Analysis of ‘Le Amiche’

Le Amiche (“The Girlfriends”) is a 1955 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and Alba De Cespedes, and adapted from Tra donne sole (1949), a novel by Cesare Pavese. The film stars Eleonora Rossi DragoGabriele FerzettiFranco Fabrizi, and Valentina Cortese, with Yvonne Furneaux (who was also in Repulsion), Ettore Manni, and Madeleine Fischer. It was shot on location in Turin, Piemonte, Italy.

Le Amiche received the Silver Lion award in 1955 from the Venice Film Festival; it also won the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon Award for Best Director (Antonioni) and Best Supporting Actress (Cortese).

The name of the film is ironic and somewhat deceptive, since Nene (Cortese), Momina De Stefani (Furneaux), Rosetta Savoni (Fischer), and Mariella (played by Anna Maria Pancani) are girlfriends in little more than a superficial sense. There’s actually a considerable amount of conflict between them, at varying levels of intensity, due to jealousies over their rivalries over men, as well as their varying degrees of vanity and narcissism.

Indeed, jealousy, envy, vanity, and pride are major themes in Le Amiche. A few minor comparisons between this film and Othello can be made, as far as the themes of jealousy and envy are concerned. Rosetta can be seen as the Othello of the film (Nene, too, in an opposing way); her doomed, jealous love of Lorenzo (Ferzetti) leads to a failed suicide attempt at the beginning of the film, and a successful suicide towards the end, just as the Moor kills himself at the end of Othello. Momina, cynical and envious of others’ happiness in love, is the scheming Iago: she encourages Rosetta’s pursuit of Lorenzo, leading to a conflict she finds most amusing to watch, just as Iago enjoys watching the Moor go insane with jealousy.

In a way, a vague comparison can be made also between Le Amiche and Romeo and Juliet, since the film involves pairs of lovers from incompatible worlds. The pairings of Clelia (Drago) and Carlo (Manni), and of Rosetta and Lorenzo, are incompatible not because of feuding families, though, but because of conflicting class relations and sex roles.

Clelia, as the manager of a new fashion salon opening in Turin, is–like her boss (played by Maria Gambarelli)–as an Italian woman in the conservative 1950s, a career woman ‘before it was cool.’ Thus, Clelia is a bourgeois. Carlo, her love interest, on the other hand, is a worker. The sex-role assumption of the time was that, were they to marry, he’d be supporting her financially, not vice versa…a rather hard thing for him to do, with the lower amount of money he’s making than she is. She’d also suffer an unacceptable lowering of social rank in such a marriage.

Similarly, Rosetta is from a well-to-do family, while the man she’s in love with is a struggling artist, one struggling so much that Nene, his fiancée, is actually more successful as an artist than he. Again, the sex-role assumption is that Lorenzo is supposed to be the more successful of the couple, and therefore the more monied one, not Nene or Rosetta. Neither of these women care that he is of modest means (nor should they, of course), but his pride and male chauvinism make him envy Nene’s success, just as she and Rosetta are jealous of each other with regards to him.

Though Clelia is as bourgeois as Momina, both women are on the opposite ends of the narcissism spectrum. We can see this contrast early on in the film, when we are introduced first to Clelia, who is unassuming and, with a smile, tells the hotel maid either “signora” or “signorina” is an acceptable way to address her; then later on, we’re introduced to Momina at the front desk of the hotel, where she treats the man working there contemptuously, saying he’s “ridiculous” to think her friend, Rosetta, has already left the hotel, then orders him to call her room. We see the contrast in their attitudes towards workers, and towards class differences.

Clelia may walk around in a beautiful fur coat, but she does so not out of narcissistic ostentation; as the manager of the new fashion salon, she has an image to maintain, hence the nice clothes. Similarly, her annoyance with the workers’ slow progress in getting the salon ready isn’t out of a condescending attitude to them, but from the pressure she feels from her boss to have everything ready on time.

In Clelia and Momina we can see the Venn diagram, as it were, where narcissism and capitalism overlap. In Momina, both are apparent, since she uses the class hierarchy of capitalism as one of a number of rationalizations to demonstrate her ‘superiority’ to others. In Clelia, we just see the pressures of capitalism making her dress and act with an air of superiority, but narcissistic tendencies are minimal in her: her looking at herself in mirrors, for example, is brief. Momina, in contrast, will look idolatrously at her reflection with that of Cesare Pedone (Fabrizi) in a window in her home, idealizing the image as one of a ‘perfect couple,’ when actually, she’s married–though temporarily separated from her husband–using Cesare as one of many lovers.

A recurring issue in this film is various characters’ preoccupations with such superficialities as what dress to wear, what facial lotion to use, how is one’s reputation or social status, etc. Note again that this preoccupation with one’s public image is directly related to one’s social class, where narcissism and capitalism meet.

The big mystery early on in the film is why Rosetta has tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. On the train ride back from the girlfriends’ disastrous get-together at the beach, Rosetta confides in Clelia about her reasons for her suicide attempt: namely, she speaks of the emptiness of, for example, wondering what dress she’ll wear; soon after, she confesses the more central reason–she can’t have Nene’s Lorenzo. Still, that earlier reason carries considerable weight, and in fact it bears a relationship with the second reason.

She loves Lorenzo because she sees in him a gruff honesty that doesn’t exist in such superficial friends as Momina and the pretty, but air-headed Mariella, the latter’s preoccupations being little more than how beautiful others see her, and who will be her man. Rosetta doesn’t care whether Lorenzo is successful or not: she loves him for how he’s made her feel, in the portrait he’s painted of her.

Though Momina predictably doesn’t think much of the picture, Rosetta is touched by Lorenzo’s efforts. It felt to her as if, with his brush painting her face, he was caressing her. To look at her portrait is, for her, to look in a metaphorical mirror: in painting her, he’s created an idealized version of her to which she cannot measure up if she can’t have him. Hence, when she tries phoning him prior to taking the overdose of sleeping pills, she wishes he’d destroy the painting, as she’s destroyed all her photographs, other metaphorical mirrors of herself. She’d wipe out all traces of herself prior to her suicide.

Of course, Lorenzo being by his own admission much too vain to destroy his painting, also sees it as a kind of metaphorical mirror (i.e., of his painting ability), since apart from having painted it, he sees, in her face, her love reflected back on him, titillating his vanity. Indeed, he looks at her smiling at him, and he feels she has ‘the most beautiful smile in the world.’ His narcissism isn’t of Momina’s malignant kind (i.e., he doesn’t consciously intend to hurt Rosetta or Nene, whereas Momina finds it amusing to stir up drama in this love triangle), but it is sufficient to make him enjoy an affair with Rosetta, enjoying her charms and flattery while leading her on and causing Nene to suffer.

Now, Momina is eager to find any insights related to Rosetta’s suicide attempt, including whom she tried to phone prior to taking the pills. Momina acts as though she only wants to help, but her real agenda is to find out the truth about Rosetta and Lorenzo, in order to exploit it.

Other examples of Momina’s superficiality, narcissism, and general meanness are seen in the early scene when she asks Clelia, in her hotel room, about whom Rosetta phoned. Momina gives Clelia a backhanded compliment about how well she dresses, as good publicity for her salon, when also pointing out how, apparently, ‘fashion designers usually dress like tramps.’ She then asks about Clelia’s facial cream, Clelia getting the hint that Momina is implying how cheap it is. Clelia, lacking Momina’s narcissism, doesn’t judge a product’s worth by its price.

Now, Clelia’s unassuming, but her sense of social class nonetheless must exclude Carlo, as much as she likes him. Workers are typically talked down to by not only Momina, but also Cesare, who is condescending to Carlo in the diner scene when he’s with Clelia; though Mariella acknowledges Carlo is a ‘hunk.’ Clelia tries to be kinder to workers, as I pointed out with her interaction with the hotel maid, as well as with her accommodation of the vagabond in the trattoria scene, when Lorenzo fights with Cesare.

Clelia, therefore, represents the liberal capitalist, who would like to be kinder to the poor, but the pressures of her social class won’t allow her to go beyond a few token gestures of generosity. Hence, she enjoys Carlo’s company in the diner, as well as during their walk to look at furniture for the fashion salon…but marriage with him is out of the question. Just compare her coat with his to see why.

During their walk, she shows him the poor area of Turin where she lived as a little girl. Yes, she was once poor, and was able to rise out of it, so she lacks the snobbishness of Momina and Cesare. Carlo, nonetheless, can feel her airs of superiority, however much Clelia tries to minimize them, and he cannot hide his annoyance with her.

At the end of the film, when Clelia is to leave Turin by train and return to Rome, Carlo wants to be there when she leaves, but he is too ashamed of his lower social class to show himself to her. As he follows her to the train she gets on, he hides behind a vendor’s tall cart. Note how this carrier of things to sell, a symbol of capitalism, is a barrier separating Carlo from Clelia.

Rosetta similarly would love Lorenzo with all her heart, and not care that he has less money than the wealth of the snobbish family she feels little affection for. (Indeed, when her mother visits her in the hospital and is scandalized by her suicide attempt, instead of focusing on her daughter’s pain, she steps aside and looks at herself in her compact. Her narcissistic preoccupation with her own looks, her image, is a more pressing concern than Rosetta’s health and happiness.) She sees herself and Lorenzo in a large mirror while he’s lying on a bed; seeing their reflection together is her idealizing of their relationship, but for the opposite reason of Momina’s idealizing of her time together with Cesare, seeing their reflection in the window in her home. Momina loves the status of having a man like Cesare; Rosetta sincerely loves Lorenzo for himself.

It isn’t Rosetta who sees the class divide between herself and Lorenzo as a problem, though: it is he who does. His masculine pride won’t allow him to marry up, as Clelia’s pressure from the capitalist world won’t allow her to marry down (she wouldn’t want to give up her career and be a housewife/mother for a wealthy husband, but she especially won’t do so for a working-class husband–Carlo…Couldn’t she continue to work, and he be a househusband?).

In these contradictions, we see how career women rising in the context of capitalism will never assure equality of the sexes. A wiping out of sex roles–including the assumption that men are supposed to be more successful (recall Momina’s comment in this connection, during the scene in her home, something with which Rosetta vehemently disagrees), more monied, and generally ‘superior’ to women–is indispensable to such an attainment of equality…and it must be achieved in a socialist context, with a wiping-out of class differences, since sex roles, along with such things as racism, are among the many things the ruling class uses to keep the working class divided among each other.

Lorenzo, however, has internalized the social expectation of masculine preeminence, and his pride won’t let him let go of it. Hence, his fight with Cesare, whose taunts about Nene’s artistic success over Lorenzo’s failures push him beyond endurance in the trattoria scene. Cesare, of course, pretends he’s just joking around, an obvious falsehood, but one of the main themes of Le Amiche is the keeping up of appearances.

As I mentioned above, “The Girlfriends” is an ironic, deceptive name for this film. These women (and their men) largely go about keeping up the appearance of friendship, all for the bourgeois sake of saving face. Actually, all manner of animosity and hostility abound, coming to a head in the three fight scenes–first, at the beach with Momina slapping Mariella, then in the trattoria, with Lorenzo and Cesare trading punches, and finally, between Clelia and Momina in the fashion salon.

Mariella, always opening her mouth without thinking, speaks of how only Rosetta doesn’t have a man, and not noticing that Rosetta has just walked by and heard her. Wishing to avoid losing face and to keep up the appearance of them all bearing no gossipy ill will toward Rosetta, Momina scolds Mariella for speaking so foolishly. When Mariella tries to defend her choice of words and repeats the tactless remark, Momina slaps her. Rosetta, however, prefers Mariella’s tactlessness to Momina’s hypocrisy. As another manifestation of animosity thinly veiled with phoney friendship, Mariella gets even with Momina for the slap by hugging and kissing Cesare in the sand, he being Momina’s boyfriend of the moment, then confessing her motive of revenge before hugging Momina in a pretence of reconciliation with her.

Clelia’s job as manager of a fashion salon is her participating in the business of keeping up appearances, producing glamorous clothes that allow their women wearers to maintain the illusion of exquisite beauty. Capitalism is compelling Clelia to reinforce women’s socially-induced need to hide behind the illusion of beauty, reinforcing this insecurity for the sake of making a profit. Her relationship with Carlo cannot last, him wearing that dull, scruffy coat as against her fur coat, because her association with him would tarnish her glamorous image–it’s bad for business. She even has to hide a love note between the two of them from her models, one of them finding it and laughing at her boss’s expense.

The two women among the girlfriends whom one would assume to be the most mutually rancorous are actually mutually empathic–Rosetta and Nene. The former has stolen the latter’s man; Nene has seen the proof from a sketch she knows Lorenzo did of Rosetta on a matchbox, then given to Rosetta. But instead of privately fighting with her while publicly smiling with her, to keep up appearances among their girlfriends, Nene has a sad, candid conversation with Rosetta about him in private. Rosetta can’t deny being in love with Nene’s man, yet she’s also remorseful about causing Nene’s suffering.

These two, ironically, are the most like friends of all the women.

The final moment of animosity that comes to a head is between Clelia and Momina after Rosetta’s successful suicide. Weeping, Clelia calls Momina a murderess for having goaded on Rosetta to continue her doomed relationship with Lorenzo, all for Momina’s narcissistic, cynical entertainment. That Clelia has blown up at Momina right in front of her boss, a scandalous loss of face in the salon, means Clelia assumes she will lose her job. Fortunately, her boss forgives her and offers her a job in a salon back in Rome, which Clelia accepts.

The boss actually envies Clelia for having been able to get her pain off her chest. The boss, always pressured to keep up appearances, has had to bottle up all of her feelings, a suppression she jokingly claims must be causing her some kind of gastrointestinal problem.

Le Amiche is a movie all about social hypocrisy, narcissism, pressure to keep up appearances, and punishment for those who dare to break society’s rules. It’s also about how class and sex roles divide us all. One hopes that those who watch this film will learn, by example, how not to be friends.

Analysis of ‘Carnival of Souls’

Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film produced and directed by Herk Harvey, from a story by him and John Clifford, the latter having written the screenplay. It stars Candace Hilligoss, with Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, and Harvey as the main ghoul who torments Hilligoss’s character throughout the film.

Carnival of Souls was shot on a low budget, using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, in Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City. It was Harvey’s only feature film. It has a unique film score, played solely on a church organ and composed by African American composer Gene Moore.

Though the film went largely unnoticed upon release, it has since become a cult classic, influencing such filmmakers as David Lynch and George A. Romero. Many movie lists include it among the greatest horror movies ever made. It is in the public domain.

Here is a link to quotes from the film. You can watch the whole film here.

The ending of Carnival of Souls seems to indicate that Mary Henry (Hilligoss) didn’t survive the car accident on the bridge at the film’s beginning, and that her nightmarish existence throughout the middle of the film has been her soul’s unwillingness to let go of her physical existence, comparable to the hell Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) goes through in Jacob’s Ladder. I, however, will interpret the car accident and her survival/’death’ metaphorically.

Racing as representative of the pressures of competition in society.

The film starts with her and some girlfriends in a car; they meet some young men about their age in another car, and these boys want the girls to race them. They reach a bridge where their cars are going neck-and-neck, crowding each other on the bridge, and the girls’ car falls off and into the river. Only Mary (so it seems) has survived the car crash; she emerges from the water not remembering how she’s survived.

One thing that is immediately apparent about Mary is that she’s unsociable. She has apparently always been this way, since the organ factory worker says, “She’s always kept pretty much to herself.” She drives out of town without wanting to stop to see her parents; in fact, when asked if she wants to see them, she reacts to the idea with considerable agitation. Right from the beginning of the race, Mary never smiles–her face shows only anxiety, and I don’t think this is just because of the potential danger of the race.

I consider the car accident to be symbolic of a deep-seated trauma, or many traumas, stemming from her relationship with her parents, especially her father (more on this later). A troubled relationship with her parents would explain how distant she is from other people, for our object relations with our parents, the first major people to come into our lives, are blueprints, so to speak, for our relationships with people in later life. If we don’t enjoy our parents’ company, we’re far less likely to enjoy the company of anybody.

This car race, with her bunched together with the other two girls, feels claustrophobic, especially with those boys’ car trying to ram past them. The sense of competition with others can be most distressing to someone as sensitive as Mary. So a near-death experience in such a social context can be seen as symbolic of trauma causing social anxiety.

Mary is a lonely, lost soul.

The water that Mary has fallen into is symbolic of the unconscious mind. The two dead girls in the car with her, engulfed in the water, just like the ghouls emerging from water later in the film, represent so many of Mary’s internalized bad objects. So the car accident represents the repression and the return of bad objects that WRD Fairbairn wrote about.

It’s fitting that these repressed bad objects that come back into Mary’s consciousness should do so in the form of ghouls, or evil spirits; for Fairbairn likens these returning bad objects to evil spirits that possess the suffering psychiatric patient (see page 6 [or 67, from the copied book] of the above-linked pdf, Part 5–‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’).

Another symbolism for this water that kills, and from which ghouls emerge, is Lacan‘s notion of the Real, an undifferentiated mental state that cannot be symbolized (i.e., put into words–Mary can tell Dr. Samuels [played by Stan Levitt] about the main ghoul, but she cannot conceive of whom he symbolizes; could he be her father, or a minister, who may have sexually abused her when a child?), and thus is traumatic.

