Analysis of ‘Insomnia’

Insomnia is a 2002 psychological thriller film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Hillary Seitz, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name that was directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg (his film debut) and written by him and Nikolaj Frobenius. The 2002 film stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank, with Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, and Paul Dooley; the Scandinavian equivalent of Pacino’s character, the insomniac, was played by Stellan Skarsgård.

The 2002 film is the only Nolan film that he didn’t write or cowrite; it was also part of his transition from independent filmmaking to studio, mainstream Hollywood movies. It was praised, with a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 200 reviews; Pacino’s and Williams’s performances were given especial praise, the latter’s being a noted departure, as with his performance in One Hour Photo, from his more usual zany, comic acting, to portraying a dangerously disturbed character.

Here is a link to quotes from the 2002 film, and here is a link to the complete 1997 film…but with French subtitles.

The Norwegian film begins with the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Tanja (played by Maria Mathiesen), during the credits; whereas Nolan’s film shows the murder of its equivalent, 17-year-old Kay Connell (played by Crystal Lowe) in split-second flashbacks. The 1997 film shows a shot of an airplane going over clouds obscuring the sun as it takes police officers Jonas Engström (Skarsgård) and Erik Vik (played by Sverre Anker Ousdal) to a Norwegian town above the Arctic Circle, the land of the midnight sun. This obscuring of light will be a recurring theme, symbolic and literal, in both movies.

In the 2002 film, the American equivalents of Engström and Vik, respectively LA Detectives Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Donovan) are in a small plane flying to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the equivalent crime there.

While the dominant theme of both films is, of course, guilt, another can be seen: the blurred distinction between opposites, as blurred as the vision of each film’s insomniac cop. These unclearly defined opposites include insomnia itself (one is sleepless, but sleepy), day and night (in the Arctic region, the summer sun is shining at night), and right and wrong (our cops catch killers, but the former aren’t exactly innocent themselves: Dormer’s planting of questionable evidence; Engström’s sexual misconduct).

Both Dormer and Engström have reputations as excellent cops; in fact, young local Nightmute Detective Ellie Burr (Swank) admires Dormer for his investigative work. Still, these good reputations of the American and Swedish cops are thin disguises of their not-so-laudable true selves, dark sides that are coming to light just as surely as the midnight sun that keeps poking through the two men’s hotel room windows as they try to sleep.

How are their dark sides coming to light? Dormer has internal affairs wanting to reopen a child rapist/murderer case in which he planted evidence to ensure conviction; Eckhart is going to testify against him, naturally causing resentment in Dormer. Engström eavesdrops on Vik gossiping about an “intimate conversation” between Engström and a female witness from a former case back in Sweden. As we can see, there’s a blurry boundary between good reputations and bad character, too.

One point to be emphasized about the cops’ bad characters being obscured by their good reputations–like those clouds obscuring the sun, or like the cops’ attempts to block out the sunlight coming through their hotel windows–is that these two cops aren’t all that much better than the men they’re trying to charge with murder. As we all should know by now, cops–as protectors of the interests of the bourgeoisie–are often as guilty of crimes (murder, bribery, etc.) as those they arrest, while often getting far better protection from punishment than the criminals can get.

Connected to this protection is the guilt many cops must feel over their own wrongdoings. And how does anyone deal with feelings of guilt or anxiety? Through the use of defence mechanisms, which in the case of Insomnia include denial, rationalization, suppression, splitting, and most importantly of all, projection…including projective identification.

Dormer would naturally deny his deliberate falsifying of evidence to convict the child rapist/murderer, including when he, on the phone to the one in LA who’s in charge of internal affairs, curses him out, acting as if he’s the victim of a kind of witch hunt. Dormer also rationalizes his planting of false evidence and his resistance to the reopening of his cases, speaking not of the stain on his reputation, but rather the danger of letting criminals back out on the street.

He and Engström try to suppress their guilt over…accidentally?…shooting and killing their partners (recall that Walter Finch [Williams] and Jon Holt [played by Bjørn Floberg] also claim that their murders were accidents) by never confessing to them. The cops suppress, but cannot repress, their guilt, hence their sleeplessness.

When Hap confesses to Dormer that he has to cut a deal with internal affairs to stop them from digging up any dirt on him (a rationalization of Hap’s own guilt over betraying his partner), Dormer makes no secret of his anger over this betrayal. He engages in splitting Hap into a ‘bad Hap’ (the betrayer) and a ‘good Hap’ (his still-reliable partner). Dormer’s experience of the paranoid-schizoid position (‘paranoid’ because of his feelings of betrayal, and fear that the ‘bad Hap’ internal object will plague him with guilt after killing Hap; ‘schizoid’ from the splitting of Hap into absolute good and bad versions of him) will turn into the depressive position after he kills Hap and feels guilty about it, his hallucinations of Hap (his ‘ghost,’ as it were) being his projected internal object of Hap.

Similarly, Engström’s resentment after overhearing Vik gossip about the former’s sexual indiscretion with the female witness–which seems intensified by VIk’s recollection of being in their hotel before, having taken a room that a man and woman claimed was theirs rather than Vik’s and his wife’s (and given aging Vik’s failing memory, this incident seems to be a garbled memory of Vik and his fellow cops, “armed to the teeth,” coming to a room and finding Engström with that woman in that “intimate conversation”)–seems to have caused him to split Vik into good and bad Viks. This splitting may have facilitated Engström’s shooting of Vik as a Freudian slip rather than as an innocent mistake, as is the case with Dormer shooting Hap. That obscuring fog was most convenient for our protagonists.

The most important defence mechanism against guilt and anxiety, as far as Insomnia is concerned, is projection, as well as projective identification. In the case of Engström and Holt, the boundary between the two is especially blurred: both are guilty of sexual misconduct (i.e., Holt’s sexual advances on Tanja before killing her, as well as Engström’s on Ane, the girl at the front desk of his hotel [played by Maria Bonnevie], and Engström’s putting his hand up the skirt of Freya [played by Marianne O. Ulrichsen], Tanja’s teen classmate, who’s quickly replaced her for the affections of Eilert [played by Bjørn Moan], her abusive boyfriend) and of an ‘accidental’ killing they wish to conceal. Engström would love to project his guilt onto Holt, but he can’t.

Dormer would love to project his perfidious nature (i.e., his betrayal of justice in his planting of false evidence) onto Hap (for betraying Dormer by cooperating with internal affairs), and onto the people in internal affairs (for, as Dormer sees it, betraying the people by reopening his cases and freeing criminals), but he ultimately can’t project his guilt onto them any more than Engström can.

Dormer projects his own guilt onto the criminals he goes after: in his own words, he says that he “assign[s] guilt” by tampering with evidence to ensure the conviction of criminals whose guilt he is convinced of (if lacking in sufficient proof). The conviction of such criminals, however, is not his job; that’s for the prosecution. He also likes to taunt Finch and Randy Stetz (Kay’s abusive boyfriend, played by Jonathan Jackson) by talking about their brutality to Kay; again, talking about the guilt of others offers temporary relief from Dormer’s own guilt.

Similarly, Engström provokes Eilert by insinuating that the boy’s sexual inadequacies are his motive for having beaten Tanja. Again, a focus on Eilert’s guilt diverts attention from that of Engström.

Now, projective identification takes projection a step further by manipulating the object of one’s projections into manifesting proof of the projected traits. We can see this, in a symbolic sense, in Dormer’s/Engström’s falsifying of evidence, which includes Engström’s planting of Holt’s gun in Eilert’s room so he’ll be charged with murdering Vik and Tanja.

In both films, there are a number of scenes that have…well, hidden ways downward. I’m thinking of, for example, the hidden passageway under the shed that allows Finch/Holt to escape when the cops try to catch him with Kay’s/Tanja’s bag as a lure. Similarly, there’s when Dormer chases Finch over the logs floating on the water, and Dormer slips and falls in, allowing Finch to get away again. And finally, there’s when Holt dies at the pier by falling through rotten floorboards and into the water, hitting his head; and when Fiinch, at his lake house, is shot and falls into the water below.

These ‘hidden ways downward,’ for lack of a better way to describe them, are symbolic of the unconscious mind, that hidden place where unknown ideas are thought, and unknown desires are felt and given expression in unrecognizable ways. After finding and rushing through the passageway under the shed, Dormer/Engström comes out into the fog, also symbolic of the unconscious, and shoots Eckhart/Vik, with that fog hiding the guilty cop’s unconsciously murderous intent behind an ‘accident,’ a kind of Freudian slip.

Before Eckhart dies, he tells Dormer he believes he’s shot him on purpose, to stop him from cooperating with internal affairs. Vik simply ran the wrong way, having gone right instead of left as planned. Neither Dormer nor Engström, however, can assuage their guilt by imagining they have made a mere mistake. Hap’s death is no mishap.

What’s more, chasing and not being able to catch Finch/Holt can be seen to represent how Dormer/Engström can’t bring themselves to assign guilt to a man they know they’re no better than. Dormer shoots Finch, but only after Finch has already shot Dormer, rather like when Hamlet kills Claudius only after he knows he himself is about to die from a poisoned wound. The unconscious has a way of making sure the ‘correct’ mistakes are made.

Now, the light of truth will never stop bothering Dormer/Engström. The insomniac cops want to hide in the darkness of their projections, denials, and rationalizations, but the sunlight keeps poking through their windows, no matter how much they try to block it out.

Wilfred R. Bion had insights on the relationship between projection, sleeplessness, and hallucinations that are useful for understanding the psychological state of Dormer/Engström. The irritating light of the midnight sun that keeps coming through their hotel windows is an example of what Bion called beta elements, unprocessed, raw sensory data that need to be detoxified (through alpha function) to be turned into alpha elements, processed, detoxified, and usable for thoughts and dreams.

If these beta elements are too painful to be processed in one’s mind, one cannot soothe oneself, as is the case with Dormer/Engström. Our sleepless cops keep trying to project the light outward, the light of truth that symbolizes the reality of their sins. The blocking-out of the light thus represents what Bion called a beta screen, which is an accumulation of projected beta elements one hasn’t processed or detoxified.

If one doesn’t detoxify these agitating raw sensory data–which in the case of these films represents the cops’ guilt–one cannot create thoughts for dreams and therefore one cannot sleep (Bion, page 7). If this sleeplessness goes on long enough, one will begin to hallucinate, as Dormer/Engström do. Their hallucinations, visions of Hap/Vik, are projections of the internal objects of their dead partners, split-off, hallucinatory projections that Bion called bizarre objects. (Go here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Just as Hap’s name is a pun on how, by sheer hap…or was it sheer hap?…he got shot and killed, so is Will Dormer’s name a pair of puns. With a will, Will finds a way not only to ensure conviction of the child rapist/murderer who otherwise would have been acquitted through a reasonable doubt, he also finds a way to falsify evidence so it seems that Hap was shot with a gun other than Will’s. Ainsi, Dormer ne peut pas dormir.

Our teen killers, Finch/Holt, cannot sleep either, of course, and being doubles of their respective cops, they have their own defence mechanisms for wrestling with their inner demons. They rationalize and minimize their murders, claiming they were accidents, that things simply got out of hand, slipped and snowballed from a few slaps to a beating-to-death of their victims.

Finch speaks of how “scared shitless” he is as he keeps hitting Kay, first to stop her from laughing at him for his sexual advances, then to stop her screaming. The slippery slope of escalation has led to his beating Kay to death; then, his fear suddenly switches to calm, yet another blurry distinction between opposites.

When Finch/Holt cleans the body, washing the hair and clipping the fingernails in order to remove all physical traces linking Kay/Tanja to their killers, this cleaning is a symbolic denial of the men’s guilt.

Confession is good for the soul, so when Finch tells Dormer, over the phone, how he came to kill Kay, how her laughter provoked him, and how his violence escalated, he says he’ll be able to sleep better. Similarly, Dormer must feel at least some relief after telling Rachel (Tierney) at the hotel about his tampering with the evidence that convicted the child rapist/murderer.

An interesting contrast between the Norwegian and American versions of the film is in how their respective villains die. In the former, Holt dies from a mere accidental fall, as ‘accidental’ a death as his murder of Tanja, or Engström’s shooting of Vik (Was Holt’s death a suicidal Freudian slip?). In the 2002 film, we have the typical American climactic fight between the good guy and the bad guy, them both shooting and killing each other. The more artistically-inclined European film is more of a psychological study of guilt than a thriller, more morally ambiguous.

Accordingly, Dormer dies of his gunshot wound having redeemed himself by telling Burr–who’s found out about his falsifying of the cause of Hap’s death–not to throw the incriminating evidence into the lake. When Engström, however, is presented with the incriminating evidence by Burr’s equivalent in the 1997 film, Hilde Hagen (played by Gisken Armand), she just puts it on a table in front of him and leaves him without getting him in trouble.

Engström is thus able to leave town with bodily freedom, but no clear conscience. The police privilege of protection from prosecution won’t protect him from his guilt. While Dormer is finally able “to die, to sleep, no more,” Engström, however bodily safe, will never sleep, for he “does murder sleep,” as the 1997 film’s last shot of his eyes glowing in the dark are eyes that will never close.

Analysis of ’28 Days Later’

28 Days Later is a 2002 post-apocalyptic horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. It stars Cillian Murphy, with Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns.

Inspired by such George A. Romero films as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, as well as John Wyndham‘s Day of the Triffids, Garland replaces zombies with the great majority of the UK population being infected with “Rage,” a highly contagious virus that induces aggression and replaces speech with mindless growling; the result is civilizational collapse.

The film was released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, reinvigorating the zombie genre. It has been featured in several “best of” film lists; Time Out magazine ranked it #97 on its list of the 100 Best British Films ever.

A sequel, 28 Weeks Later, came out in 2007, and in the same year, talk of a third film, 28 Months Later, came about with Boyle and Garland being among those interested, with Murphy showing interest in reprising his role in 2021.

28 Days Later has maintained a following, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving the film an especial relevance in recent years.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film begins with shots of chimpanzees, all infected with Rage, kept in cages and made to do such things as watch footage of riots and protests on TV screens; this is happening in a laboratory in Cambridge, where a group of overzealous animal rights activists have broken in, with the intent to free the chimps.

The combination of our learning that the virus is called “Rage” by the doctor who tries to stop the activists (in a “Rage” of their own) from so rashly freeing the chimps, that there’s footage of angry rioters and protestors, and that the infecting of everyone in the UK will result in civilizational collapse, all leads us to an understanding of what Rage symbolizes.

28 Days Later isn’t a direct critique of capitalism, but when we see that the prescient film presents the aftermath of civilizational collapse (a collapse we in the 2020s are in danger of experiencing, due to the global financial meltdown exacerbated by–and, as some of us suspect, masked by–COVID-19 and the fall in value of the petrodollar caused by the sanctions on Russia), we can see in the film an indirect critique of a mode of production that Marx predicted, in Capital, vol. 3, would one day collapse from its own contradictions.

Rage, in this context, represents the collective trauma we’ll all feel under such a collapse of society. This trauma has already been felt in all the mass shootings that keep happening in the US. We can only expect more of it in the near future. The plague of wars brought on by US/NATO imperialism, having begun its worst phase–perhaps fittingly–around the year of the release of the film, has manifested “Rage” all the more vividly.

The thing about trauma and extreme stress is that they activate the most primitive and animalistic parts of the human brain (e.g., the amygdala), causing one to lash out in fight-or-flight mode. Seeing a Rage-infected chimp attack and infect one of the animal rights activists when it’s been freed is thus also symbolically fitting. Rage reduces us all to animal instinct.

Related to this idea that Rage reduces humanity from the rational, thinking, cerebral cortex level to the instinctual, animal, amygdala level is the loss among the infected of the ability to use language. Lacan‘s notion of the Symbolic Order is our healthiest mental state, for it brings us, via language and its signifiers, into the world of culture, custom, and society–what we need to live together and function in harmony with each other.

The infected have forever lost the ability to communicate verbally, having replaced it with the pre-verbal form of communication (as WR Bion conceived it) coined by Melanie Klein as projective identification. Instead of saying words, the infected either growl unintelligibly, bite their victims, or spit their infected blood on them, causing the victims to be infected almost immediately afterwards.

By biting or spitting their blood, the infected project their pathology onto their victims (as Romero’s zombies do), who are then forced to contain an intolerable pathology. When Bion wrote of projective identification, he usually referred to a mother receiving her baby’s projections of agitation from irritating outside sensory data; the mother would, through what Bion called ‘maternal reverie,’ contain her baby’s agitations, detoxifying them by soothing it, then return the detoxified feelings to her baby in a form acceptable to it. As a therapist, Bion would play the role of the mother and similarly contain the agitations of his psychotic patients, his ‘babies,’ as it were. (Read here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

With the infected, however, it is impossible to do such containing and detoxifying of their Rage. So instead, one is forced to confront a negative form of containment (Bion, chapter 28), wherein Rage is never soothed, but rather turned into a nameless dread. To fuse Bion with Lacan, therefore, in this nameless dread, we see a shift away from the healthy, sociable state of the Symbolic, whose signifiers allow for mental clarity and differentiation of all things, to the traumatizing, undifferentiated state of the Real.

For the infected, there is no socializing, planning for the future, intellectualizing, or any of the normal human functioning that is conducive to survival. There is only undifferentiated, traumatic, meaningless Rage–the Real.

Rage, as a contagious virus, is thus a metaphor for the mindless destructiveness of a people overcome with, and overwhelmed by, the alienation that results from the contradictions of capitalism. People in this mental state don’t try to replace their oppression with a building of socialism; they just destroy, destroy, destroy…

After the incident with the chimp in the laboratory, we jump ahead…twenty-eight days later. I can’t help but wonder: why was the chosen number twenty-eight, of all possible numbers? It’s the exact equivalent of four weeks, but what is the significance of that?

Twenty-eight days is also the number of days of the shortest month–February. It’s too warm in the year for the movie to take place anywhere near that month, but could that time period indicate a symbolic February, with the time before it a symbolic January, and the time after a symbolic March? Please indulge me, Dear Reader, as I explore this possibility.

Since January is derived from Janus, the god with two faces, one looking back to the past year and the other looking ahead to the future of the new year, we can see the time preceding the twenty-eight days as the time when people could still envision a past and a future. Since March is derived from Mars, the god of war, we can see the time after the twenty-eight days as a time of war between the infected and the non-infected.

In this symbolic schema, the twenty-eight days–between the laboratory incident and Jim (Murphy) waking up from his coma–are therefore the symbolic month of the Februa, when such festivals of the purification of Rome as Amburbium and Lupercalia were observed. In the case of this film, ‘purification’ can be seen as either dialectical irony, a failed attempt at purification, or…here’s a thought…maybe it’s the infection itself that is purifying the world of the sickness known as the human race.

In any case, Jim wakes up from his coma in a London hospital after he, a bicycle courier, was hit by a car. Like so many of us, he has ‘woken up’ far too late, after all the damage has already been done to society, the damage resulting in the trauma, social alienation, and civilizational collapse that Rage symbolizes. He is shocked to find not only the entire hospital deserted, but also the streets of London.

He goes about the streets shouting “Hello!” over and over again in all futility. He wants to connect with people in a world where human connection is all but completely annihilated.

The link, however indirect, with capitalism is evident when we see all the billboard ads and the uncollected trash on the streets, including unused commodities and money, this latter being picked up by Jim and put in his white plastic bag (in which he has also put such commodities as soda pop cans he’s taken from their vending machine in the hospital), him imagining he’s actually going to have a use for it. He sees “EVACUATION” on a newspaper headline.

