Analysis of ‘Gaslight’

Gaslight is a 1944 thriller film starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, and co-starring Angela Lansbury and Dame May Whitty. It was directed by George Cukor, and based on the 1938 stage play Gas Light, written by Patrick Hamilton. Another movie version was done in 1940, adhering more closely to the original play; but when MGM did the 1944 remake so soon after this first film, they wanted to have all existing prints of it destroyed. Fortunately, the original film wasn’t ever destroyed, but this 1944 version still eclipsed it.

Bergman won her first Academy Award for Best Actress with this movie, while Boyer was nominated for Best Actor, and Angela Lansbury was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, and it won Best Art Direction. The film got a total of seven Oscar nominations.

It is from this film that the term ‘gaslighting‘ originated, for the villain, Gregory Anton (Boyer), uses this very tactic–tricking his wife, Paula (Bergman), into doubting her own perception, memory, and sanity by staging bizarre scenarios for her–in an elaborate scheme to drive her mad, have her committed to an insane asylum, then take possession of her old London house, originally owned by her aunt, Alice Alquist, whom he murdered years before.

Normally, emotional abuse is used on a victim for the purpose of having power and control over him or her; but Gregory, or Sergius Bauer, to use his real name, only wants to get rid of Paula so he can freely search about that old house, to find the coveted items he killed Alquist to steal–her jewels.

In one scene, he speaks of his great lust for precious jewels (about a half-hour into the movie). In another scene, we see him in the attic, searching furiously for those jewels, using a knife to hack through the cushion of the back of an old chair in a desperate hope to find them (about an hour and a half into the movie). This ruthless searching for treasure, violating other people’s property in the process, reminds us of the plunder of the Third World for resources, diamonds, etc., by Western imperialists. Remember that, just as an emotional abuser often controls his victim’s finances, imperialism deliberately stifles the economic growth of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Since Patrick Hamilton had communist sympathies, especially in the late 1930s, when he wrote Gas Light, I feel at least some justification in making a leftist allegory out of this movie.

Gregory, who–as I see it–represents bourgeois imperialism, tricks Paula, who represents both the proletariat and those ‘brutal dictators’ that imperialism wants to remove, into thinking she is a forgetful kleptomaniac. He does this by deliberately moving items when she isn’t looking, then claiming she took them and forgot she had. He reveals her ‘forgotten thefts’ with a cruel frown, causing her to be frightened and hysterical.

When he leaves her alone in the house, ostensibly to go out somewhere and work on composing classical music, but actually to sneak up into the attic from the back to search for the jewels, she notices the gaslight dimming in the rooms. This frightens her, for she has no idea who is causing it to dim. The servants honestly deny any knowledge of the gaslight dimming (just as the average worker doesn’t know of the ruling class’s tricks), and Gregory pretends not to know either; for it is he who is dimming it–hence the term ‘gaslighting’.

Always claiming Paula is ill, Gregory never lets her out of the house to be sociable, like a typical emotional abuser. (Symbolically, this isolation is also like how imperialism economically isolates such countries as Cuba by imposing embargoes on them, to bring an end to the regimes of those ‘brutal dictators’.) The servants believe she’s ill, too, and are cool towards her, upsetting her all the more. Of course, it is Gregory who has made the servants believe she’s ill, through triangulation; just as the corporate mainstream media tricks us into thinking ‘brutal dictators’ like Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, et al, are madmen who must be removed from power.

By the climax of the film, Paula has been manipulated so thoroughly that she plods about, eyes half shut, as if she’s half-asleep, just like the average Western citizen, brainwashed and distracted by media nonsense. She believes her mind is going, that all she sees and hears is just a dream, as her cruel husband has convinced her.

I have elsewhere gone into detail about the nature and effects of emotional abuse, as well as about narcissism; hence my political interpretation of this film, instead of just elaborating on psychological abuse again. I feel a political interpretation is useful and necessary, because I see political gaslighting going on everywhere, all the time.

The media tricks Americans, for example, into thinking that one political party is evil, while the other is good, or at least has the potential for good, once the ‘good’ political party has been cleansed of corruption; when in reality, both political parties are working for the plutocrats, as are the media.

We are tricked into forgetting the imperialist crimes of previous years and decades, and even made to think that the Western imperialists are among the victims, rather than the victimizers. Here we see the microcosm of the narcissist, seeing himself as the victim and projecting his guilt outward, expanded into the macrocosm of the imperialists, who blame Muslims for terrorism instead of taking responsibility for US or NATO bombings of, or proxy wars in, places like Libya, Syria, Kosovo, or Iraq. Like Gregory, capitalists are murderers.

Gregory accuses Paula of stealing and forgetting her thefts, when in fact he is the thief (and a murderer). Similarly, the capitalist class excoriates socialists and social democrats for ‘stealing’ the money of the wealthy (through progressive income taxes), when in fact it’s the capitalists who originally stole from the workers (by overworking and underpaying them). Furthermore, the Western media has propagandized against socialist states like the USSR, calling them ‘totalitarian dictatorships’, when currently America has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, and polls have consistently shown that a majority of Russians prefer the USSR to their current state of affairs. All of this media deception can be called political gaslighting.

Gregory leaves Paula alone, and the gaslight dims, frightening her; then he denies this dimming. This is symbolic of capitalism’s alienating of workers, leaving them in a darkness of misery, then denying that the capitalist system is responsible for these problems. The servants go along with Gregory’s thinking, just as so many workers, police officers, and soldiers refuse to resist the system.

Scotland Yard Inspector Brian Cameron (Cotten), who revives the case of Paula’s murdered aunt, Alice Alquist, after the police have considered it unsolvable, admired Alquist’s singing; this admiration arouses his empathy for Paula, and he puts the pieces together and saves her. Now he is a policeman, and therefore an unlikely hero in any anti-capitalist allegory; but because he’s the only inspector among the British police still interested in this case, out of his empathy for Paula, his authority can be seen to represent one other than that of the establishment; in other words, instead of being seen as representing a policeman for the bourgeoisie, Cameron can be seen allegorically as a member of the militsiya. (Furthermore, in the 1940 film version, there’s a scene in which the inspector–originally named Rough–invites a group of poor street urchins into a pastry shop to buy them something to eat [about 21 minutes or so into the film], suggesting his sympathy for the poor. Recall in this context Hamilton’s communist sympathies around the time of the writing of his play.) His fighting with and subduing of Gregory can thus represent the vanguard of a revolution against the imperialist bourgeoisie.

I admit that my allegorizing here isn’t as smooth as that of my previous analyses, but I feel it’s necessary to make a link between gaslighting in relationships and that of politics; for I see the latter as an extension of the former, an extension that mustn’t be overlooked. Now, if my emphasis on contemporary imperialism seems odd when allegorizing a story written so many decades earlier, consider how much older capitalist imperialism really is: equally disturbing examples of it can be seen in Churchill’s disparaging of Muslims and the Indians he allowed to starve to death in the Bengal Famine; or in the late Victorian Holocausts of the late 19th century.

Emotional abuse in families, extending to other relationships, is a lot more common than most people realize. In the US, it has been found to be almost universal. America is a country where authoritarianism, disguising itself as ‘liberty‘ (check out the gaslighting there!), is also rampant; religious fundamentalism, an intrusive state, mass incarceration, police brutality, and neoliberal capitalism being the most notable manifestations. It isn’t a wide leap of logic to go from American dysfunctional families to this authoritarianism, then to imperialism: it’s all about power imbalances.

A useful link between family abuse and the authoritarian political establishment, given from the perspective of a prickly American cop, is in this disturbing video (a scene from the TV series Southland), in which a truant pre-teen boy with a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ attitude is lectured that “discipline is not child abuse”–this after his mother has hit him with a belt two or three times for truancy. To some, this may seem like a mild punishment in itself, but many families have wildly different interpretations of what ‘mild punishment’ is, especially as regards hitting a boy with a belt. Consider the end of this scene in Goodfellas, again, ‘punishment’ for truancy.

The point is that there is always a ’cause’ for the abuser to fly off the handle and assault the victim either verbally, physically, or even sexually. This ’cause’ does not justify an abusive reaction, which is then minimized as “discipline” or ‘punishment’.

Similarly, and by extension, Western imperialists always have ’causes’ for their bombings of other countries, typically vilifying the leaders of those countries by calling them ‘brutal dictators’. To be sure, the dictators of the world have more than their share of flaws; but for the West to be judging them, given all the corruption that favours the rich and powerful in the West, is really the pot calling the kettle black. The corporate-owned media, ever in the service of imperialism, engages in gaslighting by giving us biased accounts of what is happening in, for example, Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now Russia, so we will see the bombings as ‘humanitarian’, a truly obscene series of lies.

Once the bombing campaign is over and the victimized country is subjugated (if not more or less destroyed), the ‘brutal dictator’ is removed or killed, and the imperialists take over, just as Gregory tries to remove Paula, then take ownership of her home so he can finally search freely for the jewels, which could be seen to represent the oil and other resources of the conquered countries.

Remember how Iraq was regarded sympathetically by America during the Iran/Iraq War, then the US turned on Saddam Hussein in the 1990s? Or how Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen had the sympathy of the US when repelling the USSR from Afghanistan (we all know what happened after that)? Remember how the West briefly warmed up to Gaddafi during the 2000s…then in 2011…? Or how Syria was an intermittent ally until the 2010s? Gregory’s attitude to Paula can be seen to symbolize this kind of political relationship. At first, the victims have their uses; then they’re devalued and discarded.

In order to solve the problems of political oppression around the world, we must first solve the problems of our own social relations. This must begin with the family, the foundation of all social relations.

To optimize family relations, parents must be as sensitive as they can to the emotional development of their children, starting right from the first months of infancy. Attachment theory explains the different ways a child learns how to connect with primary caregivers, then with other people; this includes unhealthy forms of attachment. When these forms of attachment are unhealthy, the child grows up with these bad object relations, which become the blueprint for all future relationships.

This leaves such a person vulnerable to the schemes of psychopaths like Gregory. Paula’s childhood trauma, of having seen the dead body of her strangled aunt, would represent the kind of ruptured attachment, or bad object relation, that has led to her being susceptible to the charms of Gregory, who idealized her during their courtship, devalued her during their married life in London, and almost discarded her into a mental institution, but for the intervention of Inspector Cameron.

Just as we must be warned of the idealize/devalue/discard tactics of psychopaths, sociopaths, or narcissists, we must also do the necessary healing work if we’ve already been traumatized by them, be they our ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, ex-wives, or bullying parents. The healing work includes learning about toxic people, engaging in self-care and self-compassion, meditation, cathartic writing about one’s own problems, and joining communities (including online ones) of other survivors, to give them support as well as receive it from them.

When the needed emotional health is either established, through good parenting (not ‘perfect’ parenting, but the good enough parenting that DW Winnicott advocated), maintained, by being wary of the fake idealizing of potential toxic boyfriends or girlfriends, or restored after surviving an ordeal of emotional abuse, then people can organize into communities, and develop the solidarity needed to combat the greatest emotional abusers of them all–the capitalist class and their stooge governments, their political flying monkeys.

