Analysis of ‘Blowup’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Last Breath,’ a Poem by Rusty Rebar

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

the last breath

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, for my analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Vertigo’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Waiting for Guffman’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s stop it.

We can’t.

Why not?

We’re waiting for Guffman.

Analysis of ‘Marathon Man’

Marathon Man is a 1976 thriller film directed by John Schlesinger and written by William Goldman, an adaptation of his 1974 novel. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and costars Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane, and Marthe Keller.

Olivier was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the antagonist, Dr. Christian Szell, who was ranked #34 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list. The line “Is it safe?” ranked #70 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. The film was a critical and commercial success, though a number of changes from Goldman’s original intentions–the removal of scenes deemed excessively violent, and how Szell dies at the end of the film–brought the film down a few notches…in Goldman’s own assessment, too.

Still, I consider the story worth analyzing because of its depiction of the relationship between German Naziism (as personified by Szell and his older brother) and American capitalism (as personified by Szell’s American associates and couriers)–that is, the love/hate relationship between the US and fascism.

Here is a link to famous quotes from the film and novel, and here’s a link to a BBC radio play of it.

Thomas Babington “Babe” Levy (Hoffman) is a history PhD student in New York writing a dissertation on tyranny in American politics. He’s named after Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British Whig historian deemed progressive by 19th century standards, but who by today’s standards would be deemed insufferably elitist. Macaulay was known for writing a dramatized version of history, celebrating those he agreed with and vilifying those he disagreed with; similarly, Professor Biesenthal (played by Fritz Weaver) warns Babe not to get too emotional when researching the McCarthyism that destroyed his father. His doctoral thesis “mustn’t be turned into a hysterical crusade.”

Marx deemed Macaulay a “systematic falsifier of history.” By deeming his father innocent of the accusation of communist sympathies–rather than doing the brave thing and saying it shouldn’t matter whether his father was or wasn’t a ‘commie’ (i.e., there’s nothing to be ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ of), Babe is showing his reactionary, liberal tendencies (in a way, rather like those of Macaulay). This babyish political naïveté of Babe’s is something he’ll have to outgrow if he’s going to confront the fascists in his midst.

Apart from his historical/political leanings, Babe is also an aspiring marathon runner, hence the story’s name, and hence his nickname, after Babe Ruth, who we can visualize running past the three bases to home plate after hitting his many home runs. How should we interpret the meaning of Babe’s running? Firstly, he is accepting his place in the competitive world of capitalism, running with the others in an attempt to win the (rat) race, or World Series, of life. Second, as his successful running away from his captors, those working for Szell, indicates, Babe’s running represents his lifelong attempt to run away from his problems, instead of confronting them, as he finally does at the end.

Babe’s older brother is Henry David Levy (Scheider), known as “Hank,” or as “Doc” by Babe, or by his Division code name, “Scylla.” He is named after Henry David Thoreau, for reasons that, frankly, don’t make any sense to me at all, given Doc’s total conformity to the social and political establishment, the diametric opposite of Thoreau’s proto-environmentalist, anti-government stances. (Was the Levy brothers’ father hoping for Doc to have such a personality, or was this naming irony on Goldman’s part? Anybody who has read the novel, please inform me in the comments; I’ll be extremely grateful, and I’ll make the appropriate changes to this analysis then.)

Doc’s other name, Scylla, is more explicable. As a spy secretly working for the American government, and as a courier for Szell’s diamonds (in exchange for Szell’s betraying of his fellow Nazis), Doc is, symbolically speaking, vying for a Scylla and Charybdis kind of lesser evil status, rather like the US vis-à-vis Naziism. Though he’s a Jew (and a closeted gay), Doc has an American-style conservatism and violent manner (cut out of the film) that shows him to have a much more flawed character than meets the eye, an unpleasantness almost comparable to that of Szell.

Christian Szell’s older brother, Klaus, has been watching over Szell’s diamonds (which he’d extorted from prisoners in Auschwitz) in a New York bank while Szell hides away in Uruguay (Paraguay in the novel). If Szell needs money, Klaus takes out some diamonds and has these converted into cash. But one unlucky day, Klaus gets mixed up in a road rage incident that gets him and the other driver killed.

The other driver is a hot-tempered, middle-aged Jew, and Klaus is as much a Nazi sympathizer as Christian is. The mutual hate that both drivers feel, knowing each other’s ethnicity (Klaus: “You are a Jude!…[in German>>] Lick my arse!”//The Jewish driver: “You antisemitic bastard, you!”), causes their road rage to spiral out of control, leading to them crashing into an oil truck, killing both of them.

It’s easy to see the destructiveness of racial hatred in this scene, and to focus on the evil of antisemitism. But to get at the root of fascism, we have to look at its economic foundations. Szell, having lost his brother in the accident, no longer has anyone he can trust to watch over his diamonds, so he must come out of hiding and (or so he believes) kill the couriers before they have a chance to rob him of his diamonds.

This fear of losing one’s wealth is what drives the violence of fascism. When communist revolutions shook up Europe in the late 1910s, the beginning of the 1920s, and in the mid-1930s, regardless of whether they succeeded or failed, the capitalist class was scared, and the fascism of Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al was used either to beat down the working class or to lead them astray, making them think that foreigners were their enemy, rather than the rich. Szell’s paranoia and violence are symbolic of this reactionary use of fascism; note how, early in the film, there are numerous references to strikes and environmental protests.

Recall what Henry A. Wallace had to say about fascism: “A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” Here’s another quote: “If we define an American fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoubtedly several million fascists in the United States.” And yet another: “Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.” Note Wallace’s recurring theme of the fascist’s lust for money.

While the racism, xenophobia, and national chauvinism of fascism are problems not to be trivialized, fascists at their core are capitalists, and their function is ultimately to preserve and protect the class structure of society. This is why we see Szell’s constant preoccupation with his diamonds. Though he’s surely no Jew-lover, we never hear him utter an antisemitic slur against Doc or Babe.

We mustn’t let ourselves be confused whenever people, conservatives such as Jonah Goldberg in particular, claim that men like Mussolini or Hitler were a ‘different kind’ of leftist. To say that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was a socialist one is like saying the Democratic Party is democratic. The names of the parties mean nothing if their actions don’t replicate them. To reassure his big business donors, Hitler purged the Nazi party of all left-leaning members (Röhm, the Strassers, etc.) as soon as he came to power.

The point is that we don’t solve the problem of Nazi sympathizers by merely calling out people who make racist comments on social media, etc. We must get to the bottom of the fascist problem by dealing with its roots in class conflict. Hitler’s dream of lebensraum was inspired by the American takeover of land from the aboriginals. Imperialism in its modern form grew out of capitalism, a reaction to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Markets must expand to other countries to keep the profits flowing.

Similarly, Szell must leave South America and go to the Jewish-dominated diamond district of New York to retrieve the diamonds he stole from Jews in Auschwitz. He is the personification of an imperialist going into another country to plunder it, provoking the ire of those who live there.

Szell’s original hiding away in Uruguay/Paraguay, him a wealthy bourgeois with South American servants, reminds us of Dr. Josef Mengele (Todesengel, “Angel of Death”), of whom Szell (der weiße Engel, “the White Angel”) is the protégé and his double for the purposes of this story. Recall that Mengele–played by Gregory Peck–is the antagonist in The Boys From Brazil, in which Olivier also starred, playing a Jewish Nazi-hunter. Both of these films share as subject matter the fear of a resurgence of fascism.

