Analysis of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

I: Introduction

The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 children’s fantasy musical movie produced by MGM and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the 1900 children’s fantasy story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. The film stars Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton; it costars Frank Morgan and Billie Burke.

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, The Wizard of Oz features Garland’s immortal performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which one the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the film is characterized by its use of Technicolor (in Oz), which contrasts sharply with the black-and-white beginning and ending (in Kansas).

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here. Here’s a link to a PDF of Baum’s book. I’ll be comparing the film with the book throughout. [NOTE: whenever I cite or quote from Baum or cite other PDFs here, I’m using the page numbers from the ‘paper’ copied in the PDFs, not the PDF page numberings.]

II: Preliminary Remarks

What is particularly interesting about the film and Baum’s book is how one can find political allegories in it, even though Baum never indicated any allegorical intent in his story; he insisted that it was meant just to entertain children. Still, a number of attempts have been made over the years to find an allegory in it.

One well-known allegory is that of historian Henry Littlefield, who saw in such things as Dorothy‘s silver shoes a symbol of bimetallism and the freeing of silver from what was felt by some in the US in the 1890s as the tyranny of the gold standard. Certainly this was the feeling of William Jennings Bryan, who famously spoke of the issue in his rousing “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 DNC. According to this allegory, the Cowardly Lion is supposed to be a satiric take on Bryan, since Baum didn’t sympathize with his position; though I see at best a tenuous connection between the character and the politician, and this is after reading Baum’s book, Littlefield’s allegory, and Bryan’s speech from beginning to end.

Indeed, though Littlefield’s allegory has its supporters, it’s far from universally accepted. While I agree that the Scarecrow represents the American farmer, or perhaps more generally peasant farmers (as does the sickle), and the Tin Woodman represents the industrial proletariat (as does the hammer), having the Lion represent Bryan seems wildly inconsistent in relation to the previous two. Surely the Lion should represent something properly paralleling them (more on that later).

In any case, however one judges the validity of Littlefield’s allegory, surely people today, as well as those who saw the film’s premiere in 1939, will find the bimetallist allegory not something they can identify with. People in the late thirties surely were more concerned with the Great Depression and the rise of fascism than they were with ‘freeing silver.’ And I think people today are more worried about the current economic crisis and resurgence of fascism than they are with bimetallism.

So, what can the film and book mean for us today, regardless of whether or not Baum and the film’s screenwriters consciously intended such a meaning? I’d like to propose such an allegory.

I see The Wizard of Oz, in its book and movie forms, as an allegory of class struggle. In fact, the bimetallism allegory, especially as advocated by Bryan in his “Cross of Gold” speech, dovetails with my interpretation beautifully (though not in the ironic, satirical sense in which Littlefield imagines Baum’s meaning), because for Bryan, the freeing of silver coinage was for the benefit of American farmers (i.e., helping them pay off their debts), and for the good of the common man. Bryan was known for his sympathy for the common worker, and in his speech, he spoke of the wage-earner as being “as much a businessman as his employer.”

Now, Baum vigorously supported the suffragette movement, and he was pro-worker, as seen in the sympathetic portrayal of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and in his vivid description of the plight of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in their harsh farming life at the beginning of the story, representative of the harsh life of American farmers that Baum saw all around him in the Midwest in the late 19th century. One despicable thing about Baum, though, is how he advocated, in two editorials, the extermination of the Native Americans; but apart from this one egregious blot on him, Baum could be deemed to have been sufficiently progressive for his time to justify my interpretation of his story.

III: Grey Kansas

The filming of Kansas in sepia-toned black and white is appropriate, given Baum’s description of the farm of Dorothy Gale (Garland) as predominantly grey. Baum’s story introduces the cyclone almost immediately after a brief description of the dull, grey, and difficult farm life, and how such difficulties have dulled even the original beauty of her Auntie Em (played by Clara Blandick), and made her Uncle Henry (played by Charley Grapewin) never laugh, as Auntie Em never smiled.

The film, however, expands the opening Kansas sequence to include characters who are doubles of many of those we later see in Oz: Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton), Hunk/the Scarecrow (Bolger), Hickory/the Tin Woodman (Haley), Zeke/the Cowardly Lion (Lahr), and Professor Marvel/Gatekeeper/Carriage Driver/Guard/Wizard of Oz (Morgan).

The fact that the three farmhands–three workers in the employ of Dorothy’s aunt and uncle–are doubles of her three “comrades” (Baum’s word) reinforce my interpretation that these three all represent members of the working poor…including the Lion.

Dorothy complains to her aunt and uncle about Miss Gulch wanting to take away her dog, Toto (played by Terry), and have him killed. Her aunt and uncle, too busy and stressed with their work on the farm, don’t have time to deal with her problems. When she tries to talk about Miss Gulch and Toto with the three farmhands, they have little time to listen, either. In this poor communication, due to the urgency of work, we see an example of alienation, which divides not only workers, but also families.

As so many of us do in the capitalist world, Dorothy dreams of the possibility of a better world, one “Over the Rainbow.” The lyrics of the song were written by socialist Yip Harburg, who got blacklisted even though he was no member of a communist party.

When mean Miss Gulch comes to the farm and demands to have Toto, having the law behind her, we learn also that she owns quite a stretch of land (Auntie Em says Gulch owns “half the county”). Her ownership of private property thus makes her a capitalist; since she’s a double of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gulch thus reinforces the witch’s tyranny over the Winkies as symbolic of capitalist imperialism, something by extension seen in the witch’s sister (according to the film), the Wicked Witch of the East, and her imperialist oppression of the Munchkins.

Gulch takes Toto away in a basket on her bicycle, but the dog jumps out and returns to Dorothy. To protect Toto, she feels she must run away. She meets Professor Marvel, a fortune teller who has apparently been to all kinds of wonderful places in the world; she’d love to accompany him on his travels.

He uses his crystal ball to make her believe that her Auntie Em is heartbroken over her running away, so she decides to go back. She manages to get back home by the time the cyclone comes. The cyclone represents the turbulent winds of revolution, which tear up the old order to make way for a new one. Back in the house and carried up in the eye of the cyclone, Dorothy is knocked unconscious and begins to dream.

IV: Landing in Oz

Since dreams are, as Freud noted, a royal road (a yellow-brick one, by chance?) to an understanding of the unconscious, we can see her experience of the Land of Oz as, on one level, symbolic of the experience of the world as felt by the unconscious mind, which tends to mishmash things together (for example, Melanie Klein, in The Psychoanalysis of Children, wrote of how a baby’s unconscious will think of milk, urine, and other liquids as identical). Hence, Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West, and the three farmhands are the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion.

Oz, too, is of course a fantastical version of the real world Dorothy and Toto have come from. It may be bright, colourful, and beautiful, but Oz is far from utopian…at least in Baum’s first Oz book. The Munchkins and Winkies are enslaved and oppressed by the wicked witches, and “the wonderful wizard of Oz” is no less a phoney than your average politician.

When Dorothy steps out of her house and into the colourful Land of Oz, she may have a feeling she’s not in Kansas anymore, but her going “over the rainbow” hasn’t landed her in an ideal world. Her house’s having dropped on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the Munchkins and giving them cause to celebrate through the song “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead,” is only the beginning of the revolutionary change needed to liberate all of Oz. Crushing the old, oppressive institutions isn’t enough; one has to build new ones.

Who does the Wicked Witch of the East represent? Baum, having published his story in 1900, obviously never intended her to represent the evils of Eastern feudalism in, say, tsarist Russia or pre-republican China, which weren’t to end until one to two decades afterward. But the 1939 film was made long after those revolutionary changes, and in any case, we today can think of her as, on one level, symbolizing such old forms of tyranny if we wish, since such a retrospective interpretation will resonate far better with our generations than a preoccupation with free silver.

Art isn’t mathematics, in which an equation has only one correct answer and an infinitude of wrong answers. Meaning in art and literature is much more fluid, allowing a multiplicity of possible interpretations, however idiosyncratic some of them may be. When interpreting the meaning of a film, a book, a poem, or a myth, insisting on only one ‘correct’ meaning ruins the enjoyment of that art form, because such an insistence ossifies that art form. If the ‘correct’ interpretation has been established, why interpret that work of art any further? Just stick with Littlefield et al, and inquire no further. Now, if you like those old opinions of what Baum’s book means, you’re entitled to your opinion, and that’s fine. But please allow others to look at it in other ways if they wish; as long as a reasonable case can be made to support one’s interpretation, however eccentric it may be, it can be deemed ‘correct’ enough.

V: The Witches

As for the witches–who represent heads of state, or in the case of the wicked ones, represent colonizers and imperial rulers of the lands of others–Baum doesn’t develop them much in this first Oz book. We briefly see the Good Witch of the North among the Munchkins, the Wicked Witch of the West is encountered only when Dorothy et al enter the land of the Winkies, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, is seen only towards the end of the story.

To unify the story more in the film version, the Good Witch of the North (Burke) is a composite of the northern and southern witches; hence, she’s Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. And the Wicked Witch of the West is introduced in the land of the Munchkins, being the sister of the dead Witch of the East; we see much more of her in the film, too, since she’s the central villain.

Since the Glinda of the film combines the witches of the north and south, we naturally see more of her, too. An interesting theory about the film Glinda suggests she isn’t as good as she seems to be. Why doesn’t she simply tell Dorothy she can go home with the now-ruby slippers? At the end of the film, she says that Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her if she’d told her at the beginning, and that the little girl must learn for her self that she’s always had the power to use them to take her home…only Dorothy doesn’t learn it for herself. Glinda tells her at the end just as much as she could have told her earlier, and why would Dorothy believe her any more now than at the beginning?

It could be that Glinda’s all-too-saccharine, grinning goodness, bordering on–if not lapsing into–artificiality, is actually a cunning disguise meant to manipulate Dorothy into destroying the Wicked Witch of the West and getting rid of the Wizard of Oz. Since the Witch of the East is already killed, and the film’s Glinda is both the northern and southern witches, the success of her cunning plan would leave her the only one to rule all of Oz.

VI: Oz in Ounces

The only reason Oz seems to be such a sweet and beautiful place is because it is seen as such through the innocent eyes of a naïve little girl. But a world ruled by imperialistic witches, where people have a preoccupation with precious materials like gold (symbolized by the yellow brick road; then there’s the golden cap that commands the Winged Monkeys), silver and/or rubies (Dorothy’s shoes), and emeralds, is obviously a world symbolic of capitalism. Indeed, “Oz” has been interpreted to mean ounces (i.e., oz. of gold or silver).

To many Americans, whose political naïveté is comparable to ingenue Dorothy, “capitalism is freedom” (please refer to my many a debunking of the myth of the “free market”). Dorothy’s silver/ruby slippers taking her back to dreary, grey Kansas can be seen to reflect the disillusion one has when one wakes up from the slumber of the “American dream,” that if one works hard enough, one can become a millionaire, instead of realizing that one tends to stay in one’s social class of birth. Though she’s genuinely happy to be with her family again (which is ultimately what matters), her loss of the shoes during the trip back is symbolic of how the dream of striking it rich is an illusion.

So Dorothy, wearing silver or ruby slippers and travelling down a yellow brick road (yellow being symbolic of gold, as I mentioned above) towards the Emerald City can be seen to represent the dreams of the petite bourgeoisie of finding wealth and financial success. If, in my interpretation, the death of the Wicked Witch of the East represents the end of feudalism (i.e., such upheavals as the French Revolution, a western revolution, but east enough relative to the US), then the appearance of the Witch of the West among the Munchkins, with her coveting of now-Dorothy’s ruby slippers, can represent the advent of capitalism, and the imperialism that has grown from it.

Dorothy’s travels down the yellow brick road, crossing farmlands with lots of rich crops and food (Baum, chapter 3, page 33), are a sharp contrast with the grey farmland of Kansas and the struggles Henry and Em are having, a major issue with late 19th century American farmers. Still, this abundance of food is only one part of Oz; later on, Dorothy will find it difficult to find food (Baum, chapter 4, page 44; chapter 5, pages 54 and 61; chapter 7, page 75). Baum’s Oz is a kind of Spenserian bower of bliss, where what initially seems pleasurable is hiding potent evils to be discovered soon enough. The film’s use of studio sets and matte paintings are useful in reinforcing the sense of unreality in Oz.

VII: The Scarecrow and the Tin Man

Soon, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, and learns that because his head is stuffed with straw, he must be lacking a brain. In Baum’s story, he says he doesn’t know anything (chapter 3, page 38)…but how does he know that he doesn’t know anything? He has a brain…he just doesn’t realize that he has one.

He represents the rural, uneducated farmer; I’d expand that by saying he also represents peasants. Such people are often perceived to be the ‘country bumpkin.’ Half of the problem of how to improve the lives of these impoverished people is to get them to see how capable they really are, something the ruling class doesn’t want them to see. They need confidence in their abilities.

Mao Zedong had great faith in the Chinese peasants, and he gave them the confidence they needed to help him fight the Japanese imperialists during their protracted war in the 1930s. When the CPC took control of China, they went through some rough moments, to be sure (though nowhere near as bad as the right-wing propagandists have portrayed those problems); but now China has grown from a Third World country to an economic rival of the US…all in a mere forty years.

The Scarecrow will go with Dorothy to ask the Wizard of Oz, who represents the consummate politician who is all talk and promises that are rarely kept, for a brain. The two continue down the yellow brick road and into a forest where they find the Tin Woodman, all rusted from head to foot after a rainfall. They use his oilcan to oil his joints so he can move again. We learn he hasn’t got a heart…though he’s sensitive enough to have three.

His body is made of tin, as we learn from Baum’s book (chapter 5, page 59), because the Witch of the East cursed his axe. Whenever he swung it to chop wood, he’d chop off a body part, which the local tinsmith would replace with one of tin; but none of these replaced body parts, now comprising all of him, would include a heart, or so the Tin Man imagines.

He represents the industrial worker, especially that of the eastern United States of the late 19th century, since it’s the Witch of the East, here representing the ruling class of the American east, who has cursed him with endless workplace injuries and a sense of dehumanization, resulting in his belief that he has lost his heart. He’ll join the others on their trip to see the wizard.

VIII: The Cowardly Lion

Deeper into the forest, into a darker and scarier part of it, they run into the Lion, who attacks the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. When the Lion tries to attack Toto, Dorothy slaps him and shames him for his bullying. The Lion weeps like a baby, and we learn that he, apparently, lacks courage…though how could a cowardly lion have the guts to attack two men, one of them holding an axe?

As those of us familiar with the usual allegorizing of this story know, the Cowardly Lion is supposed to represent William Jennings Bryan. I must respectfully disagree with this interpretation, as I see the connection between the two to be far too vague to be convincing. Littlefield (pages 53-54), whose use of the story material is rather selective, bases much of his interpretation on this passage (chapter 6, page 66): “With one blow of his paw he sent the Scarecrow spinning over and over to the edge of the road, and then he struck at the Tin Woodman with his sharp claws. But, to the Lion’s surprise, he could make no impression on the tin, although the Woodman fell over in the road and lay still.”

The Lion’s claws’ failure to make an impression on the Woodman’s tin, according to Littlefield, represents Bryan’s failure (i.e., his 1896 loss to McKinley) to make an impression on the industrial labourers of the eastern US, whom the Tin Man represents in Littlefield’s allegory (i.e., the Witch of the East’s curse on him, or the workers of the East pressured into voting for McKinley and the gold standard by their bosses). Now, I can see how the above quote can represent Bryan’s failure to gain the votes of eastern workers…but must it represent this?

Furthermore, aspects of this passage, among others, can be seen to run counter to Littlefield’s interpretation. The Lion attacks the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman: did Bryan attack farmers and industrial labourers during the 1896 election campaign? What’s more, did Bryan mistakenly believe himself to be a coward? Many pro-imperialists might have mistaken Bryan’s pacifism and anti-imperialism for cowardice, but that doesn’t necessitate his own confusion of his virtues with being craven.

Later in Baum‘s story, on the way to visit the Good Witch of the South, Dorothy, Toto, and her three comrades enter a forest where the Lion has to rescue the local animals from a giant, spider-like monster (chapter 21, page 239). As a reward for killing the monster, the Lion is made King of the Forest, which Littlefield interprets as Bryan ruling over “lesser politicians” (page 58–lesser, that is, in relation to the greater kingdoms of the Emerald City, ruled by the Scarecrow after the wizard leaves, and of the Winkies, ruled by the Tin Woodman after the killing of the Witch of the West).

Bryan lost three presidential elections, twice to McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and once to Taft in 1908; eventually, Bryan would be Secretary of State to Wilson in 1912, from which he, as a pacifist and anti-imperialist, would resign in 1915 in protest against the prospect of American involvement in WWI. Who were these “lesser politicians” that never-elected Bryan ruled over? Are the animals the Lion is ruling over “lesser” just because they’re animals? The people of the Emerald City and the Winkies are ruled over by men (of sorts, anyway); the animals are ruled over by an animal. Proportionally speaking, there are no ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ politicians. If the Lion, based on Littlefield’s reasoning, is Bryan, is the Scarecrow, ruler of ‘greater’ politicians, McKinley?

My point is that we can accept Littlefield’s interpretation if we want to; but we are by no means compelled to. If you want to find a work of literature with a character indubitably representing Bryan, look no further than Inherit the Wind (i.e., Matthew Harrison Brady), which is an explicitly fictionalized account of the Scopes monkey trial.

IX: An Alternative Interpretation of the Lion

I just find it out of place that three clearly paralleled characters don’t have equally paralleled symbolisms. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion: the first two represent different sections of the working class, while the third apparently doesn’t represent workers, but rather a politician. To be sure, Bryan championed the working class, but originally trained as a lawyer, he wasn’t one of them.

I find it more fitting to see the Lion, as lacking in confidence in his abilities as the other two, as also representing workers. Now, the Scarecrow represents the farmers and peasants, and the Tin Woodman represents the industrial proletariat: which workers, then, would the Lion represent?

I see the Lion as, dialectically, a synthesis, or sublation, of the former two. The Scarecrow lacks a brain (supposedly), and the Tin Woodman lacks a heart (supposedly). The two have a brief debate (chapter 5, page 61) over which organ is more valuable: the brain (reason) and the heart (emotions) are often seen as dialectical opposites (thesis and antithesis). Courage requires both brains and a heart.

Having the heart to run into danger without the brains to determine if it’s wise to face that danger doesn’t make one brave–it makes one stupid and reckless. Having the brains to recognize a danger without the heart to face it doesn’t make one a coward–it makes one wise and cautious. Sometimes people are too afraid to face danger because they have acquired the freeze trauma response.

Lacking both the brains and the heart to face dangers could be interpreted as cowardice in the sense that one has neither the heart to be brave nor the brains (i.e., the common sense) to tell the difference between dangers worth facing and those not worth facing. The lack of brains factor could also be interpreted as a lacking of the mental willpower needed to control one’s fear, since such a control is what courage is all about.

More important than any of the above, however, is the fact that, of course, none of these three characters lacks the virtue he thinks he lacks. The Scarecrow simply lacks confidence in his intellectual abilities; the Tin Woodman lacks confidence in his sensitivity and ability to be kind and loving; and the Lion lacks confidence in his…confidence!

After all, cowardice at its core is caused by a lack of self-confidence; and this is why the Lion is best understood as a combination of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. He embodies being scared when he doesn’t need to be. Like the other two, his real lack is that of confidence, hence as an embodiment of the lack of self-confidence, the Lion is the synthesis of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. And since all three of them, in my interpretation, represent the urban and rural working class, their central problem is their lack of self-confidence; having this confidence is what they need to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

The Lion also combines other aspects of the first two. Like the Scarecrow, he’s supposed to be scary, but feels he can’t be. Like the Tin Woodman with his sharp axe, the Lion has sharp claws and teeth.

His attacking of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman makes sense in a way that Littlefield’s allegorizing of him doesn’t: as a symbol of another worker, the Lion attacks the other two symbols of workers because of a problem that’s common in the capitalist world–worker alienation leading to a lack of solidarity. Soon enough, though, the Lion will become a friend to Dorothy et al, and their new solidarity will lead to their ultimately getting what they want…the same way worker solidarity will lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

X: The Poppy Field and the Emerald City

They get out of the forest, and in the film, they can see the Emerald City (fittingly, a matte painting that as such emphasizes the city’s illusory, fake nature) in the distance. A field of poppies, the scent of which puts the smeller to sleep, lies in their way.

They all run through the field, only to find Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion falling asleep. Now, the Emerald City can be seen to represent America, “the land of opportunity,” or by extension, the First World, as opposed to the forest they’ve just come out of, which in its scarcity of food for Dorothy and Toto, can be seen to symbolize the Third World.

Seeing the Emerald City, and believing that, being there, one can realize one’s hopes and aspirations, is to dream the American dream: one has to be asleep to believe it, as George Carlin once said. Hence, the poppies. Such frustrated hopes would have been as true of late 19th century American farmers as they are of most of us today.

If one wishes to make one’s allegory of Baum’s story specific to late 19th century America, one needn’t be preoccupied solely with the gold vs. silver controversies of the 1890s. One need simply consider the wealth inequality of the Gilded Age: an outer patina of economic prosperity (the Emerald City) hiding abject poverty (the want of food in the forest for Dorothy and Toto).

In Baum’s story, Dorothy et al must wear glasses to protect their eyes from the blinding gleam of the ubiquitous emeralds of the city (chapter 11, page 121). We later learn that the glasses make them see green and emeralds everywhere, when in fact there is none of either (chapter 15, pages 187-188). These glasses are the reverse of those worn by Nada (Roddy Piper) in They Live. Instead of revealing that our normal lives are a capitalist illusion, the green glasses provide that illusion.

The illusion of shiny, green emeralds is symbolic of American greenbacks, the illusion of money as an exchange-value for other commodities. The Wizard of Oz, representing the politician whose promises are never kept, and who represents the interests of capital, has fittingly had the Emerald City built for him to hide in, protected from the witches, protected from his own people, and protected from reality.

XI: The Wizard

In the film, we see Dorothy et al merrily prettied up to see the wizard; this beautifying is symbolic of how all of us in society must falsify our appearance to be ‘presentable,’ just as the wizard falsifies his own image. Frank Morgan plays not only the wizard, but the gatekeeper, the guard, and the carriage driver: it’s as if we were already aware that the wizard is no wizard, but is just an ordinary man.