Her driving out of Kansas to start a job so far away, in Salt Lake City, represents her wish to get away from her trauma. She tells the organ factory boss that she’s never coming back to Kansas. She can try to run away from her problems, though, but she’ll never succeed, because her problems aren’t outside of her…they’re inside.

Mary the organist.

Another fitting thing about this films is its organ soundtrack music, which apart from occasional diegetic music makes up the vast majority of the music heard in the film. Its eerie dissonance provides so many of the atmospheric chills in the movie, and of course Mary is an organist. It’s as if she’s the one playing the soundtrack to her own story. The creepiness of the organ music, especially in the later scene when she’s in a trance, playing dissonant, “profane” music in the Utah church and she gets fired, represents her fear. It is thus a reminder that her problems stem from within (i.e., past trauma), not from without (i.e. literal spooks).

During her long drive to Salt Lake City, she looks at her reflection in the passenger window to her right. She looks there again, but sees the main ghoul, who looks middle-aged, old enough to be either her father or a minister of the church who may have molested her as a child. (Since this film was made in 1962, when the Hays Code was still censoring movies, indications of sexual abuse would have had to have been made most indirectly, subtly.) Seeing his face instead of her own in the reflection makes him a symbol of an internal bad object; seeing him again in front of her as her car is approaching him is her projection of him outside. The shock of seeing him makes her drive off the road and into a ditch, a traumatic reaction that parallels the other car falling off the bridge at the beginning.

She drives by a large pavilion near Salt Lake City that she is immediately fascinated with. What could this building mean to her? I suspect it represents in her mind a church, a cathedral she’d attended as a child. Its draw on her represents a wish in her to revisit her place of childhood trauma, to process those painful feelings and therefore cure herself of them. The place is on the shores of the Great Salt Lake–water, the symbol of her unconscious, where her bad internal objects lie, the Real, the centre of her trauma, which must be confronted.

The pavilion.

After Mary finds lodgings, she takes a bath there one night while waiting for the proprietress, Mrs. Thomas (Feist), to bring a sandwich and coffee up to her room. It’s interesting how, when she’s been in water again, a knock on her door reveals not Mrs. Thomas but the only other lodger, the lecherous John Linden (Berger), whom she’s embarrassed to meet with only a towel to cover her nakedness. Shortly after repelling Linden’s “neighbourly” ways, his thinly-disguised sexual advances, Mary goes out into the hall and is terrified to see the main ghoul looking up at her from the ground floor.

This juxtaposition of Linden, who ogles her through the door crack while she’s replacing her towel with a bathrobe, with the appearance of the lewdly smirking ghoul–a figment of her imagination and an internal object of hers–contributes to my theory that the ghoul represents someone who once sexually abused her. She is frightened of Linden’s lecherous designs, which have triggered the traumatic memory of another man’s lecherous designs.

Later that night, she can’t sleep, so she gets out of bed and looks out the window to see the pavilion so far off. Her fear of the main ghoul makes her want human company, so Linden’s appearance at her door again the next morning is welcome. He’s surprised to learn, as is her boss the minister (Ellison), that her work as church organist is purely professional, with no spiritual interest in it whatsoever.

Since Western society, especially American, was much more religious in the early 60s than it is today, we must wonder why not only is Mary not interested in meeting the congregation of the church she’s playing organ for, but isn’t interested in the religious meaning of the music she’s playing (small wonder some think her playing lacks “soul”). Such disparities reinforce my speculation that she feels somehow betrayed by the church, making her lose faith in it, while nonetheless staying near it as a professional organist–a nearness that suggests the traumatic bonding of one who was molested as a child by her minister.

Seeing the main ghoul.

She feels relatively safe in the daylight, during the waking hours when the conscious mind is dominant, but frightened at night, during the darkness of which the unconscious is given free reign. As she tells Linden, “It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” During the day, she can repress her fears; but at night, the repressed returns, in forms she fears, because she can’t recognize their true meaning.

She isn’t, however, necessarily free in the daytime, either. After getting rid of Linden, she goes shopping and tries on a black dress. When changing back in the fitting room, though, we see what looks like a rippling of water before her eyes (water, symbol of her repressed unconscious, is bringing her repressed trauma back to consciousness for her); after this, she temporarily experiences a kind of derealization. She cannot hear anything, especially people’s voices, and these people don’t acknowledge her presence–she seems invisible to them.

The sense of disconnect from other people is a symptom common in sufferers of C-PTSD, caused not by one, but by many traumas. Since Mary is experiencing such a disconnect, I suspect her car accident is really a symbolic abbreviation of many traumas she suffered in childhood.

The many traumas that result in C-PTSD make the sufferer feel as though he or she is completely, irreconcilably different from everyone else, and this in turn results in the sufferer’s withdrawal from society and into isolation, since he or she feels safe only without others around. Hence, C-PTSD can be an accurate diagnosis for Mary, who feels so different from others that, on this and again towards the end of the film, she can neither hear others nor be acknowledged by them.

Mary in the department store.

Terrified by her temporary deafness and invisibility, Mary leaves the department store and ends up in a park. Standing under a tree, she hears the chirping of a bird, symbol of freedom, and so she’s back to normal…by her standards, at least.

She goes to a fountain for a drink of water, and she hallucinates that the ghoul is standing before her. She goes into hysterics and runs into Dr. Samuels, who offers to help her. She goes with him to his nearby office…him with his hands creepily around her.

He isn’t a psychiatrist, but he seems to have dabbled in psychoanalysis, for he hints at some insights as to who the ghoul may be–Mary’s father, or some kind of guilt (i.e., shame associated with having been raped) she has buried deep down in her mind. Her vehement denial of these interpretations should, if anything, help convince us of their correctness, for her denial, calling such ideas “ridiculous,” is a typical example of the patient’s resistance to insights that uncover a deeper pain.

She has her resistances and denials, but also a conflicting desire to cure herself, and her fascination with the pavilion is part of that desire. So she runs out of Samuels’s office and goes straight there.

Now, facing one’s trauma is crucial to curing oneself of it, but one should be guided by a therapist. She thinks she’ll rid herself of the stalking ghoul by entering the pavilion and exploring it; but there’s still that part of her that doesn’t want to face the darkest of her pain, so when she looks around the place, it’s a generally peaceful experience.

Mary looking around the pavilion.

The main ghoul is sleeping in the water, symbolizing how her trauma is still there, however hidden it may be. At one point during her walking around, she sees a mattress gliding down a slide. There’s no reason for it to be there, much less slide down by itself, so it must symbolize something in her unconscious–perhaps a mattress on which she was once sexually abused.

The association of her trauma with water is again reinforced when she passes a sign saying, “Salt Water Bathing,” shortly after having seen the mattress on the slide. Maybe as a child, part of her seduction by her father, or by a minister of the church (maybe her father was the minister), involved bathing her, then bedding her.

My point in all of this is that the whole film could be seen as an extended dream, chock-full of symbols related to her trauma, but presented in a distorted manner that makes them unrecognizable to her conscious mind. The root of the trauma is still buried, like the ghoul sleeping under the water.

She goes back to her rooming house and agrees to a date after work with Linden because she doesn’t want to be alone at night. When practicing the organ at church, she goes into a trance, for night has fallen, and the ghouls are seen coming out of the water of the Great Salt Lake.

Recall that all these ghouls represent the bad internal objects hiding in Mary’s unconscious (i.e., sleeping in the water) during the day, but coming out at night, when the unconscious mind is freer. These internal objects would be not only her molester (the main ghoul we always see), but also family and community members who either turned a blind eye to the abuse she suffered, or perhaps even participated in it. Their dancing, in this connection, is symbolic of sex, pairs of men and women holding each other and moving around to a rhythm.

They only come out at night.

This reliving of her trauma makes her play creepy dissonances on the organ (which she cannot hear, as with her temporary deafness in the department store scene) that her employer, the minister (whose hands grab hers, making her stop playing, and happening immediately after she, in her vision, has seen the main ghoul approach her, his hands out to grab her), regards as “profane, sacrilege,” so he dismisses her. She leaves the church and goes with Linden to a bar for drinks.

He’s drinking while she just sits there, still practically in a trance. He’s annoyed at her unsociability: she won’t drink, talk, or dance. After having just had a vision of the ghouls dancing in the dark pavilion, how could she dance? Young men and young women dancing in a pub aren’t necessarily planning to be sexual, but in the context of dating, they are exploring sexual possibilities. Such possibilities are scary enough for Mary.

They go back to the rooming house and into her room. Linden’s hopes of getting some with Mary are dashed when he realizes how “off her rocker” she is. She looks in the mirror and sees the main ghoul again, who, recall, is a projection from her own mind onto the external world. Such hallucinatory projections are what Wilfred Bion called bizarre objects.

After Linden leaves in frustration, she tries to use the furniture of her room to block all entrances, in a futile attempt to keep the ghoul outside. Of course, she cannot succeed at this, because the ghoul is in her head; no matter how hard she tries to project him outside, he’ll always return, for he is a bizarre object she’s created.

Try as she might, Mary cannot run away from him.

The next day, she packs her things and leaves the rooming house. She’d leave Salt Lake City, too, imagining that leaving the city, just as she’s left Kansas and isn’t going back, will rid her of her trauma. Of course, that will never happen, because her trauma is within, not without.

She drives her car to a mechanic, staying in her car as it’s raised up; she nods off a bit. She then experiences the following set of terrors. First, she imagines someone, the ghoul, presumably, entering the mechanic’s garage and lowering her car back down to the ground. After running out of the garage and into a bus station, we see those waves on the screen again, as in the department store fitting room: she goes deaf again, unacknowledged by others, until hearing the chirping bird in the park; she also sees the ghouls in a bus she hopes to take to escape from the city.

Next, she is in Samuels’s office, but sees the main ghoul instead of the doctor in his chair. It’s interesting how the ghoul tends to stand for men who are at least a potential threat to her: either middle-aged men in authority positions, or father-figures, like Samuels or the minister; or lecherous men like Linden. She screams and runs away.

She wakes up, though we’re not sure if she really went to sleep at first, or just put her head back and closed her eyes for a few seconds. If this moment was a nightmare, could the rest of the film be a long nightmare, too? Could this moment have been a dream within a dream?

She must confront him.

There’s nothing left for Mary to do now but to go back to the pavilion and face her demons. She drives over there just as the clouds are obscuring the evening sky. The inside of the building, accordingly, is much darker than the last time she was there.

Because night is about to fall, all those ghouls sleeping in the water of the Great Salt Lake are waking up and emerging; that is, all the internal objects of her unconscious are returning to her conscious thoughts. As I’ve said above, these aren’t just representatives of the molester(s) of her childhood and/or adolescence; they also represent her family, neighbours, and members of her congregation who, out of a wish to avoid scandal, would never sympathize with Mary or hear her cries for help.

She stands there in the shadows, frowning in her attempt to confront her tormentors. That eerie organ music is playing alongside what sounds like a calliope, or steam organ (what would be heard in a circus or carnival), implying the link between her organ playing, as traumatic bonding, with the abusive church of her childhood that the carnival symbolizes.

Again, we see pairs of male and female ghouls dancing to the calliope music. Since, as I said above, their dancing is symbolic of sex (remember that the film censorship of the time meant that sexual deviancy could only be implied, expressed symbolically), all of them dancing symbolizes the deviancy of an orgy. People with authoritarian, fundamentalist religious beliefs, in their prudery and repression, tend paradoxically to let their sexuality out in the most perverse ways, such as pedophilia, ephebophilia, and hebephilia.

Ghoul-Mary.

Finally, Mary sees, among the ghouls, herself as a ghoul dancing with the main one! Ghoul-Mary has a sad, dazed look in her eyes, the kind of look a victim of sexual abuse might have, a look of helpless resignation. Meanwhile, the smirk on the main ghoul’s face seems one of lewd satisfaction. He dips ghoul-Mary, like a lover, and she is grinning ear to ear, as if tricked into thinking she’s enjoying satisfying his lust.

Mary has thus confronted her trauma. She has remembered what was repressed for so many years, and the horror of it makes her scream and run away. As we all know by now, though, running from her trauma won’t save her; it’s always in her mind, so the ghouls all chase her outside.

Wherever she tries to hide, a ghoul’s face pops up in front of hers. Finally, she runs out and falls on the sand, screaming. The ghouls crowd around her and get down close, as if to gang rape her. To confront trauma, we can’t do it alone. Mary should be facing this with a therapist.

The film ends with Samuels, the minister, and a cop following her footprints in the sand where they unaccountably end. These men, as father figures, would seem to want to help her, but they can’t. After all, weren’t the church community represented in the ghouls just trying ‘to help’ her?

The discovery of Mary’s body in the car represents how trauma kills us all psychologically, for after enduring its horrors, we can never be the same as we were.

Analysis of ‘La Notte’

La Notte (‘The Night’) is a 1961 Italian film by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. Filmed on location in Milan, it is about the disintegrating relationship of a man and his wife, as both of them are tempted into having extramarital affairs.

The second film of a trilogy (the first being L’Avventura, and the third being L’Eclisse), La Notte continues Antonioni’s abandoning of traditional plots in favour of visual composition. The film was acclaimed for its exploration of modernist themes of alienation; it received the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a first for an Italian film, and it also won the David di Donatello award for Best Director in 1961. It’s one of Stanley Kubrick‘s ten favourite films.

Here is a link to quotes, in English translation, from the film.

When the opening credits are showing, we see a shot of a building up close, one much taller than the other buildings of the city either in the background or in the reflection of the skyscraper’s windows. The camera is slowly moving downwards.

Since La Notte is about a married couple growing alienated from each other, and we know that the essence of alienation is an inability to communicate with and understand other people, then this descending camera shot of a skyscraper suggests the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven. But God (Elohim) says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7). And indeed, after the credits are finished showing, we see the beginning stages of the breakdown in communication between writer Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and his frustrated wife, Lidia (Moreau).

Subtle associations in moments in the film with key moments in the primeval Biblical narrative can be found afterwards, too, though largely in reverse order to that of the early chapters of Genesis. I’ll return to these other associations soon enough.

Giovanni and Lidia enter a hospital where their good friend, fellow writer Tommaso Garani (played by Bernhard Wicki), is a seriously ill, dying patient in need of morphine to ease his pain. In this pitiful state, Tommaso personifies the Pontanos’ ailing marriage.

Before the couple go into his room, they’re accosted by a pretty but emotionally unstable young woman who complains of the telephone in her room not working (symbolic of already failing communication). She will later make sexual advances on Giovanni after Lidia has left the hospital in tears over the wretched state Tommaso is in. There is a clear link between seeing their dying friend and this young woman, for temptations to adultery are among the things that are slowly tearing this marriage apart.

The theme of stifled communication is developed in Giovanni’s repeated self-deprecatory remarks about his fading abilities as a writer. The ability to use language is crucial to a writer, of course, but also key to having healthy relationships, especially in a marriage. Language is a central part of Lacan‘s Symbolic Order, brought into being through the prohibition of Oedipal indulgence via the Nom, or Non! du père, and bringing the child out of his narcissistic, dyadic relationship with mother and into the world of society, culture, and shared customs. Giovanni’s indulgence with pretty girls like this wild woman in the hospital, and later with Valentina Gherardini (Vitti), is a regression to a self-centred, childish state, a retreat from society (coupled with his fading ability to write, to use language) that will wreak havoc with his marriage.

The funny thing with Lidia, as far as Giovanni’s temptations with both women are concerned, is that she isn’t jealous. She’s just disgusted with him. It’s a clear sign that the love has died in their marriage. This is why we see her walking off from him, going off alone so many times.

First, she has to go off alone at the hospital, after empathizing with the pain of Tommaso, the personification of her marriage to Giovanni. Then, at the promotion of his new book, La Stagione (“The Season”), she walks off again. Finally, at the Gherardinis’ party, she’s often alone.

She’s sometimes tempted by other men, directly or indirectly, as Giovanni is by young women. During her walk-off from his book promotion, after which he goes home surprised to find her not there (and turns off a recording of an English lesson, the translation of English vocabulary into Italian; his turning off of the recording is symbolically another indication of the ending of language, and therefore, of communication), she encounters some people and things that can at least symbolize, or be associated with, thoughts of her being with other men.

At one point, Giovanni lies down and naps for a bit. Lidia walks along a sidewalk with short stone posts that are phallic in shape; she touches one or two of them, and passes by an old woman who would seem to be a reflection on her own aging…and fear of further aging.

Later, having been driven around in a cab (her riding with a male driver other than her husband suggestive of an adultery fantasy), she encounters a gang of boys, two of whom get into a fistfight. Though she naturally abhors the sight of violence, and promptly stops the fight, one suspects that she–being a woman raised in a traditional society–would find two virile young men fighting to be erotically stimulating, at least on an unconscious level.

After that, she sees rockets being fired into the sky. The sight strongly suggests ejaculating phalli. Such images of virility, something that seems conspicuously lacking in mild-mannered Giovanni, suggests the root of her problems with him: he seems impotent (an at least psychological inadequacy, if not a physical one), and only able to get it up with young women. In fact, even with the wild woman in the hospital, he doesn’t seem to be aroused.

