humbert, voiceover

I cannot tell you the exact day when I first knew with utter certainty that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. –Humbert, voiceover

Humbert: What happened to this Oriental-minded genius?
Lolita: Look, don’t make fun of me. I don’t have to tell you a blasted thing.
Humbert: I am not making fun of you. I am merely trying to find out what happened. When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita: To New Mexico…to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was, he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there…painters, nudists, writers, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him and he was on his way to Hollywood to write one of those spectaculars, and he promised to get me a studio contract. But it never turned out that way and instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others making some kind of a, you know, an art movie.
Humbert: An art movie?…And you did it?
Lolita: No, I didn’t do it. And so he kicked me out.
Humbert: You could have come back to me.

Lolita (1997)

I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face. –Humbert, voiceover

What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus. –Humbert, voiceover, last lines

Since “Humbert Humbert” (James Mason in Kubrick’s film, and Jeremy Irons in Lyne’s film) is the guilty narrator of Nabokov’s novel, we should be careful with all the information he provides. As an unreliable narrator, he will try to present himself in as sympathetic a light as possible. We should always bear in mind the assessment of him given by his psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray Jr.: “he is a shining example of moral leprosy.” (Nabokov, page 5)

This making of Humbert as a sympathetic character is extended into the two movies, which have the suave, urbane, and debonair Mason and Irons portraying him. What’s more, the films tone down his hebephilia, making only occasional references to his taste for “nymphets” in general, contrasting with his ogling of girls other than Dolores Haze, and his propositioning of an underage prostitute, as given in Nabokov’s novel and screenplay (Nabokov, pages 16-17, 21-23; screenplay, pages 8-9).

He tries to charm us with his “fancy prose style,” showing false modesty when asking if we “can still stand [his] style,” with its puns, French passages, excessive assonance, and its mellifluous, poetic rhapsodizing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by his erudition: this man is a creep.

He tells us of a childhood romance he had with “Annabel Leigh,” whose name is almost identical to that of the girl (and I do mean girl!) in Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem, a girl believed by many scholars to have been Poe’s 13-year-old bride. This love of Humbert’s youth is meant to make his obsession with 9- to 14-year-old girls seem almost legitimate, the tragic result of a childhood trauma (Annabel died of typhus); but her seeming derivation from Poe’s poem gives us the impression that Humbert has made her up.

He’s a child molester. Period.

He murders Clare Quilty (portrayed by Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s film, and by Frank Langella in Lyne’s) for having taken Dolores away from him. Humbert claims, in his narrative, that Quilty (a pun on guilty) is every bit the pedophile pervert he is, even given to enjoying and producing pornography (as well as doing drugs); but since Humbert is the narrator, should we believe his vilifying of the playwright? Is Humbert not just projecting his own sinfulness onto Quilty?

For all we know, Quilty may have innocently worked to rescue Dolores (played by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film, and by Dominique Swain in Lyne’s) from her sexual abuser, and Humbert the madman simply murdered his would-be doppelgänger out of a wish to get revenge. Then he tried to justify his murder by blackening the name of his victim. This speculation is a distinct possibility.

Nabokov leaves the murder of Quilty to the climactic near-end of the novel (Part Two, Chapter 35), while mentioning only that Humbert is a murderer…of whom?…at the beginning. Nabokov’s screenplay begins with Humbert confronting Quilty in his home, and neither man says a word, then Humbert shoots Quilty (page 2). At the beginning of Kubrick’s film, we see the confrontation with dialogue (though censored–i.e., no reference to “erector sets” is heard [note the pun]) taken from the novel’s climax; then we see an abbreviated repeat of the scene at the end. Lyne’s film begins with Humbert having already killed Quilty: he’s driving his car, swaying left and right, with despair on his face while the police are pursuing him; and this scene is an abbreviation of the pursuit at the end.

I’d say, ironically, that Nabokov’s screenplay version of the killing is the weakest one (because, without the dialogue, what’s the point?), while Kubrick’s rewritten version is the strongest, because emotionally it’s the most powerful: for the rest of the film, we slowly discover why Humbert has killed Quilty. It gives Humbert all that undeserved sympathy, since his narration is so unreliable; but as I observed in my analyses of Falling Down and Reservoir Dogs, this provoking of false sympathy in us, the audience/readers, is a moral test of our ability to know with whom we should sympathize.

At the beginning of Nabokov’s novel, a detail is put in, as if in passing: Humbert’s “very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)” [Nabokov, page 10] back when he was three. In the screenplay, her death occurs on the boy’s fourth birthday, with a dramatic screen direction depicting her death, including this sight: “Her graceful specter floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.” (Nabokov, page 4)

Apart from the low likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year, or in one’s whole life, as well as our being given Humbert’s unreliable narration, this death is too absurd to be taken seriously. I do suspect, however, that his beautiful mother did die when he was a child, and when the boy was going through an unresolved Oedipal fixation (Freudians often consider such perversions as pedophilia to have their root in an unresolved Oedipus complex). I also suspect that it was she, and not his likely-fictional Annabel, who died of typhus in Corfu.

This unresolved Oedipal trauma would have been repressed to the point of his mother being the vaguest of memory traces in his mind (“save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory” —page 10). His subsequent desires for nymphets–so young, and therefore with their whole lives ahead of them, far less likely to die on him–can be seen as a reaction formation–a dialectical shift from the far older to the far younger–against his unconscious wish to possess his mother, or any possible adult transference of her. Hence, his revulsion to any “dull adult woman” (Nabokov, page 10). His predictable disparaging of psychoanalysis can also be easily explained away as a form of resistance.

None of this is to deny that Humbert has tried to have normal sexual relations with women, assuming he isn’t lying about his ex-wife, Valeria [pages 25-29], or Rita, the alcoholic he’s involved with after Dolores runs off with Quilty [pages 258-263]. Even if these attempts at having a normal sex life are true, though, they don’t last long. Humbert is a perv.

Nabokov’s Humbert is more honest about his perviness (though dishonest about so many other things) than that of Kubrick or Lyne. When Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, he originally tries to get a lodging in the McCoos’ house, where he’d be teaching French to the family nymphet…as well as indulging in all things “Humbertish” (Chapter 10, page 35). But the house burns down, so he goes to the Haze home instead.

He predictably finds Charlotte Haze repulsive, but when he sees her 12-year-old daughter sunbathing in the backyard (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” —page 40), he claims that he’s seen his Annabel reincarnated (page 15)…though I’d say he’s incarnated his mother in her.

The fact that Humbert would rather refer to Dolores as “Lolita” than by her real name is significant. In changing her name, in characterizing her as the giggling, sexually precocious child that the name “Lolita” is now associated with, as opposed to acknowledging her real name, Dolores (meaning “dolorous,” or sorrowful, as one would expect a traumatized victim of child sexual abuse to be), he is creating a false image of her, an idealized one to contrast with who she really is.

What must be emphasized here is that, from Humbert’s narration, we know virtually nothing about Dolores Haze; “Lolita” is a fantasy concocted in his mind. The novel’s first and last word is “Lolita” (and that includes even the Foreword by Dr. John Ray). The real girl is virtually nowhere to be found in the story.

The giggling, sassy little sex kitten, his fantasized version of her, with her “lovely lyrical lilting name,” (so expressive of the gleeful naughtiness he imagines her to have) is really just a projection of his own wickedness. Humbert writes of a boy at camp, Charlie, having already “debauched” her (Chapters 31 and 32, page 135; also, page 133), of how she tempts Humbert to kiss her in the car on the ride from camp to The Enchanted Hunters hotel (pages 112-113, Chapter 27), and of her having seduced him in the hotel (pages 132-134, Chapter 29). All of these are attempts by him to mitigate his guilt. She ‘wanted it,’ so he wasn’t all that much of a rapist/child molester. The actual, weeping Dolores is nowhere in these pages.

As his fantasized image of the perfect “nymphet,” she, as “Lolita,” is what WRD Fairbairn would have called the Exciting Object of Humbert’s Libidinal Ego (part of Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, which he used to replace Freud’s id). She mirrors back to Humbert what he projects out to her of his own sinfulness.

Normal, mentally healthy people have predominantly what Fairbairn called the Ideal Object interacting with the Central Ego (replacing Freud’s ego); this object is “ideal” because it’s made up of real relationships that one should have with other people, as opposed to the fantasized object relations we all too often have in our minds. Dolores Haze would be an Ideal Object for Humbert’s Central Ego, were he to be a normal stepfather who had no sexual interest in her at all, but only healthy, paternal affection. Instead, there’s only her as a Dolores of the mind: “Lolita.”

As I’ve argued above, “Lolita” and all other “nymphets” are just transferences of his long-lost mother, transformed by reaction formation from that older object to the younger ones that he wishes to possess. Now understood as a kind of inverse Oedipal fixation, or of a mother/son relationship metamorphosed into a daughter/father one, we can see not only his obsession with “Lolita” as his ultimately unattainable objet petit a (i.e., a sought-out replacement for his Oedipally-desired mother), but we can also see why he has such a servile attitude towards her. He’s a slave to her power the way a little boy is because he fears losing Mommy’s love.

There is a third part to Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, and Clare Quilty embodies this part: it is the Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly called the Internal Saboteur), which links with the Rejecting Object. It corresponds only roughly with Freud’s superego, but Quilty can be seen to represent both Freud’s and Fairbairn’s corresponding concepts.

Since Humbert’s narration is unreliable, his depiction of Quilty is as dubious as is his of Dolores. We know little of Quilty, except that he is a playwright and that Humbert has murdered him. Just as “Lolita” represents everything fun, sassy, and sexy in Humbert’s lewd imagination (the Exciting Object), so does “Cue” represent everything repellent in Humbert, everything he hates about himself (the Rejecting Object).