The merry song of Dorothy et al getting prettied up, then being interrupted by the threat of the Wicked Witch of the West, who represents Western capitalism, indicates perfectly how the Gilded Age, as symbolized by the Emerald City, is at first all deceptively merry, then the ugly truth displays itself…in a form equally green (i.e., the witch’s skin), the ugly side of money.

When Dorothy et al finally meet the wizard, he presents phoney images of himself to trick them into thinking he’s far more powerful than he really is, just as all politicians deceive the people into thinking they are far more capable that they really are. In Baum’s story, Dorothy sees a huge head (chapter 11, page 127); the Scarecrow sees a beautiful woman (page 130); the Tin Woodman sees a terrible beast (page 132); and the Lion sees a ball of fire, which, when he gets too close, singes his whiskers (page 134). This last apparition, and the Lion’s reaction to it, are again related to Bryan by Littlefield (pages 54-55) in a way that, to my eyes, isn’t backed up with any evidence.

In the film, all of them see the wizard together, and the apparition is essentially a combination of what Baum has Dorothy and the Lion see. In any case, as we all find out at the end, these apparitions are all fake, and the real “wizard” is just a “humbug”…just as your average politician is.

XII: Killing the Witch

The Wicked Witch of the West’s enslavement of the Winkies and of the Winged Monkeys, just as is the case with the Witch of the East’s former enslavement of the Munchkins, can be seen to represent class conflict in general, be it in the ancient form of master vs. slave, of feudal lord vs. serf, or of bourgeoisie vs. proletariat. Slavery is slavery, regardless of if it’s the explicit ancient form of slaves sold on a market, feudal servitude, or the wage slavery of today.

What we shouldn’t forget is that slavery never died: it’s alive and well, and existing in many forms in the Third World. Many impoverished families find themselves in debt, and the only way out of that debt is to perform years of servitude to their creditors. There are literal slave markets in Libya, which used to be a prosperous country under Gaddafi’s benevolent dictatorship before the NATO intervention and his brutal murder.

To relate Baum’s story more directly with the political issues of the US in the late 19th century, one can consider how, though the black American slaves were freed, a clause in the 13th constitutional amendment has allowed for the continued enslavement of the incarcerated; and with the prison-industrial-complex of today, in which corporations can make prisoners toil away for long hours and for next to nothing in money, we can see how slavery in its more or less pure form still exists in the US.

As Dorothy et al are on their way to the witch’s castle, the witch commands her flying monkeys to fetch Dorothy and Toto. The contemporary use of the term ‘flying monkeys‘ has deep resonance when retrospectively used on the Winged Monkeys of Baum’s story and the 1939 film. The notion of blindly obedient servants to an evil master can vividly describe the American military, slaves of Western imperialism.

In Baum’s story, this symbolic servitude to capitalist imperialism is made even more explicit in the use of a golden cap (chapter 12, page 146), which is worn to command the monkeys three times. The witch has used it to have the monkeys help her enslave the Winkies, and she’s used it to drive away the wizard from the West; now she wants to use it to get Dorothy so she can get her hands on those shoes. Like the monkeys, we’re all slaves to wealth and power, be it in the form of the gold standard or other forms.

When the witch has Dorothy in her clutches, it’s only natural that the hag covets the silver/ruby slippers. This covetousness is representative of the greed of capitalists, who–no matter how rich and powerful they may already be–they always want more.

In Baum’s story, the witch makes Dorothy her slave and has the Lion her captive (chapter 12, pages 149-150). In the film, the Lion is with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman; looking at the witch’s castle, the Scarecrow has a plan. How can he have a plan without a brain? The Tin Woodman can’t bear to think of captive Dorothy’s suffering; how can he feel that way without a heart? The Lion goes in with the other two to rescue her: how can he do that without courage? As I mentioned above, their only real lack is self-confidence, something they can acquire through solidarity and mutual aid.

When the witch corners all of them, the witch threatens the Scarecrow with fire, symbolic of her evil passions, and so, something that needs to be quenched, extinguished. The Scarecrow, being representative of the rational element of Dorothy’s group (despite his belief that he lacks brains), is the opposite of the witch’s fiery passions…and thus, he’s afraid of “a lighted match.” Similarly, the water that quenches fire, and is thus symbolic of the extinguishment of the passions, and of a oneness with everything, is an opposing force that the witch fears. (Water may rust the Tin Man, but at least he can be oiled back to normal.)

Dorothy’s splashing of water on the witch–be it to extinguish the flame on the Scarecrow’s arm, as in the film, or to express her outrage to the witch for taking one of her silver shoes, as in Baum’s story (chapter 12, pages 153-154)–kills the witch by melting her because her evil is based on egoistic individualism, a defining symptom of capitalism, as opposed to the formlessness of water, a symbol often used to express the non-egoistic unity of the cosmos. The witch’s death by melting is thus symbolic of a death of the ego.

XIII: The Humbug of Oz

Dorothy’s second killing, however unintended, of a witch represents another revolutionary victory of the poor peasant farmers (recall that she’s from a family of farmers) and urban workers against the ruling class, be they slaveowners, feudal lords, or capitalists. She and her comrades now imagine they can return to the wizard and get what they wish of him.

His procrastinating on fulfilling his part of the bargain, a typical problem with politicians, angers Dorothy et al. Then Toto exposes where the wizard is hiding, and we see that the wizard is a bald little man (in Baum’s story, chapter 15, page 183), or an old man, played by Frank Morgan, as he played other men in the Emerald City. The wizard, like most politicians, is a fake…just an ordinary man, like any other.

He has no real powers, only a talent at creating clever illusions. We all know about this illusory quality of politicians, but we keep believing in them and hoping for the best of them all the same. Hence, when the wizard puts bran in the Scarecrow’s head (chapter 16, page 196), gives the Tin Woodman a heart “made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust” (page 197), and gives the Lion a drink (pages 198-199) that supposedly will fill him with courage, all three believe they’ve really been given what they need, though they’ve always had what they wanted from the start. The same goes for when, in the film, the Scarecrow gets a diploma, the Tin Woodman a testimonial in the shape of a heart, and the Lion, a medal for heroism.

As for Dorothy, the wizard says he’ll take her to Kansas himself, though he’s from Omaha (chapter 15, page 186), and he hasn’t “the faintest notion which way [Kansas] lies.” (chapter 17, page 204) He entrusts the rule of the Emerald City to the Scarecrow by virtue of his great brain (chapter 17, page 206); in the film, the wizard has the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion rule together in his stead, whereas in Baum’s story, the Tin Woodman will rule over the Winkies now that they’re freed of the witch, and as we know, the Lion will rule over that forest.

Either way, the new rule of Dorothy’s three comrades over these sections of Oz–since all three, in my allegory, in turn represent the peasant farmers and industrial workers–represents the dictatorship of the proletariat, now that the oppressive rule of the wicked witches and fraudulent rule of the wizard are over. The notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat was already known in the late 19th century through the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as through the example of the short-lived Paris Commune.

Now, if the above speculation about the film’s Glinda is true–that is, that she is secretly trying to dominate all of Oz by removing the other witches and the wizard–then the worker rule symbolized by the triumvirate of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion will have the same challenge, symbolically speaking, that the socialist states of the 20th century had in dealing with reactionaries and capitalist encirclement.

XIV: No Place Like Home

But with the mishap of Toto running off to chase a cat, and the wizard’s balloon taking off without her, Dorothy thinks she’s lost her last hope of getting back to Kansas. Then Glinda comes (or, as in the book, Dorothy goes to Glinda) to tell her she’s always had the power, in those shoes, to go home herself, as her comrades have always had what they’ve thought they lacked.

In a sense, Dorothy’s discovery is like that of the Buddhist prodigal son, who returns home to do menial labour for years, only to learn he’d already had his father’s love and forgiveness from the beginning, but would never have believed it had he been told before. We the people are also fooled into thinking we need some charismatic leader to guide us to what we need, when we have the power to get what we want ourselves…we just need to band together, as Dorothy and her comrades have done.

The spirit of working together, mutual aid, and solidarity will help us defeat the wicked witches of the ruling class, not reliance on the fraudulent wizardry of politicians. We already have the basic building blocks to organize a revolution: we have the brains, the heart, and the courage, though we may not believe we do. We just need the self-confidence and camaraderie to pull it off.

So when Dorothy gets home–whether it’s her running to her Auntie Em in stocking feet, as in Baum’s story (chapter 24, page 261), or it’s her waking up to see her aunt, uncle, the three farmhands, and Professor Marvel, as in the film–she may no longer have the valuable shoes, but she has the love of all those around her. Together, they all can bring about the revolutionary change needed to end the harshness of their rural life, a real revolution to parallel the wish-fulfillment revolution of Dorothy’s Oz-dream…a true homecoming, to a better life that they’ve deserved from the beginning.

Analysis of ‘The Maltese Falcon’

The Maltese Falcon is a 1930 detective novel written by Dashiell Hammett and adapted into film in 1931, 1936 (a comedic version called Satan Met a Lady), the by-far most famous one in 1941, a film noir directed by John Huston, and a 1975 spoof sequel of the 1941 version called The Black Bird. The Huston film, which I’ll be discussing with the novel, starred Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, and Elisha Cook Jr.; it is also considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The 1941 film is largely a faithful adaptation, minus the novel‘s swearing (most of it Sam Spade‘s) and other scenes deemed inappropriate by the prudish Production Code, as well as other scenes that are rather superfluous as far as pacing and plot development are concerned. Apart from these differences, Hammett’s depiction of private detective Sam Spade is larger in build than that of Bogart (Spade in the novel is also blond), and the scene of Spade with the DA happens later in the novel than it does in the film.

A link to quotes from Huston’s film can be found here.

The search for the coveted Maltese falcon, a statuette of a bird of gold covered in valuable jewels, then covered in black enamel to hide its enormous worth, is symbolic of what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire.

The beautiful and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor)–desired by Spade (Bogart) and his partner-detective, Miles Archer (played by Jerome Cowan)–can be seen as a double of the black bird, another objet petit a, for she, too, is a kind of “black bird” (i.e., evil chick). The difference between these two birds is in how the pursuers of the statuette continue in desiring it no matter what obstacles are in the way, while Spade–who doesn’t trust O’Shaughnessy–must resist his desire of the femme fatale to keep her from ruining his life.

She’s been lying to Spade all the way from the beginning of the story. She even lies about her name when she meets him in his San Francisco office. She calls herself “Ruth Wonderly,” and claims that a man named Floyd Thursby has run away with her kid sister from New York, when actually, O’Shaughnessy was with Thursby in Hong Kong trying to get the Maltese falcon before its other pursuers can get their hands on it.

Her whole manner is that of the pouting covert narcissist, the one who plays the role of pitiful victim while secretly scheming to make saps out of her male colleagues. Hence, this beauty is a femme fatale.

There is a sense in this whole story that desire, be it the coveting of a valuable object or the lusting after a beautiful woman, leads to suffering, as the Buddhists understood. People have chased after the elusive falcon for centuries since pirates stole it while it was en route to King Charles V of Spain, only to be frustrated never to capture it decisively and keep it.

Similarly, O’Shaughnessy has played man after man for a fool with her charms–Thursby, Archer, and Spade–only to get them either killed or in danger of being incarcerated. The phoney name she calls herself, “Wonderly,” is reflective of her pathologically narcissistic grandiosity and False Self. She’d have Spade and Archer believe she’s wonderful, when actually she’s a con woman, out to swindle both men out of their lives to pursue her ends.

The love of riches drives those who want to possess the Maltese falcon. The addiction to female beauty drives Archer and Spade to want O’Shaughnessy. It’s clear from early on that Spade is a ladies’ man.

His wholesome but relatively plain receptionist, Effie Perine (Patrick), knows Spade will like O’Shaughnessy, for “she’s a knockout.” Later, we learn that Spade has been having an affair with Iva Archer (played by Gladys George), the soon-to-be widowed wife of Miles, who doesn’t mind looking away from her if he can have O’Shaughnessy.

When two cops, Detective Tom Polhaus (played by Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Dundy (played by Barton MacLane), who suspect that Spade may be responsible for the deaths of Thursby and Archer, hear Spade say he doesn’t know anything about women, Tom says, “Since when?” (In the novel, he says, “The hell you don’t.”–chapter two) Spade has a reputation as a womanizer, and Iva’s frequent visits to his office and elsewhere, her being eager to see him, only intensify the suspicions that he’s killed his partner, hence his wish to keep her away from him.

Soon, Spade comes into contact with Joel Cairo (Lorre), who happens, incidentally, to be the man referred to in the song, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo,” by Jon and Vangelis. Cairo is a stereotypically effeminate homosexual, something largely censored out of Lorre’s performance, for obvious reasons. In the novel, references are made to his use of chypre as a fragrance (in the film, it’s gardenia) and diamonds on a finger of his left hand. When Effie Perrine tells Spade that Cairo wants to meet him in chapter four, she says he’s “queer.” In chapter ten, Spade refers to him as “the fairy,” and O’Shaughnessy refers to a boy Cairo once “had in Constantinople,” the public exposure of his sexuality angering him, in chapter seven.

What’s significant about his effeminacy and extravagance, also seen to an extent in the novel’s characterization of portly Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), is how their decadence is related to their search for the black bird. Their decadence is of a capitalistic sort, a lust after riches and class hegemony, an internationalizing of the “American dream” felt also in Levantine Cairo.

Their decadence is that of the mafia, too, since they use muscle and guns to get what they want. We see this in Gutman’s use of Wilmer Cook (Cook Jr.), a young man shadowing Spade, though the latter is by no means intimidated by the former. Similarly, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, wanting to search his office for the falcon, though Spade manages to get his gun off of him.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, the mafia makes for a poetically resonant symbol of capitalism, its predatory seeking of wealth through questionable practices and use of violence. We see in the fierce quest for the falcon a symbol of the bourgeois search for an elevation to the highest levels of social class.

Cairo offers Spade $5,000 to help him find the black bird. Gutman offers a first payment of $10,000 to get it for him. Both men know, though, that the falcon is worth so much more as to make thousands of dollars seem like pennies in comparison. This disparity in worth is symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of labour, minimal payments to workers to extract a maximum of surplus value.

The second time Spade meets with Gutman, the latter tells the former the history of the Maltese falcon. The Knights Templar (in chapter thirteen of the novel, Gutman calls them “the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later called the Knights of Rhodes and other things”) in 1530 wanted King Charles V of Spain to give them Malta; he would do so in exchange for the tribute of a falcon to be sent to him every year in acknowledgement that Malta was still under Spain. If ever the knights were to leave, Malta would revert to Spain.

The first falcon sent to the king wasn’t to be a real, living one, but a golden statuette encrusted with the finest jewels from head to foot. In general, the falcons were meant, essentially, to be a yearly payment of rent, as a matter of form, to the king for permission for the knights to live in Malta.

The king, as emperor of that part of the Mediterranean at the time, was thus one of the most powerful men of the area during the late feudal period of Europe. Since the knights had access, through their spoils from their conquests in such places as the Middle East, to the finest jewels, metals, silks, gems, ivories, etc., the golden falcon was among the most valuable commodities ever.

The boat meant to deliver the falcon from Malta to Spain was stopped by a pirate attack. The pirates stole the falcon, and it ended up being passed around from place to place around the world over the next several centuries, up until the time of this story. Over this passage of time, history witnessed the change from feudalism to capitalism, while the bird has retained its superlative worth.

And so the Maltese falcon can be seen to symbolize the greatest attainment of class power, that which takes its owner in flight to the highest of financial freedoms. To own it is to be like a king, an emperor, owning property and wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams. To own it is to be better than the capitalist ruling class; to own it is to be like a feudal lord.

Small wonder Gutman, with his gluttony for wealth and power, wants the black bird so badly. He, Cairo, and Wilmer will use any dirty trick they can think of to get it, including drugging the drink Gutman fills and refills for Spade while discussing the history of the falcon, then while he’s unconscious, they can search for the falcon without Spade getting in the way.

Gutman may speak to Spade with cordiality, but he’s no friend to the detective, just as a boss is no friend to his employees. These are relationships of power and subservience. The drugging of Spade, as well as the use of Wilmer to push Spade around (in spite of how ineffectual Wilmer turns out to be), and the pointing of guns at Spade show clearly how unequal Gutman regards Spade as a business partner.

And regardless of how much Gutman offers to pay Spade for getting the falcon–a beginning payment of $10,000, or the full offer of $25,000 or even a quarter of a million–all these payments are microscopic in comparison to the actual, gargantuan worth of the black bird. Hence, payment for Spade’s service of securing the bird is like a small wage paid by an employer gaining a huge profit out of the deal.

Since Wilmer is also in Gutman’s employ, his relationship with Spade is full of the usual tensions between competing labourers, with the attendant alienation. In the novel, Wilmer hates Spade so much that he says, twice in chapter ten, what isn’t actually in print (for reasons that will immediately prove obvious), but what must be inferred as, “Fuck you.”

This mutual alienation among Gutman’s associates intensifies at the climax, when Spade, always trying to bargain (as a trade unionist would) for a better deal, insists on Gutman giving up a fall guy for the murders of Thursby and Archer, in addition to his cut. Spade suggests Wilmer, who naturally resents it, even though he’s surely responsible for at least the deaths of Thursby and Captain Jacobi (played by Huston’s father Walter), who dies having delivered the falcon to Spade’s office with several bullets in him, after the boat he sailed from Hong Kong to San Francisco, La Paloma, was burned down by Gutman’s men.

Gutman is hesitant to give up Wilmer to the police, claiming the boy is like a son to him (when actually, he’s worried Wilmer will squeal on him). Spade then suggests Cairo as the fall guy, or perhaps O’Shaughnessy could be considered; as long as Spade is safe from the cops. These suggestions, and the angry reactions they get, further show the growth of mutual alienation going around, all because of the power of that black enamelled commodity.

Before this climactic scene in the novel is one with Gutman’s drugged daughter, Rhea, whom Spade accidentally meets in the Alexandria Hotel (chapter seventeen). The scene is fairly superfluous to the plot, but it does help give us a more vivid idea of how corrupt and ruthless mafia-man Gutman is…that he’d allow his own daughter to be in such a state.

Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy, Wilmer, and Spade are all waiting for Effie to deliver the bird to Spade’s apartment in the morning. Gutman has given Spade the $10,000 down payment in an envelope, which Spade has given to O’Shaughnessy to watch over. At one point, Gutman takes the envelope back for a moment and looks over the bills: he finds only $9,000.

Has O’Shaughnessy stolen the missing $1,000? In the novel (and in the pre-Production Code 1931 film version), Spade takes her into his bathroom and makes her strip to see if she has the money on her–she doesn’t. Gutman has taken it to see what Spade will do, then he gives it back.

This scene is interesting in how it parallels that of the falcon’s delivery, when Gutman scrapes at the black enamel covering to see the gold and jewels underneath. There are none–it’s a fake! Just as she has had her coverings removed to find nothing of monetary value, so has the black bird. It’s a fake…and so is she.

These scenes underscore my point towards the beginning of this analysis: both O’Shaughnessy and the Maltese falcon are ‘black birds,’ as it were. They both, on the surface, seem to be beautiful and of almost limitless value, yet when the illusions are cast aside, they’re not only of no worth, but are dangerous addictions.

Warren Farrell once said that “female beauty is the world’s most potent drug.” (Farrell, Berkeley mass market edition, October 1996, page 72) I don’t agree: money is far more addictive, though perhaps female beauty is a distant second. Hence, the two black birds of this story. It’s interesting, in this connection, to remember Tony Montana‘s words in Scarface: “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.”

We’ll note, however, that the real climax of the story isn’t the discovery that the falcon is a fake; it’s Spade telling O’Shaughnessy that he’s giving her up to the police for having shot Archer (Wilmer has sneaked out of the building while everyone’s eyes have been on the falcon, so he can no longer be the fall guy).

After Gutman and Cairo leave to resume their search for the bird, Spade bullies her into telling the truth that she shot Archer with Thursby’s gun. Since the police suspect Spade killed him to get Iva, he can’t let O’Shaughnessy’s beauty weaken his resolve to avoid being charged with murder.

It takes all of his emotional strength to look into her manipulatively teary eyes and tell her he “won’t play the sap” for her. Though he, a ladies’ man, is still enticed by her beauty and her claims that she loves him, he’s heard too many lies from her to think she’s any less a phoney than that lead bird she had shipped from Hong Kong.

The tension in Bogart‘s face vividly expresses Spade’s conflict. Still, he stays strong, and when Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy show up, Spade gives her to them. Polhaus asks about the bird, and Spade says it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” a reference to the illusory, theatrical magic in The Tempest. The theatrically presented dream of innumerable amounts of wealth is an illusion.

Indeed, though Spade can resist O’Shaughnessy’s charms as his objet petit a, neither Gutman nor Cairo can resist the lure of the Maltese falcon, their objet petit a, hence their plans to go to Istanbul to see if it’s there. Now, at the end of the novel, Wilmer shoots and kills Gutman; so Spade’s ability to resist his desires saves him, while Gutman’s inability to do so destroys him, as does Archer’s inability vis-à-vis O’Shaughnessy.

It is assumed that the reason Gutman et al received a fake falcon is because the sender, a Russian named Kemidov in Istanbul, cheated them when he found out its real worth, and that he has the real falcon, if not somebody else. But I wonder: is the whole story of the falcon actually a legend that Gutman all too credulously believes, simply because he wants to? In any case, the addiction to endless wealth never dies, though its attainment is surely only an enamelled dream for most of us.

Analysis of ‘Quartet for the End of Time’

I: Introduction

Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a 1940-1941 piece of chamber music composed by Olivier Messiaen. It was composed for an unusual combination of instruments: piano, violin, clarinet in B-flat, and cello; because these were the instruments played by the only musicians available to perform the piece at its premiere–Messiaen, Jean le Boulaire, Henri Akoka, and Etienne Pasquier, respectively. These four musicians premiered the piece, in January 1941, as prisoners of war in Stalag VIII-A, then in Görlitz, Germany.

Messiaen was inspired by this passage in the Book of Revelation: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…” (Revelation, 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version). What particularly struck Messiaen was the notion that there would be no more time.

He claimed that he wasn’t interested in using his music as a symbolic theological comment on the Apocalypse. After all, how can one make such a comment with only instrumental music (Iain G. Matheson, at the beginning of his essay on the Quatuor, addresses this question. [Hill, pages 234-235])? Instead, Messiaen was preoccupied with the idea of freeing music from the regularity of time.