Early during her walk, she comes to the run-down buildings of some poor people and finds a child crying. Though she, as a bourgeois, is not of the poor child’s class, she nonetheless sympathizes; and her wish to comfort the child suggests her frustration at never getting to be a mother. Indeed, we know of no sons or daughters from the Pontanos.

Giovanni wakes from his nap in an agitated state, suggesting he’s just dreamt what she experienced alone outside. It’s another example, as I’ve noted in Blowup and The Passenger, of Antonioni verging on, though not quite lapsing into, the surreal, the borderline between reality and dream, or fantasy. In any case, Giovanni’s worst nightmare is being realized: she’s falling out of love with him and having adulterous thoughts of her own.

She telephones him and has him pick her up in a place where they used to live, a reminiscence of a happier time when they were still in love. In response to his worries, she says it’s “nothing”…as in Much Ado About…When he arrives, he notes a train track now covered in vegetation; he remembers when the train was once used. Back in the time when they’d lived there, their love was going places, like that train. Now, their love goes nowhere…like that train.

When they get home, she takes a bath. The scene is interesting in that it was originally censored for giving us one or two brief flashes of Moreau’s breasts. (Other scenes in the film, such as the wild woman’s seduction of Giovanni, including her undressing after their kiss, as well as his and Lidia’s rolling around in the dirt kissing at the end, and one of two ladies walking together saying ‘whore’–or ‘tart,’ depending on the translation–at the Gherardinis’ party, were also censored.) Giovanni shows no sexual interest in his naked wife, adding to her frustrations.

Night is approaching, their marriage’s ‘dark night of the soul,’ so to speak, and Lidia doesn’t want to sit around at home. They’ll go to the Gherardinis’ party, but first to a night club. She shows herself off to him in a new black dress, but he shows minimal interest, disappointing her once again.

At the night club, they watch a striptease/equilibrist perform while balancing a wine glass. The juxtaposition of Giovanni and Lidia watching a woman being undressed (by her husband?) with her balancing of a glass half-filled with wine, which she later drinks, vaguely suggests Genesis 9:20-22, when Noah got drunk and naked in his tent, and Ham saw him. Ham thus is cursed.

The shame in the scene in the film, though, is in how the erotic dancing does nothing to inspire passion in Giovanni, a passion that he could direct at Lidia. As he says to her, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” She is thus once again frustrated. Their marriage is cursed.

They arrive at the Gherardinis’ party, where the lady of the house (played by costume designer Gitt Magrini, who incidentally also played Jeanne’s mother in Last Tango in Paris) greets them.

Her husband is a curious sort: he would seem to be a socialist’s fantasy of what a boss ought to be like. Mr. Gherardini (played by Vincenzo Corbella) speaks of not being interested in making profits, but rather producing things to be remembered. He imagines that Giovanni writes out of necessity. He also offers Giovanni a job, to write the history of Gherardini’s company. Giovanni probably won’t accept the job offer: after all, as a bourgeois with a servant in his home, Giovanni would seem out of place working for a ‘socialist.’

Still, he might consider taking the job after all…if he can get closer to the Gherardinis’ pretty daughter, Valentina. Giovanni Pontano’s philandering with young women suggests that his surname is a pun on puttana, or more aptly, ‘puttano,’ a male whore.

He begins his pursuit of Valentina by playing a game she’s devised, that of sliding her compact across a floor of checkered tiles with the aim of it landing on one specified tile, to win points. By participating in this game, Giovanni is demonstrating what a ‘playa‘ he is.

He is so careless and foolish that just after the end of their game, he kisses her…and Lidia sees him do it! This is shortly after she’s learned, from having telephoned the hospital, that Tommaso has just died. She isn’t jealous of her husband with Valentina because she knows her marriage is dead.

Soon after, it starts to rain. This heavy rain can be compared to the forty days and forty nights of rain of the Great Flood. Now, the placement of the rain in the time sequence of the film is one of the few instances that don’t coordinate with the reversed time sequence I mentioned above about the major events of the early chapters of Genesis. Still, the Biblical parallels are enough to make my point about Giovanni’s and Lidia’s marriage: it’s going backward, not progressing.

The cause of the wickedness of the world leading up to the Great Flood, as described in Genesis 6:1-4, was the sons of God mating with the daughters of men, a forbidden mixture of the human and divine worlds that brought chaos to God’s ordered creation. The ‘sons of God’ of La Notte are Giovanni and Roberto (played by Giorgio Negro), who show a sexual interest in, respectively, Valentina and Lidia, the ‘daughters of men’; and the former pair pursues the latter pair before, during, and after the rain, which doesn’t quite correspond with the reverse order of the analogous events in the Bible. Still, I say the correspondences are close enough.

At first, many of the guests at the party use the rain to elevate their hilarity and fun–a number of people jump in the swimming pool, reinforcing the association with the Flood; ultimately, however, the rain causes certain crucial guests to split up and go their own ways, a breaking up of the universal socializing and communicating that is the essence of the Symbolic. Giovanni and Valentina become a dyad, and so do Lidia and Roberto.

These two dyads, metaphorical mirrors looking into each others’ eyes and reflecting each others’ egoism, are experiencing what Lacan called the Imaginary. The desire one member of each dyad has for the other is a wish to be at one with the ideal-I that is experienced in the reflected faces of their metaphorical mirrors. The one desires to be the desire of the other, or to be recognized by the other. Giovanni wants the youth and vitality of Valentina, since he’s losing his own virility with age. Lidia hopes to be a sexy, desirable woman for Roberto, since she cannot be such a woman for her husband.

So both husband and wife have regressed from engagement with the Other (society in general, mingling with many people instead of just focusing on one) to engagement with the other (just one other person, making a dyad with him or her, a transference of the mother/son or father/daughter, Oedipal pairing). These narcissistic duos, reflecting each other like mirrors, are a regression from the adult world of the Symbolic to the infantile Imaginary, and thus constitute a breaking down of communication.

Now, it isn’t so easy to regress into the secondary narcissism of the revisited Imaginary without the danger of lapsing into the terrifying chaos of the Real, which is what the Deluge-like rainfall symbolizes. Narcissism is a defence against psychological fragmentation, a falling-apart of the self and a psychotic break with reality.

Lidia is in Roberto’s car during the heavy rainfall; they are in ‘Noah’s ark,’ so to speak. We see them through the car windows, chatting with and smiling at each other, enjoying one another’s company; but we don’t hear a word they’re saying. Inside the car is the narcissistic dyad of the Imaginary; outside the car, out in the rain–like the forty days and forty nights of rain that killed everyone on Earth–is the traumatic, undifferentiated horror of the Real, what cannot be symbolized with language.

This scene in the film reminds me of what Slavoj Zižek once said about the inside and outside of a car as it relates symbolically to the Real. In Looking Awry, he commented on a passage in Robert Heinlein‘s Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. A couple are in a car driving home, but are told under no circumstances, no matter what they see, to open the windows of their car. They witness, during their drive, a child hit by a car, and naturally feel the urge to roll down a window, just a bit, to tell a patrolman about the accident. Instead of seeing all that they’ve seen through the closed windows, though, they see through the opening “Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life.” (Zižek, page 14)

So what is this “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life,” Zižek asks, “if not the Lacanian real, the pulsing of the presymbolic substance in its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside, materialized in this case by the windowpane…To those sitting inside a car, outside reality appears slightly distant, the other side of a barrier or screen materialized by the glass. We perceive external reality, the world outside the car, as ‘another reality,’ another mode of reality, not immediately continuous with the reality inside the car. The proof of this discontinuity is the uneasy feeling that overwhelms us when we suddenly roll down the windowpane and allow external reality to strike us with the proximity of its material presence…But when we are safely inside the car, behind the closed windows, the external objects are, so to speak, transposed into another mode. They appear to be fundamentally ‘unreal,’ as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis–in short, they appear as a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane. It is precisely this phenomenological experience of the barrier separating inside from outside, this feeling that the outside is ultimately ‘fictional,’ that produces the horrifying effect of the final scene in Heinlein’s novel. It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside reality had stopped working, as if, for a moment, we had been confronted with the formless grey, with the emptiness of the screen…” (Zižek, pages 14-15)

In La Notte, however, it isn’t seeing out from the inside, from the narcissistic veil of illusion out onto the harsh reality of outside, but the other way around. From the Real that is outside, one looks inside to see two people experiencing the illusion. It is just like Noah’s family and the pairs of animals, experiencing the comfort of the illusion of life, as opposed to the chaos and destruction of the Flood going on outside, killing everyone and every land animal, a return to the tohu-wa-bohu of primordial Chaos. Accordingly, Lidia can enjoy the feeling of being courted by Robert; but when they park the car and get out, and he continues his pursuit of her, she snaps out of it and realizes she cannot cheat on her husband. She has had a taste of the Real, standing out in the rain for a moment, and her narcissistic illusions have been shattered.

She cannot cheat on Giovanni, even though she knows he hasn’t been faithful to her; this is partly because of the patriarchal double standard that indulges a husband’s affairs, but not a wife’s. Also, she cannot cheat on him simply because she’s much more responsible and adult than he is. We’ve seen her smile and watch the jazz band play up close, admiring these attractive, talented men. She has gotten in the car with Roberto. But she never fully acts on her temptations as Giovanni does. She won’t even kiss Roberto.

When Giovanni and Valentina are alone in the house, she plays a tape recording she’s made of what seems affectedly poetic TV dialogue; she feels embarrassed about it, for she asks him to promise not to make fun of her for having recorded it. After playing it, he wants to hear it again, but when she rewinds it, she also erases it, considering the recording to be “drivel.” Once again, La Notte shows how the removal of language and communication vitiates relationships.

When Lidia and Roberto return, she and Giovanni have to confront each other’s temptations to adultery. Giovanni is offended at something Roberto says to him with challenging eyes, that in democracy we “take things as they come”; it would seem more reasonable to assume he’s more annoyed at Roberto being alone with his wife (i.e., free to take her as she comes) than at what he has said. As mentioned above, though, Lidia denies any feelings of jealousy over her husband’s interest in Valentina, even though he’s made no attempt to hide that interest.

Instead, she feels as if she wants to die, for she knows she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore. Like Tommaso, her marriage is dead. The Cain of her husband’s concupiscence has made her no longer able…or, Abel?…to love him anymore. Giovanni, his eyes wandering in the land of Nod, knowing those other than his wife, has murdered her love, just as Cain killed his brother.

The morning has come, and it’s time to leave the party. Giovanni and Lidia decide to walk through Mr. Gherardini’s golf course. She finally tells Giovanni about Tommaso’s death; he’s annoyed that she didn’t mention it earlier, but he was playing (i.e., the game with Valentina with her compact slid across the checkered tiles–trying to seduce her). With the mention of Tommaso’s death comes her final confrontation with Giovanni about the end of her love for him…and vice versa.

She reads him an impassioned love letter she’s had in her purse. Though he’s visibly moved by the letter’s contents, he has forgotten that he, in fact, wrote it long ago, back when he still truly loved her. His obliviousness to what he wrote proves his love, too, has died–how his ineptitude with language has ruined their relationship.

He won’t accept this painful truth, though, so he makes unwanted sexual advances on her. They’ve been sitting by a group of trees, him rolling on top of her in the dirt. This moment is comparable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

His pitiful attempt at lovemaking reminds us of St. Augustine‘s interpretation of original sin, coming from concupiscence, or involuntary desire, which has been plaguing their marriage from the beginning. His uncontrolled arousal was directed at women other than Lidia; this same involuntary arousal was no longer directed at her, so when he tries to make love with her there, it’s fake, and she knows it (i.e., she knows he hasn’t got an erection–he’s impotent). He’d wished, in his love letter, for his love for her to be immortal, but not even his memory of the letter was immortal. Small wonder she, too, has looked outside their marriage for love.

His attempt at lovemaking is so fake that it should be obvious even to him that his love for her died long ago. He knows, as if from eating the…here, bitter…fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that their love is dead. Only his narcissism would push him to hide his shame by pretending to feel desire for her, paradoxically related to the shame that made Adam and Eve want to hide their genital arousal by covering it with fig leaf aprons.

They roll in the dirt of his concupiscence, for Giovanni, like Adam, is dust, and like their marriage, to dust shall he return. From the Tower of Babel of the opening credits, to the…Edenic?…ending of the film, their marriage has gone backwards, not forwards.

This ‘Edenic’ ending is not a return to the lost paradise, for Giovanni and Lidia remain in their fallen state; they know their love is dead–they aren’t the naïve, unknowing naked pair before having eaten the forbidden fruit. Fully clothed, they’re like Adam and Eve only after God has clothed them in animal skins.

Now, it isn’t that sex per se is dirty, as Augustine conceived it; it’s that desire isn’t controlled–it’s misdirected. Sex itself didn’t bring about the Fall of Man; God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Childless Giovanni and Lidia were never fruitful. Desire brought about the fall of, respectively, both the naked and the clothed couples of the Bible and La Notte. The Buddhists agree that it’s desire that is the root of human suffering, and the Pontanos’ misdirected desire has been causing their suffering throughout the dark night of their marriage.

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, OCTOBER Books, London, 1991

Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

Analysis of ‘Rope’

I: Introduction

Rope is a 1948 thriller film produced (with Sidney Bernstein) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Hume Cronyn and with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. It is based on the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play of the same name (called Rope’s End in American productions), the play in turn having been inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.

The film stars James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. It’s the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited to seem a single, continuous shot through the use of long takes. It’s also the second, after Lifeboat, of his “limited setting” films, since Rope takes place entirely inside an apartment (the outside showing only during the beginning credits and through windows throughout the rest of the film).

Contemporary reviews of the film were mixed, it did poorly at the box office, and neither Hitchcock nor Stewart were happy with the results of the real time experiment. The film’s reputation has improved over the decades, though, and it has, as of this writing, a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 49 reviews), with this consensus: “As formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, Rope connects a powerful ensemble in service of a darkly satisfying crime thriller from a master of the genre.”

Quotes from the film can be found here.

II: Getting a Grip on the Rope

The symbolism of rope, and of rope’s end, ought to be discussed first. The continuous length of rope suggests the continuance of life, just like the real time continuity of the film. Still, the rope must come to its end, rather like the thread of life spun by Clotho, of the Fates, and cut by Atropos.

Similarly, though the film tries to simulate the effect of one seamless take of eighty minutes, back in 1948, takes couldn’t be any longer than ten minutes; so such tricks as having actors’ backs, or those of furniture, block the screen to allow unnoticed switches of reels, were necessary. Also, several cuts are unmasked, as at 19:45, 34:34, 51:56, and 1:09:51. So, there’s the continuity of Rope, as well as the Rope’s End cuts.

The symbolism thus is of life juxtaposed against death, for the ‘life’ of the party that carries on through most of the film coincides with the knowledge that there’s a dead man’s body hiding in a large antique wooden chest, on which dinner is served. Rope, of course, is also the murder weapon.

Hamilton’s play is also continuous in action, adhering to the three unities of place (one setting: the apartment), of time (that of the evening’s party, and no other), and of action (only the one plot of the party and the secret murder). Even this continuous action, though, is divided by the curtain fall at the end of each act: Rope‘s continuity is cut at Rope’s End.

Hamilton’s is what one would call a “well-made play,” whose characteristics are combined with the classical unities mentioned above; this form that it’s in is also symbolic of the elitist thinking of the murderers, who fancy themselves ‘well-made men.’ They are Wyndham Brandon and Charles “Granno” Granillo in the play, but respectively renamed Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger) in the film.

These well-to-do young men would end a man’s life to clear the way for the lives of “superior” men like themselves. They use rope as an executioner would, and as Rupert Cadell (Stewart in the film) says at the end of the play, they’ll hang (i.e., by rope–perfect karma) for their crime (Stewart’s Cadell says they’ll die).

Apart from the paradoxical life/death symbolism, the rope can also represent a link between words and deeds. As Slavoj Zižek explains, ‘By means of a prohibition of montage, Rope enacts a psychotic passage à l’acte (the “rope” from the title of the film is, of course, ultimately the “rope” connecting “words” and “acts,” i.e., it marks the moment at which the symbolic, so to speak, falls into the real…the homosexual, murderous couple take words “literally,” they pass from them immediately to “deeds,” realizing the professor’s [James Stewart’s] pseudo-Nietzschean theories that concern precisely the absence of prohibition–to “superhumans,” everything is permitted).’ (Ziźek, page 42)

Another symbolism for the rope is to be understood in light of how the murder of David Kentley (played by Dick Hogan; in Hamilton’s play, the victim is named Ronald Kentley) is, metaphorically speaking, an act of gay sex. In this context, Kentley’s head and neck are the phallus, and the rope is–pardon my crudity, Dear Reader–the tightening sphincter.

This all ties in with the next topic of discussion.

III: Of Homosexuals and Homicide

With the prudish Production Code at the height of its authority and power in the late 1940s, one would think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to include any gay innuendo in a film. Nonetheless, Hitchcock managed to pull it off with Rope, as he would later do in Strangers On a Train.

