Analysis of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

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

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

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

An important insight of ego psychology is the fact that, since much of the ego is unconscious and preconscious, much of the defence of the ego is also unconscious. The ego “…contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt in the analytic hour, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed. Their unobtrusive, seamless presence in the patient’s psychic life is perfectly acceptable (ego syntonic) to the patient; they often function as a central feature of the patient’s larger personality organization…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem is that the bad side turns into Freddy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘One Hour Photo’

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

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Anastasia’

Anastasia is a 1956 film directed by Anatole Litvak and written by Arthur Laurents, based on the 1952 play by Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton. It stars Ingrid Bergman (in the title role), Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes.

The story is inspired by that of Anna Anderson, the best known of the Anastasia imposters who emerged after the execution of the Romanov family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918.

Bergman won her second Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film (her first being for Gaslight). Anastasia was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Alfred Newman. Bergman also won a David di Donatello Award (Best Foreign Actress), as well as a New York Film Critics Circle Award (Best Actress) and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture–Drama (Hayes was nominated for this last one, too). Brynner won Best Actor for the National Board of Review Awards, which also ranked Anastasia in eighth place for its Top Ten Films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Here is the complete script.

The film begins with narrative text about the execution of the Russian Imperial family in 1918. In the ten years following the executions, rumours that some of the family survived floated about, rumours fuelled in part by Soviet cover-ups of the killings. There is no conclusive evidence that Lenin gave the order to kill the family, though he certainly had nothing but disgust for them. There is also no doubt that claims of survivors are all false.

A few things need to be taken into consideration regarding the making of this film, and how much sympathy should be felt for the Romanov family. First of all, the play and the film were produced in the 1950s, when Cold War propagandistic vilifying of “commies” was at its height. A film generating sympathy for the Tsar’s family would have been of immense appeal to the Western ruling classes, especially in the US, “the only country left with a proper respect for wealth,” as is observed among the con men in the film.

Second, sympathy for the Russian Imperial family hardly deserves validation, given all the suffering of the poor Russian working class and peasants, all while under the thumb of the wealthy, privileged, and incompetent Tsar, who was hugely unpopular. As biased against the Soviets as Orwell‘s polemical allegory, Animal Farm, is, his representation of Nicholas II in the mean, insensitive, and alcoholic farmer Mr. Jones, is at least reasonably accurate.

Third, given the tensions of the Russian Civil War, it’s easy to see how many among the Soviets, if not all of them, would have considered the Romanov family too dangerous to be left alive. Had the White Army been successful, with the aid of other countries in their attempt to force bourgeois/semi-feudal rule back on Russia, the Romanovs could have had their rule restored, the Bolsheviks and other left revolutionaries would have all been executed in a bloodbath, and the vast majority of the Russian people would have been relegated to poverty and despair.

The bourgeoisie can always find room in their hearts to pity the suffering of a few of their fellow rich, even when those sufferers are of the feudal world the capitalists have supplanted; but they feel minute compassion, at best, for the impoverished and starving millions of the world. It is in the above historical context that we should understand Anastasia, a bourgeois film with all the relevant symbolism.

The film begins during Easter celebrations in Paris in 1928, ten years after the executions, and right when Stalin has established himself as Lenin’s successor and is about to begin building socialism in the USSR…not that Anastasia wants to deal with any of that, of course.

Anna Koreff (Bergman) has been found by some associates of General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Brynner) near a church among the exiled Russian community in Paris, where participants of the Orthodox Church are celebrating Easter. Such a juxtaposition of elements–the supposed survivor of the Tsar’s family, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Easter–is symbolically significant when one considers the film’s class agenda.

The Tsar and the Orthodox Church worked hand in hand to maintain power and authority over the Russian people. The Tsar was said to have been appointed by God, and he gave the Church financial rewards for spreading such propaganda among the poor peasants, who were led to believe that Russia, God’s land, was intended to be just as the peasants found it. So, since the peasants were piss poor, they were supposed to be content with their lot, and neither to complain about it nor wish for more.

If Anna really is the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, then if she’s reinstated, she can gain followers who might help her oust the communists and restore the tsarist autocracy. That she’s been found on Easter symbolically suggests a resurrection, the brining back to life of the executed duchess, making “Anastasia” a kind of Christ figure. Notions of an evil empire–like that of the Rome that crucified Christ, as well as the imperialism that the communists strove to defeat–can thus be projected onto the USSR.

Such bourgeois propaganda is as perfect as a dream for a ruling class so threatened by Marxism-Leninism.

Now, Anna is a deeply troubled, destitute, and traumatized woman. She suffers from amnesia…to what extent we don’t know for sure…and she is frightened of everyone. She has been from asylum to asylum; we don’t know who she really is for sure–not even she knows. We do know, however, that in her last asylum, she told a nun there that she is Anastasia. She presumably said it in a fit of madness; but “she has certain surprising features,” as Bounine says, that strongly suggest she could really be Anastasia, or that at least can be used to con people into believing she is the duchess, so that the con men can get at a large sum of money.