Indeed, Marathon Man can be seen as a kind of allegory of the revival of fascism, in that Szell’s paranoia about being robbed of his diamonds (like Nazi paranoia of ‘Jewish world domination’) symbolizes the ruling class’s fear of losing their wealth and power from socialist revolution, as symbolized by the leftist references to such strikes as one of bakery workers and one of airport baggage handlers, as well as anti-pollution protests in Paris during Doc’s visit there.

Christian Szell–whose…Christian…name distinguishes him as a Gentile bourgeois from such Jewish bourgeois as Doc and all the New York diamond-dealers whose appraisals of Szell’s diamonds he needs, and whose surname (apart from its having been inspired by, oddly, George Szell) can be seen as a pun on sell, that is, to sell his diamonds for cash–must infiltrate another country, like an imperialist, and do violence against anyone who stands in his way, like a Nazi.

Szell’s American counterparts, Doc (or Scylla, recall) and Peter “Janey” Janeway (Devane), represent the Nazis’ American imperialist frienemies. They have to do business with Szell, for the sake of–in my allegory–maintaining the capitalist status quo, but Scylla, as a gay Jew, and Janey as his closet gay lover, certainly don’t like doing business with him.

The gay relationship between Scylla and Janey is only slightly hinted at in the film, in a scene in Scylla’s Paris hotel room, when he phones Janey, tells him he misses him, and wants him to “get [his] ass over [t]here.” Janey has worries about “appearances” (i.e., two men sharing a hotel room), but Scylla doesn’t care if their being together looks indiscreet. In the BBC radio drama (just after 38:00), Janey tells Babe there’s nothing he can say about Doc that won’t shock him, including his homosexuality (which would surely shock Babe to know). Goldman’s novel is even more open about Scylla’s and Janey’s gay relationship.

Now, these two men may be gay, but they’re also very much part of the conservative American political establishment. Doc is unsympathetic to Babe’s research on their father, a liberal who committed suicide because McCarthyist smears destroyed his reputation. Doc, as Scylla, may despise Szell, but he still chooses to work as a courier for him. Janey is a double agent pretending to oppose Szell by temporarily rescuing Babe from the dentist torture, but he wants the diamonds, too, and he gives Babe back to Szell when he realizes he can’t get any information from him.

What we see in these scenes between Szell, Scylla, and Janey is an allegorizing of the two-faced relationship that the US has always had with fascists. On the surface, the US appears to be opposed to Nazis (as we see dramatized in films like Saving Private Ryan), but secretly…or, not-so-secretly…American businessmen worked with Nazis, then after WWII, ex-Nazis were given jobs in the US government.

A thin veneer of liberalism and progressivism (as personified in Doc and Janey, in their gay relationship) hides American fascist sympathies. Recall how New Dealer FDR put Japanese Americans in internment camps. And during the 1950s, when there were higher taxes on the rich (high enough, in fact, to preclude the very existence of the kind of super-rich we see today), strong unions, and the welfare state, McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers was in full swing.

This last issue is of great concern to Babe, since it destroyed his and Doc’s father. Their father was a left-leaning liberal, left-leaning enough to make him want to ‘disown’ Doc, in Babe’s estimation, had their father lived long enough to see Doc become what Babe is led into believing is a successful oil businessman…and had their father known Doc is Scylla, a US government spy, he’d have disowned Doc all the more.

Still, this left-leaning doesn’t lean anywhere near Marxism-Leninism, which is what is truly threatening to American capitalism, the danger of a theft of the diamonds, so to speak, of the bourgeoisie. All the same, McCarthyism had that Szell-like paranoia of anyone even remotely connected to communist ideology; hence, such people, like the Levy brothers’ father, were destroyed.

This overwrought paranoia is emblematic of what links the American right with fascism. To those on the far right, anyone even a few millimetres to their left is by that fact alone a communist. Members of the Democratic Party are communists, apparently, even people like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden, who either enacted or endorsed very right-wing legislation. I know an American supporter of Trump who thinks this of the Democrats, and who holds the delusion that Justin Trudeau and hippies are communists. These far right-wing types actually reach that level of paranoid absurdity.

Similarly, Szell doesn’t trust any of his couriers with his diamonds, hence he has Chen, an Asian assassin, make several attempts on Scylla’s life. Scylla is plenty conservative as noted above, despite his closeted homosexuality; in fact, Doc’s code name is practically a pun on Szell. Still, none of this is good enough for the ex-Nazi dentist, so he kills Scylla with the blade hidden in his sleeve…just as Nazi Germany would eventually fight the US, the very country that inspired their imperialist lebensraum, in WWII.

Babe is smitten with a “Swiss” woman named Elsa Opel (Keller), though she is actually working with the same people associated with Szell. Small wonder Doc is quickly able to figure out that she is a phoney during lunch with her and Babe in a fancy restaurant. The two lovers have been mugged in Central Park by two men hired by Szell, the same two men who later abduct Babe in his apartment so Szell can do his sadistic dentistry on him. The two men’s German names are Erhardt (played by Marc Lawrence) and Karl (played by Richard Bright, who would have been easily remembered by mid-70s moviegoers as Al Neri in the two Godfather movies released just a few years before Marathon Man, thus making the link between Nazi Germany and mafia-like America all the surer).

So, Szell’s paranoia about having his diamonds stolen leads to his violence against his couriers, especially Scylla, then to Elsa and Babe…just as the capitalist class’s fear of losing their financial power led to the rise of fascism and its inherently violent nature. There is violence against Jews (in the film and in history, of course), let there be no trivializing of that fact; but at its core, the scourge of fascism is financial in nature.

So after Karl and Erhardt abduct Babe and tie him to a chair for Szell, we see an allegory of how fascist violence is provoked by a fear of the capitalist class losing its money. Though Babe is a Jew, and one would imagine ex-Nazi Szell hurling one antisemitic slur after another at him, instead, his one concern remains simply, “Is it safe?”

He won’t tell Babe what the “it” specifically refers to, so Babe has no way of being able to answer the question. Of course, what Szell means is to say, ‘Is it safe for me to go to the bank and retrieve my diamonds?’ Are his diamonds safe, or will he be robbed of them and killed? That this is a mystery to Babe is allegorical of how the common man is ignorant of the machinations of the ruling class.

Babe is terrorized and tortured by Szell and his tools of dentistry, just as the victims of fascism are terrorized and tortured; and just as Babe has no idea what Szell wants, those victimized by fascism usually don’t know what their far right-wing agenda is fuelled by. The common people assume that that agenda is limited to racial hatred, xenophobia, and extreme nationalism, when these three evils are just by-products of the agenda, which is to divert the working class from revolutionary intent, and to use violence to suppress socialist revolution during a time of capitalist crisis…to ensure that capitalism is safe.

Now, Babe is generally a rather weak, ineffectual man…a true Babe, hence Doc’s many taunts of him. The brothers’ reaction to the trauma of their father’s suicide has been to go in opposing directions, Doc a conservative, Babe a liberal. Doc’s trauma response is fight; Babe’s is flight. Babe screams for help like a damsel in distress when Karl and Erhardt break into his apartment. Symbolic of this weakness is a cavity he’s had throughout the story. Szell attacks the cavity with his dental tools, getting screams out of Babe. Then Szell finds a healthy tooth, honing in on a nerve, the pulp, the contacting of which is even more agonizing for Babe.