As for the Cluster B individuals themselves, psychiatrists must work tirelessly to discover a cure for each of those pathologies, whether those pathologies be genetically basedphysiologically based, or caused by trauma.

We as a people need to learn what love really is: not just a pretty-sounding word, not empty sentimentality, but a genuine connection between people, a connection brought about not by stern moralizing or authoritarian forms of religion, but by empathy…the empathy Inspector Cameron felt for Paula, because of how she reminded him of her aunt.

Only through empathy can we hope to build a better world, one in which bosses don’t rule over workers by overworking and underpaying them, and by gaslighting them into thinking they are worthless if they can’t help bosses make a profit; a world where all racial, ethnic and religious groups are treated as equals, and gaslighting isn’t used to make people equate blacks with criminals or Muslims with terrorists; where the sexes are regarded as equals, and gaslighting isn’t used to make women feel worthless if they don’t provide pleasure, or to make men feel worthless if they don’t provide money; where LGBT people are given dignity, and gaslighting isn’t used to make them seem perverted.

To fix the world, we must start with the family, the foundation of society.

Analysis of ‘The Shining’

The Shining is a supernatural horror novel written by Stephen King and published in 1977. It was his third published novel, after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. It was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980; and while the initial critical response to the film was mixed (with King especially disliking how Kubrick changed huge portions of the story), it is now considered one of the best horror movies ever made. King had a well-received made-for-TV miniseries version done in 1997, one that, naturally, was much more faithful to his novel.

His novel is a classic in the horror genre, and while his and Kubrick’s visions of the story differ so vastly, I find enough thematic material common to both that I will cite both versions in my analysis to make my point. These themes include the self-destructiveness of alcoholism, family abuse, the return of repressed bad internal object relations, repetition compulsion, and the death drive.

Though analyses of the themes in Kubrick’s film (the white man’s oppression of Native Americans, etc.) are well worth exploring, since they have already been looked into, I won’t be exploring them.

Jack Torrance has accepted a job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel; and just as the hotel has a dark history, so does Jack. A former drinker and teacher, he has been on the wagon for fourteen months (in Kubrick’s film, five months) after having not only hit a student, George Hatfield (and lost his teaching job for it, ‘Up On the Roof’, pages 162-170), but also injured his own son, Danny (pages 23-25, ‘Watson’).

Ghosts inhabit the Overlook, which not only overlooks a beautiful mountain view in the Colorado Rockies, but also ‘overlooks’ (ignores, or doesn’t take responsibility for) the crimes that have been committed there. Jack’s connection with the Overlook–more and more complete as he goes mad in his attachment to the place, trying to ensure that he and his family never leave–shows how he is at one with the hotel. He has “always been the caretaker” (page 532, ‘Conversations At the Party’). The physical building represents his mind, with the boiler in the basement needing to be checked (to relieve the pressure) twice a day and once at night, for it symbolizes the death drive of his unconscious. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of ideas at the beginning of chapter 3, ‘Watson’, on page 22:

You lost your temper, Ullman had said.

‘”OK, here’s your furnace,” Watson said, turning on a light in the dark, musty-smelling room…Boiler’s on the other side of the wall. I’ll take you around.”‘

Jack’s anger and the furnace are mentioned side by side because they, and the boiler, are all one and the same thing. On the next few pages, Jack remembers injuring Danny for messing up his writing papers.

We learn through the course of the novel that Jack’s father had been abusive to him and his mother (‘Dreamland’, pages 335-338). Being abusive to Danny would be ‘normal’ to Jack, since his own dad’s abuse of him seemed normal: “In those days it had not seemed strange to Jack that the father won all his arguments with his children by use of his fists, and it had not seemed strange that his own love should go hand-in-hand with his fear…” (page 335). Similarly, his wife, Wendy, had a bad relationship with her mother. These bad object relations would haunt Jack and Wendy like ghosts…just as the ghosts of the Overlook will.

Wendy herself contemplates how the ghosts of her mother and Jack’s father could be among those in the hotel, when she thinks of Danny’s trauma: “(Oh we are wrecking this boy. It’s not just Jack, it’s me too, and maybe it’s not even just us, Jack’s father, my mother, are they here too? Sure, why not? The place is lousy with ghosts anyway, why not a couple more?…Oh Danny I’m so sorry).” (‘On the Stairs’, pages 491-492)

The isolation of the hotel, on a snowy mountain during a bitter winter, symbolizes the kind of social disconnect that often leads to problems like alcoholism and family abuse. In direct contrast, Danny’s psychic gift, the “shining”, as fellow shiner Dick Hallorann and his grandmother call it (‘The Shining’, page 117), connects him with people, and with the future, in an enhanced way. Jack and Wendy cannot contact the outside world (because Jack has destroyed the CB radio [‘Dreamland’, page 342], just as he’s ensured they can’t ride away in the snowmobile–‘The Snowmobile’, page 426), but Danny can “shine” all the way from Colorado to Florida to tell Hallorann of the threat to his family’s life.

The ghosts of the Overlook represent the ghosts of Jack’s past (and Wendy’s, to a lesser extent); but Danny, explicitly as such in Stephen King’s miniseries, points to the future, since “Tony” is actually Danny as a young adult (“Daniel Anthony Torrance”, page 639), advising his younger self to beware the dangers of the hotel (‘Shadowland’, pages 37-50). Thus, Tony is really Danny being a friend to himself, a form of self-compassion that can help victims of abuse to heal.

Redrum, or murder spelled backwards, represents not only the destructiveness of alcoholism–red rum, as red as blood–but also the destructiveness of looking backwards into the past, and letting internalized bad objects continue to dominate you, or letting bad old habits resurface and be compulsively repeated.

This brings me to my next point, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Up until the horrors of World War I, he saw instinctual drives as geared exclusively towards pleasure, libido. The destruction of that war (Freud, page 281) compelled him to revise his theories and acknowledge a death instinct, what his followers would call Thanatos, which is opposed to Eros, the will to live. He now admitted that dreams aren’t always the fulfillment of wishes (Freud, page 304).

Sometimes his patients would compulsively repeat actions that seemed meaningless or without a clearly pleasurable aim, such a when an infant boy threw out a toy and reeled it back, perhaps to master the sensation of loss, as when his mother wasn’t with him (Freud, pages 284-285). Similarly, Freud treated traumatized veterans who repeated irrational acts in the form of flashbacks, traumatic dreams (Freud, page 282), and the reliving of battlefield events.

Jack’s inability to control his anger and compulsive drinking are manifestations of this death instinct and its compulsion to repeat. He was destructive and drinking before, and he will be destructive and drinking again.

The topiary animals make for interesting symbolism. Normally, the presence of plants gives us a feeling of peace, of pleasure, especially when they have been shaped into aesthetically pleasing forms, like animals–how charming. Yet the Overlook’s topiary is of animals that move when you aren’t looking (‘In the Playground’, pages 311-314). By the time Hallorann returns to help Danny, the topiary lion attacks him (‘Hallorann Arrives’, pages 617-618). So what we have are plants that are superficially charming, yet bestial and frightening when one knows them better. And since they are the Overlook’s topiary, they are an extension of Jack’s personality: charming and sweet on the surface, his ego ideal, but inside…

Then there’s Danny’s frightening experience with the fire extinguisher hose, which seems to unravel all by itself (‘Outside 217’, pages 258-262). Again, seen in light of the idea that the hotel represents Jack’s mind, we see something that, on the surface, is meant to protect and ensure safety, as a father is supposed to do. Instead, the hose, a near phallic symbol, moves surreptitiously, slithering, suggestive of a snake.

Because the hotel represents Jack’s mind, the ghosts in turn represent his internal object relations. Delbert Grady could be seen to represent Jack’s internalized abusive father, since grey-haired Grady eggs Jack on to kill his own family, just as the voice of Jack’s father, heard on the CB radio, urges him to kill them (‘Dreamland’, page 341).

The ghosts want Danny for all his psychic powers, that ability to connect with others that Jack lacks. When Danny rejects the ghosts, they go after Jack. Thus the ghosts initially represent, in WRD Fairbairn‘s revising of Freud’s id, the libidinal ego in its relationship with the exciting object; then, when Danny has rejected the ghosts, they represent Fairbairn’s revising of the superego, the internal saboteur or anti-libidinal ego, with its turbulent relationship with the rejecting object (both objects being symbolized by Danny).

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you aren’t familiar with Fairbairn’s revision of Freud’s id/ego/superego conception of the mind, and since I further assume you haven’t read my analysis of The Exorcist, in which I discuss this revision, I’ll present the relevant quotes again here:

“…the intolerably depriving, rejecting aspect of the other person is internalized as the ‘rejecting object’, attached to the ‘anti-libidinal ego’…[,] the split-off ego fragment that is bonded to the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, pages 63-64)

Fairbairn’s revising of Freud’s drive theory replaces the drive to pleasure/destruction with an object-seeking purpose, for which instinctual drives are mere avenues to seeking or dealing with objects. Fairbairn may have rejected Freud’s drive theory, including the death instinct and the compulsion to repeat, as superfluous (Fairbairn, pages 78-79), but I find both useful in explaining the symbolism of the Overlook, two ways of looking at King’s novel from different angles. Grady, the symbolic ghost of Jack’s abusive father, is pushing Jack to kill because Jack needs his father-object, regardless of whether it is good or bad for him.

Let’s consider what Fairbairn had to say about needing bad objects. “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn, page 67)

Going back to drinking represents finding a pleasurable thing as an object to replace the meaningful objects, Wendy and Danny, that Jack needs. As Fairbairn explains, “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140) In the Overlook, Jack is isolated in his own mind, driving him to self-destruction and other-destruction.

Jack uses a bug bomb to kill a nest of wasps found on the roof of the Overlook, where he’s been doing repairs and been stung by one of them (‘Up On the Roof’, page 153). Danny is fascinated with the wasp nest, and wants to keep it. Wendy is unsure if it’s safe, but Jack insists all the wasps have been killed (‘Down In the Front Yard’, pages 177-178). The ghosts of the hotel reanimate the wasps that night, though, and Danny is stung (‘Danny’, pages 195-203). Since the ghosts and hotel represent Jack’s mind, the stings represent a return to Jack’s abusiveness (and self-destructiveness, since he’s the first one to get stung); and his assuring that the wasps are dead and harmless represents his denial of abusive intent, gaslighting, and his empty promise that he’ll never repeat injuring Danny.

The Overlook, Jack’s symbolic mind, full of the ghosts of bad internal objects, and with a boiler of anger that Jack must regularly “dump…off a little” (‘Watson’, page 28) to relieve the pressure, always repeats its aggressions. Kubrick’s adaptation brilliantly brings out this repetition compulsion in such symbols as rug patterns, the phrase “forever, and ever, and ever”, and Jack’s “writing project”, an endless repetition of the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Similarly, we see repetitive columns, doors, wallpaper patterns, and the sound of Danny driving his little three-wheeled bike on and off rugs and the hardwood floor, over and over again…sound-silence-sound-silence-sound-silence.

Danny refuses to believe that Jack, swinging the roque mallet, is his real father (page 639); it’s just the ghosts controlling him. But the ghosts, the hotel, and the roque-mallet-swinging madman are all Jack. Typical with abuse victims, they can’t bring themselves to admit their abusers really are abusers–it’s Stockholm Syndrome, or traumatic bonding.

