Analysis of ‘Watchmen’

I: Introduction

Watchmen is a 1986-1987 comic book limited series, collected into a single-volume edition graphic novel in 1987. Original characters were used, since most of them would be unusable for future stories. The series was created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgins.

Moore meant the story as a reflection on contemporary fears, and as a deconstruction and satire on the concept of superheroes, as well as a commentary on contemporary politics. Watchmen depicts an alternate history in which Nixon not only doesn’t resign or is threatened with impeachment over the Watergate scandal (which is never exposed), but enjoys an overturning of the two-term limit and is thus still president by the mid-80s, when the story begins. He is able to do this because such superheroes as Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian help the US win the Vietnam War, ensuring Nixon’s continuing popularity.

Watchmen has received commercial and critical success, recognized in Time‘s List of the 100 Best Novels. According to the BBC’s Nicholas Barber, it is “the moment comic books grew up.” A film adaptation by Zack Snyder came out in 2009, featuring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson; a video game series, Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, also came out the same year. A TV series continuing the story came out in 2019 on HBO. I’m basing my analysis on the comics and the 2009 movie.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

II: Alternate History vs Real History

What should we make of the alternate history, with a Vietnam War victory and Nixon continuing on as president well into the 1980s, that is, as a form of political commentary? Here’s my take: what difference does it make, really? Though communism hadn’t yet been defeated as of when Watchmen was written and published, it certainly had been as of the creation of the movie; besides, Vietnam would go over to a market economy, as would China, around the time of the comics’ publication. As for Nixon, when one considers how the foreign and domestic policies of the United States have moved unswervingly in the same neoliberal/neocon direction since the 1973 oil crisis, one can easily see how it has made no difference who’s been sitting in the Oval Office.

…and here’s where the superheroes come in.

Apart from the sheer goofiness of their names (Nite Owl?, Dollar Bill?, Captain Metropolis?, Hooded Justice?, Mothman?), the superheroes are a satire on their whole existence based on the idea that…no…they do not really embody the idea of defending truth, justice, and…wait, actually they do defend the American way. “Who watches the watchmen?Juvenal once asked of the corrupt men who would guard women against infidelity; though we today find far better application of his words to the defenders of tyrannical governments.

It must be emphasized that, though the liberal creators of Watchmen would have been unlikely to have defended Marxist-Leninist governments (note how the comics’ portrayal of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, moved later in this alternate history to the mid-80s, is still deemed an invasion, rather than an attempt to defend the growth of socialism there against the fundamentalist, reactionary mujahideen), the tyrannical government being critiqued here is the US dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist, imperialist state led by Nixon, who stands in for Moore’s real Republican satirical target…Reagan!

So, as with John Carpenter‘s film They Live, Watchmen is meant as liberals’ indictment of the GOP specifically, as opposed to being a critique of the entire American two-party system, the military-industrial complex, and capitalism in general, though it should have been meant as such, and it has enough elements in it to be critical of so much bigger a realm of political corruption, as I’ll try to show. For to put what I said above in different words, re-elected Nixon can be a stand-in for not only Reagan, but also Ford, Carter, Bushes Sr. and Jr., the Clintons, Obama, Trump, and Biden.

One criticism of the film’s general faithfulness to the comics is that it was too faithful. Retaining, for instance, the Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and socialist Russia was deemed by film critics over a decade ago to be too dated for contemporary moviegoers to be able to relate to the tensions depicted. In the 2020s, however, with new Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and capitalist Russia, moviegoers today can relate all too well to the tensions depicted in the film.

Such fears are what have motivated me to do this analysis.

III: The Comedian Is Dead

The story begins with the violent murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian (Morgan in the film), a man in his sixties who was in remarkably good shape for his age, but no match for his much younger killer, who throws him out of the window of his New York apartment, him falling to his death. The iconic image of his pin of a smiley face stained with a drop of his blood’s a harrowing one, for it symbolizes all that the Comedian in turn came to represent: the idea of superheroes defending the innocent is a sick, cruel joke.

Superheroes in this story are, essentially, glorified police and soldiers, whom they thus represent. Many people, especially in recent years, have come to feel nothing but contempt for cops, and justifiably so, for the cops’ job is really “to serve and protect” the ruling class. Similarly, the American/NATO military serves nothing more than imperial interests.

This is where the Comedian comes in. With Doctor Manhattan (Crudup), he is the only superhero allowed by the US government to remain so under the Keene Act of 1977, which otherwise banned all “masks.” Though the Comedian was inspired by the Peacemaker, with “a little bit of Nick Fury,” there’s also some Captain America in him, too, as can be seen on his Stars and Stripes shoulder sleeves.

Watchmen the comic and film seem to have anticipated the huge outpouring of superhero films in the 2010s, especially the MCU, with its pitting of the Avengers against armies of alien supervillains, a glorification of war between the “good guys,” or “Earth’s mightiest heroes” as representing the armies of US/NATO imperialism, and the “bad guys,” the Chitauri, etc., as representing any country opposing the Western empire.

Accordingly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see flashbacks of the Comedian killing the Vietcong with Doctor Manhattan, though we feel an unsettling sympathy for Charlie as he gets mutilated and destroyed, unlike those Chitauri. What’s worse, we see what a pig of a GI Joe the Comedian is to the pregnant Vietnamese woman he kills…after refusing to take responsibility for having impregnating her. Added to that is his beating and attempted rape of Sally “Jupiter” Juspeczyk, or Silk Spectre I (Gugino) back in the early 1940s. The Comedian thus represents not only police brutality and imperialism, but also toxic masculinity (elements I linked together here), showing what a cruel joke it is to be a “superhero.”

So, the Comedian is despicable in the extreme; but he is not 100% despicable. There are, after all, his penitent tears while sitting at the bed of Moloch (played by Matt Frewer in the film), who was his supervillain enemy for forty years (Chapter II, comic pages 21-23). The Comedian feels this remorse as a result of learning of the apocalyptic plans of Ozymandias (Goode). Indeed, his maskless confession to Moloch, revealing his secret identity as Blake, puts the retired supervillain in the ironic role of priestly confessor, thus once again blurring the line between good and evil in Watchmen.

The Comedian’s grinning wickedness can be explained, if never justified, in one remarkable way. His oft-repeated line, “It’s a joke,” can be interpreted as a kind of Camus-like absurdism. He knows it’s no good playing the hero in a world where villainy keeps resurfacing after brief defeats; it’s especially no good in a world whose existence is threatened by nuclear war.

For him, fighting crime is like Sisyphus rolling that huge boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom as soon as it’s reached the top, to have to be rolled up again and again, for all eternity. One can never make the world a better place, but one is forced to keep trying. Camus concluded, however, that one must imagine that Sisyphus is happy, as a proposed resolution of the contradiction of man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe; similarly, the Comedian continues to play the fake role of hero with a smile, knowing full well that it’s “all a joke.” Hence he commits atrocities without batting an eye.

IV: Rorschach

Rorschach (Haley), or Walter Kovacs–who has been, like a noir detective, investigating the murder of the Comedian and has formulated a conspiracy theory about someone out to kill all “masks”–is a similarly amoral sociopath, another example of how Watchmen deconstructs and satirizes the idea of “good guy” superheroes, though his sociopathy expresses itself in markedly different ways. His mother having been an abusive prostitute makes him a literal sonofabitch. This rupture in the normal child’s Oedipal and post-Oedipal development at least in part explains his pathology (it goes without saying that little Walter had no father in the home).

One peculiarity about Rorschach is his omission of definite and indefinite articles when speaking; these omissions are more extensive in the comic than in the film. Given his psychopathological nature, such omissions symbolize how incomplete his communicating is. In other words, he’s not as engaged as most people are in the Symbolic Order, the realm of language, social mores, custom, laws, culture, etc. His refusal to abide by the Keene Act, that is, illegally continuing his work as a “mask,” is a reflection of all this. He doesn’t fit in with society, and it shows when he talks.

He sees the world as irredeemably cruel, so he believes that he has the right to be as violent and cruel as he likes to other people (e.g., breaking people’s fingers when interrogating them). His superhero name and mask…or “face,” as he calls it, comes from the Rorschach test, a projective test using symmetrical inkblots (like the shifting black images seen on his white “face”) to bring out features of a patient’s unconscious thoughts that are projected onto the ink blots when he’s asked what he sees.

So his black-and-white “face” represents the kind of projection we all do, not just his own projecting of his viciousness onto the world, but also our projecting onto him when we see his “face,” or onto anyone else. (Consider the scene in the film when, broken out of prison with the help of Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, he finds his “face,” puts it on, and facing the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long–played by William S. Taylor– who has used the Rorschach test on him, he asks, “What do you see?”) He is a mirror to us as much as we are a mirror to him. Rorschach, in his permanent hostility to all those around him, personifies the alienation that is almost universal in our world.

The fact that his mask is black and white also represents his own psychological splitting, his black-and-white view of the world: if something isn’t totally pure and innocent, honest and just, it’s so fetidly evil that destroying all manifestations of that evil is perfectly defensible (the fact that he stinks becomes yet another projection onto that fetidly evil world he sees). Hence, “not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” The splitting into black and white means projecting the black outward and keeping the white inside…or so Rorschach thinks he’s doing; yet one cannot deny one’s Shadow, so he behaves as hideously as all those he condemns and maims.

V: Nite Owl II

Upon learning of the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach first goes to the home of Nite Owl II (Wilson), or Dan Dreiberg, to warn him about his theory of a “mask-killer.” Though based on the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle, Nite Owl is in many ways a parody of Batman, with his use of gadgets and his “Owlship” (reminding us of the Batplane), nicknamed “Archie,” short for Archimedes. Dreiberg’s father left him a lot of money when he died, allowing him to afford such things, rather like orphan billionaire Bruce Wayne. His class status as a bourgeois ensures that Dan, like the other Watchmen, will always have, if not right-wing politics, at least liberal ones, as a reflection of his wish to protect his class interests.

Still, of all the Watchmen, Nite Owl II (as well as Silk Spectre II, or Laurie Juspeczyk–Åkerman) is the most moral. He and she do the one act of saving the lives of innocent people in danger in the whole comic, rescuing people from a tenement building on fire and taking them aboard Archie (Chapter VII, comic pages 23-26). When he and the Comedian are trying to handle the rioters back in the 1970s, he’s in the role of the “good cop,” trying to reason with the rioters, while the Comedian is the “bad cop,” beating the crap out of them (Chapter II, comic pages 16-18), if not killing them.

VI: Ozymandias

After warning Dan, Rorschach goes to tell Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, now the wealthy owner of, among other businesses, a toy company that, in selling Watchmen action figures, is capitalizing on the whole superhero phenomenon. Here we see more of the comics’ satire on superheroes. Like Dan, Adrian shows skepticism over Rorschach’s “mask killer” conspiracy theory (Chapter I, comic pages 17 and 18).

Well, naturally Adrian shows skepticism: as we learn in the end, he is the mask killer.

He’s the one who breaks into Blake’s apartment, beats him up, and throws him out the window. Adrian’s the one who deceives Doctor Manhattan into thinking that contact with him caused his colleagues, his former lover, Janey Slater (played by Laura Mennell in the film), and Moloch to develop cancer, giving the godlike superhero such guilt feelings that he leaves for Mars for some peaceful solitude, thus ensuring he won’t interfere with Adrian’s plans. Since Rorschach is also piecing the plot together, Adrian must get rid of him, too–by framing him for the murder of Moloch and putting him in prison. Finally, Adrian stages an attempt on his own life to make himself seem above suspicion.

And what’s Ozymandias’ plot? To kill millions of New Yorkers with a monster he’s had biologically engineered so that the leaders of the US and the USSR, joining forces to defend the world from alien invaders, will relent from nuclear war. Thus is world peace achieved!

Now, purist fans of the comics will be infuriated with me for saying this, but I believe the film’s changing of the alien monster to energy blasts, seemingly from Doctor Manhattan, on not only New York but also a number of other major cities around the world, was an improvement. Wiping out so many more people makes it all the more horrific, and energy blasts coming from a harnessing of Doctor Manhattan’s power, by virtue of the godlike hero’s name’s association with the Manhattan Project (and therefore associating his power with nuclear weapons), creates an ironic genocide by power thus associated in order to prevent a genocide by nuclear weapons.

Ozymandias imagines that his plot, as horrific as it is, will be a necessary sacrifice to prevent a horror killing billions, because apparently, the American and Soviet governments will be deterred by this horror from ever going to war with each other. Why, however, should we believe that world peace, let alone a lasting one, will be guaranteed by this “sacrifice”? Ozymandias himself acknowledges that man’s savage, violent nature will inevitably lead to his destruction. One doesn’t have to be “the smartest man in the world” to know that that savage, destructive nature won’t be tamed forever just because of the massive deaths caused by the monster, or the energy blasts. Let enough time pass by, and all those deaths will slowly fade from memory, and our bloodthirsty, competitive habits will reemerge.

Kiling millions to save billions, therefore, must be Adrian’s rationalization, rather than his real reason, for killing all those people (I wonder if any of his businesses’ competition were wiped out in New York, with his full knowledge?). Like the Comedian and Rorschach, Ozymandias is yet another superhero psychopath (recall how easily he disintegrates his pet Bubastis in his attempt to do the same to Doctor Manhattan), but with some narcissism mixed in. He identifies with great leaders of ancient history: Alexander the Great, and later Ramses II, called Ozymandias by the ancient Greeks. We’re reminded of Shelley‘s poem, in which we read the famous lines, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

In his narcissistic imagination, Adrian thinks he’s achieved the ultimate act of greatness in creating world peace, paradoxically, through a huge massacre. We are to look on his works (supposedly not knowing they’re his works) and despair, on the one hand, at the huge number of deaths he’s caused, and on the other hand, at the great accomplishment–supposedly thus–of what has been deemed impossible to accomplish…a lasting world peace. The “mighty” would envy him for his great feat.

Yet, just as the giant statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem has been reduced to mere fragments of rubble by the passage of time, so will Adrian’s peace by mass murder–by the passage of time–fade away into oblivion with the innate human urge to resume competing and waging war. His peace will come crumbling down; in fact, it may crumble quite soon if Seymour (played by Chris Gauthier in the film), at New Frontiersman, takes Rorschach’s journal from the crank file and, reproducing in a newspaper article the contents that have resulted from Rorschach’s investigation, expose Adrian’s whole plan as a hoax (Chapter XII, comic pages 31 and 32).

Now, New Frontiersman is a right-wing newspaper (as made blatantly clear on pages 275-278 in the graphic novel), and Rorschach’s giving of his journal to them indicates his sympathies for their politics. Indeed, he often speaks disparagingly of “liberal sensibilities,” which, contrary to popular belief, are not left-wing, but centrist, swaying only temporarily to the left or to the right depending on the political climate of the time (consider, for example, how liberals were left-leaning peaceniks in the 1960s and 70s; but when Trump was elected, they started banging the war drums against Russians, leading to our predicament in the 2020s). Other masks, like the Comedian, are similarly right-wing, “practically a Nazi,” according to Adrian.

Now, Adrian is deemed one of the “most consistently left-leaning superheroes,” according to a 1975 article by the liberal Nova Express (pages 377-380), so virulently hated a publication by the editor of New Frontiersman. Still, as the wealthy owner of several companies, Adrian is merely a bourgeois liberal and a member of the capitalist class, so he hardly merits the moniker of “leftist.” He’s no more “left-leaning” than billionaire George Soros, who may critique the excesses of unregulated capitalism from time to time, but who also used the “Open Society” to help dissolve the Soviet states. Only a far right-wing moron would call Soros a ‘communist’; it’s equally absurd to imagine that Adrian, an admirer of rulers during the ancient slave/master class contradiction, is anything approaching a socialist.

If one wishes to call Adrian a liberal, fine. We’ve seen plenty of liberals in today’s world joining the choruses of condemnation of Putin and all things Russian in response to his provoked invasion of Ukraine. These same liberals are, knowingly or unknowingly (the latter being no excuse, as evidence of the provocations has been made public for years), cheering for a government that has Nazis in it, as well as in their military. (I go into more detail about this issue in these posts, Dear Reader, if you’re interested: rehashing these arguments is beyond the scope of this article.)

That Western liberals are rooting for Ukraine and manufacturing consent for continued war with Russia is a dangerous game, risking a very possibly nuclear WWIII. Such an understanding of Ozymandias’ politics helps clear our minds as to why this liberal, fantasizing about an ideal world, has massacred millions in a manner comparable with nuclear war in order, paradoxically, to prevent it. Recall how atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands in two Japanese cities (rationalized as having prevented far more deaths), far fewer than Adrian’s mass murder in New York City.

So, one lesson to be learned from this narrative is not to be naïve in hoping that liberals will steer humanity away from extinction. The trouble with liberal normal is that it always gets worse.

VII: Doctor Manhattan

The next heroes Rorschach goes to warn are Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre II, the couple being in a sexual relationship and living together in the Rockefeller Military Research Center, where Doctor Manhattan works for the government. When Rorschach tells them the Comedian is dead, Dr. Manhattan says he already knows, and that “the CIA suspects the Libyans were responsible.” Though the CIA presumably wouldn’t have known of Adrian’s plot (of course, knowing the nature of the CIA, and of at least some billionaires’ CIA connections, it’s quite possible that they might be in on it), their scapegoating of Libya sounds most convenient for their purposes.

Laurie feels no love lost for the murder of the man who tried to rape her mother, breaking her ribs and almost choking her; but Rorschach just trivializes the “moral lapse” of a man who died serving his country, a typically jingoistic and insensitive opinion from a right-winger (Chapter I comic page 21).

As for Dr. Manhattan, he is similarly unmoved by Blake’s death, since “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts.” As the only superhero of the Watchmen with superhuman powers, this nude blue demigod is emotionally numb from his deeper understanding of ‘the broader scheme of things,’ as it were, a numbness that will alienate Laurie from him and make her run into Dan’s arms later.

Dr. Jon Osterman became Doctor Manhattan as a result of a freak accident in the test chamber–in which he was locked–in the intrinsic field chamber where he and his fellow researchers worked. (He went there to retrieve a watch he’d fixed, that of his lover, Janey Slater.) In that chamber, his body was torn to pieces…pieces too infinitesimally small to see (Chapter IV, comic pages 7 and 8).

He reassembled himself (just like the repairing of her watch) in stages: first, a brain, eyes, and nervous system emerged; then, his circulatory system; next, a partially-muscled skeleton. Finally, he appeared before Janey and the other research staff in the cafeteria in his full, new form–blue, hairless, muscular, and naked, glowing with a “sudden flare of ultraviolet” (Chapter IV, comic page 10).

Osterman’s ordeal is obviously Christ-like in his agonizing death and resurrection, giving him a kind of “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), if you will, and as a kind of “second Adam,” it’s fitting that he goes about “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), just like the two lovers in the garden before their fall from grace. So his disintegration into the void was a kind of harrowing of hell…but also, paradoxically, a brief experience of the no-thing-ness of nirvana.

The sublation of the dialectical opposites of heaven (or, if you prefer, nirvana) and hell can be a way of interpreting what Wilfred Bion called O, and what Lacan called the Real. It’s a place of bliss as well as of trauma. Osterman has experienced both, almost simultaneously, and he’ll never be the same again.

Having experienced such extremes, he is distanced from the normal feelings of human attachment that are a part of samsara. He scarcely feels the fire of desire that causes dukkha, suffering; so his resurrected, god-like incarnation grows cooler and cooler emotionally. Death and suffering no longer trouble him all that much. He can still feel some emotion (hence his guilt over Janey’s cancer, a particularly powerful exception for him), but feelings are scanted for him, at best.

Small wonder he can walk as a giant through the jungles and rice paddy fields of Vietnam and destroy Charlie without flinching. Such is his nirvanic indifference to the differences between life and death. This indifference, of course, is most useful to the American government. As an American god, Doctor Manhattan should be terrifying to the world. As a metaphoric nuclear weapon personified, he’ll keep the Soviets at bay.

As the personification of a nuclear weapon, capable of destroying all life, he’s the opposite of what a superhero is supposed to be. As someone so indifferent to human life that it doesn’t matter to him if nuclear war wipes it out, Doctor Manhattan is that much less of a superhero.