He finds a church and enters it, where graffiti on a wall says, “Repent, The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh.” No, not even religion will save us from Rage. He says another of his pointless “Hellos,” only to get the attention of the infected in the church, including a priest.

They chase him out of the church and back onto the streets, where he meets and is saved by Selena (Harris) and Mark (played by Noah Huntley), the first people be’s been able to communicate with in a long time. They hide in a grocery store, where his new comrades explain how the virus spread.

Significantly, Selena begins the explanation by saying, “It started as rioting.” Just as with that TV footage of riots and protesters that a chimp in the laboratory was watching, we can conceive, through Selena’s opening words, that the virus should be understood as a metaphor for an epidemic of civil unrest resulting from capitalism’s growing oppression of the people, causing their despair and wild acting out in a world where no effective organizing is possible. One is reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Mark, when Jim has later found his dead parents, gives his own story about the beginnings of infection in which he and his family are trying to escape. They find themselves on a hill of people lying on the ground, a mix of infected and non-infected. Having climbed up this mound of people and on top of a kiosk, Mark looks down on the people, unable to see the difference between the infected and non-infected. Again, this origin story shows how the virus should be understood as a metaphor for the general breakdown of society.

In such a breakdown, the pain of the loss of family is especially keen, of course, so Jim is anxious to find his parents, though Selena and Mark assure him that they must be either infected or dead by now. When it’s safe to go out, the three find his parents’ house, where the two are found dead in bed, having killed themselves by overdosing on pills. Indeed, when society collapses so extremely, despair can be too overwhelming for one to want to rebuild.

Jim’s mom’s choice of words in her suicide note is apt. She says that she and his father have left him sleeping. Now, his mom and dad are sleeping with him, and he must never wake up.

In such a hopeless situation, the comparison of death to sleep reminds us of the soliloquy of despairing Hamlet: “To die, to sleep,/No more, and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished, to die, to sleep…” (III, I, 60-64)

To prevent this kind of despair is why it’s so important to organize the people and be ready when the inevitable societal collapse comes, a collapse symbolized in the film by the Rage virus, and soon to come in our world as a result of the following problems. First, there was the economic meltdown of the 2020s; next, its exacerbation due to the response to the pandemic; third, inflation brought on by the backfiring sanctions on Russia. Added to these problems are the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and all the billions spent on the military rather than on the struggling American people. Such reckless spending is creating a ticking time bomb of a deficit which, when it finally blows up in our faces, will be made all the more painful by the decline in value of the petrodollar.

To get back to the film: some of the infected attack Jim’s parents’ house, and though Selena, Mark, and Jim manage to kill the infected, Mark is bitten in the arm by one of them. Selena doesn’t hesitate to hack her screaming comrade to bloody pieces with her machete. In a tense situation where solidarity is so crucial, it is especially difficult to have to eliminate a comrade on the mere suspicion that he’ll turn against you, becoming a traitor, a wrecker of the organization, an agent provocateur, or someone bringing in a gang mentality–these being the kind of problems that bitten Mark can be said to represent. Selena’s killing of him seems rash, but it is necessary.

She, Mark, and Jim have had to eat the junk food of places like the grocery store, obviously because it’s the only food to be consumed quickly and the only kind that won’t go bad. Its consumption is also representative of how the survivors are still dependent on the kind of commodities–now merely use-values, rather than exchange-values, because money has become useless–once produced by capitalists. Like capitalism, junk food is bad for you, but it’s all they’ve got. It ironically won’t yield a profit for the companies that made it, but the survivors are limited to eating it. This fact is another indirect link from the movie to a critique of capitalism.

Selena and Jim see, far off in the distance in the cityscape, an apartment building in which one of the higher-up apartments has Christmas lights flashing in its windows. This means of attracting survivors is a double for the one to come later, when the army men try to lure women into a trap of sexual slavery and forced impregnation.

This first lure, however, happens to be a benevolent one. Here, Selena and Jim meet Frank (Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Burns). The sight of Christmas lights, contrasted with the army’s later promise of “Salvation,” makes for a chilling juxtaposition.

Frank and Hannah offer protection and hospitality to Jim and Selena, again, in a way that compares ironically with the protection and hospitality of the army men, when one considers the honest motives of the former against the predatory motives of the latter group.

Soon enough, though, all four of them hear the army’s radio broadcast from Manchester, and after a brief argument over whether it’s wise to go and find people who might be dead by now, for all they know, they decide to go. On the way there, we see shots of beautiful green grass, wind turbines, and at one point when the four briefly stop, even a group of horses running about. These are all reminders to the survivors that there’s still some good in the world.

The sound of religious music is heard during this drive to Manchester, too: Ave Maria, and “In Paradisum” (from Fauré‘s Requiem in D Minor). It is during this time that the four see, from a distance, all of Manchester in flames, a chilling omen that they aren’t about to enter paradise, but hell. Just as with Jim’s first encounter of the infected having been in a church, of all places, face to face with an infected priest, the four are about to confront their ‘salvation’ as a kind of damnation.

They arrive at the army men’s blockade, surrounding a mansion, but at first they see no one there. Frank is disappointed and goes off alone for a moment, sitting where a nearby crow is cawing and bothering him. A drop of infected blood from above hits him in the eye. Hannah comes over at that moment.

This is a touching, heartbreaking scene. Frank knows he’s about to change, and he has to repel her…out of love. While he can still speak, he tells her he loves her very much, but then angrily demands that she stay away, even pushing her away. The Rage virus represents our mutual alienation, an alienation so severe that it estranges even loving family members from each other.

Selena and Jim know that Frank must be killed, but do they have the heart to kill him…in front of his daughter? The soldiers can do it, of course, and they shoot him as soon as they finally appear.

At first, the soldiers, especially Major Henry West (Eccleston), are cordial in their welcoming of the surviving three. Pretty soon, though, Jim is made aware of the unsavory things that West is capable of doing. West shows Jim an infected soldier, Mailer, as a chained captive in a small yard outside the blockaded mansion. West wants to use his captive to learn about the infected, concluding that they have no future. Eventually, his captive will starve to death, as will all the other infected.

At dinner, West reveals a bit more of his unsavory character in a philosophical disagreement he has with Sergeant Farrell (played by Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell speaks of the normalcy of the vast majority of world history, before the beginning of humanity, and of how the Rage virus’s wiping out of humanity can be seen as a return to normalcy (recall, in this connection, my interpretation above of the twenty-eight days as a metaphorical February, purifying the world of man).

West contrasts Farrell’s analysis of the situation with one of his own, saying that infection is just “people killing people,” which had already been going on throughout human history, and would doubtless continue after the virus is (presumably) annihilated, making killing perfectly normal.

Now, as ugly as West’s analysis is, it’s correct as far as 28 Days Later is concerned, since as I’ve said above, the Rage virus is a metaphor for how alienated and fragmented we all are, and have increasingly become, in a world that oppresses the great majority of the population for the sake of maximizing profit and exporting capital outside the Western empire and into the Third World.

What eventually becomes clear to a horrified Jim, then to Selena and Hannah after the soldiers have fought off an attack of infected who penetrated the blockade, is that West and his men have offered “salvation” as a ruse to lure in women to be raped and impregnated to repopulate the UK. Their pretense of protection against a threatening outside world, only to be revealed as a repressive and oppressive life inside that sphere of ‘protection,’ is thus symbolic of fascism, which arises whenever the capitalist system is in crisis or under threat, as it is in a time of societal collapse, as we see in this film.

The fascist mentality of far too many soldiers, who dehumanize those they kill, is made clear when Corporal Mitchell (played by Ricci Harnett) laughs and says of one of his kills, “He bounced!” The dehumanizing continues when Mitchell and the other troops return from the shooting of the infected, finding Selena and Hannah. Mitchell takes away Selena’s machete, symbol of the phallic woman, thus taking away her power while chauvinistically promising to give her his protection, as well as childishly playing with it as if it were an extension of his cock.

This juxtaposition of the promise of protection with chauvinistic dehumanizing is inherently fascistic, both in this scene with the girls as with the previous one with the infected kill who “bounced.” Now, seeing this mentality among individual troops is one thing, but seeing it justified by their commanding officer, with his chilling line, “I promised them women,” is something else entirely.

One of the greatest dangers of societal breakdown is the emergence of fascism as an attempt to restore order. Since we are seeing signs of such an imminent breakdown in the US, combined with so many Americans having right-wing views and espousing open carry, the emergence of fascism there when the breakdown comes is not some fanciful, paranoid fear.

West’s rationalization for keeping Selena and Hannah, making them forced mothers, is that “women mean a future.” Recall above when I described pre-infection UK as a symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking to the past and to the future; while the UK after the twenty-eight days exists in a symbolic March, the month of the war god, in which–because of the endless fighting off of the infected–there is no Janus-face looking into the future. One can understand West’s predicament, not wanting his boys to kill themselves over a future with no meaning in life beyond just fighting off the infected, a future with no wives or future families to raise. But those wives, of course, must be willing wives.

Since neither Jim nor Farrell is willing to cooperate with West and his would-be rapists, the two are to be taken out and shot. Farrell laments over how the island of Great Britain has been quarantined and left in the lurch while the rest of the world carries on normally (Earlier, Selena mentioned reports of cases of infection in Paris and New York, though we don’t know any more of how that has developed.). During societal crises of this magnitude, abandoning a huge section of the world’s population is conveniently easy.

Jim manages to escape being executed by Mitchell and Private Jones (played by Leo Bill), their least effectual soldier and hopelessly incapable cook. Jim returns, though, meaning to rescue Selena and Hannah, whom Selena has made high as a kite on Valium so she “won’t care” when the men rape her. Jim releases Mailer, the chained-up, infected soldier, who goes on a rampage throughout the mansion, infecting a few of the other soldiers. Since the hitherto-non-infected soldiers, as potential rapists, are hardly any more civilized than the infected, then what difference does it make if they, too, become infected?

Mitchell tries to escape, forcing Selena to come with him, so Jim (who by now has already begun a sexual relationship with her) has to kill him. Jim does so in a particularly brutal way: by stuffing his thumbs deep into the eye sockets of screaming Mitchell. Covered in blood, Jim looks to her as if he’s infected–is he? Again, we see that, in terms of being prone to violence, the line separating the infected from the non-infected isn’t so clear or well-defined.

Jim, Selena, and Hannah are about to escape the blockade in a car, but West, the sole survivor of his band of brothers, has been hiding in the back seat of the car, and surprising Jim, shoots him to avenge his troops. Since West has been a father figure to his now-dead troops, saying to Jim, “You killed all my boys” before pulling the trigger, it’s useful to note the reproduction of Laocoön and His Sons in the hallway of the mansion (which our three protagonists have just run by in their escape attempt). Just as Laocoön and his sons are attacked by sea serpents, so have West and his “boys” been attacked by the infected.

Indeed, Hannah saves the day by backing up the car so infected Mailer can grab West from behind, pull him out the back window, and infect him. Since Jim is going to die from his gunshot wound if he isn’t given medical treatment as soon as possible, Hannah has to ram the car through the blockade gate.

Another twenty-eight days go by…another symbolic February, by my interpretation.

[Now, all three alternative endings, as given on the DVD, show Jim having died–one from his gunshot wound, this being the one that was filmed. Another version shows the outbreak to have been a dream (including shots of him as a bicycle courier up to the car hitting him), and another version, given in storyboards, shows Frank being given a blood transfusion, an exchange of his with Jim’s, instead of the soldiers shooting Frank, after he gets infected.]

The more optimistic, official ending, with Jim surviving and recovering in a cottage in Cumbria, shows the infected lying on the roads, emaciated and dying of starvation. Shots of hills of beautiful green grass remind us of the good there still is in the world. This second symbolic February, as it were, is showing a world being purified of infection. It’s as though our symbolic months have gone backwards in time, ending with a second symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking backwards and forwards again, with a past and a possible future.

There is hope for renewed communication when Selena has knitted up a huge cloth banner saying “HELLO,” to be laid on the grass so jets flying over their location may see it. If the pilot of the Finnish fighter jet has spotted them, the three can be rescued.

The cure to Rage, and to societal collapse, is communication.

Analysis of ‘The Apartment’

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

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘They Live’

They Live is a 1988 science fiction action film written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, and the 1986 comic adaptation “Nada” by Nelson and artist Bill Wray. The film stars Roddy Piper, with Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, and Peter Jason.

They Live was a minor success during its release, but received negative reviews from critics for its social commentary, writing, and acting; but like other Carpenter films, it gained a cult following and more positive critical reappraisal. The film has had a huge impact on popular culture, with such iconic scenes as that of the shocked protagonist (Piper) putting on and taking off special sunglasses that reveal subliminal messages enslaving the world to aliens, and of a six-minute alley brawl between him and his eventual sidekick (David).

Here is a link to quotes from the film. Here’s a link to Nelson’s short story, and here’s a link to the comic adaptation.

The short story and comic are a straightforward narrative about a covert alien takeover of the world, with little if any sense of the aliens being among the ranks of the upper classes. Indeed, one of the aliens in Nelson’s story is disguised as “a loveable old drunk,” implying a homeless wino. Other aliens (or “Fascinators,” as they’re called in the story) are the neighbours in the apartment of Lil, the girlfriend of George Nada, the protagonist. The only suggestion that the “Fascinators” could be rich is that Nada finds “no aliens on the subway…Maybe they were too good for such things.” (PDF, page 5)

It was Carpenter (under the pseudonym of “Frank Armitage,” the name of David’s character in the film and also an allusion to Henry Armitage, a Lovecraft character) who turned Nelson’s story into an anti-capitalist allegory critical of the 1980s Reagan revolution and its war on the poor. A key element, however, retained in Nelson’s story, the comic, and the film is how the aliens use the mass media to lull the world into passive compliance with the nefarious, world-destroying agenda of the aliens.

Indeed, They Live is amazingly prescient in how it portrays the insidious effects of Reagan/Thatcher neoliberalism not only widening the gap between the rich and the poor, but also using the media to make us all passively accept our descent into ever-worsening alienation, submission to fascistic police, and mindless consumerism. The film grows more and more relevant with each passing year.

Though the anti-capitalist message should be so obvious that it doesn’t need comment, certain egregiously erroneous right-wing interpretations of who the aliens represent should be dismissed at the outset. No, they don’t represent a conspiracy of world domination by “the Jews” (capitalism, apparently, is only bad when they practice it, but when ‘good, decent Christians’ exploit the global proletariat, that’s perfectly OK [sarcasm]), or the Freemasons, or Big Government per se. Carpenter is very clear in his criticism of free enterprise, the “free market” that these right-wing morons all too often defend in their criticism of what’s wrong with today’s world. No, “small government” won’t fix our ailing society: a government that serves the people, rather than the rich, will fix it.

The film begins with Nada (Piper), a homeless drifter, walking into LA looking for work. His name is an interesting choice, being Spanish for “nothing,” and indeed, in the comic adaptation, when he dies at eight o’clock in the morning as predicted, we see the final panels showing his body decaying, being reduced to nothing, and him saying in the narration that he has become “…once…and…for…all…nada.”

As a personification of nothing, Nada represents the lumpenproletariat, thought by Marx and Engels to have no revolutionary potential, though some leftists today feel that people like Nada do have such potential…provided they are given proper guidance. When led astray, as the other Drifter (Flower) is, they can end up supporting the forces of reaction and even fascism.

Still, being “nothing” can paradoxically be everything from a dialectical perspective. We proletarian “nothings” can be everything if we come together in solidarity. Hegel’s dialectic, as expressed in his Science of Logic, finds the unity between being and nothing in becoming. In the course of this film, we certainly see Nada go on a journey from nothing to becoming something of the greatest importance.

After finding neither work nor food stamps in an employment agency, Nada walks by a park where he hears a blind street preacher (played by Raymond St. Jacques) warning his listeners of the aliens who are secretly controlling the world. He doesn’t mention aliens, so we assume at this point that he is simply talking about Satan and his demons.

The preacher is blind, yet he says the people’s enemies “have blinded us to the truth.” He is like the blind prophet Tiresias, who nonetheless could ‘see’ secret truths most people of his day could not see. This paradox of blindness vs. sight will be further developed when Nada sees through those black sunglasses.

The preacher speaks of our greed and, significantly, of “our owners,” which seems to anticipate what George Carlin would say in a rant, seventeen years after this film was made, about the real owners of the US, “the big, wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.” Police arrive at the park to shut the preacher up.

We hear the preacher’s words in a voiceover as the camera gets a shot of TV screens in a store window that night, showing Mount Rushmore, a bald eagle in flight, a cowboy on a horse, and men who seem to be celebrating winning a basketball game. All-American stuff: a colossal sculpture by a man “deeply involved in Klan politics,” and which was done on a mountain promised to the Lakota Tribe; a bird of prey aptly symbolic of the imperialist country; cowboy stereotypes; and pleasure in competition. It’s all on Cable 54, a station whose significance will be seen later. Nada walks by as a dazed black man is watching the TVs.

Nada finds a job at a construction area. After a day’s work, he meets Frank (David), who offers to show him a place, “Justiceville,” where the city’s homeless can get some food. It’s significant that homeless Nada is rarely welcome in any private property or shelter, which is why some of us wish to abolish private property.

The friendship between Nada and Frank is strained throughout the film, their alley brawl being where that tension comes to a head. This tension reflects how worker alienation is rife in capitalist society.

Frank has a good heart, and he has a sense, as most of us do, that something’s not right in a society that allows the rich to trample on the poor. Nada, who will ultimately lead in the duo’s revolution, is at first still willing to “believe in America,” to follow the rules, to do a good day’s work, and to hope for better luck in the future.

Frank, in contrast, though full of justified anger at the unfair system, is afraid of rocking the boat, since he has a wife and two kids in Detroit to support. Frank is, as The Last Poets once said, scared of revolution. This fear, combined with how the manipulative media hypnotizes us all, is one of the main reasons the masses won’t rise up against the ruling class.

Nada, though pro-American at the beginning, is observant to the point of putting everything together quite soon. He notes the bearded hacker interrupting the mesmerizing TV programs to warn people of the dangers the blind preacher was speaking of in the park. He notes that the church across from Justiceville, where the meals for the homeless are prepared, isn’t what it seems: recordings of church singing drown out the voices of a resistance movement.

This church reflects a paradoxical thing about religion: usually the church is used to prop up the class status quo, which is presumably why it’s a good hiding place for this resistance movement; but every now and then, Christians actually engage in anti-capitalism, like the preacher and the other resisters.

Still, in spite of the resistance’s attempts at being clandestine about their plotting, they’re discovered by the fascistic police, who raid Justiceville one night, trash the place, and beat the preacher and the bearded man who warned about the aliens when the TV programs were hacked. Attacking a homeless community, the kind the Black Panthers would have helped: what could be a more naked manifestation of class war? As we see in this scene, whenever the ruling class is threatened by plots of revolution, they use fascist violence to keep the people in line. Bourgeois ‘democracy’ is a sham.

Ever-observant Nada, however, is putting all the pieces together. After helping a boy get safe in a shelter from the police–a shelter in which one of the homeless says, “Somebody start World War Three?”–Nada goes back to the church to take a box of something he discovered before, something the resistance deems important. Inside the box are pairs of black sunglasses.

The reference to WWIII ought to be linked to something the other drifter (later, a collaborator–played by Flower) has said earlier. He spoke of an “epidemic of violence,” “end of the world kind of stuff,” terrorists “shooting people, robbing banks.” He’s talking about the resistance, of course, but he never develops the class consciousness needed to understand the need for revolution. These references to WWIII, epidemic, and the end of the world, as much as they’re made in passing in the film, are nonetheless another instance of how prophetic They Live really is, when we consider how dire the situation is in our world in the 2020s.