Jack is supposed to be writing a play, a goal pointing to the future; but instead, he finds a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings related to the history of the Overlook (‘The Scrapbook’, pages 227-249). Now he decides, instead of writing the play, to write about the hotel: a project pointing into the future is replaced with one pointing back into the past. (In the miniseries, the scrapbook is titled My Memory Book, implying a symbolic connection with Jack’s past.)

Jack phones Mr. Ullman–the stern owner of the hotel and Jack’s symbolic superego (“Officious little prick“, ‘Job Interview’, page 3), a man who has hired him with the utmost reluctance (‘Job Interview’, page 7)–to talk to him about writing a book about The Overlook (‘Talking to Mr. Ullman’, pages 269-274). Ullman is furious with Jack for wanting to do such a thing, as he is with Jack’s impertinent attitude…just as the superego will be resistant to any surfacing of repressed, unacceptable desires.

Ullman has good reason to oppose Jack’s plan to publicize The Overlook’s shady past. It is a past filled with violence–mafia killings, a woman having committed suicide in a bathtub (“Inside 217′, pages 326-327), and Grady’s violence against his family. The scrapbook is found in the basement, Jack’s symbolic unconscious, and the violent contents represent his repressed bad internal objects (i.e., his father). The old parties represent his past of alcoholism. (“Unmask! Unmask!“) [‘The Ballroom’, page 464], Show your real self, Jack.

The ghosts of the Overlook want Danny, which means Jack needs a good internal object to replace his intolerably bad objects, a notion in Fairbairn’s therapeutic methods. Since Danny resists the ghosts, they want Jack, meaning the repressed bad objects resurface, causing mayhem. Having Danny, a good boy whose “shining” represents strong empathy and an urge to connect with others, would redeem Jack’s bad objects and help him to be a good man again, looking ahead to a future free of the past; but their evil is too great, so Jack instead spirals downward and backward into his violent, alcoholic past.

Dick Hallorann goes to great lengths to help a boy and a family he barely knows, because like Danny, his “shining” abilities give him strong empathy and an urge to connect, unlike the isolated, freezing cold world surrounding Jack’s mind, the Overlook. After Dick, Wendy, and Danny escape, we find them all together in Maine the following summer, Dick being almost like a new father to the boy. Danny and Wendy have escaped the dark, abusive past that Jack couldn’t escape, because ‘the shining’ is a light leading to a future of freedom and love.

Stephen King, The Shining, Pocket Books, New York, 1977

WRD Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, New York, 1952

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

Analysis of ‘The Exorcist’

The Exorcist is a 1973 supernatural horror film directed by William Friedkin and starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin), and Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras). It is based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, the movie screenplay having been adapted by the author. The novel in turn was based on the real-life exorcism in 1949 of a boy (‘Roland Doe’, about fourteen years old at the time) who allegedly was possessed of a demon.

Speaking of demons, during production, there were stories of people being injured, which added to the legend of the ‘cursed’ film. Similarly Satanic stories have been told of the productions of The Omen (1976) and Macbeth.

The Exorcist is considered one of the scariest, and therefore one of the best, horror films ever made. It had a huge influence on Black Sabbath, and on Ozzy Osbourne in particular, who sat through many screenings of it. It’s particularly frightening for Christians, not only, I believe, because they would consider the supernatural events something that could really happen, but because Christians unconsciously sense how the film is an allegory of the modern loss of faith, and of the attendant harm done to relationships.

Here are some quotes:

“There’s not a day in my life that I don’t feel like a fraud. Other priests, doctors, lawyers – I talk to them all. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that.” –Karras

“It’s more than psychiatry, and you know that Tom. Some of their problems come down to faith, their vocation and meaning of their lives, and I can’t cut it anymore. I need out. I’m unfit. I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom.” –Karras

“Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance. Now, for example, say a 90 pound woman sees her child pinned under the wheel of a truck. Runs out and lifts the wheels a half a foot up off the ground – you’ve heard the story – same thing here. Same principle, I mean.” –Dr. Taney

“There is one outside chance for a cure. I think of it as shock treatment – as I said, it’s a very outside chance…Have you ever heard of exorcism? Well, it’s a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It’s been pretty much discarded these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but uh, it has worked. In fact, although not for the reasons they think, of course. It’s purely a force of suggestion. The victim’s belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in that same way, a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.” –Dr. Barringer

Karras: Where’s Regan?
Regan: In here. With us.

“Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.” –Merrin, to Karras

Karras: Why her? Why this girl?
Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.

The movie begins in Iraq, where religious faith is still strong, though it’s the Islamic, rather than Christian, faith. Father Merrin, who personifies Christian faith in the story, is nonetheless old and in ill health, needing to take nitroglycerin for a heart condition. When he finds an amulet, an image of Pazuzu, a demon he once exorcized in Africa many years before, he knows he must face it again.

When discussing the situation and the image with a Mosul curator of antiquities, the curator says, “Evil against evil.” (page 6 in the Prologue of the novel) If there is no God to fight the Devil, then there’s no good, in the religious sense, to fight evil; other forms of evil will have to do to stop Pazuzu. We will see the significance of this idea at the climax of the movie, when Father Damien Karras (note the pun on demon), a doubting priest, uses a decidedly un-Christian method to get the demon out of Regan’s body.

This is what makes the story so scary to Christians, as I see it. From their point of view, good comes only from the Christian God. If He doesn’t exist, then there is no real good to fight evil; there are only other forms of ‘evil’ to fight it, namely, the gods of all those ‘false’ religions: including Islam, whose God, Allah, is acknowledged by Muslims to have created evil as well as good (Allah is not a father, either–see below for the significance of this idea); or paganism, from which Pazuzu originally came. A world of only evil, without God, is Hell, a terrifying notion to Christians.

In Georgetown, Washington DC, Pazuzu has already arrived, and is making noises in Chris MacNeil’s attic. It takes quite a while for the demon actually to enter the body of Regan, her twelve-year-old daughter. Back in the early 1970s, moviegoers’ attention spans weren’t as short as are those of moviegoers today, people who always require quick thrills; more importantly, this slow buildup suggests the insidious nature of growing evil.

Father Karras, far more suited to psychiatry than to preaching, complains to another priest of his loss of faith. Even before this revelation, it is telling how he reacts when he hears Burke Dennings, the enfant terrible director of the film Chris is acting in, tell her that the writer of the film’s screenplay is in Paris “Fucking.” Karras laughs with all the others watching the filming, instead of taking offence at the bad language (page 20: “Chris…darted a furtive, embarrassed glance to a nearby Jesuit, checking to see if he’d heard the obscenity…He’d heard. He was smiling.”). Karras curses a number of times himself elsewhere in the story.

Christians fear that if we lose faith in Christ, we will turn into bestial people; we’ll lose our innocence, speaking and performing obscenities and blasphemies, as Regan does when Pazuzu takes over. Christians believe we must accept the Kingdom of God as a child (Mark 10:14-15); salvation comes not through good works, but by grace through faith (Romans 3:20-28). Despair, however, leads to damnation (Romans 14:23).

As those of us who live secular lives understand, though, the problem of evil is a much more complex one than a mere matter of falling from God’s grace and losing The Garden of Eden, then of being restored to that state of grace by believing in Jesus. MacNeil understands this need for self-reliance, since she is an atheist, as explicitly stated in the novel: “An atheist, she had never taught Regan religion. She thought it dishonest.” (page 47)

The loss of faith isn’t limited, however, to a religious one. Neither the doctors nor the psychiatrists can help Regan, leading her mother to lose faith in them. When the psychiatrists ask Chris of her religious beliefs, or of Regan’s, they suggest exorcism as a cure; though they’re careful to emphasize that, since Regan merely believes she’s possessed, the belief in exorcism, through the “force of suggestion,” can cure her. Ironically, her atheist mother now searches for priests…and the priest she finds–Karras–wants to help as a psychiatrist!

After the scene when Regan has been bouncing on the bed and has struck Dr. Klein, Dr. Taney speaks of how “Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance.” (In the novel, Dr. Klein says it on page 126.) I watched this scene in a theatre here in Taiwan, where the locals in the audience were actually laughing at the doctor’s words. Being firm believers in ghosts, the Taiwanese found it absurd that it hadn’t even occurred to these doctors that Regan was most obviously possessed of a demon. But that’s the point of the story–the loss of religious faith is that profound in mainstream Western society.

After Karras has examined her, he has seen enough proof of possession in Regan–her speaking in languages, Latin and French, which she presumably has never studied (pages 300-301, which also include German); using telekinesis (opening a drawer with her mind); manifesting knowledge of Karras’s dead mother; imitating the voice of a derelict Karras failed to help–he tells another priest he still isn’t convinced of the reality of Pazuzu inside Regan. On page 313: ‘”I’ve made a prudent judgement that it meets the conditions set forth in the Ritual,” answered Karras evasively. He still did not dare believe. Not his mind but his heart had tugged him to this moment; pity and the hope for a cure through suggestion.’ He thinks Regan’s problem is a case of dissociative identity disorder (pages 310, 337).

When Merrin arrives for the exorcism, Karras tries to tell him about her psychiatric history, but Merrin considers this a waste of time. When Karras speaks of three personalities in Regan, Merrin–the personification of faith–insists there is only one.

Merrin emphasizes that “the demon is a liar” who “would lie to confuse” them. The priests mustn’t listen, just as Christians try not to listen to the ideas of modern science, including evolutionary theory, which show the falsity of a literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis.

Disproving the six-day Creation, as well as the story of Adam and Eve, is devastating to the Christian faith. If man evolved from the ape, what basis is there for believing in The Fall? How did our animal instincts for self-preservation and survival, including selfishness, the procreative sex drive, and aggression, suddenly become evil once we evolved to the species of homo sapiens? A metaphorical, allegorical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story doesn’t work, either: for Christian soteriology to be effective, the first few chapters of Genesis must be taken as literal, historical fact. If there was no historical Fall of Man, why should we believe in a Divine Rescuer who, by dying on the Cross, gave us a chance to be restored to a state of grace that hadn’t originally existed anyway? (For further reading, see Spong, 1992.)

In light of modern scientific knowledge, we must understand that continuing to preach Christian dogma and Bible stories as literal, historic fact can no longer be merely viewed as a perpetuation of ignorance; now it is just cognitive dissonance, if not tantamount to outright lying. Threatened by modern knowledge, Christians–especially fundamentalists–are compelled to project their mendacity onto evolutionists, as Merrin has projected the idea of lying onto Pazuzu. When Merrin says the demon mixes lies with the truth, this seems an almost grudging concession that Pazuzu may, to an extent at least, be right.

Even without evolutionary theory, Christian theodicies are inadequate. They try to reconcile a perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient God with a world in which evil exists by talking about Adam and Eve exercising free will by disobeying God; even though they, originally in a state of grace and having its attendant moral wisdom, surely would have had the sense to know that by eating the forbidden fruit, they were ruining themselves. To make an analogy, merely having the free will to put one’s hand on a stove’s red hot burner won’t make a sensible person any more willing to scald his hand; nor will one eat one’s own damnation, provided one has the moral perfection to know the consequences. One would be too morally strong to give in to the temptation of acquiring god-like knowledge.