…and this is where Bounine and his associates, Boris Andreivich Chernov (played by Akim Tamiroff) and Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin (played by Sacha Pitoëff) come in. That Chernov is a banker, Petrovin is a former student of the theological seminary, and Bounine was a general in the White Army who fought in the Russian Civil War is all significant, since these three are the con men itching to get their filthy hands on that money. They all represent different facets of the ruling class (banker, theologian, and military man) working to deceive the public, promote tsarism, and get wealthy.

…and who is this Anna woman, really?

The ambiguity in the film, as to whether or not she really is Anastasia, reflects the conflict between the reality that she couldn’t possibly be her, or that it’s at least extremely unlikely that she is the Grand Duchess, and the microscopic hope that she is her, which is bourgeois wish-fulfillment.

Her seeming to know personal details of Anastasia’s life could be the result of a fixation on her, motivating her to study these details from various biographers in, say, newspaper articles. Putting these details in her mind, when she can’t possibly have known them, is in all likelihood part of that wish-fulfillment in the film’s producers.

The real Anna Koreff, though, is a woman whose tragic life has been so full of “disappointment, anger, dismissal; out in the street, failure, fake, nobody!” that she has been on the verge of falling apart, of experiencing a psychotic break from reality, of experiencing psychological fragmentation. Narcissism, as has been observed by Otto Kernberg, can be used as a defence against said fragmentation; and Anna’s claim to be Anastasia–to the nun in the asylum–could have been such a delusion of grandeur, however brief, meant to protect her from totally falling to pieces at the time.

After she runs away from Bounine at the church, she walks by two homeless men (seen with bottles of alcohol, in order, no doubt, to minimize any sympathy for such ‘dissolute louts’). the placing of her near them, if she really is Anastasia, is meant to intensify our sympathy for her, this female Lear who has gone from riches to rags (though, she shows no pity for the derelicts, as Lear does to the “poor, naked wretches…” when he has “ta’en/Too little care of this!” Act III, scene iv). The bourgeoisie will pity her as a royal wretch, for they like to see themselves and their ilk as victims, as I’ve observed elsewhere.

If she really is, however, as destitute by birth as those two winos, then the capitalist class won’t care at all about her. We, however, should care, in such a case, for then she would be one of the true wretched of the Earth, not of those victimized by nothing more than their own bad karma.

Before her attempt to drown herself in the Seine is stopped by Bounine, she looks at her reflection in the water. Is she seeing the Grand Duchess as an ideal-I she can no longer live up to, causing her a narcissistic injury that only suicide can cure? Or, rather than contemplating the narcissistic metaphorical mirror of Lacan‘s Imaginary, is she seeing the dark, formless waves of the traumatic, undifferentiated Real? Or is it both the Imaginary and the Real, phasing back and forth with each up-and-down movement of the waves?

She doesn’t know at all who she is: the trauma of her whole life has placed her at the borderline between a hazy sense of a lack of self (the Real) and narcissistic delusions of grandeur, Anastasia as False Self (Imaginary), an ego-defence against psychotic breakdowns. The bourgeois wish-fulfillment that she is Anastasia is their sharing of those delusions of grandeur, a collective narcissism one can easily associate with the capitalist class.

So when she says, with a laugh, that she’s “the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna” to Bounine, and that maniacal laugh switches to hysterical bawling, we see a manifestation of that cusp between Imaginary and Real, or between the dialectically paradoxical extreme merriment and traumatic despair of the laugh of the Joker.

Her switch from laughing to bawling, as interpreted by the bourgeoisie in their wish-fulfillment and narcissistic identification with her, would be because of her modest doubts of her royal lineage switching to a confrontation of her traumatic experience in the cellar, watching her family get killed before her miraculous escape. A more realistic interpretation, however, would be that she laughs at how absurdly untrue it is that she’s Anastasia, switching to crying over how, deep down, she wants to believe she is the Grand Duchess, knowing also that that way, madness lies.

In any case, had Anastasia survived, she would have been 26 going on 27 as of Easter of 1928; whereas in the film, she is being played by an actress who was 40-41 years old at the time. Thus, the age difference between Anna and Anastasia already causes us to doubt that she’s the Grand Duchess.

Who she is is an empty void, the kind of emptiness a narcissist might fill up with a false, grandiose self. The emptiness, in her case, is the result of amnesia. This amnesia seems to have been caused by an injury to the head, “a narrow depression, extending almost to the forehead,” as Bounine points out to Chernov and Petrovin.

When the three men ask her where she got her scars on her hands and head, she says they are “a gift from an unknown admirer.” Where? She doesn’t remember. It’s easy to imagine this admirer to have been one of Lenin’s men, as the bourgeois hearers of her story would like to believe. For all we know, though, this “unknown admirer” could have been a rapist beating her into submission, and her amnesia may not be from a physical injury so much as from repressed traumas returning to consciousness in the disguised form of an Anastasia fixation.

