Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

Analysis of ‘Rope’

I: Introduction

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

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

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

Quotes from the film can be found here.

II: Getting a Grip on the Rope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This all ties in with the next topic of discussion.

III: Of Homosexuals and Homicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: From Untermenschen to Übermenschen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This ties in with the next point.

V: The Übermenschlichkeit of Capital

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

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

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

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

VI: Opening the Chest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Vertigo’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Waiting for Guffman’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s stop it.

We can’t.

Why not?

We’re waiting for Guffman.

Analysis of ‘Pierrot Lunaire’

I: Introduction

Pierrot lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot“), or Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire” (“Three times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud‘s ‘Pierrot lunaire‘”), is a 1912 composition by Arnold Schoenberg for “reciter” (actually, a soprano using Sprechstimme) and small instrumental ensemble (flute/piccolo, clarinet in A/clarinet and bass clarinet in B-flat, violin/viola, cello, and piano–the groupings of these vary from one poetic setting to another, and even within individual settings). The text is Otto Erich Hartleben‘s very liberal German translation of twenty-one poems from the cycle of French poems by the Belgian Symbolist Albert Giraud.

Schoenberg was composing in a freely atonal style at this point in his musical career, having come to the conclusion that the traditional major/minor system had been more or less exhausted. He hadn’t yet devised his 12-note system, so he was faced with the challenge of giving his “emancipation of the dissonance” a coherent melodic and harmonic structure.

Luckily for him, building music around “three times seven poems,” each of which consist of three verses of four, four, and five lines (the first two lines being repeated in the last two lines of the second verse, and the first line being repeated at the end of the final verse), meant composing a short structure for each. Added to this, he used traditional musical forms for them, such as canon, fugue, passacaglia, rondo, theme and variations, and free counterpoint.

Though the dissonance of the music and blasphemy of some of the poems surely caused at least some controversy during its early performances, Pierrot lunaire is now considered one of the most important compositions of the 20th century.

Here are links to two recordings of it, one with the score, and a live performance with English subtitles. Here is a link to the text, in German, French, and English…though I–not very happy with the English translation, will mostly use one from the notes to a Deutsche Grammophon recording.

I will be analyzing Schoenberg’s selection of poems as a totality in themselves, not in the context of Giraud’s fifty poems; and I’ll hardly be dealing with these characters in their commedia dell’arte context, either. The composer’s three-times-seven, deliberately numerological selection seems to tell a narrative of its own that I want to focus on.

II: Part One

Moondrunk

The piece begins with a dreamy motif played on the piano and violin pizzicatos in three bars of 2/4 time; the music of this first poem will, for the most part, alternate between 2/4 and 3/4 time. The expressionism of the Sprechstimme adds to this dreaminess since, being halfway between singing and speaking, the soprano’s voice won’t sustain any pitches, but will rather let her voice rise up or drop down in glissandi to give off the effect of high-pitched speaking.

The wine that, with the eyes, one drinks must be white wine, for this liquor is the very moonlight. Pierrot, drunk on the moon he gazes at with “desires terrible and sweet,” is identified with the poet who, “in an ecstasy,” is inspired by her (the cello enters at Dichter). By extension, the tragicomic buffoon Pierrot can be seen as an everyman we all can sympathize with.

Colombine

The music begins in 3/4 time with a high G-sharp dotted half-note sustained on the violin for the first bar, then going down to an E-sharp dotted quarter note, accompanied by piano notes first played cantabile, then staccato, then legato.

In the commedia dell’arte, Columbina is Pierrot’s often unfaithful wife who betrays her foolish cuckold with Harlequin. A columbine is also a flower, rather like “the pallid buds of moonlight/those pale and wondrous roses.” In this we have a three-way identification of Columbina with the flower and with the moon, establishing how Pierrot, the poet, is not only inspired by the moon, but is also in love with her.

His longing would be fulfilled if only he could besprinkle on Columbina’s dark brown hair, “the moonlight’s pallid blossoms.” The besprinkling onto her hair symbolizes the transference of the moon’s divinity onto his wayward wife.

The piano stops for the moment at the words, “Gestillt wär all mein Sehnen” (“all my longings would be satisfied”), leaving the recitation to be accompanied only by the plaintive violin. Flute and clarinet begin playing staccato notes (with a return of the piano, also with staccato notes) at “leis entblättern” (“quietly besprinkle”), musically describing the sprinkling most vividly.

The Dandy

Pierrot is “the taciturn dandy of Bergamo,” who takes “a phantasmagorical light ray” and “bedaubs all his face” with it. This taking-on of the moonlight is his introjection of the moon, an attempt to make her, whom he so loves, one with him. He rejects “the red and the green of the east,” for the white of the moon is his true colour.

I find it safe to assume that, during these first several verses, Pierrot has been contemplating a full moon. This isn’t just Pierrot lunaire, but also Pierrot the lunatic. He is going mad with love–hence the wildly dissonant, expressionistic music of this melodrama. We hear this right from the beginning, with the quick sixteenth notes in the clarinet and piccolo, and in the staccato piano backing.