I have argued in other film analyses that the loss, or mutilation, of teeth (be they literal teeth or symbolic ones) is symbolic castration, in the Lacanian sense that any bodily mutilation represents a castration-like lack that gives rise to desire. The cutting-away at Babe’s healthy tooth is a trauma that, combined with those of the mugging and the witnessing of his brother’s bloody death, will push him over the edge and transform him from a meek man to a strong, revengeful man. His desire will be to have Szell recognize him and the hurt he’s caused, then to receive a return of that hurt.

After the mugging, Babe has admitted to a desire to use his pistol (which had been his father’s, used in his suicide) to shoot the muggers. Now he’ll want to use it all the more.

He manages to get away from his captors (when Szell finally acknowledges that Babe really doesn’t know anything about the diamonds), and he uses his running skills to evade them even while chasing him in a car. When he finally gets his hands on that gun from his apartment, that phallic gun, he finds his strength. Fear has been replaced with rage, just like that of the Jewish road rager at the beginning of the film…though Babe isn’t going to be rash and impulsive with his revenge on Nazis.

Elsa takes Babe to the house of Szell’s brother Klaus, and by now Babe is on to her. A final confrontation with her, Karl, Erhardt, and Janey ensues after finding out where Szell is going to be (his New York bank), and everyone except Babe is killed. Now Babe can go after Szell.

Szell has already been feeling the effects of his bad karma on the streets of the diamond district of New York. In spite of his having shaved himself to imitate male pattern baldness, so he wouldn’t be recognized by his weiße Engel mane of snowy hair, two middle-aged Jewish Holocaust survivors know who he is.

Pauline Kael called Marathon Man a “Jewish revenge fantasy,” but I’d like to extend that idea to a film about karmic retribution on fascists in general, in which Jews can be seen as a metonym for the working class. What we must remember is that while the Nazis murdered six million Jews, they also murdered five million non-Jews, including leftists, who represent the working class, and who were the first to be put in concentration camps. Jews and communists were the two main scapegoats on whom Nazis blamed the problems of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, Hitler conceived of communism as a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

So the two middle-aged Jews who recognize Szell, and later, Babe getting his revenge on Szell, can be seen to represent a leftist retaliation against fascism. After all, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, and while the Wehrmacht was succeeding at first at doing violence against the Soviets (just as Szell has terrorized Babe with his dental instruments), eventually the Red Army turned things around and, surrounding the Nazis in Russian territory as Szell is surrounded in the Jewish diamond district, the Nazis retreated like Szell. Finally, when all was lost, Hitler killed himself, as Szell stabs himself with the blade in his sleeve.

Now, at this point, we must discuss the difference between the ending of the film and that of the novel, the latter of which I consider much better. The BBC radio drama (link above) dramatizes the novel’s ending, and the Goodreads quotes of the novel (again, link above) give lengthy sections of Babe’s lecturing words as he fills Szell with bullets.

The film’s ending–in which Babe doesn’t kill Szell, but merely points his gun at him, tells him to swallow his diamonds, and throws the case of them into the water of a water-treatment facility, making Szell race down stairs after the case, fall, and stab himself with his sleeve-blade–comes across as liberal soft-heartedness. Punish fascists, have them destroy themselves, but dear God, for the sake of humanity, don’t kill the poor little Nazis.

Say whatever you want about the morality of Babe shooting Szell in cold blood; he has every motive in the world not only to settle the score for all the torture he’s suffered from Szell, but also to avenge his brother’s murder. Similarly, we leftists have every motive in the world to meet fascist violence with violence of our own.

Babe once “was a scholar and a marathon man, but that fella’s gone now.” Recall how I said above that Babe’s marathon running is symbolic of his running away from his problems. He’s acknowledged, after the mugging, that Doc would say Babe’s never confronts anything. Well, “that fella’s gone now”: Babe doesn’t run away anymore. He faces his problems now. He fights back.

Babe says, “if you don’t learn the mistakes of the past, you’ll be doomed to repeat them.” We leftists must learn from the mistakes of the past, too. We can’t afford to be soft on fascists, because they’ll never show us that courtesy if they rise to power again…and recently, there have been many examples of resurgences of fascism, in their traditional, national chauvinist forms, and in other authoritarian forms.

Babe says to Szell, “we’d have a nice peaceful place here if all you warmakers knew you better not start something because if you lost, agony was just around the bed.” We won’t have peace in the world by strumming guitars, smoking pot, and naïvely wishing for an end to war. Warmongers will be stopped only through revolutionary action: power must be seized by force; the imperialist bourgeoisie must be violently overthrown, and this is what Babe’s bullet-ridden revenge on Szell represents.

We, the proletariat, cannot solve our problems by running away from them. We must arm ourselves and fight back; for if we don’t, the far greater, gun-laden violence will continue in the forms of war and police shootings, income inequality will continue, our civil rights will continue to erode, and our ability to live on this earth will be gone forever.

Only when the Szells of the world are removed, will it be safe.

Analysis of ‘Misery’

Misery is a 1987 psychological horror novel written by Stephen King. It was adapted into a movie in 1990, directed by Rob Reiner and starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, with Lauren Bacall and Richard Farnsworth. Bates won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Annie Wilkes. A theatrical production in 2015 starred Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf.

Misery grew out of King’s wish to break free of the horror fiction genre (i.e., his 1984 fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon), yet many of his fans wanted him to stick to horror. He was also struggling with alcohol and drugs at the time, of which the fictional drug, Novril, is a symbol. Since Novril can be seen as a pun on novel, and King once said, “Annie was my drug problem,” we can see how Novril symbolizes both his addictions and his troubled relationship with his fans.

Links to quotes from the novel and the film can be found here.

So, the struggle that Paul Sheldon (Caan) goes through with Annie is the same struggle any artist goes through in wanting to grow and be free to express him- or herself without restrictions…yet the Annies of the world keep imposing those restrictions. Give the fans what they want. We have to please the fans. Make art to make money. Produce a commodity that will sell…or die.

Sheldon no longer wants to write his hit romance novel series, the Misery books, about the female protagonist, Misery Chastain. He’s never meant those books to be his whole life. He wants to write something new, in a bid for artistic respectability. So he has killed off Chastain in what’s meant to be the final book of the romance series, Misery’s Child; and he has just finished writing a totally new and different novel, Fast Cars (the new book is untitled in the movie).

The film begins with him having just finished typing the manuscript and smoking a cigarette; then he drives out of his Colorado hotel during the opening credits in the soon-to-be snowstorm (while we hear “Shotgun,” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars…in the novel, he listens to a cassette of Bo Diddley–page 21) and gets into the accident that breaks his legs.

The novel, however, begins when the accident has already happened, and his legs are in agonizing pain. The pain comes and goes in cycles (page 4), which are compared to those of the rising and falling tide.

Sheldon remembers a childhood experience of being with his parents on Revere Beach. The boy saw a broken-off piling jutting up from the sand; to him, it looked like a monster’s fang. He found the sight disturbing, but as the tide came in and covered up more and more of the piling, he felt better. Once the entire piling was submerged in water, he was at peace.

But then, the tide started going out, and he could see more and more of the piling again.

Now, his broken legs feel like two broken pilings (page 7), and Annie’s pain-killing drug, Novril, is the tide that will submerge those pilings (page 10)…until it wears off, and the pilings reappear from under the water. She controls the tide, so she is the Moon-goddess, “the lunar presence” (page 10).