In any case, Bounine finds her amnesia “most convenient,” so he can exploit her to get at that £10 million belonging to Anastasia held by an English bank. It is fitting that he is also the owner of a nightclub in which Russian performances are enjoyed by his bourgeois clientele, where he’ll make Anna another of his cigarette girls if she doesn’t cooperate with his Anastasia scheme. Bounine, as general of the White Army, businessman, and swindler, is the consummate capitalist exploiter of labour.

Bounine has only eight days to get “Anastasia” ready to be presented before stockholders and convince the world that she is the Grand Duchess, so she is put to work immediately, being taught to memorize various details of Anastasia’s life, to dance, to play the piano, and to walk with a book on her head. Just like those musicians and dancers who are employees in Bounine’s nightclub, she is being made to put on a performance. She is just another of his exploited workers.

Though he has introduced himself, Chernov, and Petrovin as her “friends,” they are actually hard taskmasters who are overworking her and bossing her around. She shows a defiant individualism that annoys Bounine and brings out his stern, authoritarian, and paternalistic nature; but over time, he begins to have feelings for her…and she for him.

Now, a combination of her beauty with a budding sense of compassion for her, and how she has suffered, can easily explain why Bounine would start to fall for her; but why would she come to love such a peremptory, domineering man as he? His playing the guitar and humming to her is charming, but not enough in itself, nor is his dancing the waltz with her that she likes so much. Could his very strictness be the decisive factor in her loving him?

In bed one night, she has a nightmare and wakes up screaming with, in Newman’s film-score, tense, descending arpeggios in the high register of the piano. Bounine finds her in their apartment in a state of hysteria, her crying of how she wishes to be the real her, and not some faker of nobility. (This wish of hers, incidentally, could be seen to symbolize the worker’s alienation from his or her species-essence.)

When he can’t calm her down, Bounine shouts at her to “go to bed at once!” This reminds her of her “very strict” father (recall earlier when he ordered her to eat the borscht she doesn’t like), which she tells him with an almost Oedipal smile. Her growing love for him, therefore, could be the result of a father transference; it could also be trauma-related, that “unknown admirer” rapist I speculated of above. She may feel compelled thus to love dominant men, for it seems that Bounine is her new “ringmaster in a circus,” a scam circus he’s running in an attempt to get his hands on that £10 million.

Now, she is beginning to have feelings for him, but only beginning to. She also hates being exploited and bossed around by him, and in her frequent moments of defiance, she tells him so.

There is a paradox in his using her and telling her what to do, while at the same time entertaining in her mind the idea that she is of a social rank far higher than he. He is indulging her grandiose self, being a mirror of it for her, and she reacts accordingly by, for example, scolding Chernov for smoking in her presence without her permission, a sudden outburst that impresses the otherwise skeptical, gout-afflicted Chamberlain (played by Felix Aylmer).

The essence of Anna’s pathology can be traced to her lack of a stable psychological structure, described by Heinz Kohut as the bipolar self, the two poles of which are grounded in, on the one side, the mirroring of the grandiose self, as Bounine is providing for her, and on the other side, an idealized parental imago, which will be provided for her if her trip to Copenhagen with Bounine is successful.

What she needs is to have her identity and existence validated. Desire is the desire of the Other, as Lacan observed, and Anna’s desire is the empress’s desire, to be given recognition from her, she who deep down desires to have her long-lost family back. As much as Bounine tells the public she is Anastasia, it will never be good enough for her, since so many people doubt her authenticity as the Grand Duchess…devastatingly for her, Bounine himself doesn’t believe in it. They know, however, that there is one person by whom, if she accepts this troubled woman as her granddaughter, the whole world will have to accept her as Anastasia Nikolaevna.

The old woman in question is the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Hayes), and she lives a bitter life in Copenhagen, presented over and over again with fake family members. She has been shown two Tatianas, an Alexei, a Maria, and an Anastasia; she is so jaded with frustrated hopes of seeing long-dead family members that she must use an icy exterior to shield herself emotionally from further disappointment. For Anna to get validation from “Grandmama” will be a formidable enterprise, indeed.

Still, Anna must do it, for the Dowager Empress, being genuine Russo-Danish royalty, is just that idealized parental imago, transferred from parent to grandparent. Anna’s meeting of the empress, cutting her way through all that thick ice, will be so frightening for her that she will express her fear in an idiosyncratic manner that we viewers of the film have by now found familiar–through coughing.

This nervous reaction of hers represents her wish to eject painful parts of herself: bad memories, traumas, and bad internal objects. Ironically, and what seems a most fortuitous windfall, the Dowager Empress recalls Anastasia having coughed whenever frightened, and this memory convinces her that this young woman really must be her granddaughter.

In holding weeping Anna close, “Grandmama” is doing what Bion called a containment of the troubled girl’s agitations, detoxifying them for her and thus healing her. Old and young women here have healed each other. “Anastasia” has rebuilt her bipolar self, and finally has stable psychological structure.