Though Hitchcock was a bourgeois liberal, he actually had quite a progressive attitude towards homosexuality for people of the time, and he was intrigued with the idea of suggesting that not only the two young killers, but also Cadell, were gay. Hitchcock often pushed the censors as far as he could (recall the kissing scene in Notorious between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and how close we seem to come to seeing Janet Leigh naked in the shower scene in Psycho); so it would have been irresistible to him to drop many, many hints that the two young killers in Rope are a couple.

Not only are the characters gay, but so were the actors: Dall (closeted) and bisexual Granger. In fact, even the scriptwriter, Laurents, was gay…and he often wondered if Stewart knew that the character he was playing was gay. So Hitchcock had no bigotry towards LGBT people (recall that Anthony Perkins was also bisexual).

These characters in the film are gay because Brandon and Granno are hinted at being gay in Hamilton’s play, too. This is so because, in turn, Leopold and Loeb were actually gay lovers. Hamilton was a socialist, as Hitchcock was socially liberal, so both playwright and auteur would have wanted to address homosexuality in their productions of this story.

Now, the film begins with the strangling of (or symbolic sex with) David, who gives off quite an…orgasmic…scream. The lights are off, the curtains drawn in the middle of a sunny day outside; after all, we generally prefer to screw in the dark, don’t we? Especially if it’s in the socially taboo form of gay sex, something especially taboo before the second half of the twentieth century.

Phillip/Granno wants to keep the lights off and the curtains drawn for a while longer, since he’s the weaker-willed of the killers. Brandon fittingly lights a cigarette. Both are panting. They put Kentley’s body in the wooden chest, on which Brandon would proudly have dinner served.

After handling a phallic champagne bottle, Phillip asks Brandon how he felt doing “it,” a euphemism at the time for homosexual sex, but also of course referring to the murder, since the latter sin is symbolic of the former in Rope. Brandon answers that when David’s body went “limp” [!], he felt “tremendously exhilarated.” Now, how should we think about associating gay sex with murder?

The Legion of Decency–a group of Catholics working in association with the Hays Code, and watching every film of the time like a hawk to see if anything even suggestive of lewdness was there, and thus needing to be censored, boycotted, or banned–surely must have sniffed out the homosexual innuendo in Rope. Still, they approved of it. I suspect that they allowed Rope to go past the censors because, in their Catholic bigotry, they were happy to present to the public a film that associates homosexuality with homicide, a morality tale to deter the Christian flock from ever practicing…it.

But surely neither Hitchcock nor Laurents wanted to promote such an idea, did they? This seems to be where the good gay character, Rupert Cadell, comes in. Now, with Jimmy Stewart’s box office draw and charm as a movie star, the homosexuality of his character had to be toned down. The scenes in which Brandon and Cadell discuss “strangling chickens,” though, would be enough of a hint at Cadell being as gay as the killers.

The association of homosexuality with murder also hints, however subtly, that Cadell is either gay or at least philosophically approving of homosexuality. His defence of murder can thus be seen as a code for defending homosexuality. He is a liberal defending something deemed a sin by society; but like many a liberal hypocrite, he’s disgusted and horrified when presented with a graphic presentation of the act, as we see symbolized by Kentley’s murder, at the end of Rope.

The association of homosexuality with murder, in a way, can be seen historically in the homophobic fear–a totally irrational fear given the low percentage of the world’s gay people (as can be seen, for example, in these statistics of LGBT people in the US)–that tolerance of such sexual practices (anal and oral sex, mutual masturbation, or…choking chickens!) would result in a society producing far fewer children than an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous one. Such “murderers of [their] own posterity” as gays and perpetual bachelors were seen to be detrimental to the survival of any society (Farrell, pages 73-74).

Now, empires, in their political strength, have been somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality; but the Abrahamic religions started out as persecuted minorities, in whom a quick population increase was desperately wanted. Hence the homophobic passages unfortunately immortalized in the Bible (Leviticus 20:13) and the Koran (Al-Nisa, verse 16), meant to discourage gay sexuality, or similar scriptural passages condemning any sexual acts that didn’t result in children protected through the institution of heterosexual marriage.

Small wonder the Nazis condemned homosexuality as contributing to ‘race suicide,’ and put gay men in concentration camps. There was, however, Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, and a practicing homosexual. His sexuality was known, and Hitler grudgingly tolerated him for a while, because Röhm was so highly placed in the NSDAP; but when Hitler had come to power and needed to wipe out anyone who was deemed a threat to him, Röhm’s homosexuality was conveniently used as part of the rationale for having him killed.

A discussion of Nazi ‘superiority’ over homosexual ‘inferiority’ thus ties in with the next topic.

IV: From Untermenschen to Übermenschen

One of Hitchcock’s main purposes in making Rope was to discredit the Nazi notion of the ‘superior Aryan.’ We can see an irony in having two gay men, considered ‘inferior’ not only by Nazis but also by conservative society in general, who fancy themselves examples of the Nietzschean Superman. Röhm would have seen himself racially thus, too, as would his gay deputy, Edmund Heines.

[It’s interesting to note in passing that some have speculated that Nietzsche was gay. Also, one should recall how his younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, edited his writing to make his notion of the Superman seem proto-Nazi.]

To get back to Hitchcock’s intentions for the film, though, and his commendable use of Rope as a condemnation of Nazi thinking, on the other hand one mustn’t forget his reactionary stance as a bourgeois liberal, who during the late 1940s would naturally have been eager to distance himself from fascism as much as he could. All the same, consider in this connection what Stalin once said about liberals and their ilk: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Nazis are to be crushed, not merely distanced from; and Western liberals were using unpunished ex-Nazis to help them fight the Cold War, starting right around the time that Rope was made.

Connected to all of this is a passage about homosexuals in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: ‘homosexuals or inverts…are men and women who otherwise have reached an irreproachably high standard of mental growth and development, intellectually and ethically, and are only afflicted with this one fateful peculiarity. Through the mouths of their scientific spokesmen they lay claim to be a special variety of the human race, a “third sex,” as they call it, standing with equal rights alongside the other two. We may perhaps have an opportunity of critically examining these claims. They are not, of course, as they would gladly maintain, the “elect” of mankind; they contain in their ranks at least as many inferior and worthless individuals as are to be found among those differently constituted sexually.’ (Freud, pages 313-314)

I bring up this quote because Hitchcock was known to have been heavily influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and gay Brandon’s and Phillip’s preoccupation with Nietzschean ‘superiority’ causes me to wonder if Hitchcock ever read the above-quoted book by Freud, its ideas influencing him in his making of Rope.

In any case, Brandon’s (especially) and Phillip’s/Granno’s sense of superiority doesn’t stem from their homosexuality, but rather from malignant narcissism, in which we see a huge overlapping of extreme narcissistic and psychopathic (ASPD) personality traits. Though the two may have felt narcissistic injury from being regarded by society as ‘sex perverts,’ and therefore wish to assert their ‘superiority’ by displaying the courage to kill, the thrill factor in killing Kentley seems to indicate the psychopathic side to Brandon’s personality, an impatience with boredom.

Now, Phillip/Granno, being the weaker-willed of the two killers, and lacking Brandon’s ability to tolerate stress (even though it is Phillip who does the actual strangling of Kentley!), is racked with guilt and stress throughout the film. While this guilt is surely a factor in his outburst, denying he’s ever strangled a chicken, this denial seems more connected with the implication, as stated above, that he’s gay rather than a killer. In other words, his lie that he’s never strangled a chicken seems to be his narcissistic rage at being implicitly labelled ‘queer.’

The narcissism of the two young killers can be linked to something else, in fact, something far more significant than being gay or wishing to emulate the philosophy of Nietzsche: it’s their elevated social class that gives them a false sense of superiority to most other people.

This ties in with the next point.

V: The Übermenschlichkeit of Capital

Brandon and Phillip/Granno, just like their real-life inspirations, Leopold and Loeb, are spoiled, well-to-do kids from affluent families. They’re preppy students living in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, wearing nice suits, drinking fine champagne, and inviting similarly upper-middle-class friends to their evening party. They also have a servant in their employ, played by Edith Evanson.

Their smug belief in their supposed superiority is therefore symbolic of the narcissism of capital in general. Capitalist imperialists, like those in the British Empire, and now the US, have justified their plundering of the world–killing millions in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (whether directly or indirectly)–by imagining their stock and civilization to be superior to all the brown people they’ve brutalized. Killing a fellow preppy like Kentley doesn’t deflate my argument, for those white imperialists, the Nazis, killed such whites as Jews and Slavs in their racist hubris, too.

Cadell’s ‘defence’ of murder is meant to be heard as a sardonic take on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, not as a green light for Brandon and Phillip/Granno to kill. Cadell’s words, like Sade‘s glorification of the most heinous of crimes, are cloaked in irony. Cadell points out, in Hamilton’s play, that war is murder on a mass scale, and thoroughly approved of by patriotic society. Similarly, Hamilton’s Cadell approves of theft because society already condones capitalists’ theft of the poor through their ownership of private property: in this observation, he refers to Proudhon‘s notion that property is theft. Hamilton the socialist would have wanted to make this point to his audience, in the hopes of promoting progressive social change. In these ways, Cadell’s approval of crime is the opposite of capitalist Brandon’s relishing in crime.

…and the notion of narcissistic, bourgeois hypocrisy ties in with the final topic.

VI: Opening the Chest

Another part of narcissism is presenting a False Self to the world, a hiding of one’s True Self. Brandon’s and Phillip’s/Granno’s pretensions to superiority are an example of the False Self, while the concealment of their crime in the chest symbolizes the hiding of the True Self.

Since the crime is also symbolic of gay sex, the two killers are presenting themselves publicly as straight, ‘respectable’ members of society with their innocuous, high-class party. Phillip’s vehement yet dishonest denial of having ever strangled a chicken is an example of such pretending. Cadell, who knows better, and who is growing increasingly suspicious of his two young hosts, cross-examines Phillip, so to speak, while the latter is playing the piano. Cadell has witnessed the…choking of chickens…and knows Phillip has lied in his denial of committing the act. This cross-examination happens while Phillip has been playing, over and over again, the first of Francis Poulenc‘s Trois mouvements perpétuels. (Poulenc, incidentally, was also gay.)

The harmonic construction of the piano piece is a perfect parallel to the growing tension in the movie. It starts off with a pretty, light tune, the ideal sort of musical setting to a party with such people as the father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), girlfriend (played by Joan Chandler), and friend (played by Douglas Dick) of the murder victim, none of whom of course know of the murder. But as the piano piece carries on, it grows–however subtly–more and more dissonant, something paralleled in the unease that the guests are feeling over Kentley’s never showing up for the party. Though Phillip never plays the first movement to the end, anyone who has heard it knows it ends at the height of inconclusive dissonance, just as the film ends at the height of tension and uncertainty for the two killers.

Now, Phillip has been revealing his guilty True Self through such parapraxes as breaking a wine glass in his bloodied hand and letting out nervous outbursts; his heavy drinking is also facilitating his disclosing of guilt. Brandon, on the other hand, enjoys suggesting that he’s guilty of murder, for he fancies himself above the common man’s hypocritical pretences of virtue.

In these ways, just as Rope demonstrates the dialectical relationships between life and death, continuity and breaks in it, ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority,’ and pride (Brandon) vs. shame (Phillip), so does it demonstrate the dialectical opposition between hiding one’s True Self behind a mask of one’s False Self on the one hand, and on the other, removing the False Self mask to reveal the True Self, be such a removal through parapraxes or through the criminal’s vanity, his proud wish to display his murder to the world.

Just as the murder symbolizes gay sex, so does hiding the body symbolize hiding one’s homosexuality, while Brandon’s unconscious wish to have his mentor, Cadell, know of the crime represents a wish to come out of the closet…or come out of the casket, as is the case here…Brandon’s defiant wish to tell the world that homosexuality is no crime.

In keeping with the gay interpretation, though, we find that liberal Cadell, in his condemnation of the two young men’s symbolic gay sex act, is a hypocrite himself. He has philosophically condoned the act a mere 40 minutes before this condemnation, an unmasking of his own False Self. He thanks Brandon for this unmasking, just as Brandon has wished to be unmasked, too.

At the same time, though, in keeping with the capitalist/imperialist interpretation (particularly in Hamilton’s play), Cadell redeems himself by, first of all, frankly acknowledging his own guilt in killing in war and stealing in his ownership of private property, and second of all, condemning Brandon’s and Granno’s murdering of Kentley (an excess Cadell would never lower himself to), all out of a narcissistic fancying of themselves as superior.

Cadell’s redemption, however, is only partial: for as a liberal (as Hitchcock was), he is symbolically condemning the excesses of fascist delusions of superiority used to justify killing, while maintaining the bourgeois liberal class structure of society out of which fascism arises in times of crisis…just as Cadell’s verbal approval of murder inspired these two bad boys’ achievement of murder.

The rope that links the teacher and his pupils doesn’t end here, doesn’t get cut off, through the difference between word and deed. The continuity between the former and the latter is as smooth as Hitchcock’s deft camera tricks hiding the cuts between long takes.

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio Cortázar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with Cortázar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed), this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in Cortázar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In Cortázar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj Zižek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (Zižek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In Cortázar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.

Analysis of ‘Vertigo’

Vertigo is a 1958 psychological thriller produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts, by Boileau-Narcejac. The film stars James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes, with Tom Helmore and Henry Jones.

The film was shot on location in the city of San FranciscoCalifornia, as well as Mission San Juan BautistaBig Basin Redwoods State Park, Cypress Point on 17-Mile Drive, and Paramount Studios. It’s the first film to use the dolly zoom, distorting perspective to create the disorientation of the vertiginous acrophobia of police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart); hence, the in-camera effect is often called “the Vertigo effect.”

While Vertigo originally received mixed reviews, it’s now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, as well as one of the best films ever made. The American Film Institute ranked Vertigo #9 in 2007 (up from #61 in 1998) in “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies.”

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

Apart from changing the setting of the novel from WWII France to late Fifties San Francisco (as well as, accordingly, changing the characters’ French names to English ones), comparatively few changes were made in this Hitchcock adaptation from its source material (in contrast with the many changes made in Psycho, Rear Window, and especially The Birds). Marjorie “Midge” Wood (Bel Geddes) was invented for the film by scriptwriter Taylor; she has no equivalent in the novel. The opening scene, with Scottie and another cop chasing a perp on rooftops, Scottie almost falling and the other cop actually falling to his death–thus establishing Scottie’s acrophobia–was added to the beginning of the story; whereas in the novel, the trauma causing the protagonist’s acrophobia is explained in a flashback. Apart from such changes as these, though, the film follows the novel’s plot quite faithfully.

What triggers Scottie’s vertigo is, of course, looking down from great heights to abysmal depths below, reminding him of not only his close brush with death hanging from that rooftop (his survival of which is never explained), but also the death of the cop he feels responsible for. Looking down causes him vertigo.

He experiences another kind of vertigo, if you will, from looking up…in a largely metaphorical sense, mind you. He is so captivated by the beauty of Madeleine (Novak), the supposed wife of his old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Helmore), that ‘looking up’ at her–on the pedestal he’s placed her–is causing him to see a distorted, disorienting, and dizzying sight of another sort. Looking up causes him vertigo.

When he speaks to Midge about his proposed attempt to cure his acrophobia by facing it incrementally–and literally step by step, using a step-ladder–he says as he goes up each step, “I look up, I look down.” Now, his method using the step-ladder fails, but he will ultimately succeed in curing his acrophobia by looking up at Madeleine/Judy as she ascends the bell tower stairs above him, then by looking down at the stairs below when he’s almost at the top with her. Of course, this cure comes at a terrible cost–the loss of her life.

Elster takes advantage of Scottie’s phobia by using it to help him do the opposite of putting a woman up on a pedestal–to discard the wife Elster doesn’t love, the real Madeleine. Elster’s discarding of his wife, to the point of killing her, parallels the discarding of Carlotta Valdes by her husband, which lead to her own death, by her own hand, after grieving over not only this discarding, but her separation from their child.

In the identifying of Carlotta with Madeleine/Judy, which is the identifying of discarded, loathed wives with the woman Scottie has put up on a pedestal, we see the dialectical relationship between the despised and the adored, she who is looked down upon with she who is looked up to. The discarded wife, thought to be Scottie’s love, is literally looked down on after Elster has thrown her from the top of the bell tower, right after Scottie has looked up at Madeleine/Judy while following her up the bell tower stairs. And the movie ends with him looking down at dead Judy after her fall.

The duality of this dialectical unity-in-contradiction is expressed in the two-part structure of the plot, these two parts having many parallels. Each part begins with Scottie being freshly traumatized after having seen a death from falling. Judy is made to impersonate Madeleine, first by Elster, then by Scottie, who is twice obsessively in love with her.

Judy is twice going mad. The first time, it’s a combination of feigned madness–in her acting job as Madeleine possessed of the ghost of suicidal Carlotta–with her real torment from being in love with Scottie while being forced to deceive him. The second time, she’s in love with him while being forced by him to play, once again, the very role that has deceived and hurt him, causing her to be racked with guilt.