It is only when he realizes so good a person as Laurie, Silk Spectre II, can come–by a one in a billion chance–from the mating of Sally, Silk Spectre I, with her near-rapist, the super-despicable Comedian, such good from such bad, that Doctor Manhattan sees the birth as a miracle, and therefore he can see value in human life once again. So by this paradox, he finds the willingness to go back, from his isolation on Mars, to Earth to prevent nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

But he arrives too late to stop the monster…or, according to the film, the energy blasts to be blamed on him.

Heroes meant to prevent calamity either fail to prevent it in Watchmen, or they outright cause it…the superhero concept is further satirized and deconstructed.

VIII: The Black Freighter

A subplot running throughout the comics, but not included in the film (apart from deleted scenes), is a comic book story–read by a young man sitting by a newspaper vendor who’s always prating about the end of the world (and providing copies of New Frontiersman to Walter Kovacs when he isn’t in his Rorschach outfit but is carrying around a sign saying “The End Is Nigh”)–from Tales of the Black Freighter. (This begins at the start of Chapter III.)

The protagonist of the story–curiously not a comic book superhero, since a decline in the popularity of “masks” over the years has replaced them with, in this case, for example, seamen–has found himself the sole survivor of his crew from a shipwreck resulting from an attack at sea by the Black Freighter, or as he calls it, the “hell-bound ship.” (Chapter III, comic pages 1 and 2) Overwhelmed by the sight of his wrecked ship and the bodies of his dead crew strewn on the shore, and also fearing the hell-bound ship sailing to his hometown of Davidstown, where his wife and daughters will be killed before he can get there, he vows revenge and is obsessively driven to get home to achieve it.

When he realizes that making a raft from wood won’t be buoyant enough, he decides to make one with the body parts of the dead crewmen he’s just buried. This ghoulish act is the first example of foreshadowing in the story, for the Black Freighter has heads nailed to its prow. In his overzealous quest to avenge evil (if he can’t stop the ship from killing his family, that is), the protagonist will become the very evil he’s trying to prevent. He’s projecting his own potential for evil onto the Black Freighter (Chapter V, comic pages 8 and 9), just as Rorschach projects his evil onto the world.

Further foreshadowing of him becoming that evil is when he, on his raft of rotting corpses, grabs a seagull among many trying to nip at the dead flesh and savagely eats it alive. We see a picture of him (Chapter V, bottom right of comic page 9) with a wild facial expression and gull’s blood dripping from his mouth.

It’s interesting to note, in connection with the moral degeneration of the protagonist, how the newspaper vendor standing by the kid reading the comic has said, from the beginning, that the US should nuke the USSR. Is his attitude not a perfect parallel of that of the comic’s protagonist? So eager to kill the bad guys that he talks like a bad guy himself. The same is true of the Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, all self-righteous psychopaths who think they have the right to end human life.

Eventually, the protagonist reaches land and gets to Davidstown. Since he’s narrating the story, and he’s been through a harrowing, traumatizing, and disorienting experience, his judgement will be shaky at best. Therefore, he is clearly an unreliable narrator. What he perceives to be happening next should be observed with due skepticism.

He sees a man and a woman walking along near the beach. It’s at night, so it’s dark and not easy to see. Still, the protagonist is sure this man is a moneylender from Davidstown whom he recognizes, and the woman is his paramour. Moneylenders were despised people back around the 18th/19th century, when this story takes place, so it’s easy to see the protagonist vilifying this man as an abettor to the evil crew of the Black Freighter. (Chapter X, comic book pages 12 and 13)

He kills the lovers, then disguising himself as the man and putting the woman’s body on her horse, he rides into Davidstown with her. (Chapter X, comic page 23) Again, this use of a corpse with transportation is a foreshadowing of his eventual identification with the murderous crew of the Black Freighter, with heads on its prow.

Finally in Davidstown, he gets to his home and, thinking the murderous pirates are there, he attacks one to avenge his family…only to realize he’s actually killed his own wife. (Chapter XI, comic page 6) The Black Freighter never reached Davidstown (has it been only a figment of his imagination the whole time, a projection of his own, inner evil?), though the ship is later seen approaching the shore by the despairing protagonist, who has returned to the beach. He gets in the water, swims to the boat, and joins the crew, being as evil as they are. (Chapter XI, comic page 23)

To return to the main story, after Ozymandias has released the monster (which, by the way, can also be representative of a nuclear holocaust, through associations with such kaiju as Godzilla) on New York, a mass murder that one TV news reporter compares to “Hiroshima but with buildings”(Chapter XII, comic page 25), he tells Doctor Manhattan about a dream he’s had, “about swimming towards a hideous…” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)

He doesn’t finish his thought, though, because, as should be obvious to us, he’s referring to the Black Freighter. Like the protagonist of that story, Ozymandias has become the very evil he claims he’s wanted to prevent…though he won’t let his guilt surface to his conscious mind (it can appear only in his unconscious, in dream).

IX: Conclusion

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” meaning the triumph of “free market” capitalism as the highest and final stage of human civilization. But as Doctor Manhattan tells liberal capitalist Ozymandias, “Nothing ever ends.” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)

We all imagined (myself included, at the time), in our naïveté, that the end of the Soviet states would not only usher in freedom and democracy around the world, but also, in ending the Cold War, put to rest our fears of nuclear annihilation. Yet since the early 1990s, we’ve instead seen life get shittier and shittier, with increasing income inequality, the capitalist class controlling most of our access to information, a homelessness epidemic, worsening financial crises, government surveillance (and surveillance capitalism), rampant imperialist wars, and militarized police. The end of socialist “totalitarianism” has only led to a very real capitalist totalitarianism. In the past, the West feared the rule of Stalin and Mao, but we don’t need to fear them: now we’re ruled by the likes of Gates, Musk, and Bezos.

Our “heroes” of the past–Soros et al–have become the very evil they fancied themselves to be fighting.

Furthermore, just as we see on the pages of the Watchmen comics, the doomsday clock is set just a few minutes before midnight. All one needs to do to see the grim reality I’m describing is to watch the reckless nuclear brinksmanship going on with the US and NATO’s proxy war with Russia, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder. And as if that weren’t madness enough, the Western imperialists are planning to play the same game of nuclear chicken with China, using the Taiwanese as cannon fodder.

The end of the world is nigh…where are Walter Kovacs and his sign when we need them?

Just as Ozymandias imagines dropping a giant squid-like monster on New York City–or, as in the film, using energy blasts seeming to come from Doctor Manhattan, killing not only millions in the Big Apple, but also in London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, etc.–will save billions by killing millions, so do some of the warmongering imperialist psychopaths in our world imagine using smaller nukes will defeat Russia and China without wiping out the entire world. MAD indeed.

Not only are we headed unswervingly towards WWIII and nuclear annihilation, we are also blinded to this reality by the Russophobic and Sinophobic propaganda of the Western bourgeois media, who keep the truth from us just as Doctor Manhattan kills Walter Kovacs to keep the truth from the world about Ozymandias’ plot. That Western propaganda is like the tachyons used to blind us Dr. Manhattans to the dire future we face, causing us to do nothing to prevent it.

The anti-Russian partisans of the DNC, as well as the anti-Chinese partisans of the GOP, see the politicians of their respective parties as superheroes defending the US…yet, who is watching the watchmen? In their hate of their version of the Black Freighter, be it China, or Russia, or both of them, these Western politicians have built their raft of corpses–from all their previous warmongering–and they’re on their way to Davidstown.

Not enough of us yet know that these Western politicians will soon swim to that hell-bound ship and join their bloodthirsty crew…will there be enough of us to stop them before it’s too late?

As we can see, Watchmen, in its comic and movie forms, is extremely relevant to our troubled times today.

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, Watchmen, Burbank, CA, DC Comics, 1986-1987

The Highly Sensitive Person

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a family whose members have had, in varying degrees, narcissistic traits of at least significant, if not pathological, levels. Because of my trauma, I as a child acquired a number of dysfunctional habits, including maladaptive daydreaming.

Instead of feeling empathy for me, and using such empathy to direct and motivate her towards getting to the root cause of my problems, my mother–the head narc of the family–claimed that psychiatrists who’d examined me diagnosed me with autism. Now, she’d described this “autism” in such extreme language that I find totally implausible. She claimed that the psychiatrists who’d examined me as a little kid had said I was, apart from being autistic, mentally retarded and that I should be locked up in an asylum, throwing away the key!…and by a “miracle from God,” I grew out of this extreme mental condition!

Combining the above with observations made by two psychiatrists I saw a few decades later, each of them concluding after examining me over a period of months that there were no signs of autism in me, and with far-too-low scores I got on the “Autism Quotient” test, I can say that my mother’s version of events were, to say the least, totally unreliable. To say the most, she was outright lying to me.

That she was lying to me I find to be the only logical explanation for her claims; the purpose of the lies was, as I see it, not only to project her own narcissism onto me (she tended to go by an old definition of autism as meaning ‘excessively self-absorbed,’ like narcissism), but also to avoid taking responsibility for the effects of the childhood bullying I’d suffered, at its core, from my elder siblings, against whom I, as a little boy, was helpless in a power imbalance.

In other words, the autism label was meant to indicate that I was ‘born that way,’ rather than correctly describing my maladaptive childhood habits (self-isolation, talking to myself, etc.) as trauma responses, as attempts to self-soothe and ease my anxieties. In point of fact, my real mental condition is C-PTSD, brought on by all that emotional abuse, bullying, belittling, and gaslighting.

Now, as true and valid as all of the above is, it doesn’t mean that I can’t locate any source of these dysfunctional behaviours as my having been ‘born that way.’ I’m convinced that there’s a particular, innate psychological condition that I have that’s contributed to these problems of mine in a significant way.

I am a highly-sensitive person (HSP).

I consistently get high scores on HSP tests. HSPs react more intensely to external stimuli, including discomfort and pain, than the average person. We’re also more empathic that most people (though being an empath and an HSP aren’t necessarily the same thing); we tend to internalize what’s around us more, including criticisms. Bullies can smell such traits in HSP children, and they’re quick to take advantage of our disadvantage.

Narcissistic mothers tend to make their sons and daughters play roles: the golden child (my elder sister, J.), the lost child (arguably, my elder brothers, R. and F.), and the scapegoat, or identified patientme. The narc mom chooses her golden children and other flying monkeys (all three of my sibs) based on how well they’ve learned to please her, or to give her narcissistic supply. She chooses her scapegoat based on how much narcissistic injury and rage the kid(s) cause(s) her.

Very often, that narcissistic injury and rage are caused not so much by how blunt or sassy the child is to her, but rather by that child’s display of qualities the narc mother knows she can only fake: sensitivity, empathy, and a sincere wish to confront and do away with wrongdoing, which includes phony displays of virtue…a narc’s special talent.

You see, the thing about the scapegoat, or identified patient, or black sheep–whatever you want to call the unfavoured family member–is that this person is the one who can see through all the family bullshit. He or she has the sensitivity to be able to tell the difference between real and fake love. For if the charade of love that is performed before our eyes is real, then why do we scapegoats get so short-changed?

It’s not as though we have a monopoly on human fault: the golden and lost children have plenty of faults of their own; but a double standard is clearly at play here–the flying monkeys’ faults are usually swept under the rug, as are the narcissistic parent’s faults, while those of the scapegoat are put under a magnifying glass. Not exactly fair, is it?

I’m not denying that I have faults; I have a whole slew of them (just ask my wife). The problem is that the family treated my faults as if they were the essence of who I am, rather than something that I have, just a few facets of the totality that I am, among other facets raging from neutral to quite good. And when you focus on the negative in somebody, you bring out that negativity all the more.

The scar to the narcissist’s ego, at the sight of the empathy and sensitivity of the target of his or her rage, comes from envy. The narcissist can’t bear to see another with virtues that he or she can only pretend to have, and narcissists are known for envying others, while imagining that others envy them (i.e., this envy is projected onto others). Hence, the narcissist feels a consuming need to destroy those virtues in the target, to create the illusion among everybody that the sensitive person’s empathy doesn’t exist.

Remember that in the narcissist’s world, appearance and reality are confused, swapped, even. So if the narc can make him- or herself look kind, generous, thoughtful, and altruistic to the public, while making the HSP seem self-centered and indifferent to the suffering of others, then he or she has come as close to reality as needed. One of the crucial manipulative tactics that the narc uses is projective identification, which goes beyond usual projection’s mere imagining that one’s own traits are in others, but which manipulates others into manifesting those projected traits, creating the illusion that the others really have those traits while the narc never had them at all.

I believe that my mother, with her flying monkeys’ help, did this kind of projecting onto me…and she did it with remarkable success! Any inclination in me to want to help others, or to connect with others, was crushed in me, suppressed, denied, and discouraged. To allow me to demonstrate such inclinations would make me step out of my assigned role as family scapegoat; I’d no longer seem “autistic,” and Mom couldn’t tolerate that!

When someone believes that he or she has this or that kind of personality, he or she will behave accordingly. To ensure that I behaved in a self-centered or uncaring way, Mom had to drill into my head the belief that I have such vices. So instead of telling me that I needed to change from my selfish ways, she just said that I am selfish…as if the vice were an absolute, unchanging trait in me, never to be corrected.

If I tried to do good, the family would twist things around so it would look as if I meant to do wrong. I’ll give a few examples, stories I’ve discussed before (links above), but I’m repeating them here to illustrate this point.

Over thirty years ago, it was my mother’s birthday, and I was having difficulty finding a suitable gift to buy for her, so I was late with it. My good intentions would have been clear to her and my sister, J. (I’d spoken to them of how I’d searched all over the city, with no luck), but J. decided to act as though I’d made no such efforts. After all, only the physical appearance of a gift matters, not the thought behind it. And besides, J. had to demonstrate as the golden child that, by having given Mom a gift on time, unlike me, the scapegoat, she was a better daughter than I was a son.

I gave Mom a birthday card, which she received warmly. I was anxious to buy her a gift as soon as possible, so as to avoid being late with it (it was her birthday that very day!). J., however, decided to interpret my intentions as me just wanting to get the buying over with, so I could enjoy the rest of Mom’s birthday as a “me-day,” to use J’s words (actually, since J. had already given Mom a gift, she was now free to get together for a dinner date with a woman-friend, to have a “me-day” of her own!).

I went to J. and joked about the card I bought Mom as a kind of “down payment” on her gift, since Mom warmly said she didn’t mind the gift being a little late. But J. got all snooty with me for being late with it, and this provoked me into getting into a fight with her. In response to J.’s ‘Thou shalt not be late for Mom’s birthday’ attitude, I inadvisably said, in all sarcasm, “…and a birthday is this god we have to worship!”

I meant this remark not out of disrespect to Mom, but to point out how needless J.’s insistence on standing on ceremony was. Nonetheless, Mom, overhearing what I’d said, took my words as disrespectful, and she blew up, shouting a barrage of four-letter verbal abuse at me. I immediately realized my verbal faux pas, and fell over myself trying to apologize, saying I never meant to hurt her…to no avail, of course.

Looking back on what happened, I have the creepiest suspicion that both Mom and J. had set me up to be the scapegoat for a forgetting of the birthday that, in fact, Dad and my brother, F., had actually forgotten. You see, J. had known that I was trying to find a suitable gift, since I’d asked her a night or two before Mom’s birthday what I should buy. J. knew I’d never forgotten, but she acted as if she thought I had.

And how could Mom have gone from a whisper to a scream like that, from so warm to so psychotic–so quickly? I suspect that Mom, in a private conversation with J. prior to the incident, lied to her about me ‘forgetting’ along with Dad and F.; and J., like a good flying monkey, just went along with the charade, because Mom wanted her to do so.

Another occasion when my good intentions were twisted into bad ones was when–again, about thirty to thirty-five years ago–all the staff of my parents’ restaurant, Smitty’s Pancake House, closed it up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (Mom and Dad were on vacation at the time) because some fumes…or something, I don’t quite remember now…were making the cooks too sick to work. F. came home that day and asked me why Smitty’s was closed. I simply explained what happened, matter-of-factly.

Apparently, I should have answered his question with all manner of histrionics, for F. told me that the way I’d answered his question sounded as if I didn’t care about the sick staff. His claiming that I don’t care about anyone but myself had been his favourite excuse to bully and harangue me at that time (i.e., over those past several years), and the fact that it was much more of an excuse to attack me than a legitimate complaint of my faults was made nakedly clear (not that he’d have ever noticed, let alone admitted to, it) in this choosing to hear my reaction as ‘uncaring,’ as opposed to my simply answering a question.

Since when did my answer even need to be ‘caring,’ anyway? Was my ‘caring’ going to help the staff recover faster, or something? F.’s constant bullying of me when I was a little kid, with virtually never any defence of me from the rest of the family (with only a few ever-so-rare exceptions from my parents), indicates that the family rarely cared about me in any meaningful way beyond the bare minimum (i.e., feeding me, clothing me, giving me shelter). Such a lack of caring is called childhood emotional neglect; this, combined with the emotional abuse I was suffering from all five of them, taught me that the world is an unsafe place, that hell is other people (I’m misusing Sartre‘s dictum on purpose here, though his original meaning applies to my situation, too), and that self-isolation was the only way I could feel safe.

…and if I was uncared for, then the family shouldn’t have been surprised to see me return that uncaring attitude to them.

Even still, I tried at times to be caring to them, even when they’d continued to hurt me. After J. made it clear to me that she didn’t approve of my marrying the truly caring person who is now my wife (indeed, Judy is the best thing that ever happened to me), I’d been loath to forgive J. for not keeping her disapproval to herself. Nonetheless, when I heard that J.’s husband was terminally ill with cancer, I allowed my ability to feel empathy and compassion to overrule my anger.

I offered to make a flight back to southern Ontario (I’ve lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996) to see J. and her husband one last time. Had I done it, paying for the trip would have broken the bank for me, but I was still willing to do it. This was in the mid-2000s.

The family should have been encouraging of me to do this selfless act…if selflessness is really what they wanted of me. Instead, Mom e-mailed me, telling me not to come, out of fear that my “tactless and insensitive” nature would have resulted in me putting my foot in my mouth in front of J.’s then-emotionally-vulnerable husband, agitating him.

I was furious at this rejection; yet, instead of simply admitting that she’d made a bad call, Mom continued to rationalize her arrogant position with the usual references to “my autism” (or Asperger syndrome, as she now liked to call it), all to make me feel further alienated from the family. Note how neither she nor the rest of the family ever considered, let alone took any responsibility for, causing the very alienation that has made me so cold to them ever since.

And since, as I explained above, the autism story had to have been a lie, Mom’s basis for rejecting my attempt to show solidarity with the family was also built on a lie. Another thing we must remember about narcissists and their relationship with the HSP as family scapegoat: since narcs are pathological liars, they will be paranoid of anyone exposing them as such. HSPs abominate liars, so narcs know that, in order to protect themselves, they must do a kind of preemptive discrediting of the HSP.

I’m convinced that my mother did exactly this to me behind my back, and that this discrediting, in the form of smear campaigns, triangulation, and divide and conquer, is the real reason that I, as the family scapegoat, never got along with Mom’s flying monkeys, my three elder siblings.

Her constant bad-mouthing of her youngest nephew, my cousin G., is what makes me believe she did the same to me. One time, during a phone call I had with her about a dozen years ago, when she was giving me a flurry of G-bashing, she raised her voice in an angry crescendo and claimed that G. must have had Asperger syndrome…exactly what she insisted I have. This disorder was meant to explain how G. is so ‘unlikeable’ (he’s a bit awkward, to be sure, but he’s nowhere near as bad as Mom characterized him). It’s not a leap of logic to assume that she was using “my autism” to tell the family that I’m similarly unlikeable.

As her health was deteriorating in the mid-2010s, she pulled more of her malignant, manipulative crap on me, in revenge–it’s safe to assume–on me for not ever wanting to communicate with her during the first half of that decade. (The above links give the full story, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.) I’ll try to make this brief.

In a series of emails and one phone call, Mom made a number of assertions that ranged from “Why should I believe a word of this?” to “That is most unlikely,” to “That couldn’t possibly have happened,” making all of it dubious in the extreme. And this was after I’d already established an understanding of her as a habitual liar, and not just about the “autism” story.

