Analysis of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem is that the bad side turns into Freddy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

I: Introduction

Charlie Wilson’s War is a 2007 film directed by Mike Nichols (his last film) and written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from George Crile III‘s 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. The film stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, with Amy Adams and Ned Beatty.

This is the story of US Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) and Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), who helped bring about Operation Cyclone, the organizing and supporting of the mujahideen against the USSR in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 to 1989.

The film was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy, but it did not win in any category. Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. After all, the real architect of Operation Cyclone wasn’t Wilson, but Zbigniew Brzezinski. Wilson’s charms and the analytical skills of Avrakotos’s team, as well as their planning, were crucial contributions, but it was a big team of people, not just Wilson, that made Operation Cyclone succeed.

Now, I’m less interested in the film’s faithful, or not so faithful, presentation of historical details than I am in the fact that Charlie Wilson’s War is blatant, shameless pro-American/anti-Russian propaganda coming from bourgeois liberal Hollywood. Casting Hanks, with his charisma and star power, as womanizing Wilson is just the icing on the cake to sell the idea that this war led to a “glorious” victory for ‘freedom and democracy.’

II: Needed Historical Context

A huge amount of missing context must be provided so one can truly understand how the war began, who the heroes and villains really were (and are), and how the success of Operation Cyclone has encouraged the American government to attempt repeats of its success in the current Russian/Ukrainian War, as well as a potential one between China and Taiwan…truly disturbing developments.

So before I go into an analysis of Charlie Wilson’s War, I must give a summary of the events in Afghanistan that led up to the war. Contrary to mainstream accounts that the Soviet Union was trying to force its ideology on the Afghans, and therefore invaded the country as an act of imperialism, the Afghan people of the 1970s were moving in a modern, progressive direction, in the direction of socialism (something far removed from the ways of the Taliban today), and they wanted help from the USSR to achieve this modernity.

Now, one can’t expect every Afghan without exception to have been modern and progressive-thinking. It was inevitable that some of them would have been reactionaries, conservatives, and even religious fundamentalists, hell-bent on reversing such progressive gains as improving women’s rights. (I’m curious: should we in the West be sympathetic to such reversals?)

Added to this opposition, naturally, was that of the US and other capitalist countries in NATO fighting the Cold War. Brzezinski, as National Security Advisor during the Carter administration, was a rabid anticommunist eager to bring down the Soviet Union, not caring at all what the political, social, and economic repercussions of such counterrevolution would eventually be. To get an idea of just how ruthless and determined Brzezinski was in getting the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union, just watch the pep talk he gave some of them in this video.

Charlie Wilson’s War portrays the mujahideen fighters as largely sympathetic underdogs, with only a few, slight hints at what they would evolve into by the 1990s and 2000s; but anybody who has done a little cursory reading of who they were and are knows not only that they morphed into the Taliban, but also that Osama bin Laden was one of them, as a photo from a newspaper article from 1993 revealed.

The original draft of the screenplay was meant to end the film with the September 11th attacks, clearly linking these with American government support for the mujahideen. Uncomfortable with this ending, Hanks had the filmmakers replace it with a happier one, where Wilson is awarded as an “honoured colleague” of the CIA. Here we see how liberal Hollywood willingly colludes with the CIA to spread propaganda to glorify the American government and vilify anyone opposed to it.

Now, as for the defeating of the Soviet Union, of which its loss in Afghanistan was one significant factor of many leading to its dissolution, one must carefully study the history of 1990s Russia before glibly assuming that the restoration of capitalism was a ‘triumph of freedom and democracy’ over ‘totalitarianism.’ Contrary to popular belief in the West, most Russians wanted to preserve the socialist system, and poll after poll has consistently shown that majorities of Russians have regretted replacing the Soviet system with capitalism. Similar results have been found when asking the people of other former Soviet Bloc countries about the restoration of capitalism.

So, who really benefitted from the defeat of the Soviet Union? Not ordinary Afghans, who found their hopes for modern and progressive change crushed, only to be oppressed by the fanatical, fundamentalist Taliban. Not ordinary Americans, who would be collectively traumatized by 9/11, and then manipulated into supporting the imperialist plunder of the Middle East in the ongoing quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.

No, the real beneficiaries were and are the neocon, neoliberal, imperialist ruling classes of the West, and liberal Hollywood junk history like that of Charlie Wilson’s War gives Westerners a false narrative that glorifies the shameful reduction of Russia to the impoverished mess it became under Yeltsin in the 1990s, while downplaying the ill effects of arming the mujahideen.

III: Recent and Current Repeats of “Charlie Wilson’s War”

To make matters worse, the US is currently attempting a repeat of “Charlie Wilson’s war” in Ukraine, where instead of arming Muslims to drain Russia of her strength in an agonizing war of attrition, the American government is arming neo-Nazis. Similar extremist mentality, different nationality.

An attempt at this kind of radicalizing also happened in Hong Kong back around 2019, when protestors led by Joshua Wong, who is friends with such neocons as Marco Rubio, were violently attacking anyone deemed Chinese (as opposed to being of Hong Kong) to provoke an invasion from China.

Luckily, and contrary to Western media propaganda, Chinese police showed great restraint in putting down the Hong Kong violence; but will similar provocations be stirred up in Taiwan in the next five to ten years? I hope not, but the Trump administration’s having sold over a billion US dollars in weapons to Taiwan to be pointed at China, as well as the banging of the war drums in Western, especially Australian, media, about ‘protecting Taiwan’ against a Chinese invasion, worries me, a resident of the island.

So, to get back to the movie, all of the above is the historical context one needs to know to have a proper perspective on Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s a liberal fantasy glorifying the US in its defeat of socialism, thus proving to all of us on the left, without a shred of doubt, that liberals are no more our friends than conservatives are. That liberals often posture as progressives should make us especially wary. At least with right-wingers, we know where we stand.

IV: The Film’s Beginning

So the film begins with Wilson getting his recognition from the CIA, that evil organization responsible for coup after coup of leftist governments trying to combat US imperialism, as an “honoured colleague.” This is the kind of feel-good scene meant to move patriotic Americans, liberal and conservative alike, since those two political persuasions–let’s face it–have much more in common (i.e., the motive to protect their imperialist class interests) than they have in contrast to each other.

After this scene, which was around the end of the 1980s, we go back in time to 1980, with Wilson in a hot tub with strippers. Though, as I’ve said, this film is blatant Hollywood liberal propaganda aimed at portraying the American government as the ‘good guys,’ liberating Afghanistan from Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ it also lets out a few, so to speak, Freudian slips that reveal the not-so-noble aspects of the American government. The hedonism and womanizing of Wilson is a key example of that.

In The Liberal Mindset, I discussed the psychological conflict liberals have between their id impulses towards achieving pleasure (Wilson’s chasing of women, cocaine, etc.), their ego‘s wish to stay safe (Wilson trying to steer clear of being charged with drug use), and their superego‘s need to have a clear conscience by doing what’s morally right (fighting for social justice–as Wilson would see it here, that would be helping the mujahideen underdog against the perceived juggernaut of the USSR).

The juxtaposition of Wilson in the hot tub with his seeing the mujahideen on the TV, giving him an urge to help them, perfectly exemplifies this liberal conflict between the pleasure principle and the ego ideal. The juxtaposition also demonstrates the position of privilege an American Congressman has and his ability to influence politics in an imperialistic way, all while keeping alive the illusion in his mind that in arming the mujahideen, he’s doing the right thing.

V: Wilson, a Modern-day Sade

Of course, in ruining the hopes of the Afghans to bring about modernity, socialism, and equality for women, all in the name of protecting ‘American interests,’ as the rationalization is so typically given, Wilson is actually being cruel to the Afghan people, whether he’s consciously aware of it or not. This cruelty, coupled with the transgressive pleasures he’s indulging in with those naked strippers, invites comparison with the wickedness of the libertines in the pornographic novels of the Marquis de Sade.

The subtle reader, looking beyond the scurrilous violence of Sade’s books, will see a political commentary on the privilege and corruption of the rich and powerful, who routinely get away with their crimes because their victims are typically poor. Similarly, Wilson not only manages to evade getting prosecuted for the presence of that cocaine at the hot tub party, but also, even though he and the American government by his admission “fucked up the endgame” in Afghanistan (i.e., the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the explosion of terrorism in the 2000s), none of those responsible for that endgame were punished.

It’s interesting also to compare and contrast Wilson’s attitude toward women with the Taliban’s attitude. Both are sexist, if in opposing ways. The latter would control women by covering their bodies from head to toe to prevent temptations to lewdness; Wilson would control women by objectifying them, having them either relatively or totally undressed, or at least dressed provocatively, thus subjecting them to the pressures of a daily beauty contest. This is what we see later in Wilson’s office, with his bevy of beautiful “Charlie’s angels,” in whom their competence as his assistants (though undeniable) is at best secondary to their physical attractiveness (“Jailbait!”). Again, pleasure is coupled with at least a kind of nastiness.

Now, to be fair to the Charlie Wilson of history, his hiring of his “angels,” as opposed to the hiring of male office assistants, was meant as a feminist promoting of women workers–feminist, that is, by liberal standards, of course. I, however, am little concerned with the Wilson of history; I’m concerned with the Wilson of this bourgeois liberal propaganda effort, something even Hanks in an interview promoting the film acknowledged was often not the real Wilson. The Wilson of the film, the womanizing sexist, is to be examined less as history and more for his contribution to the film’s theme of pleasure-seeking coupled with cruelty.

VI: A Liberal Courting Conservatives

To go into that theme in its other manifestations, let’s consider Wilson’s relationship with socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts). Though he’s a liberal, she’s a conservative born-again Christian. His flirting with her in the movie, regardless of whether or not it has any historical basis, is symbolic of how conservatives and liberals have often worked together to bring down the left. Again, his wish to get her out of her clothes is coupled with their collaboration to defeat the Soviet Union, resulting in all the horrors I mentioned above, regardless of whether they were intended or not. Pleasure is wedded to cruelty once more.

Another juxtaposing of feminine sexuality and its pleasures with capitalist machinations to undermine the USSR is when Wilson and Avrakotos meet with Israeli arms merchant Zvi Rafiah (played by Ken Stott), Hasan (played by Shaun Toub), and the Egyptian Defence Minister (played by Aharon Ipalé) to discuss a better arming of the mujahideen, all while the last of these men is enjoying a belly dance from a personal friend of Wilson’s, Carol Shannon (played by Tracy Phillips).

VII: Gust Avrakotos

I’ve said much of the pleasure-seeking, sexual aspect of this movie. More needs to be said of the nasty aspects, much of which can be seen as personified in the rather uncouth Avratokos, a CIA man. There is much humour to be found in the confrontational scene between him and his superior, Henry Cravely (played by John Slattery), the CIA director of European operations, in Cravely’s office…an incident that really happened, though the superior whom Avratokos told to ‘go and fuck himself,’ twice, was named William Graver.

Avrakotos smashing Cravely’s office window…twice…is a nice touch in how it reinforces for us, viscerally, just how abrasive the man is, an abrasiveness and irascibility brought out so well in Hoffman’s performance. I see this gruffness as another Freudian slip in the film, in that Avrakotos, as a CIA man, is the perfect personification of an American government organization cruelly determined to undermine any attempt by any country to shake off American imperialist influence. Though the CIA is generally portrayed positively in this and pretty much all other Hollywood films, this bit of nastiness from Avrakotos can be seen as a parapraxis of this film.

The conflict between Avrakotos and Cravely exemplifies all so well the alienation felt between workers in the capitalist system, a system aggravated by its ascent to its highest stage, imperialism. Hence, it’s fitting to see that alienation aggravated so proportionately in the heated argument between the two men.

VIII: Criticism of the US vs That of the USSR

Wilson’s first visit to Pakistan to meet President Zia-ul-Haq (played by Om Puri), confronting him and Brigadier Rashid (played by Faran Tahir), and dealing with their annoyance at getting so little money from the US to fight the USSR, is a moment for this liberal film to pretend to engage in a criticism of otherwise heroic America. After all, it would be far too crass to portray the US government as utterly faultless. Allow the Pakistanis to have their legitimate gripes about the scant military funding as “a joke,” as long as both countries are on the same team fighting those commie Reds.

…and what about the Russian Soviets? Make no mistake, the film vilifies them to the hilt, and shamelessly so. We see footage of a parade in Red Square, complete with Red Army soldiers marching, tanks, and an image of Lenin in the background. We hear the soundtrack play, of all songs, “Farewell of Slavianka,” one which certainly had patriotic Soviet lyrics written for it, but which was also used as an unofficial anthem of Admiral Kolchak‘s White Army during the Russian Civil War, the attempt to restore capitalism to Russia just after the November Revolution. Such a choice of song seems to be yet another Freudian slip.