In all well-written stories, we observe that the main characters go through growth, development, personal changes. We’ve seen how this happens to Anna, who begins as a traumatized, suicidal amnesiac with fantasies of what Freud called the “family romance” (i.e., her fantasy of having been born into nobility, which actually disguises a traumatic disappointment in her real parents); and through the rebuilding of her bipolar self with the mirroring of Bounine and the idealizing of the empress, she’s found stability and thus no longer needs such fantasies to keep her from psychologically falling apart.

Anna, however, isn’t the only character to have undergone important changes. Apart from the obvious thawing of the icy heart of the empress, Bounine has finally seen, though the hurt he’s caused the woman he’s exploiting and falling in love with, the error of his money-loving ways. Another source of the opening of his eyes is Prince Paul von Haraldberg (a fictional character played by Ivan Desny), another fortune-hunter who’s trying to win the charms of “Anastasia” and who is therefore enflaming Bounine’s jealousy, since the prince is to be engaged to her.

Prince Paul’s gold-digging is assuredly a mirror being held up to Bounine’s face, and therefore piquing his conscience, since his growing love for Anna is in large part due to his compassion for her suffering. Not only does Bounine want her for himself, but he also realizes that he cannot go on exploiting her for that money.

Now, Anna no longer needs the royal fantasies to help her hold herself together, but this doesn’t mean she no longer gets pleasure from indulging in such fantasies. Jealous Bounine points this out to her before the empress is to make her announcement that this young woman is Anastasia.

He no longer cares about the money…as amazing as such a development is. He hates how she has changed: her pain aroused his compassion. Now that she’s comfortable with who she is, in what feels like a phoney persona, she no longer inspires his compassion, but his contempt. Still, he wants to love the troubled woman he treated precisely with the therapy of that persona–he wants her back.

With this therapy, if you will, that he gave her, he has also treated his own faults. For in helping her establish an identity and social acceptance, he has learned the value of human relationships over money. This is why, at the end of the movie, he runs away with her, she doesn’t get engaged with Prince Paul, and neither she nor Bounine bother with the £10 million.

The empress, though wary of Bounine’s schemes, is so content in her belief that she has really been reunited with her granddaughter that she will let him run off with her. For the empress, too, appreciates the value of human relationships, and she’d rather see ‘her granddaughter’ happy with Bounine than in an emotionally sterile relationship with the prince.

Thus, there is, on at least some level, a shared understanding among all three of them that the Romanovs are “dead and buried and should be.” What we’re seeing at the end of the film is, of course, far from an advocacy of a triumph of communism (hence, the blacklisting of Laurents, Anastasia‘s screenwriter, was totally unjustified Cold War paranoia at the time), but rather a bourgeois liberal concession, a consigning of tsarism to the cobwebs of history.

Indeed, it is painful for the empress to let her granddaughter (as she still believes Anna to be, despite the allegations of Mikhail Vlados [played by Karel Stepánek]) go free and be happy with Bounine, who loves her for her, rather than be with the prince, who wants that money. This ability to make selfless sacrifices for the happiness of others can be seen, despite the film’s ruling class agenda, as the beginning of a series of steps from aristocracy and oligarchy to bourgeois liberal democracy, then–one hopes–finally to a classless, stateless society.

When I first watched Anastasia as a teenager (at the height of my crush on Ingrid Bergman), I was impressed at the graceful display of etiquette that the characters usually show each other. There are also, of course, brusque moments of ill temper here and there. The contrast between the two emphasizes the phoniness of the former and the blunt honesty of the latter. That we call the former ‘high class’ behaviour and the latter ‘low class’ behaviour is instructive.

To be ‘high class’ is to put on a performance of a supposed superiority worthy of wealth. Anna’s presenting of herself as the Grand Duchess is such a performance. We need to end such performances and help the wretched of the Earth to be just who they are, as she ends up doing. Then, we can see the empress smile and say, “The play is over. Go home.”

Analysis of ’12 Angry Men’

12 Angry Men is a 1957 courtroom drama directed by Sidney Lumet and based on a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose. The film stars Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, EG Marshall, and Jack Warden, with Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Rudy Bond. (Sweeney and Voskovec played the same characters in the teleplay.)

12 Angry Men was selected as the second best courtroom drama, after To Kill a Mockingbird, by the AFI for their Top Ten List. The film is also considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

With the exceptions of Jurors 8 (Davis, played by Fonda) and 9 (McCardle, played by Sweeney), who reveal their names only at the very end of the film, we never learn the names of the jurors, who are all referred to by number: Jurors 1 (Balsam), 2 (Fiedler), 3 (Cobb), 4 (Marshall), 5 (Klugman), 6 (Binns), 7 (Warden), 10 (Begley), 11 (Voskovec), and 12 (Webber).

Since it will be easier to match the faces of the characters to the actors who play them than to go by their numbers, for this analysis I’ll be referring to the characters by the actors’ names. For the sake of consistency, I’ll even refer to Juror 8 as Fonda rather than as Davis, and to Juror 9 as Sweeney rather than as McCardle.