There’s his being in the restaurant with the red walls, seeing her walking out with Elster; then after the ‘suicide,’ he’s in the restaurant again, seeing a woman who looks like her, walking out with another man. He follows her green car to her home; then after the ‘suicide,’ he sees her car, but it’s been sold to another woman. He sees “Madeleine” in the museum looking at the Carlotta portrait; then, after the ‘suicide,’ he goes there again, only to see a different woman looking at the portrait. Finally, there’s the faked suicide and real murder of Elster’s wife, and the real, if accidental, falling death of Madeleine/Judy.

The opening credits, with their titles and visuals designed by Saul Bass, establish the film’s central themes. A closeup of eyes and vertiginous spirals link the obsessive gaze with dizziness. “I look up, I look down.” Regardless if one sees the idealized or the despised/dreaded, one cannot see straight–one has vertigo.

Two things are significant about Midge, both of which we learn from the first scene between her and Scottie: they used to be engaged (until she broke it off), and she designs brassieres, one of which Scottie takes a close, fascinated look at. These details are significant in how we learn, soon enough, that Midge is maternal in her relationship with Scottie. The implied Oedipal symbolism here indicates once again the influence of psychoanalysis on Hitchcock.

Midge’s calling-off of the engagement, presumably long before the beginning of the film, is symbolically like the dissolution of a boy’s Oedipus complex, his original looking up in adoration at his mother, coupled with his looking down in horror and guilt at the unconsciously wished-for death of his father, triggered in Scottie’s case by his looking down at the death of the cop, an authority figure associated with one’s father.

Without Midge as his symbolic mother/lover, Scottie needs a replacement for his objet petit a, and that new love object becomes Madeleine. Now recall that the objet petit a is the unattainable object cause of desire, a desire coming from the lack of being able to obtain the original love-object, Mother. Because this love-object is unattainable, Scottie can’t have her even though Madeleine loves him back…for she isn’t really Madeleine, she’s just Judy. “Madeleine” is an idea, not a real woman.

Judy never is who she really is; she’s only what men want her to be–an impossible ideal who is, paradoxically, also tossed aside and therefore despised. When Scottie first sees her in that restaurant, her pretending to be Elster’s wife, he sees only an image of her, not the real her. The walls of the restaurant are a vivid red; her dress is a contrastingly vivid green. Red is the colour of dangerous passions (think of, for example, the red lightsabers of the Sith), while green is the colour of life (i.e., plants, etc.). The passion of red leads to death, making it the symbolic opposite of green for our purposes–Thanatos vs Eros.

We see her get up and walk out of the restaurant, framed by a doorway; she’s thus a portrait in a picture, like Carlotta Valdes. As an image, she’s being idealized. We see, just before she and Elster go outside, their mirror reflection; as Lacan pointed out about the mirror stage, the specular image is the unitary, idealized version of oneself, as opposed to the chaotic, fragmentary reality of the person being reflected in the mirror. Scottie sees Madeleine’s idealization in the mirror instead of Judy; he also sees Elster’s idealization as an old friend instead of the villain he really is.

Just as Judy isn’t really Madeleine, Madeleine isn’t really Carlotta, whose ghost is imagined to be inside Madeleine’s body. Carlotta, recall, was a mother who lost her husband and child, then killed herself out of grief. Once despised, looked down on by her husband, now Carlotta (in that museum portrait) is looked up to by “Madeleine.”

And just as Judy is required to imitate the looks of Madeleine (the grey suit, the white pair pinned up), so is “Madeleine” required to imitate the looks of Carlotta (the swirl of hair in the back, as seen in the portrait). She’s bought a bouquet of flowers (which could be seen as symbolic of the vulva) identical to those seen in the picture, in which Carlotta holds the flowers in her lap.

Carlotta was suicidal, so Judy as Madeleine must appear suicidal, too, hence her jumping in San Francisco Bay at Fort Point. Scottie’s rescuing her shifts his obsessive fascination with her beauty towards falling in love with her as a person, for he sees in her a fellow sufferer. His love is not merely physical: his compassion for her, seeing her pain, makes him see himself in her, as if she were a mirror.

The specular image that Lacan wrote about doesn’t have to be a literal mirror reflection; it can be, for example, the smiling face of a baby’s mother looking down at it. Since Madeleine/Judy is the objet petit a replacing Scottie’s original mother transference in Midge, when he looks into the sad eyes of his love, he’s seeing a metaphorical mirror of the pain in his own eyes. That the pain Judy’s expressing in her eyes is an acting job means that Scottie isn’t seeing straight: her feigned pain is his vertigo.

He takes her to Muir Woods, where they see the huge sequoia sempervirens trees; he translates the second Latin word as “always green, ever living.” She notes how so many people have lived and died while these trees have continued to live for thousands of years. Recall her green dress, the colour of life, worn in the restaurant scene; just as the destructive passion of red on the walls contrasts with her green dress, so does the awesome green eternity of the trees, which Scottie and Madeleine both look up to, contrast with her sudden running to the ocean in another (supposed) suicide attempt.

These ‘suicides’ always involve her going down–down into the water of San Francisco Bay, down from the bell tower. Suicide resulted from Carlotta being looked down on by her husband, so Madeleine’s ‘suicides,’ an imitation of Carlotta’s, also involve going down, because Madeleine, supposedly possessed of Carlotta’s spirit, also feels looked down on, in spite of Scottie’s idealizing of her, his looking up at her. Hence, the dialectical unity of looking up and down at her.

Despised Carlotta was a mother. Now, maternal Midge has thoughts of winning Scottie back (accordingly, we see her in a red top, the colour of her passion for him); her plain Jane looks, however, are no competition for the mesmerizing charms of Madeleine/Judy, so when Midge paints an imitation Carlotta portrait with her face replacing the original, Scottie is so unimpressed, he leaves the apartment. The tall man has looked down on the picture on the easel, and looked down on her, who is seated at the time.

As spurned a ‘mother’ as Carlotta was, Midge berates herself for her foolish move. She may be the ideal mate for Scottie, in that her wholesomeness is grounded in reality…as opposed to the fantasy world surrounding Madeleine/Judy; but Midge as Oedipal transference is passé for him.

Scottie’s vertigo, his dizzying distortion of reality coming from his looking up and down, is symbolic of his schizoid relationship with his objects, or other people. WRD Fairbairn wrote about what he called the “basic schizoid position,” which stems from a failure–varying in intensity from person to person–to establish stable object relationships grounded in reality. Such a failure is the basis of Scottie’s problems.

His relationship with Midge would be one between what Fairbairn called the Central Ego (Scottie) and the Ideal Object (Midge); she’s ‘ideal’ in the sense that she’s someone he can relate to in the real world, and such a healthy relationship is thus the best, or ideal, kind. His faux relationship with “Madeleine” is one between Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Scottie) and the Exciting Object (“Madeleine”)–it’s thrilling, but it’s just a fantasy. His relationship with those who fall to their deaths is one between Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego (Scottie) and the Rejecting Object (the cop, Elster’s wife, and Judy); Scottie looks down on them, he dreads them, he’d erase their memory from his mind if he could.

Another example of Scottie’s anti-libidinal relationship with the world is in the ordeal he goes through with the coroner (Jones), whose insensitive assessment of Scottie’s weakness, his acrophobia having prevented him from saving “Madeleine,” just rubs salt on his wounds. The coroner is another Rejecting Object because he, in his looking down on Scottie, reminds him of the harsh reality he tries to avoid by having Judy dress up as his Exciting Object, “Madeleine.”

Madeleine is dead in two senses: Elster has literally murdered his wife; and she’s dead in the sense that, as an idealization that no living woman in the real world could ever measure up to, she cannot live in the flesh. Judy, however, does exist in the real world, and she just wants to be able to live as her real self.

Small wonder we see her in that green dress in the restaurant, in a green car when Scottie is tailing her in his, and in a green outfit when Scottie talks to her in her apartment. Green is the colour of life (remember those sequoias), and she just wants to live; even when she’s impersonating Madeleine, her green dress and green car represent her wish to feel alive as herself to at least some extent.

He, of course, wants to live, too; hence we see him in a green sweater in his apartment after he’s rescued “Madeleine” from San Francisco Bay. He feels alive when he’s finally met her, because having seen the combination of her beauty and her pain (she’s wearing his red bathrobe, since she’s the object of his passions, and she’ll come to return that passion to him), he’s fallen in love with her.

His love, however, is that dangerous red passion that leads to death. Later, his obsessive wish to have Judy conform precisely to Madeleine’s looks is fully achieved to Bernard Hermann‘s music, which at that point reminds one of Wagner‘s Liebestod, or “love death.” Scottie and Judy are Tristan and Isolde, two lovers who cannot be together in the living world of reality. Their love is a vertiginous swirl.

More must be said of Hermann’s brilliant music. During the opening credits, the prelude, with its swirling arpeggios of an E-flat minor/major 7th chord (the ‘primal cell’ as described on page 4 of this PDF: ascending and descending E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, D–with an added 6th, C) in the strings, winds, and harp, playing in contrary motion, is a perfect sonic counterpart to Saul Bass’s vertiginous swirl coming out of the eye closeup. But back to the symbolism of the story.

The dialectical relationship between the idolized and the despised/dreaded can be vividly expressed through the symbolism of the ouroboros that I’ve used in a number of previous posts. The serpent, coiled into a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum with the opposite extremes meeting where the head bites the tail, and the coiled middle represents every intermediate point between the extremes.

Scottie brings Judy closer and closer to his ideal of Madeleine, bringing her up along the coiled serpent’s body towards its head, the idolized ideal. Once we’ve reached the perfected ideal (the ouroboros’ biting head), a green light shines in the room from the sign outside Judy’s apartment, glowing on both Scottie and Judy (who’s now fully dressed as Madeleine in the grey suit and with her white hair pinned at the back). That green of life shows that Scottie’s life has returned to him, for he has his “Madeleine” back.

Later, though, when he sees Judy in the black dress and they’re about to go out to dinner, he sees her wearing that distinctive red necklace that “Madeleine” and Carlotta once wore. Judy has made herself to be even more like Madeleine…too much like her. Now he shifts further along the circular continuum of the coiled body of the ouroboros; he’s passed the biting head of the Madeleine ideal over to the bitten tail of despised Judy, for now he knows that she more than merely resembles “Madeleine”…she is “Madeleine”!

She is despised because Scottie has figured out that Judy is a mere actress who helped Elster deceive him into falling in love with her, to distract him while Elster murders the real Madeleine, making everyone think her death was a suicide.

In Looking Awry, Slavoj Zižek makes some interesting points about the dialectical relationship between the idealized “Madeleine” and the despised Judy: ‘Recall the way Judy, the girl resembling “Madeleine,” is presented when the hero runs into her for the first time. She is a common redhead with thick makeup who moves in a coarse, ungracious way–a real contrast to the fragile and refined Madeleine. The hero puts all his effort into transforming Judy into a new “Madeleine,” into producing a sublime object, when, all of a sudden, he becomes aware that “Madeleine” herself was Judy, this common girl. The point of such a reversal is not that an earthly woman can never fully conform to the sublime ideal; on the contrary, it is the sublime object herself (“Madeleine”) that loses her power of fascination.” (Zižek, page 85)

Later on, Zižek says, ‘True, Judy finally gives herself to Scottie, but–to paraphrase Lacan–this gift of her person “is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit”: she becomes a common woman, repulsive even. This produces the radical ambiguity of the film’s final shot in which Scottie looks down from the brink of the bell tower into the abyss that has just engulfed Judy.’ (Zižek, page 86)

How is Scottie able to recognize the necklace? He has such a vivid recollection of it, originally Carlotta’s, that he recalls it in a nightmare he’s had shortly after the coroner’s judgement of the “suicide.” He dreams of Carlotta standing with Estler, as if she, rather than Madeleine, were his wife. Since Carlotta, the despised and rejected mother, has been linked with similarly rejected, maternal Midge, we can see in Carlotta another Oedipal transference in Scottie’s unconscious. This in turn makes Estler an Oedipally-hated father transference, since he as the villain is the one who has caused all this pain for Scottie.

The habanera rhythm of the music heard in the museum scene, when both “Madeleine” and Scottie were looking at Carlotta’s portrait, is now heard during the nightmare scene with far more dissonant, tense music. We see a flashing of red, the colour of destructive passion, during much of this nightmare. The bouquet of flowers, symbol of Carlotta’s vulva, is seen to break apart into fragments of petals, symbolizing an unconscious desire to possess the mother transference sexually, even to violate her. This wish-fulfillment cannot come without a punishment, that of the castrating father-transference (Estler, in this context); hence Scottie sees not “Madeleine” fall to her death from the bell tower, but himself! He wakes in a sweaty terror because he imagines he has projected the punishment he’s deserved onto her.

Recall how I said that he falls in love with “Madeleine” because he sees his own pain in her. Seeing himself fall to his death instead of seeing her do so in his dream is another unconscious wish-fulfillment. He can only live–that is, be green with life–if she lives.

Still, he continues to project his pain onto her as Judy, a kind of repetition compulsion, a merging of Thanatos with Eros. Just as he feels responsible for the death of the falling cop, he feels responsible–due to his acrophobia–for her death, the death he feels he should have suffered, as in his nightmare. Yet he drives Judy to her death, not just through her fall at the end of the movie, but also through his refusal to let Judy live as herself, by making her live only as the dead idealization of “Madeleine.”

The idealized woman, “Madeleine,” exists right on the cusp where ideal sits next to despised, shunned, dreaded–that is, next to Carlotta and Judy. Carlotta the mother was supposedly possessing the body of “Madeleine,” pushing her to kill herself. This mother is the objet petit a, the object-cause of Scottie’s desire, a vividly red (i.e., the necklace), dangerous, destructive passion that kills the green of life.

Zižek writes, ‘The elevation of an ordinary, earthly woman to the sublime object always entails mortal danger for the miserable creature charged with embodying the Thing, since “Woman does not exist.”‘ (Zižek, page 84) Later, he writes, ‘The ideal love-object lives on the brink of death, her life itself is overshadowed by imminent death–she is marked by some hidden curse or suicidal madness, or she has some disease that befits the frail woman.’ (page 85)

That cusp between ideal and despised is the dialectical point on the circular continuum of the ouroboros where its head bites its tail, where one extreme opposite phases into the other. At that cusp is the Oedipally desired mother, Carlotta, who is transferred onto “Madeleine,” the unattainable objet petit a. Just as the mother, Carlotta, brought about the death–as is supposed–of Madeleine, so does another ‘mother,’ an elderly nun (associable, at least, with Mother Superior), cause the death of Judy-as-Madeleine by appearing suddenly from the shadows, startling Judy, and making her fall.

Scottie looked up to her as “Madeleine”; he literally looked up to Judy as he angrily made her ascend the stairs, handling her as aggressively as Estler held the real Madeleine before throwing her from the bell tower to her death. Now Scottie looks down ruefully at the girl he despised not only for not being his ideal Madeleine, but also, paradoxically, for being Madeleine, all-too-Madeleine.

I look up, I look down. I look up, I look down.

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1992

Analysis of ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’

The Little Shop of Horrors is a black-and-white 1960 horror/comedy film directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. The story may have been inspired by “Green Thoughts,” a 1932 story by John Collier; it may have been influenced by “The Reluctant Orchid,” a 1956 sci-fi story by Arthur C. Clarke, which in turn was inspired by “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” a 1905 HG Wells story.

The film stars Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked with Corman on previous films. The Little Shop of Horrors uses a whimsical, idiosyncratic sense of humour, combining black comedy, farce, Jewish humour, and bits of spoof. It was shot on a budget of $28,000 ($240,000 in 2019), with interiors shot in two days.

It gained a cult following after being distributed as a B-movie in a double feature with Mario Bava‘s Black Sunday. A small, early role for Jack Nicholson retrospectively helped the film’s popularity when promoted on home video releases. It became the basis for an off-Broadway musical, which in turn was made into a film adaptation in 1986, starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Ellen Greene.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Since Corman never bothered to copyright the film (thinking it had little in financial prospects), it has entered the public domain. A link to the entire film can be found here.

Seymour Krelboined (Haze) is a clumsy, socially awkward florist’s assistant working on skid row in California. His boss is Gravis Mushnick (Welles), a bad-tempered, penny-pinching stereotype of Jewish humour who speaks ungrammatical English, laden with malapropisms, in a thick Yiddish accent. Seymour will be fired for his ineptitude unless he can impress Mushnick with his new plant.

Seymour, Mushnick, and Audrey admiring Audrey Jr.

All the characters in this film are comically idiosyncratic in one form or another: Seymour’s love interest, Audrey Fulquard (Joseph), the sweet–if rather ditzy (her dialogue, too, abounds in malapropisms)–girl next door; Burson Fouch (Miller), an eccentric eater of flowers who gives Mushnick the idea to save Seymour’s job by using his unusual new plant to attract customers; Seymour’s hypochondriac mother Winifred (played by Myrtle Vail), who considers medication synonymous with food; ever-mourning Mrs. Shiva (aptly surnamed), who always needs flowers for funerals (hoping for cut-rate prices) for the latest death in the family; Sergeant Joe Fink, the narrator, and Officer Frank Stoolie, two Dragnet-style detectives; Dr. Phoebus Farb, a fittingly sadistic dentist; and Wilbur Force (Nicholson), a masochist who loves going to the dentist.