When we see this parade, we’re meant to feel intimidated and threatened by the mighty Soviet ’empire,’ when actually the point of these Soviet displays of military strength was to reassure the Russian people that they were well protected from the far more intimidating and threatening imperialists of the West, who since the dissolution of the USSR have done plenty of the kinds of airstrikes and other atrocities…on Muslims, no less!…that we see this film show the Soviets doing immediately after the parade scene. Remember what Manning and Assange revealed.

The film would have us believe that the Russians went around wantonly firing on innocent, ordinary Afghans out of sheer sadism and malice, which is a hard portrayal to reconcile with the historical reality of the Soviets trying to help the Afghans build a modern, progressive society. The Soviets were fighting the mujahideen, a backward, reactionary people who wanted to reverse any progressive gains for the Afghans, people whose fundamentalist mentality would lead eventually to the repressive Taliban.

Yet Charlie Wilson’s War would have us believe that the mujahideen were sympathetic underdogs desperately in need of American military assistance. A similar portrayal is now being made of the Ukrainian military, laden with neo-Nazis and far-right nationalist, Banderite fascist sympathizers, people whose extremism and viciousness are being downplayed and ignored, if not outright denied, in the Western media. One is reminded of what Malcolm X once said: “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The US and NATO-allied countries liked Russia when Yeltsin was running the country…into the ground…in the 1990s; as unpopular as Yeltsin was, they even helped him get reelected in 1996 when the Communist Party was close to electoral victory. When Putin began to revive the economy of the country in the 2000s, however, the West didn’t like Russia anymore, and its rise–with that of China–threatens the unipolar hegemony of the US and NATO. Though Gorbachev had been promised that, on the reunification of Germany, NATO would move “not one inch eastward,” it most certainly had by the making of this movie. Since NATO has never been Russia’s friend, it’s easy to see why its eastward enlargement has made Russia nervous.

Just a year after Charlie Wilson’s War came out, the Russo-Georgian diplomatic crisis came to a head, resulting in war between the two countries; a big factor in this crisis was the campaigning of George W. Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili for NATO membership for Georgia. Putin’s vehement opposition to such membership, as well as the plan to have Ukraine join, is part of what has made the West so antagonistic to Russia, even as early as the mid-to-late 2000s, and so we see this Russophobic attitude in the film.

This Russophobia is made clear in the scene when, after his meeting with the Pakistani president, Wilson goes to Peshawar and sees the Afghan refugee camp. He sees children whose arms have been blown off by landmines after the kids thought they’d found toys or candy. He hears of raped women, bayonetted pregnant women, and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Soviet troops.

Though admittedly atrocities are committed by soldiers of all armies in all wars to at least some extent, including even Soviet troops (for it is the hellish nature of war that it brings out the brutish in even the best of men sometimes), the extreme nature of what is described here in the film can, to at least a considerable extent, easily be attributed more to anti-Soviet propaganda than to historical fact. So the film’s depiction of Soviet brutality should be taken with a generous grain of salt. Besides, before Americans judge the brutishness of soldiers of other countries (those they’re hostile to in particular), they should first take a look at the crimes the soldiers of their own country are guilty of.

IX: Wilson Meets Avrakotos

Wilson returns to the US, to his office, and meets Avrakotos there. The two men discuss the antiaircraft guns the mujahideen need to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Wilson understands that the plan, so far, as been to drain the USSR of military power ever so slowly in a war of attrition, while of course he wants the mujahideen to be much better equipped, with anti-aircraft guns to shoot down those Soviet helicopters.

Their discussion is interrupted several times by “Charlie’s angels,” who tell Wilson about the danger he’s in of being charged with drug use at that hot tub party with the strippers. To save his hide, he of course must deny any knowledge of or connection with the cocaine that was being snorted at that party.

In this scene, we see the psychological conflict of the liberal on full display. There’s his id‘s indulgence in the pleasures of the party, in conflict with his ego‘s defence against being charged, and his superego‘s moral urging to arm the mujahideen and help the underdog (as he sees it) against the bullying Soviets.

Since Wilson will eventually be cleared of any charges of drug use (though he was most probably guilty of it), we see here the privileges of the well-connected politician, which keep him safe from the kind of prosecution the average person wouldn’t have a prayer of being safe from. And the juxtaposition of his “angels” and their tireless work to help him, with his discussion with Avrakotos about arming the mujahideen, once again reflects the film’s theme of the Sadean coupling of the ruling class’s indulgence in pleasure with its enjoyment of crime with impunity.

There’s Wilson’s impunity from being charged with drug use, and there’s the impunity anyone in the ruling class enjoys after all the ill effects of imperialism have been realized: the destruction of the socialist systems of Russia and the Eastern Bloc, which as I said above were preferred by large percentages of those living there to the predatory capitalism that replaced them. Then there’s the impunity, even forgiveness and rehabilitation, of–for example–the imperialist Bush, simply because he isn’t Trump.

X: Enemies Are Always Friends Against Commies

During the belly-dancing scene, it’s interesting to observe the mutual antagonism between Israeli Zvi and the Muslims he has to cooperate with. He complains of how upsetting it is that the Muslim majority nations don’t acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist,” of the “oppression” of his people, while no mention is made of the Zionist state’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians.

Still, Israel, the US, Egypt, and Pakistan will work together to arm the mujahideen, however secretive they will all insist this collaboration must be. In spite of all their religious, political, and cultural differences and hostile feelings, they’ll all unite against the spread of socialism, ensuring the security of their nations’ class interests. When it comes to money, politicians in the nations of the Abrahamic faiths worship the same God. Indeed, we see Christian Clarence Long (Beatty) saying “God is great!” (Allahu akbar!) to the Afghan refugees in a pep talk that looks like the film’s replacing of Brzezinski with a more likeable face.

Now that Wilson and Avrakotos have assembled their team–including Michael Vickers (played by Christopher Denham)–and they can equip the mujahideen with FIM-92 Stinger missile launchers to bring down the Soviets’ Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, they can turn the Soviet military campaign into a deadly quagmire. As Brzezinski had wanted, the US has given the Soviets their unwinnable Vietnam War. The CIA’s anticommunism budget has risen from $5 million to over $500 million. In keeping with the Russophobic agenda of this film, when the team is all set to strike, we hear Vickers gleefully say, “Let’s kill some Russians!”

XI: The Outcome

Of course, we all know the basic history. The USSR eventually withdrew from Afghanistan and acknowledged defeat. As far as the film is concerned, the US has saved the day by helping the mujahideen, though the Afghans who were hoping for Soviet help in modernizing their country and improving such things as women’s rights could say to Uncle Sam, “Thanks for nothing.”

Indeed, we finally come to a contemplation of the unpleasant repercussions that even the film acknowledges. Avrakotos warns Wilson to take seriously the “crazies” among those they armed in Afghanistan. The American government must look into rehabilitating schools in this post-Soviet era.

Avrakotos illustrates his meaning to Wilson by telling him a Zen master story, that of the lost horse. A boy is given a horse for a gift, but when riding it one day, he falls off and breaks his leg. The town where he lives is invaded, and all the men living there must fight off the invaders, though he can’t because of his leg; most of those men get killed, yet he lives.

As a Zen master is hearing the switches of fortune from good to bad to good again, with each switch of fortune, he just says, “We’ll see,” indicating his awareness of how impermanent good and bad fortune are. Avrakotos is trying to get Wilson to understand how the ‘good’ fortune of the mujahideen defeating the Soviets will become the bad fortune of the rise of the Taliban.

Wilson’s attempt to persuade his colleagues in the government to provide money to rebuild a school in Afghanistan falls on deaf ears. Even this most modest of requests to mitigate a rise in Muslim fundamentalist extremism through education isn’t considered.

Nonetheless, the film ends as it begins, with a happy, feel-good ending (Wilson’s recognition as an “honoured colleague”) meant to warm the hearts of patriotic Americans with Hanks’s charisma, instead of with the more explicit original ending intended, linking the outcome of the war with 9/11.

XII: Conclusion

Still, the film ends with a quote from Wilson: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…and then we fucked up the endgame.” Not quite, Charlie, in spite of even your ideological leanings. These things happened, and they changed the world, but they were anything but glorious. You didn’t just fuck up the endgame: you fucked up everything. The provoking of terrorism was just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Putin is a bourgeois reactionary with no intention whatsoever of re-establishing the USSR (contrary to what some propagandists say), he was right to say that its dissolution was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The demise of the USSR plunged 1990s Russia into poverty and encouraged right-wing, reactionary thinking worldwide. Without a swathe of socialist states to inspire revolution, to deter capitalists from aggravating their war on the poor, Clinton gutted American welfare and signed the Telecommunications Act to allow mergers and acquisitions in the American media, so that now a mere six corporations own and control most of the country’s access to information, freely allowing them to propagandize and manufacture consent for more imperialist wars, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and now, Ukraine.

Back in the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union gave Francis Fukuyama the goofy idea that history had ended, leaving capitalism and liberal democracy at the ultimate zenith of human progress and civilization. “We’ll see,” the Zen master would say…and indeed, the extremes of wealth inequality today, with (as of 2017) eight mega-billionaires sharing the same wealth as that of the millions of the poor half of the whole world’s population, have caused many to reconsider socialism, including the Marxist-Leninist variety espoused in the Soviet Union.

The rapaciousness of capitalism, with its preference of maximizing profit over leaving a healthy Earth for future generations, is accelerating climate change, with rising sea levels, melting Arctic ice (making the polar bear an endangered species), and causing wildfires in many parts of the world right now! Musk‘s ‘green capitalism,’ with his electric cars, is nowhere near a solution, since–apart from its not doing anything about the number one polluter in the world…the American military–it is responsible for the brazenly imperialist outrage of having brought on the short-lived coup d’état in Bolivia, with the intent to steal the country’s lithium reserves.

Worst of all, unchecked US imperialism has reached such extremes that it is currently tempting fate by risking a nuclear WWIII with Russia and China over Western provocations in Ukraine, an attempt to redo what it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Ukrainian neo-Nazis are now among the sympathetic underdogs as far as the mainstream media is concerned, as were the mujahideen. And thus everything has come full circle, with no attempt to learn from the mistakes of the ‘fucked-up endgame.’

But with liberals’ interpretation of these mistakes, it’s hard for them to see how they’re going to fuck up the endgame. After all, just as the American government had been fucking everything up since day one of “Charlie Wilson’s war,” so have they been fucking everything up since day one of the current neoliberal, post-Soviet era.

The fucking-up began with the eastward European expansion of NATO, thus antagonizing Russia. It continued with Bush’s attempts to have Georgia and Ukraine join NATO (around the time this movie was made). Problems escalated when the US and NATO helped oust Yanukovych, replacing him with a NATO-friendly Ukrainian government including neo-Nazis who have been killing ethnic Russians for the past eight years in the Donbass region, thus provoking a Russian intervention as had happened in Afghanistan in 1979.

Still, the liberals kid themselves that the first part of “Charlie Wilson’s war” (actually, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s war) was “glorious,” because…communist totalitarianism, or something (read this for a debunking of that right-wing nonsense, as I don’t feel like repeating my arguments in this post). Now, to be sure, the Soviet Union had more than its share of flaws, especially from the Krushchev era onward, but in spite of these, it was an effective counterweight against Western imperialism, having aided in national liberation movements around the world. In any case, anyone who’s been paying attention for the past thirty years knows that life has been getting shittier and shittier…and what “glorious” thing happened thirty years ago, folks?

Recall a relevant quote from Stalin: “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.”

Like him or loathe him, Stalin was prophetic on this point.

Analysis of ‘One Hour Photo’

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

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

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

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Memento’

Memento is a 2000 thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a pitch by his brother, Jonathan, who wrote the 2001 short story, “Memento Mori.” The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano.

The film’s non-linear storyline presents one set of events backwards and in colour, giving the audience a sense of the anterograde amnesia of its protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Pearce; in the short story, the character’s name is Earl). A black-and-white sequence of events in chronological order is presented in scenes that alternate with the reverse-order, colour scenes. The reverse scenes and chronological ones meet at the climax of the film, with the black and white switching to colour.

Memento was critically acclaimed for its non-linear structure and themes of memory, perception, and self-deception. It received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It’s widely considered one of Nolan’s best films and one of the best films of the 2000s.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here is a link to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, published in Esquire, and here‘s a link to him reading his story.

“Memento Mori” gives the reader the sense of Earl’s inability to form new memories differently from the film’s back-and-forth, reverse vs chronological order: the short story instead presents scenes with large gaps of time between them to disrupt continuity. And instead of the film’s use of “Teddy” (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), who both help and manipulate Leonard, in the short story, the narration shifts back and forth from first to second to third person, leaving the reader to wonder if all three are the same person (my guess), or if someone else is actually helping Earl.

There’s a sense of depersonalization, of derealization, in Earl’s switching from I to you to he to us within the space, often, of just a few paragraphs. Given the extreme disorientation he feels from his condition, such a confusion of identity is perfectly plausible.