12 Angry Men is a fascinating exploration of how a consensus of opinion can be gradually changed from one side to the other, in this case from a simple preconception of events to a more nuanced, complex view of them. We see how, in the passion of his convictions, Fonda’s character is the needed agent of change from smug prejudice to sensitive observance.

Indeed, the main theme of this film is prejudice (not just of the class, racial, or ethnic kind, though in Begley [towards slum kids] and Warden [towards immigrants like Voskovec] we see ample examples of that; but also the literal judging of events before having had a proper, full understanding of everything that has happened) and of a needed confrontation with and dispelling of prejudice.

The film begins with a shot of, first, the outside of the New York City courthouse, then, a sweeping shot of the inside (to contrast, presumably, with how the vast majority of the film is shot only in the jury room); then, there’s a brief scene in the courtroom where the trial of an 18-year-old boy (played by John Savoca), from a slum and accused of stabbing his father to death, is coming to an end. The judge (Bond), who looks bored, hot, and tired, tells the jurors in a perfunctory way that they must decide either to convict or, if there’s a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt, to acquit him.

A brief shot of the young defendant shows how scared he is, for the reason of his nervousness is the same as that of the judge’s smug lack of feeling about the outcome: a verdict of guilty, leading to death by the electric chair, seems to be a fait accompli. The evidence seems to show the boy to be most obviously guilty. The verdict, however, must be unanimous.

It’s hot in the jury room, with no air conditioning, and the fan doesn’t even work, annoying Wagner in particular. Begley has a “hot weather cold”; he’s sniffling and coughing, with a handkerchief to his nose all the time. This physical discomfort is surely adding to the twelve men’s irritability.

There is a relationship between the level of irritability of each of these “twelve angry men” and their willingness or unwillingness to grow in knowledge, have their preconceptions challenged, and see things in a totally new way. Wilfred R. Bion worked out a theory of thinking that explains how growth in knowledge, what he called K, comes from an ability to process external agitations (beta elements), detoxify them (through alpha function), and make them tolerable for use in thought and dreams (i.e., turn beta elements into alpha elements).

Babies need their mothers to help them develop this ability to soothe, process, and detoxify raw, external stimuli; mothers soothe their babies by receiving, through projective identification (in Bion‘s sense, a preverbal form of communication between baby and mother), all the agitation the babies cannot cope with. Mothers soothe their babies’ anxiety through what Bion called maternal reverie and containment. As infants grow in K and are repeatedly soothed by their mothers, they learn how to soothe themselves, to be the containers of their own contained agitations, and to develop a thinking apparatus. (See this link for more on Bion and psychoanalytic concepts.)

The reason for my brief digression from 12 Angry Men is to explain the model for how the ability to grow in thinking and knowledge is based on the capacity to self-soothe when irritating external stimuli assail our senses. It is significant that the three men most resistant to changing their minds about the accused–Cobb’s, Begley’s, and Warden’s characters–are the ones most easily agitated by either sensory irritants (beta elements–the heat, a cold), or in Cobb’s case, a troubled father/son relationship.

At the beginning of deliberations in the jury room, Cobb is speaking with Fiedler in uncharacteristic calmness; Cobb is in complete denial of having any emotional stake in the case, imagining it to be such an open-and-shut case, the boy’s guilt so obvious and proven, that one needn’t discuss it any further. Just convict the boy and get it over with.

We soon learn, however, that Cobb has done an unconscious transference of his own, similarly-aged son onto the defendant. Sending the boy to the electric chair is equivalent, in Cobb’s mind, to punishing his son for having displeased him so often: seeing, to his embarrassment, his son run away from a fight, getting hit by his son in a fight of their own, and being estranged from his son ever since.

There is a mother’s containment of her child’s agitations, then there’s Cobb’s failure, as a father, to contain his son’s agitations. His son’s running away from a fight is embarrassing to Cobb’s sense of manhood, so he’s tried to toughen his son up. He’s succeeded, but at the cost of estranging his son from him. Cobb has subjected his son to what Bion considered negative containment: instead of soothing his son, Cobb has aggravated his son’s agitations.

The mechanism of containment and growing in K is projective identification, which as I said above is what Bion considered a preverbal form of communication, achieved through exchanging energy–through projection and introjection. When done well, this swapping of projections is soothing and conducive to intellectual and emotional growth; when done poorly, we see, for example, the mutual alienation caused by Cobb and his son.

Fonda, on the other hand, is trying to effect change in the jurors by achieving a more soothing, mutually beneficial exchange of energy among the twelve men. He’d replace contempt for the defendant with compassion. He tries to be as polite and reasonable as he can…though with this bunch, it can be very difficult to be nice.

The resistance of the other eleven to Fonda’s questioning of the facts of the case against the defendant can be described in terms of what Bion called attacks on linking, or the refusal/inability of the subject to link with the object (e.g., the self with other people–that is, the other jurors’ initial refusal to sympathize with Fonda), or to make links in knowledge between things. The result is, instead of a growth in K, the stubborn, adamant refusal to grow in knowledge…-K.