At the same time, though Humbert projects all of his hebephile perversions onto Quilty, his nemesis also embodies his guilty conscience, his superego. His conversation with then-unknown Quilty, with the latter’s taunts (“Where the devil did you get her?” and “You lie–she’s not.”–Chapter 28, page 127; and, of course, Quilty later following Humbert’s car) shows the inner critic of Humbert’s superego plainly personified. The same goes for Peter Sellers’s nerdy cop improvisation with James Mason in the corresponding scene in Kubrick’s movie.

So, both “Lolita” and “Cue” represent opposing tendencies in Humbert’s mind. In turn, these two opposing tendencies have their representations in the novel (and therefore in Lyne’s film too, since it’s far more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s is) and in Kubrick’s film respectively. Consider how Kubrick’s version greatly expands Quilty’s role; and where, as film critic Greg Jenkins noted, the film begins and ends with the word “Quilty,” just as the novel begins and ends with “Lolita.”

Humbert, at his core, is narcissistic, as is clear in his ostentatious writing style. Since, as I’ve speculated above, his hebephilia can be seen as a dialectical turning upside-down of his unconscious, unresolved Oedipus complex, which in turn is a universal narcissistic trauma (i.e., one wishes to hog Mother all to oneself), one can see how sassy “Lolita” is a mirror reflection of his narcissism.

Similarly, Quilty, being overtly narcissistic himself, is a mirror reflection of those dark qualities that Humbert wishes to disavow and project onto others. Recall how, in Lyne’s film, we see Humbert who, having confronted Quilty at gunpoint in his home, is weeping in horror at the plainly confessed lasciviousness of his would-be doppelgänger. But Quilty’s sin is Humbert’s own.

The whole novel is a journey through Humbert’s mind, with “Lolita” and “Cue” as opposing, yet dialectically akin, internal objects floating around in his head like ghosts haunting a house. The naughtiness of the spouse-swapping Farlows and Mr. Swine in Kubrick’s film are just more of such projections of Humbert’s filthy mind.

Now, Nabokov was known for disavowing any allegorical intent with Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita,” page 314), but I’ll give two reasons why I doubt that we should take his words at face value. First of all, he could have made such disavowals in order to prevent any one scholar’s interpretation, however convincing it may be, to be deemed the ‘definitive’ interpretation; in other words, Nabokov’s denial may have been meant to encourage a maximum of possible interpretations.

Second, even if he really meant that he hated allegorizing, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have unconsciously intended one. Certainly, Martin Amis saw in Lolita an allegory of a ‘Soviet rape,’ if you will, of Russia; and Nabokov, a classical liberal, hated communism. (For my part, I find Amis’s use of Robert Conquest‘s work in his research to be dubious in itself, to put it mildly, but I digress…) So anyway, I’d like to try a few allegories of my own.

One allegory we can see in Humbert’s seduction of Dolores (as opposed to his projection of “Lolita” supposedly seducing him; or, a reversal from Freud’s female Oedipus complex back to his seduction theory) is that of the European colonizing North and South America, with the colonizers rationalizing their conquest by claiming an intent ‘to civilize’ the natives. I’m reminded of John Donne‘s poem, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d.” (lines 25-28)

The innocent natives being plundered is symbolized by Humbert’s sexual abuse of Dolores; the converting of those natives to Christianity can be seen as symbolized by Humbert’s attempts to introduce her to culture (e.g., his buying her such books as Browning‘s Dramatic Works, The History of Dancing, The Russian Ballet, and The Theatre Guild Anthology so she’ll have something to read while in hospital [page 242]). Similarly, the white man (Humbert, the “white widowed male”) taking possession of and enslaving black Americans (represented here by Dolores) is another reasonable allegory, since Nabokov was vocal in his opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans.

Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, as symbolic of that of the European and American, is also seen in his comments on American pop culture, as opposed to European high culture. As heard in Kubrick’s film, Humbert speaks disapprovingly of Dolores’s taste for “comic books and movie romances.” He complains of her “eerie vulgarity,” a reflection of the stereotypically cultured European as against the equally stereotypical philistine American, and which can in turn be seen as symbolic of the ‘civilized’ white attitude to the ‘uncivilized’ ways of the natives.

Another allegory of Humbert’s desire for nymphets, especially evident in Kubrick’s film, is the yearning of the older characters (Humbert and Quilty) for a return to youth, as personified in “Lolita.” We see this in Kubrick’s film whenever Charlotte, the Farlows, etc., refer to each other as “kids” or “other young marrieds.” Then there’s that elderly spectator or two, envious of the smooth style of dancing Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom (later, Charlotte), trying to bop along to the music and appear as hip as they can.

But to return to one of my earlier speculations, towards the end of the novel, we find Humbert looking at pregnant Mrs. Dolores Schiller, and finding himself all the more in love with her. At seventeen years old, she’s too old to be a nymphet! As a mother-to-be, she is triggering his repressed Oedipal fixation.

“…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past…but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshiped…I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” (Part Two, Chapter 29, pages 277-278)

His loving of her, older and with another man’s baby, reminds one of a little boy’s Oedipal jealousy over his father’s having of his love-object, jealous of how she will be preoccupied with taking care of his younger sibling-to-be; because the Oedipus complex is a selfish, narcissistic trauma, and his seeing his “Lolita” in this way is bringing back those feelings that have been buried deep down in his psyche. This element, hidden among all the lies of this unreliable narrator, is the core truth of his whole narrative.

Finally, we must confront the “dangerous trends,” the “potent evils,” that Dr. John Ray warns us about in the Foreword. There have been attempts by some in the media recently to normalize pedophile desires; there has also been the growing problem of sexualizing little girls. These are, needless to say, dangerous encouragements to more child sexual abuse. Then there were Epstein‘s escapades, most of the perpetrators of which still seem largely unpunished. For these reasons, we shouldn’t let Humbert’s honeyed words charm us. We should heed Ray’s words instead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1955

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: a Screenplay, Vintage International, New York, 1961

Analysis of ‘Withnail and I’

Withnail and I is a 1987 British buddy film written and directed by Bruce Robinson, based on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical novel, based in turn on his experiences as an actor during such incidents as the filming of Franco Zeffirelli‘s Romeo and Juliet. It stars Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths. It also features Ralph Brown and Michael Elphick.

The film had George Harrison as executive producer through his company, HandMade Films. It has become a cult classic. Withnail (Grant) “and I” (McGann–actually, the character’s name is Marwood as indicated in the script, as well as discovered, by a watchful eye, written on the cover of a telegram, though we’d never know, since he’s never referred to by name anywhere in the film) are two struggling young actors who, after an intense experience of being stoned and drunk over a period of several days and nights, decide to spend a weekend in the country to rejuvenate…only to stumble into other problems.

Here are some quotes:

Withnail[reading from the paper] “In a world exclusive interview, 33-year-old shotputter Geoff Woade, who weighs 317 pounds, admitted taking massive doses of anabolic steroids, drugs banned in sport. ‘He used to get in bad tempers and act up,’ said his wife. ‘He used to pick on me. But now he’s stopped, he’s much better in our sex life and in our general life.'” Jesus Christ, this huge, thatched head with its earlobes and cannonball is now considered sane. “Geoff Woade is feeling better and is now prepared to step back into society and start tossing his orb about.” Look at him. Look at Geoff Woade. His head must weigh fifty pounds on its own. Imagine the size of his balls. Imagine getting into a fight with the fucker!
Marwood: Please, I don’t feel good.
Withnail: That’s what you’d say, but that wouldn’t wash with Geoff. No, he’d like a bit of pleading. Add spice to it. In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. “I’m going to pull your head off.” “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off.” “I’m going to pull your head off, because I don’t like your head.”

“I demand to have some booze!” –Withnail

“Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I’m inclined to believe Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell. Making enemies of our own futures.” –Marwood, voiceover

“Speed is like a dozen transatlantic flights without ever getting off the plane. Time change. You lose, you gain. Makes no difference so long as you keep taking the pills. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out because it’s crashing. Then all at once those frozen hours melt out through the nervous system and seep out the pores.” –Marwood, voiceover

“Danny’s here. Headhunter to his friends. Headhunter to everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. The only people he converses with are his clients, and occasionally the police. The purveyor of rare herbs and proscribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?” –Marwood, voiceover

“You’re looking very beautiful, man. Have you been away? Saint Peter preached the epistles to the apostles looking like that.” –Danny, to Marwood, who has come out of the bathroom wearing a towel

“I don’t advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.” –Danny

“Ponce!” –Irishman in pub, to Marwood (because he has perfume-smelling boots)

“I could hardly piss straight with fear. Here was a man with 3/4 of an inch of brain who’d taken a dislike to me. What had I done to offend him? I don’t consciously offend big men like this. And this one has a definite imbalance of hormone in him. Get any more masculine than him and you’d have to live up a tree.” –Marwood, voiceover

“‘I fuck arses’? Who fucks arses? Maybe he fucks arses! Maybe he’s written this in some moment of drunken sincerity! I’m in considerable danger here, I must get out of here at once.” –Marwood

“Oh! you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is a certain je ne sais quoi – oh, so very special – about a firm, young carrot…Excuse me…” –Uncle Monty

“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane.'” –Uncle Monty

[They drive past some schoolgirls] Withnail: [leaning out the car window] SCRUBBERS!
Schoolgirl: Up yours, grandad!
Withnail: SCRUBBERS! SCRUBBERS!
Marwood: Shut up.
Withnail: Little tarts, they love it.

“I been watching you, especially you, prancing like a tit. You want working on, boy!” –Jake the Poacher

[Withnail and Marwood are lying in bed together, listening to a man coming inside the cottage. Withnail is cowering under the covers] Withnail: [whispering] He’s going into your room. It’s you he wants. Offer him yourself. [the bedroom door slowly opens and the intruder enters with a torchscrewing his eyes shut in terror, moaning] We mean no harm!
Monty: Oh, my boys, my boys, forgive me.
Marwood: [relieved] Monty! Monty, Monty!
Withnail: MONTY, YOU TERRIBLE CUNT!
Monty: Forgive me, it was inconsiderate of me not to have telegrammed.
Withnail: WHAT ARE YOU DOING PROWLING AROUND IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUCKING NIGHT?