The short story directly and indirectly references Hamlet. Given the dominant theme of revenge for the murder of a loved one, such allusions are fitting. Apart from the “to be or not to be” quote, Earl also discusses how the passage of time can weaken one’s resolve for revenge, something Claudius discusses with Laertes in Act IV, Scene vii, lines 108-123:

I know love is begun by time,
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.
And nothing is at a like goodness still.
For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
Dies in his own too-much. That we would do,
We should do when we would, for this “would” changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents.
And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh
That hurts by easing.—But to the quick of th’ ulcer:
Hamlet comes back. What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your father’s son
More than in words?

After the contemplation of this need to act on revenge, Earl finds the motivation to do it. In the film, however, Leonard is, if anything, much too motivated for revenge, since he kills again, and again, and again. Leonard’s revenge truly “dies in his own too much.”

The short story begins with Earl waking up, looking up at a ceiling in an all-white room–a colour suggestive of innocence–in a mental institution. His innocence is that of one, in his oblivion, not knowing what’s happened to him. As his lacunae of lost memories are filled in through his notes and photos, the surroundings get darker: first, yellow, from having almost knocked over a lamp of incandescent light that floods the room with yellow, a symbol of jaundice, his bitterness over his predicament; then, he’s in a dark room where a tattoo artist is inking a message on his arm: I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE.

In contrast to the ‘innocent’ beginning of the short story, the film begins with Leonard already demonstrating his vengeful nastiness, shooting “Teddy” from the (as we later learn, mistaken) belief that he is his wife’s rapist and killer. A clue to who the real culprit is, however, can be gleaned from that tattoo just mentioned on Earl’s arm. Of course, Leonard’s changing of “I” to “John G.” simply demonstrates Leonard’s propensity for projection.

The movie’s beginning of the story with the film going backwards establishes the idea that the coloured parts are presented backwards, to help with audience comprehension. This retrograde motion also represents how what we perceive in the film is the other way around from what’s really happening.

Indeed, those characters we find trustworthy turn out to be untrustworthy, and–even more significantly–those we assume are bad turn out to be largely good. In this connection, the casting of Pantoliano–an actor we tend to see playing villains–is important in how this casting reinforces those prejudices in the audience, for later, we learn that he isn’t so bad after all.

Knowing that Leonard has written “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on the photo for “Teddy,” combined with his toothy grin (which hardly establishes trust), blinds us to the fact that “Teddy” is largely the only real friend Leonard has in the movie. He even openly admits that his real name isn’t “Teddy” but John G., for Gammell. His only dishonest moments are getting Leonard to kill some criminals for him, such as Jimmy Grantz (another “John” or “James G.”, played by Larry Holden), making Leonard think these guys are each the “John G.” he wants to get revenge on. “Teddy” just wants to get his hands on the money in the trunk of Jimmy’s car.

The fact is, undercover cop “Teddy” acts as a kind of psychoanalyst for Leonard, trying to get this forgetful fellow to engage in a bit of ‘know thyself.’ As we learn by the end of the movie, all of Leonard’s distrust of “Teddy” and “his lies” is really just an analysand‘s resistance.

Leonard’s search for his wife’s killer and rapist centres around finding a man named “John G.” or “James G.”, a name so ridiculously common that, convenient for forgetful Leonard, the anterograde amnesiac can keep searching for, killing, then searching for and killing again, and again, and again. One of my brothers is named John G. (in my posts about my family, I refer to him by the initial letter of his middle name, as I do for many of my family members): that’s just how common the name is, that my brother will remain essentially anonymous.

It isn’t just that Leonard forgets having gotten his revenge; it’s the very seeking of it, forever and ever, that satisfies him. The seeking is what gives his life meaning and purpose. Seeking revenge is Leonard’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, only this is not a desire of the sex drive of Eros, but one of Thanatos, the death drive.

The non-linear narrative, splitting up the continuity of the film into alternating colour scenes in reverse order and black-and-white scenes in chronological order, is symbolic of Leonard’s psychologically fragmented perception of the world and of himself. An investigation of what’s really happened to him, leading to the unified narrative at the end, puts the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal Leonard’s real problem.

The crucial element, in working out exactly what Leonard’s problem is, is in another man assumed to have anterograde amnesia: Samuel R. “Sammy” Jankis (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Leonard’s job, originally, was investigating insurance claims, and Sammy, after being tested, is believed to have a psychological, rather than physical, reason not to be able to make new memories, according to Leonard.

As it turns out, though, “Teddy” in his all-too-blunt honesty tells Leonard that Sammy was simply a faker. Leonard’s ‘memories’ of Sammy repeatedly giving his wife insulin shots, one immediately after the other because she wants to test his memory, and leading to her death by overdose, are really projections of Leonard, after his diabetic wife’s rape and his knock on the head, giving her such a series of insulin shots, killing her.

This raises an important question: is Leonard the one whose inability to make new memories is for psychological, rather than physical, reasons? Has he, inspired by Sammy’s fakery, deluded himself into thinking that the knock he got on the head gave him anterograde amnesia? If so, why?

I’m guessing that he couldn’t bear to see his wife’s suffering, the pain on her face, after the rape. He couldn’t bear to remember her post-rape life, so Sammy inspired him to use his knock on the head, actually not strong enough to have caused brain damage, to give him an excuse to believe he can’t make new memories.

Added to this, his wife’s despair over what’s happened to both of them–from the intruders in their home–has made her suicidal. There’s the trauma of her rape, compounded by the fact that her husband is no longer the man he used to be. He, deep down in his unconscious, wants to put her out of her misery, too…and conveniently for him, he’ll ‘forget’ it. Of course, his repressed guilt that he’s his wife’s real killer drives his delusion of having anterograde amnesia even further.

For if his inability to make new memories is physical, we are left with a number of unanswered questions. He should remember nothing from when he got the hit on the head knocking him unconscious. How does he even know he has his “condition”? Every time a set of memories goes, he should feel as if he’s just woken up, with no idea of how he got from being knocked out in his bathroom after trying to stop his wife’s rapist, to wherever he is at the moment. He has no memory of anyone telling him he has anterograde amnesia.

Another thing: he speaks of how “everything fades” when the memory of a new moment vanishes from his mind. If he doesn’t remember any of these new memories, how does he know that they fade?

To go back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, it also makes little sense how Earl, forgetting everything approximately every ten minutes, could ever get his revenge off the ground. Even with help, he’d have to spend every one of those ten minutes or so reviewing everything, and then how would he be able to use his, presumably, ever-so-few remaining seconds to advance his plot of revenge…only to have to write the new things all down, then have to spend more of that ever-so-little time reviewing more and more notes? Leonard would have comparable difficulties with his short periods of consciousness.

So, anterograde amnesia in this film should be understood as a metaphor for repression. Leonard isn’t really forgetting all these post-rape experiences: he’s simply pushing them deep down into his unconscious mind. As with all repressed material, though, the new experiences resurface in forms that are unrecognizable to him.

He speaks of a condition that he can’t possibly remember being told he has. He speaks of all new memories fading, when he shouldn’t even be able to remember the fading. What he calls ‘fading’ is really just the process of repression.

The unrecognizable form of his memory of giving his wife the all-too-quickly repeated insulin shots is his projection of that memory onto Sammy, when he has no way of knowing anything about Sammy supposedly giving the excessive shots to his wife.

Other little slips come out, suggesting that deep down, Leonard is remembering more than he lets on to. His angered, paranoid reaction to finding “Teddy” hanging out in the passenger’s seat of his car (Jimmy Grantz’s, actually) suggests that Leonard remembers how “Teddy” has reminded him of the uncomfortable truth that he killed his wife with the insulin, not her rapist, and that it wasn’t Sammy who overdosed his wife.

Leonard appears at Natalie’s house with a photo of Dodd. His asking her, angrily and full of suspicion, about who Dodd is suggests that he has a trace of the memory of her taunting him about how she’ll manipulate his inability to form new memories, of how she spoke abusively about what a “retard” he is, and about his “whore” of a wife, provoking him to hit her and put that cut on her lip.

In fact, when Natalie taunts him by saying his “whore” wife must have gotten a venereal disease from sexual contact with so many men behind his back, and that his getting the disease from her could have caused his anterograde amnesia, he finds this especially triggering. We can connect this trigger with his sticking of a phallic needle into his wife’s thigh, close to her own genitals; his giving her the excessive shots in this way, leading to her death, can be seen as a symbolic rape. This fact dovetails with that tattoo on Earl’s arm: he reads those words himself–I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE. Remember that Earl is both I and YOU.

Indeed, it’s interesting how, after Leonard kills Jimmy Grantz, he puts the body in the basement of the abandoned building, this basement being symbolic of Leonard’s unconscious; this placing the body there is symbolic of repression. Leonard also puts on Jimmy’s suit and takes his car, symbolically identifying himself with the man he imagines is his wife’s rapist and murderer. We see Leonard in that suit for the vast majority of the coloured sequences in the film, implying that he has been the real killer all along.

Leonard gets triggered when he hears dying Jimmy whisper Sammy’s name; it shouldn’t otherwise matter, since as “Teddy” points out, Leonard tells everybody about Sammy. The implication behind him telling everybody about Sammy is that it is a circuitous kind of confession of his own guilt in killing his wife.

There’s no reason to believe “Teddy” is lying about everything he reveals to Leonard about what really happened to him and his wife, she who survived the attack and therefore wasn’t killed by the intruder in their home. “Teddy” has nothing to gain by lying about any of that; in fact, the ugly truths he reveals, too painful for Leonard to face, ironically cause Leonard to write “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on his photo for “Teddy,” which in turn ultimately leads to Leonard killing “Teddy.” The fact is, Leonard is the real liar, and he’s projecting his mendacity onto “Teddy.”

The real reason none of his photos or notes can adequately replace his memory is that they’re static: they don’t flow with time, since reality is fluid, not static, so they lack the crucial context needed for their meaning to be correctly interpreted. This lack of context, nonetheless, is convenient for Leonard, since he doesn’t really want to remember, anyway. His notes and photos fool him into thinking he’s remembering what’s essential, but this of course is nonsense. He talks about “facts” being better than memory, but static facts without context are useless.

That ending of the film, when he consciously decides to forget the ugly truth that “Teddy” has told him, is representative of what his unconscious mind does after every so many minutes of each new, post-rape experience. He forgets new things not because he can’t remember them, but because he doesn’t want to. This last scene simply presents that unwillingness to remember–an unwillingness that pervades the whole film–in its most blatant, naked form.

To get back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story again, the narrator, just before the end, says something significant: “Time is an absurdity. an abstraction. The only thing that matters is this moment. This moment a million times over.” In the paragraph before this quote, he says, “Time is three things for most people [i.e., past, present, and future], but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment.”

These passages remind me of how Buddhists speak of the eternal NOW as the only one time that has any real meaning or existence. The past and future are just mental constructs with no material validity. If we could just ground ourselves in the NOW, and not ruminate over our unhappy pasts or worry about our futures, we’d be happy–we’d have peace.

That Earl would speak of having only the present to live in, with no sense of moving time, always forgetting the (recent) past, he seems to be living a perverse version of this Buddhist wisdom. Of course, neither he nor Leonard will ever, or can ever, attain peace of mind.

Now, his past isn’t completely in a state of oblivion–he still remembers everything up until his wife’s rape, and as I’ve explained, it’s not that he’s forgetting everything after her rape, but rather he’s repressing the post-rape memories–and this lack of complete oblivion makes all the difference. These voids in his mind, from her rape onwards, are repressed traumas that make up the undifferentiated, inexpressible psychic world of what Lacan called the Real.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Real–or Bion‘s O–can be traumatic or blissful, depending on one’s attitude towards it. The Buddhist experiences the oblivion of past and future, focusing on the present, as blissful because he lets of of his ego. Earl/Leonard, on the other hand, experiences this oblivion of the Real as traumatic because, apart from not completely forgetting the past, he’s still attached to his egoistic experience of the world.

After all, the whole point of attaining bliss, peace of mind, is to extinguish desire, craving, attachment; but Earl/Leonard is doing the opposite. Our forgetful protagonist not only desires revenge, but is perpetuating the seeking of that revenge by creating an unsolvable mystery… the ever-elusive identity of “John G.” His murderous objet petit a can never be extinguished, because it can never be attained.

In fact, the key to ending his trauma is precisely to remember it, to recall it in all of its excruciating brutality. Yet Earl/Leonard is really just an extreme version of all of us. None of us wants to remember what has hurt us, so we conveniently try to forget our traumas, or we only selectively remember them, cherry-picking what’s comfortable for us and discarding what isn’t.

Our therapists tell us we’ve got to feel the pain in order to heal it…but who wants to do that? Leonard certainly doesn’t want to; that’s why he burns those photos of himself (smiling upon achieving his revenge…or so he thought) and Jimmy. He burns them in the fire of a desire he never wishes to blow out, because Thanatos is his new life.

Not to be, that is his answer.

Analysis of ‘Dr. Strangelove’

I: Introduction

Why I’m analyzing this film now, during these perilous times, should be self-explanatory.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a 1964 black comedy co-written, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Loosely based on the 1958 thriller novel Red Alert, by Peter George (who, with Terry Southern, co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick), the film stars Peter Sellers (in three roles), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens.