This is why it’s dangerous to listen to Pazuzu’s words, for they will destroy faith. Merrin makes the point, that it is to make us despair, to make us think we’re animal, and that God would never love us, because we’re so unworthy. And love, particularly the love of our mothers and fathers, is crucial to our mental health; for those primary caregivers of our childhood provide a psychological blueprint for all of our later relationships, which leads me to my next point.

In object relations theory, our loving, good objects–internalized imagos of our parents, which reside in our minds like ghosts in a haunted house–help us to have integrated, healthy personalities, allowing us to have happy, loving relationships. God is the ideal internalized object, the ‘good Father’, and if we lose Him, we’re helpless against our internalized bad objects. Without sufficient good objects, one experiences a splitting of the personality into extreme good and bad objects. Enter Pazuzu…into Regan’s body.

When we don’t believe we’re loved, we develop what WRD Fairbairn called a schizoid personality (not to be confused with schizophrenia, which he considered an extreme schizoid manifestation), a personality split between good and bad internalized objects, something even the most normal people have, to at least some extent (Fairbairn, pages 3-27). This bad internal object, split off from the good ones, is what the demon in Regan could be said to symbolize.

When we don’t feel sufficiently loved–as Regan must feel when her father, in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from Chris, doesn’t call Regan on her birthday (p. 48)–we begin to feel persecutory anxiety, what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Hence Pazuzu, Regan’s symbolic internalized bad object, is persecuting her.

Interestingly, Fairbairn compared bad objects to demonic possession (pages 67-72). “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him [as Regan’s father has neglected her], his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn p. 67)

Chris’s love for Regan, in contrast, brings out the girl’s sweetness, her good internal object, the ‘good mother’ imago (p. 43). While we know Regan’s maniacal, violent behaviour is caused by an actual demon, and therefore Chris considers it a mistake to have originally believed that Regan’s pathology was caused by her father’s absence, we can nonetheless see the demon as symbolizing repressed anger over her father’s absence. We are, after all, reminded of her missing father even late into the story (p. 328; in the film, there’s no mention of the father calling and wanting to talk to Regan).

Remember also what Pazuzu says: “I am no one.” (page 308) This symbolically represents what Melanie Klein called the omnipotent denial of a bad object. Indeed, is Pazuzu a real demon, or just an internal bad object?

Projection and re-introjection of good and bad objects carry on in a cycle throughout one’s life, in varying levels of intensity. Possessed Regan’s vomiting (and urinating on the rug at the party) symbolize the projection. Freud associated libido with instinctual drives towards pleasure, but Fairbairn believed libido was directed at seeking objects (e.g., looking for people to give love to and receive love from). “Actually some of the activities to which so-called libidinal aims have been attributed are activities which I should hesitate to describe as primarily libidinal at all, e.g. anal and urinary activities; for the inherent aim of these activities, in common with that of vomiting, is not the establishment of a relationship with objects, but the rejection of objects which, from the point of view of the organism, constitute foreign bodies.” (Fairbairn p. 138) Regan’s puking and pissing can in one way be considered her futile attempt at exorcising her bad objects.

If we can’t find the loving objects we need, then our behaviour deteriorates to mere pleasure-seeking, as Regan’s obscene and blasphemous acts indicate. She violently rejects the loving help of father figures, and instead behaves obscenely. Instead of wanting to be saved by God, she masturbates with a crucifix; instead of receiving the priests’ help, she wants them to fuck her, or one another; she also grabs a hypnotherapist by the balls; and she hits one of the male doctors, then calls out to them: “Fuck me! Fuck me!”

Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (p. 139-140) Similarly, addiction of any kind (drugs, sex, gambling, the internet, pornography) can be seen as an attempt to connect when normal human connection has failed for the addict.

As far as introjection and re-introjection are concerned, we can see it symbolically in Regan’s masturbating with the crucifix, her jamming and re-jamming of that thing inside her bloodied vagina, saying, “Let Jesus fuck you! Let Jesus fuck you!” Jesus is the Son of God, but He’s also homooúsios with God the Father, that is, equal to Him. When confronting Father Merrin, she says, “Stick your cock up her ass…” These two blasphemies and obscenities represent a wish for introjection of a father figure, and also symbolize the female Oedipus situation of a girl whose father is no longer part of her life. Telling her mother, and forcing her to “Lick me! Lick me!” represents a briefly inverted Oedipus conflict, and her hitting of Chris is a return to the normal Oedipus situation. Pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is all Regan has, because the acquiring of her needed loving object (her father) is impossible.

When Merrin dies at the end, faith dies. Karras desperately tries to revive him, but to no avail. Pazuzu seems awed at first by his final victory over Merrin, then he laughs in Schadenfreude. Enraged, Karras grabs Regan and beats the demon out of her–evil against evil, he punches her like a boxer. He wants to introject the demon, the bad object, not only to save her, I believe, but to punish himself for his loss of faith and absence when his mother died (his presumably dead father, by the way, is never mentioned in the movie). With the demon inside Karras, she is safe…except for the fact that Damien the demon is now eyeing her with a view to assault her…perhaps sexually. Swelling with self-hate and an urge to redeem himself, Karras shouts “No!” and jumps out the window, sacrificing his life for the girl’s. Evil against evil. Instead of salvation by faith, we have salvation by suicide, the ultimate act of faithlessness.

A weeping Father Dyer gives Karras absolution as he’s dying. Karras seems to have regained his faith (though it seems to be a belief only in devils, rather than in God; also, is his moving hand, in Dyer’s, really an expression of repentance?) while dying; in any case, his suicide still symbolizes a paradoxical salvation by faithlessness. His receiving of absolution would seem an affirmation of faith at the end of the story; but consider how Karras’s ‘exorcism’ of Regan involved no use of the Roman Catholic ritual at all. No prayers to God. He just beat the girl. ‘God’ wasn’t anywhere. No miracles came from Him; the supernatural occurrences came only from Pazuzu. Indeed, the two priests look ludicrously ineffectual as they are chanting, over and over, “The power of Christ compels you!” Does Pazuzu lower the levitated Regan by the priests’ compulsion, or of his own free will? Indeed, the demon has been toying with the priests the whole time.

When the family moves out, Chris tells Father Dyer that Regan remembers nothing of the demon. The bad internal object, that of her neglectful father, has been repressed, pushed back into Regan’s unconscious, and so there’s no longer a threat…or so we assume.

Regan projects her ‘bad father’ imago, Pazuzu, into Father Karras, and when he’s killed himself, she can feel satisfaction from that. When she quickly gives Father Dyer a hug and kiss, we wonder, for a second, will she attack him?

No, he’s safe, for she has successfully repressed her internal saboteur (Fairbairn p. 102-105), her “anti-libidinal ego [, which] is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez p. 63-64)

Earlier in the story, Regan’s libidinal ego (the part of Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure corresponding roughly to Freud’s id) is attached to Burke as a possible stepfather, what Fairbairn would have called an ‘exciting object’ (Fairbairn p. 102-105; Gomez p. 62); for she is hoping her mother will marry him, speaking to her mother of how she (Chris) likes him (p. 43-44). Then, her anti-libidinal ego, the internal saboteur, symbolized by Pazuzu, considers Burke a copy of her rejecting object/father and kills him (and since her rejecting object is inside her psyche, Regan imitates Burke’s voice and twists her head around, as Burke’s was when found dead). Pazuzu, the name of her ‘bad father’ imago, could be considered a pun on ‘Pa’. Is Pazuzu jealous of Regan’s preferring Burke to him as a father-object? Similarly, Pazuzu wants to kill the other two Fathers, Merrin and Karras.

But to return to the end of the story: having reintegrated her bad objects with her good ones, Regan has thus restored her mental health. Unconsciously, she can now accept the independent existence of her far-away father. She has given up the omnipotence symbolized by the supernatural powers of the demon, for she no longer needs to deny the bad aspects of her object relations. Now she wants reparation with fathers, so she doesn’t hurt Dyer.

Regan’s parents’ divorce amounted to a loss of faith in their marriage, resulting in the girl’s loss of faith in fathers–biological ones, possible stepfathers (Burke), Catholic Fathers, male doctors/hypnotherapists/psychiatrists, or God the Father Himself. Because the priests cannot replace her actual father any more than Burke can, Pazuzu’s first words to Merrin include, “…you motherfucking, worthless cocksucker!” What else is your father, but the man who is fucking your mother? (And leaving her, i.e., divorcing her and abandoning Regan, is fucking Chris in a different way…making him worthless to Regan.) When Merrin throws holy water on Regan, Pazuzu the rejecting object writhes in pain and has scars on her leg to show his rejection of the Father.

Killing fathers, whether potential surrogates like Burke, or religious ones like Karras or Merrin, is what Pazuzu is all about: the anti-libidinal ego that is attached to the internalized ‘rejecting object’ (Regan’s absent father). As I see it, Pazuzu is both the anti-libidinal ego and the internalized rejecting object at the same time. Pazuzu rejects fathers for the same reason he rejects God. After all, paternity is an act of faith in itself. Note what Don Pedro and Leonato, Hero’s father, say about her in a dialogue in Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene i, lines 88-89:

DON PEDRO: I think this is your daughter.

LEONATO: Her mother hath many times told me so.

Or, consider a quote in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…founded…Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood…Paternity may be a legal fiction.” (Joyce, page 266)

Our fathers, who are in Heaven (or here on Earth): hollow seem their names. This is what The Exorcist seems to be telling us…and that’s what is so frightening about the film.

William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist, HarperCollinsPublishers, New York NY, 1971

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, Harper, San Francisco, 1992

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

James Joyce, Ulysses: Annotated Student Edition, Penguin Books, London, first published 1922

Analysis of ‘The Godfather’

The Godfather is a trilogy of films by Francis Ford Coppola, written by him and Mario Puzo, based on Puzo’s 1969 novel. As a trio of crime dramas, its depiction of the mafia is understood to symbolize general corruption in American politics, though I will be carrying my analysis far beyond just that. I will be focusing on the first two films, generally considered to be two of the greatest films ever made; while Part III, being good only in parts (and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion), will be touched on more lightly. I’ll also discuss parts of Puzo’s novel.

In general, the social, political, and economic critiques in The Godfather are those of hierarchy and authority. Mafia families represent competing capitalists, and the Corleone family in particular represents the traditional patriarchal family. Mafia Don Vito Andolini, who would change his surname to Corleone (‘Lionheart’), the name of the town in Sicily where he was born, has “all the judges and politicians in his pocket,” as so many US billionaires do in today’s neoliberal world. Here we see the source of corruption in American politics, or the politics of any other country: capitalism’s use of the state to protect its interests.

Here are some famous quotes from all three movies:

Part I

“Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then that scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.” –Don Corleone

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” –Don Corleone (ranked #2 in American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations.)