“The older order changeth, yielding place to new. God fulfils himself in many ways. And soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumour. Oh, my boys, my boys, we’re at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set in. Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour. And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.” –Uncle Monty

Monty: Now, which of you is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?
Withnail: [getting up] I will.
Marwood: [getting up at the same time] No, I’d better go. I want to see about digging the car out anyway.
Monty: But we have my car, dear boy.
Marwood: Yes, but if it rains, we’re buggered. [realises he’s used the wrong word] I mean…
Monty: Stranded!

“I can never touch meat until it’s cooked. As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.” –Uncle Monty

“If you think you’re going to have a weekend’s indulgence up here at his expense, which means him having a weekend’s indulgence up here at my expense, you got another thing coming.” –Marwood, to Withnail, about Uncle Monty

“I think you’ve been punished enough. I think we’d better release you from the légumes and transfer your talents to the meat.” –Uncle Monty, after having amorously put his hand on Marwood’s arm as he peels vegetables

Monty: Laisse-moi, respirer, longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux. Oh, Baudelaire. Brings back such memories of Oxford. Oh, Oxford…
Marwood: [voiceover] Followed by yet another anecdote about his sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap called Norman who had red hair and a book of poetry stained with the butter drips from crumpets.

Monty: There can be no true beauty without decay.
Withnail: Legium pro Britannia.
Monty: How right you are, how right you are. We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.

Monty: You mustn’t blame him. You mustn’t blame yourself. I know how you feel and how difficult it is. And that’s why you mustn’t hold back, let it ruin your youth as I nearly did over Eric. It’s like a tide. Give in to it, boy. Go with it. It’s society’s crime, not ours.
Marwood: I’m not homosexual, Monty.
Monty: Yes, you are! Of course you are! You’re simply blackmailing your emotions to avoid the realities of your relationship with him.
Marwood: What are you talking about?
Monty: You love him. And it isn’t his fault he cannot love you any more than it’s mine that I adore you.

“I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!” –Uncle Monty, to Marwood

Marwood: I have just narrowly avoided having a buggering. And I’ve come in here with the express intention of wishing one on you! Having said that, I now intend to leave for London.
Withnail: Hold on, don’t let your imagination run away with you…
Marwood: Imagination! I have just finished fighting a naked man! How dare you tell him I’m a toilet trader?!
Withnail: Tactical necessity. If I hadn’t told him you were active we’d never have got the cottage.

Danny: The joint I’m about to roll requires a craftsman. It can utilise up to 12 skins. It is called a Camberwell Carrot.
Marwood: It’s impossible to use 12 papers on one joint.
Danny: It’s impossible to make a Camberwell Carrot with anything less.
Withnail: Who says it’s a Camberwell Carrot?
Danny: I do. I invented it in Camberwell, and it looks like a carrot.

“London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees.” –Danny

“I’m getting the FEAR!” –Marwood, while high

“You have done something to your brain. You have made it high. If I lay 10 mils of diazepam on you, it will do something else to your brain. You will make it low. Why trust one drug and not the other? That’s politics, innit?” –Danny, to Marwood

“If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision — let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” –Danny

“I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth… and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air — look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties! …How like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither… nor woman neither.” –Withnail, imperfectly quoting Hamlet

A recurring theme in this film is a sense of ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ This quasi-apocalyptic sense comes in many forms: it’s late 1969, so “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” Associated with the end of the 1960s is the soon-to-come end of welfare-oriented capitalism, that is, the Keynesian post-war economic era that would end with the 1973 oil crisis and be replaced with the neoliberal era inaugurated by such politicians as Thatcher and Reagan. Finally, there’s the end of Withnail’s and Marwood’s partying, boozing, and getting stoned together. England is “coming down from its trip.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the film we see Marwood coming down from a lengthy period of getting wasted with Withnail, looking exhausted. He is also a hyper-agitated sort, given to intense fears of imminent catastrophe (“My thumbs have gone weird! I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose! My heart’s beating like a fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful.”) His preoccupation with survival makes him representative of Eros, the life instinct.

Withnail, on the other hand, is self-destructive in the extreme, not only drinking like a fish and doing drugs to excess, but also drinking toxic substances like lighter fluid or possibly even antifreeze [!] when he’s desperate for more booze. He almost always seems to have a wine bottle in his hand. He’ll drive drunk, not at all caring if the cops nab him. He thus personifies Thanatos, the death instinct, and is Marwood’s opposite.

Since Marwood represents Robinson, who played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and since Robinson at the time of filming had to fight off gay Zeffirelli’s aggressive sexual advances (as represented by those of Montague Withnail against Marwood), the title Withnail and I can be seen as a parallel of Romeo and Juliet, the story of two star-cross’d lovers who tragically cannot be together.

Thus, Uncle Monty is the Romeo (or a Romeo…see below) Montague of this film, and Marwood is the would-be Juliet. In this connection, the made-up surname of Withnail (inspired by an admired childhood friend of Robinson’s, whose name was Withnall, which Robinson misspelt in–as I see it–a Freudian slip), or “with nail,” as some old friends of mine who introduced me to the film mispronounced it, can be seen as a phallic symbol.

That “nail” stabbing, or threatening to stab, into Marwood can be in the form of Monty’s attempted homosexual rape (“burglary”), or in the form of young Withnail’s exasperating personality and behaviour, ultimately making Marwood want to distance himself from the hopeless drunk. Thus young Withnail “and I” are opposites, just as there are many opposites in Romeo and Juliet, as I observed in my analysis of that play.

The two young men are fated never to be together, just as Romeo’s and Juliet’s love is tragically thwarted by fate, because of the conflict between irresponsible, Thanatos-driven Withnail and career-focused, Eros-driven Marwood. Similarly, Uncle Monty can never have Marwood because the latter isn’t gay (or at least isn’t consciously aware of having homosexual feelings…see below). The conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets ensures that Romeo’s and Juliet’s love won’t last in this world, either.

Though Marwood has been getting drunk and stoned with young Withnail, because he knows that the two of them are “drifting into the arena of the unwell,” he is losing his taste for the world of partying. He wants to ‘choose life’ and be straight in a capitalist world that is soon to phase out of its welfare life support system.

As struggling actors, they have a filthy apartment in Camden Town with little food and lots of rats and “matter” growing in the sink. They need to get away and restore their health, but the only means available to them is to take advantage of Withnail’s wealthy uncle, his overtly gay, corpulent, silver-tongued Uncle Monty…who will agree to Withnail’s mooching only if Monty can hope to take advantage of pretty-boy Marwood.

So Uncle Monty, with his cottage out in the country, his money, and all the food and wine he can provide for poor Withnail and Marwood, can be seen to personify the British welfare state, and therefore the liberal wing of the ruling class. Oh, sure, Monty will help out his two boys, but with strings attached. Similarly, the bourgeois state may be generous to the poor if it wants to, but one day it will fuck them.

Bourgeois liberal politicians may create ‘generous’ social programs for the poor (as symbolized in the film by Uncle Monty’s largesse to Withnail and Marwood that weekend), but the same class structure stays intact (wealthy Monty stays wealthy, and the two young men stay poor). That generosity doesn’t last long, either, as it hadn’t between 1945 and 1973, as symbolized by the brief, “delightful weekend in the country.”

Marwood’s only hope for survival, his major preoccupation, is to join the capitalist system, which he does at the end of the film by accepting an acting job to play the leading role in a play, cutting his hair short (i.e., betraying the hippie counterculture), and leaving London (and Withnail, of course) for Manchester. It’s fitting that Marwood is an actor, and a successful one, unlike Withnail; for in order to succeed in capitalism, one must learn how to pretend, to put on an act.

In order to escape from the miseries of the world, the two young men use drinking and drugs as a manic defence; hence their friendship with fellow stoner Danny (Brown), who comments on the “uptight” men of the capitalist system, those “bald” men. As for hair, he notes how capitalists are “selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s.” Just like the selling of Che Guevara T-shirts, capitalism can accommodate and absorb anything, even the counterculture and socialism.

The drinking and drugs seem to be an escape from not only the “hideousness” of modern life, as Withnail calls it in the car on the way to the cottage. I suspect that Withnail and Marwood are repressed homosexuals. In fact, Danny, who sees Marwood in a towel after a shower and calls him “beautiful,” could be doping to escape facing up to repressed homosexuality, too.

To understand my meaning, we have to be sure of what is meant by the ‘repressed.’ It’s not just about suppressing unacceptable feelings while being aware of them; it’s about pushing them into the unconscious, making oneself totally unaware of them. The feelings do manage to be expressed, to come out to the surface, but in ways totally unrecognizable to the person feeling them.

There are many phallic symbols in the movie, apart from the ‘nail’ in Withnail already mentioned. There is the hot dog wiener that Marwood, nude in the bathtub, offers to Withnail. Uncle Monty’s reference to the ‘mystery’ of the obviously phallic carrot (in ironic contrast to the far more mysterious yoni, our uncanny place of birth, symbolized in the film by flowers, “tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.”) should be recalled when we see Danny’s Camberwell Carrot, a huge phallic joint put in one’s mouth to give pleasure.

All those bottles of wine that Withnail puts to his mouth are more phallic symbols; and excessive drinking and pot-smoking can be seen as a fixation of the oral stage. Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot…and sometimes it’s much more than that.

Still more phallic symbols are the sword and shotgun that Withnail recklessly points at Marwood, an expression of an unconscious wish to have sex with his friend. Indeed, Withnail’s telling his uncle to feel free to enjoy Marwood sexually can be seen as a displaced wish to have Marwood himself.

(To return briefly to the Marxist interpretation, Withnail’s betrayal of his friend to his uncle–the two young men representing the proletariat, and Monty representing the bourgeoisie–can be seen to represent class collaboration, a lack of solidarity being the last straw that makes Marwood want to give up on his friendship with Withnail.)