Laundress Moon

Next, the moon is compared to a laundry maid, her moonlight being “nightly silk garments,” her “snow-white silvery forearms/stretching downward to the flood.” I would say that comparing the moon to a laundress suggests the qualities of a dutiful mother; recall that these poems were written back in the late 19th century, when sex roles were still rigidly defined. I’ll develop the mother theme later.

The music opens with flute, clarinet, violin, and piano, all playing a soft, slow, and languid theme, suggesting the dull drudgery of the work of the laundress.

Valse de Chopin

Though this music, played on the flute, clarinet (later bass clarinet, in the third verse), and piano, is in 3/4 time, it doesn’t sound all that waltz-like (much less anything like Chopin). Indeed, Schoenberg deliberately avoided traditionalist musical clichés or repetitions, and this seems to be the real reason most listeners find his music difficult to appreciate–not so much the harsh dissonance, but the lack of a sense of musical beginning, development, and ending; which isn’t to say his music lacks these structural elements, but that they aren’t presented in the old, familiar, and reassuring ways.

The theme of sickliness is introduced in this poem, “as a lingering drop of blood/stains the lips of a consumptive,/so this music is pervaded by a morbid deathly charm.”

I sense that the moon is waning.

Madonna

The music begins sadly with flute, bass clarinet, and cello pizzicatos. It’s in common time. The piano and violin come in, with harsh chords, only at the end, as the reciter says the final iteration of the words discussed in the following paragraph.

Madone des Hystéries!” translated into German as “Mutter aller Schmerzen” (“Mother of all Sorrows“) introduces Mary as the mater dolorosa, sorrowfully contemplating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. She is to “rise…from the altar of [the poet’s] verses.” She has the wounds described here, though, not her Son’s, blood from her “lean bosom/where the sword of frenzy pierced it.”

Her “ever gaping gashes/are like eyelids, red and open.” Her eyes bleed the pain of seeing her “Son’s holy body.” The poem immediately after this one, “The Ailing Moon,” suggests a connection with this one. Mary as the Queen of Heaven suggests a connection with the Moon Goddess through an association with the pagan Queen of Heaven. Though the ancient pagan Queens of Heaven weren’t generally lunar deities (though this research suggests it could occasionally have been otherwise), the connections between Catholic and pagan, lunar Queens of Heaven are sufficient in a symbolic sense at least.

The fact that there’s an “altar of [the poet’s] verses,” and later, in poem 14, “The Crosses,” we learn that “holy crosses are the verses,” we come to realize that the poet, already identifying with Pierrot, is also identifying with Christ, the Son of the “Mother of all Sorrows,” whom we’ve also identified with the pagan Moon Goddess. Here we find the blasphemous content of these poems.

If the poet/Pierrot/Son of God is in love with the Moon Goddess/Colombina/Mother of all Sorrows, then we have an Oedipal relationship between the two. Colombina is Pierrot’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, rooted in one’s relationship with one’s mother, but later transferred and manifested in relationships with other females, those idealized as religious figures, just as one’s mother was once idealized, in childhood.

The idealizing of one’s parents, along with the notion of the grandiose self, are the two poles of what Heinz Kohut called the bipolar self, the basis for regulating one’s narcissistic tendencies. The poet/Pierrot, by blasphemously identifying with Jesus, is displaying an inflated grandiosity, while narcissistically linking with the most idealized of parents, Mary. If this bipolar configuration breaks down, the poet/Pierrot will be in danger of psychological fragmentation.

…and recall–the moon is waning…

The Ailing Moon

The music begins with a sad flute melody, in 6/4 time, accompanying the reciter. There is no other instrumental accompaniment for this poem’s musical setting. It ends with a ritardando evocative of dying.

As I’ve already said, the moon is “ailing” and “death-awaiting” because she is waning. Pierrot, as her son/lover, is suffering in his own way because she is leaving him, abandoning him. Just as the mater dolorosa suffered to see her Son suffer, Pierrot suffers to see his Mother ailing. The two are symbiotic in their mutual empathy.

She is a mirror reflection of him; she reflects his narcissism. She is white, and Pierrot is white. She’s dying “with unrequited love,” a reflection if his own unrequited love…and a projection of it. He is a lover, “stirred by sharp desire” who “exults in [her] bright play of light,” but she is waning, so the bipolar configuration I described above is breaking down, and Pierrot is coming into a state of mental instability.

And with this breakdown ends Part One.

III: Part Two

Night

The light of the moon is gone.

All is black.

Pierrot has lost his beloved moon, and he’s descending into a state of madness. He, as the poet, is comparing the blackness of night to black moths killing the bright rays of the sun. These moths are “great hordes of monsters” coming down to earth.

The music is in the form of a passacaglia, opening and ending with a dark, brooding motif in the bass, beginning with three notes wth the melodic contour of a rising minor third, then a descending major third, played on the piano (very low register), then accompanied on the cello and bass clarinet in the form of a canon; after these three notes, there is a trail of seven mostly descending chromatic notes (the last being an ascending major 6th). This motif is heard in a number of variations throughout the poetic setting.