He finds her body solid, all too solid (page 9), like a pagan idol (pages 9 and 10). How apt for a moon-goddess. It’s important to see Annie as symbolic of a goddess, especially the Moon-goddess. For, just as the goddess that Robert Graves wrote about inspired his poetry (as Graves said, “My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse…and that this remains the language of true poetry” pages 9-10), Annie, in her own perverse way, will inspire Sheldon to write.

Of course, her inspiration is a bad one, right from when she finds him injured in his car. Recall that inspire is derived from the Latin inspīrāre, “to breathe upon or into.” Recall how Annie breathes her halitosis into Sheldon’s mouth, which he experiences as a kind of rape. (pages 5, 6, and 7)

He is “raped back into life” (page 7), which perfectly expresses the dual nature of his relationship with her: she saves his life, yet she abuses him as well. She takes care of him, yet she tortures him. Like that lunar-influenced tide that goes up and down, she both relieves and causes his suffering.

This duality is inherent to Annie’s personality: she presents a False Self of wholesome, Christian goodness to the world, but underneath, her True Self is narcissistic, sociopathic, and emotionally dysregulated. We typically hear her use ridiculously childish euphemisms (“cock-a-doodie,” etc.), but occasionally, actual swear-words come out of her mouth, too. It has been suspected that she has bipolar disorder, her manic ups and depressive downs being symbolized by the crests and troughs of her lunar influence on the tide.

Just as Annie presents a false version of herself to the world, so does she love reading fiction that presents a false, fantasy version of the world: romance novels, Sheldon’s in particular, of course. And when he presents her with his down-to-earth, realistic view of the world in Fast Cars (or the untitled manuscript of the movie), with the coarse language of slum kids, she hates it. She hates the reality, the truth, that his new book expresses.

And this lunatic woman controls whether he feels pain or comfort. “She kept the capsules. The capsules in her hand were the tide. She was the moon, and she had brought the tide which would cover the pilings.” (page 24) Recall that the rising tide that covers up the pilings doesn’t make then non-existent–it just makes them invisible. Just as her escape from reality in reading his books doesn’t erase her pain, the dope she gives him doesn’t heal his legs–it just make their fragmentation seem unnoticeable. His novels make her forget her pain; her Novril makes him forget his.

Just as she’s breathed life into Sheldon…as God did to Adam, and he “became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7)…so does Sheldon “breathe life into her [Misery Chastain, with whom Annie identifies and sympathizes].” (page 26) Annie, the Moon-goddess, inspires him, and he inspires her with his Misery books.

Annie and Sheldon are the two characters who, in her lonely house in snowy Colorado, make up the great majority of the story. All the other characters are mere details who only briefly have their appearances. The whole novel is about the dyadic, one-on-one relationship between Annie and Sheldon.

This is a relationship cut off from the rest of society, what Lacan would have called the Imaginary. Annie and Sheldon look at each other’s faces as if looking into a metaphorical mirror. Being Sheldon’s “number one fan,” Annie idealizes him as this brilliant, god-like author (recall how he can “breathe life into [Misery]”). She is the Moon-goddess to him, and he is her god. The idealizing is mirror-like in its mutuality.

We must be careful to qualify this mutual idealizing, though. She idealizes him, but he, of course, far from willingly idealizes her, for this Moon-goddess, as we know, is an evil one. He is merely dependent on her, as a baby is on his mother. His ‘religious devotion’ to her is based on fear and need, not love. She’s his ideal only in the sense that she relieves his pain, and is the only one who will do it.

This idealization must be understood in a dialectical sense, for the shadow of hate always accompanies the light of love. Just as a baby loves what Melanie Klein called the good mother and the good breast for nourishing him, and he hates the bad mother and bad breast for failing to nourish him and for frustrating his desires, so is Sheldon split in his feelings about Annie when she feeds and cares for him, and when she neglects and abuses him.

She experiences similar splitting in her attitude towards him when he succeeds at living up to her expectations as his ideal, or fails to do so. This splitting, or black-and-white thinking, is a common trait in people with borderline personality disorder, a comorbidity presumed to be part of Annie’s personality.

Splitting is also a manifestation of the duality theme in this novel: when the tide is up, and the pilings are submerged thanks to the Novril, Annie is the good mother; when the tide is down, and Sheldon is in agonizing, piling pain because she neglects to give him his dope, she’s the bad mother. The same ups and downs can be seen whenever he pleases or displeases her. Dialectical opposites.

A number of references are made to Annie as a kind of mother figure to Sheldon, all in the split, love/hate attitude, “with that same mixture of sternness and maternal love” (page 31) we expect to see in her.

In chapter 17 of Part I, when she’s about to make him burn the Fast Cars manuscript, he calls her “the devil,” that is, she’s the bad mother. Annie retorts with “Oh yes! Yes! That’s what a child thinks when mommy comes into the kitchen and sees him playing with the cleaning fluid from under the sink. He doesn’t say it that way, of course, because he doesn’t have your education. He just says, ‘Mommy, you’re mean!'” (page 57)

Earlier, when she has finished reading Misery’s Child and realizes Sheldon has killed off her beloved heroine, she goes through a similar flip-flop of splitting by saying, “I thought you were good, but you are not good. You are just a lying old dirty birdie.” (page 46) In the film, her temper tantrum over his killing off of Misery is fittingly preceded by a shot of the full moon just outside her house.

Just as she is the Moon-goddess for him, sometimes good (feeding him, nursing him back to health, giving him Novril), and sometimes bad (obviously), so is he “God” for her, sometimes good (in his Creation of the world of Misery that she loves), and sometimes bad (in killing off Chastain). As she says to him, “God takes us when He thinks it’s time and a writer is God to the people in a story, he made them up just like God made us up and no one can get hold of God to make him explain, all right, okay, but as far as Misery goes I’ll tell you one thing you dirty bird, I’ll tell you that God just happens to have a couple of broken legs and God just happens to be in MY house eating MY food…” (page 46).

In this world, the pagan Moon-goddess is more powerful than God, for Sheldon, in his helpless convalescence, needs her as a baby needs his mother. And nobody knows this better than Sheldon himself, to his “Misery Chastain[-like]…chagrin” (page 73, my emphasis). He may be “Paul Sheldon, the literary Zeus from whose brow sprang Misery Chastain,” but Annie is the Moon-goddess on whom he depends, she whose self-control and kindness waxes and wanes.

This lunar…and lunatic…waxing and waning of goodness in Annie is typical of the cyclical nature of the abusive relationship. The provocations and tension rise between the abuser and the victim until an explosion occurs, then a fake apology is given, then there’s a ‘honeymoon‘ (interesting word-choice) of brief kindness to the victim, then the abuse begins again, creeping in insidiously with small, growing provocations. The effect this cyclical abuse has on the victim is to establish traumatic bonding: one hates and fears the abuser, but one cannot live without him or her.

Another crucial aspect of this emotional abuse is Annie’s use of projection and gaslighting, the former symbolized early on in the novel through her breathing in Sheldon’s mouth to resuscitate him. Her bad breath going into his mouth feels like a kind of oral rape, as described above: in this act, she is symbolically projecting her badness into him.

As for the gaslighting, since this exhaled projection has been accomplished, she can easily blame the victim for her temper tantrums over the profanity in Fast Cars (“Look what you made me do!” page 29, when her agitated outburst makes her spill a bowl of beef soup on Sheldon’s bedspread, then throw the bowl into the corner of the room, breaking it and splashing soup on the wall.)