A few of the men, however, are open to Fonda’s wish to discuss the case further. The first of these is Sweeney, who admires Fonda’s courage in standing alone and risking the ridicule of the others. Elderly Sweeney is a wise, thoughtful, and observant gentleman. He has all the virtues one obtains from the ability to self-soothe and grow in knowledge through an exchange of energy with other people.

The opposite of such thinking can be seen in another old man, the bitter, bigoted character Begley plays. It’s not really clear if he is prejudiced against an ethnic group (Is the defendant of Italian background? Is he a Jew?) or against the working-class poor; as a garage owner, Begley is a petite bourgeois who therefore would regard himself as ‘superior’ to the working class. One therefore shouldn’t be surprised that he would have attitudes ultimately linked with fascism.

Begley’s generalizations about the defendant (“He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t [sic] even speak good English.”) are obvious projections of his own ungrammatical ignorance. His bigotry is a classic case of trying to project all that is wrong with himself onto the defendant.

Now, as wrongheaded and cruel as Cobb’s and Begley’s reasons are for insisting on a verdict of guilty, at least they have conviction, a firm position on the case, and they believe in consistency with that position. It can be argued, therefore, that Warner’s character is the most despicable of the bunch, for his whole motive in voting guilty or not guilty is in getting out of the jury room as quickly as possible…so he can arrive in time at a baseball diamond and watch the game.

A young man’s life is at stake, and all that Warner cares about is getting to the baseball game in time, so his tickets, which are “burning a hole in [his] pocket,” aren’t a waste of money. His impatience is a perfect example of the inability to soothe and detoxify external agitations, an impatience coupled with an unwillingness to grow in knowledge.

And in all irony, he changes his vote from guilty to not guilty…not because he’s had a real change of heart about the defendant (though, of course, he pretends that he’s had such a change). He simply realizes that the tide is turning in favour of acquittal, and his vote-changing, he imagines, will accelerate the end of deliberations so he can get to that baseball game sooner.

As for Begley and Cobb, their switches of a vote from guilty to not guilty come from a crushing humbling: it’s finally brought home to them that neither bigotry nor vindictiveness is an acceptable reason to send a boy to the electric chair. Warden, on the other hand, just wants to get to his precious baseball game as fast as he can. Begley and Cobb are forced to confront what’s despicable in them; Warden won’t face up to and admit his own contemptibility.

Further irony is in how what has really unfolded is not a growth in knowledge per se, but a realization of how little the men know of what really happened on the night of the murder. They haven’t established the boy’s innocence by any means; for all they know, he may really have stabbed his father. They instead have established a reasonable doubt, and that’s all that’s needed to secure an acquittal.

In Act V, scene 1 of As You Like It, Touchstone says, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Cobb and Begley have learned this truth the hard way, while Fonda has understood it from the beginning. The truth is a fluid, ever-changing thing, so the acquiring of knowledge of the truth is, accordingly, going to be elusive.

With that elusiveness also comes the pain and annoyance of having to rethink one’s position; hence, Bion’s coupling of growth in K with the soothing of external agitations, of converting beta elements into alpha elements.

All twelve men have to go through this irritation: even the best-adjusted men–Fonda, Sweeney, Fiedler, Voskovec, Klugman, Binns, and Balsam–have their angry moments, hence the film’s title. Fonda loses his patience with Cobb, calling him “public avenger,” and “a sadist” for so vehemently wanting to execute the boy. Sweeney gets mad at Warner for tossing a scrunched-up ball of paper, bouncing it off the now-working fan, and accidentally hitting Sweeney in the head with it. Mild-mannered Fiedler calls Begley a “loudmouth” for being surly with him. Voskovec is the leader of those mad at Warner for changing his vote out of mere impatience. Klugman is offended by Begley’s anti-slum bigotry. Binns threatens to hit Cobb for speaking disrespectfully to elderly Sweeney. And Balsam petulantly offers to have Begley take over as foreman, since apparently he isn’t doing a good enough job at it.

Little by little, the ‘unshakeable’ evidence is re-examined and tossed aside as inadequate, much to the frustration of those insisting on conviction. The “unusual” switchblade knife used to stab the boy’s father to death, has at least one double, for Fonda’s found one in a shop in the boy’s neighbourhood.

Furthermore, the noise of a train passing by the scene of the crime would have made inaudible the yelled threat of “I’m going to kill you!” made by the boy to his father. Had the boy killed his father, he’d also have been most unlikely to have returned to the scene of the crime, as Voskovec notes, to retrieve the knife, the fingerprints already wiped off. Finally, people often say, “I’m going to kill you!” without literally meaning it, as Fonda baits Cobb into demonstrating.

Doubts are raised about the reliability of the second witness, who, due to his being slowed down by a leg he has to drag after a stroke, wouldn’t have been able to reach and open the door to his apartment–fifteen seconds after hearing the father’s body hit the floor–in time to see the boy running down the stairs, guiltily fleeing the scene of the crime, as the man testified.