It’s interesting how Fouch, an eater of flowers, encourages the public display of a plant that, as it turns out, eats human flesh. Flowers are the commodity sold in Mushnick’s shop, of course, and Fouch is a consumer (in more ways than one) of them. The addition of ‘Audrey Jr.’, the giant man-eating variant of a Venus flytrap, to the store will cause business to boom in a way all storeowners dream of, but not even Mushnick will want to pay the gory price that Audrey Jr. demands.

The rapid growth of Audrey Jr., coupled with its appetite for human flesh, can be seen to symbolize the predatory nature of capitalism, which must continue growing, being fed on profits (i.e., the improved business of Mushnick’s flower shop), with no regard for the needs of human life.

So, consumption–in its various meanings–is the dominant theme of the movie: the plant’s consumption of human flesh, Fouch’s consumption of flowers, Mushnick’s customers’ consumption (buying) of his flowers, little Audrey Jr.’s consumption (using up) of Seymour’s blood, his mother’s consumption of medicines as if they were food, and the public’s consumption (i.e., reception of information/entertainment) of the display of Audrey Jr. in the flower shop.

Since the setting of the film is skid row, a part of town where the poor try to escape their troubles in such forms as alcohol and drugs, Winifred’s consumption of medicines can easily be seen as symbolic of drug addiction, especially since the tonic Seymour buys for her is 98% alcohol. She has a few sips and is already tipsy by the time he leaves their house with his then-little plant.

Winifred Krelboined

The symbolic relationship between Fouch’s eating of flowers and Audrey Jr.’s eating of people should be seen as a karmic one. Fouch’s eating of flowers symbolizes man’s destruction of nature by commodifying it; the plant’s man-eating is thus nature’s revenge on man, the destruction of the environment being also our destruction, our collective suicide.

Commodification, the making of exchange-values to generate profits, is the basis of capitalism; small wonder Marx began Capital, vol 1 with a discussion of the commodity. Flowers are Mushnick’s commodities, so Seymour’s plant and its growth represent how the profit made from commodities result in another kind of growth: the accumulation of capital. Audrey Jr.’s bloodlust represents the pain and suffering that inevitably result from all this capital accumulation.

Seymour’s social awkwardness reflects the aggravated kind of alienation one would encounter in the poverty of skid row. He loves raising plants, but he is only of any worth to Mushnick if he can nurse Audrey Jr. to health and present it appealingly to his boss’s customers, getting them to want to buy flowers in the shop. Once the plant’s health has revived, and it has grown thanks to its drinking of drops of Seymour’s blood, his boss no longer loathes him, and even starts calling him ‘Son.’

Two pretty girls, who enter the shop out of curiosity about Audrey Jr., and who wish to decorate a float with flowers, treat Seymour like a pop star upon learning that it is his horticultural skills that have brought the plant to life. After Mushnick, dreaming of wealth and moving his flower shop to Beverly Hills, gives ever-grieving Mrs. Shiva flowers for free, he notices Audrey Jr. sick again, regrets his generosity to her, and instantly reverts to his contempt for Seymour. The boy’s alienation arises from only being of value if he can help his boss make money.

His alienation grows worse when he realizes that the only way he can keep Audrey Jr. alive is by murdering people and feeding it the corpses. Since murder is repellant to his nature, his bloody work is now alienating him from what Marx called one’s species-essence.

Seymour Krelboined

One is alienated from one’s work, from oneself, and of course from other people. Seymour alienates himself from others, though he “didn’t mean it,” but he isn’t the only one. Dr. Farb, the dentist who loves drilling holes in people’s teeth, also alienates people with his sadism. There are the teeth that hack up a man, and there’s a man who hacks up teeth, another reversal comparable to that of Fouch vs Audrey Jr.

There’s karmic retribution in Audrey Jr. eating human flesh, in response to what Fouch’s flower-eating represents (destruction of the environment). Then there’s karmic retribution in Seymour’s killing of Dr. Farb, in response to the dentist’s gleeful torturing of his patients; recall how, in the 1986 film musical, Steve Martin’s dentist sings of people paying him “to be inhumane.” Many high-paid professionals–doctors, lawyers, politicians–do awful things on a scale comparable to those of the greedy capitalist.

The suffering of the poor in such places as skid row, people ever held down under the boot of the capitalist, often leads to varying forms of mental illness, as in Winifred’s hypochondria and the sexual masochism disorder of Wilber Force (Nicholson). While most masochists in the BDSM community engage in their kink in a way that doesn’t cause them psychosocial difficulties, Force’s eager willingness to have (imagined dentist) Seymour pull out several–it is safe to presume–perfectly healthy teeth is clearly an impairment of Force’s functioning in social situations.

Added to all of this, the farcical humour we see in Seymour’s clumsiness, the eccentricities of his mother and Fouch, Farb’s sadism, Force’s masochism, etc., should be seen as representative of the absurdist futility of their existence in an alienating, capitalist society that keeps them in poverty and misery. Even Fink and Stoolie, the police investigating the disappearances of Farb and the railroad detective (whom Seymour accidentally hit with a large rock and made fall on the tracks to be run over by a train), react to the death of Stoolie’s son–who was playing with matches–by nonchalantly saying, “Those are the breaks.”

Audrey Jr.’s chewing of human bodies into pieces, Dr. Farb’s drilling and pulling of teeth, and Force’s delight at getting his teeth drilled and pulled, all represent the psychological fragmentation that results from an alienating capitalist society that privileges the few and impoverishes most of the rest of humanity. Even the budding relationship between Seymour and Audrey doesn’t last long; predictably, the talking plant’s incessant demand, “Feed me!”, is what gets in the way of their love. The growing monster of capitalism eats up everything.

Audrey Fulquard

The two girls who want to feature Audrey Jr. on their float fittingly say that their spectators will “eat it up.” The literal or figurative consumption of commodities leads to the consumers being karmically consumed by their own materialism and commodity fetishism. People see only the growing plant; they know nothing of what it is actually fed to make it grow.

The reversals of Fouch’s flower-eating vs a man-eating plant, and of teeth that mutilate vs Farb’s mutilating of teeth, are a fusion of dialectical contradiction with karma.

Though Mushnick is horrified to find out that Seymour is feeding the plant human flesh, he is conflicted about whether to inform the authorities or to keep quiet and enjoy the new success of his business. It is common for business owners to be conflicted over the need to maximize profit vs the need to be humane towards their employees, to care about the environment, etc. We’ll notice however that, no matter how strongly…and sincerely…the capitalist feels about humanitarian concerns, the profit motive will take priority, because the capitalist is compelled to prioritize profit. Hence, Mushnick’s procrastination with telling the police.

Mrs. Hortense Feuchtwanger, a lady from the “Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California,” enters the flower shop and is fascinated with Audrey Jr. If the plant’s buds open on the evening she returns to the shop, and if she likes what she sees, she’ll give Seymour a trophy for his plant.

This trophy would represent the kind of recognition that Seymour, a misfit and ‘loser’ that no one has ever appreciated or liked, so desperately craves. Only recently have any women (Audrey, the two girls with the float, Mrs. Feuchtwanger) ever shown him any liking, and if there’s one thing we all desire, it’s that of the Other, to be desired of the Other, to get the Other’s recognition.

As with his romance with Audrey, though, Seymour’s appreciation from Mrs. Feuchtwanger will be short-lived, too. The lady returns to the flower shop to see the budding, and she is horrified–as are Audrey, Mushnick, Fouch, Winifred, and Fink and Stoolie, who are also there at the time–to see the faces of all those eaten by the plant in its opened flowers.

Oddly, the two girls with the float still like Audrey Jr., looking gleefully at the faces in the budded flowers. They represent the extreme of commodity fetishism: so entranced are they by the plant as a finished product that they show no regard for the victims that helped it grow.

Gravis Mushnick

Recall, also, that as horrified as Mushnick is at Audrey Jr., especially to learn that it is a talking plant, he, too, is willing to have it eat up someone–in this case, an armed robber (played by scriptwriter Griffith, who also did the voice of the plant). Guarding his money is more important to capitalist Mushnick than preventing yet another victim of Audrey Jr.

The robber isn’t the only member of the Lumpenproletariat to be fed to the plant: so is an aggressive prostitute who tries to get Seymour to be her next client. For indeed, with Audrey Jr. as symbolic of the ever-growing, ever-devouring monster that is capitalism, such Lumpenproletariat as criminals and streetwalkers are every bit as much victims of the bourgeoisie as are the strata of the working class just above them.

Capital seems to develop a mind of its own, in how it subjugates us all to the will of the profit motive, even when we try to resist it on moral grounds, as Mushnick and Seymour try to do. This ‘mind of its own’ would seem to explain, in symbolic terms, why the plant can talk, and why it can hypnotize Seymour into doing its will, right when he tries so vehemently to defy it.

So many of us on the left try to defy the system around us that we hate so much, but through the mesmerizing bourgeois media (part of the system’s superstructure), now including Facebook, the narcissistic exhibitionism of Instagram, etc., we all get pulled back into complying. Hence, Seymour wanders the streets of skid row, in such a trance as to ignore the charms of the streetwalker, and takes her back and feeds her to Audrey Jr.

When Fink and Stoolie learn that Seymour is responsible for all the killings, they and Mushnick chase him on the streets of skid row in the night. The two cops represent the feeble attempts that an otherwise bourgeois state makes to curb the excesses of capitalism. That feeble effort is demonstrated in their failure to apprehend ineffectual, spastic Seymour, who should be easy to catch.

Wilbur Force

They chase him into some bizarre, even surreal-looking, parts of town, but they are places nonetheless indicative of the capitalist preoccupation with commodities–rather unclean ones, actually. Seymour is chased into the private property of a tire and rubber company, when he runs and hides in a labyrinth of giant tires. One of the few times he doesn’t trip is over resting Mushnick’s leg, though Fink and Stoolie do trip over it!

Then Seymour hides in, of all things, a toilet among a maze of bathroom fixtures (sinks, bathtubs, etc). Mushnick tells the cops that they won’t find Seymour there, though he is most obviously there. In all of this not only do we see the symbolism of a bourgeois government failing to punish the excesses of capitalism, but we also see a capitalist helping in achieving that failure.

Seymour returns to the flower shop a broken man. Racked with guilt over his murders, he’s lost the woman he loves, he’s a wanted man, and it’s all because of that bloody, gluttonous plant that has repaid his services by ruining his life. In despair, he decides to sate Audrey Jr.’s hunger one last time with his own body…and a knife to kill it with.

A karmic reversal has finally happened to the plant, instead of it being an agent of karma; for such is the reality of the dialectical crests and troughs of theses phasing into negations and sublations that become new theses to be negated and sublated. Now Seymour’s face appears in the latest budding flower, to add to all the other faces. The plant dies, too, and just as capitalism kills, so will it destroy itself in the end.

Analysis of ‘Sink the Bismarck!’

I: Introduction

Sink the Bismarck! is a 1960 black-and-white British war film directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Edmund H North, based on The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck (alternatively titled Hunting the Bismarck), a 1959 fictionalized account of the actual WWII naval battles of the German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen vs. the British Royal Navy, written by CS Forester.

The film stars Kenneth More and Dana Wynter, with Carl Möhner, Laurence Naismith, Karel Stepánek, Esmond Knight, John Stride, Jack Gwillim, and Michael Hordern. The film was praised for its historical accuracy in spite of a number of inconsistencies. It’s to date the only war film to deal with the Bismarck naval battles, and it’s an anomaly in how it focuses much film time on the back-room strategists, as opposed to devoting the film to the combatants themselves.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

The film simplifies and distorts aspects of the battles, particularly those involving HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. Though the actual man who oversaw the operation to sink the Bismarck was Sir Ralph Edwards (and the film acknowledges him in the ending credits), the film replaces him with the fictional Captain Shepard (More). Another character, WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Wynter), was invented with Shepard, their fictional interplay and chemistry adding human depth and emotional interest to the story, as did the fictional characters Forester added to his account (e.g., Dusty and Nobby).

This fictionalized history, in its book and film versions, is meant of course to dramatize the greatness of the British navy in their heroic struggle against Nazi Germany; but speaking of historical inaccuracies here, there is a context that has to be examined in order to understand the true nature of the conflict between England and the Nazis. The film and book would have us believe that Britain and Nazi Germany were on practically opposite ends of the political spectrum, with the UK’s liberal democracy on one side and German fascism on the other; but the political reality of the time revealed them to be not so far apart as it seemed.

II: Some Much-Needed Historical Context

Contrary to the heroic portrayal of him in the media, including this film, Churchill was a dreadful, even despicable, human being. Being a highly-placed man in the British Empire, he was as preoccupied with maintaining and protecting England’s imperialist interests as Hitler was in establishing Lebensraum for Germany. Such preoccupations included a gleeful, even fanatical, support for violence against the Japanese, Indians, Sudanese, Cubans, etc. He was easily as racist, if not more so, than Hitler, looking down on Native Americans, Australian aborigines, etc., as inferior.

Churchill also opposed women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, busting unions and violently suppressing strikes in a way that Hitler would have admired. He only supported Zionism for the sake of Western imperialist interests; like Hitler, he also spoke of the dangers of the “International Jews.”

Apart from the Churchill/Hitler comparison, the crimes of British imperialism are also comparable to those of the Nazis in terms of how horrific they were. Here are just a few examples: Boer War concentration camps, the transatlantic slave trade, the Opium Wars, the Bengal famine (Churchill diverted Indian food to European troops when a bad harvest had already made such food scarce, causing the deaths of millions of Indians), and the brutal repression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

Given this bloody context, we are now ready to see the fighting between England and Germany the right way: it wasn’t ‘democracy vs tyranny,’ it was simply inter-imperialist conflict. And just as the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany (which also had a wider context not so well-known, and one which makes nonsense out of the notion of moral equivalency between fascists and communists), so did the capitalist West have such a pact with the Nazis: Munich, at which appeaser Neville Chamberlain claimed he’d achieved “peace in our time.”

Indeed, not only Churchill but many British conservatives (including the aristocracy) expressed support for fascism, for they knew it was an effective weapon against the rise of socialism. People like Churchill and Chamberlain were hoping, by ceding the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Nazi Germany, Hitler would be encouraged to go further East, invade the USSR, and crush communism.

Hitler, however, started presenting himself as a threat to Western imperial hegemony, and this caused Churchill et al to change their attitude toward this new imperialist challenger, and to regard him as just as much of an enemy as did Stalin, who’d been desperately trying to get the, till then, deaf Western powers to join him in an alliance against Hitler.

So inter-imperialist conflict is the basis of the fighting between Britain and the Nazis. In the particular instance of this movie and Forester’s book, the Nazis started the failed Operation Rheinübung in an attempt to block supplies from reaching England.

III: Pride

The notion of the British as the heroes and the Nazis as the (only) villains is, as I’ve stated above, a liberal bourgeois perspective, given that in actual fact both sides were imperialists vying for a bigger slice of the pie. This notion of one side as good, more civilized, more advanced, and therefore superior to the other is actually an attitude held on both sides of the conflict, and is thus an expression of national pride.

That ‘pride goeth…before a fall‘ is a recurring theme in this film, and it is noted on both sides of the conflict. While the tone of the film would have us believe that the irrational emotion of pride is far more a pronounced fault of the Nazis than of the British, there are a number of indications, including some Freudian slips, if you will, in the writing, that suggest that the chasm separating Nazi pride from that of the British isn’t as far apart as is assumed.

The film begins with a newsreel showing the 1939 launch of the Bismarck, with Hitler among the attendees. This is a moment of Nazi pride, assuming their new battleship has a Titanic-like invincibility.

Then we have a shot of the approaching Captain John Shepard in May 1941, walking in the direction of the Admiralty in London where he is to be the new overseer of strategizing in the War Room underground. As Shepard approaches, we see a statue of a lion to his left, a symbol of the strength of Britain. A huge flock of birds flies off the ground where he is walking, just before we see the film title flash on the screen; it is as if the birds deliberately make way for our great hero. In these visuals we see manifestations of British pride to parallel that shown in the Nazi newsreel.

We next see Edward R Murrow playing himself, CBS London radio correspondent. As an American broadcast journalist discussing the threat the Bismarck presents to England, his sympathy to Britain represents the solidarity felt between those countries that were and are part of Anglo-American imperialism. He says Britain is fighting alone, a claim easily proven false given the aid England got from her dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, all before the US would enter WWII by the end of the year. This ‘Britain fighting alone’ is just another example of the country’s excessive pride.

IV: Stereotypes

Shepard is in many ways as much the ‘stiff upper lip‘ stereotype of the British as the film’s portrayal of Fleet Admiral Günther Lütjens (Stepánek) is of the Nazis. Within a minute of having entered the War Room, Shepard is quick to find annoyance with the informal work atmosphere he sees: a young man isn’t properly wearing his uniform (no jumper); the charms of the beautiful Davis are jocularly overestimated, by Shepard’s predecessor, as crucial to winning the war; Commander Richards (played by Maurice Denham) is eating a sandwich on duty; and a man addresses Davis as ‘Anne,’ which especially irks Shepard.