She continues to blame him for the mess she’s made in the following chapter on page 30. She tortures him by not giving him his medication until she’s finished cleaning up the mess. It’s safe to assume she’s calmed down by now, but her sadism is at its height, given the agonizing pain he’s in. “The tide went out. The pilings were back.” (page 30) “He began to cry soundlessly. The tide had never gone out so far” (page 31).

And when she finally gives him his three capsules of Novril, she makes him drink them down with the dirty water from the bucket she’s used to clean up the mess: “…he saw her lifting the yellow plastic floor-bucket toward him. It filled his field of vision like a falling moon.” (page 32)

After promising never to make her mad again (“Anger the moon which brought the tide? What an idea! What a bad idea!” –page 33), she kisses him on the cheek and tells him she loves him. Nasty waxes back into ‘nice.’

While Annie is associated with the moon, she also represents all of his fans, who want him to keep churning out Misery novels. Recall that fan is short for fanatic, an overzealous religious extremist, for example. Annie, who is worshipped as a lunar deity, is also a lunatic worshipper of Sheldon’s deity. That she’s his “number one fan” just makes her all the more fanatical…just like those other women readers of Sheldon’s work, each of whom also claims to be his number one fan (page 36), protesting whenever he takes a break from Misery to write something else.

Here we come against the tension between the wish for artistic freedom vs. the unending demand to satisfy the customer to make more money. This problem is fuelled by the profit motive. The author writes not to fulfill his or her urge to be artistically expressive, but merely to make money to survive.

That Annie bullies him into resurrecting Misery Chastain with the writing of Misery’s Return is symbolic of this capitalist coercion. Sheldon is Scheherazade, desperately fighting to keep himself alive by telling stories. The capitalist commodification of labour forces all workers to sell their labour, to sell themselves, rather like prostitutes, to have money to stay alive. There’s no voluntary choice being made, in spite of the nonsense we hear from right-wing libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists: we workers provide a commodity or service, or we get thrown out in the street, starve, and die.

So we see this two-way, mutual idolizing going on. Annie worships the god in Sheldon as his number one fan, and he worships her lunar, tide-controlling deity to relieve his suffering. But she, as a pagan goddess, requires sacrifices from her devotees; and the sacrifice he’ll have to make is his manuscript of Fast Cars. (pages 54-55) “So he burned his book” (page 60).

This is the first part of her stifling of his artistic freedom; the second part, of course, is reviving Misery. He has to go back to churning out product like an assembly-line worker.

She gives him a Royal electric typewriter (page 76). Just looking at the thing is giving him bad feelings. “The Royal grinned at him, promising trouble.” (page 78) The banked semicircle of keys seem like teeth in an eerie grin. What’s more, he notices “a missing n.” (page 77) The missing n, in the context of the typewriter keys’ smile, looks like a grin with a missing tooth.

The “missing tooth” might remind us of that of Trelkovsky in The Tenant, which I interpreted in my analysis of that film as symbolic of castration, a symbol in itself of any bodily mutilation, or of any lack, which gives rise to desire. Sheldon has experienced the lack of his burned manuscript, and the missing n, one of the most commonly used letters, is symbolic of his lack of freedom to write as he wishes, a restriction of his artistic expression. Annie’s abuse is symbolically a castration of him.

This symbolic castration is carried further when she hobbles him as ‘punishment’ for secretly leaving his room. Recall that in the film, she uses that huge sledgehammer to break his feet at the ankles; but in the novel, she hacks off his left foot with an axe (page 279), and cuts off his thumb with an electric knife.

That the loss of the typewriter’s “teeth” (in the novel, not just the n of the film, but also the e [page 292] and the t [page 285]) and the hacking off of his foot and thumb are symbolic of castration is not just some indulgence on my part. King himself makes such associations in the narrative by juxtaposing them all.

“Sitting here in front of this typewriter with its increasingly bad teeth…he supposed he had been his own Scheherazade, just as he was his own dream-woman when he grabbed hold of himself and jacked off to the feverish beat of his fantasies. He didn’t need a psychiatrist to point out that writing had its autoerotic side–you just beat a typewriter instead of your meat” (pages 302-303).

A little later, Sheldon muses about “…the loss of his thumb. It was horrible, but…think how much worse it could have been.” (page 303)

“It could have been his penis, for instance…he began to laugh wildly…in front of the hateful Royal with its gaptoothed grin. He laughed until his gut and stump both ached.” (page 304)

The hobbling is related to restrictions on his artistic freedom (symbolized by the freedom to move around–to think of ideas to write, Sheldon used to take walks!…pages 153, 154, 155), capitalist restrictions on freedom (i.e, wage slavery). Recall when Annie mentions how the British at the Kimberly diamond mines hobbled native workers (which is historically apocryphal) so they’d continue working without being able to steal diamonds or run away. (pages 276-277)

She restricts his freedom to write anything other than her philistine Misery books, yet she so fails to see the production of such books as a business that she imagines “the talent God gave [him]” to write such books as the opposite of a business (page 94). It’s offensive to her to think of his writing as a business.

One interesting aspect of the story, developed far more in the novel–of course–than in the movie, is how we see the writing process in operation. Sections of the novel give us scenes from Misery’s Return presented with a type font different from that of the Sheldon/Annie narrative, with the missing ns (and later, the missing ts and es) filled in. All of these letters are among the most commonly used, so again, their lack–with the need to write them in–symbolizes Sheldon’s decreasing ability to express himself freely.

Things degenerate to the point where, his writing hand swollen and painful (page 380), some of the final pages of Misery’s Return must be hastily hand-written (pages 363-364) to finish it before the increasingly inquisitive police catch up with what Annie has been doing and arrest her (She’s planned a murder/suicide for herself and Sheldon to escape the shame of the arrest).

The ironic thing about her coercing of him to write a novel he doesn’t want to write is that he eventually comes to regard this new novel as his best work…at least, of the Misery novels (page 253). Her pushing him to rewrite how it is that Misery Chastain survives the death she’s supposed to have suffered in Misery’s Child, to make it more believable, is a case in point. In this sense, Annie is being Robert Graves’s Moon-goddess after all, inspiring Sheldon to write better.

All of this good inspiration must be qualified, however. Perhaps Misery’s Return is Sheldon’s best writing yet…from a technical standpoint. It’s ‘the best’ in the sense that it is a hugely entertaining story that will delight his fans (after all, unlike in the film, in which he burns the manuscript to spite Annie, in the novel, he hides it, burning only a decoy of it, and takes it out of her house to publish it later).

Still, as commercially successful as Misery’s Return will undoubtedly be, it’s still the same philistine schlock that he finds so artistically unsatisfying. Sheldon’s regarding it as his best work is, I suspect, more of Annie’s gaslighting, traumatizing influence on him.

Now, Sheldon has his book, and Annie has hers–her scrapbook, in which she keeps newspaper clippings of all the events in her life that she deems significant. Apart from such mundane things as the announcement of her birth, her graduation from nursing school, and her being made the new head maternity ward nurse in a hospital, a disturbing theme runs throughout these clippings: death.