“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” —Tessio

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” –Clemenza

“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” –Michael

“Times have changed. It’s not like the old days when we could do anything we want. A refusal is not the act of a friend. Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York, and he must share them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly, he can present a bill for such services. After all, we are not Communists.” –Don Barzini

“Only, don’t tell me you’re innocent, because it insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.” –Michael, to Carlo

Part II

“There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” —Michael (the bolded portion is ranked #58 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations )

“If I could only live to see it, to be there with you. What I wouldn’t give for twenty more years! Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without Kefauver, the goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away, in partnership with a friendly government. Ninety miles! It’s nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be President of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” –Hyman Roth

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” –Michael

“Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother. You’re not a friend. I don’t wanna know you or what you do. I don’t wanna see you at the hotels. I don’t want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won’t be there. You understand?” –Michael

“Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael! Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil. I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son, Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael… no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years!” –Kay

“Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” –Michael

Part III

“No, I don’t hate you, Michael. I dread you.” –Kay

“Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.” –Don Lucchesi

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” –Michael

“Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know you do not believe that. You will not change.” –Cardinal Lamberto, to Michael

The first movie begins with Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker whose daughter has been beaten by two men who attempted to rape her. Though he begins by saying, “I believe in America” (i.e., ‘the land of the free’), he quickly learns how corrupt the judges are when one of them gives her attackers a suspended sentence, allowing them to go free that very day. Now that he knows that might makes right in America as much as it does everywhere else, he comes to the mafia for ‘justice’, to have them killed.

This corruption of justice is similar to how social services offered by the state decline in effectiveness due to corruption or insufficient funding from taxes, then (as Noam Chomsky once pointed out) we go to the private sector for these services, which are given only for a price, as Don Vito will expect a favour in return one day from Bonasera for beating up his daughter’s attackers. After all, Vito is only a moderate mafioso/capitalist, who knows that killing the “scum that ruined [Bonasera’s] daughter” isn’t justice, since she’s still alive.

Bonasera, in his naïveté about how the mafia does things, assumes he can simply pay Vito to have his soldiers murder her two attackers. Having unwittingly insulted Vito, Bonasera learns the importance of getting Vito’s “friendship”, which leads to the beating up of the two men “as a gift on [Vito’s] daughter’s wedding day.” This friendship shows the hypocrisy in the Corleone family, in how they try to pass themselves off as decent people, always keeping up appearances, the way the bourgeoisie does in general.

The juxtaposition of Bonasera’s failed attempts at protecting his daughter with the wedding day of Vito’s daughter Connie, is an interesting one. In the traditional patriarchal family, a girl’s marrying into another family involves her father giving her away to her husband-to-be, an old protector being replaced by a new one. Throughout most of this scene, Vito is so busy granting requests that he can rarely, if ever, leave his office and participate in the wedding party outside. After all, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day, symbolizing the honour and love he has for her.

Here we see the contradictions inherent in the patriarchal family: the overzealousness with which ‘our girls’ must be protected leads to a failure to protect them; Vito’s symbolic honouring of his daughter by granting all wishes on her wedding day leads to his hardly ever being with her until the end of the party, a symbolic failure to protect. Similarly, he does nothing to help Connie when her husband Carlo beats her later, rationalizing (in the novel, Book IV, Chapter 16, page 238) that she should submit to Carlo’s authority, and saying the rest of the family shouldn’t interfere with her and Carlo’s private business (an attitude Vito’s wife, Carmela, agrees with).

Bonasera has been very lax in his protection of his daughter, allowing her to stay out late drinking with the two men who assault her; but the failure to protect Connie, coupled with overzealous protectiveness, is symptomatic of the failure of the Corleone family to protect themselves in general, as we’ll explore later.

The corruption that the mafia represents extends to Hollywood, where movie producer Jack Woltz is intimidated into giving a role to Johnny Fontane, a singer/actor the producer hates for having made him look bad. The corruption Woltz represents is seen in his lecherous taste in underage girls, one of whom we learn has been in his bedroom when consigliere Tom Hagen has visited (this lechery is evident in the novel, Book I, Chapter 1, pages 62-63, and in one deleted scene in the movie).

All of the mafia families represent competing capitalists, but Don Corleone is only a moderate capitalist, wanting nothing to do with the heroin business Virgil Sollozzo wants to bring into New York. The Tattaglia family, as well as that of Barzini, wanting Corleone to share his political and police protection so they can get in on the new heroin business, represents the expansion and accumulation of capital, and its growing evil.

The conflict of interests between the Five Families, with Corleone’s on one side and the other four opposing him, represents the contradictions inherent in capitalism. The war that erupts between the Corleone and Tattaglia families symbolizes those contradictions escalating into an economic crisis, for indeed, as the war continues, Tom warns Sonny, who is acting Don while Vito’s in hospital, that business is suffering. Similarly, Clemenza tells Michael that these wars have to happen every (five or) ten years or so…the same time period that, sans Keynesian state interventions, usually comes between economic crises. The violence and killings can thus be seen to symbolize the suffering caused by capitalism’s instability.

Capitalists typically deny malicious intent, as do these gangsters. Sollozzo tells Hagen,”I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” Sonny, Tom, and Michael all repeat the mantra that this mob violence is nothing personal–it’s just business…when Michael’s wish to kill Sollozzo for trying to have his father killed, as well as the corrupt cop McCluskey for breaking his jaw, is clearly personal (see also the novel, Book I, Chapter 11, page 145).

Indeed, bringing Michael into “the family business”, when he was originally intended by Vito to be a senator or governor in the “legitimate”, respectable part of society, shows how capitalism seeps into everything, a corruption we’ll continue to see spreading through the rest of this movie/novel and its sequels.

Michael goes into hiding in Sicily, where he wishes to see the town of Corleone, to get a sense of his family roots. Here we see beautiful countryside as well as simple town life, a pleasant contrast to the harsh modern life of New York City. This idyllic life suggests how the world was before capitalism grew into the monster it is today.

Still, there are dangers in Sicily that Michael must be wary of. Apart from all the deaths from local vendettas, the Italian-American mafia is trying to find and kill him in revenge for Sollozzo and McCluskey. This symbolizes how capitalism, in an earlier stage of development, is creeping into rustic Sicilian life, as it had in the enclosures of the Commons in 18th-century England. On the other hand, a deleted scene in the movie shows a group of communists marching about Sicily, hoping to recruit new members. Fleeting references to communism appear here and there in the first two movies, like a spectre haunting Europe, America, and Cuba. The class war is growing.

Meanwhile, back in America, Sonny learns that Carlo, sore that he’s being excluded from the family business, has beaten up Connie. Though Sonny has previously been warned not to interfere by his mother, echoing Vito’s insensitivity to Carlo’s increasing abusiveness, the hothead beats up Carlo, warning he’ll kill him if he ever hurts Connie again. The intensity of the beating that Sonny gives Carlo shows the dangers of zealous over-protection, since violence only begets more violence. Indeed, Carlo plots with Barzini to have Sonny gunned down, and beats up Connie to lure Sonny to his death.

Vito, still the moderate gangster, wants no revenge, but instead arranges a meeting of the Five Families to end the war. Barzini and Tattaglia complain about Vito’s refusal to cooperate in the new heroin business, which would have resulted in giving the other families police protection. But we learn that “times have changed”, and police and politicians now can be bought to ensure safety from prison in the new drug business. At one point, Barzini reminds us that the mafia “are not communists.” Of course not: mafia are capitalists…and capitalists are mafia; that’s what The Godfather is all about.

One significant part of the class conflict caused by such systems as capitalism is racism. Earlier, Sonny mentioned how “Niggers are having a good time with [Corleone] policy banks in Harlem”. During the meeting of the Five Families, Don Stracchi says his men leave the drug trafficking among “the dark people, the coloureds. They’re animals, anyway, so let them lose their souls.” The others at the meeting seem to agree to this arrangement, and ‘peace’ is achieved between Corleone and Tattaglia.

Michael returns to America, and is now the new Don of the Corleone family, Vito having retired. Michael meets Kay, his old American girlfriend, and asks her to marry him. While he gives an empty promise that the Corleone family will be “completely legitimate” one day, he also tells her the cynical reality that senators do have men killed, just as the mafia does. Of course they do: politicians do much of the dirty work of capitalists, because the state works for capitalism…even though right-libertarians promise that a laissez-faire form of capitalism will purify the market of state corruption. But instead, when Michael has the other heads of the Five Families all killed, and he becomes the sole mafia head in New York, we see symbolically how laissez-faire, in wiping out competition (thanks to the tax cuts and deregulation that give large corporations an unfair advantage over small businesses), leads to the very crony capitalism, or monopoly capitalism, it claims it will eradicate. (For a thorough discussion on how that happens, look here.)

The killing of all those men happens in a particularly chilling way: Michael is standing as godfather to Carlo’s and Connie’s baby, telling the priest in the cathedral that he does “renounce Satan”, and that he believes in God the Father, Jesus, His Son, and the Holy Spirit! ‘Godfather’ is a perfect name for this movie, as well as for Vito and Michael, for it exemplifies the authoritarian nature of the mafia, of capitalism, of religion, and of the traditional patriarchal family, all in one fell swoop. This scene, in which Michael ruthlessly pretends to be a good Christian while knowing full well that a bunch of people are about to be brutally murdered (Stracchi, shot in an elevator by Clemenza; Moe Greene with a bullet in his eye; Cuneo, shot by Cicci in a revolving door; Barzini, shot by Al Neri-who’s dressed as a cop [in the novel, he’s a former cop who used to beat people with a large flashlight–Book VIII, Chapter 30, pages 413-414]; and Tattaglia, shot in bed with one of his prostitutes, by Rocco Lompone), starkly shows the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in its pretence of virtue.

To top everything off, when Michael tells Carlo these men were all killed by his orders, he tells Carlo that he has “settled all family business.” Just like a capitalist. And having promised he won’t make Connie a widow, Michael has Carlo garrotted by Clemenza.

With the Corleone move to Las Vegas, hence the killing of Moe Greene, we see how capitalism expands and accumulates, wiping out the competition. First, there was the Genco Olive Oil business in New York; now, there’s the gambling business in Nevada.

Though one would imagine Connie to be grateful to her brother for ridding her of her abusive, adulterous husband, she’s in tears and furious with Michael. When she tells Kay about the murders of the other heads of the Five Families, saying, “That’s your husband! That’s your husband!”, frowning Kay asks him if it’s true. He lies and denies it, of course, and the first movie ends with her frowning, suspecting the lie. An outtake shows Kay in church lighting candles, and the novel ends with her praying for Michael.

Part II begins with Vito Andolini as a nine-year-old boy in Corleone, Sicily. His whole family gets killed by the local mafia, whose chieftain is Don Ciccio, and he must leave before they find and kill him. He emigrates to New York.

The smaller mafia of Corleone, like the family Vito establishes in New York, can be seen to represent the early stages of capitalism. The scenes that follow his rise (also in Puzo’s novel, Book III, Chapter 14) alternate with scenes of the continued story of Michael as Don of his father’s family. These contrasting scenes symbolize capitalism’s seemingly benevolent beginnings and ugly maturation.

In late 1950s Nevada, we see Michael’s growing business empire. We also see more of the pretence of respectability in the party celebrating his son’s First Communion at Lake Tahoe. Michael meets with Senator Pat Geary about getting a gaming licence. In a combination of prejudice against Italians and a disgust with mafia corruption (though he’s no better), the senator wants an exorbitant bribe for the licence; he also bluntly insults Michael’s family to his face. Michael, always one to defend his family and their honour, insists that the hypocrisy of his business and Geary’s government doesn’t apply to his wife and children. Their innocence is always protected: that’s why the family business is never discussed around them…even though they know full well that Michael’s business is anything but innocent.