As the deliberating carries on, and more and more jurors switch their votes from guilty to not guilty, not only does the fan start working (to Warner’s pleasant surprise), but it also rains briefly, thus cooling off the heat of the day. This shift from hot to cool, from dry to wet, symbolizes the shift of thinking among the jurors, from the heat of hate, vindictiveness, and bigotry, to the cool-headedness of reason, open-mindedness, and compassion.

In psychoanalytic terms, this shift can also be seen as one from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (which Bion abbreviated to PS) to the depressive position (D). PS is characterized by splitting away from oneself what one finds hateful and intolerable (the ‘schizoid’ aspect), and then fearing persecutory attacks from what has been split off (the ‘paranoid’ aspect). In railing away against the boy, Begley and Cobb are trying to split off what they unconsciously hate about themselves and project it onto the defendant; they also fear, in paranoid fashion, the boy’s acquittal, with the implication that he’ll be free to kill again.

D, however, is characterized by a fear of losing what is good in someone, along with the split-off, projected bad parts (‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’). In confronting the false premises behind Begley’s bigotry against slum kids and Cobb’s transferred hostility to his son, these two grumpy men have to acknowledge at least the possibility of innocence, of good, in the young defendant. This causes depressive anxiety in them, turning the self-righteous anger of Begley’s rant against slum kids into shameful sadness, and turning Cobb’s fury into tears…tears symbolized by the rain.

Marshall, as one of the last men to change his vote, is largely calm, rational, and free of personal bias against the boy. (He never even sweats…apparently.) He simply isn’t yet convinced that there’s a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt. Marshall, for example, doesn’t buy the boy’s alibi about being at the movies, yet forgetting the names of the films he saw, or the actors in them. Fonda tests Marshall’s memory of movies he’s recently seen, and Marshall shows less difficulty remembering them, but a difficulty sufficiently similar to that of the boy…and Marshall is under far less emotional stress than the boy was at the time. He uses a handkerchief to wipe some sweat off his brow.

Further doubt is established in how it’s unlikely that the boy, far shorter than his father, would have stabbed down (as the stabbing had actually been), rather than up, with the switchblade. Klugman, having been raised in a slum and regrettably more than acquainted with switchblades, insists that the boy would have stabbed upwards.

Finally, Marshall maintains that the testimony of the first witness, a woman who had a clear view of the boy stabbing his father, is incontrovertible evidence. Cobb goes so far as to say all the other evidence can be tossed aside: the woman’s testimony alone proves the boy’s guilt.

Once again, though, a coupling of physical discomfort with a reexamination of the facts leads to a growth in knowledge. Sweeney sees Marshall rubbing his nose because impressions put there by his eyeglasses irritate him. Though Sweeney sympathizes with Marshall’s discomfort–that is, he attempts to contain it, in Bion’s sense–Marshall, further irritated by Sweeney’s probing, fails to see the significance of rubbing where the dents from his eyeglasses are.

That woman rubbed her eyes often while on the stand. She was never seen in glasses in court, but she acted unmistakably like a wearer of them. The men assume she must have wanted to look younger and more attractive on the stand without her glasses; after all, she had those same indentations on her nose, so her rubbing of her nose is linked to her wearing of glasses. She’d been in bed when the murder occurred, and she wouldn’t have had the time to reach for her glasses and put them on to see the stabbing at a far-off distance, with a train racing by in between her home and where the murder happened.

She couldn’t have seen more than a blur.

Marshall now has a reasonable doubt. He switches his vote to not guilty.

Cobb now is all alone.

With his failure to convince any of the others that the boy is guilty, Cobb can only show more of his usual rage; but none of the other eleven, just looking at him calmly, will contain (in Bion’s sense) his rage. All he can do is revert to his hostility to his son, which, recall, he’s transferred onto the young defendant.

He’s had a photo in his wallet of himself and his son smiling, with their arms around each other. Cobb looks down at it before tearing it up (and tearing up and crying): the photo is a metaphorical mirror, in the Lacanian sense; he sees in it the ideal father/son relationship, one of love, and one he knows he can’t live up to, or at least hasn’t so far succeeded in living up to. His tearing it up, and his tears of shame, reveal the true, transferred source of his hostility. Now, he can only vote not guilty.

His weeping is like that of a baby whose agitations are never satisfied–not because a bad mother (or bad father) never soothed or detoxified them (that is, contained them), but because he now is consciously aware that he is the bad father. Fonda, however, helps restore some dignity in Cobb by getting his suit jacket for him and helping him put it on. Fonda, in this way, is playing the role of good parent, being in a state of, if you will, paternal reverie (in Bion’s sense), containing Cobb’s agitations and helping him to calm down.

Everyone leaves the courthouse. It’s wet outside, but the rain has stopped. Fonda (“Davis”) and Sweeney (“McCardle”) tell each other their names and say goodbye. The film ends with Cobb, far off in the background, walking down the steps in a sulk. With the end of the rain is the end of his passage through the depressive position. Who knows? Maybe he’ll call his son up and apologize for having been a bad father.