Marwood’s fear of the homophobic Irishman in the pub is also peppered with unconscious homoerotic elements. While pissing, Marwood reads graffiti on the bathroom wall above the urinal (“I fuck arses.”), and imagines it’s the Irishman who has written it, an absurd idea that is better explained as an unconscious wish fulfillment. The Irishman recognizes Marwood’s homosexuality, and supposedly he’d rather fuck his ass than “murder the pair of [Withnail and Marwood].”

It’s quite curious how a number of characters in the film ‘mistake’ Withnail–and especially Marwood–for homosexuals. Not only does that Irishman, but also Jake the poacher (Elphick), who speaks of Marwood as “prancing like a tit,” and, of course, Uncle Monty. And just as Monty consciously makes unwanted advances on Marwood, so are there unconsciously homoerotic elements in the exchange with Jake, who has phallic eels in his pants, takes “a wheeze on [Withnail’s phallic] fag [!],” and says Marwood “want[s] working on.”

When Monty says that Marwood is “a thespian, too,” he pronounces the s and p like a zed and a b, making a word that rhymes with lesbian, another homosexual association. Marwood later makes a Freudian slip in saying he and Withnail are “buggered” if they can’t get their car out of the mud.

Marwood knows from his first meeting of Uncle Monty that “he’s a raving homosexual,” yet he is always grinning at this man who so lusts after him. He continues grinning even when it’s obvious that Monty wants to seduce him. It strains credibility to dismiss Marwood’s grinning as mere politeness: part of him wants to have a gay sexual experience (though assuredly not with roly-poly Monty), while another part wants to repress that urge.

That, in so brief a time, so many characters ‘mistake’ Withnail and Marwood for gays suggests that the former know something about the latter that the latter don’t know about themselves. Why does Marwood use perfume, of all things, to clean his boots after Withnail has puked on them? Why not use something like soap? Why is there perfume, rather than cologne, in their Camden Town flat? There aren’t any girlfriends to give it to, which is in itself a significant observation. The two young men may be poor, struggling actors, but they’re good-looking; if they’re straight, why don’t we see them even try to pick up any women?

When Uncle Monty attempts his “burglary” (interesting choice of words) on Marwood, the latter’s having “barely escaped a buggering” is achieved by having told Monty he’s in a gay relationship with Withnail. Even a non-homophobic man, one not normally given to violence, might find himself having, as a last resort, to hit a gay aggressor to stop him from succeeding in that “burglary.”

In the stress of the moment, one tends to blurt out unprepared, unrehearsed words, the first thing that comes to one’s mind, and therefore something tending to reveal unconscious wishes, like having a closeted gay relationship with one’s friend. It’s less his fear of homosexual rape than it is fear of ‘cheating’ on Withnail that’s bothering Marwood. His ‘lie’ to get Monty to stop his aggressive sexual advances is an unconscious truth, another Freudian slip. Both Withnail and Marwood have told Monty that each other is a closeted homosexual; again, I’m saying that both ‘lies’ are truths.

Still, Withnail’s betrayal makes Marwood want ‘to dump’ him, as it were. Now, Marwood’s wishing of a buggering on Withnail reflects both his conscious anger at his would-be friend’s betrayal, and his unconscious wish for sex with him, displaced onto someone like Monty, just as Withnail, in offering Marwood to his uncle, has displaced his own wish for sex with his friend, as mentioned above.

On their ride out from London to Monty’s cottage (at the beginning of which we appropriately see a wrecking ball being used to raze a building), we hear Jimi Hendrix‘s version of Bob Dylan‘s “All Along the Watchtower,” a song variously interpreted to be about such things as the Vietnam War and the Apocalypse. I tend toward the latter interpretation (though I’m sure many during the late 60s considered that war to be apocalyptic); this film presents the end of the hippie era, the near-end of the Keynesian, welfare-oriented capitalism of 1945-1973, and, most importantly, the end of the friendship of these two young men.

The song seems written for Withnail (the thief) and Marwood (the joker), or rather, the film seems made for the song. Marwood wants to find “some way out of here,” and Withnail tries to tell his friend there’s “No reason to get excited,” since all that matters to him is mooching off of his uncle and conniving at Monty’s attempted “burglary” of Marwood. To Withnail, the bourgeois “feel that life is but a joke,” he and Marwood have “been through that/And this is not [their] fate.”

“Businessmen, they drink my wine”; capitalists enjoy the luxuries of life and don’t “Know what any of it is worth.” This is prophetic of the dawn of Thatcher/Reagan neoliberalism, the effects of which were already being felt in England at the time of the filming of Withnail and I in 1987. “All along the watchtower/Princes kept the view/While all the women came and went/Barefoot servants, too.” The contrasts between these people reflect class differences felt even more sharply now, since neoliberal capitalism has grown like a cancer over the past forty years.

Just as we hear a Jimi Hendrix recording on the way out of London, so do we hear another of his recordings, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” on the way back. Instead of hearing a song about the end of the world as we know it, we hear one about how great and powerful the singer is (a feeling that often comes as a result of being drunk and/or high on drugs): “Well, I stand up next to a mountain/And I chop it down with the edge of my hand.”

Since we hear this song while drunk Withnail is driving recklessly back to London, we can interpret it as expressive of his narcissistic personality, something that has been trying Marwood’s patience for the whole length of the movie. Recall Withnail’s scream out on the hills of the countryside earlier: “Bastards! You’ll all suffer! I’ll show the lot of you! I’m gonna be a sta-a-a-a-ar!

The threat of capitalism against one’s ability to survive is evident again when, on returning to their flat, Withnail and Marwood receive an eviction notice from their landlord, making Marwood spiral into another of his hysterical fears of annihilation. Ultimately, it won’t matter to him, as he’s been given the lead role in a play in Manchester. Since his acting career is taking off, he can enter the competitive world of capitalism. Since all Withnail does is get drunk, he won’t ever even enter that world, much less hope to be a star.

Not even going all the way to the train station with Marwood, Withnail knows he’s lost his friend forever. He recites Hamlet’s words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the reason for his unhappiness, not only because he knows, as his uncle did years ago, that he’ll “never play the Dane,” but because he’s lost the man he’s unconsciously in love with.

Robinson originally intended to end the story with Withnail returning to the flat, picking up the shotgun he’d found in Monty’s cottage, pouring a bottle of wine into the barrel, then drinking it and blowing his brains out. Robinson chose to omit this scene because it’s too dark an ending for the film, but I take it as still having happened, even if unseen.

Why would Withnail want to kill himself just over a friend leaving him? Yes, he is self-destructive by nature, but only in the forms of drinking, doping, and reckless driving, not all the way to suicide. He still has Danny and Presuming Ed to hang out with. Yes, he envies Marwood’s greater success as an actor, but surely he knows that his own future as an actor, though dim, isn’t completely hopeless.

As I’ve said above, I believe he has unconscious homosexual feelings for Marwood, whose departure–not even wanting Withnail to follow him all the way to the station–is tantamount to a break-up. A clue is heard in Withnail’s quoting of Hamlet, which isn’t letter-perfect (in itself symbolic of his insufficient acting talent or determination) when he says, “Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither,” he says the part about women twice, whereas in Hamlet, it’s said only once. Women don’t delight Withnail because he’s gay.

This inability to gratify homosexual desire, the inability of any of these men–except Monty, of course–even to give expression to such desires, allied with the male hostility to them (the Irishman’s bigotry, Jake’s taunting of the “tit,” Withnail’s pointing of a phallic shotgun and sword at Marwood), all can be seen as symbolic of the alienation and lack of comradely solidarity between men (I’m using this word in the old-fashioned sense of people, the male sex here being symbolic of all people) as a consequence of capitalism, even in its postwar welfare-oriented form.

The party is over, that is, the 1945-1973 party of welfare capitalism was over, because it was never a suitable substitute for socialism anyway. Life in London as seen in the film can be seen to symbolize the First World, and life in the countryside, where the commons once was, can be seen to symbolize the Third World, a place full of peasant farmers (including Isaac Parkin), poverty, and want.

So Withnail’s and Marwood’s weekend indulgence in Uncle Monty’s cottage can be seen to represent a First World colonizing of the Third World, inhabiting its space and using its resources. Monty provides for his two “boys” the way the welfare state threw the poor a few bones to placate them and stave off socialist revolution, but the stark contrast between the First and Third Worlds has remained, a contrast we see clearly between London and Crow Crag.

We don’t resolve the world’s problems with brief moments of indulgence: getting drunk and stoned, enjoying “a delightful weekend in the country,” etc., then return to squalor and self-destruction. As Uncle Monty observed, “We live in a kingdom of reigns where royalty comes in gangs.” Even the best of them, the liberals and social democrats who pushed for the welfare state, didn’t make it last long, and then the neoliberals took over, the next gang.

There can be no true (welfare capitalist) beauty without (neoliberal) decay.

Analysis of ‘Salò’

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) is a 1975 art horror film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The screenplay, written by Sergio Citti and Pasolini, was based on the Marquis de Sade‘s unfinished pornographic novel of the same name (sans Salò, or). Pasolini updated the story, moving it from the Château de Silling in 18th century France to the final years of WWII, in fascist Italy, during the time of the fascist Republic of Salò.

The film stars Paolo Bonacelli (who also played Cassius Chaerea in the Penthouse Caligula film), Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, and Aldo Valletti as four wealthy libertines who abduct, sexually abuse, torture, and ultimately murder a group of teenage boys and girls. The cast also includes Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, and Hélène Surgère as three middle-aged prostitutes who tell erotic stories to inflame the lust of the libertines and inspire them to acts of depravity.

Salò was and still is controversial for its shocking depiction of sexual violence against the teenaged boys and girls, at least some of whom are believed to have been underage at the time of filming, though they all look as though they could be 18 or 19 years of age. For these reasons, Salò is considered one of the most disturbing films ever made. It has been banned in many countries.