Anyway, Nada hides the box of sunglasses in an alleyway trashcan after taking out a pair for himself. Soon enough, he’ll realize their significance.

A paradox about wearing them is how they make you see the truth, yet in a way, they also ‘blind’ you. Wearing them, he sees only black and white, a seemingly simplified world; and while he sees the revelatory subliminal messages, these messages are as simplistic as their black-and-white presentation.

What’s more, though they’re black sunglasses, they can be associated with the dark glasses a blind man wears. Like the preacher, Nada is ‘blind,’ yet he sees what most seeing people don’t.

The propaganda used to keep the masses in their place is, of course, often far subtler in real life than merely “obey,” “marry and reproduce,” “conform,” “no independent thought,” and “consume,” but much of what is presented in the media, the breads and circuses as well as the divisive propaganda to keep partisan-minded people loyal to this or that political party, is also simplistic, so the simplicity of the film’s black-and-white subliminal messages is fitting.

In today’s intellectually impoverished political discourse, critics of Biden are assumed to be Trump supporters; disliking both the red and blue parties seems to require a capacity for abstract thought far too complex for too many of today’s liberals. The same applies to ultraconservative Trump supporters, who claim that their critics must be DNC “commies,” a ridiculous pairing of labels as any I’ve ever heard. The same black-and-white thinking applies to the conservative vs. liberal (actually bourgeois) parties in all countries around the world.

What is, of course, the most shocking thing that Nada has to deal with is his seeing the aliens, as they actually look, for the first time. He stares in a daze at a middle-aged businessman whose face looks like a skull with his eyeballs popping out.

In Nelson’s short story, the aliens look reptilian, snake-like, with green flesh and “multiple yellow eyes,” speaking with “bird-like croaks” (PDF, page 1). Such a description reminds us of David Icke‘s reptilian overlord conspiracy theory, but Nelson’s story is not so overtly political. The aliens in the comic adaptation are colourful, many-eyed, and grotesque, but not at all reptilian.

Carpenter’s representation of the aliens’ appearance is the most sensible one. Properly understood to be symbolic of the capitalist class, the aliens with their skull faces are agents of death. The lack of lips and eyelids gives their faces a zombie-like lack of human expressiveness that is chillingly fitting for the purposes of this anti-capitalist allegory.

The endless pursuit of profit is a dehumanizing process, causing alienation among people and within them, alienating them from their species-essence. Not only are the people of Earth enslaved by the aliens and their ideology, but the aliens themselves are also thus enslaved, hence their reading of newspapers and magazines with the same subliminal messages. Capitalists don’t pursue profit merely because they like to; they are compelled to maximize profit because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The wish for endless growth on a planet with finite resources is why capitalists are agents of death, and therefore why it is apt for the aliens to have skull-faces. Late stage capitalism is destroying the planet through climate change and endless wars; the US military, being the number one polluter in the world, is waging wars to ensure the sustained profits of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, etc.

The capitalists know they’re destroying the Earth, despite their denials and lies that ‘climate change is a myth’; they have underground bunkers to survive in when “the Event” happens, be it climate change, nuclear war, or American civilizational collapse in general. Small wonder the bearded man on the TV says, “Look around at the environment we live in. Carbon dioxide, fluorocarbons, and methane have increased since 1958. Earth is being acclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.” Then he says the aliens will “deplete the planet, move on to another.”

Again, so there isn’t any doubt about who the aliens represent, resistance leader Gilbert (Jason) says it most explicitly. He says, “They’re free enterprisers. The Earth is just another developing planet. Their Third World.”

So, the aliens represent not only the ‘free market’ capitalism that right-wing libertarians idealize, they also personify imperialism. As we on the left understand so clearly, and try so hard to get the rest of the world to understand, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, exporting capital to other countries, expanding markets out there and hiring cheap labour from Third World countries to maximize First World profits, and fighting wars in a competition to keep the biggest slice of the pie. The aliens in They Live do this on an interplanetary level.

Nada is amused, but not surprised, to see (through his sunglasses) a politician on a wall-mounted TV who is an alien speaking of how we should “have faith in our leaders,” and be optimistic about the future, in a world as obviously bleak as it is in the film, and by extension as bleak as ours is now. One is reminded of, for example, Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020, when he spoke of America’s great economic recovery…then soon after, the whole economy came crashing down.

Nada’s shock at the sight of all these aliens, and the messages saying “obey,” etc., cause him to react inadvisably, making the aliens realize that he sees them as they really are. After fighting off and killing two alien cops, he takes their guns and tries to take all of them on alone.

He runs into a bank with a number of aliens among the humans, and he introduces himself by saying that iconic line (of Piper’s own invention) about bubble gum and kicking ass. As bad-ass as this scene is, we must understand the error he as a potential revolutionary is making: his spontaneous attack on the aliens is mere recklessness and adventurism. It’s thrilling to watch at first, but it ultimately ends in failure. Revolutions must be planned, organized, and timed well.

To escape his inevitable pursuers, Nada goes into a parking lot and kidnaps a woman, Holly Thompson (Foster), and has her drive him to her home. It’s interesting how when he gets out of her car at her home, two male neighbours (aliens?) of hers seeing them, he in those sunglasses looks rather like a blind man (recall what I said above about seeing and blindness). She is scared, but cooperative with him…and cunning in her private thoughts.

Inside her home, he finally takes off the sunglasses, which have been giving him a headache. Earlier, whenever the bearded man on the TV interrupted the Cable 54 broadcast to warn of the aliens, his viewers would get headaches after a short while of listening to him, too. Indeed, it’s painful and depressing for us to learn the truth about our oppression; TV shows and fashion ads are so much more comforting in the illusions of superficial pleasure they perpetuate for us.

Nada gets excited to learn that Holly works for Cable 54, knowing that that’s where the alien signal is coming from, and therefore he can get a chance to destroy the transmitter. He lets his guard down, and she smashes a wine bottle over his head, making him fall out of her window and down a steep hill. Calling the police with a cold look on her face, Holly reveals herself to be a class collaborator. Nada has lost his sunglasses in this incident: will she put them on, realize the aliens are controlling everything, and later redeem herself to Nada? Or does she already know about them, and is she collaborating to save her own neck?

To get a new pair of those sunglasses, Nada has to go back to that alleyway and find the box he hid there. He’s already seen Frank at the construction area, who is so shocked from having heard of Nada’s violence in the bank that he wants nothing to do with him. Still, Frank has a good heart, and he goes to the alley with a week’s wages to give Nada. Frank wants no part of Nada’s revolution, all the same.

Frank’s unwillingness even to try on a pair of the sunglasses shows just how adamant so many of us are even ‘to wake up’ and see the enormity of our ugly reality. In Nelson’s short story and in the comic adaptation, ‘waking up’ is a straightforward matter of coming out of the state of hypnosis that the ‘Fascinators’ have put the human race under. The story begins with George Nada coming a little too much out of the hypnotic state to be lulled back into it.

He must try to wake up the rest of the world, including his girlfriend, Lil, before eight o’clock in the morning, the time a ‘Fascinator,’ by force of suggestion, has determined for his death by heart attack. Since he does die this way at the end of Nelson’s story, it’s clear that even he isn’t completely ‘awake.’

So as with Frank, there’s plenty of resistance to ‘waking up.’ Lil, represented in the comic as a shapely, buxom babe, comes across as ‘asleep’ in the sense of having internalized a wish to attain all of society’s beauty ideals without question. Her female equivalent in the film, Holly, is similarly all given over to the aliens’ agenda, if at least more aware of their existence.

Being ‘awake’ versus ‘asleep’ in our world is far from being the simple dichotomy that it is in the film. Various factions in the left disagree as to what it means to be ‘awake’ to the reality of capitalism and on what to do about it. What’s the answer? Anarchism, Trotskyism, social democracy, or Marxism-Leninism? Leftist infighting has made it most difficult for us to rise up together and defeat the ruling class.

Though it isn’t really dealt with in the film, Frank as a black man is especially affected by the capitalism that the aliens personify. Still, he’s scared to ‘wake up,’ yet the need to ‘stay woke‘ has been given expression as a major issue for African-Americans ever since the 1930s. Further complicating matters has been the bastardizing of the term “woke” by the right, first in the capitalist exploitation of the term, and also by conservatives’ pejorative use of it, similar to their use of “politically correct.”

So as we can see, waking people up is a hard thing to do for blacks (Frank) and women (Lil), as well as for a number of other complicating reasons. Small wonder Nada has to fight with Frank for about six minutes in that alley, just to get him to put on the sunglasses.

The ruling class loves to have the people fight with each other, rather than join together in solidarity to fight the elite. The Western oligarchs would have us all hating Russia and China to distract us from the glaringly obvious problems in our own societies. So in the story, George Nada has to tie Lil up and take her car; and Nada and Frank beat the crap out of each other.

In the hotel, Frank, finally acknowledging the situation with the aliens, speaks of how they must have always been here, making us all hate each other. The alienation brought on by class conflict has led to the kind of parental abuse Nada suffered as a kid from his dad.

Gilbert finds Frank and Nada in the hotel, and he tells them of a secret meeting of those in the resistance. At the meeting, our two heroes replace their sunglasses with far more effective contact lenses. Here, Gilbert tells the others that they all have to be far more careful. The resistance movement is suffering because of such problems as adventurism. He advises the others to blend into society to avoid getting caught. Indeed, one must wait for a revolutionary situation before rising up. In the meantime, one must be patient and bide one’s time; they can strike when they find out where the hypnotizing alien signal is coming from.

Another big part of what makes revolution so difficult is how so many people sell out, as Gilbert explains to Nada and Frank. So many join the police, who have historically existed to protect the interests of the owners of private property. Many on the “left” sell out, like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the Squad, politicians who act as mere sheepdogs to lull American voters to elect right-wingers like Joe Biden, politicians that the mainstream media disingenuously claim are on the left.

Opportunism is so easy to give in to. People get promoted this way, get more money, and buy nice houses and cars. The resistance gets labelled as ‘commies’ by the cops in the film (and this is who they truly represent; though Carpenter is a liberal who has admitted to supporting [regulated] capitalism, he represents the left-leaning variety of the pre-Clinton years when ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something). Now communists, by contrast to the opportunists, are those who “stand out in the rain,” as Michael Parenti once described them: risking their careers and even their lives as they combat capitalism.

Nada is pleased to see Holly appear at the meeting. He imagines she is remorseful for hitting him with that wine bottle in her home. It would seem that she has led the police to the resistance’s meeting…though the film so far has left her private intentions ambiguous, so we’ll see her opportunism fully revealed at the end.

Nada and Frank, the only members of the resistance to survive the police attack on the meeting, manage to get to the Cable 54 building, where not only the source of the hypnotic alien signal is being transmitted, but also where the aliens are having a banquet with their human collaborators. Here we see symbolically how the ruling class colludes with the world’s politicians and the mainstream media.

At this banquet, Nada and Frank are reunited with the drifter from Justiceville who was the most resistant to the bearded man’s warnings about the aliens on the interruption of the TV program. This drifter, so totally given in to the mainstream media’s mesmerizing (as are so many of us), has predictably become a collaborator, having traded in his dirty old clothes for a tuxedo. Being as empty-headed as he is, he foolishly gives Nada and Frank a tour of the building, thinking our two heroes are collaborators, too.

They reveal that they aren’t collaborators in a sound-proofed room next to the TV studio where the mesmerizing messages are given by two alien news anchors. (For ‘Cable 54,’ read ‘CNN,’ to give but one example.) The drifter/collaborator rationalizes his treason to humanity by saying, “it’s business…there ain’t no countries anymore…we all sell out every day.” (This last line was inspired by something a Universal Pictures executive said to Carpenter.)

There being ‘no more countries’ shouldn’t be misinterpreted as the NWO ‘one-world-government’ nonsense, except in the sense that the new world order that George HW Bush spoke of referred to the post-Soviet, neoliberal, capitalist-imperialist one, in which it has been the ambition of Washington DC to rule the whole world. It’s business…it’s capitalism.

Nada and Frank manage to fight their way to the roof of the Cable 54 building, assuming they can trust Holly, who has a concealed pistol and puts a bullet in Frank’s head. He was so scared of revolution, and now his wife and kids have no man to put food on the table. This has made revolution all the more urgent, though.

Finally, Nada knows he’s going to be shot either by Holly or by the men hovering by him in a helicopter. Still, he says, “Fuck it” after shooting Holly, then he puts two bullets into the transmitter before being shot himself. Waking people up to the reality of our capitalist masters isn’t a sufficient condition of our liberation, but it’s certainly a necessary one. The mainstream media must be disabled.

Arousing class consciousness, as symbolized by the world finally waking up and seeing all the aliens as they really look, is of course a much more complicated process than what we see at the end of the movie. Yet it’s astonishing to see how many people in the world either deny that capitalism is the problem (preferring instead to focus on identity politics), or believe that only “unfettered capitalism” is the problem (as Carpenter himself believes!), or believe that billionaires can be allowed to exist in socialist states, or believe that, fantastically, “real capitalism” doesn’t exist and has never even been tried (as the market fundamentalists delude themselves)! They live, right-wing libertarians, while you sleep…and don’t even know you do.

Still, just as Nada doesn’t live to see the revolution happen, many of the rest of us who are ‘awake’ are not seeing a revolution happen, either. And as with George Nada of Nelson’s short story and the comic adaptation, there is little time left to wake the world up and start that revolution. George had only until eight o’clock in the morning to set the stage for revolution: how much time do we Nadas have before climate change, nuclear annihilation, or civilizational collapse become our eight o’clock in the morning?

Will we live, or will we forever sleep?

Analysis of ‘Drugstore Cowboy’

Drugstore Cowboy is a 1989 crime drama directed by Gus Van Sant (his second film as director) and written by him and Daniel Yost, based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by James Fogle. The film stars Matt Dillon, with Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, James LeGros, James Remar, and William S. Burroughs.

The film was widely acclaimed by critics. Siskel and Ebert included it on their top ten lists for movies in 1989. Rotten Tomatoes has given it a rare score of 100%, based on 28 reviews.

Tom Waits was Van Sant’s original choice to play the lead, but the finance company would not support his choice. Dillon, instead, won the Independent Spirit Award for playing the lead. Drugstore Cowboy was filmed mainly around Portland, Oregon. The soundtrack music has songs contemporaneous with the 1971 setting.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The movie begins with a shot of Bob Hughes (Dillon), a 26-year-old junkie and thief of pharmacies/hospitals, in an ambulance with a smile on his face. We will see him here again at the end of the movie.

He and the three other people in his group of pharmaceutical thieves do what they do as, of course, an escape from the miseries of life, comparable to the escape that religion offers. Recall Marx’s words: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from the introduction)

Getting high is the foursome’s religious ecstasy. Drugs are their sacraments: in liquid form, the transubstantiated blood of Christ; in pill form, they are the Host wafers.

So, this quartet of drug addicts/thieves is allegorically representative of religious people, since both groups have escape from life’s frustrations as their goal. As I will attempt to show, parallels of the druggie life with that of the religious can be found in subtle, and not so subtle, manifestations throughout the film.

The thieves go into a drugstore one by one, as if they aren’t together. Nadine (Graham) suddenly pretends to have an epileptic seizure and falls on the floor, shaking violently. It’s as if she were possessed of demons. This distraction allows Bob to sneak into the back of the store and steal as many pharmaceuticals as he can get his hands on, while Dianne (Lynch) tries to keep the pharmacist from going to the back to call an ambulance.

When Bob has all the drugs he can get, and he, Dianne, and Rick (LeGros) leave the store, Nadine is suddenly better. She simply gets up and walks out of the drugstore, too, with all the people who watched the incident looking at her incredulously. Yet why wouldn’t she just get up and leave? They have their drugs, their religious ecstasy and salvation, so she has experienced a miraculous ‘faith healing.’ As Christ said, “Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk.” (Mark 2:9)

Now, these four have broken the law, but remember what Paul said about salvation by grace, as opposed to adherence to the law: “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). In accordance with the antinomian distortion of this idea, of all the swearing we hear coming from their mouths, blasphemies are notably frequent. We hear “Goddamn,” “Jesus,” and “Christ” because God is Who they have unconsciously on their minds.

Having returned to their home, Bob tells the other three to act as if they’d just come back from church. Well, of course: a drugstore, home of their sacraments, is church. During that car ride home, Bob has put some of the drugs into his veins and has vividly described the pleasure they give him, like receiving God’s grace, it seems. He says, “Your worst enemy–he wasn’t so bad.” Recall in this connection what Christ said” “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

When Bob imagines “blues and Dilaudid in such great amounts on the spoon that it would literally be overflowing,” we’re reminded of Psalm 23: “My cup runneth over.” Bob says, “You could do no wrong” while on drugs, for such is the effect of sanctifying grace as brought on by the sacramental pharmaceuticals.

Inside their home, we see shots of all the pills they’ve stolen, and immediately after those, a shot of a small figurine on a side table of what must be the Virgin Mary. A fitting juxtaposition of images, for immediately after that shot, we return to close-up shots of drugs–more pills, and a needle Bob’s getting ready for Rick to shoot up.

Another interesting parallel that can be made between substance abusers and the religiously devout is the two groups’ stance on sex. Paul held chastity as a moral ideal, only assenting to marriage for other Christians by necessity–hence, the celibate Catholic priesthood. In the case of drug addicts like Bob, it is well known that the men suffer a depressed sex drive, including erectile dysfunction.

Small wonder Dianne, as beautiful as she is, gets so frustrated with her husband Bob, asking that if he’s so hot (actually, he’s hot to steal more drugs!), why won’t he just throw her on the bed and make love to her. Later, she tries to turn him on by undressing and dancing to music, but he’s so high that, to her chagrin, he shows no interest in sex. For that matter, we never see the other couple, Rick and Nadine, as attractive as she is, getting it on, either.

Indeed, their home is like a coed convent.

Soon enough, the police, led by Detective Gentry (Remar) and having been tipped off about the theft in the drugstore, raid the junkies’ home and wreck the place in an unsuccessful search for the stolen drugs (actually, Dianne has hidden them in a hole dug outside). Just as Christians, assumed to have engaged in such vices as cannibalism (a far-too-literal interpretation of the Eucharist), were persecuted by the Roman authorities in the first century AD, so are the quartet of dope fiends harassed by the cops. Gentry’s name aptly sounds like a near-pun on Gentile.

Bob needs to go to his mom’s house to get some clothes, but she feels totally estranged from her son and daughter-in-law for their drug habit. One is reminded of when Jesus said that faith in Him would set the believers against their families (Luke 12:51-53)

Bob et al have to find a new home to get away from Gentry, and they find the “Josephine apartments.” Why they have this name is lost on Bob and Rick, the latter saying that the man who rented it is named “Dale.” Perhaps the feminized “Josephine” is a fusion of Joseph and Mary, which is fitting given the aforementioned figurine of Mary found in their first place.

In the new place, Nadine makes the faux pas of asking if they can get a dog, the mere mentioning of which in Bob’s superstitious mind causes a hex that makes stealing drugs dangerously bad luck for a month. One is reminded, in this connection, of Matthew 7:6, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

We learn of how Bob and Dianne have come to regard dogs, and even the mere discussion of them, as bad luck. The husband and wife owned a dog that, out of its love and loyalty to them, found its way home after being separated from them during a robbery gone wrong, and the police followed the dog home. The police put Bob and Dianne in jail for it.

As we can see, giving what’s holy–for Bob and Dianne, their pursuit of the Holy Grail of drugs–to their dog has made it turn against them and rend them to pieces, so to speak.