I told her so, most bluntly in an email explaining why I didn’t want to fly over to Canada to visit her. Predictably, she pretended not to know what I was talking about when I’d accused her of “Lies, lies, and more lies” in my email. Predictably, she made me out to be the villain and herself out to be the innocent victim when discussing my email to the family, who–predictably–believed her every word without question.

Well, of course the family believed her every word without question: they’d been conditioned to for years…decades!…to discredit any observation I made about anything that didn’t jive with their preconceptions about the world. Mom had preemptively discredited me, so my accusation of her lying wouldn’t be given a millisecond of consideration by them. Mom may have been dying, but her reputation was safe.

With her death, in the spring of 2016, the hope of a confession from her similarly died. Her last words to me, spoken on her death bed over the phone to me, were all about how my accusation “hurt” her (translation: caused her narcissistic injury–note how she was permitted to refuse a visit from me, but I wasn’t permitted to refuse visiting her), none about how the truth and validity of what I accused her of had hurt me. She didn’t even try to be fair, and acknowledge that there were many times in my life that she’d hurt me, and that she was sorry for that; instead, I got a pity party about how much of a bad son I was, and to add insult to injury, she congratulated herself on what a ‘good mother’ she’d been, apparently having given me “the most love,” of my siblings and me…during those very years (just before and around my pre-teen years) when she’d contrived the autism lie!

In short, she dumped a huge guilt trip on me while pretending she’d never done me any wrong–classic narcissism. Here’s the thing: if I’m so ‘uncaring’ of other people, why dump all this grief on me? It would make no difference to me–I’d just shrug it off, easily, wouldn’t I? The fact is, the family all know that I internalize all the abuse they ram down my throat–they know I feel the pain. The whole purpose of dumping that guilt on me is to manipulate me into doing what they want me to do, to control me…or at least to try to control me.

I feel so hollow now, so empty, the shell of what I once was, or could have been. Such is what narcissistic abuse does to victims: the vice of narcissism is projected onto the victim, who is fully misunderstood. We are made to live a lie of the narcissist’s making. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing your family doesn’t truly love you, that their ‘love’ was all an act, to make themselves look good publicly, or just family obligation.

Still, I can’t go on just feeling sorry for myself. The damage has been done, but there’s no one out there to do the repairing for me, so I’ll have to do it all myself (I don’t have the money for therapy.). I’ll have to find that sweet, sensitive little boy inside me, buried deep down under all of this pain.

Since I follow the Freudian (actually, post-Freudian) school of psychoanalysis, I don’t usually go in for Jung‘s ideas, but there is one of his that I’ve recently been interested in: his notion of the Shadow. As a result, I’ve been looking into what’s called Shadow work as a form of therapy to confront all this repressed trauma and self-hate, and therefore to heal me.

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you’re reading this blog post as part of an exploration of the problem of narcissism to heal your own emotional wounds, then I hope that what I have to say here about Shadow work will help you find resources in your own healing journey.

There are so many different ways to describe what Shadow work is, and how to do it, that space doesn’t permit me to go over it all in encyclopedic fashion, but I can give you a basic idea of what it’s about, if you aren’t yet familiar with the concept.

According to Jung, we all have a Shadow aspect to our personalities, a dark, unpleasant side that we try to hide because it includes shameful and traumatic elements. We try to repress it, but we mustn’t; for after all, what is repressed returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…and this return of the repressed can come in quite nasty, regrettable ways. This repressed, ego-dystonic material must be confronted if we are to heal–Shadow work is this confrontation.

There are many ways to do Shadow work. The most common ways include journalling every day, putting our trauma into words. Other ways can include expressing your pain through art or music. Meditation is also helpful, including EMDR therapy…and there are lots of YouTube videos on these subjects. One of the websites I added a link to above recommend having a ‘dialogue’ with one’s Shadow: asking it questions and listening for answers in a contemplative silence. What’s most important is feeling that pain again (though not overwhelmingly so, of course!), as scary as that sounds, for the only way to heal is to process the trauma properly.

If you don’t feel that pain, you’ll try to repress it or project it, as my family did onto me. I’ve already explained the catastrophic results of that.

Analysis of ‘Notorious’

Notorious is a 1946 spy film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Ben Hecht. It stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, and Leopoldine Konstantin.

The film was a watershed for Hitchcock artistically, having a heightened maturity. It was his first attempt to create a serious love story, with two men (played by Grant and Rains) jealously vying for the attention of a beautiful woman (Bergman) within the context of a spy thriller.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

What’s curious about this film is how it depicts clandestine operations by ex-Nazis in Brazil just after WWII, when the Nazis had just been roundly defeated. One would think that the ex-Nazi war criminals hiding out in South America would want to keep a low profile by not doing anything suspect just after their defeat, with Nazi hunters after them.

The ex-Nazis of this film are high-ranking members of IG Farben, the German chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate infamously associated with such atrocities as the creation of Zyklon B, which killed over a million people in gas chambers during the Holocaust. These IG Farben executives, it is discovered, are mining uranium ore, to be used in the making of atomic bombs. (Incidentally, from the discovery of nuclear fission to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the Nazis were hardly motivated to develop nuclear weapons; getting rid of Jews was their priority at the time. And only now are these ex-Nazis interested in uranium ore?)

What is odd about the villain conspirators being from IG Farben is that the conglomerate was seized by the Allies at the end of the war in 1945, its directors to be put on trial from 1947 to 1948, thirteen of the tried twenty-three directors being convicted of war crimes. If a Nazi conspiracy to make nuclear weapons were afoot, it would seem unlikely that its men would allow any association to be made with IG Farben.

What’s more, while at the end of the war there would have been plenty of animosity felt towards the Nazis by the general populace of Western countries, there were also plenty of people among the Western bourgeoisie who had expressed sympathy for the Nazis as a group dedicated to destroying communism. Accordingly, not only did many Western bourgeois hope that Hitler would invade the USSR, and encouraged such a move at the Munich conference, but also a great many ex-Nazis were given prestigious jobs in the American government, in NASA, in NATO, and in the West German government, as part of the Cold War offensive against the Soviet states. Recall also that a number of Hitler’s business backers were American companies and other Allied multinationals.

Now, Operation Paperclip wasn’t made public through the media until December of 1946, well after the release of Notorious. Truman hadn’t officially approved of Operation Paperclip until September of 1946, again after Notorious was finished. It was therefore extremely unlikely that Hitchcock and Hecht would have known anything about the operation.

Still, with the Nazis decisively defeated, and not yet having the knowledge of the mining of uranium ore, it seems unlikely that the American government as portrayed in the film would be so concerned with the activities of a few ex-Nazis hiding out in South America. The Nazis were no longer an effective challenger to Western imperialist interests; on the contrary, it was now the Soviets who were such a challenge. And as I said above, the Western ruling class still had a soft spot in their hearts for commie-hating Nazis.

So what’s the real point about having ex-Nazis as the villains in Notorious?

Well, the movie-going public, as opposed to the capitalist class, would have had an unequivocal dislike of Nazis just after WWII, so the IG Farben men would have made fitting villains. Hecht, as a Jew, would naturally have hated Nazis, too. Finally, the mainstream liberals in Hollywood at the time, in their defence of bourgeois democracy, would have seen Nazis as appropriate villains whose presence in Notorious would have made the film appealing to the public.

On a deeper level, though, Notorious reflects the ambivalence that the liberal bourgeoisie of the time would have had towards such villains. This ambivalence is seen in how surprisingly sympathetic Alex Sebastian (Rains) is, as an ex-Nazi in love with (and his heart broken by) German-American Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the beautiful daughter of a German traitor in the US who has been convicted of aiding the Nazis.

Indeed, the love triangle between these two and the American government agent, TR Devlin (Grant) can be seen to be an allegory of this Western capitalist ambivalence to Naziism. Alicia, a woman exploited by the American government to seduce Sebastian–or, put more bluntly, to prostitute herself to him–in order to spy on him and discover what wickedness the IG Farben men are up to, personifies the land and resources that the US (as personified by Devlin) and Nazi Germany (as personified by Sebastian) are competing for, to possess and to dominate.

The men’s mutual jealousy over her is thus an allegory of 1) the Western capitalist use of fascism to counter communism, and 2) the inter-imperialist conflict of WWII when Hitler showed that he wanted much more than just to invade and colonize the Soviet Union; he also wanted to muscle in on the territory of Britain and other Western imperialists.

Alicia, as that American daughter of the German traitor, also fits in with my allegory in how she’s, on the one hand, looked down on, is notorious, as an alcoholic and a tramp who, at the beginning of the film, is suspected of being sympathetic to her father’s politics; yet on the other hand, is also such a desirable beauty. Western liberals despise fascist brutishness, yet they nonetheless find it politically expedient in furthering capitalist and imperialist interests.

Now, the object of desire here is a beautiful woman who drinks, and drinking–of alcohol especially–is a major thematic motif in Notorious (indeed, Hitchcock’s cameo in the film shows him drinking a glass at a party). This drinking is recurrently associated with danger and destruction: we see this first in her drunk-driving scene with Devlin, then later in the discovery that the uranium ore is being hidden in wine bottles in the cellar of Sebastian’s house.

This association of alcohol, wine in particular, with danger and destruction reminds us of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and madness (consider the violence and wildness of his Maenads). The rivalry between Devlin and Sebastian over the charms of Alicia is the essence of irrational jealousy, leading to her near-death by poisoning and Sebastian’s downfall at the end of the movie, when he can no longer hide the fact that he has fallen for an American spy. This understanding deepens my allegory in that the madly jealous inter-imperialist rivalry during WWII between the capitalist West and Nazi Germany resulted in so much death and destruction.

While I’m sure that neither Hitchcock nor Hecht consciously intended to present the allegory I’m describing here, I consider the political circumstances that led up to WWII and those depicted in Notorious to be such that my allegory is inevitable, if only through the unconscious emergence of a few Freudian slips. Accordingly, I don’t find it to be too far out of place to see Devlin as a pun on devil.

Devlin takes Alicia by plane from her home in Florida to Brazil; through the airplane window, she can see the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It seems as though, through her working for the American government, she is about to redeem herself for her father’s treason. During the flight, and by an interesting juxtaposition, she also learns of her father’s death in prison by swallowing a poison capsule. She sees the statue immediately after hearing the news; it’s as if her father’s death is a Christ-like sacrifice freeing her of her family’s Nazi past.

They fly into Rio, and it isn’t long before Devlin and Alicia fall in love. Their love affair being in Brazil of all places, where she is to seduce Sebastian, adds more depth to my political allegory of this film when one considers how the Monroe Doctrine led to an increasingly possessive attitude towards Central America (i.e., the Banana Wars) and South America, that is, in imperialist terms. Since the beginning of the Cold War especially, any attempt at a leftist liberation from US imperialism would lead to a CIA coup d’état, replacing the erstwhile leftist government with an authoritarian, right-wing one, reminding us in a way of the ex-Nazis hiding out in South America.

The US government, thus, has been like a jealous, possessive lover of Latin America, just as Devlin has been of Alicia. A comparable kind of possessiveness can be seen in the US occupation of the southeastern and central part of West Germany just after WWII. German-American Alicia is eyed this way by Devlin, and Sebastian’s later jealous eyeing of her in Brazil allegorically suggests the ex-Nazi presence in South America. The allegorical interpretation of the Devlin/Huberman/Sebastian love triangle is complete when one considers the above-mentioned American use of ex-Nazis in their government from the beginning of the Cold War.

That closeness of America and Germany, apart from being personified in Alicia herself, is also seen in her famous extended kissing scene with Devlin, in which Hitchcock deftly evaded the censors of the prudish Production Code by briefly breaking up kisses that could last as long as the three-second limit. Indeed, one could think of the breaking up of the kisses as representative of the ambivalent attitude of the US government towards a Germany with a fascist past: love her, Devlin, but not too much.

Anyway, his love for her will soon turn into animosity when he learns from his superiors, including Captain Paul Prescott (Calhern) of the US Secret Service, that her job is to seduce Sebastian so she can find out what he and the other IG Farben men are up to. As I said above, Devlin’s and Sebastian’s mutual jealousy over the German-American beauty represents the ambivalent attitude the US government has always had towards fascism.

Like all good little liberals, the American ruling class is supposed to hate Nazis…but this doesn’t mean the Nazis don’t have their uses, as do other kinds of fascists, that is, in how they can serve imperialist interests by, for example, thwarting the advancement of socialism. Even now, the American liberal establishment, in order to avoid feeling any cognitive dissonance, pretends that the Russian/Ukraine war is a fight for liberation against the ‘aggressor’ Putin, while also denying, or at least minimizing, the neo-Nazi elements in the Ukrainian government and military, who are perfectly content to ban opposition parties and persecute ethnic Russians living in the area.

So, to get back to the story, Devlin is more than uncomfortable to know that the woman he’s attracted to is being used to attract another man. That the Americans can’t just go in and arrest the IG Farben men–because they’d then just find others to replace Sebastian et al, and so their sinister work would continue–is reasoning whose validity I’m not convinced of. Nazi war criminals are war criminals…arrest them! When the replacements come, arrest them, too. Nazis as of 1946 ceased to be a threat to US bourgeois imperialist interests (and as we now know, Nazis were actually helping the American government against its then-real threat, the Soviets), so just arrest the IG Farben men.

Devlin’s jealousy will be swelling when he learns that Sebastian wants to marry Alicia, who will agree to it…and he isn’t the only one feeling this jealousy over the marriage that’s coming; so is Sebastian’s mother, Madame Anna Sebastian (Konstantin). Though Rains retained his British accent while playing German Sebastian, Grant spoke with his Trans-Atlantic accent (bringing up associations between American, British, and Nazi imperialism in the context of Notorious), and Bergman largely managed to hide her Swedish accent in her portrayal of a German-American, the Austrian actress Konstantin spoke with her German accent undisguised, which really brings out the stereotypical Nazi associations in her role, as not only one of the main villains of the movie, but also as Sebastian’s ruthless and domineering mother.

There is a parallel to be observed in his relationship with both his new wife and with his mother–one of servile love. Just as Sebastian is uxorious towards Alicia, so is he Oedipal in his attitude towards Madame Anna, something she can use to her advantage in controlling him. One is reminded of the love Hitler had for his mother, Klara, after whose death he grieved for the rest of his life.

Hitchcock’s mother died four years before Notorious was made and released; he addressed his own mother issues for the first time in this film, and the notion of a domineering mother like Madame Anna, a reservoir of her son’s guilt, anger, resentment, and Oedipal yearning, was something Hitchcock would explore further in films like Psycho and The Birds. Indeed, he would often incorporate psychoanalysis in such films as these and in Spellbound, a film he did the year before Notorious.

The unhealthiness of an unresolved Oedipus complex that is exploited by a cunning mother just adds a deeper level of villainy to this group of ex-Nazis, for properly understood, the Oedipal longing for a parent’s love and undivided attention–combined with the frustration of never fully having that attention–is a narcissistic trauma. Sebastian’s unhealthy relationship with his mother, in which he is weakened and made vain and foolish, ends up being transferred onto Alicia, making him uxorious in his feelings for her. She, as an American spy, can exploit his weakness in getting to the key to the wine cellar to find the hidden uranium ore.

She’s being exploited, too, recall, by the American government, and to complete the job, she must agree to marry Sebastian and allow him into her bed–a conquest of his comparable to the American takeover of aboriginal land (I’m reminded of lines 25-32 from Donne‘s Elegy XIX, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’), which inspired Hitler to want to conquer Slavic land. Alicia must go along with this fake romance, to keep up appearances so Sebastian will never suspect she’s an American spy. Devlin must also keep up appearances and maintain a professional attitude, pretending he’s had no romance of his own with her.

Indeed, keeping up appearances is a major theme running throughout Notorious. Alicia’s mission as a spy includes keeping up appearances that she’s as much in love with Sebastian as he is with her. She imagines Devlin’s love for her is pretend, while he keeps up appearances of a stoic lack of interest in her, always hiding his jealousy behind a feigned contempt for her, all for the sake of keeping the mission going. The IG Farben men keep up appearances of wine bottles innocently containing wine when some of those in the cellar actually contain uranium ore.

Ironically, when Sebastian intrudes on Devlin’s and Alicia’s moment alone in the cellar just after discovering the “sand” in one of the wine bottles, Devlin has her pretend to kiss him in order to keep up appearances of having an affair to hide their real offence against Sebastian, the discovery of what’s hidden in that bottle. This ‘appearance’ of being in love, of course, hides the fact that they really are in love…though they won’t admit this until the end of the film.

The penultimate keeping up of appearances is when Sebastian and his mother pretend to be concerned for Alicia’s declining health–to cover up for his foolish falling in love with an American spy–when it’s their piecemeal poisoning of her coffee, another drink Notorious associates with danger and destruction, that is causing her declining health. And the final keeping up of appearances, which ultimately fails, is at the end, when Sebastian and his mother pretend that Devlin is just taking Alicia to the hospital instead of actually rescuing her from her two poisoners.

Sebastian pretends not to fear death as Devin is taking Alicia down the stairs towards the front door, but when she’s put in the car and Devlin is about to drive away, Sebastian is desperately anxious to have them take him in the car, too. More keeping up of appearances.

Sebastian has everything to fear, for the other IG Farben men, knowing there’s no telephone in Alicia’s bedroom from which Devlin could have called the hospital, proves that the hospital story is a lie…so Sebastian must meet the same fate as that of Emil Hupka (played by Eberhard Krumschmidt) for having reacted with shock, in front of Alicia, at the wine bottles, which tipped her off to their significance.

The paranoid intensity of security maintained by the IG Farben men is what makes me doubt the plausibility of there being any substantial American cause for suspicion of sinister plots by these ex-Nazis against American imperialist interests. They’re hiding their conspiracy so tightly that it seems virtually impossible for the Americans to have discovered anything; Alicia’s being tipped off by Emil’s display of agitation seems little more than a fluke.

Such a tight keeping up of appearances by the IG Farben men leads me to discuss the ultimate pretense of this film, whether consciously intended by Hitchcock and Hecht or not: that the US government, just after having defeated the Nazis, would still regard fascism as an intolerable evil in any form. The American moviegoing public would surely have continued to vilify Nazis, so it would have been expedient for Hollywood producers to keep up the appearance of despising fascism, too…for the sake of ticket sales, at the very least.

But bourgeois liberal Hollywood interests aren’t all that far removed from those of capitalist imperialism and colonialism. Hecht as a Jew would have justifiably hated Nazis in all sincerity, but he was also an avid supporter of the establishment of the settler colonial state of Israel, whose persecution of the Palestinians has been every bit as evil as the Nazi persecution of the Jews was. Notorious‘s keeping up of appearances of regarding Nazis as an enemy of America covers up how useful the West has always found fascism, which they’ve since falsely equated with communism…another deft move of propaganda on the part of the ruling class.

Western capitalism’s appeasement and, therefore, encouragement, of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in its attempt to thwart socialism, was ultimately the creation of a monster they’d quickly regret. The Western bourgeoisie were Dr. Victor Frankenstein; fascism was the monster. WWII was the horror story. Notorious was, in my opinion at least, an example of a bourgeois attempt to save face over its creation of that monster.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Thirteen

I look up above my head and see the overhanging leaves of a tree. I look down and see I’m sitting on a bench; yes, those five people must have put me in the same place where that meditating man was.

Maybe they left me here, not out of disappointment in my potential, but rather because of that potential. By leaving me in the seat of the meditating wise man, they’re trying to inspire me to emulate him, to search for enlightenment as he had. Yes, that’s it!

I won’t disappoint those five people! I won’t move from here until I’ve attained enlightenment! (Actually, because of my ketamine high, I can’t move at all, but anyway…)

Ooh! Sudden gunfire from further off. A few explosions, flashes of light. That startled me.