Considered not only one of the best comedies, but also one of the best films in general, of all time, Dr. Strangelove was ranked the third funniest film, and of the best films, ranked #26 in 1998, then #39 in 2007, according to the AFI.

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

II: Sex in a Film about Death

One striking thing noticed as early as the opening credits, and recurring in various forms throughout the film, is the use of sexual themes and symbolism. That phallic/yonic refuelling of planes in midair is obvious. There’s Major T.J. “King” Kong (Pickens) reading a Playboy magazine (the cover of which shows seminude Tracey Reed, who as the only [and, of course, totally objectified] female in the movie, also plays Miss Scott, the bikini-clad, high-heeled secretary and mistress of General Buck Turgidson [Scott]). Other examples of sexual themes will be mentioned later.

What is interesting about sexuality permeating a film dealing with the threat of annihilation of all life on Earth is what this paradox could mean. Desire gives rise (pardon the expression) to sex, which brings about life. Hate, fear, and egotism have given rise to the Bomb, which ends all life.

Desire, understood in the Lacanian sense, is caused by lack, specifically that of the symbolic castration a boy experiences in not being able to be the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, a privation coming from le Non! du père. The child, as he’s growing up, tries to replace the mother (the unfulfillable objet petit a) with any other woman he can find. Any threat to the satisfaction of his desire will trigger the original narcissistic trauma of the Oedipus complex.

The triggering of such a trauma is the basis of how to understand the madness of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden), whose comical name change–from that of his serious equivalent in George’s novel, General Quinten–is apt, given how his namesake, the misogynistic serial killer, mutilated the abdomens of prostitutes, removing internal organs. If one can’t have the object of one’s desire, one will destroy it. In this, we can resolve the paradox of sex and killing in the film.

Ripper’s paranoia about “the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify [sic] all of our precious bodily fluids” (in his case, his semen) is this symbolic castration. He’s afraid that the commies will make him less of a man, like Daddy keeping him, as a little boy, from having his mother. Such a humiliating infantilization is intolerable. Male insecurity thus threatens all life on Earth.

III: The Turds of Turgidson

Parallel to Ripper’s experience is that of Turgidson, whose sexual encounter with Miss Scott is interrupted by his summons to the War Room. The wish to kill is caused by the failure to get laid.

More insights into Turgidson’s personality can be gleaned right from that first scene of his with his mistress. Not only is he using the bathroom, meaning she has to answer the phone for him, but he’s in there for quite a while, making it safe to assume that he’s taking a shit. While the comical name “Turgidson” indicates his turgid personality (i.e., he’s bombastic, something immediately apparent in the way Kubrick manipulated Scott into playing the role in the over-the-top way we see him do it), I also hear in his name a pun on “turd son.” Now, “turd” and “turgid” lead to my next point.

His very first act in the film is crapping. He therefore has what Freudians would call an anally-expulsive character, which means someone given to such traits as cruelty, emotional outbursts, disorganization, ambition, conceit, suspicion, rebelliousness, and carelessness. We see all these traits, in one form or another, in Turgidson. He’s someone who liberally ‘lets it all out,’ as opposed to the tight-fisted, orderly, and fastidious anal retentive who ‘holds it all in.’

It should be noted, in connection with anal expulsiveness, that dropping bombs can be symbolic of dropping turds. The anally-expulsive cruelty, ambition, conceit, and carelessness of nuclear war amounts to shitting on the enemy. As a pre-genital fixation, anal expulsiveness can also be understood as the result of sexual frustration seen not only in Turgidson’s having to leave his mistress for the War Room, but also in Ripper (as in ‘ripper of farts’) not wanting any sapping of his “precious bodily fluids.” Note Karl Abraham‘s comments on the association of defecation with “enormous power” (PDF, page 6), which can be seen as a narcissistic reaction against the loss of sexual potency or opportunity.

Such anal fixations, understand, are a manifestation of erotic feeling (“anal erotism”), from the anal stage of psychosexual development, and therefore they are an example of the film’s link between sexuality and nuclear annihilation. (Now, if you, Dear Reader, consider Freud to be a heap of hooey, understand that his ideas were more in vogue at the time of the making of Dr. Strangelove, and therefore psychoanalytic interpretations of it are valid. Besides, I’m not concerned with the scientific accuracy of these theories; I’m merely using them for their symbolic value.)

IV: The Main Characters

We ought now to look at the three characters Peter Sellers plays: an Englishman (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake), an American (President Merkin Muffley), and a German (Dr. Strangelove, or Merkwürdigliebe). The nationalities of these three characters is significant in how they represent not only Anglo-American, western imperialism, but also another element of North European origin–a German immigrant whose Nazi proclivities personify Operation Paperclip. That the same actor would play all three characters strongly implies the sameness of all three countries in their roles in the Cold War.

Mandrake is the stereotypically reserved, timid Brit. Dr. Strangelove’s maniacal Naziism, to the point of his alien hand syndrome (i.e., his involuntary Nazi saluting), suggests self-alienation (i.e., Muffley, to whom he gives his salutes, is Strangelove’s metaphorical mirror–played by the same actor–and therefore his narcissistic ideal-I“Mein Führer!”) and psychological fragmentation resulting from his extreme, fascistic, narcissistic defence of capitalism. Muffley is less comical, except for the sexual suggestiveness of “merkin” and Muffley, implying a male sexual inadequacy similar to that of Turgidson and Ripper.

Along with the British and German stereotypes of Mandrake and Strangelove, there’s also the American cowboy stereotype of Pickens’ Major Kong. Pickens practically played himself in the movie, to paraphrase a comment James Earl Jones (who played Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, the B-52’s bombardier) made of Pickens.

Since this movie was made by liberals, they couldn’t of course limit their satirical stereotyping to targets of the West; so they made sure to make fun of Russians, too. When Muffley talks on the phone with Russian Premier Dmitri Kissov, the latter is drunk…naturally. Furthermore, according to Ripper, Russians drink vodka instead of water.

V: The Plot (and Current-day Parallels)

Now, as for the plot, to show detail by detail how relevant this film is for our time, I’ll parallel what happens in it with recent events. It doesn’t matter that Kubrick, George, and Southern had no foreknowledge of today’s geopolitical tensions: nuclear brinksmanship is as insane an idea now as it was then, and it’s driven by the same basic motives: paranoia, lust for global dominance, and ambition…regardless of whether Russia is communist or capitalist.

Ripper (Quinten in the novel, remember), in his madness, orders a nuclear strike on Russia, claiming that it’s in retaliation for a strike against the US that hasn’t happened. The US/NATO, deceiving the global media for years about “Russian aggression,” have expanded NATO right up to Russia’s border, put NATO troops there to do military exercises in obvious preparation for war, have been trying to get Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, achieved a coup against the government of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 (replacing it with one including neo-Nazis), and provoked a Russian intervention in Ukraine, all increasing the likelihood of a nuclear WWIII (read this for more details; scroll down towards the end).

Next, Ripper ensures that all communications are cut off, making it impossible for the president to recall the planes. An interesting parallel to this in today’s predicament is in how, alongside the heavy sanctions and wanton discrimination against all things Russian, there has also been a draconian censoring of all Russian media, including the shutting down of media sources merely associated with the likes of, say, RT (e.g., Lee Camp‘s ‘Redacted Tonight’).

Just as the inability to recall the planes, to tell them to call off the attack, heightens the danger of nuclear war in the film, so does denying the Russians of today the right to tell their side of the story in the war with Ukraine heighten the danger of a nuclear WWIII. For if everyone in the world just mindlessly and uncritically goes along with the ‘Putin bad’ narrative, such one-sidedness more easily manufactures consent for war with Russia, which can pull in its ally, China. These two countries’ nukes, combined with those of their provocateurs, the US/NATO, spell disaster for all of us on the planet.

The ‘Putin bad’ narrative is every bit as much propaganda as any ‘Putin blameless’ narrative would be; this is why both sides of the story must be allowed to be freely expressed–the combined two will bring balance and could very well lead to a much-needed détente. The war-mongering Western imperialists, the Jack D. Rippers of today, don’t want that détente. They keep funnelling weapons to Ukrainian neo-Nazis, Facebook is ‘temporarily’ allowing the incitement to violence against Russia and defence of the Azov Battalion, and the US/NATO, instead of militarily helping Ukraine, is allowing this war to be protracted in the hopes of slowly bleeding out Russia à la Brzezinski (i.e., the Soviet/Afghan War of the 1980s).

VI: One-sidedness and Chatting on the Phone

With this one-sidedness of communication in Dr. Strangelove comes a recurring motif: chatting on the telephone. Indeed, the tagline for the film is “the hot-line suspense comedy,” seen on the theatrical release poster showing two men on the phone.

Miss Scott, Turgidson’s secretary/mistress, chats on the phone in his place with the one who needs him in the War Room. Ripper phones Mandrake about the strike on the USSR. Later, Mandrake needs to contact the president by pay phone to tell him the three-letter recall code. And there is that hilarious phone conversation between Muffley and Kissov.

Showing all these phone calls means hearing only the voice of the speaker in the room, not the speaker on the other end. This presentation of the phone conversations symbolizes the one-sidedness of communication that is bad for keeping the peace. This one-sidedness is so much at the root of all war: a failure to listen, to empathize with the needs of the other side.

Consider the absurdity of Muffley’s call to Kissov, how awkward it is for the former to tell the latter that one of his generals “did a silly thing” and attacked the USSR. The hilarious climax to this ridiculous conversation is the competition between the two heads of state as to who is sorrier than the other for the crisis. Even an apology can be turned into a fight.

VII: The Idiocy of Pushing for Nuclear Armageddon

George’s novel tells the story as a serious thriller, but the film improves on the tension through the ironic use of black comedy; for only comedy can send the message home of the madness of nuclear brinksmanship. Only an idiot would risk the annihilation of all life on Earth just to get “the Russkies.”

Part of the idiocy in taking such a risk is the belief that, somehow, the West can hit Russia with such thorough force that a retaliatory attack can be prevented, and therefore only the enemy will be wiped out, the West suffering no losses, or suffering minimal losses. In other words, there is the chimeric hope that a sizeable portion of life on Earth will survive.

This hope of surviving life is part of what the film’s sexual themes represent, as they are juxtaposed with the themes of death and destruction. The penile-vaginal symbolism of the plane refuelling at the beginning of Dr. Strangelove is the refuelling of a B-52 bomber. The very name of the film suggests sexual perversity, one that I’ve theorized of as being a regression to a pre-genital libido, the anal stage, when satisfying the genital stage‘s libido has been frustrated (Ripper, Turgidson). Added to this is grinning Strangelove as he discusses the polygynous arrangements to repopulate the Earth underground after the nuclear holocaust.

Turgidson’s optimistic estimates of ‘only’ twenty million people killed, as against 150 million people killed–that is, from the US hitting the USSR without the latter’s retaliation, as opposed to a US hit with that retaliation–is another example of this absurd hope of preserving life after a nuclear holocaust. With this comes the cruel one-sidedness of thinking that only American lives matter, not Russian ones.

This absurd hope of life after nuking is satirized beautifully at the end, with the song “We’ll Meet Again” playing during the showing of a series of mushroom clouds indicating the wiping out of all life on Earth, symbolic phallic ejaculations, or droppings of turds splashing in the toilet bowl water. These paradoxical juxtapositions–sexuality vs destruction, and genital vs anal eroticism–symbolize the foolish hope of life after nuclear war.

Among the things that saved us from nuclear war during the Cold War, apart from the sheer luck of evading a number of close calls, was the understanding of Mutual Assured Destruction, having the apt acronym of MAD. Yet some in recent years have been advocating the making of more nukes in the US to counter the supposed double threat of Russia and China. And some in the American government actually think a nuclear war against Russian and China can be won.

VIII: The Attempt to Apprehend Ripper

An attempt is made, in the novel as well as in the film, by the American military to penetrate the base where the mad general is and get the recall code from him. Seeing the sign, “Peace is our Profession” (the actual slogan of SAC!), reinforces the absurd contradiction noted before of sex and death, and of the genitals and the anus. That hope of fighting wars to establish peace is no less chimeric than that of life after the use of nukes.

Some of the firing on the base results in bullets going through the windows of Ripper’s office, where he not only brings over a large, phallic machine gun to fire back with, but he also congratulates the soldiers shooting at him for putting up a good fight. The firing of guns is symbolically like ejaculating phalli, especially for Ripper, who I believe is firing back at his attackers more out of a wish to demonstrate, symbolically speaking, his sexual prowess than out of a wish to defeat the enemy. Significantly, it’s during this time that he tells Mandrake how he devised his “bodily fluids” theory “during the physical act of love.”

Ripper’s bizarre theory of fluoridation as a ‘commie plot’ (actually, it began in the US to reduce tooth decay) covers what suspiciously sounds like his fears of losing sexual potency. His self-assurance of the “power” that “women sense” in him sounds like a reaction formation against his fears of his waning sexual power (after all, Ripper would be in at least his late 40s).