The worst hex that can be brought onto Bob, though, is a hat placed on a bed, based again on his bad experience with this cause of ill fortune. Why is leaving a hat on a bed so catastrophic for Bob, though? Why would such a mundane thing put a hex of at least fifteen years on him, with such risks as prison or even death?

I believe a hat, with its round base going over the wearer’s head, represents a halo, which in turn represents holiness (in these drug addicts’ conception of ‘spiritual bliss,’ mind you). The bed represents sex, something both the drug abuser and religiously devout avoid, as I explained above. Placing a hat on a bed thus is symbolic of profaning the spiritual, of the devout breaking his vow of chastity and celibacy.

A hat on a bed is also symbolic of the mixing of the divine, upper world with the profane, lower world, which causes the calamities we read about in the primordial narratives of the first several chapters of Genesis. A hat goes on the head, seat of the mind, reason, and therefore spirit. The body lies on a bed. The juxtaposing of a hat and a bed, therefore, is symbolic of making the mind focus on carnal things–thus, it is bad luck.

Now, I keep comparing Bob et al to spiritual, religious types, and while the ideal for such people is to “love thy neighbour as thyself,” there is of course a huge abyss separating this ideal and the average religious person’s ability and willingness to live up to the ideal. Bob and Dianne are frequently mean to poor Nadine, who is increasingly getting afraid of being abandoned by them one day.

Knowing Gentry is doing a stakeout by Bob’s apartment, he figures out a way to get rid of the detective and his spying cops. He writes a letter–how like Paul writing an epistle!–to trick the cops into spying up in the window of a neighbour’s apartment, provoking the man living there to get his rifle and shoot at the cops; for Bob has led his neighbour to believe the spying cop up at the window is a peeping Tom!

Bob, Dianne, Rick, and Nadine all sit by their window to watch the neighbour shoot the cop peeping in his window. Bob sets it up as some fun entertainment for himself and his druggie friends. Since I’m comparing these dope fiends to religious types, this entertaining show of watching the evil cops getting their comeuppance is rather like the entertainment churchgoers get watching their preacher dramatically describe and narrate how the sinners of the world will get what’s coming to them on Judgement Day.

Gentry, of course, is furious with Bob the next day, furious about his fellow cop getting injured, and he gives Bob his own comeuppance with several punches to Bob’s gut.

To deal with their hex and get away from Gentry, Bob et al go “crossroading.” During the ride, we hear “Israelites,” by Desmond Dekker and The Aces. This song again involves a comparison between the use of drugs and religion, for it is a reggae song about the struggles of Rastafarians (for whom the smoking of cannabis is a sacrament), a religious group associated in the song with the Israelites, who in a life of crime don’t wish “to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.” The song is heard again during the end credits.

Bob robs a drugstore with an open transom, and gets vials of pure powdered Dilaudid. Encouraged by this treasure trove find, Bob convinces the group to help him rip off a hospital.

The robbing of the hospital is far less successful. In his attempt to evade capture by the staff, Bob gets a bloody cut on his forehead, which in his, so to speak, ‘imitation of Christ,’ is symbolic of the crown of thorns.

Meanwhile, the abuse Nadine is suffering from Bob is pushing her to the breaking point. She calls him a “hog,” reminding us not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). By the time he returns to the motel the quartet is staying at, Bob discovers what Rick and Dianne have already found: Nadine, dead of an overdose of Dilaudid. She’s also left her hat on her bed, to spite Bob.

Her suicide–having put the other three in serious danger of being charged with her death, since as Bob says, it’s “paramount [sic] to a murder beef,” combined with the hex of the hat on the bed–is therefore her betrayal of them. She is the Judas of this story; Bob calls her a “conniving little bitch.” Her suicide also reminds us of that of Judas (Matthew 27:5).

What’s worse, the three of them must give up their room to some people involved in a sheriff’s convention. Bob is so scared that, as we understand later in the film when he explains himself to Dianne, he prays to God to keep him from being sent to prison for Nadine’s death. In return, Bob promises to God that he’ll give up the junkie life, get on the methadone treatment program, and live a virtuous life.

His switch from the escape of drugs to the crutch of prayer is much of what solidifies my interpretation of the film as the junkie life being allegorical of the religious life. His fear during this moment is like Christ praying in Gethsemane; he would have God take this cup from him, but according to God’s will, not Bob’s (Matthew 26:36-42).

Bob manages to get Nadine’s body out of the motel without suspicion, then buried safely. Now he must fulfill his part of the deal with God: give up the drugs.

On the 21-day methadone program in Portland, Bob stays in a hotel named, significantly, St. Francis. He explains to a member of the staff of a rehabilitation centre that a junkie uses dope “to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.” Yes, even something as simple as that can be too irritating to bear sometimes.

Of course, if we had a socialist system that relieved us of those everyday pressures, providing a social safety net, full employment, free healthcare and education, people wouldn’t need to resort to escaping through drugs or religion, because alienation would be a dwindling problem at worst. But I digress…

Bob soon meets a former priest named Tom (Burroughs), a man whose religion hadn’t provided a sufficient escape, so like Bob, Tom gave in to drug addiction, too. Again, in Tom we see one of the strongest links between drug abuse and religion in this film. Having junkie/author William S. Burroughs, of all people, to play Tom only drives the point home even harder.

Bob gets a job drilling holes that bolts fit into. This drilling of holes suggests the driving of nails through Christ’s hands and feet into the Cross. I’m reminded of how Mel Gibson had himself filmed driving a nail into Christ’s hand in The Passion of the Christ. The Christian convert tries to remind himself…tries, at least…to remind himself that he, though saved, is still a sinner.

So Bob now has an ordinary, boring, working-class job. How long can he go without feeling the itch to escape back into the world of getting high? He himself told the rehabilitation centre employee that no one can ever talk a junkie out of doing drugs.

Temptation arrives in the form of beautiful Dianne, who of course has no intention of ever stopping her drug habit. She gives him a package of drugs with which she hopes to lure him back into the life, but like Jesus in the wilderness, he refuses the Devil’s temptations (Luke 4:8). He’d like to have her back, but she doesn’t want to be straight.

It’s here that he tells her of his praying to God to save him from jail. He says that in his new, straight life, he has hopes of something good happening to him. No such luck with her.

He gives the package of drugs, which include some Dilaudid, to Tom, who says that Bob can get an indulgence for it. Somehow, that punk David gets wind of Bob getting the drugs; combine this knowledge with the anger David feels towards Bob for having helped a junkie kid get away without paying for drugs David gave him, and he has more than enough motivation to get revenge on Bob and steal that package of drugs from him.

Having hidden in Bob’s apartment and wearing masks, David and his punk accomplice assault Bob, kicking the shit out of him. They demand that he give them those drugs, which he of course no longer has. He’s done nothing wrong, as Pilate observed of Jesus (Matthew 27:23). Also like Jesus, Bob must go through his own violent ordeal.

David ends Bob’s ‘passion,’ if you will, by shooting him. The bullet hole is like the spear in Christ’s side (John 19:34). Bob is left for dead, but a neighbour calls for help in time, so he’s taken out on a stretcher into an ambulance, just where we found him smiling in that opening shot at the beginning of the film.

Gentry arrives, wondering if the one who shot Bob was the cop who got shot at by the angry neighbour for the ‘peeping Tom’ incident. Gentry has earlier warned Bob that this angry cop, now demoted to traffic duty, has been seeking revenge on Bob. Just as Christ made enemies among both the Roman and Jewish authorities, so has Bob made enemies among both the police and his fellow junkies.

Bob tells Gentry that “the hat” is what attacked him. Gentry thinks “The Hat” is the nickname of some dope fiend/criminal who had a falling-out with Bob, but what Bob means is that, having almost been killed, he’s been freed of the hex of the hat on the bed. Like Christ’s death on the Cross as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), Bob’s shooting has saved him from his sins.

As an ‘imitator of Christ,’ Bob has just shared in Christ’s suffering (Philippians 3:10). He got an ‘indulgence’ from Tom, so Bob is free to do drugs again! I suspect that he hasn’t been mortally wounded, so with his soon-to-come return to the junkie life, he’s experienced a kind of death and resurrection. He’s also being taken to a hospital, where they’ll give him such drugs as morphine for his pain. He’s going to “the fattest pharmacy in town.”

He’s going to drug heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Pharma.

Analysis of ‘Spartacus’

Spartacus is a 1960 epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick (replacing original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting; therefore this is the only film over which Kubrick didn’t have complete artistic control) and written by Dalton Trumbo (who also wrote the novel, and the screenplay for, Johnny Got His Gun), based on Howard Fast‘s 1951 historical novel of the same name. The story is inspired by that of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient, republican Rome, resulting in the Third Servile War.

The film stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, with Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, and John Gavin. Both Fast and Trumbo, being avowed leftists, were blacklisted, the former having to self-publish his book, and the latter being one of the Hollywood Ten.

Spartacus won four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Ustinov, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It had been the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history until Airport surpassed it in 1970.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to a PDF of Fast’s novel.

Spartacus is a hero to communists and leftists in general, for how his slave uprising against the Roman ruling class has inspired the socialists of today to foment revolution against the capitalist class of the modern world. Karl Marx praised him, his namesake was given to the German Spartacus League of 1915-1918, and the failed German communist revolution of January 1919 was called the Spartacist uprising.

Other examples of art and popular culture inspired by Spartacus include a 2004 miniseries starring Goran Višnjić in the title role, and a ballet of the same name, composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1954 and first staged in 1956; some of the music of this ballet was used in the soundtrack to the Penthouse production of Caligula in 1979.

To get back to Fast’s novel and the 1960 film, we immediately notice how differently both treat the subject matter of the story. The characters of Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier), Lentulus Batiatus (Ustinov), Varinia (Simmons), and Gracchus (Laughton) are all shared in both the book and the film, and apart from the basic history of the slaves’ failed uprising against Rome, the telling of the story differs wildly between book and movie.

The novel tells the story of Spartacus in a piecemeal fashion, given from the points of view of the various characters after Spartacus’ death, while the film tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way. The gladiatorial fight between Spartacus and Draba (played by Woody Strode) is generally similar, and the scenes of Crassus and Varinia, him frustrated in his efforts to win her love, and of Gracchus’ plan to steal her and her baby from Crassus and to give them their freedom, are essentially the same, though they differ greatly in the details.

A crucial difference between novel and movie is in the presentation of Spartacus’ death: in the book, he dies in battle (as affirmed by Plutarch, Appian, and Florus, though Appian also reports that Spartacus’ body was not found), whereas in the film, Spartacus is crucified.

Indeed, the sight of Spartacus chained to a rock to starve at the beginning of the film, his punishment for having bitten the leg of a Roman soldier, hamstringing him, is a parallel of his crucifixion at the end of the film. This parallel gives the story a sense that it has come full circle: his suffering is at its greatest at the beginning, with him as a slave lugging heavy rocks on his back from the mines in Libya; just as his suffering is at its greatest also at the end, with him hanging in excruciating pain.

In the novel, in chapter three of Part Two, is a vivid description of hell on Earth, a hell for slaves mining for gold in the unbearably hot desert of Nubia. To make matters worse, children are needed when the veins narrow “deep inside the black rock escarpment.” (One is reminded of Congolese children today, mining for the cobalt we use in our cellphones.) Spartacus is among “one hundred and twenty-two Thracians chained neck to neck, carrying their burning hot chains across the desert…” (PDF, page 55)

The film’s beginning is the equivalent to this chapter, the opening scene only briefly depicting the suffering of Spartacus and his fellow slaves in Libya, rather than Nubia. The chapter captures, with great intensity, the misery and despair of the slaves as they work, virtually without rest, from early in the dawn ’til the dusk. “Their skins are patchworks of black dust and brown dirt…” (PDF, page 57). Many slaves die from these back-breaking work conditions.

There’s a brief moment in the early morning, before the sun is fully risen to beat its oppressive heat on the slaves as they go to work. “In this single hour of the day, the desert is a friend.” (PDF, page 61). But only for that cool hour.

In the film, Batiatus arrives, discovers Spartacus, and saves him from his chaining to the rock to have him trained as a gladiator. Batiatus is a lanista, the owner of a school for gladiators. Spartacus is about to be pampered, a whole new experience for him that includes baths and massages, and a girl for a mate (in the novel, he’s mated to Varinia, rather than merely teased with her and denied her, as in the film; PDF, pages 78-81, 83).

Still, there is no happiness in being trained to kill or be killed for the entertainment of the ruling class. The fighting of gladiators to the death is perfectly symbolic of how the ruling class has always divided the people from each other, making them fight each other instead of fighting their oppressors. Their sense of alienation is well displayed in the scene when Spartacus asks Draba his name, the latter telling the former it isn’t wise to know the names of, or to become friends with, those they will have to kill, or be killed by, in the arena.

Though Draba has said this, he still doesn’t want to kill a fellow gladiator for the sport of rich Romans (who in the film are Crassus, Marcus Glabrus [played by John Dall, who incidentally also played chief psychopathic killer Brandon Shaw, in Hitchcock’s Rope], Helena Glabrus [played by Nina Foch], and Claudia Marius [played by Joanna Barnes]; but who in the novel are two men named Caius Crassus and Marius Bracus). So at the end of his fight with Spartacus, having won, Draba refuses to kill him, to the annoyance of their Roman audience, and instead he hurls his trident at them, only to be speared in the back himself. Nonetheless, Draba’s solidarity with Spartacus has inspired the surviving gladiator.

Added to this sense of solidarity, as a cure for alienation, is Spartacus and Varinia falling in love. She gets naked for him when he first meets her. He doesn’t think of her as a mere sex object, though: “Spartacus saw her and loved her, not for her nakedness, but because without clothes she was not naked at all and did not cringe or attempt to cover herself with her arms, but stood simply and proudly, showing no pain nor hurt, not looking at him or at Batiatus, but contained within herself, contained with her eyesight and her soul and her dreams, and containing all those things because she had decided to surrender life which was worth nothing any more. His heart went out to her.” (PDF, page 80)

In the film, Batiatus and Marcellus, the gladiators’ trainer (played by Charles McGraw) lecherously watch the couple, hoping to enjoy seeing them have sex; but Spartacus, furious at their lack of respect for his and her privacy, shouts at the men that he is not an animal. She, still naked, says she isn’t an animal, either. He naturally agrees with her, unlike the two voyeurs.

The love he feels for her, especially when he learns she has been sold to Crassus and therefore he’ll never see her again, is the final straw that drives him, followed by the other gladiators/slaves, to bring about a spontaneous rebellion. (The sight of Draba’s hanging body is also a major provocation for them.)

In the novel, this rebellion isn’t quite so spontaneous. There is discussion among Spartacus, Crixus the Gaul (played by John Ireland in the film), and Gannicus (played by Paul Lambert in the film) about whether they, as gladiators, should consider themselves friends (PDF, page 111). Thus the seeds of solidarity among slaves have been sown. They know that the Thracians call Spartacus “father” for all the love he’s shown his fellow slaves. He hints at a plotting of a rebellion when he says he’ll fight no more gladiators, and that he, Gannicus, and Crixus “will know what to do when the time comes to do it” (PDF, page 115).

In the film, Spartacus just spontaneously kills Marcellus by dunking his head in a pot of soup and drowning him in it. After having had to endure his trainer’s taunts for so long, he surely relishes killing the man. As we know in the modern world, though, revolutions cannot be so spontaneous: meticulous planning, theory, and organization are indispensable, as is the ability to intuit a revolutionary situation.

To get back to the story, though, more and more slaves join the gladiators’ rebellion, and Spartacus’ plan is for them all to go south to Brundusium and pay to have pirates’ ships take them out of Italy and to their home countries. Along the way, he is reunited with Varinia.

The Roman Senate is growing alarmed at the escalation of events, and Glabrus is to lead his cohorts to fight and subdue the slaves. Meanwhile, Crassus has found himself a handsome boy slave named Antoninus (Curtis), who is gifted at singing and reciting poetry.

In a scene originally censored by the prudish Production Code, Crassus is given a bath by Antoninus. The former asks the latter (with the voice of Anthony Hopkins in the restored version) of his sexual preferences, using indirect, symbolic language. Crassus asks the youth if he eats oysters, symbolic of female genitals; then he asks if Antoninus eats snails, symbolic of male genitals. Crassus considers these preferences a matter of taste rather than of morality; he then confesses his own eating of both oysters and snails, indicating his bisexuality.

The point to be made here is that Crassus is obviously trying to seduce the boy; how many slaves, male and female, were forced to perform sexual favours for their masters? In the scene previous to this one, Gracchus and Batiatus have a discussion alluding to the enjoyment of female slaves, in Gracchus’ case, to the point of him not even wanting to get married.

After Crassus’ bath with Antoninus, the former walks out, followed by the latter, to an adjoining room looking out across the river to the city of Rome. There, Crassus tells Antoninus of the greatness of Rome, and of how how one’s attitude towards her should be.

Crassus, in describing Rome’s greatness, is given a line that is an allusion to Julius Caesar, in which Cassius, complaining to Brutus about Caesar, says, “…he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus…” (I, ii, lines 135-136). In Spartacus, however, Crassus says this to Antoninus of Rome: “There is the power that bestrides the known world like a Colossus.”

What’s interesting in these two variations on the quote is that the first refers to Caesar, while the second refers to Rome, personified as a beloved woman, a man’s mistress. Young Julius Caesar, recall, is in Spartacus, played by John Gavin (who incidentally, in the same year, played Marion Crane‘s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, in Psycho). Later in the film, Crassus tells Caesar of his fear of him, an allusion to how Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey would form the First Triumvirate, and Crassus and Pompey would lose to Caesar’s rising power.

Indeed, the fear of republican Rome becoming a dictatorship, something Gracchus will fear of Crassus’ rising power towards the end of Spartacus, is a fear Brutus and Cassius would have of Caesar, which they would use to justify assassinating him. Crassus’ name fortuitously sounds like a pun on Cassius, hence what’s so intriguing about the allusion to Shakespeare’s play as put on Crassus’ lips. He fears Caesar’s rise as Cassius would decades later.

That Crassus’ absolute rule over Rome would come in association with the defeat of Spartacus’ army is also worthy of comment. In the modern world, many right-wing, authoritarian dictatorships came into being after the crushing of proletarian attempts at gaining power: fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Francoist Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, etc. The ruling class makes a masquerade of democracy when times are good; but if threatened, that same ruling class ends the masquerade and rules with an iron fist, as Crassus does.

In his speech on Rome to Antoninus, Crassus speaks as if everyone, including such members of the ruling class as himself, must make himself a slave to his beautiful mistress and goddess, Roma. In implying that he, too, is a slave in this larger sense, Crassus is rationalizing the whole slave system to the youth. He’s also implying that, in serving Rome, Antoninus must serve Crassus all the more faithfully and devotedly.

It is at this point that the boy sneaks away without Crassus knowing. Antoninus, of course, will join Spartacus’ army, eager to learn how to fight. The youth will endure the indignities of slavery no more: Crassus’ designs to enjoy Antoninus for his sexual sport, combined with this mad notion of enslaving oneself to a lofty abstract ideal such as Rome, are too much for him.

In today’s world, the global proletariat has its own political ideals to which it is expected to enslave itself: the “rules based international order,” the “free market,” or simply neoliberalism, are all ideals that we wage slaves are expected to grovel before, never questioning the source of our oppression.

On their way to Brundusium, the slaves enlist the help of a Cilician pirate envoy named Tigranes Levantus (played by Herbert Lom). Gracchus bribes the pirates to get them to take the slaves out of Italy, so that, fearing Crassus’ rise to power, he needn’t fear the slave crisis being exploited by Crassus to justify his making a dictatorship of Rome.