Anyway, let’s see: to be a wise leader who will bring liberation, justice, and an end to the war, I must acquire knowledge of the true nature of the world. I must close my eyes, focus, and go beyond the limitations of my ego. I must also transcend feelings of desire and hate…

Beyond all the surface differences, there is oneness, but the differences must also be acknowledged–in the form of wavelike movements from one state to its opposite, and back and forth, and back and forth, over and over again…

I feel myself vibrating all over. My ketamine high has erased my sense of the boundary between me and not-me. Meditation is heightening my sense of unity with my surroundings…

Everything inside and outside feels…oceanic, all waves flowing into me, within me, and flowing out of me. The whole world, the whole universe, feels like an ocean with no boundaries or shores anywhere out there–just water. It’s a peaceful, soothing experience.

I’m making progress.

Along with this unity of all within and without, the unity of crests and troughs flowing into and out of each other, I feel my sense of relationships with others becoming more unified, too. As well as everything becoming more unified, everything feels more real, too.

Up until now, my perception of other people has been, on the one hand, an idealizing of others, a lusting and yearning for perfection in others, imaginary others; on the other hand, though, there’s been a perception of others as lowly and contemptible, a hating and rejecting of others, these also being imaginary people. I’ve felt my perception of others as being split in two, a hallucinatory halving into black and white.

Now, however, everyone seems more realistic, a grey in between the black and white, a sense that all people are a mix of good and bad. I feel I’m understanding humanity as it actually is, not as figments of my imagination.

As I watch the slowly-moving waves of that universal ocean, flowing gently before my mind’s eye, I also see a black hole growing there. First, it appeared as a tiny black dot, then it began growing and growing until now, it’s big enough for me to be sucked into it.

I’m scared.

Still, I know that I must confront this huge void. Its shape has changed from that of a large circle into that of a human silhouette about my size. I should talk to it. Will it answer my questions?

“Hello,” I say out loud.

I feel, instead of hear, its answer. Hello.

“Who are you?” I ask.

I’m every pain you have ever felt, I feel it say.

“What are those pains?”

You know what they are. You just don’t want to face them.

“Very well: how do I face them?”

Come inside me, it says, then it changes back into the giant hole, welcoming me in.

I float forward and enter the hole. Instead of seeing dark oceanic waves, I now see endless black.

“OK, I’m inside,” I say with impatience and fear. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

Talk to me, the voice says in my imagination. Talk.

“Talk about what?”

About any and every pain you’ve ever had in your whole life.

“Very well. I’ll start at the very beginning. Mother?”

Emerging from the centre of the void is an older woman in regal, Oriental clothes. I can’t quite make out her face. She must be my long-lost mother, the queen who died about a week after I was born.

I never knew her, but I saw plenty of pictures of her, so I’ll recognize her face when she comes close enough to me.

“Mother? Is that you? It’s your son, Sidney. Please come here and let me see you. Come and talk to me.”

She is coming closer, but I still can’t see her face clearly.

I grow anxious and impatient as she continues approaching.

Finally, she’s close enough for me to see her face.

“Queen Maya! My mother!” I shout in sobs.

I see her face, but she isn’t smiling, as my mother did in her pictures. This queen is scowling a familiar scowl.

My stepmother?

No, my mother!

There never was a stepmother.

There never was an ideal mother from which my stepmother represented a sad decline.

There never was an ideal world, a garden where she gave birth to me, an Eden from which our present world was a sad decline.

There are no ideal people, contrasted with contemptible people. There are only real people, a grey in between the imagined black and white. My ‘stepmother’ wasn’t all bad; my actual mother was far from all-good.

There is no heaven, no hell. Just life here on Earth, a mix of good and bad.

It hurts to know there’s no paradise to aspire to, yet it’s good to know the truth, not to be deceived by illusions. Knowing the truth is like an abrasion on the skin, but one can rub the hurt surface and soothe oneself.

I hear some more gunfire and explosions from further off, but they aren’t as loud or startling, so I can bear them better.

I’m making progress.

Analysis of ‘Trilogy of Terror’

Trilogy of Terror is a 1975 made-for-TV horror anthology film directed by Dan Curtis. It features three segments based on unrelated short stories by Richard Matheson; the first two segments were adapted by William F. Nolan, while the third–and by far, the best–was adapted by Matheson himself, based on his 1969 short story, “Prey.”

All three segments star Karen Black in the roles of “Julie,” “Millicent and Therese,” and “Amelia,” which are also the names of the segments, since each story, as I’ll argue below, is really about the inner mental life of each character Black plays here. “Julie” costars Robert Burton, Black’s husband at the time. “Millicent and Therese” costars George Gaynes. “Amelia” is essentially a one-woman-play, with only Black and Walker Edmiston doing the voice of the Zuni doll.

Here is a link to a few quotes from the film.

The essential reason to watch, or own a DVD of, Trilogy of Terror is to watch “Amelia,” the excellent third segment, as the first two are rather mediocre stories. It’s never properly explained how Julie lures Chad Foster (Burton) into a brief sexual relationship before poisoning him: is she a witch, or some kind of succubus? And how come her sister (played by Kathryn Reynolds) never even suspects Julie of any kind of wrongdoing? That Millicent and Therese are two personalities in one woman’s body is pretty easy to predict–we never see the two together in the same scene.

It is, however, worthwhile to examine all three stories in terms of their common themes and elements, in order to grasp a deeper meaning in the superb and genuinely scary “Amelia.” All three stories are psychological studies of their titular characters, emotionally repressed women who are rigid, prudish, or otherwise neurotic on the outside, but who each have a hidden, inner dark side that is finally revealed at the end of each story.

These dark sides, or what Jung called the Shadow, are kept from the titular characters’ conscious minds (until the end of each story) through the use of a number of ego defence mechanisms: repression, projection (including projective identification), splitting, denial, and reaction formation. A merging with this repressed, projected, or split-off Shadow occurs at the conclusion of each story.

The sexual predator in Julie is projected (through projective identification) onto her young and handsome American literature student, Chad; the stereotypically male sexual predator becomes the victim of the erstwhile stereotypically female victim of sexual predation, thus reversing the stereotypes. He as a predator parallels the aggression of the Zuni fetish doll against Amelia.

Therese’s seduction of her father (or was it his seduction of her, as repressed by prudish Millicent?), of Thomas Anmar (played by John Karlen), and attempted seduction of Dr. Chester Ramsey (Gaynes) are all instances of Therese as a sexual predator. The Zuni fetish doll, with its phallic spear, and later, the phallic little knife, is symbolically predatory in a sexual sense.

Julie splits off her Shadow side onto Chad. Millicent splits off her Shadow side onto her “sister,” Therese. Amelia splits off hers onto the Zuni fetish doll, making it into what Wilfred R. Bion would have called a bizarre object, a hallucinatory projection of Amelia’s unconscious matricidal instincts.

All three stories involve some kind of strained family relations, the all-too-typical causes of mental disturbances. Julie’s sister, perpetually kept in the dark about Julie’s private life, just wants to help her, but doesn’t even know the half of the problem.

Was Therese’s incest with her father an expression of the Electra complex, including her killing of her mother; or was it (as I see as a possibility) that her father raped her, causing her to split into two personalities, and did her mother, knowing of the rape, kill herself in heartbreak?

Amelia’s mother places great restrictions on her social life, driving her to move out for the sake of at least some independence. The man she’s dating is named Arthur, which sounds like a pun on father and thus symbolically suggests, through transference, more of the Electra complex (which is further intensified by her plan to kill her mother at the end of the story), thus thematically linking this story to that of “Millicent and Therese.”

Along with this literal expression of the Electra complex in “Millicent and Therese,” and the metaphorical one (as I see it) in “Amelia,” there’s also–in how possibly forty-something Julie could be old enough to be the mother of her handsome young male students–a possible mother/son transference in her relationship with them, suggesting a Jocasta complex in her. We thus can see a thematic link among all three stories.

Amelia attempts to kill the Shadow in herself by stabbing the Zuni fetish doll; Millicent kills Therese (and herself, of course) by pricking a voodoo doll with a pin. Chad drugs Julie’s drink at the drive-in; Julie later poisons his drink.

Julie, in behaving so frigidly and unsociably, is engaging in reaction formation to hide her predatory interest in her handsome young male students. Millicent’s prudery is a similar reaction formation hiding how she, being in the same body as Therese, has the same sexual desires. In being so intimidated by her domineering, clingy mother, Amelia is using reaction formation to hide her wish to kill her mother and thus free herself from her.

Each of Black’s characters, in a symbolic or literal sense, merges with her Shadow at the end of each segment. Julie, in drugging Chad’s drink as he’d drugged hers, has merged with him (through their sexual relationship), her projected Shadow. Millicent pricks the voodoo doll representing Therese (since it’s she who wants to kill Therese, not vice versa), but has done so in Therese’s blonde wig, makeup, and clothes; in other words, both personalities had to have been present at the time of the killing, both of them sharing consciousness, or both “on the spot,” to borrow an expression from Billy Milligan, a merging of them in suicide. Amelia opens the oven in which the Zuni doll is burning, and its spirit enters her body, the resulting demonic possession being a symbolic merging of her with her Shadow.

Let’s now turn the discussion towards sharp teeth. There are the fangs in the vampire movie that Chad takes Julie to see. After he drugs her drink and she falls asleep in his car, he takes her to a motel, where he checks himself and her in as Mr. and Mrs., get this…Jonathan Harker, an allusion to the character in Bram Stoker‘s Dracula; Harker at one point is terrorized by Dracula’s vampiress brides, suggesting already that Chad is being used by Julie, not vice versa.

Then there are the sharp teeth on Amelia’s Zuni fetish doll, teeth that end up in her mouth at the end of the story. As with the drug or poison put in, respectively, Julie’s and Chad’s drinks, the biting teeth are symbols of projective and introjective identification, understood especially in the context of Bion’s notion of container and contained…that is, not the kind that mothers use to soothe their agitated babies, but rather negative containment, which leads to a nameless dread (see Bion, Chapter 28; for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts, go here).

Bion used masculine and feminine symbols to represent, respectively, the contained and the container, suggesting phallic and yonic symbolism. In turn, the sharp teeth, like the spear and little knife the Zuni doll uses, are phallic (also like the vampire’s fangs), and the bite and stab wounds are yonic. In this negative containment, trauma (as opposed to the processing of pain that a mother does for her baby) is projected from the attacker and introjected into the victim.

The pricking of the pin into the voodoo doll representing Therese, as well as Amelia’s stabbing in the Zuni doll’s face as it tries to get out of the suitcase she’s trapped it in, are also symbolic examples of this projection and introjection.

With all these points of thematic comparison and contrast made, we can now focus on the deeper psychoanalytic meaning of the best segment, “Amelia.” As I said above, it’s fitting that these stories are all named after the women Black plays in each of them, because the real theatre of these stories dramatize what’s going on in the heads of these three mentally ill characters. That “Amelia” is more or less a solo performance emphasizes that we’re dealing with a drama happening entirely inside her mind.

I believe the Zuni fetish doll coming to life and attacking her is a hallucination, a projection of her repressed wish to kill her mother, who oppresses her with guilt trips to keep her from living a free life.

She buys the doll knowing about the warning not to remove the chain from it, that its removal will bring it to life. She doesn’t believe such a thing will really happen, of course, but the idea exists in unconscious phantasy for her. She looks at it, saying it’s so ugly that even its mother wouldn’t love it; saying this is a reflection of how the doll is a projection of her own unconscious matricidal urges–no mother, Amelia imagines, would ever love her daughter for having such feelings.

After arguing with her mother on the phone in the living room over whether they can cancel one night together (a regular Friday night get-together she and her mother always have) so Amelia can spend it with her boyfriend on his birthday, she–oppressed with guilt from her mother’s manipulations–brings up the doll, telling her mom of how it will supposedly come to life with the removal of the chain. Her bringing up of this is a wish-fulfillment and an implied warning to her mother, who, significantly, hangs up at just that moment.

Amelia then holds the doll, and she seems to have touched the chain at least a little. She sets it on the table and walks away. As we know, the chain falls off the doll’s waist. Now, consciously, she shouldn’t be concerned about this, since she doesn’t believe there really is a spirit inside the doll; but unconsciously, she has a wish that this spirit will come out, with the possibility of it one day attacking and killing her controlling mother. Therefore, Amelia’s fondling of the doll, leading to the chain falling off, is a parapraxis indicating her unconscious matricidal urges.

After being in the kitchen to slice up some meat (with that little knife) and put it in the oven, she returns to the living room to find the doll no longer standing on her coffee table. She looks around, including under the sofa (the obscurity below being symbolic of the unconscious), but can find only the Zuni doll’s spear, the tip of which pricks her finger. Her inability, at this point, to find the doll is representative of her repression of “He Who Kills.”

The living room lamp suddenly switching off represents further repression. Right when she goes to turn it back on is when the doll attacks her, at her foot. This attack represents the return of the repressed, in which the forbidden, repressed feelings return to consciousness, but in a totally unrecognizable form. In Amelia’s case, her matricidal desires have returned to consciousness in the form of a hallucination: the doll trying to kill her, rather than kill her mother.

So on the surface, conscious level, Amelia is terrified of the doll killing her, of course; on the unconscious level, though, she is afraid of what the doll represents–her matricidal Shadow merging with her, a merging caused by all those projective/introjective cuts and bites, the container wounds and the stabbing and biting of the contained.

Her real fear is her wish to kill her mother.

This fear/desire is what makes this third segment so scary.

So her attempts to stop the doll–wrapping it in a towel and drowning it in the bath water, stabbing it in the face, smashing it against a lamp, shutting doors to keep it out, locking it up in a suitcase, and burning it in the oven–are really attempts to prevent it from merging with her.

Now, there’s her wish to prevent the merging, but there’s also the wish for the merging to happen, hence, as I said above, her ‘accidental’ causing of the chain to come off, then her slipping and falling when running away from the doll–which allows it to get to her again–and, when she tries calling the cops, she oddly can’t remember the address of her apartment and thus can’t help the cops find her. This ‘forgetting’ is another parapraxis serving her unconscious wish to merge with her murderous Shadow as personified in the Zuni fetish doll.

Its unintelligible babbling, combined with her screams, is an expression of Lacan‘s notion of the Real, a realm of non-differentiation, of unverbalized trauma.The doll’s possibly killing her is far less horrifying that its merging with her to commit matricide, which–as the psychiatrist said at the end of Psycho–is the most unbearable crime of all. Amelia’s conflict is of the classic id vs. superego kind, or of gratification vs. morality.

As the doll is using the little knife to cut a hole in the suitcase she’s trapped it in, she tries to grab it by the blade with her fingers, a foolish, futile move that only gives her a bloody cut. Again, though, this act reflects her conflict between wanting to disarm the doll and stop its attacks on the one hand, and her unconscious wish to merge with it (i.e., the cut on her finger, the container, from the knife blade, the contained, as an act of projective and introjective identification).

Similarly, after she’s thrown the doll in the oven to burn it (as Julie burned down Chad’s apartment and him in it after poisoning him), she has to open the oven door…consciously, because she needs to make sure it’s ‘dead,’ but unconsciously because she wants to be merged with its spirit, which of course she does.

Now, just as I believe the doll’s coming to life is a hallucination that we, the viewers, share with her, so do I believe her merging with the doll’s spirit at the end, including her razor-toothed grin, is a hallucination, a delusion we viewers share with her. Her unconscious desire to kill her mother was there from the beginning; her belief that the demon in the doll has possessed her has given her a convenient excuse to kill her mother with a clear conscience. After all, it isn’t Amelia who wants to slice her mother up with that large knife she’s poking on the floor…it’s the ‘Zuni demon’ who wants to.

Similarly, Julie entertains the illusion in her mind that Chad is the sexual aggressor while she pretends to be innocent and frigid (her ‘witchcraft’ on him being a metaphorical projection onto him), and Millicent imagines Therese is a sister rather than a split-off personality bearing what’s actually Millicent’s middle name, another act of projection.

In therapy, one sometimes speaks of doing Shadow work, a confronting of and merging with one’s Shadow. Such a merging is not what’s happening here, with these three women Black is playing. Julie, Millicent/Therese, and Amelia split off, project, and repress their respective Shadows with such vehemence that the inevitable merging comes with a violent force that has tragic consequences.

One must assimilate the Shadow, but it must be the conscious personality that integrates the Shadow, not vice versa. Jekyll integrates Hyde, not the other way around. Julie projects Chad (remember that what we see on the screen is a dramatization of her inner thought processes; it’s not to be taken as literally happening), Millicent splits Therese off from her, and Amelia hallucinates the living spirit in the doll. These acts of projection result in Hyde taking over Jekyll.

Analysis of ‘Rocky’

Rocky is a 1976 film directed by John G. Avildsen and written by and starring Sylvester Stallone. It also stars Talia Shire (who is also known for being in The Godfather trilogy), Burt Young, Carl Weathers, and Burgess Meredith.

Rocky was the highest-grossing film of 1976, and it received critical acclaim for Stallone’s writing and acting. Rocky received ten Oscar nominations, including ones for Stallone for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay; it won three of those–Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It has been ranked by many as one of the best films of all time, spawning five sequels and two spin-off films, Creed and Creed II. Creed III is planned to come out in 2023, and there have been discussions about a prequel film about Rocky’s younger life.

Here is a link to famous quotes from Rocky, and here‘s a link to the script.

The film’s enduring appeal, as is true of all the films of the Rocky franchise, is of course its portrayal of a sympathetic underdog boxer, Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who gets a chance to beat the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Weathers)…and Rocky almost does. We all love to cheer for someone prevailing against impossible odds.

What should be emphasized, however, about this first, and best, film in the franchise is that our underdog and champ are much more than what we see and hear on the movie screen. Great stress is put at the beginning on how poor and starving of confidence Rocky is, and how proud, overconfident, and smug Apollo is.

This contrast is significant because, since Apollo wants to promote a bicentennial boxing event to reel in lots of money in an appeal to American patriotism, we can see Apollo–wearing the colours of the American flag on the night of the fight and saying, “I want you!” like Uncle Sam–as personifying American capitalism. Working-class Rocky, on the other hand, personifies the struggling global proletariat. Now the masses really have reason to chant his name.

The film begins with his name in big letters on the screen and Bill Conti‘s “Fanfare for Rocky.” Normally, a fanfare is music played on brass instruments to introduce someone of the importance of, say, royalty. This music, however, is a kind of ‘fanfare for the common man,’ a raising of the proletariat to a dignity normally reserved for the ruling class.

We see a shot of a large picture of Jesus holding the Holy Chalice and the Host. The camera goes down to show us Rocky receiving punches from Spider Rico (played by Pedro Lovell). It’s a juxtaposition of two struggling proletarians with an icon representing the opium of the people up above. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood…isn’t that what boxers do, in a way?

This “opium of the people” should be kept in mind when we remember not only Rocky’s Catholic leanings (e.g., doing the Sign of the Cross before a fight, or wearing a crucifix), but also how “Apollo Creed” sounds like a pun on “Apostles’ Creed.” The capitalist class has always used religion to control the people, and the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed is a lot like the automaton-like way the Pledge of Allegiance sounds. Control the people’s creed, what they recite and are therefore indoctrinated to believe, and you control them.

Though Rocky wins the fight against Spider after being enraged by a head-butt, and Rocky tries to be as proud of his win as he can, always saying, “You shoulda seen me,” he is repeatedly called “a bum,” or a fighter of little to no worth, the lowest of the low. Even when Rocky later boasts of his win to trainer Mickey Goldmill (Meredith), Mickey dismisses Spider as “a bum,” too. Bum sounds like derelict, the lumpenproletariat, whom Marx and Engels considered lacking in revolutionary potential.

When Rocky and Spider are paid for the fight, we also hear the deductions taken from their pay: for their lockers, shower, taxes, etc. One is reminded of how the pay of the working class in general is brought down to a minimum.

As he walks home that night in his trademark black hat and jacket, bouncing his ball, he passes by the pet shop where his love interest, Adrian (Shire), works, all while the movie credits are being shown. Then he walks by a group of street singers, led by Frank Stallone, singing “Take You Back“…doo-doo-doo-doo. Rocky encourages them, just as he’s tried to win Adrian’s heart by charming her with corny jokes. In the alienating working-class slums of the Kensington section of Philadelphia in late 1975, Rocky tries his best to connect with people.