As a gay communist, Pasolini was trying to make some harsh social critiques in the making of this movie, especially as a critique of capitalism and the atrocities of fascism. He was murdered by bitter anti-communists, who allegedly had in their possession stolen rolls of film from the movie, just after its completion. Still, despite the unsettling subject matter of the film (or rather, because of it), Salò has been highly praised by many critics.

Here are some quotes, in English translation:

[first lines: four men, sitting at a table, each sign a booklet] The Duke: Your Excellency.
The Magistrate: Mr. President.
The President: My lord.
The Bishop: All’s good if it’s excessive.

“Dear friends, marrying each other’s daughters will unite our destinies for ever.” –the Duke

“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.” –the Duke

“Signora Vaccari is sure to soon turn them into first class whores. Nothing is more contagious than evil.” –the Magistrate

“I was nine when my sister took me to Milan to meet Signora Calzetti. She examined me and asked if I wanted to work for her. I said I would, if the pay was good. My first client, a stout man named Vaccari, looked me over carefully. At once, I showed him my pussy, which I thought was very special. He covered his eyes: “Out of the question. I’m not interested in your vagina, cover it up.” He covered me, making me lie down, and said “All these little whores know is to flaunt their vaginas. Now I shall have to recover from that disgusting sight.” –Signora Vaccari

“Homage to the rear temple is often more fervent than the other.” –the President

“On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” –the Duke, singing

“We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we’re masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.” –the Duke

“It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of “the people”. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist. So you wouldn’t aid the humble, the unhappy. In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” –the Duke

“I remember I once had a mother too, who aroused similar feelings in me. As soon as I could, I sent her to the next world. I have never known such subtle pleasure as when she closed her eyes for the last time.” –the Duke

The Duke: [Renata is crying] Are you crying for your mama? Come, I’ll console you! Come here to me!
The President: [singing] Come, little darling to your good daddy / He’ll sing you a lullaby
The Duke: Heavens, what an opportunity you offer me. Sra. Maggi’s tale must be acted upon at once.
Female Victim: Sir, Sir. Pity. Respect my grief. I’m suffering so, at my mother’s fate. She died for me and I’ll never see her again.
The Duke: Undress her.
Female Victim: Kill me! At least God, whom I implore, will pity me. Kill me, but don’t dishonour me.
The Duke: This whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.

The President: [while eating a meal of faeces] Carlo, do this with your fingers. [the President sticks two fingers in his mouth] And say, “I can’t eat rice with my fingers like this.”
Male Victim: [with fingers in his mouth] I can’t eat rice.
The President: Then eat shit.

“It is not enough to kill the same person over and over again. It is far more recommendable to kill as many beings as possible.” –Signora Castelli

“Idiot, did you really think we would kill you? Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” –the Bishop

“The principle of all greatness on earth has long been totally bathed in blood. And, my friends, if my memory does not betray me – yes, that’s it: without bloodshed, there is no forgiveness. Without bloodshed. Baudelaire.” –the Magistrate

[last lines: two young male guards are dancing with each other] Guard: What’s your girlfriend’s name?
Guard: Marguerita.

Four wealthy and politically powerful libertines–a duke (Bonacelli), a president (Valletti), a bishop (Cataldi), and a magistrate (Quintavalle)–discuss plans to marry each other’s daughters (without their consent, of course), as well as to abduct youths and maidens to abuse sexually and torture physically and mentally (and even kill some of them) over a period of four months.

These four libertines obviously represent the ruling class, though in the context of late fascist Italy (i.e., Mussolini and Hitler are about to lose the war), we can see their sadism as representing capitalism in crisis (fascism, properly understood, is a kind of hyper-capitalism). When such a crisis occurs, the gentle, smiling face of the liberal is revealed to be a mask covering the scowling face of fascism. Hence, the four men’s cruelty.

The victims, frequently if not always naked, represent the proletariat: exploited, brutalized, vulnerable, humiliated, and lacking the means to live freely. Recall Hamlet’s use of the word naked (‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), to understand the symbolic meaning of the victims’ nakedness.

The studs, or fouteurs (“fuckers”) in Sade’s story (Sade, page 80), as well as the young male collaborators, or guards (dressed in the uniforms of the Decima Flottiglia MAS) represent the police and standing army of the bourgeois state. They are comparable to the militarized police of today. Without them, the four libertines would have no power, and the same, of course, goes for the state.

These young men are all rounded up to work for the four libertines, and only one of them, Ezio, is reluctant to do so. Indeed, when the guards apprehend the libertines’ daughters, all as members of the bourgeoisie who normally would be used to much better treatment (apart from their fathers’ previous rapes of them, as understood in Sade’s novel), Ezio apologizes to the women, saying he must obey orders. If only all of these thugs could understand that some orders shouldn’t be obeyed, such horrors as those seen in this movie wouldn’t happen.

But how does one get through to class collaborators?

Since capitalism is sheer hell for the poor–as I observed in my analysis of American Psycho, another story involving brutal violence inflicted by the rich–it is appropriate that Salò be divided into sections reminding us of Dante‘s Inferno: Anteinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Abandon all hope, ye proletarians who enter here.

None of the four libertines are named, and the studs and collaborators aren’t often called by name. The three middle-aged prostitute storytellers are named, but the piano player isn’t; and of the victims who are named, most have names equal or approximate to those of the actors portraying them, as if naming them was an afterthought by Pasolini. Thus, we aren’t very conscious of the names of many of the characters. This near-anonymity reinforces the sense of emotional distance, the alienation, felt not just between all the characters, but between them and us, the audience.

Indeed, one of the many reasons that this film is so disturbing to viewers, as has been noted by critics, is how we cannot get close to any of the characters, there being too many of them to focus on any; so it is difficult to empathize with, to care for, any of them individually (except for shit-eating, motherless Renata and the daughter who is tripped and raped at dinner, and these are only a few incidents, not plot points drawn out for the full length of the film), and the ability to empathize with individual characters is crucial for grounding in the story, for being able to enjoy it.

We pity the victims in a general sense, we pity them en masse, but we can’t follow any individual character arcs. There is no sense of anyone growing, developing, or changing; it’s just victims entering a sea of trauma and swimming through undifferentiated torment from beginning to end.

We know the victims are doomed, and that their depraved masters are irredeemable. There’s nothing anybody can do to help the victims, so all that there is here is a sadistic stasis throughout. Lasciate ogne speranza,…

In Sade’s novel, the characters are grouped and categorized in a manner almost like taxonomy: the four libertines, the prostitute storytellers, the libertines’ daughters, the huit fouteurs, the four elderly, ugly women, etc. The numbers of characters are often reduced (e.g., four studs instead of eight) in the film, and Sade generally names the characters, but this sense of ‘taxonomy’ is retained in Salò.

This categorizing of characters is significant in terms of the Italian fascist context of the film, since Mussolini wanted his fascist society to be broken up into corporate groups of people according to the functions they were meant to perform in society (syndicates). When Mussolini spoke of “corporatism,” this is what he meant, not the corporatocracy that we see today, the unholy alliance of business corporations with the state, which is really just the logical extreme that capitalism comes to.

The fact that the libertines allow their daughters to be abused and killed doesn’t in any way detract from them also being symbolic of the bourgeoisie. The daughters are every bit as representative of capitalists–that is, the less fortunate ones–as their fathers are. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Apart from the fact that their fathers’ cruelty to them is a reflection of the patriarchal family, especially cruel in a fascist context, the daughters as victims can be seen as representative of, for example, the Jewish petite bourgeoisie up until the Nazis stripped them of their rights with the Nuremberg Laws. Hence, the daughters being stripped naked and forced to stay naked throughout the four months, humiliated, made to serve everyone’s meals and to endure being spat on by the guards and raped by the studs.

Indeed, the first scene in which the daughters appear as naked waitresses is one that I find to be among the most painful to watch. What we see here is the essence of fascism: the guards and studs, as class collaborators instead of joining in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class, would rather target and bully a select portion of the petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the daughters.

That poor daughter who is tripped and raped by one of the studs, while the others watch and laugh at her–the bourgeois fathers would rather sing a song together than help the girl. This is the essence of the bourgeois family: being more concerned with maintaining power and prestige than even with helping their own children.

Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, wrote of how there is no meaningful sense of family among 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 the proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us [communists] with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (II: Proletarians and Communists)

Indeed, with all the teen victims snatched away from their parents (and Renata actually having witnessed the murder of her own mother, who tried to save her), we can see the truth of Marx’s observation. To make matters worse, though, we see this injustice to the family extended to that of the bourgeoisie itself, in the form of the libertines’ abuse of their daughters. The psychopathic and narcissistic libertines have no qualms at all about abusing their own flesh and blood.

The prostitutes, catering on the one hand to libertine lust with their erotic storytelling, and on the other hand being far less vicious to the victims, can be seen to represent the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class maintains its power over us with a kind of one-two punch: the liberal jab, and the conservative right-cross.

When liberals are elected, they give the people the false hope that all will be well with their modest reforms, which don’t really help the people in any meaningful way, but rather exist as concessions that keep us at bay and stave off revolution. Then, when we’re comfortable and complacent, conservatives get elected and create harsher legislation, which we hate but ultimately get used to, so no attempt is ever made, when liberals get reelected, to reverse the hated new laws. One-two punch.

We can see such a situation as symbolized by how, for example, Signora Vaccari holds naked Renata in her arms as a mother would her child. Yet it isn’t long after that that the trembling, traumatized girl is forced into a mock marriage with Sergio during the ceremony of which the Duke fondles a number of the male and female victims; then the boy and girl are pressured to fondle each other, then they are raped by the libertines to stop them from consummating their own ‘marriage.’