Still, Crassus bribes the pirates better, and they end up betraying Spartacus et al. When Tigranes returns to tell Spartacus the evil tidings, then offers him and the other slave leaders a chance to escape and live like kings in other countries, Spartacus tells him to go away. Opportunism has no place in a sincere struggle to be free.

At an earlier point on the way to Brundusium, Glabrus’ cohorts camp one night and, contemptuously underestimating the slaves, see no need to set up a proper perimeter of fortification around the camp, so the slaves can easily infiltrate it and massacre most of the men in the cohorts. This incident is based on the disastrous military leadership of Gaius Claudius Glaber against Spartacus on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

In Fast’s novel, Varinius Glabrus, as he’s called, is “vain, rather stupid, and politically dependable.” He’s killed with all the other men, all except one frightened, shamefaced soldier, who tells Gracchus and the rest of the Senate about the massacre (PDF, Part Five, chapters iv-vi). In the film, Marcus Glabrus is the one to explain his incompetence to the Senate, and he is sent out, disgraced. Crassus, his friend, leaves with him, pretending to share in his disgrace, but as Gracchus knows, Crassus will return, stronger than ever.

To get back to the part when Spartacus knows that he and his comrades cannot escape by sea, he knows their only way forward is to confront Crassus and his army, and thus to head back to Rome. His army is an impressive one, by the way, including women fighters, as we can see in the movie, extraordinary for one made back in 1960.

Here’s the thing: to be truly free, one cannot just run away from one’s oppressor–one must confront him and fight him. At the end of Fast’s novel, Varinia and her baby escape to live in a village near the Alps; but Roman soldiers go up there to enslave those villagers who can’t pay the high taxes, and her son, after she’s dead, has to fight these Romans just as his father, of the same name, did. (PDF, page 272)

In the film, the final confrontation happens, and it’s a nasty fight, with Spartacus’ army sending out rollers of flames to attack the Roman soldiers with. Much of the violence of this scene, with bloody stabbings and Spartacus’ hacking off of a Roman soldier’s arm, was originally censored out of the film, as with the ‘oysters and snails’ scene, because of the negative reaction of the preview audience.

By the time all of this has happened, Spartacus has already gotten Varinia with child, and when the slaves have been defeated, she has given birth to it. Crassus and Batiatus find her among the bodies of the fallen slaves, and Crassus wants her and the baby to be taken to his home. He especially wants to find Spartacus, to destroy the legend of the slave.

Why is it so important to Crassus to destroy the legend of Spartacus? Because, though the slave leader and his army have been defeated, their brave example will inspire thousands of future slaves to revolt one day. And where Spartacus has failed, any of the subsequent attempts may prove successful. That’s what Crassus is afraid of.

The Romans offer to spare the lives of the defeated slaves if they identify which man among them, living or dead, is Spartacus. They all respond with the famous repeated shout of “I’m Spartacus!” (a quote referenced and parodied in many films, including That Thing You Do!, and even Kubrick’s next film, Lolita), starting with Antoninus, who has prevented the real Spartacus from identifying himself, then dozens of men in his army shout it, in loving solidarity with their leader, who is moved to tears by their love.

This surviving love and solidarity is what is so threatening to Crassus, then the richest man in Rome. The slaves know they have lost…for now, but the hope of future success still burns like a flame in their hearts, and Crassus will have to find a way to extinguish that flame.

In our modern world, the Crassuses of today have been hard at work trying to extinguish the flame of hope that a socialist revolution will replace the capitalist hell we live in now. This story, as written by leftists Fast and Trumbo, was meant as an allegory for our times today; the master vs. slave contradiction of Spartacus is meant to represent the bourgeois vs. proletarian contradiction. And just as Crassus wants to destroy the legend of Spartacus, so do the bourgeoisie want to destroy the legend of Marxism-Leninism.

Imagine if, after the crushing of the Communards and the Paris Commune, that socialists had just given up! Of course they weren’t going to do that: instead, they worked hard to understand and learn from the errors that the Communards made.

Similarly, though a ruthless campaign of anti-communist propaganda (which I refute here, as in other posts) was doused here, there, and everywhere to extinguish the fire of socialism in the twentieth century, and that propaganda was a huge factor in the defeat of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc, we today shouldn’t listen to the capitalist lies that “socialism doesn’t work” and “TINA.” Instead, we must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century and revive the hope that yes, another world is possible, that there is an alternative to neoliberalism.

To give a sense of how Crassus can be seen as an ancient version of a capitalist, in Fast’s novel, there’s a scene with him giving some women a tour of a perfume factory he owns. The scene at first hardly seems relevant to the life of Spartacus, but at the end of it, we can see Fast’s intentions (PDF, Part Six, chapter x).

Crassus speaks of how he makes much more of a profit with such businesses as his perfume factory than he could ever make in such wars as the Servile War. Furthermore, his workers in the factories aren’t slaves, so he needn’t feed or house them. Since they are free, he imagines he needn’t fear an uprising among them (PDF, page 221).

The bourgeoisie today, right-wing libertarians in particular, are fond of saying that if workers don’t like their jobs, they are free to quit, leaving their ‘poor, suffering’ bosses to have to find replacements. It may be relatively easy to quit when the economy is good, but not so when the economy is bad, as it is now, the worst it’s been since…forever, it seems.

Fast often refers to Romans as being on the dole, but this doesn’t change the fact that Rome was as brutal an empire as any. As an allegory of today’s world, his novel depicts Roman imperialism as paralleled (though assuredly not equal) with British and American imperialism. Romans being on the dole is to be paralleled with the welfare capitalism of the UK and US of the prosperous postwar years when the novel was written and the film was made. Welfare capitalism–at a time when the US and UK overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, to stop him from nationalizing Iranian oil, or when the US overthrew the government of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 for the sake of the United Fruit Company–is still capitalism…it’s still imperialism.

To get back to the story, though, Crassus has Varinia and her baby live with him. He’s captivated by her beauty, as well as puzzled with why such a beauty would remain in love with a lowly slave like Spartacus. None of Crassus’ wealth can lure her heart away from the father of her child and over to the man who has defeated him. But of course, Crassus’ defeat of the man she’s loved will ensure that she’ll never love Crassus…except that narcissistic Crassus will never accept her attitude.

What’s significant about the scene with him and her at dinner at night, in his attempt to woo her (recall that this scene is in Fast’s novel, too–Part Seven, chapter v), is that we see a kind of reversal of the roles of slave and master. He serves her food: squab and honey, a piece of melon, and a cup of wine, He has her wear a heavy necklace, once owned by a Persian queen. He doesn’t command her to eat–he invites her.

This reversal of roles suggests Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic, in which each tries to achieve self-recognition through the other. We’ve already seen the death struggle in the form of the battle in which Crassus’ army has defeated that of Spartacus.

Now, if all of the slaves are killed, then self-recognition through the other cannot be. The “I’m Spartacus!” shout of so many of the slaves, ensuring their collective crucifixion to a man, is nonetheless troubling for Crassus, not only because their defiant spirit will inspire other slaves, but also because their collective death means none will be left to give him and their other Roman masters the recognition they crave.

Crassus tries to get that recognition through Varinia, who coldly refuses to give it to him. Lacan said that man’s desire is the desire of the Other: to have the Other desire him, and to be recognized and acknowledged by the Other. Crassus’ desire is Varinia’s recognition, which she will never give him.

In Hegel’s myth, after the master has achieved dominance over the slave, a contradiction arises in how all of the slave’s work, producing so many things, gives their creator the recognition he craves, meaning he no longer needs it from his master; on the other hand, the master, having grown dependent on all of the slave’s productions, becomes subordinate. In Varinia’s case, her baby can be seen to symbolize the slave’s creations; similarly, her insistence that she nurse her own baby without the need of a slave-nurse to do it for her shows her self-emancipating agency.

Crassus’ frustration grows when he brings up Spartacus, who she insists was just a simple man, not a god. That she can love such a humble man is wounding to Crassus’ pride in the extreme. His implied threats to her baby’s life show, ironically, how defeated he really is. Since he owns her, he could simply rape her; but he wants her to love him, and he can never make her do that.

Another fascinating paradox occurs later, when Spartacus and Antoninus are made to fight each other to the death, the victor to be subsequently crucified. Since crucifixion is one of the worst, most painful ways to die, a death by stabbing is far preferred. So both men would kill each other…out of love…to spare the loser of the fight from suffering the agony of the cross.

Spartacus wins, and though neither history nor Fast’s novel have him die by crucifixion, the film has him die this way. Such an alteration naturally makes him into a Christ-figure, one who dies so future generations may live, that is, his sacrificial death will make of him a martyr who will inspire future slaves–including present-day wage slaves–to continue the struggle and, we hope, liberate us all for good.

Now, Fast’s novel gives extensive discussion of all those slaves crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, where Batiatus has trained the gladiators. One gladiator/slave rebel whose crucifixion is given especial focus is a Jew named David. As he hangs in agony and despair on his cross, he ruminates over his mostly unfortunate life. (PDF, Part Six)

Fast divides David’s life into four parts: first, “a happy time of not knowing,” then, a time “full of knowledge and sorrow and hatred,” next came a “time of hope…when he fought with Spartacus,” and finally, a “time of despair,” when “their cause was lost” (PDF, page 212).

The difference between the times of not knowing and of knowing weren’t really those of happiness vs. unhappiness, but rather those of naïvely not knowing of the evils already present in the world, back when David was a child, and of when he became a man, had his eyes opened, saw the difference between the rich and the poor, and finally realized the world’s evil (PDF, page 190). Such a realization would have been especially poignant for David when he saw his father crucified for his involvement with the Maccabean rebellion (PDF, page 192).

Though Fast, having published Spartacus in 1951, wouldn’t have known at the time of the growing despair of socialists since the dissolution of the USSR (in fact, sadly, he came to believe the lies Khrushchev spoke about Stalin in his “secret speech,” and broke away from communism), still, David’s despair on the cross, and the length of his unhappy life, can be seen to allegorize the despair of any leftist revolutionary whose cause has failed, including the fall of the Soviet system.

We leftists in today’s world were once wide-eyed and naïve, like David as a boy, blissfully ignorant of the evils of the world. Then we grew up, put away childish things, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, and underwent our Fall into a knowledge of those evils; and accordingly, we felt the pain, the sorrow, and the hatred of those evils. Then there were those of us who were old enough to remember the era of the Soviets, and how their influence even softened the blow of capitalism with the welfare state; we experienced a time of revolutionary hope, like David’s hope as he insists on standing beside Spartacus in battle (PDF, page 200). And finally, our time of despair has been from the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, and the ensuing rise of neoliberal capitalism from then to the present day.

The suffering of David on that cross, one of the longest and most painful ways anyone can die, is a perfect metaphor for the long, drawn-out pain we on the left have felt as we watched Clinton gut welfare, Dubya start the “War on Terror,” Obama continue and expand Dubya’s policies, Trump lower the already-low corporate tax rate even further, and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices so Roe vs. Wade could be overturned, and Biden provoke Russia and intensify nuclear brinksmanship.

We’ve watched this slide into imperial tyranny (as did Cicero of republican Rome degenerating into the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus; Cicero, who appears in Fast’s novel as an ambitious, upwardly-mobile writer of a monograph on the Servile Wars [PDF, Part Four, chapter i], but not as a critic of the power structure that would eventually have him killed), and we see no way out of the present situation. But recall the end of the movie, when liberated Varinia shows crucified Spartacus their now-freed baby. This child personifies our hopes of a revived revolution, which just might happen as the Western empire is crumbling.

We hang on the cross in agony, like Spartacus, but that baby of hope is alive and free. Instead of letting our heads droop down in despair, let’s keep our eyes on that baby.

Analysis of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

I: Introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the story is a critique of psychiatry and, in a larger context, of all tendencies to impose social control.

It was adapted into a Broadway and off-Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy, with Gene Wilder playing Billy Bibbit. Danny DeVito, who played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway play, would reprise his role for the 1975 film, which starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

I’ll be focusing on the novel and the film, which–though following the novel fairly closely–was actually based on the play. The supporting cast of the film, which was co-produced by Douglas’s son Michael and directed by Miloš Forman, includes Louise Fletcher as the manipulative and subtly domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, named the fifth greatest villain in movie history according to the AFI), Will Sampson, William Redfield, DeVito as mentioned above, Sydney Lassick, and Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their film debuts.

The film won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), the second film to achieve this (after It Happened One Night in 1934), and the third to do so not until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and in 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress. AFI lists it #20 on its list of the greatest films of all time in 1998, demoted to #33 in 2007.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here are some quotes from the novel, and here is a link to a performance of the play.

II: Background to the Novel

To get back to the novel, it’s useful to know some of the historical context and background to its creation. It was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was already a growing sense of antiestablishment thinking in the collective consciousness of the US at the time. There was also a controversial move towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, something that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel.

Kesey worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California, an experience that, through his interactions with the patients and the staff there, obviously inspired his novel. He also experimented with such psychoactive drugs as LSD and mescaline there, as part of Project MKUltra. These mind-expanding experiences led not only to his advocacy of using the drugs recreationally, but also freed his mind in a way that influenced the antiestablishment attitude championed in his novel.

III: A ‘Mute’ Narrator

The arrangement of the main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is strikingly contrary to what one would assume them to be normally, in terms of who wields authority and who cows under it, and who is central versus who is marginalized. Almost all of the patients–except for “Chief” Bromden (Sampson in the film), a half-Native American–are white men who are dominated, bullied, and controlled by, most of the time, women and blacks: Ratched and Nurse Pilbow, and the “black boys,” aides Washington (played by Nathan George), Williams (Miller in the film), and Warren. Though McMurphy’s the protagonist, Bromden narrates.

Bromden fakes being deaf and dumb in the hospital, which allows him to be privy to many of the machinations of the staff, who chat around him while assuming he can’t hear what they’re saying. His muteness is also symbolic of how the aboriginals of North America have been silenced by the establishment, the white settler colonial state that is embodied in, for example, the US and Canada.

…and yet, ironically, this ‘mute’ is the narrator of the novel.

His narrative style is noteworthy in itself, often switching back and forth between present and past tenses, as well as expressing himself ungrammatically in such ways as saying, “They should of knew better’n to…” (Kesey, page 4). This informal, non-standard English gives us a vivid sense of how Bromden is, in spite of having been a college student, just an ordinary, common man, as opposed to being a higher-ranking member of society. This proletarian-like commonness will be important in how he will eventually rise up and free himself, in a quasi-revolutionary way, from the societal prison that the mental hospital represents.

IV: An Upside-down World

That the white men are bullied by “the Big Nurse” (Ratched, of course) and the other nurses reflects another issue Kesey was concerned with: the emasculation of modern men in society. I see something broader than that in this, if you will, ‘matriarchal’ hospital with its “black boys” also pushing around the white male patients: as a reversal of the normal social hierarchy, life in the mental hospital, the ‘loony bin,’ “the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a fittingly upside-down world, comparable in a sense to that of King Lear, in which a king is reduced to a mad beggar. Such an inversion of the normal…and equally deplorable…state of affairs in our society can be seen as a way to let our white male rulers know how it feels to be ruled by others. Both the normal and inverted worlds are mad worlds.

The nature of the hospital’s ‘matriarchal’ rule is aptly given in the maternal form of nurses telling the male patients what to do (Dale Harding–played by Redfield in the film–literally calls it a matriarchy–page 63). These men, in their afflicted mental states that are even further afflicted by the nurses’ manipulations, are thus reduced to the role of children. This is best seen in the whining and temper tantrums of Charlie Cheswick (Lassick), in his noisy demands for his precious cigarettes.

V: When ‘Helping’ is Harming

Psychiatry and psychotherapy are supposed to serve in healing patients so they can return to society in a healthy state and become happy, productive contributors to that society. The critique of this novel, however, is that far too often, the psychiatric profession is used rather to control the patients. Far too often, confronting the mentally ill is about treating them with contempt and condescension instead of with empathy and compassion.

I know from personal experience in my life how people in the role of ‘nurse’ can speak of one as ‘ill,’ pretending to be concerned about that person’s well-being, but really using the label of ‘ill’ to justify treating the person as an inferior to be controlled. Instead of giving the person the help he or she needs, as is the stated intention of the ‘nurse,’ this ‘nurse’ causes the patient’s sense of worth and autonomy to be gradually eroded.

Now, the bogus treatment of illness as a guise for social control can be of mental illness, as dealt with in this story, or it can be of physical illness, as many have suspected of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s social control, disguised as ‘treatment,’ on the individual or local level, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there’s such social control on the national and even international, imperialist level, of which the novel and film can be seen to be an allegory.

Having Bromden as the novel’s narrator is thus useful for the purpose of such an allegory. In some ways, such an allegory works in the film, too, even without Bromden as a voiceover narrator (an omission Kesey was most unhappy about in the film adaptation), as I’ll try to show.

VI: Beginning of the Film

The film begins with a shot of a scene in nature, with mountains, grass, and a car going down the road (presumably McMurphy being taken to the mental hospital) during a sunrise. The film will end with Bromden having escaped the hospital and going off into a similar natural background–with trees, mountains, and the sunset.

Throughout the middle, of course, has been life in the prison of the hospital, a metaphor for our sick civilization. We start out in the beauty of nature, whose life is interrupted by our oppressive, man-made civilization, and we’ll ultimately liberate ourselves and return to the beauty of nature.

That Bromden, our half-Native American, half-white narrator, is doing the liberating from that civilization is significant; for that very civilization is the white settler colonial state that robbed the North American aboriginals of their natural home, and it must be returned to them if full liberation for all–white, black, Latino, Asian, and aboriginal–is to be achieved.

VII: McMurphy, the Bad-but-good Guy

To achieve that liberation, though, a revolutionary agent needs to be introduced…and this is where McMurphy comes in. He may be a criminal, someone who “fights too much and fucks too much” (page 14), but it’s his gregarious, free-spirited, and rebellious nature that is just what the intimidated other men need to inspire them to fight for their own freedom.

The fact that our hero is deemed a psychopath and a statutory rapist, one who’s faking insanity to escape the prison work farm and, as he hopes, coast his way through his sentence in the mental hospital, is yet another example of the upside-down world of this story. A violent bad guy is actually the good guy.

One manifestation of this bad-but-good guy is when he meets Bromden. In the film, McMurphy mocks Bromden with an aping of the stereotypical greeting of “How,” then with the hand-over-mouth war cry stereotype. On the surface, McMurphy is indulging in childish, tasteless racist ‘humour,’ but he and Bromden will soon develop a close friendship.

Similarly, there’s ambivalence in calling Bromden “Chief.” On the one hand, it’s a racial slur; on the other, his father was the leader of his tribe, so handing down the title of “Chief” is perfectly legitimate (page 24), as explained by Harding. Yet another upside-down ambivalence is in how Bromden, weeping over McMurphy’s lobotomy at the end, lovingly smothers him to death with a pillow to free him from his wretched fate.

Now, in the novel, it’s towards the “black boys” that McMurphy at one moment shows a racist attitude, calling one of them a “goddamned coon” and a “motherfucking nigger.” He’s mad at them for forcibly delousing George Sorensen, one of the “acute” patients who has mysophobia and is visibly upset over the forced delousing (page 273). Even in this scene, McMurphy’s surface nastiness is obscuring a deeper compassion for the disadvantaged.

So, with every bad thing about McMurphy, there’s also something good; and the good things about him are far more noteworthy. As I said above, he is the one who will inspire the others, waking them all up from their psychological torpor–even Bromden–with his defiant, oppositional example.