In his home, he feeds his turtles, Cuff and Link, and brings over the fishbowl of “Moby-Dick” so his turtles can have some company. If only he could do something about his own loneliness.

He goes up to his mirror, where he has photos of himself when much younger. He practices a new joke he’ll tell Adrian the next day, but he gets frustrated with his clumsy delivery and gives up; then he takes one of the photos, one of him as a kid, presumably a school portrait from before he dropped out. He looks at it and frowns; now that he’s thirty and getting nowhere in life, he’s wondering what he’s done with it.

The juxtaposition of seeing himself in the mirror and trying–and failing–to tell the joke reflects the contrast Lacan noted between the ideal-I in the reflection versus the awkward person looking at himself. As a struggling, working-class boxer, he’s alienated from society; he’s also alienated from himself, from the man he wants to be as reflected in the specular image, from the man who can tell witty jokes and win Adrian’s heart.

The next day, he goes to the pet store to tell Adrian the joke. His desire is the desire of the Other, for the recognition of the Other, for what he believes the Other desires, to have the Other want him as much as he wants her. This is what he wants from ever-timid Adrian, just to have her look back at him, like the ideal-I in the mirror reflection, to be united with that person over there. He likes her because, in her shyness, he sees a reflection of his own lack of self-confidence. He sees himself, his own lack, in her.

At the gym, he’s annoyed to learn that Mick has emptied his locker of six years (to give to another, more worthy boxer, in his estimation) and put his things in a bag on “skid row.” This is the contempt Mick holds Rocky in: not because of a lack of talent, for Mick acknowledges that Rocky has “heart,” but because as we learn later, he has wasted his talent as a fighter by working as a collector for Tony Gazzo (played by Joe Spinell), a loan shark, which leads to the next point.

Rocky’a alienation from himself, as we observed from his inability to measure up to the ideal-I in the mirror (as successful boxer and charmer of Adrian), extends to his alienation from his species-essence as a leg-breaker for Gazzo, a job Rocky has to do to live, but one that he, with his sensitive heart, doesn’t want to do. Small wonder he doesn’t break the thumbs of Bob, who’s failed to pay Gazzo back the full $200 he owes.

Gazzo’s annoyance with Rocky only encourages Gazzo’s driver, who despises Rocky, to mouth him off all the more. Gazzo as a mafia man represents capitalists, as I’ve observed before: here we see all the more alienation for Rocky.

Rocky’s impoverished self-worth (further compounded when 12-year-old Marie [played by Jodi Letizia] says “Screw you, creepo!” to him after he tries to give her advice about avoiding hanging out with bad influences) must have been a semi-autobiographical element from Stallone, who in 1970 suffered homelessness and, desperate for money, ended up starring in a softcore porno film called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. (Years later, it would be renamed The Italian Stallion upon the success of the Rocky franchise.)

With not only Stallone’s success but also Rocky’s in his defeat of Apollo in Rocky II and afterward, we see a change in the erstwhile underdog in regards to his place in the capitalist world. We see Rocky’s acquisition of wealth and property in Rocky III, then his symbolic defence of capitalism against Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in the blatantly anti-communist propaganda of Rocky IV (despite its liberal critique of over-the-top American jingoist Apollo), his loss of his wealth in Rocky V, and his re-emergence as the owner of a restaurant in Rocky Balboa (with the film’s embrace of petite bourgeois Christian values and a ‘You shouldn’t blame others for your difficulties’ attitude, a neoliberal attitude of the 2000s as I described it in this post). In the sequels, therefore, we see the evolution of ‘left-leaning liberal’ (which actually meant something back in the 70s, if not very much) to the Reaganite right-turn of politics from the 80s to the present day; this is in a way fitting, given Stallone’s somewhat Republican leanings.

To get back to the story, Rocky meets up with Adrian’s brother, Paulie (Young) in a bar, asking him why his sister is so unresponsive to him. Paulie dismisses her as “a loser,” and it’s clear from his abrasive manner that he emotionally abuses her–small wonder she’s so shy and terrified of the world. He’s mean to her because it’s the only way he can feel less shitty about himself…already a hard thing for him to do, especially in an alienating capitalist society.

Meanwhile, Apollo is trying to find a boxer to replace Mac Lee Green (who has injured his hand) for a fight in Philadelphia for the United States Bicentennial on New Year’s Day, 1976. All other contenders are either booked or unavailable for some reason. Apollo proudly points out that they’re all just too scared to fight him, since they haven’t a hope of “whipping” him. The overweening pride of Apollo, who recall personifies American capitalism, thus represents the hubris of ‘exceptional‘ US imperialism, the belief that “there is no alternative,” and that the West can’t be defeated.

Allied to this hubris is the fake modesty assumed in the notion that America is “the land of opportunity,” that with grit, hard work, and determination, supposedly anyone can succeed and become stinking rich. Therefore, Apollo decides to give a local Philadelphia boxer a shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

George Jergens (played by Thayer David), the promoter of the fight, likes Apollo’s idea, calling it “very American!” Apollo correctly says, “No, Jergens. It’s very smart.” One should not confuse Rocky with any endorsement of “the American Dream”: like The Great Gatsby, Rocky exposes the myth of The American Dream. Rocky almost wins the fight against Apollo not as a vindication of that fantasy, but in spite of it. He almost wins out of his own personal volition and determination. Apollo and Jergens never take seriously the idea that Rocky might win, just as the American ruling class, while promising wealth and abundance to the lower and middle classes if they work hard enough, have done everything they can to thwart such hopes for the great majority of the American population.

It’s significant that Rocky’s first date with Adrian is on Thanksgiving. On their date, Rocky and Adrian essentially save each other, that is, from lives of loneliness and self-hate. In keeping with the American theme of this film, we know that the origin of Thanksgiving is in the Native Americans’ having taught the white settlers how to prepare for and survive the harsh winters of a place the Europeans weren’t used to, that is, having saved their lives. (How the white man eventually ‘thanked’ the aboriginals is, of course, another story for another time.)

Rocky wants to show his sensitivity and thoughtfulness to Adrian by paying to give her ten minutes to skate on a rink that’s closing for the night. We see him grab her arm when she’s about to fall, and her enjoyment of the skating helps her to relax and open up to him as he tells her of his boxing and being a southpaw. In such a chilly place, the two are warming up to each other.

The most difficult part of the date, of course, will be Rocky getting her to trust him alone with her in his home that night. She–a timid, petite girl in the home of a large, muscular man, a boxer!–has every reason in the world to be afraid of him. He, having a sexual/romantic interest in her, is groping (pardon the expression) to find reasons for her not to be afraid. Since he knows he’s a nice guy–but she has no way of knowing that, beyond his considerateness at the rink–he can only hope she’ll trust him anyway.

On a date, one should never be expected, let alone pressured or forced, to be sexual, but one does explore sexual possibilities when dating. She’s afraid, but she does find him attractive…especially in his sleeveless shirt with his muscles showing. Being a good man, he’ll never force himself on her…all he wants her to do–all he needs–is for her to accept him. The scurrilous, misogynist violence of incels is of course never to be tolerated, rationalized, or in any way sympathized with–they certainly have no right at all to demand sex from a woman–but the pain emanating from their hearts (which, again, should never be translated into violence) is from their loneliness and sense of rejection, a universal pain felt by incels and non-incels alike.

Rocky, not having the bent towards violence against women, but feeling that loneliness and fearing that rejection from Adrian, just needs her to accept his love. His tactful and sensitive overture to her is to say he’d like to kiss her, though she doesn’t have to kiss him back if she doesn’t want to. For a guy who takes it and dishes it out so brutally in the ring, he is beautifully gentle with his frightened but fascinated date. The beautiful song “You Take My Heart Away” is playing during this scene; it shares a similar theme or two from “Gonna Fly Now,” suggesting the same sense of encouraged aspirations to something better, which leads to the next point.

Her acceptance of his kisses, her kissing him back, marks the turning point in the film. Both of them, instead of seeing their self-confidence continue to wither, are seeing it begin to come back to life. All those self-help books, and all that pop psychology, tell us about the importance of self-love, of building self-esteem from within; but it can only grow from ‘other-love,’ if you will, from receiving the love of others. We are social beings, and we can only grow in love by being together and supporting each other in communities, in loving solidarity.

Right after this date, Rocky receives the news about facing Creed. His self-love is only beginning to grow at this point, so doing anything more than being a sparring partner for Creed–especially fighting him for the heavyweight title!–seems way out of Rocky’s league. When he initially refuses the opportunity offered by Jergens, you vividly see the frown of self-loathing on his face.

Jergens talks him into fighting Apollo, though, and we see the two boxers on TV, with Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie watching the broadcast in her home. Apollo, of course, isn’t taking the fight seriously, and so he makes an ethnic joke against Italians about their stereotyped cooking skills. Naturally, Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie, being Italian-Americans, are not amused.

This leads us to an interesting point about race and ethnicity as regards this fight, something the news reporter says about this American bicentennial fight being between black Apollo and white Rocky. That Apollo is black, however, in no way detracts from his personification of American capitalism, something we normally associate with white men; one must steer clear from the distraction of identity politics when it comes to critiquing capitalism. As we now know, four decades since the beginning of the Rocky phenomenon, the first black American president, despite all the idiotic complaints from the right that he was a “socialist” or a “communist,” was no less capitalist or imperialist than any other US president before or since.

Similarly, Rocky’s being white doesn’t detract from him being the underdog. Though, as Apollo earlier pointed out when choosing Rocky for the fight, an Italian, so they say, discovered America (Cristoforo Colombo, who subsequently abused the natives)–in fact, America was even named after an Italian (Amerigo Vespucci)–Balboa is still working class as against wealthy Apollo, and Italian-Americans have experienced plenty of bigotry from WASP America, as blacks have suffered. So the skin colours of our two fighters make for an intriguing paradox in terms of how the men represent oppressor and oppressed, and their struggle.

Another interesting point should be made about when Apollo chose Rocky as his challenger. He says, with a chuckle, “Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion: sounds like a damn monster movie.” One might think of those Japanese kaiju films–Mothra vs Godzilla, King Kong vs Godzilla, etc. Godzilla is a metaphor for Japan’s collective trauma after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American imperialist war crime resulting in a pop culture icon that Apollo finds amusing, since this “monster movie” title will make for an alluring promotion of this most profitable fight.

Apollo’s not the only one hoping to make a buck or two off of this fight: Paulie will have advertising of his meat-packing business sewn on the back of Rocky’s robe. Also, Mickey has suddenly warmed up to that “dumb dago,” and offers to be Rocky’s manager. Though Rocky at first is too proud to accept the help of a trainer who’s only treated him with contempt until now, he realizes that Mick’s decades of experience will be a great help to him.

During his jogging down the streets of Philadelphia, Rocky stops by Paulie’s meat-packing place of work. Obviously envious that Rocky and his “loser” sister have fallen in love while he, the real loser, still has no girl of his own, Paulie pries into the more intimate aspects of the couple’s relationship using vulgar language. He further annoys Rocky by saying he ‘stinks’ and by punching a piece of meat, inspiring Rocky to do the same. Paulie later has the local TV news show Rocky demonstrating his punching of raw meat; Apollo’s trainer, Tony “Duke” Evers (played by Tony Burton), watches the demo on TV, anxious to have Apollo watch, too.

Tony tells Apollo that Rocky “means business.” Apollo answers that he also means business, that is, of the literal, capitalist kind: he’s preoccupied with advertising and promoting the fight, getting tax breaks, and ensuring that many luminaries attend, for the sake of making as much money as possible. In this sense, Creed is a pun on greed.

Paulie’s envy of the happiness of his sister (along with his fear that she’s lost her virginity), and of Rocky’s newfound success–while he can’t even get Rocky to put in a good word for him for Gazzo–causes him to lash out at Rocky and her one time too many, driving her to tell him off once and for all. Just as Rocky’s confidence is improving, so is hers.

Speaking of Rocky’s growing self-confidence, we’ve come to the famous moment when we see him vigorously training, and “Gonna Fly Now” is heard. Since I’ve said that Apollo personifies American capitalism, and Rocky represents the global proletariat, the underdog fighting against US imperialism, we can think of this emotional moment as something to inspire us and steel our hearts in our current struggle against the oppressive ruling class and its brutal war machine.

I find it ironically useful in this connection to mention a parody of this iconic scene in the otherwise egregiously Zionist film, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, in which the titular character’s Palestinian nemesis (played by John Turturro) goes through an inspiring training routine like Rocky, with a Middle Eastern variation on “Gonna Fly Now.” In spite of how nauseatingly pro-Israel this piece of Hollywood garbage is, this one scene is like a Freudian slip, reminding us of which people in that hateful conflict are the real underdogs to be sympathized with. It also reinforces my idea that Rocky represents all such Third World underdogs as they try to resist Western hegemony.

So let us be moved when we see Rocky run up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he holds his arms up triumphantly at the top. In spite of all the alienation he’s experienced as a poor man in this city, we can be reminded that Philadelphia means “brotherly love,” and thus we can remember the importance of solidarity.

Recall Che’s words: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Rocky visits the arena where the fight will take place, and he notes how on his poster, the colours of his boxing shorts are reversed, a careless oversight reminding him of how no one is taking him seriously as a challenger. Jergens is there, noting how the error “doesn’t really matter.” All of the confidence Rocky has built up to win has just been deflated.

He goes back home to tell Adrian that he has to be honest, that he has no hope of beating Creed. He does, however, still have one significant hope: that he can go the distance, something no boxer has ever done with Apollo. Sometimes, setting a more realistic, attainable goal for oneself is better than dreaming the big dream.

Because sometimes, the realistic goal pulls one much closer to attaining the big dream than we expected it would.

Recall Lenin’s words: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Recall also that this is Rocky’s dream, not the ‘American dream.’ Here, he achieves great things not because he lives in the ‘land of opportunity,’ but because he has chosen to set those achievements for himself, of his own accord.

Now, for those who may still not accept my idea that Apollo personifies American capitalism, consider his entrance on the night of the fight, and try to deny it. First, he’s dressed like George Washington while the “Marines’ Hymn/Yankee Doodle” is heard; then, he’s dressed like Uncle Sam, shouting, “I want you!” over and over.

Apollo’s pride is therefore the arrogance of “American exceptionalism,” and just as Rocky’s confidence is rising, so is Apollo’s pride about to fall. The commentators note that this fight will be “the caveman against the cavalier,” contrasting Rocky’s slow, brutish, “goddamn ape” fighting style with Apollo’s quick, skillful, and graceful style–Dionysus vs. Apollo, Romanticist Rocky’s “heart” against Apollo’s Classicist technique.

In Round One, though Rocky is slow and awkward with his swings, easily dodged by Apollo, he gets one lucky punch in and knocks Apollo down for the first time in his career. Apollo’s ego is as wounded as his face. His pride is further wounded when, contrary to his smug prediction that he’d “drop him in Three,” he finds Rocky going the distance, something else that’s never happened to Apollo before.

Rocky was made just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, when the Viet Cong were the underdogs fighting the behemoth of the American army. Charlie, too, went the distance, and proved to the world, just as Rocky is doing to Apollo, that the US war machine isn’t the invincible juggernaut it seems to be.

Rocky sustains some terrible injuries, including swelling over his eye that makes it hard to see, prompting him to tell Mick to cut the skin where the swelling is. Apollo, too, has sustained terrible injuries, including a broken rib. Such injuries are comparable to, on Vietnam’s side, the napalming and trauma of people like Phan Thi Kim Phuc; and on America’s side, all those veterans with PTSD. Small wonder the commentators say we “are watching a battle,” and in Round Fifteen, “They look like they’ve been in a war, these two.”

The last round ends with Apollo saved by the bell after Rocky has pounded his face so hard, it seems as if, had Rocky been given a little more time, one or two more hits would have knocked Apollo down for a KO.

The split decision gives the fight to Apollo, though as Mickey says at the beginning of Rocky II, Rocky was the real winner of the fight. The split decision reminds one of how some patriotic Americans might try to save face by saying, as Otto (Kevin Kline) did in A Fish Called Wanda, “We did not lose Vietnam. It was a tie.” But Archie (John Cleese) knew better, as we all do.

In any case, Rocky doesn’t care who’s won the fight: he’s gone the distance with Apollo, and has come a split hair away from winning–good enough. He just wants to have Adrian by his side. Hearing her tell him she loves him is all the victory he needs.

We, the global proletariat that he represents, likewise don’t need to win all at once. We can enjoy every small victory, one at a time, before the final great revolutionary victory comes. In the meantime, our mutual love and solidarity, like Rocky’s and Adrian’s love, will keep us going.

When that final victory does come, though, we must beware against letting it make us so comfortable that we become the liberal Balboa in Rocky IV, out to propagandize against all that was fought for, however symbolically, in this first great film of the franchise.

Analysis of ‘The Howling’

The Howling is a 1981 horror film directed by Joe Dante, based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Gary Brandner. The film stars Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Christopher Stone, Dennis Dugan, and Robert Picardo.

The film received generally positive reviews, with praise for the makeup special effects by Rob Bottin. It won the 1980 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film while still in development, and it was one of three major werewolf films of 1981, the other two being An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen.

Seven sequels have been made to The Howling, the first film’s success having helped Dante’s career so he could make Gremlins in 1984. A remake of The Howling is in development, with Andy Muschietti set to direct.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to Brandner’s novel. Here is a link to the script.

The differences between the novel and the film are huge. In fact, the film only ever-so-vaguely follows the plot of the novel. I’ll point out just a few of the differences for now.

Karen While (Wallace) is Karyn Beatty in the novel, and her husband is Roy Beatty, his film equivalent being Bill Neill (Stone), for we learn that White has kept her maiden name. Karyn is raped at home in the novel, whereas Karen is almost attacked by a werewolf in an adult bookstore’s movie booth in the film. In the novel, her psychiatrist is only briefly mentioned; in the film, psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Macnee) is a major character, who has her recuperate in his health resort, called “The Colony,” while in the novel, she recuperates in a town called Drago, in California. The nymphomaniac werewolf is Marcia Lura in the novel; in the film, she’s Marsha Quist (played by Elisabeth Brooks), sister of werewolf/serial killer Eddie Quist (Picardo). The rapist of the novel is non-werewolf Max Quist.

It’s interesting to analyze the nature of the changes of the novel’s beginning to those of the film’s, that is, in psychoanalytic terms. It’s as if the screenplay to the film were written by Karyn Beatty instead of by John Sayles and Terrence H. Winkless, as if an attempt by her to reframe her trauma in a way that’s less invasive of her body, replacing a direct rape with a more symbolic, dream-like attack.

In the novel, as stated above, Max Quist, an ex-con resentful of being an unacknowledged worker and with no werewolf powers, comes into Karyn’s apartment while her husband’s away and rapes her, even biting her hard on the thigh. The Beattys have a dog, significantly named Lady, that tries to intervene on Karyn’s behalf, but is kicked away by Max. The dog goes with Karyn and Roy to Drago, and it is killed there. Violence against a dog named Lady seems like a further projection of Karyn’s trauma elsewhere.

So what we have in the novel is a straightforward act of brutal violence causing Karyn’s trauma. In the film, this violence is transformed in many ways, suggesting in its distortions a diluting of that pain.

First of all, Karen White is a TV news reporter risking her life by drawing out her stalker, Eddie Quist, so the police can catch him. Instead of Quist raping her, he has her meet him in a sleazy porn movie booth in an adult book store, where he makes her watch a video of a young woman being bound and raped. Thus the trauma of Karyn is projected onto the woman in the porn video.

Instead of getting a…lupine?…bite from Quist, Karen looks behind her and sees his terrifying transformation into a lycanthrope…though immediately afterwards, she is amnesiac about it, her repression of the memory protecting her from the pain.

This comparison between novel and film leads to a discussion of one of the film’s themes: the contrast between the true self and the false self. As Dr. Waggner says in a news interview with a TV host, “Repression is the father of neurosis, of self-hatred.” He speaks of the unfortunate reality of denying “the beast, the animal, within us,” of replacing the true self with the false self.

This replacement, in the film adaptation, of the novel’s rape scene with Karen watching a video of a rape, a man transforming into a werewolf, and her no longer being able to remember the traumatic experience, is an example of replacing the truth with a kind of fantasy, a falsehood that hurts less. Such replacements of painful truth with comforting falsehood are also seen in characters in the film replacing the true self with the false one.