IX: Ripper, the Chinese King?

His ideas about “purity of essence” actually sound like old Chinese notions of , “virtue” (but also magical power), which was something an old Chinese king, or so it was believed, needed to have nourished and perpetuated in himself through a large number of female sexual partners–namely, his queen, consorts, wives, and concubines (Gulik, pages 12 and 17).

Sex for the Chinese not only resulted in the birth of needed sons to continue the family line in the old patrilineal system; it was also said to strengthen the man’s vitality (his yang-essence) by making him absorb the woman’s yin-essence. To maximize his vitality, he’d stay inside her, getting her yin-essence, while practicing coitus reservatus (Gulik, page 46). So when Ripper says he denies women his essence, it sounds as if he’s emulating the old Chinese practice, as a kind of narcissistic identifying with the Chinese emperors; when actually, as I suspect, he simply can’t come.

X: Quinten’s Projective Motives

In the novel, Quinten’s reason for ordering the nuclear strike is in reaction to the many atrocities he claims himself or others to have seen communists perpetrate (Chapter 11, PDF pages 82-90). When he speaks of Mongolians raping any females aged six to sixty, or of the Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary and firing at crowds of helpless women and children, or of the Soviet willingness to strike the first blow, Quinten is engaging in pure projection.

American soldiers were sexually exploiting South Korean women from the Korean War onwards in their military occupation of the area. They bombed every inch of North Korea, killing helpless civilians; and they struck the first nuclear blows, ever, on Japan, not even a socialist state. Quinten talks the usual rubbish about Americans never initiating nuclear war, yet he has done exactly that.

He speaks of the Soviet lust for world domination, yet the US and NATO have continued with that very lusting long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union: all one has to see is what the Western alliance has done to Yugoslavia and Libya, as well as how they’ve been provoking Russia by expanding eastward. The US will never accept a multipolar world, sharing power with Russia and China, because the US wants unipolarity to be permanent–in other words, they want world domination.

In spite of the contrast between Ripper’s comical motives to start nuclear war and Quinten’s serious, if hypocritical, ones, we can actually fuse them. The neurotic need to maintain American political dominance over the world can be linked to the insecure male need to maintain sexual virility. This is why I associated Ripper’s obsession with “purity of essence” with Chinese emperors’ maintaining of the yang-essence with a maximum of female lovers and through coitus reservatus. In denying women his essence, Ripper can feel like a Chinese king. Similarly, in wiping out the Soviet Union, he in his madness thinks he’ll achieve “peace on Earth,” imagining the lack of an enemy will make war a thing of the past. “Peace on Earth” through “purity of essence”…through this, Mandrake has found the recall code.

XI: Ripper’s Suicide

Ripper succumbs to despair when he realizes that his soldiers’ defence of Burpelson Base has failed, and that he’ll be apprehended, probably tortured, and forced to give up the recall code. What’s interesting is that he has succumbed to this despair just after having discussed his obsession with “purity of essence” with Mandrake, and telling him how it relates to his sexual prowess with women.

Since, as I mentioned above, his boasting of his “power” over women is really a reaction formation hiding his lack of such power, I suspect that his despair comes from realizing that he feels he’s a failure as a man; his true, repressed motives have returned to consciousness. His soldiers’ failure to defend the base reinforces that sense of failure in his mind, so he kills himself.

What anal expulsion (including the ripping of farts), ejaculation, and even the burps of Burpelson Base can be seen to symbolize is not only the projection of what is bad in oneself, but also the projective identification of that badness. As I said above, so much of the evil Quinten sees in communism is just a projection of the evils of US/NATO imperialism; and since projective identification involves provoking the receiver of the projections to manifest essentially the same evils, then it’s easy to see how Ripper’s/Quinten’s nuclear strike can, or actually does, provoke a retaliatory strike from Russia.

XII: Splitting–Retaining the White and Expelling the Black

Since Ripper’s retention of his semen, the denial of his “essence,” during his lovemaking is, in his narcissistic imagination, his retaining of what is good in him, we see in his attitude the need to keep what’s good inside oneself and the need to expel what’s bad.

This retention of what’s good in oneself (semen) and expulsion of what’s bad (shit, flatulence) is rooted in a psychological state that Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. It’s “schizoid” because it involves splitting everything into absolute good and absolute bad (black and white), then keeping the good and expelling the bad; it’s “paranoid” because there’s a fear of the bad returning to oneself (in Ripper’s/Quinten’s case, the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack based on the wish to attack the Soviets).

A healthy mind, however, can see the inner and outer worlds as being a mix of good and bad, not a white inside and a black outside. Men like Ripper and Turgidson, in their paranoia about “commies,” fail to understand this ambiguous reality, what Klein called the depressive position. Ripper, though, in his suicidal despair, acknowledging he’ll have to answer for what he’s done, has finally come to understand that he has some evil inside himself, and his attempt to expel that evil, to dump nuclear turds, so to speak, on Russia, will never purify him of that evil. Hence, his suicide.

Projective identification onto the USSR is successful, however, not only through the Soviets making their own nukes, but also in their creation of the “doomsday device,” which has been inspired by the Americans’ apparent creation of a similar device, something the Soviet ambassador, Alexei de Sadeski (played by Peter Bull), says the Soviets learned of from reading the New York Times. In the novel, the equivalent of the doomsday device is a group of nuclear bombs in the Ural Mountains.

XIII: “Preverts”

Colonel Bat Guano (played by Keenan Wynn) comes into Ripper’s office and points his rifle at Mandrake. As he’s taking Mandrake out of the office and they reach a pay telephone, he says he imagines that Mandrake and his followers were being “preverts.” This fits in not only with the sexual themes of the film in general, but it is also another link between Mandrake and Sellers’s third character, Strangelove, if only in name.

Lacking sufficient pocket change for the pay phone, Mandrake tells Guano to fire at a nearby Coke machine. That Guano, a military man, is concerned about damaging private property is a reminder to us all that during the Cold War, Western armies worked for capitalists, not mere government. Armies for the most part still do so today.

Speaking of sexual themes (in a symbolic sense, at least), when Guano fires holes into the Coke machine and the coins come falling out, he bends down to pick them up, but gets a facial from Coke spraying on him from one of the holes he’s shot bullets into.

In effect, a money shot.

Does this make him, at least symbolically speaking, one of the “preverts”? Mandrake never was one: did Guano project his “preversion” onto Mandrake?

In any case, this ejaculation of coins has made it possible for Mandrake to call the president and tell him the recall code, which as it turns out is correct. The bomber planes have all been either recalled or shot down by the Soviets…all of them, that is, except for Major Kong’s plane, which has only been damaged.

XIV: A Constipated Plane?

The plane has reached the point where it’s supposed to drop a nuke, but damage to the plane has made it unable to release the bomb; so Kong has to go down to where the bombs are and fix the problem.

To go back to a discussion of how dropping bombs can be symbolic of defecating, we can see–in Kong’s problem getting the bomb to be released–not only the symbolism of constipation, and of anal retentiveness as opposed to anal expulsion, but also the genital symbolism of someone–like Ripper, as I’ve speculated–who can’t come.

As Karl Abraham once noted (PDF, page 6), “If we recognize in the child’s pride in evacuation a primitive feeling of power we can understand the peculiar feeling of helplessness we so often find in neurotically constipated patients. Their libido has been displaced from the genital to the anal zone, and they deplore the inhibition of the bowel function just as though it were a genital impotence.”

Later, Abraham says (PDF, page 11), “In individuals with more or less impaired genitality we regularly find an unconscious tendency to regard the anal function as the productive activity, and to make it appear as if the genital activity were unessential and the anal one far more important.” Then (PDF, page 12), “certain neurotics…retain the contents of the bowel or bladder as long as they possibly can. When finally they yield to the need that has become too strong for them there is no further holding back, and they evacuate the entire contents. A fact to be particularly noted here is that there is a double pleasure, that of holding back the excreta, and that of evacuating it. The essential difference between the two forms of pleasure lies in the protracted nature of the process in the one case, and in its rapid course in the other.”

These elements that Abraham spoke of tie in with the sexual dysfunction I find in Ripper, as well as the sexual frustration of Turgidson in not being able to be with his mistress; they also tie in with Kong’s initial frustration with the bomb, and with his ultimate, triumphant joy in finally releasing it, him cheering as he’s going down with it. We see in the hilarious, iconic shot, his riding the dropping bomb like a man riding his lover, but also the symbolic pleasure of the final release of faeces. The anal and genital zones are thus fused.

This fusion of genital and anal symbolism reflects the neurotic Western capitalist need to be always dominant, and to hog all pleasure to oneself. If one can’t have the pleasure, one must destroy everything. If Ripper can’t have his “purity of essence,” then he must nuke the world. The dominant crapper must rule the world from…the throne.

XV: Underground

So, the film ends with a discussion in the War Room about how to ensure the survival of the human race, underground in mine shafts, after the nuclear holocaust and the global spread of nuclear fallout from the doomsday device over 93 years. Dr. Strangelove recommends a ratio of one man to every group of ten “highly stimulating” women, to breed and repopulate the Earth for when the 93 years are over. Again, we have a juxtaposition of death and sex.

The underground has multiple symbolic meanings. As the ‘bowels of the Earth,’ so to speak, the underground can represent the intestines and the rectum, so we return to our anal symbolism. The “prodigious” breeding that will go on underground, since there will be little else to do, provides the erotic aspect. The breeding human race will be retained underground for the 93 years, until finally let out, expelled, to return to the surface and enjoy the relief therefrom; in this experience, symbolically, we have a fusion of genital and anal eroticism.

The underground is also symbolic of the Underworld, the land of the dead–Sheol, Hades, Hell, a world resulting from the death caused by the nuclear holocaust. Yet prodigious breeding, the creation of life, will be happening there, so we have a juxtaposition of death and life, paralleling that of the anus and genitals, and of shit and the yang-essence…the ejaculation of semen.

A third symbolism of the underground mine shafts is the unconscious mind, where all the repressed drives dwell. These drives would be Eros, the life instincts that include libido, and Thanatos, the death drive.

Now, dreams, the interpretation of which is “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” involve wish-fulfillment. This is why Dr. Strangelove is grinning lewdly as he describes this underground orgy: he, deep down in his mind, fantasizes about being part of the fun. This unconscious is also expressed in slips of the tongue and other parapraxes, such as his accidentally addressing the president as “Mein Führer” (which reinforces the connection between the ultra-capitalist US and fascism), as well as his (involuntary?) Nazi salutes.

Yet another thing that should be mentioned, in connection with the underground mine shafts as a place to survive the nuclear fallout, is that in real life, the super-rich currently have underground bunkers in anticipation of a nuclear WWIII. This should help explain the recklessness with which the US and NATO have been tempting fate with Russia and China. Again, they imagine they’ll survive, while they don’t care the tiniest, most contemptible bit that all of the rest of us will die horribly from their irresponsible scheming.

XVI: Conclusion

The ironic difference between the bitterly comedic ending of Dr. Strangelove and the serious but happy ending of Red Alert–in which one is relieved to have just barely prevented nuclear war–is that the former ends with a trivializing spirit of levity towards nuclear brinksmanship that results in a nuclear holocaust, while in the latter, only the most serious commitment to preventing nuclear war will save us. The film is superior to the novel, in my opinion, because of the former’s emphasis on how human foolishness will kill us all, and preventing that foolishness depends, in large part, on our being made aware of that folly.

So, like Ripper and Turgidson, the Western imperialists of today desire more and more (e.g., more and more countries added to NATO, and therefore more and more resources to plunder–Operation Barbarossa redux), and if they don’t get to have what they want (i.e., the growing power of Russia and China sapping the West of its power), then to hell with everybody (nuclear brinksmanship leading to nuclear war).

So many of us around the world, however, are too distracted by social media, and whatever the current outrage or crisis is, to take seriously the dangers that provoking Russia and China will lead to. We hate whoever the media tells us to hate without looking deeper into the historical context that has led to the crisis.

The Western governments project the evil within themselves onto external bogeymen, thinking such expulsions will rid them of what’s wrong inside them, like Turgidson’s expulsions on the toilet. Conversely, instead of sending out goodness to everyone else, the ruling class denies us its “essence,” like Ripper with his coitus reservatus. Hence, the toiling masses in the West are denied basic necessities while being told to blame it all on Putin or Xi Jinping instead of looking inward and fighting for social justice.

Meanwhile, the world keeps inching closer and closer to its end, if not by nuclear war, then by environmental self-destruction. People can’t even recognize real Nazis anymore. So we try to crap out our problems while refraining from…coming…to our senses.

Hope is running out, folks.

We have to stop letting the dicks of the Earth tell us how to think.

So, please…let’s not be assholes about this.