VIII: The Combine

To repeat another point I made above, the mental hospital is a metaphor for the whole sick society we all have to live in. In the novel, Bromden has a special name for this repressive world exemplified by the hospital: he calls it the Combine. “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nationwide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.” (page 192)

Yet another example of the upside-down world of the novel is how Bromden is in full realization of the evil of “the Combine”–which combines capitalism, white-settler colonialism, imperialism, and social repression–yet he has been diagnosed with clinical depression and schizophrenia, this latter involving psychotic breaks from reality. As with King Lear‘s “poor Tom” o’Bedlam, a homeless madman (as Edgar pretends to be) whom Lear, in the depths of his own madness, regards as a “Noble philosopher.” It’s the mad who are truly wise in this kind of world.

IX: McMurphy vs the Nurse

McMurphy takes an immediate disliking to “the Big Nurse” and her subtly domineering ways. He bets with the other patients that in a week, he “can get the best of that woman…without her getting the best of [him]” (page 73).

Getting the best of her won’t be easy, for part of how she maintains control over the ward is by exercising her authority through a near-perfect control of her own emotions, which we see fully in Fletcher’s brilliantly understated performance in the film. She rarely loses her temper, and in her self-control we see her confidence, a narcissistic False Self which in turn commands respect. With this command of respect for her as “the Big Nurse,” Ratched is able to effect a mother transference on all the male patients (on Bibbit in particular), which infantilizes them, ensuring her control over them.

Her power over them is so complete that McMurphy can’t even get the obnoxiously ‘peaceful’ music on the record player turned down a little bit, so he and the others can hear each other talking as they play cards. When he tries to get a majority vote so they can watch the World Series on the ward TV, she manipulates matters to include all the ward patients who know nothing of the vote; and by the time he gets Bromden to raise his hand and secure a ten-to-eighteen majority, Ratched has already adjourned the meeting and invalidated the majority. Ratched thus personifies the fake democracy of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

One of McMurphy’s more successful ways of getting to her is by taking note of her figure and large breasts. He is thus defying that maternal transference that she uses to subordinate the other men, defying the Non! du père that reconciles most boys with society’s rules.

Now, this defiance of le Non! du père is also understood, through Lacan‘s pun, as les non-dupes errent. That is, those people who are non-dupes err because, paradoxically, by not being duped by society’s phoney rules (represented by Ratched’s rules of the ward), the non-dupes go astray and mess things up (as McMurphy will for everyone during the drunken party at the story’s climax).

X: The Tub Room Scene

McMurphy’s determination to watch the baseball game is seen in the tub room scene, with the control panel that he foolishly imagines he’ll lift up and throw crashing through the window, then he’ll leave the hospital with Cheswick and watch the game on a TV in “any bar downtown.”

Significantly, during the tub room scene, we see Harding playing, of all games, Monopoly with some of the others (in the novel, the game is mentioned on page 114). Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, and both games essentially teach the players, if they’re paying attention, about the evils of private property, of capitalism, and of the suffering involved in paying up every time you land on someone else’s property. So symbolically, we see the connection of the hospital and capitalism with Bromden’s idea of the Combine.

…and if the hospital, capitalism, and the Combine are the prisons from which these men (and, by extension, all of us) need to be freed, then McMurphy’s attempt, however doomed to failure, to lift the control panel and bash it through the window, to liberate everyone, is representative of socialist revolution. This brief and failed attempt is thus like that of, say, the Paris Commune. Well, McMurphy tried, didn’t he? As with the Communards, at least he did that. Of course, at the end of the story, Bromden tries and succeeds, as the Soviets would succeed…for at least several decades, anyway, before the post-Stalin revisionists began the USSR’s decline.

XI: McMurphy, Therapist

Now, I’ve described McMurphy as liberator on the socialist revolutionary level of symbolic interpretation. There’s also him as liberator in terms of, if you will, psychotherapy. He inspires the others to defy Nurse Ratched’s authority, and he helps them to be more social, through card games, basketball, the push to watch the World Series on TV, the fishing trip, and getting timid Billy Bibbit (Dourif) laid with the help of Candy (played by Marya Small), one of McMurphy’s prostitute friends.

Getting Bromden to speak, to ditch his deaf-and-mute act, is perhaps McMurphy’s greatest therapeutic achievement, one that makes his racist mocking of Bromden, near the beginning of the film, fade into insignificance. As I said above, Bromden’s deaf/mute act symbolizes the silencing of the aboriginals by the white settler colonial state, which for him would be the most significant aspect of “the Combine.” McMurphy’s goading him to speak is thus a revolutionary helping of Bromden to regain his voice and his sense of self, a therapeutic cure as well as a remedy for anti-aboriginal racism. McMurphy is, in effect, achieving the ‘talking cure.’

XII: Bromden’s Silencing

From pages 210 to 215 of the novel, Bromden explains how he came into his habit of acting like a deaf mute: “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (page 210)

His act, this silencing of him, began long before the hospital. It was already happening when he was in the Army. It happened in grade school. It happened when he, ten years old, saw a car with white people arrive at his home, then inform his family of the government’s plan to put up a hydroelectric dam there, putting an end to their fishing. The white people would force it on the aboriginals one way or another. The Combine would force it.

My connection of the Combine with capitalism may seen tenuous or even made up to some readers, but what must be understood is that there’s a lot more to capitalism than just markets, as right-wing libertarians ingenuously (or rather disingenuously) try to reduce it to. As Marx explained, the social relations between the owners of the means of production, of capital, or private property, and the workers, who have only their labour as a commodity to sell, these relations are but the base. On top of this base is the superstructure: the capitalist state, the arts, the media, science (of which psychiatry can be seen as a part), religion, culture, the law, and education. The mental hospital can be seen as a part of, or as symbolic of, that superstructure. The Combine combines both the base and the superstructure.

An essential part of maintaining this Combine, the ideology of the base and superstructure, is racism, which keeps the proletariat divided and hating each other instead of working together in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class. Presenting “the black boys” and the nurses as bullying the mostly white male patients (granted, there are also the male psychiatrists, like Dr. Spivey [played by Dean Brooks], and the white male attendants, but these men intervene more occasionally in the story; in fact, Spivey seems to be ruled over by Ratched, too) is an ironic twist that nonetheless maintains the divide-and-rule aspect of the Combine.

Capitalism also expresses itself in the form of white settler-colonialism, an internal form of imperialism (i.e., within the territorial limits of the United States) that has affected Bromden his whole life, as mentioned above. Colonialism and imperialism, like religion, media manipulation, the law, the state, and education, are all forms of social control. The worst aspects of psychiatry, such as its use of drugs, are also forms of social control rather than of therapy. Anyone who tries to defy authoritarian psychiatry is looked down on as “ill” in order to deny him a voice, to deny him power.

XIII: Ratched’s Gaslighting

Hence, when Taber (Lloyd) doubts the validity of the medication he’s given by the nurses, Ratched says he’s chosen “to act like a child” (page 34) rather than listen to him, show him empathy, or validate his legitimate concerns (the film’s approximate equivalent of this scene substitutes McMurphy for Taber). Accordingly, Miss Ratched is “just like a mother,” according to a Public Relations man (page 37). Small wonder, as Bromden observes, “The ward is a factory for the Combine.” (page 40)

Part of Nurse Ratched’s way of dealing with rebellious McMurphy is to call him “McMurry,” something she does a number of times early on in the novel, and as I suspect, this isn’t a mistake. Her changing of his name sounds like a manipulative form of control, a gaslighting comparable to Petruchio‘s renaming of Katherina as “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew. Ratched would tame McMurphy in a similar way.

XIV: Alienation

Since capitalism breeds alienation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the ward, as symbolic of the superstructure, the Combine, also breeding alienation. We can see it in Taber’s taunting and antagonizing of Harding. Indeed, the discussion of Harding’s sexual problems with his beautiful wife, implying his repressed homosexuality, is more of a ganging-up on him and a bullying of him than any kind of therapy (page 56). Taber’s bullying of Harding, significantly, is resumed in the tub room scene, during the Monopoly game.

There’s alienation between people, and there’s also alienation within, the psychological fragmentation of people with psychotic mental states, people like Martini and Bromden, with their many hallucinations. During the basketball game, for example, when Martini has the ball, he tosses it to nobody, thinking he sees a teammate receiving it. Then there’s Bromden with his notion of the fog machine.

XV: Fog

He imagines that the fog machine, “bought from Army Surplus and hid in the vents” (page 131), is controlled by the hospital staff. Sometimes Bromden finds the fog to be frightening: “I’d wander for days in the fog, scared I’d never see another thing” (page 131). Such a fear sounds like an extension of his faked deaf/muteness, since this fog-induced blindness is something he’s mentally imposed on himself.

Actually, this fog is just a symbol of the bullying authority of the nurses and “black boys.” Just as his deaf/mute act is a result of the Combine silencing him, so is the fog machine a result of the Combine blinding him to his own worth, size, and strength.

The fog, like the deaf/mute act, isn’t a completely bad thing, though. Just as the deaf/mute act allows him to hide and listen to the staff’s secret schemes, so does the fog give him a safe place to hide from painful reality. And just as one might dismiss his fog machine and the Combine as loony conspiracy theories, they actually represent how perceptive he is of the power structures all around him.

XVI: Unity of Opposites

Remember that in the upside-down world of the mental hospital, opposites are united, so loony conspiracy theories are actually perceptive assessments of reality. Bromden is muted, weakened, and shrunken to insignificance, yet he’s also the narrator, a towering giant, and strong enough to lift that control panel in the tub room.

Similar paradoxes, as noted above, include bad boy McMurphy, who is ultimately the story’s hero, even Christ-like (more on that below). White male patients are dominated primarily by nurses and “the black boys,” when we know how things really are outside the mental hospital. And of course the hospital itself, though ostensibly a place to be cured of one’s mental demons, is actually a kind of prison–a worse one, in fact, than the work farm McMurphy came here to escape, for as he’ll find out, far from being released at the end of his original sentence, he’ll be kept here for as long as Ratched deems fit.

He is truly trapped in the mental hospital…potentially for the rest of his life, while he’s mentally the freest of everyone here. Most of the other patients–except for Bromden, Taber, and some of the Chronics–are voluntary, free to leave the hospital whenever they wish…yet mentally, they’re all too afraid to leave and face the real world outside, since Ratched is manipulating that fear.

XVII: Jesus McMurphy!

McMurphy therefore is, in many ways, a Christ figure in spite of his sinfulness. Just as Christ was crucified when he, as Pilate observed (Luke 23), had done nothing wrong, so is McMurphy trapped in this hell of a mental hospital when he’s the only healthy, if badly-behaved, one here.

In keeping with the theme of the unity of opposites in this story, we’ll explore other ways in which McMurphy is a bad-boy Christ. One obvious way is in his blatant, open sexuality, as contrasted with Christ’s saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 27-28)

Now, McMurphy looks on women lustfully all the time…including at Ratched, whose breasts he appraises by wondering, “did she wear a B cup…or a C cup, or any ol’ cup at all?” (page 208) In fact, his very effective therapy for Bibbit, in curing the boy–if only temporarily–of his mother-induced gynophobia, is to have him lose his virginity with Candy.

And just as Jesus suffered, so does McMurphy, first with the electroshock therapy, which he endures (lying on a “table shaped like a cross”–pages 131-132) as bravely as Christ endures the flagellation and the crown of thorns. And though McMurphy, in attacking Ratched in revenge for her having driven Bibbet to suicide, is doing the opposite of Christ’s loving His enemies and turning the other cheek, his ‘death,’ as it were, by lobotomy ends up being a sacrificial death that drives Bromden to pick up the control panel, smash it through the window, and show the way to freedom for all the patients.

McMurphy has the patients go fishing with him, an event that happens far later in the novel than in the film (Part 3, pages 208-256). This event, too, has far greater therapeutic value for the patients than all of Ratched’s manipulative efforts. In keeping with the Christ analogy, recall Matthew 4:18-20. ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him.’ Remember also the ichthys, the fish symbol of Christ.

Just as the historical Jesus, as a number of modern scholars have argued, was a political revolutionary trying to free the Jews of Roman imperialism (not the watered-down peace-lover meant to appease the Romans), so is McMurphy a revolutionary trying to free Bromden et al of the Combine. Furthermore, some Christian leftists believe “Jesus was a socialist”: I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly there are passages in the New Testament that are anti-rich. Consider Mark 10:25, Matthew 25:41-46, and 1 Timothy 6:10. So if McMurphy is like Jesus, his anti-establishment antics can be, in these ways, likened to socialist agitation.

XVIII: White Whale Underpants

McMurphy’s Moby-Dick shorts (page 84), a literary friend’s gift that he displays after undressing, are full of symbolism related to all I’ve said above about him as a sexual, bad-boy Christ. As I (and others) have pointed out, the white whale is a huge phallic symbol, a fact emphasized by its appearance on McMurphy’s underwear.

McMurphy’s link with Moby-Dick manifests itself in other ways. The whale represents wild, untamed nature, as McMurphy does. Indeed, as one uncorrupted by the mind-numbing social conformity that Ratched is imposing on the other patients, white McMurphy is more of a noble savage than Bromden could ever be stereotyped as–another example of the subverting of expectations of the novel’s upside-down world.

As a result of McMurphy’s unwillingness to be tamed, Ratched’s Ahab-like attempts to catch him ultimately bring violence on herself, as Ahab’s quest brings on his own self-destruction. In my Moby-Dick analysis (link above), I wrote of Ahab’s narcissism, his overweening pride and its mad refusal to accept how unconquerable the whale is; Ratched’s wish to control the patients and turn them against each other is similarly narcissistic in nature…malignantly so.

McMurphy is also like the whale in that he represents, as I argued in my analysis of Melville‘s book, the beyond-good-and-evil nature of ultimate reality, an ever-elusive, deep knowledge one can never decisively grasp. As such a personification of this ultimate reality, McMurphy is, like the white whale, God-like, and therefore Christ-like. Now, this God-like whale embodies evil as well as divinity, just like McMurphy as a bad-boy Christ. In these ways, we see again the unity of opposites in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

XIX: McMurphy–Socialist or Capitalist?

Now, when I associate McMurphy with socialist revolution, I’m sure I’ll get objections from readers who will cite the passage when Harding defends McMurphy’s “capitalistic talent” (page 266) at “making a little profit” from his gambling and the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched brings up McMurphy’s profiting as one of her many schemes to divide the patients and thus control them better.

It’s best to understand Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ by emphasizing that it’s only the former’s interpretation of the latter’s intentions. In that passage, Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American” capitalism is based on his not yet having been fully liberated psychologically from the prison of the hospital; he is still experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as a result of the ongoing influence of, as he (ironically?) describes her, their “Miss Angel of Mercy Ratched”, who “is absolutely correct in every assumption she made…about McMurphy.” (page 266)

Furthermore, to use McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ to debunk his socialism fails to think dialectically about the two opposing economic systems, as such assumptions mean forgetting about the upside-down nature of this story. McMurphy, recall, does bad things to promote good. He’s a bad-boy Christ figure, so it should be predictable that he’d promote socialist liberation through capitalism. As Harding notes, “We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we?” (page 266) Recall that McMurphy’s efforts have all been far more therapeutic than anything Ratched has done for the patients, regardless of the money he’s made off of it.

The promotion of socialism through capitalism is far from unheard of: the USSR did it through the NEP in the 1920s, and China and Vietnam brought back the market in the 1980s; indeed, China’s state-regulated use of capitalism, intended to boost the productive forces of the country, has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, a feat achieved far quicker than the economic development of the “free market” has done for the global poor elsewhere. And the only meaningful liberation is the kind that ensures people are all fed, sheltered, employed, educated, and given healthcare.

XX: Menial Work

Remember that the mental hospital, with its staff’s subtle manipulations, bullying, and enforced conformity, is a metaphor for society in general. A part of this prison of a society is the menial jobs given to the patients, a proletarianizing of them, such as Bromden with his mopping of the floors (page 3), and McMurphy’s cleaning of the toilets (pages 159-160). He’s escaped the work farm only to end up doing latrine duty.

As a punishment for McMurphy’s gambling and ‘profiteering’ as discussed above, Ratched rations the patients’ cigarettes, which can be seen to symbolize low wages. So Cheswick’s protests about his cigarettes, escalating to McMurphy breaking the glass to the nurses’ station, taking a box of them, and giving it to Cheswick, is like a workers’ strike. The “black boys” taking the two men and Bromden to get electroshock therapy is thus like the police rounding up the strikers.

XXI: A Fog of Words

When Bromden hears, during a therapeutic meeting, talk “about Bibbit’s stutter and how it came about” (page 133), the words come out like a fog as thick as water. Normally, therapy is supposed to heal a psychiatric patient through the talking cure, as noted above; and Bibbit’s stutter is a symptom of his psychiatric problems, his inability to talk, with its origins in his relationship with his mother. As Bibbit tells Ratched, “The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mamma.”

Ratched’s therapy, of course, is the opposite of a talking cure; instead, it’s a talking infection. Small wonder Bromden experiences the discussion as a fog. It’s just another manipulation of the Combine.

XXII: The Oedipal Basis of Ratched’s Matriarchal Rule

Within all patriarchy, including the patriarchal family, there’s a small nucleus of matriarchy. I don’t mean to promote MRA thinking here; I’m just discussing the dialectical nature of sex roles and the power systems revolving around them. The father bosses around the family, while the mother more directly bosses around the kids. A transference of such a relationship has occurred between the nurses and the patients.

Such a transference has been most potently achieved in Billy Bibbit, a thirty-something with the psychological development of a little boy. As part of McMurphy’s therapy for the young man, it’s been arranged for him, during their naughty party at the story’s climax, to lose his virginity with Candy and thus ‘make a man of him.’

When he’s been discovered in bed with Candy and he has to explain himself to Ratched, he briefly loses his stutter: a temporary cure of his gynophobia–brought on by his domineering mother, who’s presumably as narcissistic as Ratched–has become his talking cure.

…but that fog of words comes back as soon as Ratched brings up how much the boy’s mother will disapprove of his little sexual indiscretion, which the Big Nurse, his mother’s close friend, will assuredly tell her about.

The power Bibbit’s mother has over him–extended by transference over to Ratched–is based on his Oedipal need for her to love him back. Normally, a mother’s authority over her children is expressed in a benign, loving way…not so if she has pathologically narcissistic traits.

The boy, already prone to suicide and hence his being in the hospital, is so fearful of losing his mother’s love that, knowing Ratched will never refrain from telling her of what he’s done with Candy, he slits his throat in Dr. Spivey’s office.

XXIII: Conclusion–Big vs Small

In the upside-down world of this story, physically big people are often psychologically small, and vice versa. Bromden is, of course, the primary example of this paradox. As he explains to McMurphy, whom he regards as psychologically huge despite his smaller physical size, Bromden speaks of his physically big father who was shrunken down to size by Bromden’s white mother and the Combine. They worked on his father, they’ve worked on him…and now they’re working on McMurphy (page 220).

Why do some people have confidence (i.e., are big), and others lack it (are small)? Not so much because of innate abilities, or lack of them, but because as I argued here, there are people (emotional abusers, white supremacists, the bourgeoisie, colonialists, imperialists, etc.) who work on the small. Such working on is what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about.

Sometimes we fight back, as when McMurphy chokes Ratched for driving small Bibbit to suicide. McMurphy’s violent act is a revolutionary one, since revolution is of necessity a violent act. When revolutions fail, though, the insurrectionists are sternly punished, as is McMurphy.