Later, at the beginning of the Circle of Blood, the duke, president, and magistrate, all in women’s clothes, growl at the weeping victims, demanding that they smile and laugh during this ‘joyous’ occasion of a mock wedding between the libertine ‘brides’ and the stud grooms. Vaccari and the piano player (played by Sonia Saviange) improvise jokes to make the victims laugh. We all know, however, that this is only a brief respite from the teens’ endless frowning.

Another way that the prostitute storytellers can be seen as symbolic of liberals is in how their lewd stories parody, and thus can represent, our permissive pop culture, with its gratuitous swearing in Hollywood movies and sexually suggestive pop and rock songs. We seem to be liberated with such indulgences, but in our growing poverty, we aren’t.

The scene in which the libertines have the victims, including their daughters, crawl naked on all fours and bark like dogs to be fed is significant. I suspect they have been starved, and the only way they can hope to be fed is to degrade themselves in this way. It makes me think of how capitalists use charity to create the illusion that their philanthropy is generosity rather than just good public relations. Poverty is solved by a socialist reorganizing of society, providing guaranteed housing, healthcare, employment, education, etc., not giving occasional ‘charitable’ dollars to the poor.

When the poor are given alms out of pity, that pity is really condescension coming from the ruling class. And in Salò, when one of the male victims (Lamberto) refuses to be so degraded, the magistrate whips him until he passes out. Later, the magistrate hides nails in some food and feeds it to one of the daughters, who screams in pain on having the nails stab into her mouth. Some charity.

From the Circle of Manias we go to an even more torturous one, the Circle of Shit. It is appropriate that this one be in the middle of the movie, for as film scholar Stephen Barber has observed, Salò is centred around the anus. This is true not only because of the revolting coprophagia that we see, but also in all the sodomy, that is, all the gay sex.

On one level, the coprophagia–at the dinner table in particular–represents our society’s overindulgence in junk food. When you see a fork or a spoon raising a turd from a plate up to one’s ever-so-reluctant mouth, think of a McDonald’s hamburger.

On a deeper level, though–and this is especially evident in the notorious scene in which the Duke defecates on the floor and forces Renata to eat it–the coprophagia can be seen to represent the splitting-off and projection of hated aspects of oneself (understood as internal objects of the negative aspects of one’s parents), to be introjected by others. Melanie Klein observed that a baby, experiencing what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, would engage in projective identification, ejecting unwanted parts of itself and making its mother receive those projections, which in unconscious phantasy often come in the forms of faeces or urine.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s notion of projective identification further, stating that babies and psychotics use it as a primitive, pre-verbal form of communication. Bion‘s theory of containment is normally applied to a mother’s soothing of her distressed, agitated baby, or to a therapist dealing with a deeply disturbed patient. Negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), however, results when a narcissistic or psychopathic parent, or therapist–or in the case of Salò, the four libertines–do the opposite of soothing, worsening the agitation of the baby, patient, or Salò victims, so that the distress changes into a nameless dread.

The container, or receiver of the stressful emotions (the parent or therapist), is given a feminine symbol, implying a yoni; the contained, or projection of those emotions (those of the baby or patient), is given a masculine symbol, implying a phallus. So the process of containment can, in turn, be symbolized by the notion of making love. In Salò, however, the container isn’t symbolized by the yoni, but by the anus.

The soothing of containment as symbolized by lovemaking, therefore, has relevance in Salò only in the context of homosexual sex, hence the homoeroticism in the film shouldn’t be surprising. The only mutually pleasurable sex in this film is between libertines and their willing gay partners (symbolic class collaborators), i.e., the bishop and his stud, and the duke and his catamite (Rino), one of the few boys among the victims who, because of his willing submission, isn’t brutalized. Apart from these oases from abuse (including some lesbian sex among the female victims), there is only rape.

This rape, be it penile/vaginal or anal rape, is all a symbol of the negative containment described above. The libertines, studs, and guards project their viciousness onto their victims, either in the form of rapes, or, using their shit as the contained, they project their cruelty into their victims’ mouths, another container.

The resulting trauma is the victims’ nameless dread. The introjectively identified cruelty is then manifested in the victims when they later betray other victims, or when Umberto, a victim promoted to guard/collaborator to replace Ezio, calls the boy victims “culattoni!” (faggots!)

One doesn’t have to accept Freud‘s theory of anal expulsiveness (i.e., drive theory) to see its symbolic resonance as applied to Salò. Two noteworthy traits associated with anal expulsiveness are cruelty and emotional outbursts, as are seen plentifully among the libertines in this film. Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism are understood to be caused to a great extent by childhood trauma, which is then projected onto others in the negative container/contained way described above. It’s easy to believe that the four libertines were abused as children, then grew up to be abusers themselves; the same goes for the studs and guards.

At the beginning of the Circle of Blood, we shouldn’t mistake the libertines’ cross-dressing for transgenderism. If anything, their transvestitism and gay marriage to the studs is a fascist mockery of the LGBT community. These are the kind of men who would put muscular transwomen into sporting competitions with cis-women to ensure that the latter lose every time. It’s a typical divide-and-conquer tactic that the ruling class uses to keep the people distracted from revolution.

Fascists and Nazis, of course, have never tolerated the LGBT community. Even Ernst Röhm, the gay leader of the SA, was an exception proving the rule. He was only grudgingly tolerated by Hitler until the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazis eliminated all of their potential political enemies, using the very politically powerful Röhm’s homosexuality as a rationale to have him killed (apart from an unsubstantiated claim that he was trying to wrest Hitler from power, the so-called “Röhm Putsch”). So when we see any gay sex or cross-dressing among the libertines, none of it should be understood as an affirmation of LGBT rights: it’s just that those four men can do anything they like, because they can, because they have the power.

The mounting suffering of the victims, and their powerlessness, causes their alienation to grow, meaning–apart from the occasional lesbian sex we see–they never feel any sense of solidarity, togetherness, or mutual aid. So when the bishop comes into their sleeping areas and threatens them with punishment for breaking any of their little rules, the victims promptly betray their fellow sufferers so they can save their own skins. This culminates in the betrayal of Ezio, the only guard who obeys the libertines with reluctance.

He is found making love with a black servant girl, offending not only the libertines’ disgust at the sight of penile-vaginal sex (and the implication that the boy and girl are fucking because they love each other, like the husbands and wives they lampoon with their mock marriages), but also arousing their abhorrence of interracial sex. And Ezio’s final offence is his raised fist: the two naked lovers are then shot.

The lovers’ nakedness shows their proletarian identification with the victims. His bold standing there, frontally nude (before four men with lecherous desires for young male bodies) and raising his fist, emphasizes his defiance of their hegemony.

They hesitate before killing him. Is it their lustful reluctance to waste a beautiful body they haven’t taken the opportunity to enjoy? Is it awe at his boldness, when he has absolutely no means to defend himself or fight back (refer above to Hamlet’s use of the word naked)? Is it shock at his unexpected socialist salute, indicating their unwitting employment of one they’d deem a traitor?

The only other reluctant collaborator among them is the piano player, who upon realizing the full extent of her employers’ murderous designs, jumps out of a window and kills herself. Such is the despair that so aggravated a form of right-wing hegemony can arouse in those who love freedom.

Finally, the libertines choose those victims they’ll have murdered, including all their daughters. Wearing blue ribbons around their arms, they await their doom, the daughters sitting in a large bin filled with shit. The daughter who was tripped and raped by the stud at dinner, imitating Christ on the Cross, shouts, “God, God, why have you abandoned us?” When a parent frustrates his or her children (or in this case, abuses them), their oft-used defence mechanism is splitting the parent into absolute good and bad, with a wish to expel the bad parent and keep the good one near; in this case, God as the good father is gone, while the libertines as all-too-bad fathers are all-too-present.

Not only are these victims murdered, they are killed in the most agonizing, sadistic, and drawn-out of ways. The boy Sergio is branded on the nipple. The daughters are raped one last time, one of them killed by hanging. The boy Franco has his tongue cut out. Renata’s breasts are burned, as is a boy’s penis, and a girl is scalped.

The libertines, studs, and guards are the gleefully willing perpetrators, of course, but each libertine goes inside the house to take a turn to watch the murders, which occur outside, from a window, viewing the cruelty through small binoculars. This voyeurism is comparable to our watching of violence in movies and on TV: we’ve seen so much of it that we’re desensitized to it; the voyeurs’ watching of the violence from farther away symbolizes our emotional distance from such violence when we see it on TV and in film.

The two guards we see at the end of the film, two boys dancing to music–can be seen as another fascist mockery of the LGBT community. One of them has a girlfriend named Marguerita–I don’t think he is bisexual.

The horrors seen in this film should be understood as prophetic, a dire warning of a reality that is more and more apparent each coming year. The film’s sadism only symbolizes that reality, but it’s no less of a reality just because of symbolism. Neoliberal capitalism hadn’t yet come into its own as of the mid-Seventies, but Pasolini knew that all of the imperialist ingredients were already on the table. The fascist shit dishes were going to be made and eaten, and quite soon: he could smell them.

Analysis of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 erotic thriller produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, his last film before he died. It was also written by him and Frederic Raphael, based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. It stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (actually married at the time), who play Bill and Alice Harford, a doctor and his wife who, just before Christmas, struggle with jealousy and temptations to adultery.

The film follows Schnitzler’s novella closely, changing only the setting (from early 20th century Vienna, during the Carnival, to late 20th century New York City, pre-Christmas) and characters’ names (Fridolin to Bill Harford, Albertina/Albertine to Alice, Nachtigall to Nick Nightingale [played by Todd Field], Mizzi to Domino, etc.), and adding more erotic or quasi-erotic content (i.e., more nude scenes). A 1969 German TV movie, with English subtitles, of Traumnovelle can be found here.

Here are some quotes:

“Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” –Sandor, the Hungarian dancing with Alice

“Sex is the last thing on my mind when I’m with a patient.” –Bill, to Alice

Bill: Uh… look… women don’t… They basically, just don’t think like that.
Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!
Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.
Alice: If you men only knew.