Geary’s wish “to squeeze” Michael could be seen to represent the agenda of left-leaning or social democratic governments, which tax capitalists as much as possible. Indeed, the post-war world seen in The Godfather, Parts I and II, and continuing up till the 1970s, saw the rich being taxed much more than they are today. Geary’s later hypocritical praise of Italian-Americans during Michael’s trial can be seen to indicate the phoney, would-be egalitarianism promoted by the politically correct aspects of the left, always expressing sympathy for the darker-complexioned, but typically leaving the Third World in the lurch.

When Geary is caught in a Fredo-run whorehouse with a bloodily murdered prostitute (apparently killed by Al Neri to blackmail Geary into helping the Corleone family), he is assured by Tom Hagen that he is safe. From then on, Geary is fully on Michael’s side. Here we see a symbolic indication of how the capitalist class can get even ‘left-leaning’ politicians to represent right-wing interests, as would happen increasingly with the Clintons and the Democratic Party in America, and with Tony Blair in the Labour Party in the UK.

Meanwhile, we have the usual capitalist contradictions symbolized in the competing families of Michael, Pentangeli, and Hyman Roth, as well as the Rosato Brothers. Racism and capitalism tend to go hand in hand, hence Pentangeli’s antisemitic attitude towards Roth and his use of racial slurs against blacks and Hispanics.

When an attempt is made on Michael’s life, in his and Kay’s bedroom, he quickly crawls over to her, covering her body with his. Here we see one of the main purposes of sex roles: the male obligation to protect women, the nucleus of matriarchy within every cell of the traditional patriarchal family, which is seen elsewhere in Michael’s preoccupation with whether or not the unborn child in Kay’s womb is a boy.

We see the spread of capitalism represented in the presence of mafia families in Nevada (Corleone), New York (young Vito and Pentangeli), Florida (Roth), Sicily (Ciccio), and Cuba, where Michael and Roth meet with Fulgencio Batista, who felt no discomfort allowing foreign capitalists, including the American mafia, to exploit his impoverished people. Interestingly, this visit to Cuba happens when Fidel Castro’s communists take over.

On the night when the Cuban Revolution prevails, around midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day in 1959, all the capitalists, including Michael and his older brother Fredo, must get off the island. Music (<<at 2:30) reminiscent of an early section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (a ballet about a human sacrifice) is heard, suggesting the brutality of the material conditions necessary to bring about revolution: the brutality of the extreme contradictions of capitalism that cause the whole system to come tumbling down.

And indeed, brutal contradictions reach even to the extent of the Corleone’s family’s integrity, for Michael has learned who the traitor in his family is, the one who made a secret deal with Roth and Johnny Ola–Fredo. This indicates one of the main themes of Part II: betrayal.

Pentangeli feels betrayed by Michael, since Michael’s business dealings with “that Jew” Roth undermine Pentangeli’s ability to deal with the Rosato Brothers; Roth feels betrayed by Michael, his business partner, when he’s learned that Michael gave the order to kill Moe Greene, a fellow Jewish gangster. Michael feels betrayed not only by Fredo, but by Kay when she tells him the unborn male child in her womb didn’t die of a miscarriage, but was aborted (the look of rage on Al Pacino’s face here is, in my opinion, some of his very best acting). Michael ultimately betrays his whole family by having Fredo killed by Al Neri, who mercifully allows him first to do a ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer.

Once again we see, in the Corleones’ overzealous wish to protect the family, they end up killing their own.

Kay aborts the son out of a wish to end the mob violence; Michael has Fredo killed out of a wish to punish and therefore deter treason. This self-destructive cycle of violence and revenge can represent the contradictions of capitalism: the excessive lust for profits (a wish to protect oneself financially) creates huge wealth inequality and imperialist wars (symbolized by all the mafia violence), resulting in the poor not being able to buy much of anything, stopping the circulation of money and commodity exchange, and leading to financial crises.

Going back to the story of young Vito, he must deal with Don Fanucci, The Black Hand, who can be seen to represent either a competing capitalist or the feudalism that preceded capitalism. There was never any feudalism in American history (apart from British hegemony over the early American settlers, provoking the American Revolution), of course, but we’re discussing the language of symbol here. Vito’s killing of Fanucci (who, like feudal lords’ taxing of their vassals and peasants, wants a cut of Vito’s money in exchange for his ‘protection’) can thus be compared to bourgeois uprisings like the French Revolution in 1789, or the one that brought about the Republic of China in 1911.

As Vito’s mafia family rises in power, including the creation of his Genco Olive Oil Company in the 1920s, we see his benevolence towards an old lady whose landlord wants to evict her. This kindness and growth in power are comparable to the generosity that the bourgeoisie claims to have; they justify their class privileges by pointing out the raised standard of living they create (while neglecting to mention how they alone enjoy the vast majority of the benefits of that economic growth); they also talk about donating to charity, instead of trying to change society’s material conditions, such that charity becomes no longer necessary.

Estes Kefauver’s investigations into the mafia in the 1950s are reflected in Michael’s trial. The state’s attempt to put him in jail can be compared to the postwar period in American history when greater state regulation, including higher taxes for the rich, reduced income inequality and produced a large middle class. But Michael manages to beat Questadt, who is working for Roth, by implying a threat to the life of Pentangeli’s brother (who has just flown in from Sicily) if Pentangeli testifies against Michael. Symbolically, this shows that, even when capitalism is regulated by the state (or because it is regulated, because of competing interests–i.e., Roth), it is still corrupt to the core. Nothing can reform it.

In spite of this ever-present capitalist corruption, some communists have acknowledged the necessity of a capitalist stage superseding feudalism, before the world is ready for socialism. The temporary period of young Vito’s benevolent bourgeois rule can be seen in this light; but by the time Michael takes over, the oppressiveness of capitalism can no longer be ignored.

In Part III, we see Michael about twenty years after the end of Part II, racked with guilt and trying to redeem himself by going completely legitimate at last, after years of failing to keep this promise to Kay, whom he’s divorced. His wish to control International Immobiliare, a real estate holding company known as “the world’s biggest landlord”, must have no mafia connections at all. To his dismay, he learns that those involved in Immobiliare, such as Lucchesi, are either mafiosi or are connected with them…including the Vatican. A cigarette-smoking archbishop named Gilday, who attempts to swindle Michael out of his money, symbolizes Church corruption.

Elsewhere, Michael meets a good man of God, Cardinal Lamberto, who receives Michael’s tearful confession; though, like Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, Michael cannot repent, since to do so necessitates giving up his money and power, as well as being incarcerated for his crimes. Lamberto is Pope for a brief time, then a plot by Archbishop Gilday, Lucchesi, and Keinszig results in him being served poisoned tea.

Michael’s gifts to charities, as generous as they are, also cannot redeem him. Kay watches his show of goodwill, and is disgusted at the hypocrisy she sees. She actually prefers him as a common hood; his pretence as an ‘honest’ businessman makes him even more dangerous now. As we can see, all attempts to reform and legitimize capitalism fail, for it is inherently criminal. It always has been, and it always will be.

And again, try as Michael might, he cannot protect his family from danger; he tries to get out of the mafia, and they pull him back in. He wants Vincent Mancini to stay away from his daughter Mary, Vincent’s cousin, for her safety, but she is shot and killed. Finally, Michael dies alone in the garden of a Sicilian villa as an old man. The self-destruction of capitalism and authoritarianism is complete.

Mario Puzo, The Godfather, Signet Fiction, New York, 1969 (30th anniversary edition)

Analysis of ‘The Graduate’

The Graduate is a 1967 comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols, based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb.  The film stars Dustin Hoffman in a career-making role as Benjamin Braddock, a 20-21-year-old who has just graduated from an unnamed university in the American northeast, and has returned to his home in Pasadena, California.  As the tagline in the movie ad reads, “He’s a little worried about his future.”

The film also stars Anne Bancroft as the seductive, scheming Mrs. Robinson (after whom the famous Simon and Garfunkel song is named), and Katharine Ross as the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Benjamin’s love interest).  While the song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ wasn’t yet in its final form for the movie, a truncated version was used, and other songs by Simon and Garfunkel were also used, most notably “The Sound of Silence,” their version of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April, Come She Will.”

The American Film Institute in 1998 ranked the film #7 in its list of the 100 best films of all time; then in the 10th anniversary list, it was made film #17.  It was also listed the #9 comedy, “Mrs. Robinson” was listed the #6 song, and these quotes made the top 100 movie quotes:

“Plastics.” –Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin (#42)

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.  Aren’t you?” –Benjamin (#63)

The main themes of this movie include: parental dominance (and by extension, that of the “[don’t trust anyone] over thirty” generation); rebellion against authority (which came naturally in any late Sixties movie); alienation and isolation (which came naturally in the 20th century), and the loss of innocence.

Motifs in the film include water (the fish tank, the swimming pool, the rain), light and darkness (including their extremes, black and white), plants (flowers or ‘jungle’ plants), and clothes with animal designs, or designs suggestive of animals (leopards, giraffes, or zebras, worn by Mrs. Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Benjamin’s mother).

[This analysis is largely my own, but I owe a big debt to the influence of Howard Suber’s analysis of the film.  The analysis is only available on the Criterion Edition Laserdick of the film that, I believe, was released in the 90s for a year or two, and is now rather hard to find.]

The movie begins with Benjamin in an airplane, being passively taken along, going where others would have him go.  “The Sound of Silence” begins with the line, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”  Benjamin is alone among all the other passengers, then in the airport he is seen on a treadmill, once again having something else move him instead of him directing his own movements.

The movie’s very use of “The Sound of Silence” is significant in itself, since the song’s about how people fail to communicate properly, “People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening.”  The paradoxical title expresses this idea aptly.  “And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made,” but they paid no attention to its message, that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”  One of Benjamin’s biggest problems is how neither his parents nor any of the older people, those in authority, ever listen to him.

In his bedroom at home, he sits alone in the dim light (for darkness, suggesting a loss of innocence he will soon experience, and ultimately be liberated by, is his “old friend”), avoiding the mature guests at a graduation party his parents have arranged…more for themselves than for him.  Behind Benjamin is a fish tank, a symbol of the trap he’s found himself in.  All those fish swimming in that small space, unable to swim anywhere else; also, there’s a small black figurine of a scuba diver sitting at the bottom of it.

His father, not at all listening to him when he discusses his worries about his future, makes him go downstairs to meet the guests, all his parents’ mature friends and none of his own (indeed, Ben is so isolated and alienated that he seems to have no friends), of his graduation party.  The party is clearly to give face to his parents, it’s not for his sake; Benjamin, academic success and athletic star, is his parents’ jewellery, to be shown off to impress the neighbours.

One guest, Mr. McGuire, has one word to say to Ben: “Plastics.”  Apparently, there is a great future in plastics, an unnatural, man-made material.  In other words, Ben’s future will be successful, but also fake and phoney, hence his fears about it.  It’s all for his Mom and Dad, and not one bit for his own sake.