Analysis of ‘The Fly’

I: Introduction

The Fly is a 1958 horror/science fiction film produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. It stars Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, David Hedison, and Herbert Marshall. The screenplay was written by James Clavell, based on the 1957 George Langelaan short story of the same name.

The Fly had a mixed-to-positive critical reception on release, and it was a commercial success, boosting Price into a major star of horror films. Now, criticism of the movie is more uniformly positive. Two black-and-white sequels followed: Return of the Fly (1959), and Curse of the Fly (1965). A superb remake, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, was directed by David Cronenberg in 1986, with its own sequel in 1989.

Here is a link to quotes from the 1958 film, here’s a link to the complete script, and here is a link to the short story.

II: My Radical Reinterpretation

What ought to be emphasized about the story isn’t the notion of scientist André Delambre (Hedison) bring transformed into a fly-human hybrid, the result of a freak accident in his attempt to teleport himself (and, without his knowing, a housefly that got into his “disintegration-reintegration” machine), but rather what such a notion could be seen to symbolize.

What is far more apparent in the short story, if its contents are not naïvely taken at face value, is that its narration–by André’s brother François (played by Price in the film) in the outer frame, then in the middle by André’s wife Hélène (played by Owens in the film) as she tells it in a handwritten manuscript–is given by traumatized people whose reliability is in question.

The film relates the story in a manner implying that everything happened just as told, though, by the end, no proof survives of the more fantastic elements of the story. Still, there are subtle indicators, in the behaviour of François and Hélène, that suggest that affairs aren’t as they look on the screen, implying that the narrative unreliability of the short story has been translated to the cinematic medium.

In the film, François admits to having romantic feelings for beautiful Hélène; though she denies ever having paramours (or André having had them) to Inspector Charas (Marshall), we can easily regard her words as dishonest. Could there have been an affair between her and François, a result of workaholic André’s neglect of his family? Claims of a husband and wife being perfectly happy together can easily be dismissed as a façade.

III: Unconscious Guilt

It is insisted throughout the story that Hélène could have killed André only out of madness. Where could such a madness have originated? Guilt feelings over an affair? Families in France (where the short story is set), or in Montréal (where the film is set), in the 1950s would have been Roman Catholic ones, in which adultery would have been regarded as a serious sin (a sin compounded by a man betraying his brother and, as her son’s uncle, committing incest of a Hamlet-like sort). The mind tries to repress guilt as best it can, but the repressed returns to consciousness in unrecognizable forms.

In the case of this story, the return of the repressed has come in the form of imagining André as having his head and arm traded with the head and leg of a housefly. Such a hybrid symbolizes the bestial side of human nature. His experiments are done in the basement, symbol of the unconscious. In contrast, the ground floor of the house, the upstairs, and outside can be seen to correspond to the conscious mind and the world of superficiality, appearance, what only seems to be true.

IV: Appearance vs Reality

There is much to note in the contrast between the illusory surface and hidden reality in The Fly. The marriage of the Delambres only seems perfectly happy. Similarly, André seems to be the kind, gentle husband who’d never hurt an animal. Yet his workaholic obsession with his basement experiments means neglecting his wife and son, Henri in the short story, or Philippe (played by Charles Herbert) in the film. Furthermore, this supposed animal lover overconfidently and recklessly puts the family cat, Dandelo, in the teleportation machine and disintegrates it.

Hélène, after killing her husband, confesses to the killing with perfect calmness, though François and Charas conclude that she must be mad; indeed, in the short story, she even kills herself in despair. And when François answers the phone at the beginning of the film to learn that she has just killed his brother, he’s quite calm; whereas at the beginning of the short story, he speaks of being “uneasy” from telephones, having to restrain his agitation when answering them.

In fact, in Cronenberg’s remake, this theme of appearance versus reality is revisited in how Seth Brundle (Goldblum), upon emerging from the teleportation machine as “Brundle-fly”–far from being the shocking monstrosity André is with his fly’s head and leg for an arm–looks exactly the same as before on the outside–in fact, he’s also physically superior. It’s only later that we realize that Seth is a monster hiding inside, that inside showing itself more and more to the end of the remake.

V: Implausible Science

Now, this difference between the 1958 and 1986 movies brings me to a point that I hope will help explain the particular angle at which I’m interpreting the original movie and the short story. I don’t believe André has actually had his head and arm swapped with the head and leg of a housefly–I believe this transformation really is a fabrication of his wife’s mad imagination, just as Charas does. The reason for my disbelief should be obvious: the science behind the transformation is preposterous. Hardly anyone apart from Hélène even believes it!

How do a fly’s head and leg grow to the comparable sizes of a man’s head and arm, while the latter two shrink to the sizes of a fly’s equivalent body parts? How is the man’s intelligence maintained in the giant fly’s head, even if only temporarily? And how is there a comparable intelligence, enough to squeak “Help me!” because of an approaching spider, in the miniature head of the fly caught in the web?

Small wonder that in the 1986 remake, the writers wisely spread the fly’s DNA equally throughout Brundle’s body. Surely even Langelaan and Clavell realized that the swapping of heads and limbs, as given in their respective versions of the story, is unbelievable scientifically. Hence my contention that Hélène is genuinely insane, an insanity brought on by the trauma of her husband’s violent death, a suicide with her assistance (as she describes it). François is similarly addled by this trauma. I believe his confession of love for her provides the vital clue to the reason for their narratives’ unreliability, something easily maintained in prose writing, but not so easily translated onto the big screen, since we, the watchers of the movie, tend to have credulous eyes.

VI: Unreliable Narration, in the Text, and Onscreen

Though his confession of love for Hélène isn’t found in the short story, I believe there are plenty of subtle hints of an affair between him and her in Langelaan’s words, however carefully the two guilty ones try to tiptoe around any mention of their guilt. Such tiptoeing is also evident in the film, in their innocent conversations throughout.

I see the visuals of the film as representing their unreliable narrations, and since the film is largely faithful to the short story (except for such–mostly minor–changes as the setting, Henri’s name becoming Philippe, which of André’s arms is switched with the fly’s leg, his head being revealed as all housefly or as a mix of fly and the cat, whether or not Hélène kills herself, and whether it’s François or Charas who kills the fly in the spider web), I feel it isn’t too far out of place to assume that François is (unreliably) telling the outer frame of the story through visuals, and her telling of the inner narration, instead of writing it in a manuscript, is unreliable.

VII: The Telephone

I’ll come to those subtle hints of an affair later, as they arrive in the sequence of the plot. For now, I’ll start with François’s answering of the phone. In the film, he’s calm enough, though in the short story, this calmness disguises a terrible agitation from hearing the phone ring, especially in the middle of the night, as happens at the beginning.

The reason for his unease comes from a feeling that the caller is coming into the room, intruding on his private space, breaking into his home to talk right into his ear. It seems odd that the short story should begin this way, yet if one compares this transmission of a voice–instantaneously from one place, far away, to another–to the teleportation of whatever (or whoever) is in André’s “disintegration-reintegration” machine, such a beginning of the story, along with François’s agitation, becomes explicable. The one instantaneous transmission is associated in his mind with the other.

Recall that I don’t take the human/fly hybrid story literally; also, François is beginning a narration–one after the events of Hélène’s story have been made known to him–with a discussion of the, if you will, ‘teleportation’ of the human voice. This aural teleportation feels like a frightening intruder to him, like the intrusive fly in André’s machine, and like the human/fly monster he becomes, which is an intrusion into the lives of François and Hélène.

VIII: Nothingness

The pertinent thing about teleportation, like the instant movement of the human voice from here to far away, or vice versa, is the sense of no intermediate area for teleportation to move through. The displaced entity–be it a voice on the phone, or a plate, a newspaper, a cat, a guinea pig, or a man (mixed with a fly)–disappears, vanishes in the place of origin and reappears in the destination. That lack of an in-between route to travel through, that gap, feels uncanny, a land of nothingness. This gap, I believe, is what frightens François so much.

Similarly, when André’s body is discovered in the Delambre brothers’ factory, his head and arm crushed under the steam hammer, it isn’t so much the blood that is horrifying, but how the head and arm are so thoroughly flattened as to have been reduced to nothing. The hammer’s impact has been set at zero, a setting the drop is never given. François notes in the film that zero “means level with the bed”; such a setting “would squeeze the metal to nothing,” as has been done to André’s head and arm.

The purpose of this extreme setting is ostensibly to annihilate even the slightest hint of a fly’s head and leg, instead of André’s head and arm; I’d say, though, that it’s that very nothingness, revealed when the hammer is raised, in “the ghastly mess bared by the hammer,” that causes François (in the short story) to be “violently sick.”

IX: Resistance

When Charas questions Hélène about the killing of André, she is fully cooperative about explaining what she did, and in detail (except for her odd forgetting about having dropped the steam hammer twice, to crush his fly-leg/arm). She adamantly refuses, however, to explain why she killed him.

In the short story, François describes Charas as being “more than just an intelligent police official. He was a keen psychologist and had an amazing way of smelling out a fib or an erroneous statement even before it was uttered.” So his questioning of her puts him in the role of psychoanalyst, and her in the role of analysand. Her insistence that she cannot explain why she killed André can be seen as a form of resistance.

Of course, she eventually does explain why, but in the form of a bizarre monster story that hardly anyone can believe; certainly the science behind the story is so ludicrous that even Langelaan and Clavell must have had their own doubts about it, as I’ve explained above. This fly-human hybrid story must be a case of the return of the repressed in an unrecognizable form…but what could the fly-hybrid monster symbolize for mad Hélène? I’ll come to this soon enough.

X: The Gap In-between

It is insisted that her marriage with André was a perfectly happy one…but we are suddenly ‘teleported,’ if you will, from perfect marital bliss to her killing of him, and with the refusal of a proper explanation, except for this bizarre fly-monster story. Just as there’s a gap between the caller’s voice at one end of a phone call, and his voice heard by the receiver on the other end; and just as there’s the gap of the disintegration of what’s teleported at one end, and its reintegration at the other end; so is there a gap between the couple’s marital bliss and the killing…that dreaded, uncanny nothingness in the middle.

Above, I wrote of André’s basement laboratory as symbolic of the unconscious, where the “disintegration/reintegration” machine causes that in-between gap of nothingness. In the short story, the laboratory isn’t in his basement, but in a separate building right by the factory with the steam hammer. Now, the laboratory doesn’t have to be underground to represent the unconscious…or the “subconscious,” where Charas imagines the fly to have meaning for Hélène. Psychoanalysts don’t speak of the repressed as being ‘beneath’ consciousness, but as being unknown to consciousness, for the repressed comes right back to the surface and hides in plain sight, as it were. A fly is buzzing around, in the air, much of the time in the movie.

XI: The Lacanian Unconscious, and the Gap as Lack

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan speaks of how “the Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real–a real that may well not be determined…and what does [Freud] find in the hole, the split, in the gap so characteristic of cause? Something of the order of the non-realized.” (Lacan, page 22)

This gap is between cause and effect, like the gap between disintegration and reintegration, the empty space replacing a path on which something, otherwise not disintegrated and reintegrated, would travel, rather than be teleported, from A to B. This gap is also the Lacanian lack that gives rise to desire, and discovering what the desire is in this story is key to understanding the symbolic meaning of the fly.

XII: Freudian Slips

We must fill in this gap to determine what is being repressed, what is not being said or shown in the short story or the film, but what is rather hinted at through the occasional Freudian slip, or symbolic interpretation of whatever in the story is described as something otherwise mundane or in a matter-of-fact physical way.

One such a slip, as I see it, occurs when Henri/Philippe is not regarded by Hélène as her son. In the short story, François in his narration calls the six-year-old boy, his nephew, “the very image of his father”; but as I’ve said above, this narration is unreliable. Because of André’s death and Hélène’s declared madness, François has been made the boy’s guardian, in effect, his new father; yet any suggestion that he really is the boy’s father will be guiltily denied.

In the film, François even says to Charas, “She acts as if the boy were mine and not hers.” Charas speculates that Hélène is trying to protect her son, or that perhaps she fears or hates him, something François dismisses as an insane idea, and it is at this point in the film that Charas asks if François is in love with her, to which he immediately replies, “Yes.”

Why would a scriptwriter of Clavell’s obvious ability add this element to the story without developing it, if it didn’t serve much of any purpose? Note that François’s declaration of love comes immediately after a claim that Philippe is supposedly his son and not hers. Could he be her love-child by François in a love affair, one she feels so guilty about that, in her mad guilt, she denies her own maternity? The way the film ends–with François, in effect, as the boy’s new father, and Hélène having not committed suicide but being, also in effect, his new wife–looks suspiciously like wish-fulfillment. Such wish-fulfillment reinforces the visual presentation of the film as really being François’s unreliable narration.

XIII: Forbidden Desires and the Fly

Naturally, François rules out even the possibility of an affair with her by saying, “I don’t think she ever noticed me,” though a close look at Charles Herbert, the child actor chosen to play Philippe, looks more like he could be a son of Vincent Price than of David Hedison. Finally, during the scene when Philippe has caught the fly with the white head, and he sees his mother with his uncle, he is annoyed to be told by her to let the fly go; but as he is going outside and closing the front door, he looks back at her and his uncle with a split-second look of suspicion in his eyes, as if he sees the two adults acting a little too familiar at that particular moment.