“FIVE DIE IN APARTMENT HOUSE FIRE” (page 229); “two copies of [Annie’s] father’s obituary” (page 231); USC STUDENT DIES IN FREAK FALL” (page 231); and so many others like these. Sheldon, as he’s flipping through the scrapbook and surmising that she has killed all these people, muses: “This is Annie’s Book of the Dead, isn’t it?” (page 235)

Just as Annie’s maternalism is a cover for her sadism, the white of the moon and its dark side, her “maternal love and tenderness” and “the total solid blackness underlying it” (page 194), so is her nursing career a cover for the serial killer she really is, her true and false selves. As with her Christian posturing, her work as a nurse is just reaction formation, a professed concern for preserving life masking a contempt for it. “Keeping up appearances is very, very important.” (page 117)

Annie, like Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator, pretends to care about preserving and reviving life, but is really an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character, one excessively preoccupied with death. “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

Now Sheldon knows he’s Scheherazade, telling his Misery story to stay alive. He hates having to continue with this philistine fiction because, like Annie, he has his own narcissistic tendencies. He wants to write serious literature and be admired by the critics (pages 357-358); being a bestselling author of popular fiction–something most struggling writers (myself included) would dream of being–simply isn’t good enough for him. Both he and Annie, when looking at each other’s faces, are looking into narcissistic mirrors.

Yet he’s as addicted to writing the novel as he’s addicted to taking the Novril; writing is as much a pain-relieving, therapeutic activity as taking the pain-killing dope is.

Unlike in the film, in which the local sheriff, Buster (Farnsworth)–prompted by Sheldon’s agent, Marcia Sindell (Bacall), who in the novel is barely mentioned, except to be named Bryce (page 37)–is seen early on investigating Sheldon’s disappearance, it isn’t until late in the novel that police appear (page 316), disturbing Annie’s dyadic, one-on-one, mother/son-like relationship with Sheldon.

In his state of traumatic bonding and learned helplessness, Sheldon at first can’t scream to the cop for help (pages 320-321). When he finally does yell (pages 322-323), Annie kills the cop, then projects her guilt onto Sheldon (page 332): “You killed him. If you had kept your mouth shut, I would have sent him on his way.”

Narcissists typically defend their fragile egos from criticism by projecting and repressing the shameful parts of themselves. Annie knows the police will be back, so she hides Sheldon in her basement (page 337), a terrifying, dark place where the rats are. “Spiders down there, he thought. Mice down there. Rats down there.” (page 336) The basement represents her unconscious, where all of her ugliest, most repressed thoughts lie. “He had never been as close to her as he was then, as she carried him piggy-back down the steep stairs.” (page 337) He finds himself left in the dark realm of her madness. The police, who represent her superego, must never find him in that ugly place.

Her gaslighting of him is working. Sheldon may try to fight it off as best he can, but her projected guilt does get into him. “Did he believe that [he was responsible for the cop’s murder]? No, of course not. But there was still that strong, hurtful moment of guilt–like a quick stab-wound…The guilt stabbed quickly again and was gone.” (page 367)

Two more cops arrive, also representative of Annie’s superego. Sheldon, not knowing their names yet, calls them David and Goliath because of their relative sizes (page 366). Sheldon is out of the basement now, back in his room, so he can see the cops out from his window. He dares not yell; her control of him is absolute. His room is symbolically the preconscious, meaning he’s able to bring the truth to consciousness, to the public, but he won’t, because he’s being suppressed by her.

All these visitors, be they the cops, the taxman (“not a cop but someone IN AUTHORITY”–page 185), or “those brats” (page 376–the TV news, actually), represent the Other of society who are invading Annie’s dyadic, one-on-one world with Sheldon. All three of these groups of people are authorities of one kind or another–the news media are understood to be an ‘authority,’ of sorts, on what is happening in the world.

Such authorities are symbolically associated with Lacan’s notion of the nom, or Non! du père, the father who, as a third party, forcibly ends the dyadic mother/son relationship (the other) and brings his son out of the Oedipus complex and into the larger society (the Other). But in the mother/son role-play we see in Annie and Sheldon, it is she–not he–who doesn’t want to be pulled out of the dyadic relationship.

So instead of Sheldon having a transference of Oedipal feelings for Annie (he loathes and dreads her too much for that, of course), she, in her ‘love’ for him, is having a transference of the Jocasta complex. She won’t let go of her narcissistic monopoly on his life, the way a child who Oedipally desires one of his or her parents doesn’t want to give up hogging that parent all to him- or herself.

Annie is certainly childish enough in her narcissistic hogging of Sheldon, and in her temper tantrums and violence when she complains about the taxman, brutally kills the cop (projecting her guilt onto Sheldon), and projects her childishness onto “those [TV news] brats.” In her petulance, Annie is the Bourka Bee-Goddess, with her needle syringe stinger (pages 256-257).

This bad-tempered Bourka Bee-Goddess, with her sting, reminds us of wasp-like Katherina, who warns Petruchio to beware her sting. Of course, the only way Sheldon can tame his shrew is by killing her.

The trauma she has put him through, though, means he’s stuck with the memory of her in his head. He hasn’t been traumatized once, but many times, and in a predicament from which he’s felt he can’t escape. This is the essence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

After he’s been rescued by “David and Goliath,” and has been brought back into society–with a prosthetic foot (page 411)–Sheldon still can’t get Annie out of his head. At the end of the film, in a restaurant with Sindell, he has a brief hallucination that the approaching waitress is Annie. In the book, he imagines her leaping up from behind his sofa in his apartment. (pages 414-415)

This reliving of his trauma, an inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and the inability to put his trauma into words, is the essence of what Lacan called the Real. Because of this intense pain, Sheldon feels he can no longer write.

Eventually, though, he does get his writing Muse back. We see the beginnings of a new story typed in that different font (pages 419-420), but with no letters missing, because this is Sheldon writing for Sheldon, not Scheherazade writing for Annie.

He can express himself through language again, so he has escaped both the terror of the Real and the narcissism of the Imaginary, and reentered the expressive, healthy social world of the Symbolic.

His misery is over.

Stephen King, Misery, New York, Pocket Books, 1987

Analysis of ‘Pierrot Lunaire’

I: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Part One

Moondrunk

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

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

Colombine

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

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

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

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

The Dandy

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

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

Laundress Moon

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

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

Valse de Chopin

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

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

I sense that the moon is waning.

Madonna

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and recall–the moon is waning…

The Ailing Moon

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

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

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

And with this breakdown ends Part One.

III: Part Two

Night

The light of the moon is gone.

All is black.

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

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

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

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

Prayer

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

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

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

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

Loot

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

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

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

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

Red Mass

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

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

Song of the Gallows

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

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

Decapitation

The moon is waxing.

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

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

The Crosses

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

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

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

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

IV: Part Three

Nostalgia

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

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

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

Atrocity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parody

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon-fleck

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

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

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

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

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

Serenade

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

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

Journey Home

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

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

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

O Ancient Scent

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

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

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

V: Conclusion

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Re-Animator’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘The Maltese Falcon’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Network’

Network is a 1976 satirical black comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall; it costars Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, and Wesley Addy.

Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar, Dunaway won Best Actress, Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay, and Straight won Best Supporting Actress. Network is ranked #64 among the 100 greatest American films according to the AFI, and it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2005, Chayefsky’s script was voted by the two Writers Guilds of America one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of cinema.

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

The opening and closing credits remind one of those of 1970s TV shows. The narrator (Lee Richardson‘s voice) fittingly sounds like an anchorman.

The essential point to the satire in the film is how the news media is reflective of the profit motive. Lower ratings for a news program, or any other TV show, mean lower profits, and this can’t be tolerated.

Longstanding United Broadcasting Systems (UBS) anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) is to be fired because his ratings have gone unacceptably low. This, among other personal problems in his life, which have arisen over the past six years or so (the death of his wife in 1970, his alcoholism), has driven him to contemplate suicide. Here we see how, under capitalism, human life is less important than profit.