Here are some recordings of the Quatuor, one with the score, and another of a live performance.

II: The Movements

There are eight movements: they represent the seven days of Creation, then the eighth day, Christ’s Resurrection.

i) Liturgie de cristal (“Crystal Liturgy“)
ii) Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
iii) Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of Birds”)
iv) Intermède (“Interlude”)
v) Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”)
vi) Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (“Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets“)
vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
viii) Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”)

As Robert Sherlaw Johnson noted in his book, Messiaen, there are “thematic and textural relationships between the movements, which shape the work as a whole” (Johnson, page 63): ii and vii, which share certain dissonant thematic material; iii and vi, which are monophonic, lacking in chords, harmony, or counterpoint; and v and viii, which, apart from being duets for a string instrument and piano, are also rearrangements of compositions of Messiaen’s from the 1930s.

III: Liturgie de cristal

This movement opens with the clarinet playing a blackbird’s song and the violin playing that of a nightingale. Messiaen described it thus: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

Indeed, the violin and clarinet here are playing, independently of the cello and piano, a musical trademark of Messiaen’s that he introduced for pretty much the first time in the Quatuorbirdsong.

For Messiaen, birds are symbols of divinity (he was a devout Catholic his whole life). Also, their free-form singing, blissfully unaware of the musical rules of melody, tonality, and rhythm, represent the beauty of total freedom. Thus, their calls are also free of the constraints of musical time.

As part of his wish to free music of the shackles of time, Messiaen had the piano and cello each play a differing isorhythm (the piano, playing a twenty-nine chord sequence over a rhythm of seventeen values, and the cello with a five-note melodic shape over a rhythmic ostinato of fifteen values; the cello part’s rhythm is also non-retrogradable, giving no true beginning or end to the rhythm, suggesting eternity). Also, the rhythmic ostinato in the piano part is based upon three Hindu rhythms, the talas ragavardhana, candrakala, and lakshmica.

Messiaen, as something of an orinthologist, had had a love of birdsong from his early years. He used to go out into fields with sheet music and notate the bird calls he heard. Now, he was finally using their divine music as an integral part of one of his compositions, something he’d do ever after. He loved birds’ freedom to fly anywhere in the sky. As a POW in Nazi Germany, he could only have loved such freedom.

IV: Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

The angel’s announcing of the end of time comes with dissonant chords on the piano, a quick flurry of ascending and descending notes on the clarinet, then a sustained note and a trill on it while quick sixteenth notes are played on the violin and cello. These features are more or less heard again, then after quick ascending sixteenth notes on the violin and cello, we get trills on the violin, cello, and clarinet, and a dissonant piano ending leads to the ethereal, mystical middle section, with–as Messiaen called them–“the impalpable harmonies of heaven.” In this middle section, the violin and cello play the melody of the sixteenth notes, but slower and often in eighth notes. The A-B-A movement ends with more or less a repeat of the dissonant beginning, albeit in an inverted form.

It’s curious that Messiaen took the passage from Revelation, where the angel says, “there should be time no more.” Now, a more accurate translation would say, “there shall be no more delay,” as we get it in the New English Bible; the New Oxford Annotated Bible also uses “delay” instead of “time.” While I’m guessing that Messiaen’s old French Bible read, “Il n’y aura plus de temps,” my modern French Bible says, “Il n’y aura plus de délai [time-limit].” The original Greek used the word χρόνος (i.e., “time”), but in the context of the passage, it too meant “delay.” So, in most modern cases of translation, delay is used rather than time.

It’s interesting how people project themselves into their interpretations of things. (Anyone who has read enough of my analyses of films, etc., knows that I project my own inner preoccupations into them all the time.) Messiaen was preoccupied with freeing musical time from its traditional restraints, so when he read the Biblical passage, he took the word time literally, at face value, rather than seeing that what the angel really meant was, “We have no time left.”

No disrespect intended to Monsieur Messiaen (who happens to be one of my all-time favourite composers!), but this inaccuracy of his with regards to the background and creation of the Quatuor isn’t an isolated incidence. He claimed that the cello used for the premiere lacked a string, while Pasquier insisted it had all four strings, and his part would have been impossible to play with three. Messiaen claimed the premiere was performed before an audience of about 5,000 people, when there were really only about 400 (no more could have fit in).

Messiaen was correct to say that the piano had keys that stuck when played; but though he said of the premiere, “Never had I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,” one of the other musicians remembered the audience’s reaction differently. Given Messiaen’s idiosyncratic, modernist compositional style, the other musician said, “The audience, as far as I remember, was overwhelmed at the time. They wondered what had happened. Everyone. We too. We asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing? What are we playing?’”

Since we’ve established that some of Messiaen’s recollections of what happened at the first performance aren’t completely reliable, I believe that some of his other comments can be regarded with some suspicion, too. The Quatuor, as with his music generally, is considered apolitical; but given his predicament then and there as a POW of the Nazis, among the cruellest and most inhumane scum in history, I find it hard to imagine his suffering not influencing the conceptualizing and creation of the Quatuor.

He recalled being stripped naked, as were all the prisoners. They were cold and underfed. In fact, Messiaen developed chilblains because of the extreme cold and malnutrition. Even though, as a composer tasked with writing a piece for himself and the other three musicians to play, he was relieved of much of the worst treatment in the prison, he still suffered terribly. Given what we know about the brutality and contempt for human life that is Naziism defined, we can trust Messiaen to be accurately recalling this harsh aspect of life during his stay in Stalag VIII-A. It’s doubtless that he was traumatized.

Such trauma surely influenced the concept behind his composition. He claimed that there was little to no theological commentary in his musical presentation of the Apocalypse, but rather only a wish to liberate musical time…but why should we believe this? One of the central features of the Apocalypse is not only the glorious saving of the Christian faithful from the world of sin, but also the judgement and punishment of the wicked (e.g., the Nazis). Such an outcome would have to have been a wish-fulfillment for him.

Surely Matheson thought so in his essay: “Messiaen’s decision to use this particular text [Revelation 10: 1–2, 5–7] rather than any other may well have been prompted by the prisoner-of-war conditions in which he found himself, in which time might indeed have seemed literally endless, and the Apocalypse close at hand.” (Hill, page 235)

Related to the idea of time is temporality, which also refers to the laic, secular world. Indeed, the French word temps, like the Latin word tempus (which is used in the Vulgate Latin translation of Revelation 10:6), is cognate with temporal. So when Messiaen consciously wished for freedom from musical time’s traditionally equal measurements, he also unconsciously wished for freedom from this world, ruled by Satan (John 12:31), and in particular for liberation from Stalag VIII-A.

He didn’t overtly express any wish, in his music, to be anti-Nazi for fear of angering the SS. So when he was freed from the prison in 1941, he taught harmony in the Paris Conservatoire even while France was still occupied by Nazi Germany, free of any fear of further persecution. His reticence on political matters surely was a shrewd move to save his life; hence, the Quatuor is ostensibly only about ‘freeing musical time.’

V: Abîme des oiseaux

This movement for solo clarinet reminds me of Edgard Varèse‘s Densité 21,5 for platinum flute. It demands considerable technical ability on the part of the clarinettist. There are slow, long crescendos that require great breath control (see, for example, the 13th measure). Akoka grumbled and complained of how difficult this movement was to master, but Messiaen urged him and encouraged him to keep trying.

Of this movement, Messiaen said, “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

So, in time, we have sadness…for Messiaen, the sadness and weariness of having to pass the time in a Nazi prison. Since birds are the opposite of time, they represent freedom from incarceration in our temporal world. Accordingly, we hear the clarinet play birdsong. The free-form rhythm once again represents Messiaen’s wish to free musical time of traditionalistic, regular measurement.

VI: Intermède

In the centre of the Quatuor, this short, jaunty interlude in 2/4 time contains several references to thematic material heard in other movements: for example, the flurry of quick ascending and descending clarinet 32nd notes (C-sharp-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-B-natural-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural) heard in the second movement (and the third [B-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-C-sharp-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural, in the 20th measure]); also a softly played, but ominous anticipation of the opening theme of the sixth movement.

For the most part, though, the movement is a cheerful one, including a passage with the violin and cello trading pizzicatos and an arco melody of D-B-G-F-natural-B-natural-A-flat-C-sharp-G-natural in the cello’s high register; then, as a kind of relative subdominant to that, a melody of G-E-C-B-flat-E-flat-D-flat-F-sharp-C-natural (measures 24-31).

VII: Louange à l’éternité de Jésus

This movement, in which the cello plays a sobbing, plaintive, high-pitched melody over mostly soft piano chords, is a rearrangement of the fourth movement (titled either “L’Eau“…”Water” or “Oraison“…”Prayer”) of Fête des belles eaux (“Celebration of the Beautiful Waters”) for six ondes Martenots, from 1937. The tempo is infiniment lent, extatique (“extremely slow, ecstatic”): this extreme slowness is meant to represent a sense of endlessness, eternity.

The beginning of the cello melody seems to be in the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition–namely, the octatonic scale. This movement is assuredly one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote. Though the longing felt seems unfulfillable, the harmonic resolutions ultimately satisfy that longing.

One passage that I especially like is from measures 15-17, in which the cello melody tops off the piano’s playing of (what at least sounds, to my not-so-well-trained ear, as) a D-sharp dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, an E major seventh chord, a C-sharp dominant ninth chord, a D-sharp augmented chord, and a resolution to E major. Then there’s the ending (the last three measures), with the cello playing a melody of ascending notes (E-G-natural-A-sharp-C-sharp) of the diminished seventh chord, resolving on the high octave of an E-major piano chord.

By “l’éternité de Jésus,” Messiaen means Jesus as understood as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time. In this meditative music, we can sense Messiaen’s mysticism.

Since this music is derived from his Fêtes des belles eaux, and the original movement was alternatively titled “L’Eau” or “Oraison,” I find there to be interesting connotations, from a mystical point of view, in all of these titles: eternity of Jesus, the beautiful waters, and prayer.

In this music Messiaen would be both praising and praying to Jesus, an urgent pleading to save him from the Nazis. A mystical connection with the Divine, often achieved through prayer or meditation, has sometimes been described as oceanic; I have addressed this idea myself in music, and in the name of my blog.

And sometimes, in the lowest depths of our suffering, as Messiaen surely felt in Stalag VIII-A, we can find the extreme of hell phase into the extreme of heaven, a dialectical shift from one polar extreme to its opposite state. I’ve compared such a meeting of opposites, on a circular continuum, to the ouroboros‘ biting head and its bitten tail.

When Messiaen suffered in the prison, made music there, then was released, he experienced something comparable to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and so we can see in the parallel experiences a mystical union of Messiaen and Messiah, at least in a symbolic sense.

VIII: Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes

As I mentioned above, this movement parallels the third in its monophony: though all four instruments are heard, none plays harmony or counterpoint. Every single note, played collectively, is a unison or an octave.

In spite of the monophonic melody, though, Messiaen manages to infuse plenty of musical tension in his “dance of fury.” We are, after all, dealing with the Final Judgement here, the sending to hell of sinners, which contrasts dialectically with the preceding movement’s serenity. I sense his wish for his Nazi captors to receive God’s judgement.

He exploits loud and soft dynamics as well as irregular rhythms (with measures lacking time signatures), using non-retrogradable rhythms as well as augmentation, diminution, added values, and the derivation of Greek rhythm and meter. All of these techniques serve to realize his wish to free musical time of its traditionally dull regularity.

One passage (at about 28:03 in this video), expressed in cycles of five beats (i.e., eight sixteenth notes and an eighth note), we hear notes whose pitches fly in all kinds of wild directions, yet paradoxically, the last note of each of these cycles, the eighth, is always the same pitch: an F-sharp (A-flat for the clarinet in B-flat). The result is a paradoxical juxtaposition of melodic desultoriness and stasis. This mixing of the erratic and the static can be seen to represent the conflict Messiaen felt between wanting to roam freely and being incarcerated.

Elsewhere, at about 28:35 in the video, we hear the piano and clarinet play a grim, three-note ostinato: F-natural, C-sharp, and A-natural on the piano, and G-natural, E-flat, and B-natural on the clarinet, the notes of an augmented triad. This ostinato is subjected to rhythmic augmentation and diminution: first slowly–as quarter-notes, eighth-notes, then quarter-notes again; then, as half-notes, quarter-notes, then half-notes again; then quickly three times as eighth-notes, sixteenth-notes, then eighth-notes again. Again, time is permitted no predictable sense of regularity.

IX: Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

Recall that the Biblical verses describe the angel who announces the end of time as being “clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head,” with one foot on the land and the other on the sea. The colours of the rainbow were important to Messiaen, who had synesthesia and saw colours in his mind’s eye whenever he heard this or that musical idea. In the second movement, which parallels the seventh, he used harmonies that made him see the orange and blue of the rainbow).

A dreamy tune in 3/4 opens the movement with a sad, upper-register cello melody played over soft piano chords; this theme will alternate with developments of the dissonant opening theme of the second movement. That dreamy tune will return with the clarinet in the background playing a melody based on the ascending and descending octatonic scale, the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Just before the end of the movement is the dreamy tune played in trills on both cello and violin, and on the clarinet, with piano arpeggios in the background.

As for the dissonant sections, I’d like to speculate on why an increasing use of dissonance was appearing around this time (i.e., the late 1930s and into the 1940s) in Messiaen’s musical career. To be sure, his music was, from the beginning, technically dissonant, through his use of modes based on equal octave divisions, since he liked the colours these unusual melodies and harmonies, derived from the modes, evoked in his imagination. Indeed, early Messiaen sounds like an exotic version of Debussy, who also sidestepped tonality without sounding harsh.

But the Messiaen of the 1920s and 1930s largely lacked the harsh dissonances we would begin to hear by the time of the Quatuor. The middle section of Les offrandes oubliées (<<<starting at 3:32 in the video), in its musical description of “the forgotten offerings” of grace and salvation, and therefore the descent into sin, is somewhat more dissonant. Chants de terre et de ciel has some dense piano chords, admittedly. But the really huge dissonant sonorities begin with pieces like Visions de l’amen, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and Harawi; they grow even more extreme in pieces like the Quatre études de rythme, Cantéyodjayâ, and Chronochromie. I believe these extreme dissonances were Messiaen’s way of expressing, and of exorcising from himself, the lingering trauma he received from his experience as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A.

Now, the quite dissonant Chants de terre et de ciel, composed in 1938 and premiered in 1939, was a celebration of the birth of his son Pascale in 1937, which would seem to contradict my speculation that his aggravated use of dissonance was the expression of trauma. But consider what was happening politically in Europe at the time. His son’s birth was a year before the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, when the leaders of England and France were trying to appease an increasingly ambitious, imperialistic Hitler. Underneath Messiaen’s surface joy over the birth of his son must have been an unconscious anxiety over the boy’s safety.

His trauma in the Nazi prison would have increased the kind of violent feelings he felt even after his release, and the use of tone clusters and other dissonances could have been his way of venting these violent feelings, a projection of the violence he had introjected from the Nazis. These violent melodic and harmonic ideas can be heard in this seventh movement of the Quatuor, not only in the piano chords, but also in the creepy-sounding cello glissandi and col legno, and the screeching violin, cello, and clarinet sounds at the end (38:43 in the video, just before the brutal piano in the bass register), which might remind the listener of horror movie music.

Messian’s piano arrangements of birdsong, the pitches never altered to fit any scales, are particularly dissonant, as can be heard in any of his compositions since the Quatuor. Could there be a relationship between his conception of birds’ freedom and the discordant representation of their singing…an expression of pain coupled with the yearning to fly away free?

X: Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus

This final movement is a rearrangement of the second section of Messiaen’s organ piece, Diptyque (<<at about 5:12 in the video), transposed up a major third from C to E, with the violin playing the melody over piano chords largely in pairs each of thirty-second notes and double-dotted eighth notes. In 4/4, it’s played much slower (extrêmement lent et tendre, extatique, with an MM of an eighth note equalling about 36) than in the Diptyque (with an MM of 58 equalling an eighth note, très lent), the slowness again meant to represent the everlasting life of heaven, after time has ended. This movement thus parallels the fifth.

Whereas the fifth movement contemplated Jesus as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time, now Jesus is meditated on in his resurrected spiritual body, in the Second Coming at the end of time.

The movement is scored in E-major, though the modes of limited transposition add a great deal of chromaticism to the mix. Instead of the sad, unfulfillable longing of the fifth movement, this one is full of spiritual joy, for in Christ’s immortality we have a sign of the conquering of death, something very important to Messiaen, given how close death must have felt to him as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A. It ends with a high E on the violin and high-register E-major sixth chords on the piano.

XI: Conclusion

Though for Messiaen, the Quatuor was, as he consciously expressed it, a wish to free musical time from the traditional prison of regularity and measurability, it was also, through the symbolism of the passage in Revelation, chapter ten, an unconscious wish of his to be free of his Nazi tormentors. Anyone else who happens to be a Christian can content him- or herself with the Biblical ideas musically expressed.

But what of those of us today, who love this 20th century masterwork, and don’t share the religious faith that inspired the conceptualization behind this music? How can we derive our own meaning from the Quatuor?

I’d like to propose a secular interpretation that will be relevant for us in the 21st century, one that uses Christian symbolism to illustrate that meaning. I’ve already discussed what must have been Messiaen’s extreme aversion to all things fascist, even though he didn’t dare give it expression at the time, in front of Nazi guards. Now, the polar opposite of the far right (barring such nonsense as the horseshoe theory) is, of course, the far left.

Granted, I’m sure that Messiaen, the devout Catholic, would have been just as horrified of atheistic communism as he was of fascism. But my concern here is with his unconscious feelings, the associations that the unconscious mind makes, and the way that repressed feelings return to consciousness in unrecognizable ways. Messiaen may not have liked the socialist alternative to fascism, but he definitely wanted to go as far from Naziism as he could. Maybe he simply didn’t know what he liked in political terms, for Christian moral teachings aren’t as far removed from socialism as one might think.

Though one tends to associate Christianity, and especially the authoritarian aspects of Catholicism, with right-wing, conservative thinking, there is much in the Christian tradition that can be associated with the left. Liberation theology is only the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

Just as socialists wish to feed, clothe, and give medical aid to the poor, so did Jesus say of giving such help, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) On the other side of the coin, just as socialists excoriate the amassing of obscene amounts of wealth, so did Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) And just as socialists despise televangelists who hoard wealth tax-free, so did Christ drive the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)

Furthermore, the Messiah was a revolutionary figure, meant to liberate the Jews from Roman imperialist oppression. Later on, the Church cunningly downplayed Jesus’ revolutionary leanings (i.e., “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” —John 18:36) in order to reconcile itself with the Roman authorities; but Jesus originally said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Similarly, as I mentioned above, Messiaen was smart enough to avoid admitting to any anti-Nazi intent in this composition.

Since imperialism has in our time reached an extreme that is threatening our world with nuclear war (How’s that for ‘the end of time’?), and fascism has in many places come back in style–a tried-and-true tactic that capitalists use to beat back political agitation from workers–we can see the Quartet for the End of Time as not only a music of consolation for our suffering today, but also as a clarion call–the seven trumpets!–for a revolutionary end to all the war, ecocide, alienation, income inequality, and immiseration of the Third World.

The end of time, for us socialists, is the end of the dialectical, historical struggle between rich and poor–first, master vs. slave, then, feudal lord vs. peasant, and finally, bourgeois vs. proletarian. Let this music inspire us all to break out of our fascist prisons, these cages of ours, and fly freely and sing with the birds.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1975

Peter Hill, editor, The Messiaen Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1995

Analysis of ‘Killing Zoe’

Killing Zoe is a 1994 American/French crime film written and directed by Roger Avary and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino, Lawrence Bender, and Rebecca Boss. It stars Eric Stolz, Julie Delpy, and Jean-Hughes Anglade; it co-stars Gary Kemp, Kario Salem, and Bruce Ramsay.

The film is of the similar heistgone-terribly-wrong trope we’ve seen in films like Reservoir Dogs. Also as we often observe in Tarantino films, it is loaded with drugs, references to pop culture, pornographic dialogue, and slurs (in this case, against gays and women). One significant difference, however, is its setting in France, and therefore, naturally, much of the dialogue is in French.

Though the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads, “Senselessly violent and mean-spirited, Killing Zoe fails to deliver a much needed cleverness to back up its hyper-stylized flourishes,” the film won the Grand Prize award at the 5th Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival held in February 1994; it also went on to win the 1994 Cannes Prix Très Spécial.

Links to (regrettably incomplete) scripts can be found here and here, and a link to quotes can be found here.

Zed (Stolz), an American safe-cracker, arrives in Paris to help his old childhood friend, Eric (Anglade) and his group of thieves rob the Banque Internationale de Paris (BIP) on Bastille Day, when everything else is closed. The opening credits show a cabbie’s POV as he is driving his taxicab through the streets of Paris on the way to the airport to pick up Zed.

As the cabbie is driving Zed to his hotel, he offers to arrange a call girl for him. When she (Delpy) meets him in his room, she charges 1,000 francs for the whole night, and she doesn’t do “weird stuff” (e.g. allowing him to pee on her). Her name is Zoe, a “Z-name” like his.

Avary pointed out that Zoe is Greek for “life,” so the film’s title, Killing Zoe, means “killing life.” This is significant in how it introduces a theme of duality (the two Z-names) and dualism (life vs. death, among other opposites we’ll explore later).

Indeed, the life vs. death, or Eros vs. Thanatos, dualism is explored immediately during Zed’s sex scene with Zoe. One Z is in ze other, while the old Nosferatu film is showing on the TV. On the one hand, there is an erotic symbolism in vampire stories (phallic teeth making yonic wounds on skin); and on the other, the sex act, potentially bringing about the beginning of life, also has the potential danger of ending life (i.e., getting AIDS from a prostitute).

So in this duality–two Zs who, as it turns out, really like each other and see each other as kindred spirits–we see a dialectical unity in the dualistic opposites: life in death, and vice versa. This will become especially evident when Eric, representing death, appears, insisting that Zed “live life” with him and his friends…that is, do copious amounts of drugs the very night before they rob the bank and self-destruct.

Though the two Zs enjoy chatting in bed after the sex, Zed makes the mistake of referring to Zoe as a prostitute, offending her. Though he can’t have his 1,000 francs back, she explains the difference between her form of sex work and prostitution.