That this suspicious moment happens on the very day when the heads and limbs of André and the fly are switched is significant. Here we come to the very symbolism of the fly. Male houseflies, during their short lives, have a voracious sexual appetite and are constantly on the lookout for females to mate with. In this we can see a symbolic link with my suspicions of a guilty sexual tryst between François and Hélène.

This guilt results in feelings of shame, disgust, and worthlessness, which can all be associated with houseflies. André’s constant preoccupation with his work, even to the point of writing out a new formula for teleportation on the program pamphlet to a ballet he’s supposed to be watching with his wife, means he’s emotionally neglecting her, which not only can drive her into the arms of his brother (who we already know is amorously infatuated with her), but which also makes André as worthless to her as a fly. So the exchanging of his head and arm with the head and leg of a fly is symbolic of this depreciation of his worth to her.

XIV: The Buzzing

With the guilt and shame that an adulteress feels, especially as one who, according to the short story, “had ever been a true Catholic, who believed in God and another, better life hereafter,” Hélène would have been desperately afraid of anyone finding out about her extramarital affair. Hence, her agitation whenever hearing the buzzing of a nearby fly.

Let’s recall the multiple meanings of the word buzz. Apart from the insect noise, buzz has been used to refer to the sound of telephones (remember in this connection the irritation François feels at the sound of a phone ringing), and also to refer to rumours. These additional meanings had existed long before the writing of the short story and the making of the movie. So her agitation at the sound of buzzing symbolically suggests her fear of gossip, or rumours from people knowing about her affair.

XV: Obsessions with Flies

Also, her nervous breakdown at the asylum after seeing a nurse swatting flies can be attributed to a triggering of her guilt over an affair that, in betraying André, reduced him to the worth of a fly, and so killing flies feels like a killing of him again. She also speaks of wanting François to destroy the white-headed fly if she tells him why she killed André; this contradiction suggests an emotional conflict in her–killing it kills evidence of her guilty affair, yet it also represents killing André again.

Now, she is not the only one to raise her eyebrows at the idea of houseflies. François, after hearing about her obsession with them, is curious to hear Henri/Philippe bring up the fly with the white head during lunch with the boy. Previously, Charas brought up her fly obsession immediately before he and François discuss her denial that the boy is her son, and François’s admitting he loves her. So we see here a significant juxtaposition of houseflies with the boy’s parentage and François’s love for Hélène: I don’t think this juxtaposition is coincidental.

XVI: Love Triangles, and the Remake

My speculation of a hidden, repressed love triangle between André, Hélène, and François can be seen overtly in the equivalent three main characters in the 1986 remake–respectively, Seth Brundle, Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (played by Davis), and Stathis Borans (played by John Getz). Brundle, knowing Ronnie has had a relationship with Stathis prior to her current relationship with him, gets jealous when he suspects that her reason for leaving him early to meet Stathis, when she’s supposed to be celebrating the recent success of his teleportation pods, is to get back together with Stathis. (Actually, she’s meeting Stathis to confront him over a veiled threat he’s made out of a jealousy of his own, over her new relationship with Brundle.)

And right when all of this jealousy is building, Brundle gets drunk, a fly is buzzing around, and both of them go into one of the pods to be teleported…and fused. Again, we have the juxtaposition of a buzzing fly with a love triangle; it’s as if the scriptwriting of the remake subliminally picked up on the veiled rivalry between the Delambre brothers and Hélène.

Another theme picked up from the 1958 movie and put into the remake is the relationship between external, illusory appearance and inner, hidden reality. When Brundle first comes out of the second pod, we of course don’t see a fly’s head and leg replacing his head and arm, but he looks as perfectly human as before. It’s only later, as his body parts start corrupting and falling off, leading climactically to the outer human shell all coming off and he’s revealed to be a giant bug, that we see he isn’t human anymore.

When Hélène begins telling François and Charas her story, in the film we see a scene of what appears to be the perfectly happy family. André is seen tickling Philippe, playing like a loving father, and all seems well. The shot is so ideal that it looks a bit too perfect. A hint already as to how things are actually not so good is in how André tells the boy he can’t play with him at the moment. It will become increasingly apparent that he is so obsessed with his work that he’s spending more time in that basement laboratory than with his family.

Yet another element shared between the 1958 and 1986 movies is the narcissistic grandiosity the inventor feels on seeing the amazing success of his teleporting machine. André boasts of having made the greatest invention since the wheel; he imagines that his “disintegration-reintegration” machine will allow food to be sent anywhere immediately, at minimal cost, thus ending world hunger.

Brundle’s narcissism is a bit different. On having unwittingly fused himself with the fly, he mistakenly imagines his pods have given him superhuman abilities: increased strength, agility, stamina, and sexual potency (recall what I said above about the sexual symbolism of the eager-to-mate housefly). Yet both André and Brundle are about to see their pride fall and crash.

With André, this fall is immediate upon his reintegration: we see no intermediate, transitional process–only the gap in between is understood to be there. With Brundle, however, the transitional process is slowly, agonizingly shown to us, inch by inch. We see his physical fragmentation, as well as his corresponding psychological fragmentation (against which he had only his initial narcissism as a defence), a fragmentation that’s a direct result of jealousy–a result I also see in André.

XVII: Fall of Pride

Now, André’s fall of pride upon reintegration as a fly/human hybrid should be seen as symbolic of his pride as an obsessive scientist and neglectful husband/father, which has led to Hélène’s affair with François (the shame of which, being too intense to bear, causes it to be erased from memory, repressed, and therefore never shown on screen or in the pages of the short story), and which has in turn led to André (as I imagine it) finding out about the affair, making him feel humiliated, cuckolded, and reduced to feeling the worthlessness of a fly. He kills himself.

Recall my association of Hélène’s incestuous affair with her brother-in-law with that of Hamlet’s mother and uncle. The notion of a fly’s worthlessness can also be associated with Hamlet in how the Danish prince derisively refers to foppish, buffoonish Osric as a “water-fly” (V, ii, 83).

The trading of André’s head and arm with the head and leg of a housefly reinforces this sense of worthlessness in how the head houses the brain, and either of the hands (the switched arms, remember, are different from short story to film) represents the skillful manipulation of scientific instruments and equipment with the hands, thus making his wife’s devaluation of him based on her dislike of his obsessive work, which has left her feeling so neglected.

XVIII: Nothingness and the Real

The nothingness of the gap between disintegration and reintegration represents more than just the repression of the unconscious. That void also represents Lacan’s Real Order, a traumatic realm where experience cannot be symbolized or expressed in language, because the differentials of the Symbolic Order (the realm of language, society, culture, etc.) no longer exist. Lacan called the Realimpossible,” just as Hélène calls André’s disintegration and reintegration “impossible.” Disintegration leads to a world of undifferentiated atoms, the Real (as experienced psychologically), Bion‘s O, Milton‘s “void and formless infinite,” or the Brahman of the Hindus. It’s nothing, yet everything; it’s heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara… ineffable.

XIX: Monstrosity

The hellish aspect of the gap manifests itself especially for André, in the short story, when he goes through the teleportation device again and reappears not only with the fly’s head, but with a mix of fly and the head of their cat, Dandelo! He’s now more bestial than ever, an aggravating of monstrosity that is paralleled in the 1986 remake when Brundle reappears as part man, part fly, and part teleportation pod.

This sense of the fly as representing self-hating monstrosity and worthlessness is intensified in Brundle’s “Insect Politics” speech, as well as in André’s sense of his brain deteriorating towards the end of the story. Ultimately, André’s self-hate, as symbolized in his monstrous transformation, drives him to commit suicide–as I reimagine it, by putting a pistol to his head and blowing his brains out, right in front of Hélène who, his laboratory being near the factory in the short story, has only to move the body a short distance to the steam hammer.

XX: Destroying Evidence of Suicide

As I see it, she needs to crush his head and arm (i.e., with the pistol in his hand, in order to destroy it, too) to destroy all evidence of a suicide that, if investigated, will lead to a revelation of her affair with François. Since her guilt has driven her mad, her faulty reasoning will lead her to believe that it’s better to be thought mad from delusions of a human/fly monster than to be known an adulteress with her husband’s brother (adultery and incest), driving André to suicide.

Her needing to use the steam hammer twice, because she forgot to put the arm (in my interpretation, holding the pistol) under with André’s head, represents her psychological conflict: part of her wants to be punished for her guilt in the affair by being found out, while the other part of her wants still to conceal that guilt. Later, she forgets the second use of the steam hammer out of a Freudian parapraxis, again, an expression of her conflict between wanting to be found out and wanting to conceal the guilt.

François’s own guilt over the same sin would have driven him over the edge, too, to the point of entertaining her fly delusion as true, to assuage his guilt. In this connection, it’s important to consider the ending of the story, especially in terms of how Clavell changed it from Langelaan’s short story. (Ironically, in the film François and Charas rationalize a conclusion to the case as, indeed, André’s suicide, freeing Hélène from guilt or commitment to an insane asylum. The reason for the suicide remains a mystery; she and François, thus, can privately entertain the fly-human hybrid story to help them forget the guilt of their affair.)

XXI: The Ending

The fly that is understood to be the one that got André’s head and arm is referred to as a fly with a white head. By “white head,” it’s assumed to be André’s head, though it’s never explicitly called such. In the film, we see a fly with a white spot on its head, and only in the scene with the spider’s web do we see a tiny human head and arm poking out of the web trapping the fly’s body, with the hybrid’s faint squeals for help.

Part of the reason for these differences, of course, is the limitations of the technology of the time; but I believe something else is going on. First, when François is sitting on the bench by the spider’s web, he doesn’t notice the squeals of the fly-human, begging anyone nearby to save it. They should be audible enough: after all, Charas later can hear them. François thus seems to be willingly deaf to its cries, part of his wish, symbolically speaking, to avoid responsibility for the consequences of his affair (in my speculation), and how it’s led to his brother’s suicide.

Later, when he and Charas see the fly about to be eaten by the spider, François can’t pretend it isn’t there. As a symbol of his guilt, the fly is something he cannot bear.

Now, an important distinction must be made: in the short story, it’s François who kills the fly, not Charas. As I’ve said above, I consider François’s narration to be as unreliable as Hélène’s, and that the film is their narration given in visuals. Having Charas kill the fly is thus, in my interpretation, François projecting his guilt onto Charas. Clavell’s changes to the presentation of the story are to give us an ambiguous way of thinking about it: is it an unreliable narration, or did the fly-human hybrid story really happen?

I believe François has hallucinated the fly with his brother’s head and arm, due to the stress of his guilt and what his beloved Hélène has gone through (and in his unreliable narration in movie visuals, Charas has shared his hallucination). Philippe/Henri, in this interpretation, has really only found a fly with a white head and leg, an ‘albino-like’ one, if you will, which his mother’s and uncle’s imaginations have turned into a fly/André hybrid.

Clavell’s changes to the short story included removing François’s opening narrative frame (and his dislike of ringing telephones); such an omission doesn’t prove he hasn’t been narrating, but only that we don’t see explicit proof of him telling the story. I believe that having Charas see the fly/André hybrid, thus opening up the possibility that outsiders have seen the proof of Hélène’s story–that what she has narrated is reliable after all–was Clavell’s way of making the story more intriguing: could this otherwise scientifically implausible story have happened, and should the audience just willingly suspend their disbelief?

I don’t think we should, or need to. The ending of the film, with François as Philippe’s new guardian, and with living Hélène present, comes off as wish-fulfillment for François. As with Claudius vis-à-vis King Hamlet and Gertrude, he got his brother’s wife, he can directly be a father to Philippe, and in his and her shared delusion, their folie-à-deux of the disastrous teleportation/fusion of André and the housefly, François can tell the boy that the lesson to be learned from his father’s death is how dangerous scientific experimentation, coupled with overweening pride, can be, rather than how dangerous incestuous adultery can be.

Analysis of ‘Anastasia’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and who is this Anna woman, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Fargo’

I: Introduction

Fargo is a 1996 crime film directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, and written by both of them. It stars William H. Macy and Frances McDormand, with Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, and Peter Stormare.

At the Cannes Film Festival, Joel Coen won the Prix de la mise en scène, and Fargo was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film was also nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won two of these nominations: Best Actress for McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. A TV series of the same name, based on the same story, premiered in 2014.

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

Though the opening text of the film claims it’s based on a true story, having happened in Minnesota in 1987, the fictitious persons disclaimer shown during the closing credits contradicts the opening claim, as does Joel Coen’s explanation in 2015 that the story was “completely made up.”