After putting up with the guests as best he can, Benjamin goes back up to his room.  Mrs. Robinson walks into the room suddenly, pretending she’s looking for the washroom.  She manipulates him into driving her home even after he’s given her his car keys.  Significantly, instead of just giving them to him, she throws them into the fish tank.  Keys, symbols of a way to freedom–they’re for opening doors or driving cars–have been tossed into Ben’s trap symbol.  In spite of her intentions, the sexual trap she’s luring him into will ultimately, and ironically, lead him to his freedom.

The key to Ben’s freedom is for him to lose his innocence, to go from boyhood to manhood (and be a graduate in a different sense), and feel himself so constricted by both the dominance of his parents and that of his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, that he must rebel against their authority to be free.  The only way he’ll be motivated to rebel–through his love for Elaine Robinson–is to be compelled to snatch her from those who forbid him to be with her, her parents.  And while his parents want to match him to her–for the sake of their own agenda, to create a bond between the Braddocks and the Robinsons (oddly, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Braddock’s partner in a law firm, doesn’t attend Ben’s graduation party!)–Ben would marry her for his own sake.

Ben dislikes his own parents’ oppressiveness so much that, at first, and despite his nervousness around the sexually aggressive Mrs. Robinson, he finds the Robinsons to be replacement parents in a kind of family romance.  Indeed, there is much Freudian symbolism in this movie, and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson (his mother dresses similarly in some respects to her, and is similarly attractive and domineering), a woman twice his age, is clearly Oedipal.

In her home, at the back by the window to the backyard, Mrs. Robinson gives Ben a drink (not listening to his wish not to have one, let alone his wish to leave immediately) and plays some soft mood music.  The ‘cougar woman’ is wearing a dress with a zebra design, and a bra and slip with a leopard design (we’ll see the bra and slip later when she’s undressing in the bedroom); and looking out the back window whose awning has a zebra-like striped design, we see plants that make us think of the jungle.

His nervousness over her continuing seduction of him, with her spread legs, is Oedipal in how, deep down, he is as turned on as he is afraid.  (Later, she asks him if he wants her to seduce him.)  When he asks her if she’s trying to seduce him, we see him asking in a shot through her opened legs, which frame him in a triangle, trapping him in her sexuality.

A child’s Oedipal relationship with his mother can be a source of her dominance over him; and Mrs. Robinson, Ben’s symbolic mother here, is manipulating this Oedipus complex expertly.  When she asks him to bring her purse up to the bedroom, he’d rather leave it at the foot of the stairs; but the undressing beauty angrily commands him to bring it into the bedroom.  And there she displays her nakedness to his horrified–and horny–face.

When Mr. Robinson arrives, and obviously doesn’t know what his wife has just done, he becomes Ben’s symbolic father: he even tells Ben that he thinks of him as a son, and advises him to relax by chasing some girls.

On Benjamin’s 21st birthday (the year he comes of age), Mr. and Mrs. Braddock throw another party…but it’s clearly not for him–again, it’s for themselves, to gain face before their neighbours.  Benjamin is made to dress in a black scuba diving outfit (his birthday gift, it would seem) and go into the backyard swimming pool, an enlarged version of the fish tank, and he is an enlarged version of the scuba diver figurine at the bottom of the fish tank.  Similarly trapped, Ben lets himself sink to the bottom of the pool, and he passively sits there.

At the same time, though, we see the beginnings of Ben’s rebellion against his parents’ authority (like his avoidance of the guests at the graduation party), for instead of swimming about and putting on a show to entertain the neighbours, he just sits there at the bottom, like the figurine in the fish tank.  There is a dialectical tension between his increasing feeling of being trapped, and of his push to freedom.

As mentioned above, Ben was shocked at Mrs. Robinson’s attempted seduction of him, but also aroused.  He calls her from a hotel and asks her to join him.  Nervous as always, his id urges to have his symbolic mother are in a battle with his superego’s chiding him for acting out his taboo Oedipal fantasies.

After being annoyed by elderly guests, other symbolic authority figures, he sees Mrs. Robinson, who is wearing a leopard-skin coat, and we see them sit in an area decorated with more ‘jungle’ plants, appropriate for the ‘animal’ act they’re about to engage in.

After this commencement of their affair, and Ben’s loss of virginity (and innocence), he is now a man, and he lies on an inflatable raft, floating on the surface of the water in his pool, wearing black sunglasses and looking like a stud.  He isn’t trapped under the water of his ‘fish tank,’ so his loss of innocence is the furthering of his liberation, but he’s still in the pool; he must continue striving for freedom to get out completely.

A juxtaposition of images of him in the pool, with his parents, or with Mrs. Robinson ensues, suggesting the association between the Robinsons (his replacement parents in the family romance) and his actual parents.  This association also suggests his Oedipal relationship with his replacement mother.  The montage ends with Ben jumping on the inflatable raft, a visual that quickly switches to the hotel room, with him landing on Mrs. Robinson in bed: his affair with her, his loss of innocence, equals being on top of the pool water, freed (at least relatively) from his trap, the big fish tank that is the swimming pool.

His father is clearly unhappy with his free floating on the pool, drifting instead of ‘swimming’ under the water, if you will, for courses in graduate school.  The Robinsons, his substitute parents, then arrive: in the novel, it’s a very straight-forward get-together; but in the film, the scene is glowing, blurred (seen through his sunglasses), dream-like, for this is Ben’s family romance, with the mother of his new Oedipus complex saying hello to him.

His real mother asks him, while he’s shaving, where he’s going every night.  Like Mrs. Robinson, his mother is also pretty, and wears attractive clothes suggestive of dark sexuality, including the black top she wears in this scene–black, the colour of lost innocence.

After Ben ends the affair with Mrs. Robinson, who forbids him ever to date her daughter Elaine, his parents start pushing him to take her out.  Mr. Braddock is in black and white in the kitchen when he first suggests this (or gives the implied command, actually); then he and Mrs. Braddock pressure Ben some more in the swimming pool, and after Ben tries to resist, his mother says she’ll have to invite all the Robinsons over, causing Ben to fall off his raft and swim deep under the water.  He’s trapped again, like those fish in his fish tank.

After taking Elaine out, being rude to her, and quickly regretting his ungentlemanly behaviour, he opens up to her.  He soon realizes, for the first time in the movie, that he’s found a friend…someone his own age.  Her sweetness is in direct contrast to the vampishness of her mother, who wanted only sex and no conversation.  In Elaine, Ben has a most welcome reverse, which is appropriate, since innocent Elaine is the opposite of Mrs. Robinson.

When Ben is driving over to the Robinsons’ house to meet with Elaine, with whom he’s falling in love, Mrs. Robinson rushes over and gets into his car.  She threatens to tell Elaine about their affair if he continues dating her, putting Ben back into a trap.  Significantly, it’s been raining, and when Ben and Mrs. Robinson run into the house, both of them–two fish submerged in the watery trap of their own fish tank–are soaking wet.

Knowing Elaine hates him now that she knows (or thinks she knows) what happened between him and her mother, Ben contemplates his trap while looking at his fish tank.  The song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” can be heard while he’s watching her, separated by hedges and flowers.  The words, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” are heard over and over; they rhyme with the line, “She once was a true love of mine.”  Innocent Elaine is the flower Ben loves, and her innocence is preventing him, the loser of his own innocence (and therefore of her), from getting her back.

Note how plants have represented both of Ben’s loves: the jungle plants of Mrs. Robinson, the wild woman, the whore; and the flowers of Elaine, the sweet, innocent virgin (as we can safely assume).  When we see Ben on the campus of Elaine’s university in Berkeley, we see an abundance of plants and flowers.

He later tells his parents of his plan to marry Elaine, something that delights them so much that his mother screams for joy (incidentally, Mrs. Braddock is wearing an outfit with a zebra-like design: she’s as wild an animal, in her own way, as Mrs. Robinson is).  The irony here is that all this pressure to comply with parental authority (dating a girl forbidden to him by her mother, his symbolic mother, who used her dominance to make him, symbolically her Oedipus, satisfy her sexually) is giving him the impetus to break free; for Ben doesn’t want Elaine for his parents’ sake–he wants her for his own.

Now, Benjamin is finally taking charge of his life, instead of just passively acquiescing to the demands of his parents, literal or symbolic.  As for his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, his family romance with them is over with, and his opportunity–and need–to rebel against all authority is fully realized.

And Ben sure has a lot of people to rebel against.  He loves Elaine, and even when he convinces her to forgive him and love him back, her parents will never forgive him for his affair with Mrs. Robinson, which has torn her family apart.  Mr. Robinson confronts Ben in his room in Berkeley, and here we see the Oedipal hostility between Ben and his symbolic father.  Elaine’s parents would have her marry Carl, some soulless, preppy type to ensure her never being with Ben.

But that won’t stop him.

As he’s racing in his car to Santa Barbara, the song “Mrs. Robinson” is heard.  Though the song isn’t heard in its final form, the finished lyrics do reflect what’s going on in the movie, and thus are worth referencing: we all wish to help fallen Mrs. Robinson, apparently, telling her to receive Jesus so her sins will be forgiven (in other words, this is salvation by social conformity, submission to authority, and the bourgeois hypocrisy of hiding the affair).  Still, she’s lost her innocence, as has Ben, and the symbols of good, heroic America have gone away, leaving us with the same old corrupt politicians, who’ll never change.

As Ben’s car slows and runs out of gas, so does the guitar strumming of the song; and in its turn, so does the hypocrisy of pretending to be innocent (i.e., Mrs. Robinson the whore attending church) run out of gas.

Ben arrives at the church too late: Elaine has already married Carl; but this won’t stop a man in love.  He bangs on the glass (rather like the fish tank glass) that separates him from the conformist attendees, who include Mrs. Robinson.  Her gloating over his misfortune, in what’s supposed to be a holy place, shows her authoritarian hypocrisy.

But Elaine sees Ben, knowing he truly loves her; and while her parents and Carl are seen yelling angrily at her for looking up lovingly at him, neither we nor Elaine can hear them, for their sound of silence is an oppressive authority we won’t listen to anymore.

Now Ben’s defying the authority of another father, God the Father; and after hitting Mr. Robinson, his symbolic father, Ben picks up a symbol of Church authority, a large Cross, and uses it to defy the authority of everyone in the church.  He swings it at the guests so he and Elaine can escape from the church together, then he bolts the front door of the church with it, trapping all the guests inside (we see them through glass, like those trapped fish in the fish tank), while he and his love run laughing to a bus.

The irony of using a crucifix–a symbol of authority–to liberate himself and Elaine from authority parallels how Ben used his parents’ wish for him to marry her as a way to liberate himself from their dominance.  Also, we must remember the irony of giving in to Mrs. Robinson’s sexual dominance, which started the chain of events–his loss of innocence, his breaking of social taboos, and his dating of her daughter against her wishes–that has led ultimately to not only Ben’s liberation, but also Elaine’s.

Indeed, though she remains (presumably) a virgin till the end of the movie, Elaine loses her innocence, too, by defying her parents and running off with Ben, right after saying her wedding vows!

With Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus, they laugh and grin in victory; but director Nichols wisely let the camera keep going, and after seeing a shot of mostly (if not all) elderly people staring at the young rebels, we see the two stop smiling, just before the ending credits.  This suggests that the movie has ended where it began, with young people passively being taken away instead of moving on their own initiative, and with them uncertain of their future.  After all, what will their parents think of what they’ve just done?

Analysis of ‘Psycho’

Psycho is a psychological suspense/horror film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960.  It is based on the Robert Bloch novel of the same name, published the year before; the novel, in turn, was based on the Ed Gein murders.

Ed Gein was a serial killer in Wisconsin in the 1950s.  A ‘mama’s boy,’ Gein was devastated by the death of his mother in 1945, and felt all alone in the world; when she was alive, she was a domineering, prudish woman, teaching him that all women were sexually promiscuous instruments of the devil.

Soon after her death, Ed began making a “woman suit” so he could “be” his mother by crawling into a woman’s skin.  For this purpose, he tanned the skins of women.  He also admitted to robbing nine graves.  Body parts were found all over his house as ghoulish works of art.  These macabre crimes were the inspiration not only for Psycho, but also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Buffalo Bill character in Silence of the Lambs, and numerous other horror movies.

Psycho is considered the first slasher film; and while it had received only mixed reviews on its release, it is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, and one of the greatest films of all time.  The Ed Gein of the movie, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), was ranked the second greatest movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI), after Hannibal Lecter and before Darth Vader.  The first of the following two quotes was ranked by the AFI as #56 of the greatest movie quotes of all time; the second was nominated for the list.

1. “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” –Norman Bates

2. “We all go a little mad sometimes.” –Norman Bates

A few motifs in Psycho are birds, showers (those in the bathtub, and of rain), and mirrors (including reflections in glass).  These all have specific symbolic meanings.

The bird motif is generally of motionless birds, those in pictures–trapped, as it were, inside frames–or stuffed birds.  Normally, we think of free birds, those free to fly anywhere they wish; but the birds in Psycho are very much trapped and immobile.

Marion Crane (Mary in the novel) is a ‘bird’ in a kind of “private trap.”  She wants to marry her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, but he has debts and alimony to pay, thus making marriage with him not very feasible.  By stealing $40,000, she tries to her escape her trap, the trap of Phoenix, Arizona.  She tries rising like a phoenix from the ashes, so to speak, of her dead-end life there, but a suspecting policeman (along with the suspicions of a used car salesman) begins a pursuit of her that ensures that Crane cannot escape the trap she’s put herself in.  The phoenix can’t rise out of Phoenix.

Norman’s stuffing of birds, as well as the stuffing of another ‘bird’ (British slang for a sexually desirable woman), his mother (for whom he has an unresolved Oedipal fixation, something discussed in Chapter One of Bloch’s novel), represents the trap he is in.  “We scratch and claw” (my emphasis), Norman says, but we can’t get out of our “private traps.”

He kills Marion Crane in the shower–he knocks off that bird–but he’s still in his trap, and he knows it.  Hence his shock at the sight of her body lying over the side of the bathtub, causing him to jerk his body around, hit the wall outside the entrance to the bathroom, and cause the picture of a bird to fall to the floor.  He’s knocked off another bird.  Just like all those birds, Norman Bates is forever trapped.

Showers symbolize purification and redemption, or at least an attempt at it.  The rain that showers on Marion’s car at night, just before she reaches the Bates Motel, happens at a point when she has been thinking about all the trouble she’s gotten herself into.  She realizes that she has aroused not only the suspicion of a cop who saw her in a nervous hurry, and of a used car salesman whom she’s given $700 in cash for a rushed trade of cars, but also of her boss, who saw her nervously drive out of Phoenix when she was supposed to be sleeping off a headache.  With the cleansing rain comes her realization that she must return to Phoenix and take responsibility for what she’s done.

She’s only a little wet from the rain when honking her car horn to get Norman’s attention from up in his house.  During her conversation with him in the parlour room, she admits that she must get out of the private trap she’s put herself in.  Then she takes a shower, whose purifying water washes away the rest of her guilt, refreshing her and putting a smile on her face.  The birds of this movie, however, are always trapped, and we all know what happens next…

We catch people’s reflections many times in this film, either from windows or from mirrors.  These reflected images represent psychological projectionPsycho is very much a psychoanalytic movie, for Hitchcock was heavily influenced by Freud (another notably Freudian film of his was 1945’s Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck).

An early example of projection is when Marion imagines the angry reaction of the rich man after she has stolen his $40,000: she imagines him saying that she was “flirting with [him]” when he laid the money before her, when we all know he was flirting with her.  Of course, her imagining him saying that is her projecting back at him.

Another example of projection, directly symbolized by mirror reflections, is when Lila Crane is looking around in Mrs. Bates’s bedroom.  She sees her reflection in a large mirror, but forgets that another mirror is behind her; for a second, she thinks–as do we, the audience–that a woman (Mrs. Bates?) is behind her, but it’s actually just another mirror reflection of Lila.  She has projected her intrusion into the Bates family’s private space onto Mrs. Bates, briefly imagining Norman’s mother is intruding into Lila’s personal space.  (The theme of intrusion will be dealt with later here.)

The crowning example of projection, however, is that of Norman Bates onto his mother…and of the mother personality projecting back onto Norman.  When talking to Marion in the parlour, he speaks of how Mother “goes a little mad sometimes.”  (See also Quote #2 above.)  He is clearly projecting his own insanity onto her, and onto the rest of the world, as is seen in the second quote above.  As the psychiatrist explains at the end of the movie, Norman’s mother was “a clinging, demanding woman,” but she wasn’t mad.  Norman, on the other hand, had been “dangerously disturbed…ever since his father died.”

Norman himself, in a powerful moment of dramatic irony, admits that his mother is “as harmless as one those stuffed birds.”  The mother personality, just after musing over Norman’s guilt at the film’s end, and projecting her guilt back onto him, says that she can’t allow everyone to believe she’d “killed those girls, and that man,” when all she could do was “sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds.”  The fact that Norman had actually practiced his hobby of taxidermy on her corpse illustrates perfectly, and eerily, the irony of ‘Mother’s’ words.

Norman’s mother, like Ed Gein’s, has a puritanical attitude towards sex, and considers all women to be whores.  When she met a man, however, and had a sexual relationship with him ten years before the story’s beginning, Norman–with his Oedipal fixation–went insane with jealousy and murdered her and her lover with strychnine.  As the psychiatrist points out, “because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was as jealous of him,” and “the mother side of him would go wild” if she ever discovered him to be attracted to another woman; hence Marion’s murder, and those of two other (presumably attractive) girls.  Norman has projected his insane jealousy onto the mother personality.

A particularly important theme that runs throughout this movie is that of intrusion, penetration, or the invasion of privacy.  Hitchcock’s camera has us invade Marion’s and Sam’s privacy in their hotel room at the very beginning of the film, with him bare chested and her in her bra on the bed.

Later, when Marion is in the office at work, the rich man, Tom Cassidy, comes in with her boss; Cassidy begins ogling the beautiful young woman, even sitting on her desk as his eyes are going up and down her body.  He’s had a few drinks, so someone who’s probably normally a gentleman seems to have an excuse not to be now.  Again, we have intruding on someone’s personal space.

After driving out of Phoenix with the $40,000 she’s embezzled, Marion gets tired at night and pulls over to the side of the road to rest.  She’s slept there all night, though, and wakes up to the knocking sound of a policeman tapping on her car window the next day.  Looking through the window and wearing sunglasses that threateningly hide the expression in his eyes, the cop is invading her personal space.

He continues nosing in on her personal business by following her to a used car lot and parking across the road.  Leaning against his car, he’s watching her; and after she’s traded in her car for a new one, he’s in the parking lot, noting the new licence plate.

When she comes to the Bates Motel, she’s now in Norman’s private world, a motel doing bad business because a new highway has made the road to his motel rarely used; hence, he is all alone in his “private trap” with “Mother.”

As he chats with Marion in the parlour room, he shows his sensitivity to private matters by saying, “I didn’t mean to pry,” after asking where she is going.  The prudish young man can’t even say “bathroom” in front of beautiful Marion (for the things done there are so extremely private); and later, when Detective Arbogast asks if Norman spent the night with Marion, he, offended, says, “No!”

Norman is similarly offended when Marion suggests putting “Mother” in an institution, with all those “cruel eyes studying [her],” invading ‘her’ privacy.  Of course, the man his mother had a relationship with also invaded Norman’s private world, and he was so offended with that intrusion that he killed them both.

After the conversation between Norman and Marion in the parlour, he invades her privacy by watching her undress through a peephole in the wall shared by the parlour room and her cabin.

Of course, the shower scene is the ultimate invasion of privacy.  I can imagine this scene being particularly frightening to women, for that phallic knife invading a naked woman’s body is more that a murder: symbolically, it’s a rape.  In Bloch’s novel, she’s decapitated; but a penetrating knife is more symbolically appropriate for the film.

When Lila is talking to Sam in his hardware store about Marion’s disappearance, Detective Arbogast sticks his nose into their personal business by eavesdropping, at the ajar front door, on the conversation, then by interrupting it.  Later, the detective comes into Norman’s private world by asking about Marion, then about his mother, something that especially agitates Norman.

Finally, Arbogast walks right into Norman’s house without any permission to enter, and snoops around, going upstairs.  ‘Mother’s’ knife then invades his personal space, slashing his face and stabbing into him: he who lives by intrusion shall die by intrusion.  After that, the sheriff and police snoop around Norman’s house, forcing him to hide ‘Mother’ in the fruit cellar.

Leading up to the movie’s climax, Sam and Lila intrude on Norman’s private world by pretending to be a married couple looking for a room in the motel.

Sam keeps Norman occupied at the registration desk by chatting with him while Lila goes up to the house.  Sam’s questions get more and more intrusive, aggressive, and accusing, agitating Norman to the point of him telling them just to leave.  Meanwhile, Lila has been snooping in ‘Mother’s’ and Norman’s bedrooms.  In his room, she sees his stuffed toy rabbit, an odd sleeping companion for a grown man, and a book whose inner contents make her shudder.  (In Bloch’s novel, it’s pornography.)

At the film’s climax, Lila hides by the stairs to the basement while Norman is running into the house.  Instead of running outside to safety once he’s gone upstairs, she decides to snoop some more and go down into the basement, which Slavoj Zizek, in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, says represents Norman’s repressed id.  This is his most private place of all, and Lila’s invasion of that privacy allows us to learn the truth about ‘Mother.’

One last thing should be examined: the symbolism of hot and cold in the movie.  At the beginning, in Phoenix, it’s a hot day, first in the hotel with Sam and Marion after a sexual encounter, then in her office, which has no air conditioning, and where that rich lecher is leering at her.  The heat represents Freud’s concept of libido, or the sexual instincts.

Later, when the murders have been committed in the Fairvale area of California, we notice how people are colder.  Lila needs to get her coat before she and Sam go the sheriff’s house; in the police station at the end, the sheriff asks if she’s warm enough; and Norman “feels a slight chill,” and wants a blanket.  The cold represents the psychoanalytic concept of Thanatos, or the death drive.