As the reciter speaks/sings of “Erinnerung mordend!” (“destroying memory,” that is, causing the fragmentation of the foundation of Pierrot’s sense of mental stability), we hear sul ponticello (am Steg in German) in the cello, a creepy sound that adds to the horror of Pierrot losing his mind.

Those monsters come down “on the hearts and souls of mankind,” a projection of Pierrot’s inner turmoil onto the rest of us; because madness is an intolerable agitation that must be expelled.

Prayer

With the blackness of the new moon opening Part Two, the poet/Pierrot has lost his idealized parental imago, and therefore he must rely on himself for narcissistic mirroring, the grandiose self. He doesn’t have her for a mirror anymore, so the poet must rely on the idealized version of himself, Pierrot, for that mirror.

This idealization of Pierrot, who as I mentioned above has been identified with Christ, the Son of the Queen of Heaven, is now the object of the poet’s prayer, since this idealized self in the metaphorical mirror is also alienated from the self, as Lacan explained. The poet has “unlearnt” his laughter, or hidden it between his teeth, as Giraud’s original text says. With the loss of his beloved moon, the poet, like Hamlet, has lost all his mirth. (Recall that Hamlet, in Freud‘s interpretation, has lost his unconsciously Oedipally-desired mother, Gertrude, to his uncle Claudius, leading to the Danish prince’s possible…if not probable…descent into madness.) The brightness dissolves (“Zerfloß!” as given succinctly in Hartleben’s German translation) in a Shakespearian mirage, according to Giraud’s original text.

The papillons noirs of Night are now the pavillon noir that “files…now from [the poet’s] mast.” He prays that that ideal-i of his mirror reflection, white Pierrot, the Christ-like “healer of spirits,/snowman of lyrics,/monarch of moonshine,” will give him back his mirth, his laughter, changing black back to white.

Throughout, the music has clarinet and piano accompanying the reciter, in common time.

Loot

We hear flute, clarinet, and muted violin and cello, opening in predominantly staccato notes, in common time. We hear a lot of hurried sixteenth and thirty-second notes, suggesting the rush to commit a theft. This poetic setting ends with some soft piano notes in a final bar of 4/4.

Pierrot, in his growing state of mental instability, is taking to crime to vent his frustrations. But what does he want to steal? “Ancient royalty’s red rubies,/bloody drops of antique glory.”

The rubies are symbolic of the blood of Christ, with whom Pierrot narcissistically identifies, for narcissistic identification with something grandiose is an effective defence against fragmentation. He and his criminal gang of partying drinkers would steal this blood, then he’d incorporate it to make himself more at one with Christ. Giraud’s original French uses the word ravir, which is ‘ravish’ in English, and rauben (‘rob,’ also ‘ravish’) in German. This is more than theft: it’s also a blasphemous suggestion of homosexual rape.

He and his friends would try this outrage, but fear stops them, “turns them into statues.” Pierrot still cannot be quite this wicked.

Red Mass

This music opens in 3/4 time with bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano. We hear the first note of the piccolo on the word “Kerzen,” or “candles.” We hear some ascending solo piccolo notes between the first and second verses. On the words, “Die Hand” (“the hand”), we hear loud dissonances on the piano, when Pierrot’s hand is tearing through his priestly clothes.

Pierrot continues with this blasphemous identification with Christ by approaching an altar in priestly vestments, which he tears during this “fearsome grim communion.” He shows the frightened faithful a dripping, bloody Host, identified with his heart, and which is therefore blasphemously in turn identified with the Sacred Heart.

Song of the Gallows

Continuing in his wickedness and madness, all the result of the disappearance of the moon, his mother/lover, Pierrot replaces her temporarily with “the haggard harlot.” Though he’d imagine this girl to be “his ultimate paramour,” the hastily sped-through music (sehr rasch), played on piccolo, viola, and cello in 2/4 time, suggests she’s only a passing phase for him.

The thin girl, with her long neck and pigtail being like a rope, would make his mating with her seem like him hanging himself, his sinful indulgence with her an act of self-destruction. For she, as his whore, is the opposite of his saintly moon, his life-giver.

Decapitation

The moon is waxing.

In the horned shape of a quarter moon, she is “a polished scimitar,” or a short sword with a curved blade. With all of the wicked things Pierrot has done in her absence, he is feeling guilt and fear. He has blasphemously tried to identify with Christ, and he has been unfaithful to her by fornicating with the skinny harlot. Now he feels he must be punished for his sins by feeling the “hissing vengeful steel upon his neck.”

We hear bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano playing tense, dissonant music in common time to express his inner turmoil. After the recitation of the poem, we hear a soft postlude with a bar of 3/4, then in 6/4, played on the flute, bass clarinet, viola, and cello. In the midst of this postlude, we hear a bar of 3/4 with viola pizzicatos, then a return to 6/4 time with the viola returning to arco playing, and sul ponticello on the viola and cello.