Then, we might have two happy men.

Analysis of ‘Carnival of Souls’

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

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

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

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

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

Racing as representative of the pressures of competition in society.

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

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

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

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

Mary is a lonely, lost soul.

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

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

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

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

Mary the organist.

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

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

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

The pavilion.

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

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

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

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

Seeing the main ghoul.

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

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

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

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

Mary in the department store.

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

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

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

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

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

Mary looking around the pavilion.

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

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

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

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

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

They only come out at night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She must confront him.

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

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

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

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

Ghoul-Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Last Breath,’ a Poem by Rusty Rebar

‘The Last Breath’ is a poem by Rusty Rebar, a Facebook friend of mine. I gave it a quick read the day before and found it full of meaning, which I’d like to examine below. First, here’s his poem (I’m setting it in italics to distinguish his writing from mine, as always):

the last breath

1.
the way a door slammed
rattles the whole house
or how the wrong word
scorches an open heart
shoes without soles
a torn pair of pants


a moment that breaks
every second after
& you seemingly unable
to put it back together
the terror hidden in
a corner of your fears

like a shy thief lurking
afraid to risk capture
but happy to hurt you
wounds inflicted on
you powerless to stop
what keeps happening

2.
pain an offering then
a solace for all that is
no surprise whatsoever
you sit with your demons
in front of the television
mesmerized by action

quick millionaires running
around in their underwear
tights or pajamas depending
joyful endorphins popping
fulfilling safe anticipations
same play — played night

& day — over & over
spinning endless tomorrows
out of imaginary yesterdays
& what is wrong with that
a world of wonderful rules
& magically infinite chances

bread & circus the holy
flesh of brainwash — firm
faith in the glory of private
property & money as the
measure of all things held
tighter when you have neither

3.
with drugs — the effect
wears off — larger doses
needed to deaden nerves
& block the bad feelings
get back to work before
the rent check comes due

escape from a prison
inside the mind impossible
the illusion of freedom ends
& you find yourself back
in your dark lonely cell
more trapped than ever

luckily — your story also
ends — there is no such thing
as forever & no problem
death cannot solve — best
treasure what you do remember
the last breath of a lost friend

And now, for my analysis.

We have three sets of verses, the first set of which centres around pain, broken or torn things, things with holes in them. The second set centres around forms of escape from the pain: television, the American Dream, bread and circuses, distractions. The third set centres around how the forms of escape, including drugs, don’t work–one cannot escape from one’s prison, since one has to go back to work before the rent is due. Still, there is one last escape…death.

So the three verse sets can be seen as the thesis (pain), negation (escape from the pain), and sublation (return to, and ultimate escape from, the pain). It’s the dialectic, but a very physical one, a materialistic one. Marx is turning Hegel right-side up.

The first set of verses is full of the imagery of violence: slammed doors, verbal abuse, the torn pants and the soleless shoes of a soulless world that doesn’t care for the poor. Moments that break, and you can’t put them back together. Thieves are afraid to get caught, but happy to hurt you: this is a world of alienation. We feel powerless to stop the pain.

The second set of verses deals with what Klein and Winnicott called the manic defence, or any attempt to avoid dealing with the painful, depressive sides of life, and to plunge instead into the manic, or exciting, sides of life (drugs, porn, etc.). One sits a mesmerized zombie in front of the idiot box, following the latest media nonsense, or one tries to identify with the rich, fantasizing that one day, the American Dream will come true for oneself…when of course there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening.

One sees millionaires in the media dancing around in their underwear, because only they have the financial freedom to act as inanely as they like. Perhaps they’re wandering about in their pyjamas, like Hef. This empty worship of wealth goes on day after day, a hiding away from one’s secret sorrows. Those sorrows, however unacknowledged, go on “spinning endless tomorrows…”–reminding us of Macbeth‘s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech (Act V, Scene v)–“…out of imaginary yesterdays,” reminding us in turn of Macbeth’s words “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.”

Life is as meaningless for us today, with our “faith in the glory of private/property” (note the enjambment between the two words, indicating how split a concept that one is, as is so much of our psychological fragmentation, symbolized by all the other examples of enjambment in this poem), as it was for the Scottish tyrant of Shakespeare’s play. One believes in such empty capitalistic concepts especially when one doesn’t benefit from the wealth of the 1%.

The third set of verses deals with the coming down, as it were, from the high one felt in the escape of the second set. One now feels even worse than before, unable to escape the reality one keeps coming back to. Still, there’s one last escape…death. “To die, to sleep,/No more…” (Act III, Scene i) Unlike the Dane, though, we in today’s secular world don’t generally worry about “the dread of something after death, —/The undiscovered country,” so “the last breath of a lost friend,” death, is a soft breeze on our faces, and gives us hope in our despair…the hope of despair.

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 of 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 ‘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 ‘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 ‘Killing Zoe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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