This stiff upper lip of Shepard’s extends, predictably, to his refusal to show or talk about his emotions. While part of his reason for this refusal is the pain he felt over the death of his wife during an air raid and the sinking of his ship by a German cruiser commanded by Lütjens, another part of the reason, surely, is his pride, especially seen in his stubborn insistence on the virtue of stoicism as against Davis’s argument for the healthy expression of feelings.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (Naismith) says he’s been told that Shepard is “as cold as a witch’s heart.” Pound approves of this characterization of Shepard, as much of an exaggeration as it is; he wants a man with no heart or soul, but “just an enormous brain.” Fighting the Nazis in the North Atlantic will be “a grim business,” not to be won with “charm and personality.”

The fact is that inter-imperialist conflict is a grim business, making the British as grim in their dealings as the Nazis are. Hence, Pound wants an agent in southern Norway to make direct contact with the Admiralty, as dangerous as making such a contact will be for the agent. The Norway man will be shot by the Nazis in the middle of sending a message about where the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are sailing, but Pound considers the sacrifice worth it.

V: A Naval Chess Game

Pound and Shepard learn that the German ships are coming out of the Baltic. The two men are looking at a large map on a table with small models of ships that are moved around like chess pieces. Indeed, the conflict turns out to be a “chess game” of sorts between Shepard and Lütjens: who will outsmart whom?

Pound notes the British ships available at Scapa Flow that could engage the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen : HMS King George V, HMS Prince of Wales, and HMS Hood. Pound contacts Admiral Sir John Tovey (Hordern, who actually served as a lieutenant commander in HMS Illustrious during the war) of King George V about the incomplete message from the agent in Norway who was killed: Prinz Eugen was spotted, and one must assume the worst, that the Bismarck is sailing with her.

As other players of this “chess game,” the men on King George V have to anticipate which way the German ships are going in order to intercept them: will they go through the Denmark Strait, will they sail south of Iceland, or through the Faeroes/Shetland passage?

Shepard wants to reinforce the Home Fleet, taking ships away from other duty. He considers taking HMS Victorious and HMS Repulse off escort duty, which would give the commander-in-chief an aircraft carrier and another battle cruiser. 20,000 men’s lives would be risked; Shepard doesn’t consider their lives a gamble, but a calculated risk. Pound approves of his decision.

Defending empire is, indeed, a grim business.

Now that King George V has Victorious and Repulse, Tovey wants the Hood and Prince of Wales in the Greenland area, while the Home Fleet sail from the Scapa Flow area, then south of the Faeroes and Iceland, to be ready to engage the Bismarck south of Greenland if the Hood and Prince of Wales fail…

…which, of course, they will.

Bad weather reinforces the British Navy’s difficulties, making the German ships virtually invisible. Lütjens speaks of the “chess game” he is playing with the British, and he proudly imagines himself able to win. Note the comparison between the stereotypical British vs German forms of pride, the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the former, and the boastful, ‘superior Aryan pride’ of the latter.

VI: Lütjens

Lütjens is, of course, portrayed as a stereotypical Nazi. The historical Lütjens, however, was nothing like this film portrayal, which should help us see that British and German pride aren’t as far apart from each other as is assumed.

The Lütjens of Forester’s book is somewhat prouder, but not as much as he is in the film. The film Lütjens complains of not receiving the recognition due to him in WWI; he is also fanatical in his belief that the Bismarck is unsinkable.

The Lütjens of history, however, was a very different man. He did not agree with Nazi policies: he was one of only a few navy commanders who publicly protested against the brutal mistreatment of the Jews during Kristallnacht. Also, he was one of the few officers to refuse to give Hitler the Nazi salute when the Führer visited the Bismarck on its first and final mission. Such rebellious actions would have taken uncommon courage; it was also in marked contrast to the film’s portrayal of a committed Nazi who’d have us never forget he is a Nazi and a German, and who passionately shouts, “Heil Hitler!

So, this contrast between the stoic Shepard and the crazed Nazi Lütjens is meant to make the former look like the more reasonable man by far. In effect, it’s to make the British seem superior to the Nazis, when as I indicated above, the crimes of British imperialism make England no more guiltless than Germany. Indeed, it is the role of fascism to be the ‘bad cop’ to the ‘good cop’ of the liberal bourgeoisie, when in reality, all cops are bastards.

VII: Shepard’s Mask of Ice

Shepard’s outer shell of stoicism is shown again when he’s asked about his son, Tom (Stride), an air gunner in Ark Royal‘s Swordfish squadron. One assumes the boy’s father would be glad to know he’s (for the moment, actually) far away from the danger of facing the Bismarck, but Shepard says his son must take his chances like everyone else. This would seem a brave, self-sacrificing attitude, but some might think it callous. In any case, the attitude Shepard presents here is fake; he’s just being too proud to admit to his feelings and emotional vulnerability. We’ll know his real feelings for Tom soon enough.

Shepard is again cold to his staff when he learns a young officer named Dexter is late for duty, though only a little. Commander Richards, the man to be relieved by Dexter, doesn’t mind the lateness, but Shepard does. He punishes the boy by requiring him for duty the next three nights. Richards pleads for Dexter, saying the boy wishes to have some time to spend with his girl, an army nurse, before she’s sent off from Portsmouth to go overseas; but Shepard won’t make an exception.

Shepard’s insistence on this punishment happens during a scene when Davis has discussed with him the loss of the man she loved, a “wonderful man” who was missing in action at Dunkirk the previous year. She has argued how good it is to talk about one’s feelings, while Shepard of course doesn’t think so. He similarly shows no warmth or pity to Dexter’s now being unable to be with his girl.

The reality of imperialism, as a modern extension of capitalism, is that it causes alienation to metastasize. We see this intensified alienation in Shepard, as the Director of Operations for the imperialist British fleet, in his callous attitude toward such young people in love as Dexter. While he shows a modicum of sympathy for Davis (presumably because of her elegant beauty), he still won’t concede any validity to her belief in the goodness of showing feelings.

Another provocation, happening by the end of that same scene, challenges an uncovering of Shepard’s outer mask of stoicism: he learns that Lütjens, who sank his ship, is commanding the Bismarck. Since he’s dealt with Lüjens before, though, Shepard will be able to get good hunches about what his nemesis plans to do.

VIII: Bismarck vs Hood

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen are spotted sailing in the Denmark Strait, so the Hood and Prince of Wales (the latter of which has civilian workers aboard) will have to confront them the next morning. Captain Leach (Knight, who actually served as a gunnery officer on board the Prince of Wales, where he was seriously injured and blinded during the battle with the Bismarck) tells his men to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the coming battle.

To get back to the theme of pride before a fall, the Hood is the pride of the British navy. When the men in the War Room know the Hood is about to face the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (played by Geoffrey Keen) proudly says, “Good old Hood; she’ll get them.”

The problem is, of course, that she won’t get them. Instead, the Bismarck first hits the Hood, only slightly damaging her, then after another salvo, the first three shells of which hit the water near the Hood, the fourth hits just below its main mast, penetrating the deck armour, and the Hood‘s deck explodes. Both the British and German sides are shocked at the destruction of this once great ship. What’s left of it is covered in smoke. The destruction of the Hood is thus a parallel of the upcoming destruction of the Bismarck, indicating a parallel of British imperialist pride with that of the Nazis.

IX: Parallels

There are enough parallels, or doublings, of so many aspects of the British and German sides in this film, revealed in a more or less Freudian slip-like fashion (i.e., not consciously expressed as doubles or parallels), as to justify–along with the British imperialist crimes mentioned above–the near moral equivalency of the British and the Nazis.

As noted above, the Hood and Bismarck are parallels, the pride of their respective countries’ navies, and they will both meet their demises. Shepard and Lütjens are doubles. Both are embittered from misfortunes of one kind or another from their pasts. The pride of Shepard and Lütjens will, in one sense or another, fall: the former will have to own up to his emotions, and the latter will face the consequences of his overconfidence.

Recall the difference, however, between the film’s portrayal of Lütjens and the historical man, who far from being overconfident, was actually pessimistic about the Bismarck‘s chances of a successful mission. In the film, Captain Ernst Lindemann (Möhner)–who is a parallel to Shepard’s Davis in being a soft-spoken voice of reason trying to temper the stubborn pride of his superior–is ordered by Lütjens to fire on the Hood; while the Lütjens of history ordered Lindemann not to engage the Hood, with Lindemann attacking despite his superior’s orders. And if the Lütjens of the film takes reckless chances, so does Shepard in his giving the Home Fleet Victorious and Repulse, risking the lives of 20,000 men.

The only reason we in the Anglo-American world consider the British in the film to be bold and daring in their risks, while considering the Nazis to be reckless in theirs, is because we have been culturally conditioned to sympathize with the former imperialists and not with the latter. In reality, neither side should have been sympathized with.

Another parallel, or doubling, in the film is the phone call from Churchill to the Admiralty and the telegram from Hitler to the Bismarck. We all know Hitler was a warmonger, but in Forester’s account (page 77 of this pdf), Hitler calls Churchill a warmonger (which he was, technically).

X: Damaging the Prince of Wales

To get back to the story, though, with the Hood gone, it’s up to the Prince of Wales to fight the Bismarck. The British ship hits the Bismarck on the bow, then the latter hits the former on the bridge, killing all but two men there. Hit several more times, the Prince of Wales has to retreat.

Directly below the flaming wreckage of what once was the bridge is the chart room, where the navigating officer sees blood dripping from the voice pipe onto his chart. This scene is in Forester’s account (page 55 of the pdf), and it is reproduced in the film.

Proud of his victory over the Hood and the Prince of Wales, Lütjens wants to continue sailing in the Atlantic in search of more opportunities of Nazi glory. (His pride is shown in both the book [pdf pages 61-64] and the film.) Damage to the Bismarck, however, has caused an oil leak, and Lindemann wants to return to Germany for refuelling and repairs. Proud Lütjens won’t have it, though, and he’ll have news of his victory sent to Berlin; repairs and refuelling can be done in Nazi-occupied Brest instead.

Sad news of the destruction of the Hood is disseminated throughout the Allied press, including Murrow’s sombre report, contrasting with the proud, jubilant news of the same thing in the Nazi reporting. The film and book–the latter dramatizing the loss through the grieving mother of a seaman named Nobby (pdf page 59)–would have us commiserating with the British, and looking with sober eyes at the Nazi gloating; but since, as I’ve said above, it’s just one criminal empire fighting a criminal would-be empire, the opposition between both sides should be seen as a dialectical sublation, not a Manichaean dualism.

XI: Airplanes

Prinz Eugen breaks away, heading to Brest. Shepard is aware that his son, Tom, is going to be exposed to the danger because Force H, the Ark Royal and its Swordfish planes are being deployed to hunt the Bismarck. Shepard’s efforts to contain his emotions are being tested once again.

After evading the radar of the Suffolk and Norfolk, the Bismarck (located by Catalina flying boats) is to be slowed down by an air strike from the Swordfish torpedo bombers. Another fall of British pride comes when, not only do the airplanes mistakenly attack the Sheffield, thinking she’s the Bismarck, but also the torpedoes used have an unreliable magnetic detonator that tends to cause them to explode just after being dropped in the water (pdf page 107). If my lip-reading is at all reliable, the captain of the Sheffield (played by John Horsley), in annoyance with the friendly fire incident, seems to be saying, “Stupid fucking bastards,” the audio being out for obvious reasons.

Later, the Swordfish return with conventional contact exploders, and one of their torpedoes detonates near the stern, jamming the Bismarck‘s rudder, slowing her down, and making manoeuvring impossible. Undaunted in his stubborn pride, Lütjens tells his men (who in Forester’s book haven’t properly slept in days…no rest for the wicked!) not to lose heart, for U-boats will be coming to help soon (the Luftwaffe will come, too), and of course the Bismarck is, apparently, unsinkable. His pride is about to come crashing down with his ship.

Tom Shepard participates in the earlier airstrikes, and with them comes news of his momentary disappearance. Naturally, the boy’s father is shaken upon hearing the news, desperately trying to contain himself with that mask of stoicism. Shepard has been warming up to Davis, though, little by little; and he follows her advice about talking about his feelings.

XII: Feelings

He tells her his reason for refusing to acknowledge them: the death of his wife has made him believe the disavowal of his feelings will shield him from future hurt. But he forgot about his strong love for his son. Another strong feeling of his, pride, has been thwarted in his forced confrontation with that love.

When he finally learns that his son is alive and well from a phone call, he freezes and cannot answer. He is suspended between the stoic front he always puts on and the awesome wave of relief that has washed all over him. He steps out back to shed a few embarrassing tears, and Davis has noticed; but she’s too elegant a lady to let him know she’s seen him in such a vulnerable state. The film’s sympathy to Britain softens this fall of pride.

XIII: Sinking the Bismarck

The most brutal fall of pride, of course, is reserved for the men of the Bismarck, since it is the filmmaker’s (and Forester’s) intent to maximize the contrast between the UK and the Nazis, and therefore their respective falls of pride. Lütjens has received a telegram from Hitler saying that all of Germany is waiting to welcome him as their great hero. They, of course, will never receive him, since he will die, ironically, with the telegram on him.

The destruction and sinking of the Bismarck (finished off by Dorsetshire) is shown in all its brutality, with salvo after salvo hitting her and penetrating that thick armour, a man from King Charles V saying, “Shoot!” over and over again. We see Germans trying to rescue their wounded on a stretcher, then a shell hits the ship, throwing the men and making them drop the wounded. Men down below race in the rising, flooding water, trying to escape a drowning. Men open a top hatch only to find flames preventing their escape.

Now, Admiral Tovey is gracious enough to have the Dorsetshire rescue the German survivors, but one controversial historical detail left out of the film is how this ship quickly left after rescuing only 110 Germans, because a U-boat was suspected to have been in the area. The film must do all in its power to portray the British as well as possible, while doing a caricature of Nazi evil.

XIV: Shepard and Davis

The potential for a romance between widowed Shepard and Davis has been kindled in her preference to work for him over a job offer in the US. He asks her out to dinner, thinking it’s evening, when in fact it’s the morning, so they leave the Admiralty to have breakfast together instead. This minimizing of any romantic chemistry between them seems another example of stereotypical British stoicism, the affectation of virtuous self-control.

Shepard and Davis walk away in that same shot that introduced him, with the lion statue on the left and the flock of birds flying off to make way again for the hero who now gets the girl. It’s pride in would-be British superiority on display once again, in contrast to the Nazi pride that the imperialist British navy felt they had a right to judge.

XV: Conclusion

My point is that while Nazi Germany’s racism, brutality, and imperialism were blatant and obvious, the British version of these vices has been obscured in a cloak of ‘civilization.’ The conventional capitalism of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. is perceived by many as innocuous (thanks in large part to the propaganda of films like Sink the Bismarck!, which aim to glorify these countries), while only the authoritarianism of fascism is seen as cruel and barbaric.

Mainstream Western capitalism is, however, on a continuum with fascism, the latter not emerging until the hegemony of the former is threatened by socialism, the true opposite of both ideologies. The bourgeois liberal would have you believe that not only is his ideology opposed to Naziism, but that…an obscene comparison!…fascism and communism are somehow sister ideologies. The fighting between the British and Nazi navies in this film is supposed to represent the opposition between mainstream capitalism and fascism, when really the fighting only represents a competition between the imperialism of two countries. After all, competition is part of the core of capitalism, so inter-imperialist conflict is to be expected.

As for the absurd comparison of fascism and communism, a study of the far more significant fighting of WWII–that on the Eastern front, between the Nazis and Soviets, a bitter struggle that dwarfs that of the Western front–should clear up any confusion about where those two ideologies truly stand in relation to each other.

And as for the actual comparability of bourgeois liberal ‘democracy’ and fascism, consider a few quotes from the ever-maligned Stalin: “Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” (And social democracy is the most leftward-leaning of bourgeois liberalism; consider, therefore, how much closer to fascism the ‘centrism’ of the Clintons, Blair, Obama, Biden, and Macron are!)

To clarify the meaning of the above Stalin quote, consider this other one of his: “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.” The depredations of thirty years of post-Soviet neoliberalism have proven Stalin to have been prescient.

In sum, England’s defeat of the Nazi threat to her shipping routes was heroic and salvific only to her, not to the preservation of ‘democracy.’ It’s only natural that, when two empires collide, they fight. The British saw themselves as trying to better the lives of their own people; so did the Nazis with respect to Germany. None of this, however, is to the betterment of humanity in a global sense.

Indeed, the oppressed peoples outside of the Anglo-American world see the political situation quite differently. One doesn’t fight empire with empire (consider Operation Paperclip and the tensions that led to the building of the Berlin Wall to see how ex-Nazis continued to collude with the capitalist West); one fights–and defeats–it with anti-imperialism.

Analysis of ‘Waiting for Guffman’

Waiting for Guffman is a 1996 mockumentary comedy film, done in the tradition of such mockumentaries as This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest (who played Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap) and written by him and Eugene Levy. Both of them are in the ensemble cast, which also includes Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey.

The title of the film alludes to Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Though Guest and Levy wrote the story, the dialogue is mostly improvised, as it was in Spinal Tap and Best in Show. Waiting for Guffman, about people in a fictional Missouri town who want to put on a stage musical, includes a number of songs written by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (who, respectively, played David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap).