The Crosses

The music begins with the piano accompanying the reciter. After the first verse, there’s a bar of quick solo piano playing, with sixteenth and thirty-second notes, a crescendo, and trills. The flute, clarinet, violin, and cello all come in at the end of the second verse. The third verse opens with soft music, but it gets loud and tense with the final repetition of “Heilige Kreuze sind die Verse!” (“Holy Crosses are the verses!”), after which a soft, brief flurry of flute notes is heard, and finally, loud, dissonant chords on the piano, accompanied by trills on the flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.

Just as Pierrot identifies with Christ, so does the poet, having already identified with Pierrot. Just as the narcissist identifies with grandiose ideals, so does he like to see in himself a pitiful victim. Seeing oneself as Christ on the Cross is perfect for both purposes.

He “bleed[s] in silence” with similar articulate martyrs. “On their bodies swords have feasted,” reminding one of the spear in Christ’s side (John 19:34). Pierrot’s crucifixion-like suffering would thus provoke the lamentations of the Mother of all Sorrows, identified here with the waxing moon, which will appear after the sinking “sun’s red splendour.”

With this ends Part Two, and the moon is back.

IV: Part Three

Nostalgia

This one opens in 4/4 with a bright, arpeggiated piano chord, accompanied by a violin pizzicato note. The violin then switches to arco, and the clarinet comes in with staccato sixteenth-notes. The music has a soft, plaintive sound. After the second verse, we hear the clarinet, violin, and piano playing belebend (“invigorating”) music that gets loud, with trills in the piano right hand.

The third verse includes time changes to a bar of 3/4, then a bar of 2/4, then 4/4, as Pierrot forgets his old, tragic ways. The final repeat of “Lieblich klagend–ein krystallnes Seufzen!” (“Like a plaintive sigh of crystal”) is played very softly, then there’s a very fast cello part, accompanied by trills and tremolos in the clarinet, piccolo, and piano.

“Pierrot is now…sickly sentimental,” remembering his old days performing in the Italian commedia dell’arte. But now that he has his moonlight back, “the pallid fires of lunar landscape,” and “the foaming light-flood [that] mounts his longing,” he “abjures the tragic manner.” Remembering the good old days, and having his moon-lover back, Pierrot is happy again.

Atrocity

The music begins in ziemlich rasch (“quite fast”) 3/4 time, with violin pizzicatos of two and three notes at a time, the cello playing mostly sixteenth notes, and a piano chordal backing. The now-softer piano slows down at “mit Heuchlermienen” (“with hypocritical expressions”), the violin and cello no longer playing for the moment. Piccolo and clarinet come in, with the violin and cello returning, at “einen Schädelbohrer” (“a skull-drill”); the flurry of notes heard suggests the shock and surprise of hearing such a word.

At the end of the second verse, we hear a piercingly shrill note on the piccolo, like a scream in response to the tobacco shoved in the hole of the skull of Cassander, “whose screams pierce the air.” Next, a descending pair of notes from the clarinet, and a return of the tense opening violin and cello playing brings in the third verse. The music ends, Pierrot tapping ashes from the bald pate of Cassander, with five more piercingly high notes on the piccolo, a kind of pipe, if you will, suggesting the puffing of Pierrot’s ‘pipe.’

Cassander is the father of Colombina, Pierrot’s ever-unfaithful wife. Pierrot is also Cassander’s servant. Since I’ve identified her with the moon, and the moon in turn with Mary, mother to Pierrot’s Jesus, I have described his love for her as Oedipal.

Cassander, as Colombina’s father and Pierrot’s master, can also be seen as a transference of Pierrot’s Oedipally-hated father. Such a relationship would explain Pierrot’s comically violent and irreverent behaviour with regards to Cassander.

Here, Pierrot drills a hole in Cassander’s bald pate, then stuffs tobacco in the hole. Next, he sticks a pipe in and smokes the tobacco.

Pierrot may have the moon back, but the trauma he has suffered from her absence–however temporary it may have been–still lingers in his mind. The Oedipal loss of a boy’s mother to his father is best understood as a narcissistic trauma. The nom…or Non! du père forces a child out of his dyadic, one-on-one, mirror-like relationship with his mother and into a relationship with a society of many others.

Pierrot doesn’t want this forced change, so in his narcissistic fantasies, he plays out a farcical, commedia dell’arte-like skit of himself as disrespectful to this father-figure in Cassander as a kind of ‘screw you’ to him.

Parody

The music opens with clarinet, viola, and piano in 4/8 time. The piccolo comes in, with chromatic descending thirty-second notes, at the end of the first verse, with its reference to a red dress. The time changes to a bar of 7/8 at “sie liebt Pierrot mit Schmerzen” (“she loves Pierrot with aching pain,” which the Sprechstimme of the reciter delivers with melodramatic ornament), then goes back to 4/8 time. It’s as if the one bar of 7/8 is meant to give a sense of the awkward irregularity of her misplaced love. Some solo dissonant piano is heard for a few bars before the repeat of the first two lines, about knitting, when the other instruments come back with the reciter.