Another interesting observation can be made of how the true experience of Karyn Beatty’s rape is expressed via the written word, whereas the trauma of Karen White is given in visuals, in images. These two presentations of the traumatizing incident correspond respectively with Lacan‘s notions of the Symbolic and the Imaginary, the trauma itself corresponding to the Real.

Trauma corresponds to the Real because the Real cannot be symbolized, or articulated with words. It is through psychotherapy, or the “talking cure,” that the horrors of the ineffable, undifferentiated world of the Real can be transformed into the Symbolic, the realm of language, of the differentiated. Such a talking cure is attempted with Karen in group therapy sessions in The Colony. This therapy is an attempt to peel away repression, bit by bit, to find the truth.

In the novel, it is significant that Karyn Beatty escapes the town of Drago, which is all engulfed in flames, defeating the werewolves that inhabit the town. In the version of the story given in the written word (the Symbolic), she survives–she’s ‘cured,’ metaphorically speaking. In the film, the version with images and an examination of the narcissistic false self (the Imaginary), Karen White becomes a werewolf and is (presumably) killed with a silver bullet shot from the rifle Chris Halloran (Dugan) has been using on the werewolves.

If you’ll indulge a brief digression, Dear Reader, it is through the Imaginary that one establishes a sense of self, an ego; this comes about during the mirror stage, when an infant first sees his reflection and realizes that that person over there, in the specular image, is himself. He’s alienated from it, though: it’s himself, yet it’s over there, as if a totally different person. That image is also a unified, coherent one, as opposed to the awkward, clumsy, fragmented being the child feels himself to be. Is that really me over there? Is the ego real, or is it illusory?

The ideal-I as seen in the mirror reflection is an ideal that one feels compelled throughout life to measure up to; an example of this attempt to measure up is seen in the scene in the public washroom, when an anchorman (played by Jim McKrell) is standing before the mirror practicing how he’ll enunciate his introduction of a news story with the most mellifluous, rounded tones he can muster. It’s a comical scene, especially when Bill Neill walks in and the anchorman switches to his normal Southern accent to speak with him.

The Imaginary is fundamentally narcissistic; Lacan called it “Fraud.” Indeed, it is the false self that hides the beast…and the buffoon.

This scene in the washroom ties in well with the fact that Karen also works as a TV news reporter. Those of us who observe the media carefully have known for decades that the news frequently disseminates false or at least misleading information, intended to serve the interests of the corporate elite and the military-industrial-media complex. Images of people like Karen on the TV (i.e., the stoic anchor persona) are thus thematically fitting for the purposes of this film.

On two occasions when in front of the camera, Karen fails to present this fake persona expected in the news media. On the first occasion, her trauma causes her to see images of her painful memories of that night with Quist instead of seeing the camera in front of her; this causes her to freeze on air, making her unable to announce the news. The second time, at the end of the movie, she turns into a werewolf for everyone to see on TV.

This theme of the media as representative of fakery is developed, however indirectly, through the film’s use of many nods to classic old werewolf films, a cartoon with a wolf, and actors known for having appeared in old horror/sci fi films. These actors include Kevin McCarthy (who appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as the TV news station manager, John Carradine, and Kenneth Tobey (who was in The Thing from Another World, later remade as The Thing). Even Roger Corman (who made The Little Shop of Horrors) does a cameo, waiting for Karen to finish using a pay phone at the beginning of the movie. Recall how the aliens in Snatchers and The Thing are fake imitations of people. Recall also how fake the special effects of those old horror movies were, as compared to the effects in The Howling.

When Karen and Bill (or Karyn and Roy) go out to The Colony (or the town of Drago) for her to recuperate, she is disturbed at night to hear howling coming from the woods surrounding their cabin. She goes over to the bedroom window, looks out into the trees, and listens for the howling. This howling represents a projection of her trauma, her howling in pain, as it were, out into the woods. The notion of werewolves out there, as she eventually finds out is the source of the howling, is a transformation of the rape trauma, in her unconscious mind, into something unrecognizable as symbolic of a rape memory, since what is repressed returns to the conscious mind and hides in plain sight, unrecognized by us in our waking hours. The howling also represents the honest expression of feelings, the true self.

The film makes a strong link between werewolves and sexuality (I also did this in my novel, Wolfgang), as already indicated above. This howling in the woods reminds us of Freud‘s rather far-fetched interpretation of the dream of the “Wolf Man,” in which Freud’s patient saw six or seven wolves on tree branches outside the window of his home. Freud interpreted this dream as representing Sergei Pankejeff‘s witnessing, as a child, the primal scene–that is, his parents making love in ‘doggy-style.’ (I’m not endorsing Freud’s wild speculations here: I’m just using the fame of this interpretation to reinforce the link between wolves–and therefore werewolves–and sexuality.)

Another such link in the film is seen in Marsha Quist, a known nymphomaniac in The Colony who seduces Bill, the two of them turning into werewolves as they have sex in the woods. In the novel, Karyn immediately feels jealousy on meeting Marcia Luna, angered at the attractive woman’s constant attention to her husband. As in the film, Roy has a sexual relationship with Marcia, a werewolf like all of Drago’s residents.

Bill’s becoming a werewolf coincides with two other changes in his personality: first, going from being a faithful husband (initially resisting Marsha’s sexual advances) to cheating on Karen; second, going from being a vegetarian to eating meat. Again, the false self hides the true self through repression of unacceptable behaviour.

In the film, a character not in the novel, Terry Fisher (played by Belinda Balaski), also works at the TV station and is Chris’s girlfriend. She continues to investigate Eddie Quist, going into his home with Chris and discovering his aptitude at art. The killer has drawn many werewolf portraits and has posters of old werewolf movie ads on his walls. Terry quips that Eddie “could’ve designed the Marquis de Sade colouring book,” another link between werewolves and sexuality.

Terry later explores The Colony, finds Quist’s body missing in the morgue, learns from a bookseller (played by Dick Miller) that regular bullets don’t kill werewolves, and that Quist’s drawing of a lake is one in The Colony area. She’s found his other drawings there, too. Quist is alive!

Now, how does one become a werewolf? By being clawed, scratched, or bitten by another. This is what happens to Bill when walking through the woods back home after he resists Marsha’s initial sexual advances. Since the film links werewolves with sexuality–rape and, as we can see here, unwanted sexual advances in particular–the scratching or biting of someone by a werewolf, making him or her into a new werewolf, is thus symbolic of passing the sexual trauma onto a new victim.

The werewolf’s claws and teeth are phallic symbols, cutting yonic wounds into its victims, making the werewolf’s attack a symbolic rape. This symbolism is how I can see the film’s beginning trauma of Karen seeing Eddie Quist’s transformation in the porn movie booth, juxtaposed with her watching that porn rape scene, as a transformation of Karyn’s actual rape, with the wolf-like bite on her thigh, in the novel.

When Terry puts all the pieces together about The Colony, and is about to reveal its secrets, she is attacked by TC Quist (played by Don McLeod), the werewolf brother of Eddie and Marsha. Terry manages during the struggle to find an ax and hacks off the werewolf’s hairy, clawed hand, which she sees transform back into a human hand. Since the clawing of a victim, with phallic claws, is a symbolic rape, then the cutting off of a werewolf’s hand is a symbolic castration.

Later, she is killed by werewolf Eddie in Waggner’s office after phoning Chris and telling him about the werewolf secret in The Colony; when she’s being killed, the phone call being interrupted by Eddie means it hasn’t been hung up, so Chris listens in horror at his girlfriend’s screaming and death. (Later, Chris arrives in the office and confronts Eddie, who tells him Terry has “a sexy voice,” once again linking werewolves with predatory sexuality in The Howling.)

Karen goes over to Waggner’s office and finds Terry’s bloody body there, then she confronts resurrected Eddie, who transforms in front of her. She’s paralyzed with fear.

Eddie’s transformation into a werewolf is the highlight of the film, being an impressive example of pre-CGI special effects (though the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London is even better). Eddie is proud of his powers, pleased to demonstrate them to terrified Karen. He’s displaying his bestial true self, as opposed to his human false self.

One of the insights Terry and Chris get from the bookseller is that the movies’ notion of werewolves needing a full moon to transform is “Hollywood baloney” (reinforcing what I said above about this film’s theme about the media and falsehoods); actually, as shapeshifters, lycanthropes can transform anytime at will, as we see Eddie doing here.

Karen scalds Eddie’s face with acid and runs outside, but she is caught by the other residents of The Colony. Waggner appears among them, revealing his sympathy for them, but also pleading with them about the necessity of fitting in with society for the sake of keeping their secret safe.

The other werewolves have lost patience with the psychiatrist’s recommendation that they all hide their lupine true selves behind a human false self; Marsha in particular is adamantly opposed to this hiding, having earlier rebuked the doctor for giving her brother TC a copy of his book, The Gift, which rationalizes man’s bestial nature as a source of creativity. (Recall in this connection Eddie’s artistic aptitudes.)

Chris arrives with a rifle loaded with silver bullets he got from the bookstore, and after killing Eddie with it, he shoots and kills a few of the werewolves holding Karen (Waggner, too, gets shot, and–having just been scratched by a werewolf–he’s grateful no longer to have to continue the burden of treating the untreatable, or to have to be a werewolf himself), and Chris runs off with Karen to his car to get away, having also burned down a building filled with werewolves.

Even Sam Newfield, the sheriff of The Colony area (played by Slim Pickens), is a werewolf, and as Karen and Chris are getting away, they have to put a silver bullet or two in him, too. The sheriff, with his rifle, has shot up Chris’s car, including blowing a tire, and a few more werewolves are attacking, so he and Karen have to switch to Sam’s police car to get away.

Werewolf Bill, however, is one of their attackers, and he bites Karen from the back seat of the car, so she will be a werewolf, too. She knows she must warn the world, using her position as a newswoman to disseminate the message to as many people as possible. This means, contrary to the normal media practice of presenting a false self that is pleasing to one’s viewers (i.e., that image of stoic reporting that her male colleague was practicing before the mirror in the public bathroom), she must show her true self as a new werewolf…on live TV.

Chris, heartbroken, must now put a silver bullet in her.

The film ends in a bar where its patrons, having watched the news broadcast on the wall-mounted TV screen, debate whether what they’ve seen was real or the gimmickry of special effects–another manifestation of the film’s exploration of the theme of truth vs. fakery in the media.

Marsha’s managed to survive the fire in The Colony, and she’s in the bar, where a man hoping to get lucky with her has treated her to a hamburger cooked rare. She’s enticing him with her nymphomaniac false self, while waiting to reveal her true self to him in his bedroom.

While the credits roll, we see her burger cooking. It’s interesting to watch the slow transformation of the pink meat into a hamburger; this parallels the slow transformation of Eddie into a werewolf…or the slow process of psychotherapy revealing, bit by bit, repressed trauma. On top of all this, there’s the symbolism of the rising heat of sexual passion, and meat…flesh…to be eaten: more of the merging of the carnivore with the sexual predator.

Analysis of ‘Masculin Féminin’

Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (“Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events”) is a 1966 French New Wave film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard (who died just over a month before I began writing this up). It stars Jean-Pierre Léaud (who also played Tom in Last Tango in Paris, by the way), Chantal Goya, Marlène Jobert, Catherine-Isabelle Duport, and Michel Debora.

The film uses many of the then-innovative film techniques of the French New Wave, such as oddly disjointed scenes without the sense of a unified, flowing narrative, existentialism and absurdism, and breaking the fourth wall.

Considered by some to be representative of 1960s France, Masculin féminin is among Godard’s most acclaimed films. At the 16th Berlin International Film Festival, the film won the award for Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People. Jean-Pierre Léaud won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for his performance in the film. The film was prohibited to French viewers under 18, however, because of its sexual subject matter; this annoyed Godard, since he’d intended the film to be seen by French youth.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, in English translation; and here is a link to the film, with English subtitles.

The main theme of Masculin féminin is alienation, a particularly bad problem for the protagonist, Paul (Léaud), who fancies himself a good communist but isn’t respectful to women; neither is his friend and fellow leftist, journalist Robert Packard (Debord). These two idealistic, would-be revolutionaries don’t seem to have taken to heart Mao’s dictum, “Women hold up half the sky.”

Indeed, these two young Frenchmen are what many people today would call “brocialists.” They oppose the Vietnam War, sign a petition to free political dissidents in Brazil, yet repeatedly appraise women’s breasts in public.

The jumpy, disjointed narrative of the movie, broken up into “15 Specific Events,” apart from being a standard experimental technique of the French New Wave, is also symbolically one of the many ways of conveying the sense of alienation that pervades this film. This alienation stifles potential for socialist revolution, a necessary condition of which is proletarian solidarity. This condition cannot be met if sexism contaminates the proletarian movement, and this sort of thing is a problem all the more today, with the degraded state that Western leftism has sunk to.

Paul frequently whistles, as we hear him do during the opening credits, an earnest whistling of “La Marseillaise,” a tune used to celebrate the revolutionary forming of the First Republic. Immediately following this whistling is Paul, writing in a restaurant, expressing the theme of alienation. So in the film’s beginning, we have dreams of revolution juxtaposed against the kind of alienation that vitiates such hopes.

“Never do two gazes meet,” he says and writes. “No sign of life. Silence. Emptiness.” How can one even hope to bring about a revolution as Earth-shaking as that one that started in 1789, if one can’t even make two gazes meet, not even one genuine moment of human connection?

He likes to put a cigarette in his mouth by tossing the filter end in, as if he were doing an impressive trick. This is our first suggestion of the kind of narcissism he will show later on, the kind that will doom any revolutionary movement.

It is with this introduction of Paul that his soon-to-be love interest, Madeleine Zimmer (Goya), enters the restaurant and meets him. He asks her if she can help him get a job at the magazine where she works, though she wants to quit the place to be a pop singer of the “yé-yé” style.

His dissatisfaction with this job or that, quitting one to find another (as he’ll do later on), ties in with his general alienation from society, since this dissatisfaction is worker alienation. Similarly, the cutting up of the film into fifteen segments, as I said above, is symbolic of alienation, in particular from oneself, for if we were to think of the film as personifying someone like Paul, it would thus be alienated from its species-essence, as Paul undoubtedly feels.

The way alienation, as presented in Masculin féminin, is lethal to revolution reminds one of what the Marquis de Sade says in Marat/Sade: “Marat/these cells of the inner self/are worse than the deepest stone dungeon/and as long as they are locked/all your revolution remains/only a prison mutiny/to be put down/by corrupted fellow-prisoners” (Weiss, page 99).

As we will see in this film, the men who would make revolution (Paul, Robert, the blacks on the train) will “be put down/by corrupted fellow-prisoners” (the women with pistols, as well as the girls in Paul’s ménage à quatre, as I speculate is what really happens to him at the end of the film.)

Paul’s conversation with Madeleine is interrupted by a fight between a man and his wife. The woman leaves the restaurant in a huff, but the man tries to take their child from her, so she stops him by getting a pistol from her purse and shooting him outside.

This act of violence symbolically sets the tone for another important theme in the film: feminist rebellion against male authority. To a great extent, Masculin féminin is thus titled as an expression of the battle of the sexes, much more so than as an expression of the sexual relationship between them. The wife’s gun, just like that of the racist white woman with the two black men on the train, is a symbolic phallus, her taking of power into her own hands, a power that is normally seen as men’s.

In the next scene, Paul has left the restaurant and gone to a smaller cafe where he meets up with Robert, who says they’re on strike at the newspaper where he works.

A man enters the cafe and asks a lady working there where the stadium is; she tells him where, and he leaves. Then Paul gets up from the table where he’s been sitting with Robert, and he asks the lady the same question. Robert asks him what he was doing by asking the same question, and Paul says he was putting himself in that other man’s shoes…and that it was all for nothing.

Paul’s spontaneous…and “pointless”…imitation of the visiting man is another example of how severe alienation is in his life, that he can’t bring himself to empathize with others, to put himself in their shoes. For Paul, to do so is at best an empty charade; this inability to feel genuine empathy for others will not only poison his budding relationship with Madeleine, but will also prove how pointless all of his leftist activism is. (Recall in this connection what Che once said about the true revolutionary and love.)

Indeed, just after this imitative asking about the stadium, Robert goes over to the table of a lady whose breasts he admires, and he asks her for some sugar. Paul then gets up and asks her for some sugar, too, and he agrees with Robert about the quality of her breasts. Now here is an instance when he can put himself in someone else’s shoes. If only he could put himself in the shoes of a woman who’d rather not have her breasts appraised by a lecherous young man.

Next, we see Paul working at a desk in his new job at the magazine. (A brief interruption of this scene is one with Madeleine and Elisabeth Choquet [Jobert], shopping in a department store. Madeleine is pregnant, and therefore this interpolation seems to be sometime after the end of the events of the film, for we can safely assume she is having Paul’s baby.) He leaves his desk to go talk with Madeleine about going out with her.

She insists that she never agreed to go out with him, and he calls her a liar. During this conversation, we get alternating shots of the two, each with just one of them while both of them exchange words. Each of these shots carries on for a while before switching to one of the other character; we get this instead of the more usual quick switching back and forth of them when it’s either’s turn to speak. The effect of each long shot of one person is to make both of them seem mutually isolated, rather than together, during the conversation. This isolation thus reinforces the theme of alienation.

When she asks him why he wants to go out with her, he answers by complimenting her on her appearance; he does so, however, with a rather cool expression on his face, as though his words are insincere, just him feeding her lines. His eyes also seem to be bordering on looking at her obsessively, like a stalker. She wonders if, by taking her out, he means to take her to bed. He responds to her question with a disquietingly long pause and a cool stare; in fact, instead of directly stating his intent, he later admits that he’d like to sleep with her.

He also admits he likes to go out with girls from time to time, girls like Madeleine. He admits to having been with prostitutes, though he says he doesn’t like being with them because of a lack of warmth or feeling. This is an odd comment to make from a young man who is pursuing Madeleine without much of any warmth or feeling.

He asks her if she’s going out with a man that night, a man he’s seen her with before, a very tall and presumably desirable man. Paul’s question suggests the beginnings of the film’s theme of jealousy, something to be developed further when he’s in the ménage à quatre with her, Catherine, and Elisabeth. He asks what she’s thinking when she looks him in the eye; she says, “Nothing.”

Next, she has a question for him: what, for him, is the centre of the world? He finds her question surprising, but his honest answer would help her to gauge the extent to which he is narcissistic. His answer is “Love,” which hardly sounds honest. She imagines–and quite correctly, as we’ll gradually learn over the course of the movie–that he’d say, in all honesty, that he considers himself to be the centre. He hesitates again when she asks if he thinks her supposition of his honest answer is strange. He simply thinks it’s natural to see, hear, and think of things primarily from his own perspective, but she means more than that.

This scene is one of many cinéma vérité-style interviews in the film of characters coolly asking each other questions that the one being asked finds strange, surprising, or discomfiting. The emotional disconnect that these questions cause, and are caused by, reinforces the sense of alienation between the interviewer and interviewee.

The fourth segment is introduced with the sound of a gunshot heard many times throughout the film. As a reminder of the opening scene with the woman in the restaurant shooting the man, that gunshot reinforces the theme of woman’s violent rebellion against the oppressive men in her life, a necessity that our two brocialists don’t understand.

We see the two young men walking together outside, carrying cans of paint. Paul, in a voiceover, comments on the changing times of the mid-Sixties. He speaks of James Bond and the Vietnam War, two indicators of the Cold War, in pop culture and historic form. He also mentions the hopes of the French left with the upcoming elections; any real communist, however, would reserve hope for revolutions, not for elections.

The boys meet up with Madeleine, who introduces her two roommates to them. Robert fancies Catherine (Duport) in particular, though the feeling is by no means mutual.

During segment “4A,” Paul and Robert, still with their paint, encounter a US Army car, the driver of which is distracted by Paul as Robert paints “Peace in Vietnam” along the passenger’s side of it. When the car is driven away, Paul and Robert chant, “US, go home!” Once again, we see how puerile and ineffective their would-be anti-imperialism is.