To the average man, this “difference” sounds absurd: you pay her for sex, so she’s a prostitute; she just doesn’t like the pejorative connotations of the word. Still, maybe that’s the whole point: that word sounds dehumanizing to her. To make an analogy, “Negro” may be the formal, historically-used word for a black person, but that doesn’t mean we should use the word today; blacks today generally don’t like it, so we non-blacks should respect their feelings and not use it. Zoe doesn’t like to be called a prostitute, so Zed shouldn’t use the word to refer to her. (Besides, she only moonlights as a call girl.)

Now, regardless of one’s views on the sex industry, both sides of the debate will agree that sex workers should be treated every bit as much as human beings as other people are. Far too many johns out there refuse to give them that respect. Just because a woman chooses to fuck for a few extra bucks (as Zoe does, outside of her boring job at the BIP) doesn’t mean she’s to be treated as nothing more than an object to satisfy male desire…or someone on whom a man may project his contempt for all women.

Luckily for Zoe, Zed is one of the better johns. Unfortunately for her, Eric isn’t anywhere near that good. While she’s in the shower, he barges in, grabs her, and shoves her, naked, out of the hotel room and into the hall, giving her clothes back to her only after she’s been banging on the door screaming for them. He hates and has contempt for her (as he does for all women) because he, as death personified, hates life. Women, as our mothers, are the Givers of Life, so he hates them.

He justifies his contempt for prostitutes by warning Zed, who often enjoys them, that they could give him AIDS; yet as Eric candidly admits to Zed in the car with his friends, he himself has got AIDS “from the needle.” Now, presumably what Eric says here is to be taken at face value, but I wonder if “the needle” is a euphemistic metaphor for another thing that has penetrated his body–a phallus? After all, there is that scene in the public bathroom of the pub in which stoned Zed sees Eric aggressively sodomizing François (played by Tai Thai).

Could “the needle” be a lie to avoid being exposed as gay before Eric’s homophobic friends, those who, from their cars, shout out “Fucking fags!” and “Perverts d’homosexuels!” at male prostitutes on the streets of Paris? Then, when they’re all much more stoned, too stoned to notice (save Zed), does Eric feel his secret is safer when he is en train d’enculer François?

In any case, Eric’s particular brand of homosexuality seems to be the kind that intensifies his hatred of women. He hates them so much that he won’t even sleep with them. He also has no qualms about spreading his AIDS to other people. He hates life, because he is death.

Much more to the core of Eric’s psychopathology, however, is his splitting of everyone and everything into absolute good and absolute bad objects, which leads us back to the theme of duality. To use the object relations terminology of WRD Fairbairn, Eric’s Central Ego, related to the Ideal Object, is depleted. That is, his ability to relate himself (Central Ego) to other people in the real world (Ideal Objects, because ideally, we should all relate to real people, not to those of fantasy) has been reduced to a minimum.

It would be ideal for Eric to relate to real people, but instead, his mind is split between relating to pleasurable, fantasy objects, as well as to hated ones. In other words, what should be a dominant Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration is instead a dominant Libidinal Ego, linked to the Exciting Object (drugs, sex, money, gold), and a dominant Anti-libidinal Ego, linked to the Rejecting Object (women, and anyone who annoys him).

Eric introduces Zed to his friends–François, Oliver (Kemp, who, incidentally, used to be a member of Spandau Ballet), Claude (played by Salvator Xuereb), Jean (Kario Salem), and Ricardo (Ramsay)–all men just as caught up in an escape from reality as Eric is. Their escape, of course, is drugs, their manic defence against the depressing reality of being poor and powerless in a capitalist world.

Most of them are French, with one French-Canadian (Ricardo) and one Vietnamese (François); then, there’s Oliver, from England, a jovial and gregarious, if rather dim-witted, sort. He likes to chat about pop culture, like Star Trek and Dixieland jazz, examples of his personal escape from the world. His interest in Viking films, about a people who invaded and plundered other countries, is an interesting reflection on his own life as a thief. Québecois Ricardo and Vietnamese François represent French imperialist depredations (recall Eric’s ass-fuck of François).

All of them go to a Paris club where the band is playing Dixieland, a music with a heart and culture all its own, totally unlike any other music on the planet, as Oliver tells Zed. Even Eric picks up a trombone and plays, surprisingly well, with the band; for this music, along with all the drugs they’re doing, is their escape from the real world.

The fact that they’re partying and getting wasted the night before the bank robbery, before Zed has even seen the bank (all he’s seen are its blueprints), shows how self-destructive…and stupid…these thieves are. Eric reassures Zed that everything is planned and he needn’t worry, but why shouldn’t he worry? Eric is a psychopath who knows he’s going to die of AIDS, so he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.

While they’re in the pub, and by now, extremely high, Zed finds himself at a table with a French woman offering herself to him. She says he can do anything he wants to her–he can even crap on her if he wants to. She tells him to treat her like a dog, for “Je suis un chien.”

Her low self-esteem, surely the result of having been abused by many men over the years, is in contrast to the self-concept of Zoe, who won’t tolerate being so degraded. The fact that Eric grabs this woman and shoves her away, as he has done to Zoe, is a reflection of the kind of misogyny that metastasizes when men are so poor and powerless that they feel they have to mistreat women in order to feel at least a little less dog-like themselves.

This state of being at the lowest of the low, when one feels one has to escape into drugs, degrade women, and take money by violence, is comparable to how the poor French peasants surely felt just before the French Revolution, for feudalism had left them in just such an extreme state of penury.

It is significant, therefore, that Eric, Zed, et al are going to rob the Banque Internationale de Paris on July 14th, Bastille Day. On the day of the Storming of the Bastille, they are doing their storming of the bank. Accordingly, one can view the bank heist as an allegory of the ten years of the French Revolution, shrunk to the space of a day.

When Eric speaks to Zed about the “greedy capitalists” at the BIP, as opposed to him, Zed, and the other poor thieves, this dualistic contradiction can be allegorized as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette vs. Maximilien Robespierre and the sans-culottes. The contradiction of bourgeois vs. proletarian is thus represented as that of feudal lords vs. peasants.

While there were originally hopes to help the poor (“liberté, égalité, fraternité“), the French Revolution was ultimately a bourgeois uprising, replacing feudalism with capitalism, so it was nothing like socialism. While a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was written, and the Jacobins abolished slavery, these new human rights were conspicuously not extended to women.

Now for the allegorical parallel. While Eric derides the BIP’s “greedy capitalists” (whom I see as representing greedy feudal lords in the film), he and his band of merry men have no intention of sharing their stolen booty with the poor. They’d use it to make themselves rich, to be the new greedy capitalists…were they smart enough to plan that far ahead. As far as not extending human rights to women is allegorically concerned in the film, well, just watch how Eric treats them.

Indeed, such attitudes are what we need to watch out for when encountering the Erics of today, namely, the right-wing libertarians and their moronic extreme, the ‘anarcho’-capitalists. Just as the BIP and police who stop Eric’s gang from stealing the gold represent the government-regulated version of capitalism, so do Eric and his thieves represent, on this allegorical level, the deregulated, “free market” version.

The thieves break the law and steal to be rich because they represent capitalists who want to be rich without paying their fair share of taxes. The thieves’ plan fails, as would the chimeric dream of ‘anarcho’-capitalists, and it dies a still birth, because contrary to the right-wing libertarians’ utopian fantasies, capitalism cannot exist without a state to protect private property.

Now, while some government regulations involve social programs for the poor and disadvantaged, many others benefit the big capitalist at the expense of the small capitalist, squashing out competition and leading to monopolies; hence, as Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929). Still other regulations exist to save capitalism from its contradictory self, such as Keynesian government interventions to revive the economy, or anti-trust laws to prevent monopolies. The point is that right-wing libertarian notions of government regulations as all being inherently ‘socialist’…or ‘evil’…are idiotic over-generalizations.

So, Killing Zoe can be allegorized in two ways: one, as the French Revolution in miniature, and two, as right-wing libertarians’ failed attempt to save “free market” capitalism from the banks and from the state. While I agree that Bush‘s, Obama‘s, and Trump‘s bailing out of the “too big to fail” banks was wrong, I recognize, unlike the right-wing libertarians, that the bailouts were necessary–from the ruling class’s point of view–to save capitalism from self-destructing. I’d have preferred not bailing them out so capitalism would die, then be replaced with socialism. But I digress…

To return to the French Revolution allegory, Eric, as the leader of the gang and the one who does the most spilling of blood, can be seen as–more or less–a nihilistic version of Robespierre. It is Eric’s Reign of Terror that we see among the bank’s hostages, who include an American tourist (played by Rich Turner) who is too stupid and arrogant to keep his mouth shut, and gets blown away by Eric. Even Ron Jeremy is briefly seen as a bank concierge getting shot. Finally, there’s Zoe, who has the iciest of frowns when she sees the man who, just the night before, threw her out naked and dripping wet into the hotel hall.

While Eric and Zed are in the basement, working on opening the safe to get at the gold, the other thieves who are watching over the hostages amuse themselves by listening to a joke told by Ricardo. Part-time call girl Zoe has to listen to him tell a story about a man, just released from prison, who is obsessed with his desire to perform cunnilingus on a woman, but has only enough money to pay for an ugly prostitute with breasts that sag down to her waist and who has pieces of egg, beef, and corn in her vagina, all to her licker’s shock and disgust.

Zoe and the other female francophone hostages surely find it the hardest to have to endure listening to a joke that not only reduces a woman to a piece of meat, but to a revolting one. Eric, we learn, isn’t the only one of the thieves with a disrespectful attitude towards women. This moment is another example of how this miniature French Revolution doesn’t affirm women’s rights any better than the historic one did. It also allegorically illustrates the link between right-wing libertarianism and sexism.

After being pushed hard enough by Eric, Zoe fights back to assert her right to live and be treated like a human being. Eric and Oliver try to kill her, but Zed, the only one of the thieves who respects human life, fights them to protect her.

Indeed, Zed, the other character with a Z-name, is a double of Zoe, another affirmer of life. The only time he kills anyone is when a guard of the gold vault, whose face has been mangled by an explosive thrown in there by Eric, and who naturally doesn’t wish to live out the rest of his life disfigured, says to Zed, “Je veux mourir.”

The police, surrounding the bank and having thrown tear gas into it, represent–in my allegory–the European countries opposed to the ending of feudal France. They also represent–in my second allegory–the enforcement of the state-regulated form of modern capitalism.

After some nasty fighting between Eric, Zed, and Zoe in the basement, police come in with their automatic weapons. Eric, gun in hand, tries to shoot his two bleeding enemies lying on the floor, but he’s out of ammo. The cops all shoot Eric anyway, proving their equal propensity to violence as his. The capitalist state is as bloody in its hegemony as the “free market” capitalist society is.

Eric’s body is riddled with bullets in a manner similar to the shooting of Santino in The Godfather and the protagonists of Bonnie and Clyde. The shooting stops, with Eric’s HIV-infected blood having sprayed all over Zed and Zoe; and after a long, overly-dramatic moment of Eric wobbling and swaying on his feet, with his lips slightly curled up into a smirk, he finally falls dead on the floor. As the personification of death, he’s happy to die.

Zoe tells the police that Zed is just another customer. He leaves the bank with her. We can see the beginnings of a relationship between them, but have they contracted AIDS from Eric’s blood? Is this what “killing Zoe” means?

The film ends as it began, with the driver’s POV of the streets of Paris, but now with a shot of the Arc de Triomphe, which was commissioned in 1806, with Emperor Napoleon at the height of his success and power. This shot of the Arc de Triomphe thus represents the end of the film’s French Revolution in miniature, for the historic revolution ended with Napoleon’s rise to power. The restoration of the capitalist order in the film thus represents the restoration of the French class hegemony at the end of the 18th century.

If our two Zs are now HIV-positive, though, then even in death, Eric is still a killer. Death, be proud, for thou shalt not die.

So, in this film, we see so many dualities and contradictions: Zed and Zoe (with zed as the last letter of the alphabet, symbolizing the end of life, or ζωή), life/death, Eros/Thanatos, rich/poor, capitalists/proletarians, monarchs/peasants (symbolically speaking), English/French, fantasy/reality, mania/depression, libidinal/anti-libidinal egos, and exciting/rejecting objects. Dialectics permeate Killing Zoe.

Bullies Are the Worst People in the World

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When I speak of bullies, I’m not limiting my meaning to the big, bad kid at school who picks on kids smaller and weaker than he is. I don’t just mean the muscleman at the beach who kicks sand in the face of a skinny man. I don’t speak only of gossips who spread false rumours to destroy their victims’ reputations.

I speak of anyone who uses intimidation, violence, and manipulation to gain power and control over others. Rape, in this sense, is a kind of bullying. Spousal abuse is. So is emotional abuse, whether in the family, at school, in the workplace, or online.

There is geopolitical bullying, too, in the form of imperialism. For example, apparently, it isn’t bad enough that there are military bases surrounding China in what John Pilger has called “a giant noose.” Nor is it bad enough that there are threatening US navy ships in the South China Sea. Or that the US was giving financial and propagandistic support to the Hong Kong rioters. Or that the Trump administration sold over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan to point them at China.

Now, in part because of Trump’s racist blather about the “China virus” and “kung flu,” Asian Americans have been subjected to racially-motivated attacks and hate crimes, including the recent shootings in massage parlours in Atlanta.

Other forms of geopolitical bullying include the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the Saudi war on Yemen, with billions of dollars in weapons sold to the Saudis by the US, the UK, Canada, and European countries. The ongoing American military presence in so much of Africa, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan are also examples of such bullying.

Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm, in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, discusses what he called the sadistic character, that of someone given to violence towards others not just for its own sake, but for the sake of having power and control over others. “Sadistic character traits can never be understood if one isolates them from the whole character structure. They are part of a syndrome that has to be understood as a whole. For the sadistic character everything living is to be controllable; living beings become things. Or, still more accurately, living beings are transformed into living, quivering, pulsating objects of control. Their responses are forced by the one who controls them. The sadist wants to become the master of life, and hence the quality of life should be maintained in his victim. This is, in fact, what distinguishes him from the destroying person. The destroyer wants to do away with a person, to eliminate him, to destroy life itself; the sadist wants the sensation of controlling and choking life.” (Fromm, page 325)

Bullies gather in groups with a charismatic leader backed by flying monkeys and enablers. This back-up helps to perpetuate the illusion that the leader, typically a narcissist or psychopath in reality, is a good person. On the other side of the coin, these bullies paint a false picture of the victim as a victimizer, or as someone deserving of only contempt.

A historical example of such collective narcissism as a group of bullies persecuting people in the millions was Nazi Germany, with Hitler as their charismatic, but narcissistic leader, with the SS and SA as his flying monkeys and enablers. The Jews, Roma, gays, the mentally and physically disabled or ill, and political and religious opposition to Naziism were all the victims, their victimhood being rationalized by their tormentors as a kind of ‘retribution’ for having somehow ‘victimized,’ ‘polluted,’ or ‘burdened’ the ‘Aryan race.’

The point is that bullies engage in projection, pretending that their victim is the villain, in order to justify the horrible things they do. On the other hand, bullies like to fancy themselves as the ‘good guys.’ They project their viciousness and introject their victim’s goodness. Not a fair trade.

The virtues that bullies assume include a false sense of moral, intellectual, and physical superiority, while they denigrate their victims as selfish, stupid, and weak. To use the political example again, the imperialist bully countries fancy themselves as more democratic, more civilized, more modern and progressive, and more respectful of human rights. (e.g., so-called “American exceptionalism.”)

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In my post, The Toxic Family of Imperialism, I compared what the Western imperialists are doing to the people, for example, in the Middle East and China to what a narcissistic family does to the assigned family scapegoat. This comparison is important in understanding how serious a problem bullying is. My political application of the problem is meant to show that bullies aren’t just bad people–they’re the worst of the worst.

The only real difference between a bully in the ordinary world and one in the upper echelons of political and corporate power is a difference in opportunity. Just because a bully at school, in the average lower or middle-class family, or at work, hasn’t terrorized anywhere near as many people as, say, a politician who orders drone bombings, who imposes starvation sanctions, or who engineers a coup d’état to replace a leftist Latin American government with a right-wing dictatorship, doesn’t mean the former kind of bully is somehow less merciless than the latter kind. If given the chance, the former would probably love to exercise power and dominance over a large number of people, because it’s in the nature of the sadistic character to enjoy stepping on as many people as possible.

Bullies enjoy exploiting unfair advantages over others rather than bettering themselves through their own personal efforts. Accordingly, they rarely pick on those their own size and strength, but go after those weaker than them. They like to twist this around and call their victims ‘wimps,’ ‘cowards,’ and ‘weaklings,’ but it is the bully who is the coward for attacking only those whom it’s easy to attack, instead of looking at him- or herself in the mirror and facing up to, and dealing with, his or her own personal problems.

To use the political analogy one more time, consider, for example, how right-wing Americans will denigrate countries like the DPRK, Cuba, Venezuela, etc., as ‘failed socialist states,’ yet fail to see the spectacular failures of their own capitalist state. If we can see this hypocrisy on a political level, we should be able to see it on a personal level, too. Just as the bullied countries aren’t really the failures, and the bullying countries are not only the cause of those failures, but also have many failures of their own, so are ordinary, individual people who are bullied not the problem, but rather, their bullies are the problem, because they’re the cause of their victims’ problems, a projection of their own pathologies.

So if you, Dear Reader, have been victimized by bullying, especially to the extent of having C-PTSD and therefore having a cruel inner critic, you need to stop blaming yourself for having suffered such victimization. You weren’t bullied because you are weak: how weak or strong you personally happen to be is irrelevant; you were bullied because bullies are assholes. Just because they can bully you, doesn’t mean they should.

You don’t need to improve yourself to be worthy of love. You’re already worthy of being loved.

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Repeat to yourself these words: “The bullying wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.” Over and over again.

It was their fault.

Bullies are the worst people in the world.

Victims, for all our faults, are far better than them. Never forget that.

Analysis of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

Bonnie and Clyde is a 1967 crime drama written by David Newman and Robert Benton, loosely based on the early-to-mid-thirties crime spree of the Barrow gang. The film was directed by Arthur Penn; it stars Warren Beatty (who also produced it) and Faye Dunaway, and costars Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard. All five of these actors were nominated for Oscars, with Parsons winning.

Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of filmmaking (New Hollywood), with its shockingly bloody gunshot wounds (produced by squibs), jump cuts (courtesy of the direct influence of the late fifties/sixties French New Wave; in fact, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were consulted during the making of the film), and sexual innuendo, helping to bring the old, prudish Production Code to an end and replacing it with the MPAA ratings system.

As good and ground-breaking as the film is, though, don’t expect that watching it will leave you well-informed about the real history of Bonnie and Clyde. The film not only romanticizes the crime spree, making the Barrow gang into social rebels and heroes to the late sixties counterculture, but it also plays fast and loose with what actually happened back in the early-to-mid-1930s. The real crime duo’s meeting place was totally different (at the home of Barrow’s friend Clarence Clay, not at Bonnie’s home); they robbed far fewer banks (mostly grocery stores and gas stations); there’s no evidence that they robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; Bonnie was already married (to Roy Thornton, who was in prison himself during and after the crime spree), and the real Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle) and Blanche Barrow (Parsons) were totally unlike the weak, humiliated portrayals seen in the film.

The film was reviled on its first release, most audiences being disgusted with the excess violence. But over time, it has become a classic, to the point where Quentin Tarantino said film history can be divided into films made before and after Bonnie and Clyde, that is, that the cinema of the seventies started with this late-sixties movie.

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

Though the writers denied intending any deeper meaning behind their movie, their having changed so much of the history, and indulgently so (they were originally even going to have Clyde be bisexual!), to suit their purposes, suggests at least unconscious motives. Therefore, I feel free to interpret the film’s meaning as I will.

The film’s mythology of the Barrow gang, who “rob banks,” portrays them as sympathetic to the poor, and as society’s rebels who are sticking it to the Man. I will carry that line of thinking a little further, and say that their crime spree is symbolic of a revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists. Their being shot and killed by the police thus represents a counter-revolution and restoration of capitalism.

We see black-and-white pictures of Bonnie, Clyde, et al during the opening credits, establishing a photograph motif symbolizing the fixed image, the idealized myth, of the Barrow gang, as opposed to who they really were. This contrast between ideal and real is reinforced immediately after in the opening scene, with Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) nude in her bedroom and looking at herself in the mirror. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which we have the contrast between the idealized mirror reflection (her ideal-I), a unified totality (just as in those photos), and the woman looking at it, she who feels lacking, fragmented physically and psychologically, and discontented with her life.

Her inner fragmentation is related to her fragmented relationship with the outside world, that is, her social alienation and that of her species-essence. The jump cuts in this scene, the deliberately choppy editing, symbolize her fragmentation. The shot of her lying on her bed, with her head between the bars of the head of her bed, make her look imprisoned. She bangs her fists in frustration on the bars like a prisoner wanting to be free, for she has a dull job as a waitress, and she wants more out of life.

Then her chance to be free arrives, outside, by her mother’s car.

She looks out the window and sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mom’s car. Her choice of words to address him is significant: she calls out, “Hey, boy!” She’s up there, calling down to him from the second floor, addressing the young man as “boy.”

This moment introduces another theme of the movie: the reversal of sex roles. She hollers down at him, rather than, say, him looking down at her and calling her “girl.” This role reversal, many more examples of which we’ll see soon enough, symbolizes–by challenging the validity of traditional sex roles–a movement towards the equality of the sexes, which in turn is a necessary part of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.

She quickly gets dressed and goes down to meet him. They walk together, buy bottles of Coke, and the sexual innuendo between them commences as we see her with her lips around the bottle top, sensuously drinking in a way suggestive of fellatio. She’s skeptical of his claim to be a thief until he pulls out a pistol, then lowers it to his crotch area, giving the gun obvious phallic symbolism. The sexual innuendo continues when she touches his gun, as if she’d like to masturbate him.

He goes off and robs a store, firing his gun as he and Bonnie race off in a car. She’s so thrilled with his daring that she wants to make love with him. They pull over by some trees, and she jumps on him and covers his face with kisses.

Here we have another reversal of sex roles: she is the sexual aggressor, not the man. In fact, the reversal is carried even further when he has to fight her off…for we learn that he is impotent.