The film was well-received, and was even nominated for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

In terms of plot and character, there’s little to be compared between Guffman and Waiting for Godot; but the two do have a lot in common thematically. Both share themes of the philosophy of absurdism, of frustrated hopes (i.e., Guffman never shows up, either), and of the need to keep striving for value, meaning in life, and something better in spite of endless frustrations.

Absurdism grew out of philosophical existentialism (the atheistic kind in particular) and nihilism; it was given full form by Albert Camus in such books as The Myth of Sisyphus. We strive to find value and meaning in life, but in a cold, meaningless universe, such strivings are futile. Still, Camus insists, neither suicide nor religious faith can help us, for suicide only intensifies life’s absurdity, and religion–as an illusion–is philosophical suicide. Our only hope is to accept the absurdity of the human condition.

We may try to make our own meaning in life, as long as we understand that such constructions are fake and transient. The performers of the local town musical, Red, White, and Blaine (this last being the name of the town), are constructing just such a fake and transitory meaning, and they must learn to accept the vanity of what they’re doing.

Corky St. Clair (Guest)–a musical theatre director who, in spite of his blatantly stereotypically gay mannerisms, speaks of having a wife (“Bonnie”) no one has seen and for whom he buys “most of her clothes”–wants to stage a musical celebrating the town’s sesquicentennial. He also has hopes that Mort Guffman, a Broadway producer, will attend the performance, which, if good enough, may then be performed on Broadway.

There’s only one problem: while Corky and his group of amateur performers’ talent should suffice to charm the Blaine audience, they’re nowhere near good enough to make it on Broadway. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal.

The Blaine performers’ doomed aspirations are symbolic of the absurdity of the human condition in a cold, uncaring universe. Just as Godot (to Beckett’s dismay and annoyance) has been likened to God, and therefore the hope of Vladimir and Estragon, so is Guffman a saviour to these performers trapped in a dull town (i.e., “Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine”). Guffman, like Godot, or non-existent God, doesn’t care about these people, and so never arrives.

On a deeper, psychoanalytic level, Guffman–again, like Godot–represents what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object cause of desire, which arises from a sense of lack and which can never be satisfied, since one always wants more. Plus-de jouir is like surplus value: one never has enough.

All the people of Blaine feel that lack. They would love to be able to rise above the mediocrity they feel themselves trapped in. For Corky and his would-be actors, their liberation lies in Guffman. For the mayor (played by Larry Miller), rising above Blaine mediocrity is absurdly expressed as having people wait one or two seconds fewer for the weather to improve.

The average resident of Blaine hopes to see that rising-above in the musical’s glorifying of their humdrum town, a glorification based on myth-making that is “a tall tale that grows taller with each passing year.” This myths are collected by a town historian (played by Don Lake) who tells of Blaine Fabin, the founder of the city who is given a heroic status, when really his incompetence led his fellow settlers to mistake “salt in the air” for that of the Pacific Ocean; they settled in Missouri, originally thinking they were in California.

Gwen Fabin-Blunt (played by Deborah Theaker), a councilwoman for the town and descendant of Blaine Fabin, imagines her family’s historical importance comparable to that of the Kennedys. The town is proud of being “The Stool Capital of the World,” seemingly unaware of the other, more embarrassing meaning of stool. A supposed close encounter of the third kind adds excitement to the town mythology. All of these exaggerations, if not fabrications, represent yet again a doomed wish to add value and meaning to a dull, vain existence.

Apart from his pretensions as an “off-off-off-off Broadway” man, Corky makes pathetic attempts at keeping up appearances as not only straight, but outright macho. He speaks of having wanted to be “a construction worker” when he first arrived in Blaine after living in New York for many years. Later, he speaks of having left the navy. His playing of the manly characters in the musical, all without hiding any of his stereotypically gay mannerisms, comically epitomizes this absurd contradiction between the Corky he’d like to be seen as and the real Corky.

Ron and Sheila Albertson (Willard and O’Hara) ought to be content as travel agents who not only act in Corky’s productions but are also seen as local celebrities (or at least see themselves as such), but their plus-de jouir pushes their ambitious selves to fantasize about Hollywood. Ron is particularly narcissistic, imagining his impressions to be spot-on when he has to tell you who he’s aping; elsewhere, he fancies himself to have the potential to be a football or baseball star. Brando didn’t like memorizing his lines any more than Ron does, but at least the former had genuine talent as an actor.

Dr. Allan Pearl (Levy) is a nerdy dentist who fancies himself an actor, singer, and comedian. He rationalizes his delusions of talent by recalling his grandfather’s work in the Yiddish theatre of New York, and imagining this talent is in the family blood. Allan wasn’t the class clown as a kid in school, but he sat next to and studied him. Like Ron, Dr. Pearl mistakenly thinks he does good impressions.

Libby Mae Brown (Posey) is a cute and charming but rather dim-witted girl who works at the Dairy Queen. In spite of her doing a deliberately provocative audition in what seems an attempt to get a part in the musical the…erm…easy way, Libby is actually one of the only ones in the cast (along with narrator Clifford Wooley, played by Lewis Arquette) with more than a modicum of talent. A deleted scene shows an alternate audition in which she acts out, in a monologue, a visit to her dying brother in hospital, a scene combining wish-fulfillment with the disturbing suggestion of autobiographical content.

Other deleted scenes suggest, if not explicitly indicate, that not only is the Albertsons’ marriage failing, but so is that of Dr. Pearl’s with his wife (played by Linda Kash). Such disintegrating marriages, deemed too “dark” to be shown in the film, also suggest another connection with Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir and Estragon, whom some analysts of the play speculate to be a gay couple (as I did when I studied it in university), are also a couple in danger of breaking up. Of course, their conjectured homosexuality connects Godot with Guffman via Corky’s more-than-probable homosexuality.

Other discontented characters in Waiting for Guffman include Lloyd Miller (played by Bob Balaban), the local high school music teacher who normally does musical productions for the town. He has been upstaged by Corky for Red, White, and Blaine, and Corky’s disorganized, undisciplined methods of preparing his performers is especially irksome for Miller; this has all put Miller’s nose out of joint. Elsewhere, a councilman named Stave Stark (played by Michael Hitchcock) would love to have a role in the musical, but hasn’t a prayer of getting in; he also seems to have gay cravings for Corky.

One irony about Waiting for Guffman, in regards to Camus’s philosophy about the ‘absurd man,’ is how the Albertsons, Dr. Pearl, Brown, and Wooley are actors in the musical, one of Camus’s examples of how the absurd man can revolt against the meaninglessness of life, and live with passion for the present moment. Still, our actors, spurred on by Corky’s ambitious promise of a shot at Broadway when he tells them Mort Guffman will watch the performance, have their hopes of becoming stars raised through the roof.

They all should just content themselves with doing the best show they can, shrugging off their mistakes with a few humble chuckles. But Corky’s pride pushes himself and his actors into imagining there’s a greater significance to their musical dramatization of a drab, forgettable town, and in doing so, he sets them all up for a huge disappointment.

All the errors we see during the auditions, the rehearsals, and the final performance symbolize the absurdity of the human condition, a literal theatre of the absurd. Everyone hopes to present a great show of dramatic or musical art, but instead we get half-realized vocals, an infelicitously chosen scene–delivered with minimal emotion–from Raging Bull, Sheila Albertson’s grating voice, and spastic Dr. Pearl.

The only member of the cast with the humility to admit he isn’t much of an actor is Johnny Savage (played by Matt Keeslar), a young auto mechanic who shows no real commitment to the musical, but who Corky hopes will play the masculine roles that, due to Savage’s last-minute quitting, Corky will have to play himself. Savage’s good looks are obviously the only reason would-be seducer Corky wants him in the play. Again, Corky’s doomed hopes at wooing Savage (e.g., giving him his phone number, the homophobic scowls of suspicion Savage’s father [played by Brian Doyle-Murray] gives Corky) reflect once again the recurring theme of failure in the film.

Neither Savage nor his father are keen on the play, but in a deleted scene showing a visit Corky makes to the Savages’ home, the boy’s mom (played by Frances Fisher) has high hopes for him, pretentiously saying he could be “the next Keanu Reeve” before realizing she needs to add an s. Again, we see the absurdity of trying to rise higher.

Corky tries to rise higher by asking the mayor and city council for $100,000, which is a sum the city can’t hope even to approach raising. His absurd fantasy of using this money to turn a humble, local theatre production into a Broadway extravaganza again symbolizes how we can’t endow vain life with value and meaning; instead, we should live in the moment, enjoy what we can, and not expect our efforts to endure on any cosmic scale. Corky should just put on a humble musical, and have fun doing it. Instead, he quits.

Now Miller thinks he has his chance to take over the production and discipline the cast into acting and singing on a competent level. No sooner does he tell them it’s his show than they all rush out to find Corky and get him back. As they cheer and applaud his return, him grinning from all the love they’re giving him, we see in the background a very short and very pissed-off Miller. Once again, hopes to be something better are quickly smashed up.

At the beginning of the performance, however, Miller conducts his low-budget orchestra (i.e., the horn and violin players double on percussion) to play the overture–with his comically eccentric baton movements–and at the end of it, he smiles at the applause he hears. He has lived in the moment and has enjoyed the success, however modest, of his accomplishment.

The overture opens with the clarinet playing a theme from “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine/on Mars,” a chromatic rising and falling of five notes, from (in relation to the tonic) the perfect fifth to the major seventh, then back down. After this, a sentimental theme leads to a cowboy/Western pastiche, complete with cowbells, suggesting the first scene with the covered wagons. Then, there’s the theme to “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” which merges into that of “This Bulging River” (a deleted number).

There’s a fear that Guffman won’t show, since the seat reserved for him, at the front-centre of the audience, is the only unoccupied seat. Corky reassures his cast that “these New York types like to come late.” A man does occupy the seat early on in the play, and it’s assumed that he is Guffman. This assumption, carried right to the end of the performance, adds a tension to the film that doesn’t exist (to the same extent, at least) in Waiting for Godot, in which Pozzo is only briefly mistaken for Godot…twice.

By the climactic ending of the overture, it feels as if it’s been going on for hours (the passages of it alternating with the cast frantically getting their costumes on). It ends with the trumpeter banging on a kettledrum while he holds a high note on his horn. In any case, Miller is satisfied.

Wooley begins the show as the narrator, first gabbing about the delicious beans he’s eating at a campfire. It seems fitting that the “tall tale” he’s about to tell be introduced with talk of the flatulence-producing food he so enjoys.

Similarly fitting is Dr. Pearl’s portrayal of Blaine Fabin, whose “keen and perceptive eyes” couldn’t tell the difference between California and Missouri. Because his prescription glasses are anachronistic in the time period of Blaine, Pearl isn’t allowed to wear them for this scene, though he needs them to correct his lazy eye; so his cross-eyed awkwardness parallels Blaine’s incompetence perfectly.

While the Albersons vainly imagine themselves, through their experience, to be far more competent and professional than Pearl (to the point of Ron often teasing and baiting Pearl), we immediately see from the very first scene how amateurish the couple’s acting really is. They seem focused on just saying their lines correctly, while showing only superficial emotion–there’s no sense of either of them digging down into the depths of the characters they play.

“Stool Boom” offers the musical’s attempt at a Broadway-style number. Here again we see the comically discordant contrast between the ambitious aspirations of Corky et al and the banal subject matter of manufacturing stools. Add to this the embarrassing double meaning of stool, emphasized in “stool boom,” reminding us perhaps of the after-effects of eating the narrator’s beans. It all reminds us of what bullshit…and Blaine-shit…this musical really is, emphasized again by how the song lyrics have an excess of rhymes for stool.

Tension is maintained throughout when the man in the reserved seat (played by Paul Benedict)–presumed to be Mort Guffman, recall–watches the musical with a stolid expression at first, and only later is smiling.

Now, I’ve discussed the musical largely in terms of how inept it is; but there’s one moment in it that is actually quite touching, and that is the song “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” Musically, it’s very sweet. Guest and Levy were right to have the performance, in spite of its many comical flaws, not be a total disaster. Tension is further created in moments like the singing of this song, with the thoroughly acceptable execution of Brown’s dance moves, raising hopes that the presumed Guffman will like the show and offer the cast a shot at Broadway.

Another interesting point about this song is how, in its idealization of love and marriage, it contrasts with the reality of such disappointing marriages as those of the Albertsons and the Pearls. Pearl’s wife is deeply moved by the song…presumably because she secretly knows her marriage with Allan isn’t so ideal. Recall also the irony of how, during the song, we cut to Sheila in the dressing room helping Ron with his hair, while he has no intention of helping her with hers.

Far more of the improvisations filmed were excluded from the movie’s final cut than were included. (I’d love to find a DVD including every improvisation! Please let me know in the comments if one has been released.) This cutting out of scenes, of course, was unavoidable, for the sake of pacing.

One part that I wish had been included, though, was the song “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine” (which is heard in the final credits, seen in the DVD ‘deleted scenes’ section, and discussed in a rehearsal scene with Miller teaching half the singers to sing “Blay,” while the other half sings “Blaine,” and one half sings “say,” while the other half sings “same”). It’s a short number that flows effortlessly into “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars.” The excluded song is also the only one–a small island, as it were, in a sea of songs glorifying Blaine to excess–that is actually honest about how dull and inconsequential the small town is. With the “Mars” variation, Blainians can save face knowing their boring home isn’t the only one.

Wooley the narrator ends the performance with a series of tired clichés about Blaine’s ups and downs, looking back into the past and ahead to the future, and to top it all off, with a cheap appeal to American patriotism. We narcissistically tend to identify with where we came from, by accident of birth.

After the performance comes the moment of truth. Corky goes up to “Guffman” and, after admitting to the rough spots in the performance, asks him point blank if they have a shot to go to Broadway, to which the man answers in the affirmative, to Corky’s relief and delight. The tension of hope builds when Corky introduces “Guffman” to the cast, who are all thrilled and honoured to meet him.

When he, however, tells them his name is Roy Loomis, and that he is visiting Blaine to witness the birth of his niece’s baby, Corky and the cast are crushed. Corky is given a telegram saying Guffman’s plane was grounded by snowstorms in New York. (Was this a made-up excuse for not coming? I wonder.)

As is generally the case for humanity, the cast’s hopes for significance in the world have been frustrated. The absurdity of the contradiction between the human search for meaning, value, and significance on the one hand, and the cold, uncaring, and meaningless universe on the other, is symbolized by the cast’s futile, though painstaking, efforts. The other hopelessly unfulfillable desire is that of the Other, as Lacan called it, to be recognized by the Other, to be desired by the Other. The cast wanted Guffman to want them, and he didn’t return the feeling.

Film critic Mark Kermode has noted how Waiting for Guffman “skates a very thin line between comedy and cruelty.” Like Waiting for Godot, the film is, properly understood, a tragi-comedy. Though the especially dark improvisations were cut from the film, we are as heartbroken as the cast is to have seen their hopes raised so high, and then brought crashing down so cruelly. For as inept as these characters are, we do care for them and hope they’ll succeed.

Their hopes have been dashed, but some of them keep hoping for at least some level of significance; for such is the human condition, to keep needing to find significance and value in a meaningless, uncaring universe. We see the absurdity of their attempts in some final scenes three months after the performance.

Brown is in a Dairy Queen in Alabama, where she’s moved after her father was paroled. Her ambition is to create a healthy…low-fat…Blizzard. Pearl is singing and telling unfunny jokes to retired Jewish seniors in Miami; he still has his dental practice (see the deleted scene), for that’s how microscopic his chances are of making any money as an entertainer, despite his delusions of talent. The Albertsons still dream of Hollywood stardom, but having moved to LA, they can only find work as extras.

Corky is back in New York, where he not only imagines he has a chance to play ‘Enry ‘Iggins from My Fair Lady, but has also opened up a Hollywood-themed novelty shop. Here, he’s selling such eccentric items as Brat Pack bobblehead dolls (We see ones of Anthony Michael Hall and Andrew McCarthy.).

Of particular interest, in terms of their comical relation to philosophical absurdism, are Corky’s My Dinner With Andre action figures and his Remains of the Day lunchboxes. What could possibly be more ineffectual than action figures (usually used by kids to act out movie fight scenes) of two men who spend the entire film just sitting at a restaurant table and chatting about philosophical matters?

My mistake–there is one thing more ineffectual: lunchboxes, which “the kids are just having such a good time with,” based on an extremely sad movie about an emotionally repressed British butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a housekeeper (Emma Thompson) who cannot hope to have a relationship due to his excessive preoccupation with rules, decorum, and the perfect fulfillment of his duties as a server…and his later regret at applying this devotion to a master with Nazi sympathies.

I have serious doubts that anyone other than Corky thinks the items of his store have any appeal. Still, he tries and hopes to find value and meaning in his life, as the other former cast members do. That’s all anyone can do in a meaningless universe, to find meaning in it, however futile that search may be. I’ve made my own attempts at it, with wavy ideas that rise into crests of only temporary validity, then sink into troughs of invalidity…or put another way, that are a serpent‘s biting head of wisdom and bitten tail of folly.

Let’s stop it.

We can’t.

Why not?

We’re waiting for Guffman.