The music shifts from the louder, jaunty opening music and goes into a softer ritardando between the second and third verses. At this point, the Duenna can hear, in a sharp whistle in the breeze, the Moon-goddess tittering. The music speeds up and gets louder again (in the piano), as we find the Moon doing a parody of the Duenna’s knitting and desiring of Pierrot.

The knitting Duenna, in a red dress as stated above, “loves Pierrot with great passion.” Note how Duenna (used in the German translation, which being what Schoenberg set his music to, is our main concern with regard to interpretation) is practically a pun on Dirne (“harlot”) from “Song of the Gallows,” the skinny girl Pierrot has had a sexual encounter with. The Duenna can thus be seen as a double of the Dirne.

The Moon-goddess–having every confidence that she is the one whom Pierrot wants, and not the Duenna (he only had the Dirne because the Moon-goddess momentarily wasn’t there to satisfy him)–laughs at and mocks the Duenna in her knitting and hoping to have Pierrot.

A brief, dissonant segue on the piano in 3/4 time, ending with a thrice-stated motif of three notes with descending major seconds and ascending fourths (C-sharp, B-natural, E-natural; B-flat, A-flat, D-natural; and A-flat, G-flat, C-natural) in the left hand bass, leads us to the next poetic setting.

The Moon-fleck

The Moon-goddess wants Pierrot’s attention, so she shines a fleck of moonlight “on the shoulder of his black silk frock-coat,” as he strolls about at night (with a jaunty clarinet melody), looking for adventure. Normally, he wears white: why is he in black?

Could he still be feeling guilt over his actions in his Moon-lover’s absence? His search for adventure suggests a longing to sin again, while the Moon-goddess is trying to bring him back to her by putting white on his black, to remind him of his natural whiteness, a mirror of her own.

Instead of enjoying the sight of her presence on him, Pierrot sees “something wrong with his appearance.” Imagining it’s plaster, the fool tries…and fails…to rub the white off. This occurs when we hear a nervous violin part playing sixteenth and thirty-second notes as a tone painting of his nervous rubbing.

The music becomes palindromic in the piccolo, clarinet, violin, and cello parts; we hear a crab canon, in which the canon is reversed, right at the middle of the second verse (“…und findet richtig,” “and finds”), when Pierrot turns back to look at the moon-fleck. The music reverses right at his looking back, another example of Schoenberg’s tone painting. The reverse happens right at the repeat of the opening two lines.

This fleck of moonlight on him symbolizes her as his mother/lover, an internal object he has introjected. Though he feels Oedipal love for her, this kind of love is actually part of a love/hate relationship that is inevitable for a son or daughter to have for his or her parents. By troubling him thus with a guilt-inducing reminder of the allegiance he owes her, he is frustrated with her, seeing her as what Melanie Klein called the bad mother. Pierrot’s rubbing at the moon-fleck thus represents a wish to project and expel unwanted influence from his mother/lover object.

Serenade

Pierrot is scraping away discordantly on a viola, plucking a pizzicato or two…though Schoenberg oddly doesn’t score this poetic setting for viola, instead for cello and piano (his perverse sense of humour, I’m guessing). We hear the dissonant fiddle playing at the beginning, including pizzicatos, but they’re done in the high register of the cello. Even at the end, with a happy postlude for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano segueing into “Journey Home,” there is no viola part, as there are in some of the other poetic settings.

Cassander is furious (“wütend“) to hear the noise that this nighttime “Virtuosen” (note the sarcasm) is making. In another ‘screw you’ act of defiance to his master/father-figure transference, Pierrot tosses aside the viola, takes Cassander by the neck, and plays him like a newly-found fiddle.

Journey Home

This poetic setting is a barcarolle, naturally, because the poem narrates Pierrot on a boat going home. It’s in 6/8 time, typical of barcarolles. The music begins with the flute continuing from the postlude of Serenade. Soft pizzicatos are heard in the cello and violin, then the clarinet and piano softly play. These instruments, especially the piano’s ascending and descending arpeggios, play with a wavelike rhythm, suggestive of Pierrot’s oar pushing through the water.

Reunited with the Moon-goddess, whose “moonbeam is the oar” to guide him through the water on his waterlily boat, Pierrot, having satisfied his urge to spite Cassander, can now sail home contented.

He is the “snowy king” (“le neigeux roi,” in Giraud’s original), as white as his mother/lover, and no longer clad in black to reflect his guilty pleasures of before, in her absence. He is at peace as he sails in the approaching dawn.

O Ancient Scent

The soft piano and Sprechstimme open this final poetic setting (with the clarinet in the third bar playing three soft notes) with near triadic, almost tonal melody and harmony, suggestive of the sense of emotional resolution Pierrot is finally feeling. The clarinet returns and, later, the flute comes in at “Sinne” (“senses”) at the end of the second line. Violin and cello come in a few bars later.

The flute switches to piccolo in the middle of the third verse. At the end, we hear that ‘near-triadic’ harmony in the violin and cello, playing thirds. The whole piece ends shortly after, softly and at peace.