Making Clyde impotent is yet another indulgent invention of the scriptwriters, who earlier considered putting Clyde in a scene involving a bisexual ménage à trois with Bonnie and CW Moss (Pollard). This earlier idea was scrapped for being obviously too risqué even for the radical sixties, especially since the Production Code, though moribund from an increasingly lax enforcement, still wasn’t quite dead yet.

I wonder if the scriptwriters’ inspiration, for bisexuality on the one hand and impotence on the other, came from the fact that the real Clyde Barrow, while incarcerated in Eastham Prison Farm from 1930 to 1932, was raped by an inmate. Either way, this all adds to the theme of sex role reversal by making (or at least seeming to make) Clyde, in one sense or another, sexually passive.

In any case, he does feel emasculated, and his chopped-off toes symbolize such a castration. Small wonder he needs to fire that phallic gun of his, ejaculating bullets to compensate for what he feels to be his incomplete manhood. On the other hand, his giving Bonnie his gun to practice firing at a tire, behind a home they’ve squatted in (repossessed by a bank), is symbolically giving her a phallus, thus once again bringing about a sex role reversal.

When the fledgling duo of thieves see the family that has lost their home to the bank, they show their sympathy. Clyde fires bullets into the sign saying that the family’s home is now the bank’s property, and he tells the father, “We rob banks,” with a proud grin.

Clyde gives his gun to the father and a man named Davis (who worked there with the family), allowing them to fire bullets at the sign and house windows, to release their frustration at the bank’s taking it away from them. Davis is black, incidentally, and he is treated with pleasantly surprising respect, given the time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the American south. He is referred to by name, not as the ‘coloured fellow,’ or the ‘Negro,’ or any other word beginning with n. This sympathy and comradeship against such capitalist institutions as banks and against racism shows how the Bonnie and Clyde of the film represent socialist expropriators of the ruling class, as well as friends of the people.

Later, Clyde–after telling Bonnie not to be nervous about their next job (while he is the one obviously nervous)–attempts a robbery of a small bank that has gone out of business and lost all of its money due to the Depression. When she learns of the bank’s lack of money, Bonnie laughs at Clyde as they hurry away in their car. His embarrassment is another symbolic emasculation, a lowering of him from the unattainable male chauvinist ideal, showing him to be her equal. He fires a few ejaculatory bullets in the window of the bank in a pathetic attempt to save face.

They begin to build up the Barrow gang by adding CW Moss, a composite of WD Jones and Henry Methvin, as their getaway driver. First, Clyde shows his inadequacy during their next bank heist by only weakly saying, “This is a stick-up,” then saying it again loud enough to be heard by all in the bank. Then, Moss demonstrates his incompetence by parking their getaway car where Bonnie and Clyde can’t find it.

Both men’s failings once again show the myth of male superiority, showing Bonnie to be their equal.

While we don’t see any signs of incompetence in Bonnie, who is far less experienced as a criminal than Clyde or Moss, Parsons’s portrayal of Blanche, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), is most unflattering. Her hysterics so annoyed the real Blanche, who was alive to see the film, that she complained of the writers and Parsons making her “look like a screaming horse’s ass!”

And Parsons, of all the nominated actors in the film, was the one to win an Oscar, which must have embittered the real Blanche all the more.

While, on the one hand, we have the lowering of men from their chauvinistic high horse, we also have the urge to raise women higher, where we see Bonnie succeeding and Blanche failing. Bonnie, the liberated woman of the movie, naturally loses her patience with Blanche and her traditional womanhood. As unpleasant as it may be to watch Bonnie verbally abusing Blanche, still, the demand for her to toughen up is as necessary–for the sake of sexual equality–as it is to see the men humbled.

Speaking of Bonnie as a feminist icon in the film, another reversal of sex roles happens when Clyde takes that famous photograph of Bonnie with his cigar in her mouth and his gun in her hand, leaning against the car. The gun and cigar make her into the phallic woman, an idealized, strong version of herself making the photo comparable to the ideal-I she saw in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the film.

The ideal of those photos, still images showing people as unified totalities instead of the fragmented people we all feel ourselves to be, is a motif in this film connected with the image of Bonnie at the mirror. The pictures are representative of the Imaginary Order, establishing the self as an illusory, idealized ego.

The photos of the real Bonnie and Clyde that were discovered in their hideout in Joplin were published in the newspapers, adding to the grandeur of the myth of the Barrow gang. The contrast between, for example, the photograph of Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and the real Bonnie, who didn’t smoke cigars, demonstrates this difference between the ideal and the real. That photo may have made her look like a cigar-chomping, gun-brandishing moll, but the real Bonnie wasn’t as tough as all that.

So the screenwriters were perhaps a bit more justified in their mythologizing and romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde than it would seem, since the media of the 1930s were doing a mythologizing and romanticizing of their own. This is a story of idealized images, as contrasted with the disappointing reality of (in the film) an impotent Clyde, a dim-witted Moss, and a screaming, weak Blanche. The movie’s idealizations, in turn, contrast with the disappointing reality that these thieves were no Robin Hood and his band of merry men, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but were just common criminals, Clyde having been especially hardened by the traumatizing prison rapes he suffered.

Added to the deliberate falsifying of history is the film’s anachronistic use of bluegrass banjo music, which hadn’t existed until the mid 1940s.

More romanticizing of the Barrow gang occurs when they rob a bank, but let a poor man keep his money. They’re violent only to those who try to protect the wealth of the establishment–the cops. Hence, my allegorizing of them as socialist revolutionaries.

The stolen money is divided up fairly among all the members of the gang. Even Blanche, who sticks up for herself and demands her share, gets hers. Unlike in capitalist society, where banks can seize a poor family’s home and transfer wealth up to the 1%real robbery!–the socialists that our expropriating revolutionaries represent here understand the principle, “From each according to his ability [i.e., Bonnie, Clyde, and Buck, who’ve robbed the bank], to each according to his needs [i.e., Moss and Blanche, who were outside or in the car].”

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer follows and tries to catch the gang, but he’s caught himself, then humiliated in photos taken of him with the gang and later sent to the newspapers. This never actually happened. Hamer was a well-respected law enforcer, inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame; his posse shot and killed Bonnie and Clyde not out of a wish for revenge over his wounded pride, but out of their need to stop a gang of violent cop-killers. In fact, his widow and son sued Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character, getting an out-of-court settlement.

The Barrow gang needs a new car after that bank robbery, so they steal one owned by an undertaker, Eugene Grizzard (played by Gene Wilder). The theft of Grizzard’s car, and the kidnapping of him and his girlfriend, Velma Davis (played by Evans Evans), seem to be based on those of Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone.

Eugene and Velma have been making out when the car theft occurs, so the two lovers race out after the Barrow gang in her car. Furious, Eugene puts on a phoney show of macho bravado in his shouting that he’s “gonna tear them apart!” But when Velma, the driver, warns that the thieves may have guns, he immediately loses his courage and tells her to turn around so they can inform the police.

In this comic scene, we see another reversal of sex roles. He is all emotional, while she is keeping her cool. She is driving because it’s her car, of course, but the visuals of a woman driver and male passenger, as opposed to the traditional vice versa, still reinforces the role-reversal theme. Ultimately, though, the Barrow gang’s possession of phallic guns (including the women) vs. Eugene’s not having any is a symbolic emasculation for him, a male humiliation comparable to Clyde’s impotence, Moss’s slow-wittedness, and Hamer’s photos with the gang.

Just as a little boy experiences a symbolic castration when confronting the nom (or Non!) du père, with its prohibition against Oedipal incest with Mother, so is Eugene experiencing a kind of ‘legal prohibition,’ if you will, against getting his stolen car back; for in the world of the Barrow gang, a world symbolic of the proletarian dictatorship, the poor have the ‘legal’ right to expropriate the bourgeoisie. Eugene and Velma are, by their appearance and their nice-looking cars and house, clearly middle-class.

The Barrow gang chases after, catches, and kidnaps Eugene and Velma, and at first they’re friendly with the two, Buck telling them his silly joke about the cow’s milk mixed with brandy, and the gang buying them hamburgers. But when Eugene tells them he’s an undertaker, an instance of foreshadowing of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s fate, she gets apprehensive and insists on kicking them out.

Scared and craving a reunion with her mother, Bonnie runs off. The gang finds her, and they agree to a visit with her family. This visit, with her mother’s fear for her clearly apparent, strengthens our sense of sympathy for her and for the rest of the gang.

Clyde tries to reassure Bonnie’s mother that he’ll find legitimate work as soon as the Depression is over. Here’s the thing: economic hardship has a way of turning desperate people into criminals, for it’s capitalism’s inherent nature to lead to crises, due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The gang finds another temporary hideout, and Moss and Blanche go off to a restaurant to get takeout; but someone there recognizes them and calls the cops. Another shootout and escape leave Buck with a gunshot wound to the head, and Blanche with a bullet breaking the car window and blinding her in the left eye. They camp somewhere in the bush, but the cops find them and another shootout ensues, with the death of Buck and the arrest of grieving, hysterical Blanche. Both Bonnie and Clyde have been shot in the arm, but they and Moss get away. (In the film, by the way, we at no point see Bonnie get that crippling, third-degree leg burn that she got in real life.)

Now, if we see their bank robbing, shooting policemen, and showing mercy to the poor as allegorical of socialist revolution, then we can see the police raids as symbolic of counter-revolutionary attempts to restore capitalism. Consider, as historic examples, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the suppression of the weakly-defended, short-lived Paris Commune.

The injuries the Barrow gang have sustained, including the loss of Buck and Blanche, remind us of how important a good defence is. Similarly, during the Cold War, the USSR, China under Mao, and the DPRK learned of the necessity of having a strong nuclear defence. The Barrow gang has had only getaway cars and easily found hideaways to protect themselves in.

Moss drives wounded Bonnie and Clyde to an open-air place by a lake where a group of poor people, those that the Depression has cast aside, are staying. Moss asks them for some water. They huddle around the car to look on sympathetically at Bonnie and Clyde. Again, this solidarity among the poor and among society’s misfits shows how the Barrow gang can be seen as representative of socialists.

After that, Moss drives them to the house of his father, Ivan Moss (played by Dub Taylor). His pa is furious that he’s got a tattoo on his chest, the influence of Bonnie and Clyde, whom Ivan would give over to the police in a heartbeat, though he gives the two thieves dissembling grins the whole time.

The conflict between father and son here is a reflection of the generation gap of the late sixties. CW Moss’s tattoo says “Love,” suggestive of the hippies, while Ivan’s disapproval of it suggests the conservative parents of that later decade.

Dim-witted CW should know better than to put the care of his fugitive friends in the hands of his arch-conservative father; but he doesn’t have anywhere else to take them. This is why a better defence is so important.

Smiling Ivan, always pretending to be a hospitable friend to Bonnie and Clyde, is like the kind of fifth-column traitor that used to sneak into the socialist states and tear them apart, bit by bit, on the inside.

And CW is just weak-willed enough to allow his father and Hamer to set a trap for the crime duo, just as Blanche–both eyes bandaged, instead of only the one injured eye–is blind to Hamer’s scheming and tells him CW’s name. Such weak-willed people in the socialist states used to help the fifth-column traitors, too, in their efforts to restore capitalism, leading in turn to today’s neoliberal nightmare.

Bonnie’s and Clyde’s injuries heal, and she writes a poem on their life together. It is sent to the newspapers, a poem that foreshadows their deaths; but as a communication of who they are to the media, it replaces photographic images with language, a far more meaningful expression. Instead of still photos giving the illusory, unified egos of the Imaginary, we have the therapeutic language of the Symbolic.

Clyde is delighted with her poem when he sees it published in the papers; he feels she has told his story to the world. This makes him feel integrated with society, rather than alienated from it. The linguistic, expressive world of the Symbolic has healed him, and he can finally make love to Bonnie. He’d also like to marry her.

The problem is that Ivan has made a deal with Hamer to set a trap for our two lovers. The police will be lenient with CW in return for Ivan’s help in catching Bonnie and Clyde.

Bonnie and Clyde are going in their car to where the ambush has been prepared. Clyde is wearing sunglasses with the left eye glass broken out, symbolic of his inability to see straight and anticipate the danger he and Bonnie are in (In fact, it parallels Blanche’s wounded left eye).

As they’re approaching the trap, she gets a pear and eats it, sharing it with him; they look rather like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and making themselves nakedly vulnerable to the death sentence they’re about to suffer.

Ivan’s truck is on the side of the road, and seeing them nearing their death trap, he waves at them and gives them another dissimulating smile. Clyde stops the car and goes over to help Ivan with his apparently broken down truck.

In this scene, just as in the beginning one of nude Bonnie in her room, we see a number of jump cuts symbolic of fragmentation. This fragmentation, however, is not that of the Imaginary, but that of the Real, in which a chaotic lack of differentiation resides, the traumatic, non-differentiated world of terror and death. The language of the Symbolic cannot express this experience.

Ivan slips under his truck for safety, just after we see a flock of birds fly out from the bushes where Hamer’s armed men are hiding; these birds are a bad omen, but the warning is too late for Bonnie and Clyde.

The jump cuts show the two lovers looking about in suspicion, then at each other one last time as they resign themselves to their fate. This looking in each other’s eyes is a mirroring of their love for each other, paralleling Bonnie’s looking in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the movie. In their love, they see themselves in each other.

Then the bullets fly out.

Since guns in this film are phallic, the bullets are symbolic ejaculations. Hamer’s sense of manhood has been humiliated, especially by Bonnie’s kiss on his lips when the photos are taken of him with the gang (hence his ejaculatory spitting on her afterwards), so his and the posse’s shooting of her and Clyde is him taking his revenge and regaining his sense of manhood. It’s his wish to humiliate them back in, symbolically, a similarly sexual and emasculating way, by raining, if you will, bukkake bullets all over their bodies, spraying red semen on them.

The two lie there dead, a physical fragmentation to complement their psychological fragmentation at the start of the film. Hamer and his posse emerge from the bushes and look at their bloody work, reminding us of the executions of the roughly 20,000 Communards, 147 of whom were shot against what’s now called the Communards’ Wall. We see Hamer’s men through the bullet-riddled glass of Clyde’s car, glass which gives some reflection of the trees behind, reminding us of Bonnie’s mirror from the beginning scene.

In all of these ways, we see the first and last scenes of the movie as doubles of each other: an opening scene of fragmentation, the alienation of capitalism; the middle of the film’s capers representative of socialist hopes; and the end as the brutal, bloody restoration of the original, fragmentary estrangement of society that is caused by capitalism.

The Ouroboros of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall

In the third volume of Capital, Marx explains, using a formula, how there’s a tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The numerator is the surplus value (s), and the denominator is the total capital (C) invested. This total capital is the sum of variable capital (v), or wage labour, plus constant capital (c), or money spent on the means of production (machines, equipment, raw materials, etc.–Marx, page 317). The quotient of s over C (or s over c + v) is the rate of profit. If constant capital rises, the denominator rises while the surplus value doesn’t, and there is a fall in the rate of profit.

Sometimes, in order to gain a (however temporary) competitive advantage, a company will invest in higher technology (i.e., new machines) to boost production. This means a rise in constant capital as against surplus value, resulting in a lower rate of profit.

Since value in a commodity comes from the socially-necessary labour time put into it, having a greater involvement of machinery in production means less human labour is going into it, so less value and a lower price. The lower price means people buy this company’s commodity more than that of the competition, hence this company’s competitive advantage.

Still, this advantage is only temporary, since the competition will learn of the new machinery/technology and will soon be compelled to use it in their own production, and the price of all commodities in this branch of industry will go down. With the lowering of the cost price will come a fall in the rate of profit.

Now, the fall in the rate of profit is only a tendency, happening gradually over a period of decades. It isn’t a straight, diagonal drop; there are many small bumps upward that accompany the overall drop. These upward bumps are caused by countervailing factors in the capitalist class’s attempts to reverse the fall in the rate of profit. These countervailing factors include such things as opening up branches in foreign countries, particularly in the Third World, for the sake of exploiting cheap labour.

Nonetheless, the fall in the rate of profit is never fully reversed, and the result of the unemployed and underemployed (because machines are gradually replacing them) not having the money to buy so many commodities means there is overproduction. This problem snowballs into the economic crises that plague us every ten to fifteen years.

Though Marx predicted that one crisis too many would result in a socialist revolution, crises don’t stop capitalists from being capitalists. For all of the blather we hear from right-wing libertarians that the “free market” is antithetical to the state, we Marxists know that the capitalist (not the “corporatist“) class always has used and always will use the state to further their interests. Hence, the bailing out of the banks by Bush, Obama, and Trump, and Keynesian economics‘ use of government intervention and spending to prevent or mitigate economic crises from 1945-1973.

So in these crises, we see a rise in the money of the ruling class along with the further immiseration of the poor. Along with that contradiction come others: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) can be accompanied by a rise in the mass of profit; and the TRPF results from the temporary rise in profits as a result of those boosts in production from the early improvements in machinery/technology.

Thus, the rising vs falling of profits, as well as the accumulation of wealth vs immiseration of the poor, are to be understood in terms of dialectics. If, Dear Reader, you have been following my posts on the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail to represent dialectically meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, which in turn is symbolized by the serpent’s coiled body.

So, as profits go up temporarily with boosts in production for particular businesses against their competition, we see a movement along the serpent’s body towards its head. We see similar movements towards the head when companies try to offset the TRPF by keeping wages down, intensifying worker exploitation, ensuring a sizeable reserve army of labour, imperialist inroads into foreign markets, etc.

Still, the reaching of the serpent’s head biting its tail will inevitably come, and the bitten tail of an economic crisis will come. The working of our way to an economic recovery is the movement from the bitten tail to the middle of the coiled body of the ouroboros; then the irresistible temptation to raise profits through increases in constant capital will lower the value of products through a lesser proportion of variable capital, and a move toward the biting head will come again. The cycle, a downward cycle leading to worse and worse crises, always repeats itself.

So, when is that ‘one crisis too many’ going to happen?

The socialist revolutions of the twentieth century happened in backward, pre-industrialized, Third World countries, not in the developed West of Marx’s predictions, where the flourishing of the productive forces were supposed to bring forth such abundance that communist society would be possible. Instead, the scheming capitalist class has figured out ingenious methods to adapt capitalism and help it survive even the most apocalyptic of crises.

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

With the Great Depression came FDR’s New Deal and the beginning of the dominance of Keynesian government interventions to save the capitalist system from itself. Many desperate people at the time were considering communism. A lot of people confuse the ensuing post-war capitalist accommodations (strong unions, high taxes for the rich, extensive state regulation of the economy) with socialism (rather than associating it with social democracy and welfare capitalism). On the contrary, the idea was to keep the Western working class from sympathizing with Marxism-Leninism by making capitalism seem ‘more comfortable.’

At the same time, a ruthless anti-communist propaganda campaign was going on during the Cold War, manifested in such varying forms as the spurious writing of ‘historians’ like Robert Conquest, books like The Black Book of Communism, the CIA‘s infiltration of the media, Ayn Rand‘s hack writing, and the Austrian School of economics.

So many people don’t realize how thoroughly they have been brainwashed with anti-communist propaganda, and this is especially true of those who grew up during the Cold War years, having heard, as naïve, impressionable children, about how ‘evil’ and ‘tyrannical’ the Soviet Union and Mao‘s China were. It’s gotten so bad that many today equate any kind of political corruption with some form of communism.

The political right extended their notion of ‘toxic socialism’ to include any form of government intervention, particularly those involving social programs and welfare, but in the context of a capitalist state. Hence such right-wing libertarians as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, etc., started recommending a rollback of those left-leaning programs in favour of the “free market” around the time of the oil crises of the 1970s.

Whenever times are difficult, one tends to want to change from the hitherto dominant system; in the case of the 70s, it was a change from the Keynesian/welfare capitalism to what would become our neoliberal nightmare today. Sadly, far too few people were well-versed enough in history to know that what Rand, Friedman, Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek were espousing was simply a return to the Gilded Age capitalism that had started the chain of events that ultimately led to the Great Depression in the first place.

The changes were small at first, since the focus of the 1970s and 80s was dissolving the Soviet Union and making all the socialist states return to capitalism. Reagan busted unions in the form of firing striking air traffic controllers, and he and Thatcher cut taxes for the rich and deregulated the economy. None of this constituted the ‘small government’ that libertarians fetishize, since Reagan bloated military spending at the same time. It’s not ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government; it’s government for the rich vs for the people.

Meanwhile, the Soviet/Afghan War that Brzezinski, during the Carter administration, had goaded the USSR into fighting was bleeding the Soviet economy dry. This problem, combined with the weakness of Gorbachev, means the Western imperialists knew what was coming; hence George HW Bush’s speech on September 11th, 1990, that we were entering a “new world order”…not that of the conspiracy theorists, since “new world order” can mean many things to many people, but the heralding of our post-Cold War, neoliberal, “free market” era.

Funny thing: around this time came another recession, which should have reminded us of the unstable nature of capitalism, and of the TRPF. But the fall of global communism was seen as a triumph for ‘freedom and democracy’ over ‘tyranny and totalitarianism,’ even though Russians unsuccessfully tried three times to save/restore the Soviet system, first through a brief coup ousting Gorbachev, second through an uprising against the Russian parliament, repressed by Yeltsin’s tanks, and third through an attempt to elect the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in 1996, but through the Clinton administration’s machinations, the extremely unpopular Yeltsin was reelected.

Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing?

Polls have since consistently shown that not only Russians but also East Europeans and East Germans, in large numbers if not majorities, have been nostalgic about the socialist systems of government that they lost over three decades ago. While things were generally bad throughout the twentieth century (and obviously throughout all of history, for that matter), if you were paying attention, Dear Reader, you’d have noticed that things started to get really…really shitty around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Without much of a major socialist alternative in the world to challenge global capitalism, the neoliberals knew they could do anything they wanted…to anybody. Accordingly, Clinton introduced NAFTA, he gutted welfare, ended the Glass-Steagall legislation that many think was a huge factor causing the 2008 financial crisis, enacted the Telecommunications Act that allowed mergers and acquisitions in American media, leading to most of it being owned by only six corporations, and had NATO bomb Kosovo, leaving a huge US military base there.

9/11 was a dream come true to defence contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin, since the US needed a new enemy, after the fall of communism, to justify the inflated budget of the military-industrial complex. Such is the logic, however diabolical, of capitalism: production and sales have to be kept up to counteract the TRPF. World peace? Ecological health? Social justice? All of these things be damned if they disrupt the steady flow of profit. Opposing those good things, for the sake of profit, may be evil, but it isn’t irrational.