Beale announces his plan, on his last TV appearance, to “blow his brains out” on live TV, shocking everybody. He is pulled out of his chair while he angrily protests with foul language and even punching someone among the crew…behaviour that’s in satirical contrast with the stereotypically calm, unemotional anchorman (in fact, soon after this incident we see a number of anchormen on TV screens discussing this sensational breaking news with the usual calm objectivity).

His announcement of his plan to kill himself on live TV has also done something that hasn’t happened to him in years: it has raised his ratings. Again, death is often more profitable than life.

His friend and fellow TV veteran, UBS news division president Max Schumacher (Holden), cares about him and wants him to have a dignified last moment on the air. Schumacher is also infuriated that Frank Hackett (Duvall), who works for the Communications Corporation of America (CCA), has made him lose face during a speech to stockholders with the CCA and UBS, planning to take over his division without having consulted him. So Schumacher’s putting Beale back on the air, instead of firing him outright, is also meant as a big “go fuck himself” to Hackett (as Schumacher explicitly says).

Again on live TV, Beale carries his newfound notoriety further and says his reason for claiming he’s intended to kill himself is because he’s run “out of bullshit.” He keeps saying “bullshit” over and over again during the broadcast, shocking some and amusing others. UBS’s ratings soar, and now we go from capitalism favouring death over life, to capitalism favouring vulgarity over “respectable broadcasting.”

Indeed, Diana Christensen (Dunaway), the ambitious new head of the network’s programming department, is thrilled with how Beale’s capricious and eyebrow-raising antics are pulling UBS out of its ratings slump by, paradoxically, dumping it into the gutter, so to speak. She wants “angry shows” that will allow the common people to vent their frustrations–not out of any sympathy for their problems, of course, but out of a wish to exploit them to make more money for UBS.

This wish of the media’s to exploit public discontent is paralleled in today’s world, where people can share all the memes, videos, and newspaper articles they want on Facebook, Twitter, etc., content that exposes all the injustices of the world, and vent all the people’s anger at those injustices…

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

Social media is more than willing to allow us to vent our anger (violations of “community standards” notwithstanding, of course), for our continued use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. ensures the continued making of profits. Christensen would have UBS do the same thing with Beale.

She manages to convince Hackett to go along with her plans, since he sees things only in terms of dollars and cents. Schumacher, who doesn’t want to see his troubled friend exploited for profit, doesn’t agree with her. Be that as it may, though, he is charmed by her beauty, and flattered by her claim to have had a crush on him when he once lectured at the University of Missouri. The two of them will begin an affair.

His infatuation with her, a narcissistic woman driven only by ambition and caring little about people or human relationships, is allegorical of our infatuation with TV, pop culture, movies, and the media in general (and in today’s world, we can expand all of this to an obsession with our relationship with social media). As Schumacher himself says to her when he finally comes to his senses and ends their affair: she’s “television incarnate.”

One of Christensen’s angry, radical targets for exploitation is a far-left terrorist organization called the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA). She sets up a TV show for them called “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.” One member of the ELA, Laurene Hobbs (played by Marlene Warfield), who calls herself “a bad-ass commie nigger,” finds herself deeply invested in the financial success of the show, always harping on angrily about her “distribution charges.”

In this satirical take we can see how even once-dedicated Marxists can sell their souls to capitalism. Consider the individuals and governments that have compromised with the market or to imperialism. Consider the Che Guevara T-shirts sold, and the Marxist books sold by eager capitalists who couldn’t care less how many people get radicalized by them…as long as the sellers are making a lot of money. Christensen, like capitalism, poisons everything she touches.

To get back to Beale, we find him having what would seem to be divine inspiration…of course, he’s simply losing his mind when hearing voices in bed, but it’s amusing to entertain the thought that he’s gone from suicidal alcoholic to the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” who is “denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” In this way, we’re rather like mad King Lear who thought of Tom o’ Bedlam as a “noble philosopher.”

This merging of a news media man with a prophet is a satirical masterstroke for Chayefsky. The paradox of juxtaposing the lying corporate media with a ‘truth teller’ who has been ‘touched by God’ is coupled with the equivalency made between two messengers that are slavishly, uncritically followed by the masses.

This hilarious mixing of contradictory…and not-so-contradictory…elements is intensified and symbolized by Beale’s sudden fainting spells. When we first see him swoon, it’s brought on by extreme stress and his growing mental instability. Every time after that, as we see on “The Howard Beale Show,” it comes across as his divinely inspired ἐνθουσιασμός.

Before the show is set up, he’s already getting followers. Hackett and Christensen are thrilled, though Schumacher is trying to stop them from exploiting Beale. Hackett calls the mad anchorman’s rantings and ravings “a big-titted hit,” commodifying Beale as one would commodify the large breasts of a porn star. In this way, Hackett is demonstrating a character orientation that Erich Fromm called “the marketing character,” someone who uses people as commodities to profit from.

Fromm explains: “For the marketing character everything is transformed into a commodity–not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles. This character type is a historically new phenomenon because it is the product of a fully developed capitalism that is centered around the market–the commodity market, the labor market, and the personality market–and whose principle it is to make a profit by favorable exchange.” (Fromm, page 388)

Fromm elaborated on this elsewhere: “In the marketing orientation man encounters his own powers as commodities alienated from him…The way one experiences others is not different from the way one experiences oneself. Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they too do not present themselves but their salable part.” (Fromm, page 53) Hackett sees himself, as a slave and hatchet-man for CCA, as a commodity; he also sees Beale as a commodity.

Everyone is worried about where Beale is, since he has unaccountably wandered off in the rain, like a wild, inspired prophet. Schumacher is worried about his friend; Hackett and Christensen are worried about their ‘product.’

Finally, Beale shows up at UBS for his next live broadcast, soaked in rain and in a coat and his pyjamas. He looks in the camera and says the famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” This is his command to his followers, who are to shout it from their windows. Of course, people all over the US are shouting the line, and Christensen is thrilled that Beale is stirring up all this emotion.

Again, though, it’s just a meaningless channeling of popular rage; it achieves nothing but an improvement in UBS’s ratings. The “not gonna take this anymore” isn’t any more conducive to revolution than “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.”

The death of Edward Ruddy (played by William Prince), one of the old guard of UBS and someone sympathetic to Schumacher’s idea of how to run the news honestly, is the subject of Beale’s first appearance on his new show, a farce of TV commercialism including other shows of the ‘prophecy/fortune-telling’ theme that Christensen has concocted. His show begins with the studio audience chanting, like obedient automatons, Beale’s “mad as hell…” catchphrase.

What Beale has to say is, in all irony, utterly true: the replacement of Ruddy–and the decent, respectable journalism that he and Schumacher represent–by Hackett, Christensen, and their for-profit news as entertainment is an abomination and growing social evil, a prophecy we can see as very real in our media world today. Still, Beale’s audience is interested only in the spectacle he puts on, not the content of his message. This is an all-too-true observation of our experience of the media today.

Beale tells them that everything they see and hear on the TV is fake…a perfectly true judgement, but this truth doesn’t move his riveted audience one bit. They want to be amused, not informed. They want to be led by him, not to think for themselves. They listen to him not to be enlightened; they listen to him for the mere sake of listening to him.

So when he tells them, like a good prophet, to go to God, go to their guru, go to themselves…they’d rather just stay rapt watching him and not move a muscle without him. He tells them to turn off their TVs, as they of course should do, turn it off right in the middle of the sentence he’s speaking…but of course, they won’t.