Again, Pierrot is nostalgic of old times, wishing to smell old fragrances again. With “desire finally gratified,” his…and the poet’s…”melancholy is dispelled.” He would seem to be happy with his beloved moon back, but…what of her next waning?

V: Conclusion

Schoenberg had a superstitious fondness for numerology, hence his grouping of these melodramas in three parts of seven poems each. Both numbers have a sense of completeness, of finality. Three gives us beginning, middle, and end, quite appealing to a classical musician trained to compose music with a ternary structure of A-B-A (statement, departure, and return).

We see this statement, departure, and return in the form of the moon that wanes, is temporarily absent, and waxes again, returning. Also, seven is a number of completeness in the sense that it suggests the seven Biblical days of creation. The final poem–the third seven–gives a sense of rest similar to God’s resting on the seventh day.

As we know from the Biblical story, though, right after God’s rest, the first man and woman find themselves succumbing to temptation and bringing about the Fall. I suspect that, after Pierrot’s restful moment, remembering old fragrances, he’ll be up to some more narcissistic naughtiness as soon as the moon wanes again. After all, some consider the narcissist to be something of a performing clown.

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 ‘Re-Animator’

Re-Animator is a 1985 horror-comedy film directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris, and Gordon; the film is loosely based on parts of the HP Lovecraft 1922 horror serial novelette, “Herbert West–Reanimator.” The film stars Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton; it costars David Gale and Robert Sampson.

Apart from the basic premise of Lovecraft’s story–namely, a serum that brings the dead back to life, created by the narcissistic young scientist Herbert West (Combs)–not much is taken from the tale and put directly into the film. Dr. Alan Halsey (Sampson), dean of the fictional Miskatonic University medical school, refuses to let West and the narrator (Dan Cain in the film–played by Abbott) do the reanimating experiments on corpses on the campus. The dean himself dies and is reanimated, making him a wild, cannibalistic, zombie-like monster and forcing him to be committed in an asylum.

The above plot elements are from the first two episodes of Lovecraft’s story, while also being updated (by Norris) to the 1980s and expanded to include Halsey’s pretty daughter, Dan Cain’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Another doctor, the middle-aged Carl Hill (Gale), who is decapitated and reanimated by West, seems to be derived from the last two episodes (as is the plot of the first sequel–link in the next paragraph), from a WWI surgeon who is also decapitated and reanimated; and who, as in the story, commands an army, as it were, of reanimated corpses at the climax.

The film spawned a few sequels, 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. While the sequels weren’t well-received, the first film was, and it is now considered a cult classic.

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

During the film’s opening credits, we hear a soundtrack (composed by Richard Band) that is a blatant and intentional rip-off of the opening theme of Psycho. Only a few minor differences and variations are heard, with an original wind melody (bass clarinet?) played over the strings and a drum beat in the background. The film’s obvious campiness–a kind of black comedy whose over-the-top, even humorous violence may remind us of that of Titus Andronicus–inspired Band to make a similarly obvious, campy, and tongue-in-cheek reference to Psycho‘s stereotypical horror film music. Apart from this joke-reason, can we find others to justify the link between Re-Animator and Psycho?

I believe we can find other such reasons. With similar musical themes, we can also find similar motivic themes. Indeed, a careful analysis and comparison of the themes, symbolism, and motifs of both films shows striking similarities. Does all of this justify ripping off Bernard Herrmann‘s music, beyond it being a musical joke? I’ll let you decide, Dear Reader.

In Psycho, after Norman Bates has murdered his mother, in order to rid himself of the unbearable guilt of his crime, he tries to ‘reanimate’ her, in a way–not literally, of course, but in his mind. He uses a number of elaborate methods to convince himself of his delusion that she’s still alive. He robs her corpse and uses taxidermy on it to stave off decomposition as best he can. He dresses in her clothes, including a cheap wig he’s bought, and speaks in her voice. He gives over half of his life to bring her back from the dead.

Similarly, Herbert West deludes himself that his serum will restore life, when all it does is it turns the corpses it’s used on into savage killers…rather like Bates’s mother personality.

Another thematic similarity between the two films is that of invasion of privacy, intrusion, penetration. (See my Psycho analysis to see how I explain these themes in that film.) West intrudes on the world of Dan Cain and Megan, just after they’ve made love, and says he wishes to rent the basement of his house; he meets Dan at the front door of the house when Dan has only a sheet to cover his nakedness.

Later, the couple’s cat, Rufus, dies–did West kill it for use in his macabre experiments? West has the cat’s body in a small refrigerator, the sight of which naturally upsets Dan and Megan, the latter of whom has, in fact, invaded West’s privacy by going into his room without his permission, because she has been looking for her missing cat. Still, West will have to explain why he’s using their dead cat, without their consent, for his experiments.

The injecting of West’s vaccine-like [!] serum into the cat’s corpse, and later into corpses at the university morgue in defiance of Dean Halsey’s express forbidding of it, is further intrusion and unwelcome penetration. Indeed, it’s as if the violent reactions of the revived corpses are a reflection of how they hate the penetrative intrusion of West’s syringe jabs.