The promotion of perpetual war, against Al Qaeda and ISIS, and threats of war against Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, has come to such a point that the American army has become a huge refuge for the unemployed, all for the sake of keeping defence contractors’ profits up. Not that the ruling class cares about the needs of the unemployed, of course.

What is particularly galling about not only the 2008 financial crisis–the worst since the Great Depression–but also the current financial crisis, surely an outright economic meltdown, is that while millions of people are being plunged into poverty, homelessness, and despair, the ruling class is doing better and better. The billionaire class grew tremendously in the 2010s, while for the rest of us the economy only ever so slowly pulled itself out of the mire. The same has been happening over this past year.

This is what I mean when I speak of the ouroboros of the TRPF: the problem moves in an endless downward spiral. There’s the reckless, unrestrained pursuit of profit, whose rate falls, resulting in a crisis (movement along the serpent’s body to its biting head). The crisis plunges us all into misery, but the capitalist class is bailed out by the bourgeois state instead of punished for its excesses, so it’s free to resume its rapacious pursuit of profit (movement from the serpent’s bitten tail along its coiled body towards its biting head once again). There is no learning from mistakes, only continued, unchecked greed.

This lack of learning, however, doesn’t mean the capitalist class isn’t getting nervous about the rising anger of the people. Our overlords have used one devious tactic after another to distract us and goad us into fighting with each other instead of fighting them. These tactics range from resorting to fascism (Bolsonaro, the far-right in Ukraine, Anez in Bolivia, Trump’s tendencies, etc.) to exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to isolate (lockdowns) and alienate people from one another (social distancing) on the one hand, and to generate profits from it (the sale of masks and repeated vaccinations) on the other.

Regardless of where we, as leftists, stand on the coronavirus controversies (yet another way for the ruling class to divide us)–Do we believe it’s real, or a rebranding of the flu?–we should at least agree that the capitalist class and their media are exploiting the issue for their own private gain. From Pharma man to ‘farmer,’ Bill Gates, who has no background in medicine, way too much money, and therefore way too much influence over the WHO, CDC, etc. shouldn’t be trusted. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are losing their jobs (and with that, their already-shitty-as-it-is medical insurance), their homes, and their already teetering mental health.

Are we going to allow yet another movement along the ouroboros’s body until it reaches its biting head again? Will this or the next crisis lead to “the Great Reset” of what suspiciously sounds like a return to some form of feudalism, or will it lead to a socialist revolution? This bullshit stops when we all put our feet down and say, “Enough!”

Analysis of ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane is a 1941 film produced and directed by Orson Welles, and written by him and Herman J. Mankiewicz. It stars Welles in the title role, or Charles Foster Kane, with Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, and Agnes Moorehead.

It is regarded as not only one of the greatest films of all time, but by many as the greatest film of all time, with its distinctive cinematography, makeup, and narrative style being seen as way ahead of their time. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus and camera angles going upward to include ceilings in shots, even cutting into the floor to achieve such unusual angles. Makeup realistically conveyed aging in Kane and other characters shown over a span of decades; and the non-linear narrative showed Kane’s life in flashbacks, from multiple points of view.

Such tropes as a reporter seeking to uncover a mystery (in this case, the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”), and the retelling of the past from multiple points of view, have influenced such films as Velvet Goldmine. And like the mysterious pop star in that movie, Kane is a wealthy, powerful, and narcissistic man loved by many…and hated by many more.

While based mainly on right-wing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a composite character based also on left-leaning newspaper man Joseph Pulitzer, and businessmen Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick, whose second wife, Ganna Walska, was a failed opera singer, like Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Comingore). Since Hearst knew the movie would portray him in an unflattering light (How else would one portray a Nazi sympathizer who published such blatant falsehoods as the “Holodomor” in his newspapers?), he tried to stop the film from being made.

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

The film begins, significantly, with a shot of a sign saying “No Trespassing” (as will be the ending shot). Next, we see a shot of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, up high on a mountain in the background. The point of this beginning is to emphasize his ownership of private property, that he is a wealthy capitalist.

We see Kane in his last moments, with a closeup of his mouth as he whispers, “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe; then he dies, and we see an approaching nurse in the curved reflection of part of the shattered snow globe. To get close to Kane–something no one’s ever really done, not even his wives–is to know him, to know the connection between “Rosebud” and the winter scene of the snow globe: the sled of his childhood. The sight of the nurse in the snow globe’s reflection is symbolic of Kane’s narcissistic attitude towards other people–they are a mere reflection of himself, not independent entities unto themselves.

The narrative introduction to him and to his death is presented in an appropriate way: he was a newspaper man, so one should present his death in the form of newsreels and front-page articles. On the one hand, Kane–like Hearst–was a purveyor of sensationalistic yellow journalism; on the other hand, people today have an especial distrust of the mainstream media (90% of the American part of which is owned by six corporations, and which is internationally networked to serve the interests of the global capitalist class). These two considerations show that we should regard this media presentation of Kane’s death as a form of theatre, as artificial, as lies mixed in with truth.

For indeed, Kane’s whole life has been a cleverly sculptured lie. And since Kane is the personification of the mass media, this means that the film is, in large part, about media dishonesty. As Kane tells a reporter, “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.” Aptly ironic words from a producer of yellow journalism who then tells the reporter to read his newspaper instead.

Just as his life has been a lie, so is Xanadu. The film makes explicit the name of the mansion as a reference to Coleridge‘s “Kubla Khan” by quoting its first two lines in the newsreel. Kubla Kane, if you will, decreed a stately pleasure dome in Florida, his failed attempt at building paradise on earth, a huge mansion on a tall mountain reaching into the sky, suggestive of Babel.

He collected two of every animal on the earth to put in a zoo in Xanadu, suggestive of Noah’s ark, a symbolic attempt to bring man back from the sinful world and into Eden, part of his failed attempt at regaining paradise. Such extravagance reminds one of Michael Jackson’s animal collections, an eccentricity only the rich can afford.

Kane’s whole life has been an attempt to regain the paradise he lost as a child, that of parental love. No animals, statues, or mansion can replace such a loss, though. He has no one, nothing to look up to.

“Rosebud,” printed on his childhood sled, is an interesting choice of words. The sled glides on snow, whose coldness is suggestive of death and alienation, whereas the rosebud is suggestive of life and the warmth of human company. Therefore, a rosebud on top of death’s coldness is symbolic of his wish to maintain life and love over death and alienation, the carefree life of childhood over the dead conformity of adulthood.

In the scene of his childhood home in Colorado, young Charles is outside with his sled and throwing snowballs. Inside his home are his mother (Moorehead), his father, and Walter Parks Thatcher (Coulouris), who are discussing how the boy will inherit a huge fortune when he reaches twenty-five years of age; but he must immediately leave his parents to be taken care of by Thatcher until he comes of age and receives the money.

A good example of the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane is this scene, in which Mr. Kane is arguing with Mrs. Kane and Thatcher over the boy’s fate. All four characters, nearer and farther away on the screen, are equally in focus, suggesting what should be their equal importance. Since, however, the mining deed leading to the boy’s future fortune is in his mother’s name, the decision to give him over to Thatcher’s guardianship is hers alone, raising her importance over that of the others.

Accordingly, she and Thatcher are in the foreground in the shot, while Mr. Kane–whose wish to continue raising his son is being disregarded–is further back in the shot, and young Charles is the farthest back, behind the window and out in the snow, the one whose future and fate are being decided without his consent, the one whose emotional needs are not only being disregarded…they aren’t even being contemplated.

His well-meaning mother wants to ensure he’s financially as well-off as possible, but she’s oblivious to his emotional needs: to have the love of his mother and father at hand as he grows up. She has given no thought at all to the psychological scars she will be causing him through this unwitting emotional neglect.

Money can’t buy you love: that’s what Citizen Kane is all about.

According to Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self, healthy psychological structure is established through two poles: one of narcissistic mirroring (the grandiose self), and one of an idealized parental imago. When one pole is compromised or frustrated, the other can compensate; when both poles are compromised or frustrated, the person in question is in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which the defence of pathological narcissism may be erected. Young Charles, wrested away from his parents and thus with neither a mirror for his grandiosity nor a parental role model to idealize, will resort to narcissism to keep from falling apart…until even his own narcissism won’t save him at the end of the film.

Added to these problems is his unresolved Oedipal conflict. (This being a 1941 film, when Freudian ideas were still in vogue, it is not out of place to analyze it with those ideas.) He asks his mother if she’ll leave Colorado with him, which of course she won’t. Since having him cared for by Thatcher is her idea, this is tantamount to little Charles’s being betrayed by the object of his Oedipal desire.

His father acquiesces to the situation, and when he speaks of little Charles’s leaving with Thatcher, he tries to put on a happy face, telling the boy that he’ll be rich. Mr. Kane’s giving in to Mrs. Kane’s and Thatcher’s wishes, therefore, is another betrayal to the boy. The result is that his parents have become what Melanie Klein called the bad mother and bad father, frustrating little Charles instead of giving what he wants and needs, as the good mother and father would do.

This parental betrayal, as the boy would see it, results in splitting, which when projected out into the world, would in turn result in a perception of the world as all good or all bad…Xanadu, or Thatcher. And because Thatcher is Charles’s new guardian, and will remain so until he reaches age twenty-five and can claim his fortune, Thatcher is receiving a transference of growing Kane’s Oedipal hostility to the bad father.

Young Kane goes to study in a number of prestigious universities, where he meets Jedediah Leland (Cotten), and where he’s expelled from each of them, presumably to spite Thatcher, and because his pathological narcissism is way out of control. Again, to spite Thatcher (with the utmost success), Kane goes into the newspaper business.

He takes over the floundering Inquirer, and resorts to yellow journalism to hurt the business interests of rich landlords and businessmen like Thatcher, again to spite him. Kane rationalizes his newspaper’s dubious reporting by claiming he’s defending the interests of the common working man against bloodsuckers like Thatcher…but we shouldn’t forget that Kane, as a capitalist, and a particularly narcissistic one at that, is no better. His attacks on Thatcher and his ilk are just that: part of his personal vendetta against the symbolic bad father who took Kane away from his good father and mother. Recall that the Oedipus complex is a narcissistic trauma, a wish to hog Mommy and Daddy all to oneself; yet Kane has had them snatched away from him by nothing less than the capitalist system itself.

At a party, Kane puts on a show with pretty young women dancers and a man singing all about how great Kane is. It’s his grandiosity all put on display, a presentation of his grandeur that’s as phoney as that of his “singer” second wife, Susan Kane, née Alexander (Comingmore), on whom he’ll later project that grandiosity.

Now as with any narcissist, this grandiosity of Kane’s is really just a front to disguise how empty he feels inside. His outer grandiosity and vanity have a dialectical relationship with his inner self-hate. As Kane is seen dancing like a ladies’ man with the girls, Leland and Bernstein (Sloane)–Kane’s business associates–are discussing him, among other things.

In another example of the effectiveness of deep focus to bring about symbolism, all three men are in the shot, equally focused on to represent what should be their equal worth; but Leland and Bernstein are in the foreground, and Kane is seen further back, in the window reflection with the dancing girls…just like the shot of him as a boy out in the snow while Mr. and Mrs. Kane discuss his fate with Thatcher. His narcissism is derived from the lack of empathy and love he got from his parents, who discussed him without involving him. The shot of Leland and Bernstein, discussing Kane without including him, symbolizes this ongoing reality of Kane’s object relations.

Other examples of scenes whose visual effects symbolize Kane’s grandiosity–as a disguise for how small he feels inside–include the shot of an aging Kane giving Thatcher financial control over his paper: Kane walks away from the camera towards windows that, at first, don’t seem large, but when he reaches them, we see they’re much larger…making Kane much smaller than he seems.

Another example is in Xanadu, by a fireplace, where he is arguing with Susan; he walks away from her and towards the fireplace which, by the time he reaches it, is seen as much larger than we thought. Yet another example is when Kane is typing and finishing Leland’s negative review of one of Susan’s performances: Kane seems huge in the foreground, but when Leland approaches, he isn’t comparatively all that big anymore.

Other examples of how the clever camerawork reinforces symbolic meaning include the upward angles, symbolizing Kane’s urge to find an ideal to look up to, someone or something to replace Kane’s long-lost idealized parental imago, or to gratify his narcissism by having us look up to him. One shot, looking up at Thatcher during Christmas when Kane is a boy, represents the idealized parental imago as spoiled, ruined, turned into the banker as the symbolic bad father substitute.

Elsewhere, Xanadu, that castle up on a mountain, is the ideal transferred onto a place, a new Eden linking Kane–or so he’d have it–to God the Father. The mirror reflections–of the nurse in the broken snow globe, Kane in the window reflection while Leland and Bernstein are chatting, and old Kane walking past a multiple mirror reflection–all symbolize his need to have his grandiosity mirrored back to him, to have others mirror empathy back to him…because he sees his worth only in terms of such mirroring.

The deterioration of his first marriage, to Emily Norton (played by Ruth Warrick), niece of the American president, is given expression through clever cinematography. First, the newlyweds are shown together at a table at breakfast and very much in love…or so it would seem. Kane, in serving her breakfast and carrying on about how beautiful she is and how much he’s in love with her, is just demonstrating the first phase of the idealize, devalue, and discard cycle of narcissistically abusive relationships.

The scene switches quickly over the years, showing the changing relationship of Kane and Emily at the table, with her complaining of his constant preoccupation with his newspaper and emotional neglect of her. He’s going into the devalue phase of the relationship. They’re filmed separately now, rather than together in the same shot.

Next, he speaks derisively of her uncle, to which she reminds her husband that her uncle is the president. Kane imagines this “mistake” will be “corrected one of these days.” On another occasion, he speaks of making people think “what [he] tell[s] them to think.” His mask of modesty is slipping; his narcissism is showing.

Finally, through a shot of the two sitting at the ends of their table, we see how estranged they’ve become towards each other. In fact, instead of talking, they’re reading newspapers: his, the Inquirer, and hers, the Chronicle.

The discard stage comes around the time when Kane hopes to be elected governor of the state of New York. He has been having an affair with Susan Alexander, and boss Jim Gettys, fearful of losing to Kane and being made vulnerable to charges of corruption from Kane, blackmails him with the threat of exposing his adultery if he doesn’t back out of the race.

Kane’s campaign as a “fighting liberal” and advocate for the common working man, as against corrupt Gettys, is more fakery on Kane’s part. His public image as a “friend of the working man” is an example of his narcissistic False Self; he, the future “landlord” of Xanadu, is as much a rapacious member of the ruling class as Gettys is. Kane’s campaign occurs fairly near the time that he, in Europe, has hobnobbed with Hitler and Franco. His later denunciations of them mean nothing: a true friend of the working man would never be friendly with fascists. Here’s an example of Kane as representing Hearst.

Thatcher, in his animus towards Kane, calls him a “communist” (as many right-wingers do to anyone who is even one or two millimetres to the left of them), in spite of how fake his sympathies with the working man are. Actual labour organizers denounce Kane as a “fascist.” Yet Kane, in his false modesty, just considers himself an American–hence the ironic title of the film.

In his associating with fascists, then denouncing them (only for the sake of his public image, of course), Kane is really just showing himself as a typical example of the shady liberal, who bends to the left or right depending on which way the political wind happens to be blowing at the time. Comparable examples include LBJ and his war on poverty, along with his escalation of the Vietnam War on the mendacious Gulf of Tonkin incident. Elsewhere, there’s when Obama spoke of wanting to “spread the wealth around” while on the campaign trail; then when president, he bailed out the banks, and helped with the coup d’état that kicked out pro-Russia Yanukovych from Ukraine and replaced him with a pro-Western government and paramilitary units with neo-Nazis!

To go back to his beginning relationship with Susan, Kane meets her when a coach has splashed mud all over his suit, and she laughs at him, causing him a narcissistic injury he keeps well under control, but lets out just enough to ask her why she’s laughing. She doesn’t know he’s a big newspaper tycoon, and she’s encountered him in a vulnerable state, like a mother with her little boy.

In her apartment, he likes how she, not knowing who he is, likes him just for himself; so he opens up to her, as a little boy might divulge his vulnerabilities to his mother. Kane speaks of meaning to head over to a warehouse holding old possessions of his from his childhood (which, by the way, include his “Rosebud” sled); he also mentions the death of his mother years ago. This divulging of his personal life to a pretty young woman he hardly knows, to a woman who charms him with her giggles and her toothache, is because of a transference of his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Susan. In her, Kane has found a new ideal…

His forced defeat to Gettys (on whom, speaking of transferences, he’s shifted his hate of Thatcher), as well as the loss of his financial control over his newspaper businesses to Thatcher because of the Depression, means the pole of Kane’s grandiose self has taken a beating. As I said above about the bipolar self, though, Kane has the other pole, that of idealization, to compensate for his loss of narcissistic grandiosity.

…and this is where Susan, the would-be opera star, comes in.

Kane divorces Emily and marries Susan, planning to make her a great opera star; but in all of this, he’s just making her into an extension of himself (just as the narcissist has made “the working man” an extension of himself, people whom he’d gift with benefits, rather than people with rights they should have always had). Significantly, he says “we” will be an opera star, rather than she will be one. He thinks he owns her, just as (as Leland has observed) he thinks he owns the working man.

The particular problem here is, apart from Susan’s not really wanting to sing opera, that she simply isn’t talented enough. Still, Kane is fixated on making her a great opera singer, a fixation that begins when, on their first meeting, she mentions her mother having wanted her to sing opera; recall that here he’s just spoken of his mother’s death to her, too, and so this fixation is another of those elements that connects Susan to his Oedipal feelings for his long-lost mother, his original ideal.

Still, Susan can’t sing. Her singing teacher is frustrated with her inadequate voice to the point of throwing comical temper tantrums. She is especially incapable of the dramatic aspect of opera, for which Leland’s blunt review gets him fired by Kane. She cannot be his ideal…yet he won’t let her not be his ideal. As with Kane’s public persona and his newspaper, her ‘virtuosity’ is a lie.

Her suicide attempt forces Kane to accept her giving up on her singing. Their relationship continues to deteriorate after that. Her only way of passing the time half-way pleasurably is to do jigsaw puzzles, one of the first of which we see, significantly, is of a winter scene. Elsewhere, there’s the snow globe, which he first sees when he meets Susan.

When Jerry Thompson (played by William Alland), the reporter assigned to investigate the meaning of “Rosebud,” discusses at the film’s end how he’s never discovered that meaning (he himself is usually shrouded in shadows, implying that he’s the personification of Rosebud’s never-answered mystery), he speaks of Kane’s last word as a missing puzzle piece. Susan, the winter scene puzzle, the snow globe, the sled, and Kane’s mother back in snowy Colorado–they’re all interconnected.

When Susan finally leaves Kane, he falls apart because–having already lost the pole of grandiosity–he’s now lost the other pole, the compensating one of ideals. He, lacking psychological structure, fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle taken apart. By trashing the bedroom, he is trying to project outwards the tearing-apart of his inner world.

Kane’s loss of Susan, the ideal on whom he transferred his Oedipal feelings for his original ideal, his mother, has led him to contemplate the snow globe, whose winter scene and house remind him of his original Xanadu, his childhood home in Colorado, where he had the love of his parents, especially his mother. Losing Susan feels like losing Mother all over again; her leaving him is like Mother’s betraying signature on the dotted line and sending him away with Thatcher.

I’m guessing his mother bought him the sled. Even if not so, “Rosebud” symbolizes Kane’s objet petit a, what he chased for all his life–in the forms of the Inquirer, Emily, governor of New York, Xanadu, animals, statues, and Susan–but never got…his mother’s love.

Analysis of ‘Seven Samurai’

Seven Samurai is a 1954 Japanese epic film directed by Akira Kurosawa, and written by him, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. It stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, and Daisuke Katō, with Keiko Tsushima, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Minoru Chiaki.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, having a great influence on innumerable films after it. The Magnificent Seven is a 1960 cowboy adaptation of it. The assembling of the team of men to fight the villains, having originated in Seven Samurai, is a trope used by many films since, including even Marvel‘s Avengers. The climactic fight in torrential rain has been imitated in films like Blade Runner and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Quotes from Seven Samurai in English translation can be found here.

Though few will doubt the greatness of this film, many will find its length, almost three-and-a-half hours, daunting; and non-Japanese viewers may be bored with having to read the subtitles of a black-and-white film set in feudal Japan. So how can we help a young, Western audience used to the flash of contemporary action and superhero films appreciate this old classic? How can we get the current generation to relate to the predicament of its protagonists, peasants from a world long gone?

I believe we can achieve this by doing a Marxist allegory of the conflict between bandits and peasant farmers, who enlist the aid of samurai to stop the bandits from taking their food, as a conflict between capitalist imperialists, who invade Third World countries, and the oppressed poor of those countries, who need the aid of a revolutionary vanguard to stop the imperialists.

After all, what are the imperialist countries of the US and NATO, if not bandits who invade, bomb, and steal resources from other countries, as they have in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria? If the American imperialists don’t steal by direct means as these, they’ll do so through orchestrating coups d’état, as they have in countries like Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or the ultimately failed coup in Bolivia in 2019-2020.

Only through the organization of a vanguard political party could the Soviets have succeeded in repelling the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and in the Red Army‘s defeat of the Nazis during WWII. The peasant farmers in Seven Samurai are powerless against the bandits, who are armed not only with swords but also with muskets; just as the global proletariat is helpless against the imperial war machine, armed with state-of-the-art weapons technology…and with nukes. The proletarians of the global south need the leadership, training, weapons, and encouragement of a vanguard.

The film begins with the thundering hooves of the bandits’ horses as they approach the village of the peasants. Civil War in late 16th-century Japan has left the land lawless. Since Japan in my allegory is representative of our world today (recall that the film was made in 1954, when US imperialism was a big enough problem even then [e.g., the total destruction of North Korea during the Korean War, something Japan herself had experienced not quite even a decade before] to justify my allegory), the civil war can be seen to symbolize the current state of perpetual war, and its lawless disregard for the sovereignty of nations.

A peasant overhears the bandits discussing the plan to return to the village and steal the farmers’ barley once it’s harvested many months later. The peasant goes to tell the other villagers of the future danger, and they all plunge into grief and near despair.