“I first saw him that morning in the lobby. He was- he was checking into the hotel and he was following the bellboy with his luggage… to the elevator. He… he glanced at me as he walked past; just a glance. Nothing more. And I… could hardly… move. That afternoon, Helena went to the movie with her friend and… you and I made love. And we made plans about our future. And we talked about Helena. And yet, at no time, was he ever out of my mind. And I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was only… for one night… I was ready to give up everything. You. Helena. My whole fucking future. Everything. And yet it was weird because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever. And… and at that moment, my love for you was both… tender… and sad. I… I barely slept that night. And I woke up the next morning in a panic. I don’t know if I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there. But by dinner… I realized he was gone. And I was relieved.” –Alice, telling Bill about the naval officer she was tempted to have an affair with during the family vacation at Cape Cod

Mysterious Woman: [at the masked orgy] I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, but you obviously don’t belong here.
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry. I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.
Mysterious Woman: [whispering] Don’t be crazy. You are in great danger.

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, come forward. May I have the password?
Bill: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s correct, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password for the house?
Bill: The password for the house…
Red Cloak: Yes?
Bill: I’m sorry. I… seem to have… forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference whether you have forgotten it, or whether you never knew it. You will kindly remove your mask. [Bill removes mask] Now, get undressed.
Bill: [nervously] Get… undressed?
Red Cloak: [sternly] Remove your clothes.
Bill: Uh… gentlemen…
Red Cloak: Remove your clothes. Or would you like us to do it for you?

“If the good doctor himself should ever want anything again… anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.” –Mr. Milich

“Listen, Bill, I don’t think you realize what kind of trouble you were in last night. Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names… I’m not gonna tell you their names, but if I did, I don’t think you’ll sleep so well.” –Ziegler

Bill: There was a… there was a… there was, uh, a woman there. Who, uh… tried to warn me.
Ziegler: I know.
Bill: Do you know who she was?
Ziegler: Yes. She was… she was a hooker. Sorry, but… that’s what she was.
Bill: A hooker?
Ziegler: Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.
Bill: Fake?
Ziegler: Yes, fake.
Bill: Why would they do that?
Ziegler: Why? In plain words… to scare the living shit out of you. To keep you quiet about where you’d been and what you’d seen.

Bill: The woman lying dead in the morgue was the woman at the party.
Ziegler: Yes.
Bill: Well, Victor, maybe I’m missing something here. You call it fake, a charade… Do you mind telling me what kind of fucking charade ends up with somebody turning up dead!?
Ziegler: Okay, Bill, let’s cut the bullshit, alright? You’ve been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours. You want to know what kind of charade? I’ll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted “take me” sacrifice that you’ve been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. Nothing happened after you left that hadn’t happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period.

“And no dream is ever just a dream.” –Bill

Themes pervading both Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle include jealousy, temptation, and the blurry distinction between dream/fantasy and reality. Also, there’s a close relationship between sex and death, between Eros and Thanatos.

One night, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice, go to a Christmas party hosted by his wealthy friend and patient, Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). Both husband and wife are assailed with temptations almost from their arrival: a handsome Hungarian named Sandor makes moves on her, while Bill has two beautiful young models charming him. Already tipsy Alice, while dancing with Sandor, sees Bill with the two women and feels a pang of jealousy.

Soon after, Bill is to be subjected potentially to more temptation when Ziegler needs him upstairs to take care of a beautiful and naked prostitute who has overdosed on speedball. Now, Bill can easily resist thoughts of lust for her, since his love and commitment to Alice is…so far…unshaken by any fears of unfaithfulness from her.

Indeed, the whole time Bill is examining the nude prostitute, he looks only at her face, asking her to open her eyes and look at him. He never gives in to the temptation of looking down at her body. He asks what her name is (Mandy, played by Julienne Davis), showing further that he, as a responsible doctor and family man, has no interest at all in treating her like a sex object.

He tells her that she’s lucky she hasn’t died…this time, but she mustn’t do these kinds of dangerous drugs ever again. To Bill, she’s a human being, though to Ziegler, her rich client, she’s a human commodity to be enjoyed. In this scene, we see the first example of sex juxtaposed with death, or at least the danger of death.

Bill, as a middle class bourgeois, is content with what he has, since he feels no threat of losing it. But when Alice, stoned with him on marijuana the night after the party, tells him of the temptation she had of having an affair with a naval officer while she and Bill were on vacation in Cape Cod the year before, he wonders if she’s told him the whole truth, or if she’s concealing an actual affair she’s had with the man.

Bill’s fear of having been cuckolded is a symbolic castration of him, an unmanning. The resulting lack gives rise to a desire for other women he hitherto hasn’t had. A further unmanning occurs when Bill is walking the streets of New York that night, after making a sudden house call (during which a woman, the daughter of a man who has just died, declares her love to Bill…more temptation for him). A group of college-age men, one of whom bumps into Bill, taunts him with homophobic slurs. Like Fridolin in Traumnovelle, Bill feels like a coward for not challenging them to a fight.

Soon after, as he continues walking the streets, moping, and ruminating about Alice’s suspected adultery, a pretty young prostitute named Domino (played by Vinessa Shaw) comes up to him and invites him up to her apartment. Here we see how his symbolic castration, his wounded sense of manhood, his lack, gives rise to his desire.

Though he doesn’t go through with having sex with Domino (a phone call from Alice ruins the mood), the point is that he has seriously considered the sex. He even pays her the full amount.

Bourgeois, middle class Bill is liberal in his thinking: smoking pot with Alice, respectful to women when they are undressed, and therefore repressing his darker desires. But when the security of his world is threatened, those darker impulses of his start to come to the surface.

In The Liberal Mindset, I described the psychological conflict the liberal has between his id impulses towards pleasure (sex, drugs, etc.) and his superego-influenced sense of morality about responsibility to social justice issues. Since Schnitzler and Freud thought very similarly about sex and psychology (they even exchanged correspondence), it seems appropriate to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to my interpretation of this movie.

Bill, as a doctor and devoted husband (and as a bourgeois liberal), has a strong superego that normally prevents him from indulging in any temptations to adultery or to objectifying women. As long as all that is his is secure, he will be a good boy; but if the security of what is his is threatened, his superego will no longer restrain his id.

Similarly with the liberal, as long as his or her class privileges are safe, he or she will be generous and have a kind attitude towards the disadvantaged. He or she will make endless pleas for peace, and will speak out against such problems as income inequality; but elect the wrong presidential candidate, and the liberal will bang the war drums against any country accused–without a shred of evidence–of having aided said candidate to win, and he or she will have no qualms about voting in a candidate equally right-wing as this wrongfully elected incumbent, no matter how unsympathetic this new, desired candidate is to millennials or to the plight of the poor…as long as he is a Democrat.

The mask of the superego slips off, and we see the face of the id. Speaking of masks…

After the failed encounter with Domino (already proof of Bill’s willingness to exploit the poverty of prostitutes to satisfy his desires), Bill finds a night club where he knows his old friend, Nick Nightingale, is playing jazz piano. The two men chat after the end of the gig, and Bill learns of Nick’s next, far more exciting one: in the mansion of a secret society whose members are masked and cloaked, and where there will also be a bevy of beautiful, nude women!

By the end of the movie, we learn that Ziegler is one of the masked men in the mansion, as is Mandy, according to him, anyway (though she, also masked, and the one who warns Bill to leave immediately, is played by a different actress–Abigail Good). These nude, masked women are obviously prostitutes meant to satisfy the lust of the men of the secret society, men of wealth, power, and influence. By an interesting irony, the men’s masks give them their power, the power of anonymity; the prostitutes’ masks strip them of their power, by making them faceless, robbing them of their individuality, making them mere commodities instead of letting them be human beings.

Bill–the man whose superego kept him from objectifying women before, kept him from ever dreaming [!] of exploiting prostitutes, now, with his suspicions of Alice’s infidelity (and the password to the house is Fidelio!)–is letting his id run wild. He eagerly insists that Nightingale give him the password and address to the mansion.

Given the outrageous nature of the goings-on in the mansion, the pagan, seemingly near-Satanic rituals, and the orgies, as well as how unlikely the members of the secret society would just let Bill in, him having arrived in a taxi cab instead of in a limo, it seems less likely that Bill has really experienced the orgy scene than that he has just dreamed it, or at least fantasized about it.

Traumnovelle means “Dream Story”; Eyes Wide Shut seems to mean “eyes wide open while seeing a dream” (i.e., with one’s eyes shut), or it could mean refusing to see reality, preferring to see one’s fantasies. In other words, one is so preoccupied with seeing the fantasies used to gratify the pleasure principle (id), and is so preoccupied with the accompanying guilt (superego), that one’s eyes are shut to the reality principle (ego).

Along with the controversy of the sexual material in much of Schnitzler’s writing, he was also known to have been a highly sexed man, given to many a dalliance with women. Added to this was his chauvinistic attitude, most prevalent at the time, of course, that his female lovers ought to have been virgins. Only he was permitted to have a multitude of lovers.

There is much of Schnitzler in Fridolin (and therefore also in Bill, though in a more muted form, thanks to Kubrick’s and Raphael’s rewrites), and so his sexual double standards are reflected in the protagonist’s attitude; though, to be fair, Fridolin and Bill have their share of guilt over their sexual venturings. Indeed, on some level, Traumnovelle seems to have been Schnitzler’s purging of his own voracious sexual appetite.

So, has the whole, wild night really happened, is it just Bill’s imagination, or is it somewhere in between? A dream is the fulfillment of a wish, as Freud originally observed; or, as he observed two decades later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with his theories of the death drive and repetition compulsion, sometimes one engages in patterns of self-injury, or acts out unpleasant experiences over and over again. In other words, sometimes one has self-destructive urges, as Bill’s refusal to heed the Mysterious Woman’s warnings of the danger that the secret society poses to him–were it all a dream dramatized in his mind–would seem to indicate.