The next segment, introduced with another gunshot sound, begins with a voiceover of Madeleine while we see a train go by on an overpass. Paul’s relationship with her is getting more and more physical; Elisabeth, who it’s implied has lesbian feelings for her, is getting jealous. Madeleine is happy to have Paul’s love, but she hopes he won’t be a pest; this hope of hers ties in with both the train and the gunshot sound, as we’ll discover by the end of the film, as with the upcoming scene in the train with the two blacks in their conversation with the racist white woman.

At night, we see Paul leaving a building (Madeleine’s apartment building?) through the front doors of a store. He’s staring at the camera as if we were extras in the film; then he gets on the train. He sits with Robert.

They overhear, across from them on the train, a conversation between that white woman and the two black men that I mentioned above. This conversation is, in fact, an extremely abbreviated version of Dutchman, a short play by Amiri Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones). Here is a link to the play, and here is a link to a British made-for-TV movie of it, with Al Freeman Jr. playing Clay, and Shirley Knight as Lula.

The white woman making racist generalizations about “niggers” is of course Godard’s equivalent of Lula, and the black man with the hat parallels Clay; the other black man, in the white coat and sitting next to “Lula,” represents the young black man at the end of Baraka’s play, with a book in his hands, Lula’s next victim.

Naturally offended by the racist attitude of “Lula,” “Clay” discusses how white people love the music of Bessie Smith, yet they don’t understand what she’s really singing about. She’s actually saying, “Here’s my big, fat black ass…telling you to fuck off.” (Or, as she says in Dutchman, “Kiss my black ass.”

Next, “Clay” mentions Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, again whom his white fans don’t understand. Bird, like Bessie Smith, would kill all white people, except their music expresses their anger instead. Now, in the play, Lula stabs Clay with a knife; in Godard’s film, however, “Lula” shoots “Clay” with a pistol, that recurring phallic motif of women’s liberation, except that here, the gun is an instrument not of feminism, but of white supremacy.

So this segment, too, reinforces the theme of alienation, which ruins the hopes of proletarian revolution by diverting one’s rage from the ruling class and, instead, redirecting it against one’s fellow proletarians. Class antagonism is obscured by racial hatred, or hatred between the sexes.

In the next segment, Catherine and Elisabeth discuss which parts of the body reflect the essence of sexuality. For Elisabeth, it’s the genitals; for Catherine, it’s the skin. The touch of the skin, for Catherine, is the basis of human connection. Elisabeth wonders if such connection can be made with the eyes. In any case, little real connection occurs in this film.

The next segment shows Paul and Madeleine enter a restaurant. He wants to propose to her, but several things frustrate his attempt to tell her. Firstly, she has little time. Secondly, they sit at a table close to where two men are reading aloud an erotic story whose objectification of a woman is making Paul and Madeleine most uncomfortable. Finally, they move to another table, where they overhear a man telling a woman his unhappy story of his wife’s death and his need to start his life all over…again, something not easy to hear when a man is trying to propose.

Madeleine’s time has run out, and she must go, pressing Paul to blurt out his proposal in an awkward hurry. She says they can discuss it later, and leaves. Once again, an attempt at human connection is thwarted by the many symptoms of an alienating society.

As she’s leaving the restaurant, we hear one of her songs, “Laisse Moi,” in which she sings–it would seem, to Paul, “Let me go on just being me.” She would just be friends with him, and wishes he would leave her alone so she could be herself, as the lyrics tell us. It’s significant that he has slight regard for her music, since it expresses feelings he refuses to acknowledge.

As the song continues playing, we see Paul being the pest that Madeleine fears he will become. In her home with Catherine, she is reading a magazine that Paul grabs from her and throws back at her.

Just before and after this shot, we see shots of middle-aged Frenchwomen (mostly) either crossing the street of a shopping area, or entering and exiting a department store. Amidst all of the alienation in human relationships, there is the capitalist spectacle of consumerism. The desire to buy things has largely replaced the wish to be with people.

We hear Madeleine’s song again as she’s dancing with Elisabeth and others in a club, though Paul isn’t interested in dancing. Next, we see Paul, Madeleine, and Elisabeth buying some drinks, but the girls are annoyed with him and leave him alone to pay. A young prostitute offers to sell him a private moment in a photo booth, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay to touch her breasts. He leaves her abruptly in a huff.

Next, he goes into a neighboring booth to record himself telling her, in an attempt at romantic, poetic language, how much he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. This romanticism, just after considering using a prostitute and brushing her off so rudely!

Another of Madeleine’s songs, “Tu M’as Trop Menti,” is heard while Paul plays bowling in a small arcade. She sings, again, as if to him, that she has heard too many of his lies to believe him anymore. He approaches a man playing pinball; bizarrely, the man pulls out a knife and threatens Paul with it before stabbing himself in the gut. When you cannot project the pain of your own alienation onto others, it eats you up inside.

We see Madeleine and Elisabeth walking along the street at night among other window shoppers, this after having left Paul to pay for the drinks. Again, we see consumerism replacing healthy relationships.

Paul enters a laundromat and meets Robert there. Oddly, instead of telling Robert about the surely traumatizing experience he just had with the man with the knife, Paul tells him about men following him. These men each apologized for having scared Paul. It’s as if Paul is processing the trauma of the man with the knife by making it seem less severe, just men following him.

Robert is reading a newspaper article about Bob Dylan, whom he calls a “Vietnik,” which is a portmanteau of Vietnam and beatnik. Such a juxtaposition of ideas, like “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” reflects another theme of this film: the dialectical relationship between the socialist ideal and all that which vitiates the realization of that ideal.

Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, like Marx, represents the socialist ideal, while the beatniks whom Dylan represents (and by extension, the hippies and modern-day liberals who have come since the Dylan of the mid-sixties), and the corrosiveness of popular soft-drinks like Coke, represent the vitiating of that ideal, just as ‘brocialism’ does. Capitalist South Vietnam and liberal opportunism (which includes the progressive posturing of beatniks and hippies) were and are similarly corrosive…in a metaphorical sense.

Reading the Dylan article, Paul sings of Hitler, Stalin, and Johnson having only one thing to do: “kill ’em.” The equating of these three most dissimilar men is a typical tactic of today’s political establishment, though the liberals keep propping up the political party that gave us LBJ, who helped escalate the Vietnam War, as if it were the only one worth considering.

Paul also complains to Robert about his woman problems; he contemplates dumping Madeleine, even just after saying he wants to marry her. He also hopes to move in with her after being kicked out of his own place. He of course will move in with her, enflaming Elisabeth’s jealousy.

Robert still likes Catherine, who still doesn’t like him. He once asked her about her bra size, and she slapped him hard. Just then, a woman enters the laundromat and walks by the two seated young men, and true to their nature, they loudly appraise her breasts favourably. Paul has Robert stick out his finger, and Paul makes his hand into a yoni, then the two hands jokingly simulate sex. Paul jokes crudely, but he’s unhappy because of his faltering relationship with Madeleine. Men often don’t realize that their addiction to lewdness stems from sadness.

Robert notes that in the word masculin are two hidden words: masque and cul (“mask” and “ass”). In féminin, however, there is nothing. One is reminded of the Renaissance-era slang use of nothing, or “no thing,” or “an O-thing,” to mean vagina. We’re also reminded of how Madeleine looked into Paul’s eyes and felt…nothing. Paul frowns upon hearing Robert say “nothing.” Could this “nothing” be because of the masculine use of social masks in a quest for the feminine “no thing” and ass? Is this the true meaning of the title Masculin féminin?

In the seventh segment, we see Madeleine and Elisabeth in a cafe while Paul, in voiceover, talks of his sadness. The jealousy felt between him and Elisabeth over Madeleine (recall the implied lesbian relationship between the two girls) is the basis of the tension in the film. Jealousy is a narcissistic trait, with its origin in the Oedipal relationship with one’s parents: we would selfishly hog the loved parent to ourselves while shoving the hated parent away. As we get older, we transfer the love/hate relationship with our parents onto new people we meet, as Paul and Elisabeth have done onto pretty Madeleine. They would each hog her to themselves while shoving the other away.

A female voice (Elisabeth’s?) predicts a future sex toy that will give the user perfect satisfaction. Madeleine in a voiceover says that if we, the commodity-addicted consumers, would have our TVs and cars, we would be delivered from freedom. Who needs freedom in the capitalist world when you can simply buy stuff?

Next, we see Paul and Catherine at the dinner table at home. He has moved in, and he wonders, in an implied tone of jealousy, “Where the hell are they?”, that is, where are Madeleine and Elisabeth (“Qu’est-ce qu’elles foutent?” or, “What the fuck are they doing?”). The two girls come home soon after.

Madeleine speaks of how her music is doing on the charts in Japan: she’s trailing behind the Beatles, France Gall, and Bob Dylan. Paul, apparently annoyed with her success, reads from a blurb in a magazine on her, reading in an affectedly overly-enthusiastic way, saying the words with frantic speed. Now she is annoyed with his making fun of her.

Indicating his continued lack of interest in Madeleine’s music, he puts on a record of classical music and listens, rapt. Madeleine and Elisabeth shower together, giggling [!]. The two of them go to bed, but with Paul lying in between. Elisabeth is reading a book with her nose clearly out of joint as Paul and Madeleine lie close together, touching each other.

After this, Paul sees Catherine playing with a miniature model of a guillotine. She has the figurine of a man whose head is to be put in. She asks Paul if he’s ever heard of the Marquis de Sade, who of course was much involved with the French Revolution, which in turn was of course notorious for its use of the guillotine.

As she puts the figurine’s head in the guillotine, we hear a fiery, dramatic speech in voiceover, one addressing Mitterrand, and mentioning the dethroning of twenty kings for the sake of liberty. Again, we have the ideal of revolution juxtaposed with a left-wing leader who would, in time, prove to disappoint. (Mitterrand wouldn’t have been explicitly known as a disappointment until the 1980s, but any Marxist worth his salt–like Godard–would have already known in the 60s not to trust the results of mainstream voting.)

Paul will come to dislike his job at the magazine, and he’ll quit, soon to find a job interviewing and polling people for IFOP. We see an interview he has with a girl named Elsa, a friend of Madeleine’s. The whole time, we see only Elsa, hearing Paul’s questions and her answers. As with the other interview-like dialogues occurring before and after this “Dialogue With a Consumer Product,” there is a sense of alienating disconnect between man and woman here, reflected in seeing only her face and never his, instead of the camera going back and forth between speakers.

He asks her a number of questions concerning politics and other subjects she feels unqualified to answer, and therefore questions that make her feel awkward. He often interrupts her when she answers. It’s as if he were trying to impose his ideology on a girl who clearly prefers the liberal democracy of the US to socialism. We socialists won’t win people over to our cause with Paul’s tactics.

Outside the room they’re having the interview in, we hear, from time to time, the giggling of girls (Madeleine? Catherine? Elisabeth?). The implication is that women live much happier lives without pests like Paul around.

In the ninth segment, we see Paul playing pinball in a restaurant; Elisabeth is there, too, using the phone. (We also hear another of Madeleine’s songs, “Si Tu Gagnes Au Flipper.“) He rudely calls out to her to sit with him and eat. As they’re eating, she mentions a man that Madeleine has been with, enflaming Paul’s jealousy, something it’s safe to assume that Elisabeth is trying to do. Madeleine will join them soon.

During his chat with Elisabeth, we see included in the shot a German man sitting right next to Paul, though he’s of course not at all involved in the conversation. This man will later sit at a booth with a German-hating prostitute who Madeleine recognizes as the same woman who shot her husband at the beginning of the film.

The alienation is swelling now.

The German tells the prostitute that he dissociates himself from his country’s Nazi past. (Actually, it was the East Germans who successfully dissociated themselves from it), since she hates the Germans for what they did to her parents in the concentration camps.

Next, Elisabeth notices a man talking to Brigitte Bardot about some lines she is to recite, lines he feels she’s been saying too slowly. His criticisms tie in with the theme of alienation in how we often communicate poorly. We saw this in Paul’s interview of Elsa for the IFOP, and Paul himself, by the end of the film, realizes the error of his questioning methods during those interviews.

After this scene, we see Paul, Madeleine, Elisabeth, and Catherine go to the movies to see a Swedish film about a woman abused by her man (It seems to be Godard parodying Ingmar Bergman‘s The Silence.). We hear “Comment le Revoir,” another of Madeleine’s pop songs playing as the usher helps the four find their seats.

Elisabeth doesn’t like Paul sitting next to Madeleine, for obvious reasons, so she puts herself between Madeleine and him, angering him. He also changes seats, but not sitting on the other side of Madeleine in Elisabeth’s original seat–he sits on the other side of Catherine instead, to spite Madeleine for her acceptance of Elisabeth at her side.

The film they’ve come to see begins: we see the dominant man going after his woman outside on the winter streets, to grab her and control her. Later, we’ll see them in their apartment.

Paul needs to use the washroom, but in there, he finds two gay men kissing in one of the toilet stalls. Paul’s homophobic disgust at them is presumably mainly for the usual reason, but these two male lovers probably also remind him of a certain pair of female lovers. (Incidentally, we will soon see Elisabeth’s hand stroking Madeleine’s hair as they watch the movie.)

Paul has little interest in it, but he goes out and complains to the projectionist about the format of the film (e.g., its aspect ratio, etc.; they are all, in Paul’s opinion, not acceptable). The point is that he’s so disconnected from human communication that he focuses more on the technical aspects of the film than its expression of one of the fundamental problems of male/female relations: the abusive dominance of one over the other. This oversight of Paul’s also reflects his own refusal to acknowledge his disrespectful attitude towards women.

The brutish man in the film, who typically grunts his commands at the woman and makes her perform sexual acts on him, is quite the animal. Indeed, he looks at himself in the mirror, seeing it distort his face as if to tell him that he truly is bestial. He pouts at what he sees. Soon after, we see him kissing the woman in front of the mirror, holding her by the hair to control her. One imagines him pleased to see this in the reflection, his Lacanian ideal-I as a powerful man in the specular image.

Paul frowns as he watches the film, with the abusive man making the woman, it would appear, perform fellatio on him. Paul the idealist wants to see romanticized images of men and women on the screen (much as how the abusive man wants to see himself in the mirror as a desirable lover, rather than as a controlling man), not the unsettling reality of relations between the sexes as seen in the film…or as seen in Paul’s own actual relations with women.

The twelfth segment is introduced with the gunshot sound again. At home, Catherine and Robert are having a conversation that parallels the one between Paul and Madeleine when he was asking her to go out with him. Robert, however, is much less successful with Catherine, of whom he can’t take the hint that she doesn’t like him. Again, we usually only see the face of the one, or that of the other, for long stretches of the conversation, reinforcing the sense of mutual alienation.

She’s eating an apple, like Eve with the forbidden fruit (or like Lula and her apples while aggressively coming on to Clay in Dutchman–links above): does her rejection of Robert at all compare with the ruin of Adam, or of Clay? In any case, we see in all these scenes more of the tensions between the sexes, the kind that ruin all possibility of proletarian solidarity.

Catherine asks Robert if he has ever been with prostitutes, as Madeleine asked of Paul; Robert admits to it with a smile, making him all the less attractive to Catherine. He asks her a number of personal questions she feels are none of his business. He speaks of his plans to bring about “a complete revolution,” yet he’s so charmless that he can even connect with a girl like her. The sense of mutual alienation between them is such that, even in those shots that include both of them, his head is obscured by the door of a cupboard (they’re in her kitchen), a symbolic expression of that estrangement.

He’s jealous because he thinks she’s in love with Paul, which she isn’t–she just doesn’t like Robert. She notes at the start of their conversation how difficult it is for him to talk: this inability to communicate is, with jealousy, one of the main themes of this film. We hear Madeleine’s song, “Sois Gentil” during this chat: it’s as if she’s telling Robert to be more of a gentleman on Catherine’s behalf.

His chatting with her about politics is as awkward as it was between Paul and Elsa. Interrupting their chat, ever so briefly, is another shot of women shopping in a department store, another iteration of the theme of consumerism trumping human connection. As we can see, revolution is not possible in such an alienating society that prefers commodities to community. Small wonder this film is “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” stated in a famous inter-title with the gunshot sound to introduce the next segment.

Paul and Catherine walk down the street. A man borrows Paul’s matches without giving them back, but using them to immolate himself as a protest against the Vietnam War. One is reminded of the Buddhist monk in South Vietnam who did the same thing a few years before this film. If only Paul had the strength of character to protest the war in such a brave way.

Paul and Catherine visit the recording studio where Madeleine is recording “D’Abord Dis Moi Ton Nom.” Paul, still with no interest in or respect for her music, walks right into the recording area, as if her talking to her narcissistic boyfriend were more important than her art.

Paul, Catherine, and Madeleine go outside, where a music journalist asks her a few questions. She mentions loving Pepsi–once again, such commodities as cola get in the way of Marxist revolution.

In the next segment, we hear Paul speaking in voiceover, acknowledging how misguided his questions for the IFOP polling have been. This admitting of bad communication will be too late, though, for he will soon die. During his speaking of his need to change his interviewing style, we see lots of shoppers on the streets, another juxtaposition of the failure to communicate with a fetishizing of commodities.

In the fifteenth and final segment, also…and most significantly…introduced with the gunshot sound, we see Catherine and Madeleine in a police station telling the officer there how Paul died, him having fallen from a window of his recently purchased apartment in a high rise. The girls insist his death must have been an accident rather than a suicide. When Catherine says it was “a stupid accident,” she looks down and away from the officer, suggesting she’s lying.

Significantly, I believe, Elisabeth isn’t there to talk to the officer, but we learn that, while Paul wanted Madeleine to move in to his new place, she wanted Elisabeth to move in with them, too, which of course jealous Paul would never have accepted. There was fighting, then the “accident.” I don’t believe he killed himself in heartbreak over learning of his woman’s lesbian relationship with Elisabeth, which they, having all lived together for so long, couldn’t have kept secret from him for so long. He must have already known for at least quite a while, and he and Elisabeth were competing for Madeleine, which finally came to a head.

I believe the girls are covering up how jealous, lesbian Elisabeth actually pushed Paul off the building (it fits in with the theme of women killing men that has appeared in so many forms throughout the film). One can sense a trace of guilt in pregnant Madeleine’s eyes, especially since she’s contemplating…however hesitantly…getting an abortion.

The film ends with the word “féminin” shown on the screen, then with the gunshot sound and the “émin” removed to indicate “fin.” Indeed, the film ends with the women, who without the proper masculine support, won’t ever join in proletarian solidarity with them.

We’d kill a man, rather than go after The Man.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Six

I close my eyes and open them.

I see my living room again, with my TV turned off, the drugs and bourbon on the coffee table immediately in front of me, and the Indian music finishing. I take a sip of my drink, take a few puffs off the joint that’s almost finished burning away on the side of my ashtray, and I get up.

I stagger over to a mirror on my wall opposite the one for my TV and bookshelves. I’m still feeling the warm buzz from my high on the ecstasy half-pill. I hear the gunfire and far-away bombs from outside, since the end of the Indian music means I have nothing to drown out the explosions, only silence here inside; but my ketamine high is still giving me that illusory sense of safety. I look at myself in the reflection.

I close my eyes and open them.

Instead of seeing my present self, I see myself as a toddler looking at himself in the mirror for the first time.

I’m having difficulty staying on my feet: is it because I’m a child again, or is it because I’m so wasted? Am I all in one piece, as I see in the mirror, or am I in many pieces? Am I solid, as I see in the mirror, or am I melting into a liquid…as I feel?

Am I a distinct I, or am I an indistinct, chaotic mass?

I close my eyes and open them.

I see Queen Maya holding me in her arms and smiling down at me tenderly. She’s so beautiful in her regal robes. To see her loving eyes is to see myself as I’d like to.

I close my eyes and open them.

I see myself as a toddler looking at myself in the mirror again.

I close my eyes and open them.

I see myself in the present, stoned out of my mind. I note the far-off bombs and gunfire outside.

I close my eyes and open them.

I see what looks like my mother, the queen, but something about her is different this time. Physically, she looks exactly the same: beautiful face, hair, and robes, but no smile. Now she looks down at me with a scowl as she holds me in what seems mere obligation, not love. She doesn’t want to take care of me; she’d rather toss me aside and forget about me–I can feel it.