The fear of a future attack can be compared to how Russians today must feel, with NATO activity near the Russian border; or to how Chinese must feel, with not only American military bases virtually surrounding their country in the shape of a giant noose, as John Pilger has described it, but also the US-backed provocations of the Hong Kong protestors, the American navy in the South China Sea, and the sale of over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan.

On top of this are the starvation sanctions imposed on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, and the continuous threats to their countries, as well as the economic embargo on Cuba and its recent labelling by Mike Pompeo, who freely admits to being a liar, as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Back to the film. While Manzō (played by Kamatari Fujiwara) suggests simply giving in to the bandits and hoping enough food will be left over so they’ll have enough to survive, one hot-headed peasant named Rikichi (Tsuchiya), angry because of a particular outrage (to be revealed later) done by the bandits against him the last time they attacked, wants to fight back. The willingness to acquiesce to the bullying bandits parallels how many today passively accept rising income inequality, endless wars, surveillance, and the piecemeal removal of all of our freedoms, while Rikichi’s hunger for revenge is comparable to those of us who know that revolution is the solution to today’s ills.

Other, more despairing peasants complain of land taxes, forced labour, war, droughts, and a useless, unsympathetic magistrate, and now there are bandits! These peasants wail that the gods never help them, and they wish just to die. Here we see parallels to today’s world, in which the middle classes are taxed up the kazoo rather than the rich; the government, which works for the rich, doesn’t care about the poor, and religion increasingly shows itself inadequate in giving us comfort.

The peasants decide to ask Gisaku (played by Kokuten Kōdō), a wise elder of the village, what he thinks they should do. He knows of a time when samurai saved peasants from a bandit attack, so he suggests finding samurai to help them. His declaration of the effectiveness of this plan is like a prophecy: thus he is like Marx, foreseeing the revolutionary uprising against our rich oppressors.

The peasants have no way of paying the samurai, though. All they have of value is their food. The old man suggests, therefore, that they find hungry samurai. We today must also find leaders who are as desperate as we are to help us free ourselves from oppression.

Millions of Americans find themselves jobless and in danger of being thrown out on the street; meanwhile, the wealth of the billionaire class continues to rise. They are today’s bandits, making peasants of us all.

Rikichi, Manzō, and their scouting party leave the village and go to a city in search of samurai, several of whom can be seen walking about with their sheathed swords. The peasants try asking a few for help, but are rebuffed by the arrogant samurai, who think it galling that lowly farmers would ask to hire men of their higher social class.

Since I consider the seven samurai who will help the peasants to represent the vanguard, these unwilling samurai can be seen to represent those more snobbish leftist academics and intelligentsia who would rather talk the Marxist talk than get their hands dirty and be in touch with the working class. Similarly, Trotsky didn’t think much of peasants, as contrasted with the sympathetic attitude of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao toward them.

And since we learn, later in the film, that samurai have actually attacked peasant villages, we can compare these arrogant samurai to the class traitors among the would-be vanguard, like Trotsky, Khrushchev, etc. This arrogance leads us to a discussion of one of the central themes of Seven Samurai: pride/honour vs. humility/shame, and the dialectical relationship between the two.

The peasants’ fortunes change when they encounter an aging rōnin willing to rescue a boy being held hostage by a thief in a small house. This samurai, named Kambei Shimada (Shimura), cuts off his chonmage (deemed a shocking degradation for a samurai) and dresses in a monk’s robes to trick the thief into thinking Kambei won’t hurt him.

Upon killing the thief and saving the boy, Kambei wins the admiration of all witnessing the rescue. He’s humbled himself by shaving his head and pretending to be an unassuming monk, but in doing so, he’s also raised his status among his onlookers to such a point that not only do the peasants hope for his help against the bandits, but the young son of a samurai named Katsushirō (Kimura) bows before him and begs him to let the boy be his disciple.

We see more of the dialectical unity of opposites when, after Kambei–humbly denying his greatness as a warrior (i.e., he’s typically lost battles)–refuses to be Katsushirō’s master, we see proud, buffoonish Kikuchiyo (Mifune) claim he’s a samurai; then Kambei, not wanting the boy to be influenced by such a fool, becomes his master.

At this point, it is apposite to explore how the characters compare and contrast with each other. These are fully-rounded characters, each with his or her share of faults, but still sympathetic and likeable.

Kambei is wise, reserved, and humble, but still able to laugh and be merry. Katsushirō is naïve, inexperienced, and eager to find men to look up to and idealize, and the handsome boy’s youthful passion allows him to be distracted by the charms of Manzō’s pretty daughter, Shino (Tsushima); but he has a noble heart, and he fights bravely.

Kikuchiyo may be a loud-mouthed ass who acts impulsively and earns the ridicule of the samurai far too often, but he also earns our sympathy when we learn that he was a peasant who lost his family in a samurai raid; and when he fights bravely and sacrifices his life to kill the leader of the bandits in the final battle, he earns our respect.

Rikichi is quick to anger, especially when the samurai tease him about needing a wife. He takes offence to these taunts because, as we learn later in the film, during the previous raid, the bandits abducted his wife (played by Yukiko Shimazaki) and made her their concubine.

Manzō is absurdly over-protective of Shino. Fearing she’ll be a target of samurai lust, he insists on cutting her hair short (making her feel dishonoured in a way comparable to how one would think Kambei would feel after his shaving of his head) and making the samurai think she’s a boy. Manzō’s patriarchal pride turns to shame when he sees his greatest fears realized: Katsushirō has seduced her. The shame is Manzō’s, though, not the young lovers’, for Katsushirō doesn’t see her as a mere plaything…he’s in love with her, and her foolish father doesn’t want to accept it.

So in these, and in all the other protagonists, there is a humanity that inspires sympathy in us and justifies the length of the film, for we learn to care about them. When we consider who these characters represent in my allegory, our caring for them can inspire us to care about the poor all over the world. These characters all have their needs, desires, hopes, fears, and pain, just as the global proletariat do, however invisible they may be to us in the First World.

Our introduction to the stoic master swordsman, Kyūzō (Miyaguchi) is another opportunity to see the dialectical relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō tests his abilities with another man in an open area, but they use lances. Kyūzō says he struck first, while the other man insists it was a tie, and he is so offended with the pride he projects onto Kyūzō that he challenges him to a swordfight.

Kyūzō warns him not to be foolish, but the proud opponent won’t take no for an answer. They fight with swords this time; Kyūzō’s opponent is loud, blustery, and ostentatious in his aggression, as against Kyūzō’s quiet poise and calm. Predictably, Kyūzō strikes first and kills the man.

Kambei and the peasants would have such a skilled swordsman join their cause, but he joins them only after a period of time to consider it. Kambei’s old friend and comrade, Shichirōji (Katō), joins them, as does good-natured Gorōbei (Inaba) simply because he finds Kambei an intriguing fellow samurai to work with.

Another example of nobility in humility is when Gorōbei meets Heihachi (Chiaki), a samurai of moderate ability who is willing to chop wood for an elderly man in exchange for food. These are the kind of people one wants for a vanguard: not careerists or opportunists who will drop us at the first sign of promotion or higher pay, but who understand the nobility of helping the poor for its own sake.

Near at hand is Kikuchiyo, who has been following the samurai and insists on joining them. His pride shifts dialectically into shame when he produces a scroll purportedly of his samurai lineage, though the name “Kikuchiyo” on the scroll indicates someone who’d be thirteen years of age as of the time of our story, not the actual thirty-something samurai wannabe.

Nonetheless, he is accepted into the group, if only because his asinine behaviour amuses the others; and so the group of seven samurai is complete. Indeed, when it is announced to the villagers that the samurai have arrived, and the villagers–under the paranoid, anti-samurai influence of Manzō–are afraid to come out of their huts and meet their seven visitors, Kikuckiyo sounds the village alarm, suggesting a bandit raid, and the villagers come out, begging the samurai to protect them. He has thus shown his usefulness.

Three samurai look over a map of the village and surrounding area, planning how they will defend it from a bandit attack. Shichirōji will have a fence made to block the western entry point, the southern entry will be flooded, and a bridge will be destroyed to prevent entry from the east. This use of tactics is paralleled by the use of theory by Marxists: without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement, something many on the left fail to understand.

The vanguard is also typically not appreciated by many on the left, just as the samurai aren’t initially appreciated by the peasants. Many on the left, if not most of them, sadly, believe the bourgeois lies and propaganda vilifying Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, failing to put the problems of the years of their leadership in their proper political and economic contexts; it’s assumed that the vanguard are the same as any other power-hungry group of politicians and demagogues.

Similarly, the villagers, having listened to Manzō, are afraid their daughters will be used by the samurai for their sexual sport, or are afraid that these seven samurai are no better than the typical, arrogant, predatory samurai. These forms of dissension are as bad for the peasants as is the danger of the bandits; just as the anti-communist left is as bad for the global poor as the capitalists are.

Another difficulty the samurai must deal with is their inability to defend the three outlying buildings. The core twenty in the centre are the priority, but those villagers living in the outlying areas don’t want to accept having to give up their homes and move into and crowd the centre.

In fact, while Kikuchiyo tries to raise the morale of the villagers by joking about the men giving their wives some loving that night, those villagers from the outer areas get angry and try to walk out. Kambei scolds them and, threatening them with his sword, makes them return.

Here we learn an important message about solidarity. We can’t repel imperial invasions and capitalist plunder without a unified working class and peasantry helping each other. Dissension among the various factions of the Soviets in the early 1920s, during a dangerous time when capitalist encirclement threatened the end of the USSR, forced the vanguard to be authoritarian.

Still, most of the Soviets backed their government, and poll after poll since the USSR’s dissolution has shown that a majority of Russians consider life under the Soviet system to have been a happier one than the current capitalist one in their country. Similarly, in the movie, the peasants come to love and appreciate the protection they get from the samurai.

After the intermission, we see the peasants harvesting the barley in the fields, and Kikuchiyo is eyeing the young women workers lustfully. Rikichi gets offended at some banter from Heihachi about getting a wife. That night, Heihachi talks to Rikichi about what’s troubling him and tries to get him to open up, which he won’t do, for he’s too ashamed to let the samurai know his wife has been abducted to be used to satisfy bandit lust.

Still, part of solidarity is the need for open communication among comrades, something difficult to achieve when there’s so much alienation caused by class conflict. Though the world depicted in Seven Samurai is that of late 16th century feudal Japan, the class conflict of such a world is easily compared with that of the modern world of capitalism. For as Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The conflict between feudal lords and peasants is clearly paralleled with the conflict between bourgeois and proletarians. Poverty and want compels many to commit theft in order to live, hence the bandits, as well as all the crime we witness in modern capitalist society. Providing for people’s basic needs–food, shelter, health care, education, employment, etc.–would reduce the compulsion to commit crimes to a minimum…except that the capitalists, who exploit workers and get rich off their value-producing labour, are the greatest bandits of all, and won’t allow for the needed provision.

Back to the film. Three bandits are spotted in the hills and, later, looking through the fence onto the village. Kikuchiyo opens his big mouth, endangering the village by revealing to the bandits that samurai are there to defend it. Kyūzō, Kikuchiyo, and Katsushirō are tasked with leaving the village and catching the three bandits before they can tell the others.

Kambei instructs Katsushirō only to watch the other two men catch the bandits. He lies hiding among the flowers while Kikuchiyo is up in a tree, ready to pounce on a bandit, and Kyūzō is sitting at the foot of the tree, hiding behind it and meditating as the three bandits approach.

In his meditation, Kyūzō is demonstrating No Mind, or wuxin. By emptying his mind of all distracting thoughts, he is embracing the void that dialectically encompasses nothing, or No-thing, and the Brahman-like everything, or what I would call the Infinite Ocean. This focus gives Kyūzō the connection to divinity needed to be ready to strike and kill without missing his target. The wise, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone, as it says in the Tao Te Ching.

When the bandits appear, Kyūzō strikes down and kills two of them, while Kikuchiyo falls on and captures the third, who–bound–is taken back to the village and forced to disclose the location of the bandits’ hideout. The villagers want to kill him, something to which the samurai are opposed; but an old woman whose son has been killed by the bandits wants her revenge (as does Rikichi, of course), so the samurai reluctantly allow her to have it.

Now Rikichi, Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyūzō go off to find the hideout. It’s burned down, with many bandits killed, but Rikichi discovers his wife-turned-concubine there, too; too ashamed to return with him, she runs into the flames and dies. In an attempt to rescue Rikichi, Heihachi is mortally wounded in the fighting, and his death compounds Rikichi’s grief.

Immediately after the burial and mourning of Heihachi, the bandits attack. It is discovered that they have three muskets, so the samurai and peasants must be careful. Kikuchiyo foolishly taunts the users of the muskets, and he’s lucky not to be shot by any of them.

Those who own the three outlying houses are not so lucky, though, for the bandits burn down those houses in revenge for the burning down of their hideout. The old man, Gisaku, is too stubborn to leave his house, so he dies in the fire. A mother who has been speared stays alive just long enough to save her baby. Kikuchiyo takes the child and wails in grief, for he is reminded of how he and his family suffered the exact same fate when he was a child.

In the context of my Marxist-Leninist allegory, the bandits’ reprisal, as well as the suffering it causes, is a symbolic reminder of the constant danger of counterrevolution, that with every small victory can come new threats from those who would try to restore the oppressive, predatory old way of doing things. This danger is what forces socialist states to take harsh measures to defend themselves.

The three muskets represent a superior form of technology (in today’s world, that would be nuclear weapons) that must be appropriated–not for attack, but for self-defence. People in the West often decry the ‘danger’ that the DPRK supposedly poses with its nuclear weapons programme, while hypocritically oblivious to the double-standard that indulges Western possession of such weapons (England, France, surely Israel, and the one country to use them to kill people, the US). Socialist states like the USSR and Mao’s China needed nuclear weapons to deter a Western attack, not to attack the West, as is popularly assumed.

Similarly, the samurai know that they need to get their hands on those muskets, so Kyūzō runs off to get one. His success awes Katsushirō, who gazes in admiration at a swordsman so humble that he doesn’t even seem to understand why the boy is idolizing him so much.

Later, Katsushirõ tells Kikuchiyo about how impressive he finds Kyūzō; the fool pretends he couldn’t care less, but he secretly envies the swordsman, and in his pride, Kikuchiyo goes off to the bandits to steal another musket. He too succeeds, having disguised himself as a bandit and tricking one who has the second firearm. When Kikuchiyo proudly returns to the village with the musket, though, Kambei’s reaction to his recklessness is only anger.

Here again we see the film’s dialectical presentation of the relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō gets a musket, but not for his own personal glory; he does so out of duty. Hence, he is admired by Katsushirō. Kikuchiyo covets that admiration, and in doing the same thing as Kyūzō, though with selfish motives, he is shamed.

With each ensuing battle, many bandits are killed, and we see Kambei paint Xes in the circles representing the bandits on a sheet of paper. He does so with a mix of satisfaction and sadness, for with these killings of bandits, there have also been deaths on their own side, in particular, the deaths of Gorōbei and timid, simple old Yohei.

Despite having been verbally abused as stupid and weak throughout the film, Yohei dies (with an arrow in the back) honourably, having bravely helped defend the village as best he could. (Earlier, we see Yohei, having speared a bandit, in an absurd pose of paralytic shock, his mouth agape at its jaw-cracking widest.) Again, humility/shame and pride/honour are dialectically united.

Also, the deaths on both sides can be seen to symbolize, on the one hand, the progressive erasure of class differences (the bandits, understood as personifying the predatory bourgeoisie), and on the other, the withering away of the state, as personified by the seven samurai as vanguard.

The samurai must prepare for the final confrontation with the remaining bandits, which will happen on a morning of heavy rain. The night before, tensions are high in anticipation of the morning’s danger, and a furious Manzō has discovered his daughter in a tryst with Katsushirō.

Manzō beats her and publicly shames her, but the other samurai try to get him to forgive her, explaining that the tensions of the moment can provoke reckless behaviour. Rikichi scolds Manzō, saying there’s nothing wrong with being in love; at least Shino wasn’t raped by the bandits, as Rikichi’s wife was.

In this night of wild emotions, we see the opposite of the wuxin mindset that is ideal for preparation for battle. Instead of emptying one’s thoughts to find one’s connection with the divine, one is overwhelmed with one’s preoccupations, leading to confusion and raising the level of danger.

The rainy morning of the battle, however, finds the samurai and peasants in a focused mindset; it’s as if the passions of the preceding night have purged them of preoccupations, causing a dialectical shift from extreme distraction to extreme focus; it’s as if they’ve all learned from the foolishness of Manzō’s anger. (Recall his previous worries about Shino being seduced by a samurai, and Gisaku telling him how foolish it is to fear for one’s whiskers when one’s head is to be cut off.) One might think a torrential downpour would be irritating and distracting, but our protagonists don’t allow themselves to be swayed by such discomfort in the least.

The bandits are clearly losing, one of them having fallen off of his saddle and being dragged in the mud by his horse. Still, the leader of the bandits has the last musket, and like a coward, he hides in a house with the screaming women of the village, whom he threatens to kill if they make more noise.

He shoots and kills Kyūzō, enraging Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo, the latter racing after the villain in the house and getting mortally wounded himself. Still, the dying man proves his worth in the end and stabs the bandit before falling to the ground himself. Kambei tells Katsushirō they’ve won; all the bandits are killed. The boy wails in anguish, though, for he never got his chance to avenge Kyūzō.

On a pleasant, sunny day afterwards, we see the peasants planting crops in the fields and playing celebratory, victory music, with Rikichi–smiling, for a change–chanting and playing a drum, and Manzō playing a flute. The three surviving samurai–Kambei, Shichirōji, and Katsushiro–are standing by the burial area of their fallen comrades and frowning. Shino passes by and snubs Katsushirō, for the patriarchal influence of her father has made her too ashamed to continue her romance with him, however much he sill loves her, and doesn’t care about their class differences.

Kambei sadly observes that the victory belongs to the peasants, not to the samurai. In the context of my allegory, this makes sense, for in spite of the anti-communist slanders about a vanguard’s supposed hunger for power, the vanguard–as symbolized by these seven samurai–really want to have the power to end hunger. The battle was never about glorifying the higher-caste samurai; it was about liberating the peasants, as is the vanguard’s intention for the working poor of the world.

This understanding should be our response to critics’ allegation of Kurosawa’s ‘elitism.’ Though it is more than safe to assume that Kurosawa was nowhere near being a communist, making my Marxist allegory seem out of place, he was a more progressive writer/director than he seemed. Having seen only Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran, I can’t speak with any measure of authority on most of his films; but in the case of this one, the presentation of social class and sex roles isn’t meant as a defence of the old traditions, but as a critique of them.

Remember that his heroic samurai are the exception, not the rule, in this film. Most of the samurai are arrogant, and it’s known that they are often the attackers, rather than the defenders, of peasants, who are regarded most sympathetically, in spite of how bumbling they are often portrayed. For these reasons, I consider the critics’ charging of Kurosawa of elitism to be invalid, at least with regard to Seven Samurai. In any case, his one non-Japanese language film, Dersu Uzala, was partly Soviet-financed, so I doubt that he was all that inimical to the more egalitarian leanings of socialism.

The analysis and interpretation of a film needn’t strictly conform to what its auteur has said about it, since–as I’ve learned from psychoanalysis–unconscious meaning can be expressed through parapraxes, revealing intent far removed from what the creator has explained in interviews. Therefore I stand by my leftist interpretation, especially since I believe it can inspire new viewers of Seven Samurai to apply its notions of heroism and sacrifice to today’s problems.

Analysis of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

I: Introduction and Quotes

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 political thriller directed by John Frankenheimer and written by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon. It stars Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Janet Leigh, with Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Henry Silva, Khigh Dhiegh, John McGiver, Leslie Parrish, and Douglas Henderson.

The story is about a communist conspiracy to use a sleeper agent, Raymond Shaw (Harvey), to assassinate the American president so his chosen vice-president, Senator John Iselin (Gregory)–a McCarthyite red-baiter in public, but secretly a communist–will become the new president, using the assassination to gain emergency, dictatorial powers, thus making the US into a socialist state. Put another way–and as a leftist myself, I must be blunt here–this film, as entertaining and thrilling as it is–is simply a piece of Cold War, anticommunist propaganda.

So, Dear Reader, you might ask why I would choose to write up an analysis of a film to whose ideology I’m so opposed? Because, apart from my ability to distance myself emotionally and ideologically from such a film in order to appreciate its artistic merits (good acting and writing, etc.), I find it interesting to do a kind of psychological study of the story, to unearth the unconscious motives of the writers (Axelrod and Condon). Since, apart from the McCarthyist paranoia of the time, there were very real capitalist conspiracies aimed at subverting and undoing the socialist states, to restore capitalism to them, I shall endeavour to prove that the writers were projecting their own conspiracy-mindedness onto the USSR and Maoist China, while little Freudian slips popping out here and there reveal who the real conspirators were and are.

Here are some quotes:

[Repeated line] “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” –said by Major Ben Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards)

“Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them – or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies’ garden club is in progress.” –Dr. Yen Lo

Chairlady: You will notice that I have told them they may smoke. I’ve allowed my people to have a little fun in the selection of bizarre tobacco substitutes… Are you enjoying your cigarette, Ed?
Ed Movole: Yes ma’am.
Dr. Yen Lo: Yak dung!… hope tastes good – like a cigarette should!

“The Queen of Diamonds is reminiscent in many ways of Raymond’s dearly loved and hated mother and is the second key to clear the mechanism for any other assignment.” –Dr. Yen Lo

[repeated line, to Raymond] “Why don’t you pass the time with a game of solitaire?” –Mrs. Iselin, etc.

“His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it’s been dry-cleaned.” –Dr. Yen Lo

Dr. Yen Lo: Attractive plant you have here.
Zilkov (Albert Paulsen): Thank you, doctor. It’s actually a rest home for wealthy alcoholics. We were able to purchase it three years ago. Except for this floor and the floor above it, which is sealed off for security purposes, the rest functions quite normally. In fact it’s one of the few Soviet operations in America that actually showed a profit at the end of the last fiscal year.
Dr. Yen Lo: Profit? Fiscal year? Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! Beware, my dear Zilkov, fires of capitalism are highly infectious. Soon you’ll be lending money out at interest. [Chuckles] You must try, Comrade Zilkov, to cultivate a sense of humor. There’s nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burdens of the day. [To Raymond] Tell me, Raymond, do you remember murdering Mavole and Lembeck?