Recall that Bill has just smoked weed with Alice before going out for the house call. I don’t think his being stoned has detracted from the fantastic aspects of his experiences that night. He could easily have nodded off in his cab a couple of times–the ride to the house call and back–and he could thus have dreamt all, or at least part, of the more extreme experiences.

Certainly his encounter at the costume rental, with Mr. Milich (played by Rade Serbedžija) and his sex-kitten teen daughter (played by Leelee Sobieski), her being caught undressed with two Asian men in that awkward incident, seems wild enough to have been part of a dream. Then again, maybe much of it really did happen, for such is the blurred line between fantasy and reality in this film.

So, when Bill arrives at the mansion, we can interpret the meaning of the ritualistic, orgiastic goings-on inside in two ways: as having really happened, or as a dream/fantasy of his. Let’s consider the former interpretation first.

Like the authoritarian power of priests in ancient religion, we can see the ritualistic elements in the mansion as symbolic of the religious awe one might feel in the presence of such powerful people. In Traumnovelle, the masked men wear monks’ hoods and cloaks, and the masked prostitutes wear nuns’ habits.

As for the orgiastic aspect, the prostitutes’ nudity represents their powerlessness as have-nots (consider Shakespeare’s use of naked, as meaning ‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), as contrasted with the clothed men, the haves, the rich and powerful. Their threat to strip Bill of his clothes is thus to deprive him of his power, too. The women’s powerlessness is a lack of their own, giving rise to the desire for such things as drugs (i.e., Mandy’s speedball), a manic defence against the depression they must feel from always being sexually exploited.

The secret society’s exploitation of the prostitutes reminds us of Jeffrey Epstein‘s and Ghislaine Maxwell‘s prostituting of underage girls to satisfy the hebephilia and ephebophilia of all those implicated in the scandal. Their gargantuan amounts of wealth buy them the power needed to silence or kill anyone who may squeal, just as Bill is threatened by the Red Cloak (played by Leon Vitali).

So much for the interpretation that the mansion scene really happened. Now let’s interpret the scene from the point of view that Bill has imagined, or dreamed, the whole thing. Now, the goings-on in the house are a dramatization of the thought processes of Bill’s unconscious.

What we have here is a dream that is a wish-fulfillment of Bill’s desires (an orgy of anonymous sex), as well as a fulfillment, on some level at least, of his self-destructive urges (the threats). Sex meets death.

Many of the goings-on represent unconscious ego defence mechanisms: denial (Bill’s mask; his pretence that he’s a member of the secret society), projection (the members of the secret society indulging in the naughtiness instead of him), reaction formation (in Traumnovelle, the monks’ and nuns’ clothes, symbolizing the secret society’s wish to seem virtuous rather than sinful; in the original script, they were supposed to be monks’ cloaks, and actually, the cloaks and hoods we see are still rather similar to those of monks), and turning against oneself (Bill is threatened, though he hasn’t indulged in any of the sex: he’s only been watching).

Since much of the ego and superego are unconscious, the defence mechanisms tend to be activated unconsciously, too: “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt in the analytic hour, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

The password, Fidelio, represents Bill’s wish that his wife be faithful to him, even though he, like Schnitzler, wishes he could get away with being unfaithful to her. The fact that he is tricked into thinking there’s a second password means that his id is fulfilled by being allowed in the house, while his superego‘s unconscious wish to be punished for his thoughts of infidelity is also satisfied.

If the mansion scene is all a dream, the Mysterious Woman can easily be Mandy, who can also know that he is Bill, the doctor who helped her get through her OD ordeal, which she can see as him having saved her life. (In his narcissistic imagination, Bill can then think that this nude beauty likes him.)

Her offer “to redeem him,” a perversely Christ-like moment amidst orgiastic activity that some may deem Satanic, can be seen thus as Mandy wishing to repay Bill for having helped her at Ziegler’s Christmas party. If the mansion scene has really happened, though, her willingness to take the punishment (presumably death) for a man she apparently doesn’t know could come from her hatred of her life as an exploited prostitute, a kind of suicide.

As the focal point of Bill’s dream, the secret society is, on the one hand, an intimidatingly powerful, wealthy, influential group, and on the other hand, an envied group whose indulgence in forbidden pleasures is something Bill would love to join. They could, in this sense, be seen to represent the NWO of the conspiracy theorists (many have tried unconvincingly to associate the secret society with such things as the Illuminati), that is, in his imagination, in his dreams, as opposed to reality.

The secret society could also represent–again, in Bill’s imagination only–the “corporatists” that the right-wing libertarians accuse of perverting the “free market.” The corporatist NWO is both feared and unconsciously admired and envied, since they have a power and influence that their detractors would gladly wield, were the detractors as rich and successful.

Bill is conflicted between his id wanting to join the big club we aren’t in and participating in their lewd indulgence, and his superego‘s moral condemnation of their wickedness, hence his leaving the house unscathed and sexually unfulfilled, with a prostitute dying for him. The right-wing libertarian similarly condemns the corruption of the bourgeois state and its super-rich beneficiaries, imagining that this corruption has nothing to do with “real capitalism,” when it is easy to believe that, were he to rise up to the level of the elite, he too would be defending his and their opulence, claiming they’d got there through ‘hard work, gumption, and talent,’ rather than through the merciless exploitation of the working class. Just look at the libertarian Koch brothers to see what I mean.

The liberal has similar repressed desires, including his wish to preserve his class privileges, though his loftier ego ideal would have him pretend to care for the exploited, as Bill consciously does Mandy.

So, a combination of Bill’s jealousy over Alice’s suspected infidelity, his smoking of weed intensifying that jealousy and fogging his mind, his fatigue throughout the night, his presumed napping in the cabs, and his own guilt over his near-succumbing to temptation has all blurred the boundary between fantasy and reality for him.

The stress he has felt–Was the Mysterious Woman murdered by the secret society? Was she Mandy? Did she just OD one too many times? Will the secret society have him and his family killed? Did he just dream/imagine it all?–is at least to a large extent just a dramatization of his own conflict.

Projecting onto a murderous, rich elite helps Bill to forget that he, too, has at least wanted, and has the money, to exploit prostitutes, just as Milich, the owner of the small costuming business, prostitutes his own daughter. Whether petite or grande, bourgeois are still bourgeois.

Bill has the same desires as Alice, who definitely dreams of being in an orgy with men and laughs while dreaming, then weeps about it after waking up. Here we see the difference between the indulgent unconscious and the censorious conscious mind. Bill also has the same desires as Ziegler, whose Christmas party, with the constant flirtation among the guests, is a double of the mansion orgy, as well as its inspiration for Bill’s dream. Alice’s orgy dream is also a double of the mansion orgy dream.

If the mansion orgy is a dream, so is every following scene associated with it. These scenes include Bill’s return to the house gates to receive the warning letter, his fortuitous discovery of a newspaper article about Mandy’s death by drug overdose, his seeing her body at the morgue (his id ogling her nude body like a necrophile, though his superego mourns her death and his ego fears for his and his family’s lives), and Ziegler’s explanation that her “sacrifice” was staged. All of these scenes thus are unconscious wish-fulfillments, expressions of Eros, as well as expressions of the death drive.

Finally, Bill breaks down and cries in his bedroom, waking Alice up, because he sees his mask on the pillow beside her. Is this because the secret society’s muscle have been following him everywhere, or has he, because of all the stress he’s been enduring, hallucinated it? (Alice doesn’t seem to notice it.)

After all, he returned to Domino’s apartment with a gift, hoping to finish what he started the last time; and since she wasn’t home, but her pretty roommate was there instead, he was tempted to cheat with her. The news of Domino being HIV-positive reinforces the sex/death link. Domino’s bedroom walls are also covered in masks, inspiring the mansion dream as well as linking his guilt feelings with seeing (or hallucinating) his mask lying on his pillow.

He tearfully confesses everything to Alice, and the last scene shows them Christmas shopping with their daughter in the toy section of a department store. Their discussion of the matter doesn’t seem to be so much about the threats of a secret society as about his guilt feelings. This would explain why, as a solution, their focus is on loving each other, and why Alice says that, as soon as possible, they should “Fuck.” It’s all about dealing with their temptations to adultery, not a fear of being murdered.

Meanwhile, Christmas lights and decorations have been seen throughout the movie, except for the ‘Satanic’ mansion scene, of course. Christmas in this context should not in any way be confused with the Christmas spirit. In line with the commodification of women (symbolic of the exploitation of the working class in general) seen from beginning to end, Christmas here should be understood only in terms of consumerism, the fetishization of commodities, hence the final scene of the Harfords doing their Christmas shopping.

The point is that ending the elite’s exploitation of prostitutes, and of all of the working class, must include those lower-level bourgeois, like Bill, also no longer exploiting other people. One cannot stop at overthrowing those at the very top; one must overturn the entire capitalist system, and those among the petite bourgeoisie can be a great help, provided they join the workers’ cause. As Mao once said, “Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie.” (Mao, page 7)

Consider the opening of Traumnovelle, when the daughter of Fridolin and Albertine is reading the story in which “brown slaves” row a prince’s galley to a caliph’s palace. The narration’s concern is with the prince meeting the princess once he reaches the shore; the slaves, however, are as faceless, as anonymously disposable, as the nude masked women in the mansion.

Bill has shown all that concern for Mandy, but he has done so from the hypocritical point of view of a liberal. As with his condolences for Domino over her having tested HIV-positive, his empathy for Mandy is a thin disguise–a mask–covering his desire to have both women in bed.

The proletariat is always “ready to redeem” the bourgeoisie, suffering and dying so the rich can continue to live well. “Someone died,” Ziegler says to Bill, referring to Mandy. “It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t.” The eyes of the bourgeoisie are wide open to the pleasures they can see, but shut to the suffering of those they pay to give them that pleasure. Life is a dream story for the wealthy, but a nightmare, a trauma novella, for the poor.