The stabbing of West’s needle into the corpses, like the stabbing of Bates’s knife into showering Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast (if in only a symbolic sense), is a projection of West’s psychopathy into the dead, making them as violent to the living as he is to the dead, by making them take on their stabber’s violent traits. Recall that narcissistic West doesn’t actually care about helping humanity with his reanimating; he just wants to play God, amazing all his science colleagues with his brilliance.

He has no respect or empathy for the feelings and rights of others, living or dead. This is why he has no qualms about insulting Dr. Carl Hill to his face, or using pets and human corpses without anyone’s consent in his experiments. West is thought of as a rather weird fellow, but the point is that he’s cold and calculating. Like Bates, West feels no human, emotional connection with others; all that matters to him is the reviving of the dead, as Bates wants a relationship with only his ‘reanimated’ mother.

West, like Bates the ghoul who stole his mother’s corpse, is an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm wasn’t necessarily, or even primarily, referring to a sexual attraction to dead bodies; he was referring to people who have a morbid fascination with death and destructiveness.

West’s wish to bring the dead back to life mustn’t be confused with Fromm’s notion of biophilia, a love of life; rather, West’s claim to want to give people life is a reaction formation. West is fascinated with death for its own sake. The human body is a soulless machine to him; death just means that the body has broken down, malfunctioned, and reanimation is a repairing of the human machine, which, being soulless in his eyes, is already as dead as a machine, anyway.

Fromm explains: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

West isn’t reviving the dead out of a wish to generate the biophilic joy of living; he is just fascinated in the technique of repairing biological machinery, as he sees it. In describing the necrophilous character, Fromm was referring “…to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way.” (Fromm, page 382, his emphasis)

To return to a discussion of the intrusion/penetration/invasion-of-privacy theme, the equally narcissistic Dr. Hill enjoys stealing other doctors’ research (hence, West’s contempt for him), and when he tries to steal West’s work, West kills him with a blow to the head with a shovel (reminding us of the ending, a kind of second matricide, of Psycho II, a film made just two years before Re-Animator).

Hill also intrudes on reanimated Halsey’s personal space by lobotomizing him, with the intention of controlling him through telepathy after brain surgery. The ultimate invasion of privacy, however, is when decapitated, reanimated Hill uses zombie-Halsey to abduct his daughter Megan, has Halsey take her while she’s unconscious to the university morgue, has Halsey strip her naked, and ties her to a table so the lecherous doctor can enjoy her.

Hill’s sexual assault on her can be paralleled with the shower scene in Psycho, in which naked Marion is, figuratively speaking, raped by Bates’s penetrating, phallic knife. Hill’s voyeuristic lusting after naked Megan parallels Bates’s lusting after Marion, watching her undress through his peep-hole in the wall.

Yet another point of comparison between Re-Animator and Psycho is, to be put in general terms, the conflict between the older and younger generations, usually understood in a psychoanalytical sense as the Oedipal love-hate relationship a son or daughter has with his or her parents. Bates Oedipally loves…and hates…his emotionally abusive, domineering mother, and her bringing a lover into his house pushes him over the line, making him kill them both with strychnine, which causes them to convulse violently and painfully before they die. West’s serum causes a similarly violent, toxic reaction in those reanimated by it.

Instead of domineering mothers, in Re-Animator we have a domineering father, Megan’s father, the dean, who angrily forbids Dan and West (he is a symbolic father to them) to do their experiments in the university morgue, to the point of threatening to kick them out. The two young scientists’ defiance of Halsey infuriates him, causing an argument between him and Megan in the hospital near the morgue, in which he tells her she’s his daughter and she’ll do as she’s told…just before he’s killed by a reanimated corpse there.

When Bates’s mother-personality forbids him to give Marion any food from their house, he defies ‘her’ by making Marion a sandwich. Since Hill is old enough to be the father of West, Dan, and Megan, and since Hill as a professor of medicine is as much an authority figure over West and Dan as Dean Halsey is, Hill can be seen as another symbolic father (i.e., through transference) to the two young scientists, and maybe even to Megan, too.

When West makes Hill lose face during his medical lesson, West is defying what could easily be a father-transference. West’s breaking of pencils, and later decapitating of Hill with the shovel he’s hit him with, are symbolic castrations, reminding one of Cronus‘ castration and dethroning of his father, Ouranos, and then, according to the interpretations of Freud (page 469), Robert Graves, and John Tzetzes, Zeus’ castration and dethroning of his father, Cronus. West would similarly dethrone Dr. Hill as god of medicine. (Just before the reanimated corpse kills Halsey, it bites off two of his fingers, another symbolic castration.)

Normally, we think of the son being afraid of being castrated by his father, but West symbolically reverses this. West should be afraid of the symbolic father’s wish for revenge, though, especially since West has reanimated him. Bates similarly should fear the revenge of the mother he’s killed and ‘reanimated,’ for by giving her half of his life with the mother-personality, he is being possessed by her internal object, what WRD Fairbairn called the return of repressed bad objects (Fairbairn, page 67). She avenges her murder, as it were, by possessing him as an evil spirit would, dominating him even in death.