“I have here a list of the names of 207 persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party… I demand an answer, Mr. Secretary. There will be no covering up, sir, no covering up. You are not going to get your hands on this list. And I deeply regret having to say…” –Senator Iselin

Mrs. Iselin: Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?
Sen. Iselin: Yeah. Just one, real, simple number that’d be easy for me to remember.[Mrs. Iselin watches Sen. Iselin pour Heinz Tomato Ketchup (with its “57 Varieties” slogan on its label) onto his dinner plate]
[Cut to Senate chamber]
Sen. Iselin: There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!

“Why don’t you go and take yourself a cab and go up to Central Park and go jump in the lake?” –Bartender, overheard by Raymond, who had just primed himself to receive a command by dealing the Queen of Diamonds

“I keep telling you not to think. You’re very, very good at a great many things, but thinking, hon’, just simply isn’t one of them. You just keep shouting “Point of Order, Point of Order” into the television cameras and I will handle the rest.” –Mrs. Iselin, to Senator Iselin

“What was Raymond doing with his hands?… How did the old ladies turn into Russians?… What were you doing there?” –Marco, to Chunjin, while they’re fighting

“My mother, Ben, is a terrible woman. A terrible, terrible woman… You know, Ben, it’s a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn’t always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her. But after what she did to Jocie and me, that’s when I began to hate her… Jocie Jordan – Senator Jordan’s daughter… Thomas Jordan’s daughter and Johnny Iselin’s step-son… Years later, I realized, Ben, that I am not very loveable… Some people are loveable and some people are not loveable. I am not loveable. Oh, but I was very loveable with Jocie. Ben, you can’t believe how loveable I was.” –Raymond Shaw

“I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselin-ism has come to stand for. I think if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.” –Senator Thomas Jordan

“I’m gonna beat that vile, slandering, son-of-a-numbskull to a bloody pulp.” –Shaw, of Iselin

“So the red Queen is our baby. Well, take a look at this, kid… and while you’re looking, listen. This is me, Marco talking. Fifty-two red Queens and me are telling you – you know what we’re telling you? – it’s over. The links, the beautifully-conditioned links are smashed. They’re smashed as of now because we say so, because we say they ought to be smashed. We’re bustin’ up the joint, we’re tearin’ out all the wires, we’re bustin’ it up so good all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men will never put ol’ Raymond back together again. You don’t work anymore. That’s an order. Anybody invites you to a game of solitaire – you tell ’em: ‘Sorry, buster, the ball-game is over!'” –Marco, to Shaw

“You are to shoot the Presidential nominee through the head. And Johnny will rise gallantly to his feet and lift Ben Arthur’s body in his arms, stand in front of the microphones and begin to speak. The speech is short, but it’s the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on here and in Russia on and off for over eight years. I shall force someone to take the body away from him. And Johnny will leave those microphones and those cameras with blood all over him, fighting off anyone who tries to help him, defending America even if it means his own death, rallying a nation of television-viewers into hysteria to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy. Now this is very important. I want the nominee to be dead about two minutes after he begins his acceptance speech, depending on his reading time under pressure. You are to hit him right at the point that he finishes the phrase, ‘nor would I ask of any fellow American in defense of his freedom that which I would not gladly give myself – my life before my liberty.’ Is that absolutely clear?” –Mrs. Iselin, to Shaw

“I know you will never entirely comprehend this, Raymond, but you must believe I did not know it would be you. I served them. I fought for them. I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you. I told them to build me an assassin. I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers and they chose you because they thought it would bind me closer to them. [She places the sides of his face in her outstretched hands.] But now, we have come almost to the end. One last step. And then when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously under-estimating me.” –Mrs. Iselin, to Shaw

“You couldn’t have stopped them, the army couldn’t have stopped them. So I had to.” –Shaw, to Marco, after killing his mother and Senator Iselin

“Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul, he freed himself at last and in the end, heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country. Raymond Shaw… Hell… Hell.” –Marco

II: A Brief but Necessary Digression

American paranoia about foreign governments trying to undo American “democracy” is not limited to communist conspiracies, of course, though in recent years such paranoia has been linked with communism. For the past four years, we’ve heard nonsense about Trump being a supposed puppet of Putin and the KGB (which hasn’t even existed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union!); now, Trump’s supporters are claiming that Biden is a puppet of Xi Jinping…a Manchurian candidate for our times, as ridiculous and unfounded an idea as the Russophobic one.

What is never acknowledged in any of this paranoia and red-baiting is that the US and its capitalist and fascist allies, past and present, have conspired to undo socialist governments all over the world. The rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 30s, bankrolled by capitalists, thwarted attempts at socialist revolution in such places as Italy and Spain, and helped Hitler rise to power.

Elsewhere, corrupt Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD and traitor, helped the imperialists in their attempt to tear apart the USSR from within, necessitating Stalin‘s purge. Trotsky, though paying lip-service to antifascism, was willing to work with fascists in his attempts to overthrow Stalin, who as General Secretary was so far from being an actual dictator that he attempted to resign from the position four times, but he couldn’t because the Central Committee knew he was doing such a good job, and because the Russian people loved him. Decades of treasonous acts in the USSR slowly helped weaken the system until its final dissolution in 1991.

Elsewhere and more recently, Juan Guaido is a kind of ‘Manchurian candidate’ for imperialists in Venezuela, as Añez was in Bolivia. Then there are the pressures being put on China now, from such collective ‘Manchurian candidates’ as the imperialist collaborators in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

During the Cold War, the CIA manipulated the media through such diverse methods as Operation Mockingbird, the diverting of left-leaning intellectuals away from Marxism-Leninism towards Trotskyism, postmodernism, abstract expressionist art, etc., and through the production of such anticommunist movies as The Manchurian Candidate.

III: Nothing Is As It Seems

The point I was trying to make in the last section is that what we’ve been taught was true during and since the Cold War (including this current cold war) has typically been far from the truth. This sense of deception pervades the film, too…in ways both intended and unintended.

The world is tricked into believing that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw rescued his squad from the enemy during the Korean War. Two of his men were killed during the rescue…or so the story goes. Actually, Shaw killed the two men himself. We are also tricked into believing that his mother and stepfather, the Iselins, are ultra-patriotic, far right-wing fanatical anticommunists. Actually, it seems they’re working for the USSR and Maoist China, in full knowledge that Shaw is their sleeper agent.

I’m arguing that we can carry the film’s deception even further. The fear of communist ‘totalitarianism’ is, as I said above, a projection of the Western imperialist ambition to rule the world and impose predatory capitalism on all countries, whether they wish it or not. So, the narrative of a communist takeover attempt on the US is itself a deception. There are occasions even in the film itself that suggest that the narrators are, if only unconsciously and in a piecemeal fashion, willing to reveal this deception.

IV: The Korean War

To put the opening scene–of the American soldiers with the South Korean prostitutes in the brothel–in its proper context, we have to understand the true context of the origin of the South Korean state. It was never a democracy to be contrasted with the ‘totalitarian’ North. South Korea was always an American military occupation, part of the Cold War effort to contain communism.

The two Koreas are more than willing to have their nation reunited, but the West would want the North first to embrace capitalism, even if only in the way that Vietnam did. Continued military exercises between the American military and their South Korean collaborators have continued to build tension, justifying the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, since they’ll never allow the US to repeat their having bombed every inch of the North during the Korean War.

The procuring of South Korean prostitutes, something these conservative, modest people would never have normally allowed, for American soldiers was one of the many ways that the US forced their way on the Korean people. Now we see who is really trying to take over another country…and we see it right at the beginning of The Manchurian Candidate, the film’s first Freudian slip.

Chunjin (Silva) appears to be a collaborator with the Americans until their ambush by the communists. Later in the film–once we’ve understood him to have been working with the communists–he’s become Shaw’s personal servant, and here we see Chunjin as the stereotypical Asian: meek and subservient. (It’s also interesting to point out here that the two main Asian characters in the film–Chunjin and Dr. Yen Lo–aren’t played by Asian actors, but by American ones in Yellowface.) In his service to Shaw, we see no connection with the communist conspiracy; he doesn’t do anything to advance the Iselins’ cause. It’s as if he were just working for a bourgeois, just for the employment. This mundane employment of him is another Freudian slip.

V: Sleeping With the Enemy

The scene with the demonstration of Shaw’s abilities as a killer–that is, the first of the nightmare scenes–begins as a seminar of sorts on the topic of flowers, held by a group of daintily dressed old ladies. What strikes me about the ladies we see, be they the white ones of Marco’s dream or the black ones of the dream of Cpl. Melvin (Edwards), is how bourgeois they look, in stark contrast to the Soviets and Maoists who, we understand, are really in attendance. And bourgeois is bourgeois, regardless of sex or skin colour.

We’re to understand that these recurring nightmares are, as it were, video replays of the exact same incident that occurred with the communists; even the soldiers’ impression that they’re actually with the ladies discussing flowers, as a result of brainwashing, is a repeat of their experience as captives in Manchuria during the Korean War. Since when are dreams ever detail-for-detail repeats of past experiences from beginning to end? The only aspect of the dreams that seems dream-like is Shaw playing solitaire, but with no cards in his hands.

I would say instead that these dreams are just dreams, symbolic of a more general experience of being indoctrinated and transformed into mindless, remorseless killers–the unthinking American soldier who just obeys orders. The traumatic element of waking up screaming from a nightmare is just symbolic of soldiers’ PTSD. As far as the communists are concerned, their giving of orders to kill people, without mercy or pity, is a projection of ruthless imperialists onto their enemy. In any case, according to the Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Prisoners of War (pages 17 and 51), there is no evidence that ‘brainwashing’ results in the kinds of permanent radical changes in personality and loyalty of those subjected to it, as seen in The Manchurian Candidate.

As I see it, the ladies, symbolic of the imperialist bourgeoisie, are the ones giving the orders to kill. We are led to believe that they are the illusion, and that the communists are the real indoctrinators; I’d say it’s the other way around. Recall that the triggering of Shaw to obey orders unquestioningly is–upon playing a game of solitaire (a card game played alone, this solitude being symbolic of alienation), caused by the uncovering of the Queen of Diamonds–symbolic respectively of both maternal authority and capitalism.

That it’s also called the red Queen may, on the surface, suggest the red of socialism. It may also be the red of the Republican Party, of which the Iselins are more than likely members. And the maternal authority of the red Queen links well with Shaw’s domineering mother.

It’s important also to link the notions of sleeping, dreaming, brainwashing, and the unconscious. These soldiers are unaware of what they’re doing; they’re being hypnotized into a state of unquestioning obedience. In a larger sense, this is what happens to soldiers in general, regardless of their political affiliation or what country they’re loyal to: they’re transformed into unthinking, killing machines–unthinking, unconscious, unaware automatons.

And while we’re on the topic of the unconscious, Jung noted a tendency, called enantiodromia, in which an extreme conscious urge can provoke its dialectical opposite in the unconscious. This notion in turn leads us to a discussion of the dialectical unity of opposites. One tendency will phase into its diametrical opposite if pushed to an extreme, an idea I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros, the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail representing those meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, which is symbolized by the coiled length of the serpent’s body.

So, in the unconscious, in this dream of a switching back and forth between ladies discussing flowers and communists discussing the brainwashed American soldiers, we can switch from the notion of the former discussion being the illusion, and the latter being the real event, to the notion of the former being real and the latter being the illusion. We switch from one extreme opposite to the other, through Jung’s enantiodromia.

In other words, in a dream in which the writers of this story would have us believe that ladies discussing plants is really communists discussing their plot involving Shaw as their sleeper agent/assassin, I would argue that it’s the communist conspiracy that is only apparent, and that the bourgeois ladies, symbolic of imperialism, are the real conspirators whose schemes are projected onto the Soviets and Maoists. The ladies’ inclusion in the dream, however symbolic it may be, is therefore the key to understanding who the real manipulators are.

VI: A Few Capitalist Freudian Slips

One Freudian slip, in my interpretation, occurs when the chairwoman of the flower ladies talks about indulging the American soldiers’ smoking of cigarettes; then she turns into Dr. Yen Lo (Dhiegh), who jokes that this indulgence “tastes good, like a cigarette should,” a reference to a commercial slogan, something inherently capitalist. What seems to be a communist joking about capitalism should be seen as a capitalist promoting her economic ideology.

Later in the film, when Shaw is in a rest home the Soviets have purchased, supposedly healing from an injury from a hit-and-run incident, he has actually had the brainwashing mechanism activated, and he finds himself part of a conversation Yen Lo is having with the Soviet Zilkov (Albert Paulsen) over whom Shaw should kill to test if his brainwashing is still functional. In his brainwashed state, Shaw can be described as being in a dream, unconscious; therefore the sight of conversing communists can be deemed an illusion, an unconscious projection of American, imperialist plotters.

So when Zilkov tells Yen Lo that the purchasing of the rest home has yielded a profit, and the latter light-heartedly speaks of the evils of the profit motive, we can see this as yet another Freudian slip revealing capitalist, rather than communist, plotters (at least symbolically speaking); for communists would never speak of worker exploitation in a spirit of levity. To show further what a capitalist in communist clothing Yen Lo is, we learn that he leaves to go shopping at Macy’s [!].

VII: Who are the Oppressors, and Who are the Liberators?

It is assumed throughout the movie, as it was throughout the Cold War and up until this day by most people, that the Soviets and Maoists have just wanted power for its own sake. No reference is given anywhere in the film to all of the achievements of the communists in their efforts to eliminate famines (contrary to the lies that communists deliberately starved people), illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness, discrimination against women, etc. There’s no reference to their efforts at establishing universal healthcare, free education, the reduction of poverty, or the transformation of backward, peasant societies into modernized, industrialized superpowers in a matter of a few decades. Since the end of the Soviet era, we find a consistently large number of East European people nostalgic for the old socialist states, as well as having a love of Stalin.

On the other side of the coin, the US is portrayed as a bastion of freedom and democracy rather than a nation founded on the slavery of blacks, the genocide of the American aboriginals, and a class system that keeps the poor poor in spite of the lies of the “American Dream.” On the one hand, we have an African-American psychiatrist in the film (played by Joe Adams), but on the other, the supposedly leftist Mrs. Iselin mocks Chunjin’s name in the typically racist bourgeois fashion.

Hence, my charge that the accusation of a tyrannical nature in the communist characters is really a projection onto them from the real tyrants, the capitalists. An epidemic of homelessness can be seen in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Dublin. Such forms of hostile architecture as spikes put on the ground and bars on benches, to prevent the homeless from resting on private property, and laws against feeding them, are clear indications of the cruelties of capitalism; yet millions are still deluded that capitalism is freedom, and that socialism is oppression.

The liberal bias of this film would have us believe that the extreme right-wing thinking publicly displayed by the Iselins–a reaction formation against their, as we understand, private communism–is no more uncomfortable an extreme than socialism is, and in fact is also virtually identical with it. This is that old, pernicious horseshoe theory, as unfair to communism as it is inaccurate.

VIII: Shaw’s Relationship with his Mother

It is clear from the outset that Shaw is a sick man. His brainwashing, being made to follow orders that would be repellant to his nature, can be seen as symbolic of a kind of psychotic break with reality; for if one’s sense of reality were intact, one would never put a bullet in the head of one’s beloved wife or her father, and one would never ride in a taxi to Central Park and jump in the lake.

(Recall the link above [Part V] that concluded that there’s no evidence of brainwashing having a permanent effect on the psyche; in fact, the original Chinese use of brainwashingxinao, had a positive meaning, that of purifying the mind of unwholesome attitudes and beliefs, which the Maoists used with the intent to rid people of reactionary thinking…though not with the sense of forcefulness and manipulation that the anticommunist propagandists have accused the Maoists of.)

Shaw’s being triggered to obey on the sight of the Queen of Diamonds–associated with his “dearly loved and hated mother,” as Yen Lo says–shows how powerful Mrs. Iselin’s influence is on Raymond. His being made to play solitaire, as I mentioned above, is symbolic of his loneliness, for as we know, “Poor friendless, friendless Raymond” is “not loveable.” In Condon’s novel, Raymond’s father divorced Raymond’s mother (then committed suicide) long before the beginning of the story (when he was a twelve-year-old boy), so for many years, it is as if he never existed for Raymond at all.

Lacan‘s theory of psychosis, of which delusional paranoia is a manifestation, is based on something he called foreclosure, which is a disavowal of, and a refusal to acknowledge, the existence of one’s father. Shaw is so repudiating of his father that he won’t even acknowledge his stepfather, Senator Iselin, when Chunjin makes the faux pas of referring to Iselin as Shaw’s father.

According to Lacanian theory, the father is crucial in bringing a child out of the dyadic relationship with the mother (part of the narcissistic, mirror-like Imaginary Order) and into the broader society (the Non! du père forbids the child to indulge in an Oedipal, incestuous relationship with Mother, making him enter the Symbolic Order, a world of language, social customs, laws, culture, etc.). Any child who fails to make this transition from one-on-one with Mother to a wider relationship with friends is going to be in trouble. Such trouble is what we see in friendless Shaw.

Something that is only implied in the film (Mrs. Iselin giving Shaw a long kiss on the lips) is made explicit in the novel: her committing incest with him. Though partly motivated by sexual perversity (she had powerful Oedipal feelings for the father who sexually abused her as a child, and she transfers these feelings onto Shaw towards the end of the story because he reminds her of her father at this time), she seduces her son, in all likelihood, as an extension of her long-existing narcissistic wish to control him.

So the trauma of having an incestuous relationship with his mother has compounded the difficulties he has in his dyadic relationship with her, this trap that won’t allow him to have healthy relationships with other people. This makes it easier for her to control him.

Now, her total control over him raises a significant question: if she and Senator Iselin are secretly communists, how come Shaw doesn’t know anything about it (until the end of the movie), or even suspect it? Perhaps the novel, which I haven’t read, has a rationalization for keeping him in the dark for so long; but I don’t buy it, whatever it is. With Mother and son being so close [!] for so many years, something had to have slipped out at some point, exposing her hidden ideology.

We can suspend our disbelief that his brainwashing has made him unaware that he’s a sleeper agent (for this assassination mission is classified information), but not for his ignorance of his mother’s ‘communism.’ For if her right-wing blustering is just a charade, why does she do it with him in private places, too?

Her maternal dominance would be enough to make him not only keep her secret, but make him a secret ‘commie,’ too. Her dominance pervades his life in more than her physical presence: it’s symbolized in the Queen of Diamonds (symbol of a capitalist mother, in my interpretation), in the old ladies’ discussing flowers, and in his transference of his mother onto Jocelyn Jordan (Parrish), his sweetheart when she wears the card as a costume at the party meant to reunite her with him.

It’s interesting to contrast his relationship with his mother with that of Jocelyn. His mother is the whore, the bitch; Jocelyn is the sweet, nice girl, the angel. A similar submissiveness can be seen in Eugenie Rose (Leigh) and her relationship with Marco. This Madonna/Whore dichotomy is typical of the right-wing ideology of the writers, who would project the whore aspect onto communism, rather than admit that their sexism is a part of capitalism.

IX: The Assassination

It’s understood that, according to Dr. Yen Lo, the key to triggering Shaw’s obedience (as well as freeing him from it, as Marco will realize) lies in the Queen of Diamonds, symbol of his (as I’d have it) capitalist mother’s dominance. Marco presents a forced deck of all Queens of Diamonds to Shaw’s face in the hopes of freeing him from the brainwashing.

We don’t know if Marco’s plan works (Shaw is supposed to call him before the assassination of the president, but he doesn’t) until the very end, when Shaw, instead of pointing the rifle at the president, points it at the Iselins and kills them.

The plan has been to kill the president, followed by a short but rousing speech by Senator Iselin, giving him sympathy and emergency, dictatorial powers: those of a communist, or of a fascist?

If the Iselins really are communists, then the film’s lampooning of paranoid McCarthyism through clownish Senator Iselin is self-defeating, since the very premise of the film and novel is that there indeed were communists who had infiltrated American politics. The Manchurian Candidate intends both to satirize and to justify Joseph McCarthy, an odd thing to do.

On the other hand, contrast the obvious opulence of the Iselins (private jet, Mrs. Iselin’s pretty clothes, their beautiful home) with the far more modest possessions of even the top-ranking Soviets and Maoists, whose privileges over those of the proletariat were small compared to the privileges of the bourgeoisie over the poor in capitalist countries. Neither Mao nor Stalin ever wore finery or had scores of luxuries, but Mrs. Iselin does.

She leads me to another point: she says to her son that she’s worked and fought for the communists, and that once she and Johnny Iselin have taken power after the president’s assassination, she will get revenge on those very communists who have taken Raymond’s soul away from him, they who have also underestimated her. How has she, who wants revenge on them, worked for them? As Yezhov did? That is, pretending to be a communist while secretly working to undo them?

Such duplicity on her part makes perfect sense, given the nature of the film’s themes. At first, the Iselins seem like McCarthyist cartoon characters; then they seem–in a shocking plot twist–to be the very communists they accuse other American politicians of being; and finally, upon blaming the assassination of the president on the communists, the Iselins assume emergency, dictatorial powers and–in my interpretation–reveal themselves to be outright fascists!

Since the liberal writers of this story think, as many today do, too, that there is little if any difference between fascists and communists, it should matter little to them if the Iselins are on the far right or the far left. But to leftists like me, who know of the huge sacrifice that Stalin’s Red Army made in defeating the Nazis and saving the world from fascism (for the time being, at least), losing about 27 million Soviet lives in the process, the difference between fascism and communism is like that between night and day. Indeed, the only unity to be found between these opposing extremes is a dialectical one, that is, a struggle between the two, of the one passing into its opposite once the former has been defeated, like going past the ouroboros’ biting teeth over to its bitten tail.

When I write of the projection of conspiratorial intent from the capitalist West onto the socialist East, as I sense is in the creators of the novel and movie, I understand the use of this defence mechanism, to deflect guilt away from the writers, to be unconscious. The writers weren’t consciously aware of how they were denying their own guilt in slandering socialism with the attribution of imperialist vices. Ego psychology explains how much of ego defence is unconscious, and thus more effective when undetected (see also Mitchell and Black, page 26), since much of the ego itself is unconscious and preconscious.

This unconscious state is perfectly symbolized by the way Raymond doesn’t know of the crimes he’s committing. He imagines someone else has shot his wife and father-in-law, just as we assume that communists are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, rather than capitalists.