I close my eyes and keep them shut.

I remember the words of the old man with the cane, the one who said I would one day be either the great head of the family business and of the state, or I’d become a great revolutionary and spiritual leader.

I’d naturally prefer to be the latter.

I chuckle to myself about how I’m obviously flattering myself with these fantastical prophecies.

I open my eyes.

I see my present self, still high as a kite.

I see neither a great king nor a great, revolutionary, spiritual leader.

I see only a loser.

I hear the explosions and gunshots of the war outside, and I remember that I’m going to die before any possibility of my achieving greatness comes about. The K still feels as though it will shield me from the pain of my violent demise, though I know that, as high as I am, the thought of being shielded thus is ridiculous.

I stagger back to my sofa and sit down.

I close my eyes.

Analysis of ‘Inception’

I: Introduction

Inception is a 2010 science fiction action film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who also produced it with his wife, Emma Thomas. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, with an ensemble cast including Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.

Nolan had been working on a story about “dream stealers” for nine to ten years, originally conceiving of it as a horror film before making it a kind of heist film. He was influenced by such movies as The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and even his own Memento, to an extent. He postponed making Inception until he’d got enough experience making large-scale films like the first two of his Dark Knight trilogy.

Inception was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2010; it is considered one of the best films of the 2010s, and it won four Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to the script.

II: Unconscious vs. Subconscious

What is, for me, especially intriguing about Inception is the intersection of several themes: the unconscious (here infelicitously called the “subconscious“–more on that soon), manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the blurred distinction between fantasy and reality, and perhaps most importantly, what shared, lucid dreaming can be seen to represent–the viewing of a movie in a theatre with other people.

Let’s now look at each of these themes one by one.

“Subconscious” is a popular term in psychology to refer to what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious. While I’m sure Nolan never intended to adhere to Freudian thinking to any significant extent (beyond, perhaps, the estranged, bitter feelings that Robert Fischer [Murphy] has for his dying father, Maurice [played by Pete Postlethwaite]), a bitterness that could be at least partly Oedipal), I must favor the term unconscious over subconscious, and here’s why.

Subconscious, as Freud explained, is an unclear way of expressing what that part of the mind is, what is ‘outside’ of conscious thinking. Is it topographical, i.e., existing underneath consciousness, as is almost literally indicated in the movie? Is it qualitative, indicating another, subterranean consciousness, again, as Inception seems to imply?

The unconscious, on the other hand, is not concerned with some kind of mental ‘place.’ Rather, it’s properly concerned with what we do not know. Unconscious impulses, for example, don’t ‘hide underneath’: the repressed, on the contrary, returns to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form. It isn’t ‘underground’; it hides in plain sight.

Significantly, Dominick ‘Dom’ Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team of thought-thieves are fully aware of what’s going on in the “subconscious” world of their shared, lucid dreams. There’s something unmistakably topographic and subterranean in these dreams-within-dreams. So however psychoanalysts may cringe at the use of the word “subconscious,” we must go along with Nolan’s word choices and imagery, going down an elevator with Ariadne (Page) to lower and lower levels of this subterranean land to see what this “subconscious” actually symbolizes.

III: Fantasy vs. Reality

Here we come to one of the intersections of theme. The dreams-within-dreams of the “subconscious” represent further and further removes from reality, deeper and deeper forays into fantasy. That the dreams generally look as if they could be events occurring in reality (Ariadne’s alterations of the Parisian cityscape, among other exceptions, notwithstanding) shows how blurred is the distinction between fantasy and reality in the film.

Small wonder the dream-thieves have to carry around totems (e.g., the spinning top, or Arthur’s die) to test if they’re dreaming or in the real world. Small wonder that Mal (Cotillard) kept killing herself to wake up, only to do so again for the last time in the real world, her still being obsessively deluded (thanks to Dom’s planting of an inception in her mind) that she was always in dreams-within-dreams. Incidentally, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is indicative of psychosis, which is what I suspect Inception is really all about.

IV: Capitalism and Manipulation

The implanting of false beliefs into the minds of the marks of the dream-thieves–be this implanting inception (putting the beginning of an idea into one’s mind) or extraction (stealing a company’s secrets as the goal of corporate espionage) through conning the mark into trusting the dream-thieves into opening up completely and thus making oneself vulnerable to them–is manipulation in the service of one set of capitalists trying to defeat their competition. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) Here we see the intersection of the themes of manipulation and capitalism, in the realm of the unconscious, in deeper and deeper layers of fantasy that get confused with reality.

Indeed, the company that Dom Cobb works for, Cobol Engineering (not only on which his surname is a pun [i.e., Cobb is a microcosm of the company], but also on which cobalt–extracted from the earth, like company secrets, by poor Congolese children for use in our cellphones–seems a pun), is a kind of mafia organization in the field of corporate espionage, in which failure can endanger an employee’s life. As I’ve argued many times in other blog posts, the mafia (criminal businesses) is a fitting metaphor for capitalists: note the expensive suits we see on Dom, the dominant, leading member of the dream-thieves.

Those of us on the political left are acutely aware of how capitalism results in alienation, which in turn leads to such problems as strained family relationships (i.e., Fischer and his dying father, as well as Cobb’s inability to return to the US and be with his kids) and emotional trauma (the hurt Fischer feels from the contempt Maurice has always had for him; Cobb’s guilt over how his inception for Mal drove her to suicide).

V: Dream Theatre?

A number of commentators on Inception have interpreted its use of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people in a darkened movie theatre watching a film together. Getting caught up in the movie’s story is hypnotic, dreamlike. We can see more thematic intersection here in how not only the marketing of movies is a part of capitalism, but also how films are used to manipulate their viewers emotionally. The CIA is often consulted by moviemakers, who are required to portray the organization–known for ruthlessly helping in the overthrow of many governments opposed to US imperialist interests–as benign. Accordingly, films like Top Gun: Maverick and the Marvel superhero movies are blatant American military propaganda.

Now, this notion of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people watching a movie together can be extended, I believe, to the idea of people watching TV together–TV shows and commercials–listening to the radio, being hooked on the internet, etc. In other words, the fantasy world of dreams can be a metaphor for the hypnotizing effect of the media.

Note the dream-like quality of many of our recent TV commercials. Instead of focusing on the products, as the commercials of the past did, these ads focus on images of a happy, carefree life. The commercials are fantasies, removals from reality, just like the shared dreams in Inception. An escape from the world…all in the service of capitalism, while pretending that the profit motive of capitalism isn’t at all present. The urge to buy what’s being sold sneaks into the unconscious by association with the fantasy presented, the inception of the desire for the product, our imaginary appetites…all while extracting our cash.

We might want to remember how Edward Bernays–whose double uncle was Freud, incidentally–used psychoanalytic concepts to help advertisers and political power structures to colonize the unconscious and manipulate people into buying this or that product, and to manufacture consent. (Bernays, by the way, was involved in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état for the sake of the United Fruit Company.)

VI: Putting All the Themes Together

So these are all the ways that the unconscious, manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the hazy line between fantasy and reality, and dreams as a metaphor for film (and the media in general) intersect in Inception. Though inception means beginning, or the establishment of an institution or activity, I see in the word a pun on deception, or the planting of a deceptive idea into someone’s unconscious.

So the film can be seen to be about how the capitalist/imperialist-run media manipulates the mind, and how our attempts to escape the horrors of the capitalist world, in order to enter a haven of fantasy, can backfire and lead to psychosis.

VII: Inception of Inception

The film begins with Cobb washed up on a shore, then taken by Japanese guards to see an extremely aged Mr. Saito (Watanabe), the businessman who wants Cobb’s team of dream-thieves to plant the inception of an idea into young Fischer’s head, to break up his dying father’s corporation so that of Saito–Fischer’s competition–can reign supreme. We eventually learn that this washing-up on the Japanese shore isn’t the beginning, but the near-end, of the story.

After this, we go back to the beginning of the story, when Cobb’s team is attempting an extraction of company secrets from the unconscious of dreaming, younger Saito while on a train going in the direction of Kyoto. We see the same big house as in the previous, deep-fantasy scene of aged Saito.

We soon learn, after the dangerous meddling of Mal (actually, Cobb’s projection of her, or as I see her, his internal object of her), that this scene in Saito’s house is really a dream within a dream, this ‘outer’ dream, as it were, being that of Nash (played by Lukas Haas), Cobb’s dream architect before the team employs Ariadne.

A couple of interesting points should be made about Nash and his dream, which make me question his motives. His dream includes a huge mob of insurrectionary rioters out in the streets, all about to force their way into the building where Cobb, Saito, and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) are having the dream within the dream, in Saito’s house. Note that, according to Freud, a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Later, Nash betrays the rest of Cobb’s team. Is Nash a man with unconscious leftist sympathies (i.e., with revolutionaries in his wish-fulfillment-dream) making a failed attempt at undermining capitalist Cobol, and is his botching of the carpet a Freudian slip, reflecting his conflicted commitment to the team?

VIII: What Cobb Will Do to Get Back Home

Cobb wants so badly to be reunited with his son and daughter back in the US that he’s willing to take Saito’s offer to clear his name there of Mal’s death, in exchange for planting an inception in Robert Fischer’s mind, an undertaking Cobb knows is extremely dangerous and difficult to do. After all, he did it to Mal, and what happened? Still, he can’t bear to be separated from his kids.

To assemble his new team, he first goes to Paris, where his father-in-law, Professor Stephen Miles (Caine), who taught him about navigating the unconscious mind, recommends he hire Ariadne. Her name, an obvious reference to the woman in Greek myth who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth so he could get out after killing the Minotaur, is fitting. She proves her skills as a potential dream-architect by quickly improvising mazes complex enough to convince Cobb she’s up for the job. Just as the mythical Ariadne helped Theseus get out of the infernal Labyrinth, so does Inception‘s Ariadne help Cobb find the strength to confront his trauma over Mal’s suicide, to let go of his attachment to his internal object of her, and thus to be able to navigate his way back up to the top, to escape the hell of endless dreams-within-dreams.

Next, Cobb has to go to Mombassa, Kenya–a city crawling with Cobol agents looking to catch and kill him for his failed mission in Japan–to find Eames (Hardy), a forger able to impersonate people in dreams. The agents chasing Cobb through the streets of Mombassa is the one instance of an ‘action movie’ scene in Inception that happens in the real, non-dreaming world…or is this the real, non-dreaming world? (More on that later.)

Eames recommends Yusuf (Rao), a chemist who will provide a sedative to keep the team under as they navigate the different layers of the “subconscious,” dream-with-dream worlds, while also allowing the team to hear a recording of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”), their synchronized cue, or “kick,” to wake them at the right time.

IX: Drugs

Though we’re not meant to think of Yusuf as some kind of drug dealer, that scene of him with all those people taking his sedative in the dark basement of his place of work…it sure makes one think of, say, an opium den. These users of the sedative dream for four hours each day because, as one of them tells Cobb, “The dream has become their reality.”

Even if Yusuf is not to be understood to be an actual drug dealer, what he’s doing in this basement is surely symbolic of what a drug dealer would do, at the very least. Such an understanding is crucial when we consider the theme of the unsure distinction between fantasy and reality as presented in Inception. After all, as I noted above, psychosis is characterized by an inability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and drugs (with their hallucinogenic effects) can induce psychosis, including sedatives.

Furthermore, in the alienating, cutthroat world of capitalism, emotional trauma often leads to substance abuse as an attempt to escape that pain. An escape into fantasy relieves, however temporarily, one of the pain of facing reality, and drugs obviously help with that feeling of escape. Drugs can cause mental illness, just as the stress of living under capitalism has been observed to cause mental illness. In these connections, it’s easy to see why Dom and Mal went so deep into the dream world, into so many layers under layers of dreams-within-dreams; in searching for the Garden of Eden, they ended up in the ninth circle of Hell.

X: Splitting

Mal’s suicide, as I’ve said, is a pain that Dom finds unbearable, especially since his planting of the inception in her mind–that her world was unreal–means he’s guilty of causing her death. He cannot let her go, so he keeps her internal object as a kind of ghost haunting his mind. She’s there, but the trauma of her suicide is also there; so he tries to protect himself from that pain, however unsuccessfully, through the defence mechanisms of projection and splitting.

Dom thus experiences what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid positionparanoid because of the persecutory anxiety he feels whenever her projection interferes, often violently, with his team’s attempts at extraction; and schizoid because of the splitting of Mal into absolute good and bad versions of herself.

Dom, in his unconscious attempts to preserve the good Mal, can’t help but be forced to confront the bad Mal–hence her apt name as a pun on the French word for bad. Only when he goes the farthest down all the layers of his “subconscious,” down all those dreams-within-dreams, to return to the paradise/hell that he constructed with her, back before she died, only then do we see the good Mal, when he tells her he has to let her go.

His trauma is one example of how capitalist alienation harms relationships, including family ones. Another example is that of Robert and Maurice Fischer. The dying father, founder and owner of a great, powerful corporation, is annoyed that he has to pass on the control of the family business to a son he regards as inadequate for such a great responsibility. Some of this father/son hostility could be Oedipal, as I mentioned above; on the father’s end, it could be a Laius complex, or a fear of the son supplanting the father.

XI: Sympathy for the Dominant

One thing that is, or at least should be, striking about this story is how we, the audience, are all lulled into sympathizing with these characters. We’re dealing here with dishonest, lying, manipulating, gaslighting people who are all out for themselves, all working within a capitalist context. Manipulating young Fischer into ending his father’s business is meant to allow their competition, Saito’s company, to thrive. It is the insidious nature of neoliberal capitalist ideology–“there is no alternative“–that tricks the audience into sympathizing with a bunch of con men.

Dom is seen on several occasions, just after waking up, to be spinning a top to make sure he isn’t still dreaming. As we understand, if it stops spinning, he’s relieved to know he’s in the real world…or is he? One’s totem–like Arthur’s die–is supposed to be known only by its owner: its look, feel, weight, etc. Dom, however, has come into the habit of using a top originally owned by Mal. So even if it stops spinning, is his reassurance of no longer dreaming valid?

XII: In Dreamland

Back to the story. The team is assembled and ready. On a flight to the US, Fischer is put to sleep to share a dream with Dom, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito, and Yusuf. This first shared dream, Yusuf’s, is set on the streets of a city in teeming rain.

Fischer, trying to take a cab, is kidnapped. Arthur, whose job was to research Fischer thoroughly, has failed to learn that the team’s mark has unconscious security to fight off extractors like them. Dom is furious with Arthur for his oversights.

This unconscious security, in the form of men shooting at Cobb et al and therefore putting them all in danger–if shot and killed in the dream–of being trapped in Limbo (an inescapable labyrinth of the unconscious, like being in a coma) because of Yusuf’s powerful sedative, is a personification of Fischer’s ego defence mechanisms, these ones being unconscious.

As the Ego Psychologists understood unconscious ego defence, here’s an explanation: “the ego also 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…, 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)

XIII: Wake Up Dead?

One fascinating idea in this film is the paradoxical notion that if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. It’s the reverse of what Hamlet said: “To die, to sleep–/No more” (III, i, 60). Now, with Yusuf’s sedative, dying in the dream makes matters much more complicated: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (III, I, 64-68)

Another complicating factor in Fischer’s troubled family life is his “Uncle Peter” Browning (Berenger), his godfather and fellow executive of his father’s company. Browning acts as a kind of surrogate father for Fischer, being there for him in ways that his father never wanted to be. Cobb’s team will manipulate this relationship through Eames’s impersonation of Browning, to introduce the idea of Maurice having an alternate will to dissolve the company.

Inception, as Eames has previously pointed out, is “a very subtle art.” Fischer’s first introduction to the idea of the alternate will is to be a negative one, a plausible further instance of his father’s contempt for him; further down in the dreams, the dissolving of the company is meant to be a positive exhortation of him to do his own thing, giving him a catharsis.

XIV: Dreams-within-dreams

Anyway, everyone on the team except Yusuf–who is driving around on the first dream level, since it’s his dream–is sedated into going down to the second dream level, Arthur’s dream, which is set in a hotel. Here, Dom convinces Robert that his ‘security’ is really working against him, as part of the ruse to go deeper into his “subconscious.” Here we have Dom gaslighting Robert into distrusting his own unconscious ego defence mechanisms.

To get to the layer of Fischer’s “subconscious” where he will receive the inception of the idea to end his father’s business to start something of his own, the team must be sedated further, into a dream set around an alpine fortress. Several problems occur: Mal interferes again and shoots Robert before he can receive the inception; also, Yusuf sets up the Edith Piaf kick too early.

Arthur and Eames therefore must improvise a new set of kicks to be synchronized with them hitting the water in Yusuf’s truck in the first dream, with Arthur rigging a hotel elevator with all the floating dreamers tied up, and with the alpine fortress being set up with explosives. Saito having been shot as well as Robert means both of them are in Limbo, forcing Dom and Ariadne to go further down another level to rescue them…in Dom’s constructed dream-world with Mal.

Here is where Dom must confront his trauma with Mal. He must let go of his attachment to his internal object of the good Mal, and he must do it quickly, for getting Robert and Saito back is of paramount importance. Indeed, Ariadne importunes Dom to hurry…but can one be cured of one’s trauma in such a short time? (Indeed, Ariadne shoots Mal to speed things up.)

It seems that he has managed to do so, for he leaves Mal, and they get Robert and Saito back–the rescue of the latter through, essentially, a repeat of that opening scene with Dom washing ashore on the beach and being taken to Saito’s big house by his Japanese guards. Neither Dom nor Saito wants to die a lonely old man, filled with regret, hence the choice of Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as the kick to wake everyone up with.

XV: Maladaptive Dreaming

No rationally thinking person wants to waste away in a fantasy world, only years later to snap out of it and be full of regret for such a wasted life. Yet the alienating world of capitalism makes such a retreat into fantasy so tempting. Small wonder so many of us out there escape reality through drugs, online video games, porn, movies, TV, consumerism, internet addiction, etc.

Robert returns to the alpine fortress dream and receives the inception. Everyone, including Dom, manages to get back up using all the synchronized kicks in time. I’d say it’s all a little too good to be true.

Dom wakes up on the airplane with all the others, who smile at him, glad to see him back. Saito makes the necessary phone call to clear Dom of the charge of murdering Mal, so he can go through customs without a hitch. Recall above how I mentioned that, according to Freud, dreams are wish-fulfillments. Dom’s wishes are all being fulfilled, aren’t they?

The action and excitement of the dreams, fighting off Robert’s unconscious security, is an instance of how these shared, lucid dreams parallel the entertainment of watching a movie in a theatre. We’re back in the ‘real world’ now, in the airport; but Dom had an ‘action movie’ moment in Mombassa, too. Has his ‘waking’ world been real, or has it been dream, too?

XVI: Conclusion–Nothing But a Dreamer

Here’s an interesting thought: we’ve been assuming that Mal killed herself, mistakenly thinking she was trying to wake herself from a dream, but…what if she was right? Could Dom have lost count of all the dream layers, thinking his time with her on the building ledges was real, when it was actually another dream? She’d been assessed by three different psychiatrists to be sane, so is he the one with a psychotic inability to distinguish fantasy from reality?

When he claims that she didn’t want to go back to the real world, is he projecting onto her his wish to stay in the world of dreams? Is this what calling Mal his “projection” really means?

At the end, when he spins the top and walks away to see his kids, he doesn’t care if it stops spinning or not. Or maybe he’s afraid to see it keep spinning. In any case, the top was Mal’s totem originally, so if its slight wobble at the very end indicates that it will stop spinning, this hardly assures us that he’s in the real world now.

Some think the real plan, masterminded by Miles (who, recall, recommended Ariadne to be the architect), was to pull Cobb out of the dream world. If so, I don’t think it worked. Cobb prefers fantasy to reality, like so many of us with our drugs, movies, TV, etc. I think Mal is still waiting for him in the waking world; but like those TV commercials that show people enjoying quality time with family, or like all those action movies we enjoy in the theatre, Cobb would rather escape from, than have to continue living in, the stresses of the capitalist world.

His Hell is his Eden…even without Mal.