He is the true and false prophet, all rolled into one.

His ecstatic fainting seems staged, but that’s OK with his audience.

So, why all of this hero worship of Beale, with the entertainment gained from watching his wild antics, without listening to his message or taking it seriously?

The psychological state of his followers can be described in terms of a combination of the ideas of Lacan and Kohut. The TV screen, on which Beale is seen, is a symbolic mirror for his viewers. In admiring “the grand old man of news,” his audience is transferring their idealized parental imago onto him. This one-on-one staring at the image on the screen thus puts them in the Imaginary Order.

Now, this transferred ideal parental imago is an internal object his audience has of their fathers; it’s also an ideal-I seen originally in the mirror reflection, but now moved onto the TV screen. So in worshipping Beale, his audience is actually projecting their unattainable ideal, the narcissistic version of themselves, onto him.

Such narcissistic projection onto TV celebrities is the satirical basis of Network. Instead of us communicating with each other, listening to the words of others and sharing our own words with them, we’d rather just gaze in awe at images on a TV screen (or, in today’s world, images on a phone or computer monitor). Instead of maturing and integrating with society and culture (the Symbolic Order), we’d rather have a one-on-one relationship with a face on a screen that only seems to be looking back at us like the specular image of a mirror–a regression back to the Imaginary.

Though Schumacher would protect his friend from Hackett’s and Christensen’s exploitation of him, and though he wants to preserve an ethical way of presenting the news, he is nonetheless infatuated with Christensen, the film’s beautiful personification of the charms of TV. Because she is “television incarnate,” his looking at her face is like looking at a TV screen with mesmerized eyes. He is as drawn to the allure of television, in a symbolic way, as Beale’s audience literally is to him.

Schumacher’s infatuation with Christensen has devastated his wife, Louise (Straight, whose brief scene expressing her hurt rage was all that was needed to win her an Oscar). We see, in the scene of his confession of his adultery to her, how the media destroys human relationships–a fake one-on-one relationship replaces real relationships.

So indeed, as good as Schumacher is, he too is lured into the seductive trap of the media. For even the best of us can be sucked into staring stupidly at a screen. Christensen’s beauty and charms are a narcissistic mirror of how he’d like to see himself. His relationship with her, therefore, parallels Beale’s relationship with his idolatrous audience.

Now, Beale starts out at the lowest of the low in his life, as an alcoholic widower facing the loss of his job and contemplating suicide. Then, it’s the very wild antics of his, those that were merely his reaction to his low point, that have pushed him over the edge of that low and raised him, paradoxically, to the top.

In a number of posts, I have compared the dialectical relationship between opposites to the head and tail of the ouroboros. In Network, Beale’s suicidal ideation is the serpent’s bitten tail; his meteoric rise to fame is a move from that tail to the serpent’s biting head.

Of course, Beale carries his newfound fame and influence too far for CCA’s comfort. On one show, he discusses a plan that the conglomerate has to allow an Arab takeover of it in exchange for some much-needed money. This time, his audience does listen to him, and they do his bidding to petition the US government to stop the Arab takeover. Hackett, Christensen, and especially, CCA head Arthur Jensen (Beatty) are most upset with Beale.

Beale is taken to meet Mr. Jensen, who curiously is dressed like a man from the late nineteenth century. One is thus reminded, by his choice of clothes, of the robber barons of the era.

He takes Beale into a large conference room, where all the CCA big brass make their decisions. He dims the lights for the right dramatic effect (the scene’s darkness also parallels Beale’s scene in bed when ‘divinely inspired’ for the first time). Then Jensen rebukes Beale for having “meddled with the primal forces of nature” (i.e., stopping the CCA deal with the Arabs).

Jensen gives a long speech about how, apparently, capitalism is the Guiding Force, the pantheistic Essence, of the entire cosmos. The universal Oneness of money pervades all, it would seem. There are no nations or peoples; there is only the global, cosmic market, which permeates every atom of existence.

This equating of capitalism with God is yet another satirical masterstroke of Chayefsky, for not only does it comment on the universal worship of the Almighty Dollar, paralleling our worship of TV, computer, and smartphone screens, and of the media in general, but it also prophesies the neoliberalism that was only nascent in the mid-1970s, and is ubiquitous and in full flower now…une fleur du mal. More than even that, it links the authoritarianism of religion with capital.

Everything that people were “as mad as hell” about in the early-to-mid 1970s–the bad economy, crime, etc.–can be connected to the oil crisis of 1973, which ended the prominence of the Keynesian economics of 1945-1973 and saw the beginning of the end of the welfare capitalism of the time. OAPEC brought about an oil embargo in response to the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a move that in turn raised the price of oil and caused the first of two oil shocks.

This move of OAPEC is why Beale doesn’t want the Arabs to take over CCA and UBS. Jensen will not, however, have Beale stand in the way of fulfilling the neoliberal prophecy. In fact, he’d have Beale evangelize it on his TV show.

Jensen is now the new god inspiring Beale, it would seem.

Fittingly, when Beale does his next show, instead of giving rousing speeches that galvanize his followers, he talks about the gradual decline of Western democracy. Our lives, he says, will become increasingly meaningless and valueless.

Now, such a prophecy, starting in the mid-1970s and continuing until now, in the 2020s, has been perfectly accurate. First, there was Reagan’s union-busting in the early 1980s. Then, his and Thatcher’s deregulating and tax cuts for the rich allowed millionaires to become billionaires who could control the government all the better.

Next, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc (recall Beale’s prophecy that communism is finished even as of the 1970s), along with the reintroduction of the market in China and Vietnam in the 1980s, meant the Western governments no longer needed to provide welfare capitalism to appease the working class and stave off socialist revolution. The imperialist capitalist class could do anything to anybody, and with impunity. (Indeed, as Beale says, the US is as strong as ever, and will continue to be.)

Hence, Clinton’s gutting of welfare in the mid-1990s, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the allowing of mergers and acquisitions in the American media (aptly prophesied in Network, in CCA’s takeover of UBS), and the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo in 1999. The Patriot Act, as part of the global “war on terror,” would continue to erode Americans’ democratic freedoms, and would be re-authorized by Obama, with the NSA surveillance of emails and smartphone messages that was exposed by Snowden.

Assange‘s Wikileaks exposure of American military abuses in Iraq (via Chelsea Manning) has unleashed the wrath of the Western political establishment, and his shameful incarceration and persecution have jeopardized the future of journalistic freedom. Now, thanks to the not-so-benign agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, fear of a disease with a survival rate of about 99% has goaded people into taking dubious, hastily-produced vaccines.

Beale is right: we’ve lost a huge amount of democratic freedom thanks to the rise of neoliberalism, and our lives have become meaningless and valueless. It’s the truth, but it’s a depressing truth. Accordingly, the ratings for “The Howard Beale Show” are dropping. Naturally, CCA wants to get rid of Beale, but because Jensen likes the message Beale is preaching, he wants him to stay on the air in spite of the drop in profits. Hackett, Christensen, et al thus decide to have Beale assassinated on his show by members of the ELA.

Beale, thus, has come full circle: he has gone from wanting to kill himself over poor ratings to being killed by others over poor ratings. He has gone from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, then down the serpent’s coiled length (which symbolizes a circular continuum between the extremes) back to the tail.

It is fitting that the film ends with TV screens showing not only his bloodied body, but also commercials like the classic, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Life Cereal ad. Beale is as much a commodity as a cereal is.

Network is more than a film. It is a prophecy of our times.