Ratched isn’t left unscathed: her injury from the choking leaves her unable to speak; instead, she communicates by writing on a pad, which of course is far less effective for manipulating the patients (page 321). Most of the voluntary patients have left the hospital; of those who went on the fishing trip, only Martini, Scanlon (played by Delos V Smith Jr in the film), and Bromden remain. The others left because Ratched no longer has power over them. She has been silenced, as Bromden was; she has shrunken from big to small.

As I said above, though, her reduction to smallness hasn’t been left unpunished. For his scurrilous behaviour, McMurphy has been lobotomized, a punishment compared by Harding to castration: “Frontal lobe castration.” (page 191)

Since the Lacanian phallus is a signifier, McMurphy’s symbolic castration is a silencing of him, too. As a new ‘vegetable,’ he no longer speaks. He’s forever in the fog.

He’s been made small, but Bromden, touched by his Christ-like sacrificial act, is inspired to “feel big as a damn mountain.” Bromden can’t bear to see his friend in a state of living death, so he smothers McMurphy to death with his pillow. McMurphy must come with him out to freedom, if not in body, then in spirit.

Bromden’s picking up of the control panel and smashing it through the window is his revolutionary act of liberation. He’s breaking free not just of the hospital, this metaphor for conformist society, but also of the Combine. At the end of the film, we see him going off into a background of nature. He’s freed himself of the white settler colonial state, and so the world around him looks as it did when the aboriginals were the only ones living there.

Now, this symbolic liberation is not just for the Native Americans, but for all of us together. Recall that McMurphy is coming with Bromden in spirit; also, Bromden is white on his mother’s side. The true liberation of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc., is a liberation from capitalism, imperialism, and white settler colonialism…the Combine, the combination of all of these. To fly over the cuckoo’s nest, we must replace the Combine with federations of post-colonial states that, while allowing equal civil rights for people of all colours, are also acknowledged as belonging to the indigenous peoples of those places.

To be big, we must sometimes let others be big, and let ourselves be smaller.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New York, Berkley, 1962

Analysis of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a 1984 horror movie written and directed by Wes Craven. It stars Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund, and Johnny Depp in his film debut.

The film got rave reviews and is considered one of the best horror films ever made, spawning a franchise with six sequels, a TV series, the crossover film Freddy vs. Jason, and a remake of the same name. It shares many tropes of the horror films of the 70s and 80s, such as Halloween: these include the killing of sexually promiscuous teenagers (an implied moral judgement on them), and the final girl trope.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

A striking feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the blurred distinction between dream and reality. These two can be seen to correspond respectively with the unconscious and conscious minds, for as Freud once said, “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

That dream and reality overlap to such a great extent in this movie, implying a corresponding overlap between the unconscious and conscious minds, helps us understand the true relations between these two mental states. Hence, the psychoanalyst‘s preference of the term unconscious over “subconscious”: the hidden world expressed in such things as the symbolism of dreams is not ‘beneath’ consciousness, it isn’t in another realm relative to consciousness; rather, it hides in plain sight, right in the conscious realm of reality. We see and hear that hidden world all around us in waking life–we just don’t recognize it as such. It isn’t known to us…it’s unconscious.

This is why Freddy Krueger (Englund) manifests his presence in both the dream and the waking worlds. He’s there in conscious life, but what he represents remains unknown to the conscious minds of the teens he terrorizes: he personifies what Melanie Klein called the bad father.

Krueger attacks teenagers, who are full of conflict over their love/hate relationships with their parents. They love and need their parents, but they’re also sick and tired of being told what to do by them. This love/hate relationship is personified in the image of the teen’s parents as good mother/father vs. bad mother/father, a result of the defence mechanism known as splitting, what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). ‘Schizoid’ refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad; ‘paranoid’ refers to the paranoid fear of being persecuted by the bad internal objects of the parents, as represented by Krueger.

An important insight of ego psychology is the fact that, since much of the ego is unconscious and preconscious, much of the defence of the ego is also unconscious. The ego “…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. Their unobtrusive, seamless presence in the patient’s psychic life is perfectly acceptable (ego syntonic) to the patient; they often function as a central feature of the patient’s larger personality organization…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)

What the teens in this film are really terrified of isn’t Freddy, but rather the return of repressed bad objects, which WRD Fairbairn compared to demons who emerge and possess their victims (PDF, page 6). Freddy is a child murderer who was hunted down and burned to death by such parents in the Elm Street community as Marge Thompson (Blakley), mother of Nancy (Langenkamp); he’s come back, however, as a demon to continue his terrorizing of the young–the return of repressed bad objects. His immolation, thus, represents a temporary victory of the good parent internal objects over the bad ones.

So the movie is really about teenage rebellion (e.g., the lovemaking of Tina [played by Amanda Wyss] and Rod [played by Nick Corri] in her parents’ bed) vs. the wrath of their authoritarian parents (symbolized in Tina’s being killed immediately after that lovemaking).

The film begins with Freddy assembling his glove, attaching the blades to its fingertips. These phallic razors represent what Klein would have called the bad penis. In the original script, Freddy was supposed to be a child molester; though this aspect was excised from the movie, a kind of repression in itself, it can be seen to be hovering in the background, an implied dark sexuality to Freddy’s violence. In this way, he as bad father can be linked to the precursor of Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex, the seduction theory.

Tina is terrorized by Freddy in a dream. Her mother comes to her room to see if she’s OK, and she says it was just a dream, though she’s still visibly shaken. Her father comes by and shows affection to her mother, the kind of thing that can provoke unconscious jealousies in parents’ children, as well as such night terrors as the contemplation of the primal scene.

Tina grabs the crucifix from the wall above her bed; but what does the crucifix indicate? God the Father sending God the Son–who said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”–to an excruciating death. Since, as Freud noted, belief in God represents a need to continue to have one’s father’s protection, the crucifix indicates again the frustrations of the parent/child relationship, so it won’t save Tina, and she knows it. “Five, six, grab your crucifix,” from the rope-jumping little girls’ chant right after this scene, is a meaningless warning to her.

Indeed, the next night, when she has her friends sleep over with her so she won’t be alone, that is the night when Freddy kills her. He appears in her nightmare, stretching out elongated, phallic arms, suggesting the sexual undertones of his terrorizing of youth, as well as reinforcing the phallic symbolism of those finger-blades.

Tina calls out, “Please, God!”, to which he replies, “This…is God,” referring to those finger-blades. God the Father here is the bad father, the phallic, seductive father who destroys teens with, symbolically, the same sexual defilement that he judges them guilty of (i.e., Tina’s and Rod’s moment in her parents’ bed) and punishes them for.

At one point during the chase, he uses the blade-glove to slice off a few fingers on his other hand. This dismemberment is a symbolic castration, which in turn symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire–in Freddy’s case, a desire to merge the libido of Eros with Thanatos, the drive to kill, but to do so in a sexually symbolic way. Furthermore, this self-injury, meant to terrorize Tina all the more, merges Freddy’s sadism with masochism. Recall Freud’s words: “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”

Freddy typically attacks his victims in an old boiler room where he, when alive, killed his child victims. This place, dark and fiery hot, symbolizes the dark passions of the unconscious, also the realm of the repressed, bad internal objects of these teens who are so conflicted in their attitudes to their parents.

Freddy’s killing of Tina, the use of his phallic finger-blades to tear up her guts, is a symbolic rape, a hint back to Craven’s original intention to make Freddy a child molester. With her death comes the introduction of Nancy’s overprotective, domineering father, Lt. Thompson (Saxon, who also played a cop in Black Christmas, a film about a serial killer who sexually terrorizes young women, and which warps Christian meaning into something obscene and violent).

Though little children are in awe of parental authority, imagining Mom and Dad to be faultless fountains of knowledge and wisdom, when these kids become teens, the flaws of their parents become harder and harder to ignore, and so that naïve awe wears off. Their disappointment in their so-imperfect parents, combined with their having grown weary of Mom’s and Dad’s dos and don’ts, causes them to want to rebel. Thus comes the return of the splitting of their parents into absolute good (the vestiges of that original, awesome authority) and absolute bad (the disappointingly human, all-too-human parents, exaggerated into something much worse in the unconscious mind).

With this schizoid splitting into absolute good and bad comes the paranoid anxiety that the bad aspects will come after, punish, and persecute the rebellious teens. This splitting, as a defence mechanism, tends to be unconscious: hence, Freddy as the bad father appears in the teens’ dreams.

The disappointing faults we see in the parents include not only Nancy’s father’s annoying overprotection, but also that of the father of Glen (Depp), who imagines that Nancy’s ‘craziness’ is a potential danger to his son; hence, he wishes to have Glen no longer see Nancy. Another flaw is seen in Nancy’s mother, an alcoholic.

Parental transferences are made in other authoritarian figures for the teens to scorn: teachers, student hall monitors, and policemen, regardless of whether they’re authoritarian or merely perceived to be so.

After Tina’s death, Nancy is in English class, nodding off at her desk from not having slept well recently, for obvious reasons. Her teacher is discussing Hamlet, a play dealing with much parent/child conflict, as between the Danish prince, his mother the queen, and his uncle, the usurping king, who married her after killing his father, the ghost of whom wanting him to get revenge by killing his uncle. (Freddy, the bad father, is also seeking revenge for his murder.)

The teacher mentions Hamlet’s “mother’s lies,” and has a student read a passage from Act One, scene 1, lines 112-126, spoken by Horatio after he and two of the castle guards, Marcellus and Bernardo, have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The passage is full of spooky imagery, full of omens presaging the assassination of Julius Caesar; the eeriness of what Horatio is describing is meant to be compared with that of his having just seen Old Hamlet’s ghost for the first time, a possible omen for the downfall of the kingdom of Denmark by Fortinbras.

This creepy speech is also an ill omen for nodding Nancy, who now hears her classmate recite lines occurring much later in the play, when Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” (2, ii, 253-255)

And indeed, Nancy beings to have a bad dream of her own.

She sees Tina’s bloody ghost, wrapped in a body bag in a way suggesting the veil of the Virgin Mary, a juxtaposing of extreme good and evil imagery suggestive of splitting. Nancy follows her, soon to be stopped by a nerdy female hall monitor nagging her about a hall pass. Nancy’s defiance against this annoyance, from a transference of her domineering parents onto the hall monitor, brings about the unconscious splitting of her parents into all good vs. all bad, the paranoid-schizoid position (PS).

With the splitting of the schizoid aspect of PS also comes the paranoid aspect; hence, the hall monitor is seen to resemble Freddy more and more, first with his red and green striped sweater, then with his bladed glove. Soon after, Freddy himself is chasing her in that boiler room.

Her method of escape is significant: to wake herself up, she–cornered by Freddy–burns her arm on a hot pipe to her left. Such self-injury, to get her away from the violence of the bad father, is symbolic of an unconscious ego defence mechanism, turning round upon the subject’s own self.

If a little child is being abused by his or her mother or father, contemplating that the parent is a bad person is far too terrifying for the helpless child to bear; so turning the badness round upon him- or herself, though painful in its inducing of wrongful guilt, nonetheless saves the child from the far more unthinkable realization that the parent he or she depends on has evil intentions. If it’s the child who is bad, then at least Mommy and Daddy aren’t bad; splitting is thus overcome.

Nancy wakes up screaming in terror and is sent home. Since she has spoken to Rod in prison–who in spite of the charge of Tina’s murder on him, insists he’s innocent–and she has learned that he, just like Tina, has dreamt of Freddy, too, she realizes these are more than just nightmares.

Nancy is taking a bath that night, and she’s nodding off, her head almost going underwater. Her mother, just outside the bathroom, warns her about the danger of falling asleep in the water and drowning. Nancy is annoyed with her oversolicitous mother, especially when she says she’ll give Nancy some warm milk, which seems infantilizing and associative of breastfeeding.

Just before her mother’s warning, Nancy dozes off briefly, and in an iconic scene we see Freddy’s bladed glove rise out from the water between her legs, just below the crotch. With the phallic symbolism of the glove, this image is suggestive of Klein’s notion of the terrifying combined parent figure, Nancy’s internalized phallic mother, a reaction to her mom’s nagging, overprotective attitude. Freddy’s near drowning of her in the bathwater only reinforces her terror of the unconscious bad mother internal object, a terror ended by her mother’s intervening, a re-establishment in Nancy’s mind of her whole mother, both good and bad.

Later that night in her bedroom, The Evil Dead is playing on her small TV, Ash‘s climactic confrontation with the demons in the cabin in the woods. It’s interesting that this, of all movies, would be the one she’s watching, for as I explained in my analysis of that film, the demons also represent repressed bad internal objects.

Her boyfriend Glen, who lives across from her home on Elm Street, goes over to see her not by knocking on her front door to ask her parents if he can see her, but by climbing a trellis to her second floor bedroom. This clandestine meeting of teen lovers, in defiance of their parents, reminds us of another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, which also involves parent/child conflict (i.e., Old Capulet‘s fury when Juliet refuses to marry Paris). Indeed, Glen climbing that trellis to Nancy’s bedroom suggests the famous balcony scene in Act Two, Scene ii of the play.

She wants Glen to watch her while she sleeps, to wake her if he sees her having a nightmare. She dreams of bloody Tina wrapped in the body bag, but with a centipede crawling out of her mouth, then a pile of snakes slithering on the ground where Tina’s feet should be. This juxtaposition of hateful images with that of Nancy’s beloved friend, in that veiled Marian look, again suggests unconscious splitting into absolute good and bad.

Nancy also sees Freddy about to kill Rod in his sleep in his prison cell. She needs Glen to wake her fast so they can go to the police station and get to Rod before Freddy does. They’re too late, of course: it looks as though Rod has hanged himself, though of course we know that Freddy killed him. To understand this film from a psychoanalytic perspective, however, if we see Freddy as the personification of a repressed bad father internal object, we can understand Rod’s nightmare of Freddy (as well as Nancy’s nightmare) as the two teens’ having projected Rod’s suicide onto Freddy.

Rod has every reason in the world to want to kill himself. A criminal type already from the start of the film, he’s had trouble with the law through his involvement with drugs and violence. Seeing the gory killing of his girlfriend is beyond traumatizing, and to pour salt on his psychological wounds, he is blamed for killing the last person in the world that he’d ever want to kill, with no way of proving his innocence. (Or has he, in spite of his love for Tina, killed her in a brief fit of psychosis [we know he’d had a fight with her, and that he was “crazy jealous”], and he’s now unconsciously projecting his violence onto Freddy?)

As a criminal, Rod despises authority figures like Nancy’s father, people who no doubt are transferences of his own parents, with whom he must have a troubled relationship. Projecting his hanging onto a bad father figure thus makes his suicide easier to commit, since in his despair there is nonetheless another part of him that still wants to live, and he is thus conflicted about whether to be or not to be.

Nancy is getting increasingly traumatized, and therefore unwilling to sleep. Her rejection of what Freddy represents, the bad aspects of her parents that have been split off from the good aspects and projected outward, has resulted in her being terrorized by that projected representation of the bad father. Since there’s a blurred distinction between dream and reality in this film, it’s legitimate to doubt the physical, objective reality of any of the supernatural phenomena seen in the film.

So much of what we see, if not all of it, could be collective teen hallucinations based on their neurotic, conflicted feelings about their parents and other authority figures. Wilfred Bion observed in his psychotic patients an inability, or unwillingness, to process the raw sensory data of emotional experiences for use in such things as dreams; if his patients didn’t dream, they didn’t sleep [Bion, page 7], as is the case with Nancy, who it would seem is having a psychotic break with reality. (See here for more on Bion’s concepts, as well as other psychoanalytic terms.)

Bion wrote of a particular kind of hallucination he called a bizarre object, which is actually something projected from the psychotic onto the outside world. This is how we can interpret the teens’ experience of Freddy, particularly Nancy’s experience of him, she who is resisting sleep to avoid dreaming.

After Rod’s funeral, Nancy’s mother drives her to see a doctor who will examine her while she sleeps. She’s still too afraid to dream, but Dr. King (played by Charles Fleischer) tells her that if she doesn’t dream, she’ll go (he points to his head, implying that she’ll go crazy, like Bion’s psychotics). She has a nightmare from which she awakens and her bed seems to produce Freddy’s hat; I interpret this as a hallucination that she imagines others have shared with her.

Back at home, she and her mother argue about whether her experiences with Freddy are real or not. Nancy learns his name from reading “Fred Krueger” on his fedora. Her frustration with her mother’s denials provoke her to make an impertinent remark about Marge’s alcoholism, making her slap Nancy.

In this moment, we can see an example of the root cause of Nancy’s psychopathology: her traumatic disappointment in realizing that her mother, like everyone else, has faults. The idealizing child in Nancy can’t accept these faults, so in her unconscious she uses the defence mechanism of splitting to keep her mom’s good side pure.

The problem is that the bad side turns into Freddy.

Later, Glen tells Nancy about how the Balinese deal with nightmares, something called “dream skills.” They wake up and write down the dream content, using it in their art and poetry. This sounds like the defence mechanism known as sublimation, taking unacceptable unconscious feelings and turning them into art. Glen also says the Balinese will turn their backs on whatever scares them in their dreams, taking away the evil spirits’ energy and thus defeating them. This turning one’s back on the anxiety-producing elements of the unconscious sounds like denial.

Nancy returns home to find bars on all the doors and windows. Infuriated at this latest manifestation of authoritarian parental repression, she confronts her mother. Marge takes Nancy into their basement, a symbol of the unconscious. There, Marge tells her about Freddy when he was alive, when he preyed on children and killed at least twenty of them. Though arrested, he was let go on a technicality, so the parents of the Elm Street community hunted him down and burned him to death in his boiler room.

Marge takes his bladed glove from the furnace to reassure Nancy that he’s dead and gone; symbolically this killing of Freddy is an attempt by the good in parents overcoming the bad, yet another attempt at splitting. Still, Nancy of course will not be convinced of any of Marge’s assertions; she’s convinced that Freddy is an avenging demon; he’s a projection of her unconscious persecutory anxiety brought on by the bad father she’s internalized and tried to project into the outside world.

Nancy would have Glen help her catch Freddy once she’s summoned him in her next dream, but Glen has an overprotective father of his own who, seeing craziness in Nancy, doesn’t want his son around her anymore; so when she calls Glen on the telephone, telling his parents she urgently needs to speak to him, his father hangs up on her and leaves the receiver off the hook. She can’t contact Glen at all now, but Freddy can terrorize her by making her phone ring and speaking to her on it…after she’s yanked the cord out of the wall. His claiming to be her new boyfriend not only implies the killing of Glen, but also suggests the bad father of Freud’s seduction theory.

I discussed in my analysis of Black Christmas (link above) not only sexually charged phone conversations, but also how the use of the telephone can be symbolic of alienation, in that we communicate with it, but don’t see the person we’re chatting with face to face (rather like the alienation felt today when communicating with others through social media–we’re still far away from them). Nancy can’t connect with her boyfriend on the phone, thanks to his grumpy, authoritarian father; but she can get unwanted communication with her projected bad father object.

Speaking of alienation, media, and meddling parents, Glen is in bed with headphones on and a small TV nearby. His mother comes in his room to nag him to go to sleep, but he wants to watch Miss Nude America, not caring what she has to say, just fetishizing her body.

Given what’s just happened with Glen’s officious parents, it’s interesting to note specifically how he dies once he’s fallen asleep. Freddy’s blade-gloved arm comes up from a hole formed in the bed, and he pulls Glen in, his victim screaming for his mom.

Freddy, as a representation of the bad aspects of either parent, is usually shown as the bad father, with that phallic bladed glove. We saw the symbolism of Klein’s combined parent figure, the phallic mother, in the bathtub scene with the bladed glove between Nancy’s legs. Now, Freddy’s phallic glove emerges from a yonic hole in Glen’s bed. He and his TV get sucked in the hole, the mother’s baby killed by bringing him back, ironically, to his uncanny place of birth.