Reanimated Hill attempts a similar revenge in death by controlling the lobotomized, reanimated Halsey (who as Megan’s father and Dan’s once-hoped-to-be father-in-law, is thus a double of Hill), and by using the serum and research he’s stolen from West to reanimate all the corpses in the morgue, sicking them all on West, Dan, and the Megan who rejected his advances.

Now, while West’s interest in reanimation is of a necrophilous nature (recall that he shows not even the slightest sexual interest in the sight of the lovely and naked Megan), Dan’s interest in West’s obsession is of a biophilous sort. Dan has a genuine wish to save lives, as seen at the beginning and at the end of the film. First, there’s a dying woman he tries feverishly to save, but his superior, Dr. Harrod (played by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), tells him to face reality: the woman is dead, and he must give up trying to save her.

At the end of the film, the far more devastating death of a woman is a fear of Dan’s that’s come true. Hill and his army of reanimated zombies have been mostly defeated, but not before one of them has strangled Megan to death. Dan’s attempt to revive her has failed just as it had with the woman at the beginning of the film. Dan does have West’s serum, though, and with her having just freshly died, surely her reanimation will give him her whole personality intact…won’t it?

Her scream, just before the ending credits, raises our doubts.

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

My Last Five Pop Songs

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

That wonderful friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, who helped me gain access to most of my pop song recordings and classical music compositions from the Jamendo website (which won’t let me play or download them, for some reason), has pulled through for me again. She emailed me those last five songs I didn’t have as of my last post of pop songs, so now I have them all at last! Thanks again, Gerda! I owe you big time!

In fact, she sent them to me just after I’d published my blog post of most of the rest of my pop songs. I could have simply updated that post to include the five songs, but I decided to publish them separately instead, in order to stretch out and extend interest in my music a little further.

As I mentioned in my last post, four of these pop songs were originally published on my second Jamendo album, Meeting Places. These were “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy.” The fifth track was originally published on my third Jamendo album, Infinite Ocean. It was “Moonlit Strolls.”

The album title, Meeting Places, was in plural because, if you were to hear all the tracks of that album in order, you’d notice common musical ideas, or ‘meeting places,’ that linked the first track to the second (an electronic synth sound), the second to the third (the gamelan-like sound I discussed in my previous song post), the third to the fourth (recorders and tuned percussion sounds), etc.

The song “Meeting Place” is in the singular because it’s about finding the one common unifying idea in the entire universe. Does such a unifying principle (Brahman, the Tao, the “Infinite Ocean“) exist, or is it just a figment of my imagination?

Musically, the song combines the electronic synth and drums dance sound of “Blow” with the gamelan imitation sound of songs like “Grateful,” “Freedom,” and “Regrets?” To expand my musical range, I added recorders and a harmonica solo at the end.

Better” has me playing ascending melodies to symbolize a striving for self-improvement. I do this tone painting in my singing and playing of the recorder. In the lyrics, I make an allusion to the Beatles song, “Getting Better.”

Throughout the recording of Meeting Places, I had difficulty keeping the recorders in tune. I’m not 100% sure about the last recorder notes I play on “Better,” so I hope, Dear Reader and Listener, you’ll forgive me if those notes sound a bit off.

‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” is a satirical song in 5/4 time about people who marry for superficial reasons (sexual attraction, money, social status), then get divorced soon after. The music was inspired by a Nonesuch recording of an African tribal wedding song, though I added the gamelan imitation sound, bongoes, a steel drum sound for a keyboard solo, recorder, and an acoustic guitar solo. The juxtaposition of lyrics about superficial, loveless modern marriages in the West, with music inspired by that of a traditional African wedding (presumably for marriages that are far more enduring) was meant to be ironic.

Lethargy,” also in 5/4 and immediately following “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” on Meeting Places (and therefore, in sharing the same time signature, have this in common as their ‘meeting place’), is a 12-bar blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar. The song is about my constant drowsiness and lack of energy, something that’s predictably gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

I added piano and harmonica licks at the beginning and ending of the song, as well as a jazz electric guitar solo and an electric piano solo, the former of which I’m particularly proud, even if I do say so myself.

Moonlit Strolls” is a sentimental song composed at the acoustic guitar in an old-fashioned, 1930s and 1940s jazz style, like “The Happy Song,” which it follows on Infinite Ocean. The chord progressions make extensive use of the diminished seventh chord as a passing chord.

Lyrically, the song is about walks at night that I used to take with my then-girlfriend, now my wife, about twenty years ago. I have pleasant memories of that simpler time in my life, which I tried to give a sweet kind of expression to in this song.

The one thing I don’t like about this recording is my annoying falsetto, meant to represent her voice as a stereotyped imitation of a woman talking. I hope you, Dear Reader and Listener, won’t be as irritated by it as I am.

Anyway, that’s all five of the last songs. I hope you like them and will be more forgiving of their imperfections than I am. Cheers!