Blood sprays up from the hole to the bedroom ceiling, in a geyser of red. Since the hole has yonic, maternal symbolism, the blood can be seen as symbolic either of menstrual blood or of the blood coming from the emasculated phallus. Menstruation indicates that a woman isn’t pregnant, hence, no baby, no life. Emasculation means a man can’t get a woman pregnant–no baby, no life. The parent who fails to be a parent can be seen as a kind of bad parent, flawed, infertile; or bad in the sense that he or she wishes the child had never been born, hence Glen’s return to the womb, so to speak.

Nancy screams in hysterics over Glen’s death. Her father goes to Glen’s house with the coroner, paramedics, and other police; she now has only her father to help her catch Freddy. To deal with the bad father, she needs help from the good father. We hear the love of the good father in Lt. Thompson when he, full of concern for his daughter, tells her to get some sleep, shows his eagerness to catch the killer, calls her “sweetheart,” and tells her he loves her.

This goodness in her father contrasts with the bossy, bad-tempered father we saw before. In this new side of him that we see, the bad and good are seen as one. The splitting that resulted in Freddy is being overcome, and in this union of good and bad, we can see a way to defeat Freddy.

Before confronting Freddy, Nancy spends a moment with her mother, who’s drunk in bed. Instead of feeling anger toward her, Nancy is reviving feelings of affection for her, just as she has with her father; again, this will be part of how she’ll stop Freddy, as I’ll explain further below.

After this moment with her mother, she begins booby-trapping her home using instructions from a book she showed to Glen when he told her about Balinese “dream skills.” (If one didn’t know better, one might think of her booby-trapping as anticipating the Home Alone movies.).

She goes to sleep and provokes an attack from Freddy, getting him to run into the booby-traps, and even lighting him on fire, which triggers his own traumatic memory of when the Elm Street parents burned him to death. This violence that she inflicts on him, as a desperate act of self-defence, represents the defence mechanism–introduced by Sándor Ferenczi and developed by Freud’s daughter Anna–known as identification with the aggressor: on one level, her violence identifies her with him; on another level, it identifies her with those parents, including her own, who burned him the first time. Since Freddy represents these parents’ bad aspects as neurotically experienced by the teens, both levels can be seen as essentially the same thing.

She screams through the window for the police across the street at Glen’s home to get her father, but the policeman who answers doesn’t cooperate as she so desperately needs him to, so she reverts to defying authority by calling him an “asshole” and demanding he get her father.

At one point in the chase, Freddy significantly tells her he’ll “split [her] in two.” Well, naturally: as I’ve been arguing all along here, the terror of this film is based on psychological splitting.

Nancy’s father finally arrives, and the two of them are in her parents’ bedroom. Freddy kills her mother there; she is sucked into the bed, similar to how Glen was. Since her affection for her parents is being revived, the thought of Nancy losing her mother is causing her to feel what Klein called depressive anxiety, which overshadows the persecutory anxiety of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS); and so her splitting can be cured. Nancy is now experiencing the depressive position (D); she wants her mother (and friends) back.

Since her splitting is dissolving, Freddy doesn’t seem so real to her, so she isn’t afraid of him anymore. Now she can apply those Balinese dream skills: she turns her back to Freddy as he’s emerging from her parents’ bed, and she tells him that she’s taking back all the energy she gave him.

Without her fear, Freddy no longer has power over her. In denying that he’s anything other than a dream, she’s using the defence mechanism of denial. When he tries to pounce on her, he vanishes.

The next and final scene seems too good to be true. Not only do we see a beautiful sunny morning outside the front door of Nancy’s house on Elm Street, but she and her (resurrected!) mother seem a little too blissful.

All of a sudden, Marge just ‘doesn’t feel like drinking anymore’; what alcoholic is able to do that? It would seem that in Freddy’s defeat, he’s given back Nancy’s mother and her three friends, who are in a car ready to take her to school with them…a car with a red and green striped convertible roof. Nancy gets in, and the teens are about to drive away.

Since Tina, Rod, Glen, and Marge have all come back to life, it would seem that their deaths were all hallucinatory fantasies. Freddy has returned, though, in the form of that car, which locks the screaming teens in and drives them away without the control of Glen, who’s in the driver’s seat. Marge, at the door, is grabbed and pulled inside through the door window by Freddy’s gloved hand.

She hasn’t responded to her daughter’s cries for help: her idealized, good mother state has had the bad parent state, personified in Freddy, split off from her. We see the little girls’ jump-roping and chanting of the creepy Freddy Krueger rhyme from the beginning of the film, with “five, six, grab your crucifix.” In this, we see again the blurred line between dream and reality. Are our protagonists being killed again for real, or is it just a terrorizing of the mind?

One doesn’t move from PS to D once and for all; these two positions–splitting vs. integration–oscillate back and forth throughout one’s life, especially during the turbulent years of adolescence. Bion, a Kleinian psychoanalyst who developed her theories to a great extent, expressed this oscillating relationship graphically, like this: PS <–> D. (Bion, pages 34-35)

Will Nancy and her friends switch back to the integrated peace of the depressive position, or will they stay trapped in the psychotic splitting of the paranoid-schizoid position? I suppose the sequels, outside the scope of this analysis, will answer that question.

In any case, the very title of the film suggests psychological splitting, with the street’s name suggestive of the stately trees lining the sides of the street to give a sense of the peaceful opposite of nightmare. To offset the extremes of nightmares, one must be willing to lessen the peacefulness of those elm trees. That’s how we get rid of Freddy for good.

Analysis of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

I: Introduction

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

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

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

II: Needed Historical Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: The Film’s Beginning

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

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

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

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

V: Wilson, a Modern-day Sade

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

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

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

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

VI: A Liberal Courting Conservatives

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

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

VII: Gust Avrakotos

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

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

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

VIII: Criticism of the US vs That of the USSR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IX: Wilson Meets Avrakotos

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

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

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

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

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

X: Enemies Are Always Friends Against Commies

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

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

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

XI: The Outcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

XII: Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘One Hour Photo’

One Hour Photo is a 2002 psychological thriller written and directed by Mark Romanek. It stars Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, and Michael Vartan, with Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle, Clark Gregg, Erin Daniels, and Dylan Smith.

One Hour Photo was both a commercial and a critical success. Williams’s performance earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor.

Indeed, it was gratifying to see him in a dramatic role for a change, finally going against his usual typecasting as a zany character in such superficial, feel-good films as Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. In playing a mentally-ill man in One Hour Photo, Williams demonstrated the range of his acting talent; if only he’d done roles like Seymour “Sy” Parrish more often.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Sy is a lonely photo technician in a one-hour photo in a big box store called Sav-Mart. He has no family, friends, or partner. He values his job above and beyond anything else in his life, believing he’s providing a “vital service” to his customers in developing quality photographs. This job gives his life meaning in the absence of loving human company.

Photos are of extreme importance to him for reasons to be discovered in full by the end of the film. At the beginning of the story, he idealizes photography, insisting that one takes pictures only of the happy moments in life, never the sad ones. By the end of the film, though, we discover that this idealizing of taking pictures is a reaction formation against the fact that, as a child, photos were taken of him in extremely unhappy, traumatizing circumstances.

He also points out that no one takes pictures of the banal, mundane, “little things” that we don’t normally pay attention to…yet at the end of the film, after he’s revealed to Detective James Van Der Zee (La Salle) the source of his trauma, we see his recently-taken pictures of such banal things as the objects and furnishings of a hotel room. It seems that, with these pictures, he’s sublating the thesis of happy photos with the antithesis of traumatizing ones.

The trauma he suffered as a child was to have been exploited as a participant in child pornography photography, exploited by his own parents. This trauma explains his loneliness: his parents betrayed his trust at such a tender age, and so he has distanced himself from them. Since one’s primary caregivers are, as internal objects, those blueprints, so to speak, for all subsequent relationships in life, this alienation from one’s parents tragically leads to social alienation in general.

Still, Sy must try to pull himself together, to rebuild some sense of psychological structure, since with such extreme trauma as he’s suffered, the threat of psychological fragmentation is never far away. Heinz Kohut‘s model of the bipolar self is useful for understanding Sy’s personality. One pole is that of the grandiose self, which we see in the pride Sy takes in his photo developing. The other pole is that of the idealized parental imago, which he can’t get from his own parents, of course, so he has to do a transference of them onto the Yorkin family.

Nina (Nielsen) and Will Yorkin (Vartan) are Sy’s idealized mother and father transferences, and their son, Jake (Smith), represents the kind of happy boy Sy wishes he had been when he was a kid. His idealizing of the Yorkin family comes from all the ‘happy’ photos he has developed for them over the years…while keeping a copy of each one for himself to put up on a wall in his apartment, too.

This wall of Yorkin family photos is Sy’s altar, so to speak, where he can worship his idealized conception of the family he wishes he had. The photos, as idealizations, are collectively a metaphorical mirror reflecting his love of them back to himself. This ties back to his job as a mirror of his grandiose self.

Recall the scene of him in front of the bathroom mirror in SavMart, where he looks at himself, and words on the glass remind him and all other staff to “check [their] smile” at work. He internalizes this capitalist ideal for the worker, and so it becomes his Lacanian ideal-I. This ideal-I is extended to photographs in how he takes Nina’s camera and, not wanting to waste a shot, takes a picture of himself for the Yorkins to add to the family photo collection. His ‘selfie,’ as it were, is a metaphorical mirror adding himself, “Uncle Sy,” to the Yorkin family.

These images, frozen in time, of the Yorkins on Sy’s apartment wall are thus, as a collective metaphorical mirror, Sy’s reconstruction of the Imaginary, his need for narcissistic acknowledgement and recognition. “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” Lacan once said, a desire to be desired by other people, for recognition from other people. This is what Sy needs from his idealized conception of the Yorkins, and this is why he obsesses over them.

His idealization of them is, of course, an illusion based on wish-fulfillment, for the Imaginary Order, established by the infant when seeing itself in front of a mirror for the first time, gives form to an illusory ego. As a narcissistic psychological state, the Imaginary’s setting up of the illusory ego, the ideal-I one strives one’s whole life to live up to but ultimately never succeeds at, is seen in an extreme form in Sy’s idealizing of his job as a “vital service.” His job is his narcissistic False Self.

Another part of his False Self, a defence against fragmentation, is his persona of mild-mannered innocence (a defence against the molestation he suffered as a child), given physical, symbolic expression in the predominantly white and light grey colours we see him wearing. This whitish innocence is extended to his light blond hair (we can see how dark-haired Williams most obviously dyed his hair, to the point that it seems as if Sy dyed his, too) and the whites and light greys of his apartment and car, as well as the predominant whites and light greys of SavMart, his idealized place of work.

When he leaves SavMart to go home one night, though, we see a greenish-yellow light (colours of envy and jaundice) as he goes to his car, the windshield glass of which is smashed. This reflects the bitter reality of his life, which hides behind his idealized fantasy world.

Like Lacan, Buddhists understand that the self is an illusion, for the world is too fluid, transitory, and impermanent to include the existence of permanent souls or egos. Sy’s False Self is just such an illusory ego, and those frozen moments in time, his photos of the Yorkins, are also such illusions, making us forget about the eternal flux of life.

He’s nowhere near as good at his job as he imagines himself to be, not by his boss’s standards, or by any reasonable standards. The photos he gives Nina early on in the film are larger than what she wants, and the SavMart manager, Bill Owens (Cole, who here plays a kind of serious version of Office Space‘s Bill Lumbergh), is full of complaints about Sy.

In Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins, his collection of copies of their photos means he’s printed far more photos than have been ordered and paid for, a discrepancy that Bill cannot tolerate. Sy has also spaced out on the job, taken ninety-minute lunch breaks, given Jake a free disposable camera for his birthday, and had a loud altercation with the repairman for the photo developing machine, an altercation heard by the customers all over SavMart.

While some of Bill’s complaints reflect real faults of Sy’s work performance, others reflect the kind of conflict between boss and employee typical of what Marx described in his theory of alienation. Sy’s job is practically a religion for him. It gives his life meaning, it’s part of his species-essence; whereas for Bill, Sy’s mundane job is just one among many to be overseen in SavMart; Sy should just do it right and not make waves. Bill’s pragmatic attitude to Sy’s job-as-mission thus alienates Sy from his species-essence, which only adds to Sy’s alienation in general.

Bill fires Sy, which devastates him because not only can’t he do the Yorkins’ pictures anymore, he’s also lost one of the two poles of his self that give him psychological structure–he’s lost his grandiose self, that False Self of the photo developer performing a “vital service” to customers like his idealized Yorkins.

Sy has been a victim of capitalism through his conflict with Bill as described above, and he was a victim of it as a child when exploited and commodified by his parents through kiddie porn photography. The commodification of photos links both experiences for him in how photos are fetishized commodities. The customer sees the finished product and pays for it, but he or she doesn’t see the process the workers went through to produce the commodity.

In the case of kiddie porn photography, the drooling pervert masturbating to the disgusting pictures sees only the fantasy that’s presented in them; he doesn’t take note of the pain and fear in the naked children’s eyes as they’re forced into doing the shameful things they do in front of the camera. Similarly, and in reverse fashion, though Sy is the seller, not the buyer, he sees only the happiness of the Yorkins in their photos; but he knows nothing of the very real problems in their far-from-ideal family. Of course, he’ll learn of those problems soon enough.

When Maya Burson (Daniels) shows up at SavMart and gives Sy her photos to be developed, he recognizes her from somewhere (actually, in one of the photos in his Yorkin ‘altar’). He later flips through them and discovers some of her with Will Yorkin, having an affair. His whole image of the ideal Yorkin family has been shattered. The other pole of his self has been compromised. He’s now in danger of fragmentation.

Because of the extreme abuse he suffered as a child, Sy would have engaged in the defence mechanism of splitting from right back in those early years. This means that, instead of regarding his parents in the normal way, as a complex combination of good and bad traits, he’d have seen them as just the bad father and bad mother. No grey or white, only black.

Sy nonetheless needs to believe in the idea of the good father and good mother, for the paranoid-schizoid position that he feels himself permanently trapped in demands a white, or at least light grey, area to counterbalance the black area that he cannot deny.

This counterbalancing is what the Yorkin parents are meant to personify in Sy’s fragile inner mental life. Other ways in which he tries to achieve this white counterbalance include the old black-and-white photo of the pretty woman he buys; significantly, he later shows it to Nina, of all people (the good mother of his transferred idealized parental imago), telling her that this woman is his mother. This would be the good mother meant to offset his emotionally neglectful bad mother, who allowed Sy’s bad father to take those obscene photos of him as a child.

His notion that photos are always of happy occasions, never of things we want to forget, is his white counterbalancing of those black photos taken of things that he most intensely wishes he could forget. All of this black vs white opposition is a reflection of his psychological splitting, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Melanie Klein called it. “Schizoid” refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad, or black vs white; “paranoid” refers to the fear that the rejected, bad internal objects will return to persecute Sy again.

Since Will has proven to Sy that he isn’t the good father Sy needs him to be, in his paranoid-schizoid mental state, Sy can regard Will as only the bad father. Of course, we the audience have known of Will’s faults almost from the beginning: we saw his argument with Nina about his emotional neglect of her and Jake. Since he rationalizes his preoccupation with his work at their expense (and there’s some truth to this, though he can carry this excuse only so far), we see again how capitalism contributes to the problem of alienation (i.e., he has to work to pay for everything to make his family’s life more comfortable).

His mistress, Maya, however, cannot be included in his excuses for not being as emotionally available to his family as he should be; hence, Sy deems him a bad father, and he scratches Will’s face off of all the photos on his ‘altar.’ Not only has Will become the bad father, though: photography for Sy has changed from being a white source of happiness to a black form of predation.

Indeed, Sy discusses the origin of the term “snapshot,” which he says wasn’t at first associated with photography, but with hunting–that is, quickly firing a snap shot from a rifle at an animal without taking the time for careful, preparatory aim. Sy’s camera has become his weapon, his gun…just as his parents’ camera was a weapon used on him as a child.

Now that Sy can no longer hide behind his False Self as the white-and-grey-clad, mild-mannered photo developer doing a “vital service” for customers he can no longer work for, and now that his system of white idealizations has been sullied by Will’s black adultery, Sy must face his own darkness, all that blackness inside himself that he’s been repressing, splitting off and projecting outwards.

First, he gets a little revenge on his former boss by taking predatory photos of Bill’s daughter. This taking of photos of her–though she’s fully dressed, playing innocently with her dolls, and is insouciant of any voyeuristic danger–nonetheless anticipates the revelation of, and cruel meaning behind, the photography of Sy when he himself was little and defenceless.

Since Sy can no longer use his grandiose self and idealized parental imago to shield himself from his childhood traumas, he must find a way to release and eject the emotional tension he feels from that trauma. A common way to do that is through projection, and projective identification, which ensures that those who receive the projections internalize and embody them.

So Sy steals a large knife from SavMart, a phallic symbol representative of the rapes he suffered as a child. He tracks Will and Maya down to a hotel where they’ve planned to have a sexual encounter, and there he’ll use his camera on them the way his parents used their camera on him: to shame the adulterer and his mistress by capturing their sexual encounter in a set of pornographic photos.

Sy not only forces Will and Maya to pose nude and simulate sexual acts; he’s also verbally abusive in the orders he gives them, behaviour diametrically opposed to his usual, mild-mannered False Self. This verbal abusiveness, it is safe to assume, is derived from the verbal abusiveness he as a child must have received from his photographer father. Sy must release all this pent-up pain by taking it all out on Will and Maya, by projecting it onto them.

After taking the photos, he leaves his traumatized victims and goes into a neighbouring hotel room he’s booked for himself. There, he lies on his back on the bed and looks up at the ceiling; he seems temporarily relieved, having gotten so much of that tension and pain off his chest.

He’s also taken photos of such banal things as a closeup of the rings on the curtain rod on his room’s shower curtain, as well as closeups of taps on the bathtub and bathroom sink. After all the good photos of the Yorkin family, then the bad photos of Will and Maya, he needs to take these neutral photos, to sublate the good vs bad dichotomy. This sublation is part of his healing shift from the black-and-white duality of the paranoid-schizoid position to the grey neutrality of the depressive position.

Switching from paranoid anxiety to depressive anxiety–the fear and sadness coming from losing our internal objects–is crucial for Sy’s healing process, and it’s related to the grey sublation of the black vs white mentioned above. The depressive position involves acknowledging how our caregivers are actually a complex combination of good and bad, and we must accept both the good and the bad in them. One must also mourn the abusive parents who failed us as children, our lack of good parents, as when we see Sy break down and cry when revealing to Detective Van Der Zee how he as a child was sexually abused.

Sy cannot see any good in his parents to counterbalance the bad, nor can he see any good in Will Yorkin. He can, however, still see Nina and Jake as good people (even though he’s frustrated to see her not showing anger at Will after seeing the photos of his affair with Maya). He also feels convinced that Van Der Zee must be a good husband and father. So these conclusions are enough for Sy to reconcile the good and bad in parents in general.

Now we can end the film with him looking at his banal photos of closeups of bathroom objects, their banality being his resolving of ideal vs shameful pictures.

Though called a psychological thriller, One Hour Photo actually has a rather sad tone, for though we would never condone what Sy does, we can’t help feeling empathy for him and the troubled life he’s lead. This kind of empathy, even for those who do ‘creepy’ things, is important for us to be able to heal collectively from all of our own traumas, for we all need to help each other process our grief. (Recall how Williams suffered from depression and committed suicide.)