Still, elements of the otherwise fictional movie can be traced to factual events, such as the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticut by her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body with a wood chipper. Furthermore, I will argue that another kind of historical fact, if you will, can be gleaned, via allegory, from Fargo: that of the petite bourgeoisie, personified in Jerry Lundegaard (Macy, who fought tooth and nail to get the part, which he correctly believed he was perfect for), using fascism, personified by Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare), to rein in the greedy excesses of the haute bourgeoisie, personified by Wade Gustafson (Presnell).

II: Snowy White

The opening shot begins with an all-white background that soon reveals itself to be a road in the Minnesota/North Dakota area on an extremely snowy day–so snowy that one cannot at first make out the horizon, or anything, beyond such a dense snowfall. As it says on page one of the script, “A car bursts through the curtain of snow.” (Coen and Coen, page 1) It’s a brand-new, light brown Cutlass Ciera.

The production crew had the bad luck of having to film during one of the least snowy winters of the area’s history, so artificial snow was added through the use of an ice chipping machine.

Anyway, what we have in the opening title sequence is first, white lettering on a black background (the spurious claim that the movie is based on a true story), and then, black lettering against a white background. This black-and-white contrast gives a hint as to one of the themes of the movie: the dialectical relationship between the white of innocence versus the black of criminality; these opposites being sublated in the character of Jerry.

The dense curtain of snow obscuring the horizon and everything else, causing total non-differentiation, suggests the disorienting trauma of what Lacan called The Real. This unsettling feeling is important for setting the emotional tone of a film depicting the horror of Jerry’s crime. Desperate to get out of a tight financial predicament, Jerry hires Carl and Gaear to kidnap his wife, Jean (played by Kristin Rudrüd), in order to extort a large sum of money from Jerry’s rich, but cheap, father-in-law Wade, to pay the ransom and give Jerry the money he needs.

One must ask: what kind of a man does such a thing to his own wife? He seems like such a nice, mild-mannered guy…on the surface. The symbolism of him driving the Ciera out of the white background is thus fitting. The Real is where he’s coming from, a senseless, inexplicable horror, a horror of icy cold isolation and desolation.

III: So Far to Go

Jerry reaches Fargo, North Dakota, and three brief scenes in the screenplay not included in the film have him in a hotel and a restaurant (Coen and Coen, pages 1-2). Though they add nothing to the character that we won’t find out later (hence, their exclusion from the film), they already give us a sense of his incompetence and isolation, particularly when he lies about his name (“Anderson,” a name he’ll use again at a motel where he’s arrested at the end of the movie) to the hotel clerk when signing in, then almost finishes writing “Jerry Lundegaard” before realizing his mistake. At the restaurant, he sits all alone.

Then we get to the film’s actual beginning in the King of Clubs pool hall and bar (actually filmed in the northeast section of Minneapolis, not in Fargo, according to the story). In fact, none of the movie was filmed in Fargo; and since this scene in the bar is the only one in Fargo as far as the story is concerned, why name the movie Fargo?

The Coen brothers considered Fargo a better-sounding name than Brainerd, where, or near where, scenes much more central to the plot occur. I’d like to add an interpretive explanation of my own: the film is about how far you go to get money.

The odd thing about starting the film with Jerry–rather than with Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who doesn’t appear until half an hour into the film (i.e., she being the true protagonist, not Jerry)–is that with this arrangement of character introduction, considered heterodox according to scriptwriting conventions, causes us to sympathize not with the heroine, but with the one who, due to his desperation, incompetence, and poor planning, sets in motion the chain of events and misadventures that end in tragedy. The script scenes mentioned above that were cut from the film reinforce Jerry’s centrality–hence my placing of Macy’s name before McDormand’s in the opening paragraph.

So we come back to the black-and-white paradox starting the film off, a paradox of which Jerry’s character is central. We sympathize with him, since he’s the first person we, the audience, connect with; yet he is, in effect, the central villain, since the kidnapping that starts the chain of violent events is his idea.

Related to this sympathy/antipathy is how, on the surface, his mild-mannered nature is an example of “Minnesota nice,” which is a veil of politeness covering his darker motive–his wish to use the kidnapping of his wife to extort money from her rich father. As the Coen brothers noted in the featurette to the Special Edition DVD, it’s the nicest people who are the most violent, for they are the most repressed.

Connected with Minnesota nice (and nasty) are the idiosyncratic accent (expertly taught to the cast by dialect coach Liz Himelstein) and mannerisms of the Minnesotans, which add a whimsical comedy to an otherwise dark and tragic story. Apart from being a fictional crime movie supposedly based on a true story, Fargo is a black comedy; so the paradoxes pile up.

So Jerry is a tragicomic character. His bumbling, nerdy exterior (i.e., his coat and hat, his accent, and his spastic temper tantrums), him fittingly from an area including a city fortuitously named Brainerd, hides a dark interior that would go far, go way out, to the point of putting his own wife in danger just to get money from his father-in-law. His nervous stammering–delivered faithfully by Macy according to the script–really comes out for the first time when Carl and Gaear grill him about why he wants his wife kidnapped.

IV: Petite Bourgeois Jerry

Also, Jerry as a personification of the petite bourgeoisie shows us the tragicomic aspects of this class, as well as how they’re perceived to a be a social ideal in the context of capitalism; yet they have this slimy underbelly that resorts to recruiting such people as fascists whenever they feel the pressures of the capitalist system that normally idealizes them.

Contrasted with the proletariat who works for others, and the capitalist class who doesn’t really work, but just exploits others and gets rich off of their work, the middle class (e.g., small businessmen, managers, etc.) are seen as those who work for themselves. The petite bourgeois is seen as representing all the virtues of the hard-working self-starter.

Because, as Marx noted in Capital, vol. 1, “One capitalist always strikes down many others” (Marx, page 929), we can see how the big capitalist makes life difficult for the small capitalist. After all, class conflict isn’t limited to the bourgeoisie in general exploiting the proletariat. There is actually a three-way conflict between the upper, middle, and lower classes. We socialists don’t talk much about the problems of the petite bourgeoisie because, well, those aren’t our problems.

Still, it’s important to discuss these problems as they relate to the genesis of fascism. I’ve discussed, in previous posts, how the ruling class uses fascism as a weapon against proletarian uprisings. We mustn’t neglect, however, the crucial role that the middle class plays in promoting fascism when they have financial problems of their own, and Jerry’s hiring of Carl and Gaear to extort money from Wade is, allegorically speaking, a vivid illustration of such a promotion.

The economic problems of Germany in the early 1920s, with the gargantuan inflation of the time, hurt everyone, including small businesses, unbearably. It was tempting for many, therefore, to seek out quick-to-find, simplistic diagnoses of the problem (blame the Jews and communists), and to find quick and easy solutions (support the Nazis). The violence of Carl and Gaear easily parallels the violence of the SA and SS.

The petite bourgeoisie is, from time to time, held down by the haute bourgeoisie, but as fellow capitalists, the former must blame the latter in a way that doesn’t indict the economic system that normally benefits both classes. Neither class is the working class, who sees both as unequivocal class enemies. So the middle class must diagnose the problem in a non-anti-capitalist way: to deflect blame from capitalism, one must blame the problem on the ‘corrupters’ of capitalism–the Jews, the ‘corporatism‘ caused by the government, the NWO, the Freemasons, or the communists as believed to be a Jewish, Wall Street conspiracy that has nothing to do with promoting workers’ rights.

V: Alienation

Now, what’s conspicuously absent in Fargo, from the point of view of my allegory, is anyone personifying a worker’s struggle against capitalism. All we have, instead, is the class conflict between the petite and haute bourgeoisie as represented respectively in Jerry and Wade.

Recall how the movie introduces that relationship when Jerry first talks to Wade, who’s watching the TV and never looks back at Jerry to acknowledge his presence. When Jerry tries to convince Wade about a deal he wants to make, one that will benefit his wife and son, Scotty (played by Tony Denman), Wade says, “Jean and Scotty never have to worry,” completely excluding Jerry, and further isolating him.

So, we see here a continuation of the themes of isolation and loneliness. The alienation that capitalism causes cuts right into the bourgeois family, as we see here in the first conversations between Jerry and Wade. On the surface, things would seem pleasant in the family when Jerry enters the house, with Jean cheerfully telling him that her dad is visiting; but as soon as the two men start chatting, that wintery coldness returns, as if it had blown in from outside.

Further signs of alienation in this family appear when Scotty wants to leave the dinner table early, and Wade disapproves of the naughtiness he imagines the teenage boy will be indulging in with his friends in McDonald’s. This family would represent the petite bourgeois ideal of the father as breadwinner, the housewife, and the grandfather whose wealth will ensure security for all of them…except that it’s only Jean and Scotty who won’t need to worry, apparently.

VI: Guilty and Not Guilty

That paradox of innocence vs guilt is apparent later in the film when Scotty, annoyed that he may have to quit hockey because of his bad grades at school, says “there’s no fucking way…”, causing Jean to gasp at him in wide-eyed horror, as well as a reprimand from his father to watch his language. This is all when we already know what Jerry wants his two hired thugs to do to Jean.

Similarly, the smiling, mild-mannered persona Jerry uses at work (the illusion especially given in that photo of him as a used car salesman on the office wall), making an irate customer pay extra for a sealant he never agreed to adding to a car he’s buying, hides what “a…fuckin’ liar” he is, as the customer strains to say, with an effort that breaks the ‘Minnesota nice’ stereotype. Of course, if Wade would just help Jerry with his financial troubles, he wouldn’t be so desperate for money that he cheats his customers and puts his wife in danger. When Marge, at the end of the movie, tells Gaear that there’s more to life than money, she should be saying it to Wade, for it’s his parsimony that has actually driven Jerry’s desperation so needlessly over the brink.

VII: Ill Communication

To get back to the theme of loneliness, consider the conversation…one-sided…between Carl and Gaear as they drive over to the Brainerd area to kidnap Jean. Carl is so annoyed at how laconic Gaear is (Stormare says a total of 80 words18 lines of dialogue, no more than a sentence at a time…in the whole movie!) that it feels as if he’s all alone in that Ciera.

That, prior to the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear find a pair of prostitutes to have sex with is more indication of alienation and loneliness (this solicitation can also be connected to fascism through such things as the ‘Joy Division‘ and ‘Salon Kitty‘). For these two small-time criminals, sex is a mere transaction, not part of a loving relationship. That Carl later enlists the services of another hooker (services interrupted by the vicious attack of Shep Proudfoot [played by Steve Reevis]) shows that this manner of ‘looking for love’ must be a habit, at least for Carl.

There certainly doesn’t seem to be much love between Jerry and Jean.

VIII: Safe at Home?

As for the kidnapping itself, it’s ironic that it happens while Jean, a housewife knitting while watching TV, is at home where she would presumably be safe. The petite bourgeois, patriarchal family organization, with the man as protector/provider and wife whose place is in the home, is rationalized with the idea that she is kept safe and protected there, when what we see in Fargo is the opposite. Not only is she kidnapped at home, but it’s her ‘protector’ husband, of all people, who has arranged the crime.

It’s important in this connection to recall how, in my allegory, Carl and Gaear represent fascism and its violence. We see the kidnapping of the housewife right in the home of the patriarchal family. This juxtaposition of symbolic fascist violence in a petite bourgeois, patriarchal home is in turn symbolic of how fascism is rooted in such a family.

Wilhelm Reich, in chapter five of his Mass Psychology of Fascism, famously discussed how the family is the first cell of fascist society: “From the standpoint of social development, the family cannot be considered the basis of the authoritarian state, only as one of the most important institutions which support it. It is, however, its central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual. Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation. In this connection, the findings of Morgan and of Engels are still entirely correct.”

Reich also saw the rise of fascism as a symptom of sexual repression. We’ve certainly seen much repression in the form of ‘Minnesota nice’ in, for example, the aversion to swearing, the use of the word fuck being particularly upsetting. Fargo‘s prominent use of euphemisms (e.g., ‘Jeez,’ ‘darn,’ ‘heck’) is one of the many examples of whimsical humour, behind which Fargo hides its darker side, that black-and-white paradox.

These paradoxes of the nice vs nasty husband come out when he comes home in that nerdy hat and coat, saying, “Hon?…Got the growshries…” (Coen and Coen, page 29). On the surface, we have this ‘nice’ man who helps his wife with the grocery shopping, yet the kidnapping was all his idea.

Added to this is when he practices what he’ll say to Wade on the phone about the kidnapping (Macy’s dialogue idea, not the Coens’). He sounds all distraught, but when he picks up the phone and calls Wade, he calmly says, “Yah, Wade Gustafson, please” to the receptionist. This change in tone, showing how fake the dismay in his voice is during the practice, is obviously for humorous effect, yet it should also disconcert us: he doesn’t really care about Jean. Such is the tragicomic aspect of the black-and-white paradox.

IX: Black Night

The scene of Carl and Gaear driving down the road at night with Jean in the back seat is fittingly surrounded in black, a contrast to the white we saw at the beginning of the film. We saw Jerry emerge, with the Ciera, from the white of the undifferentiated, traumatizing Real of the snow; now, we see Carl and Gaear, in the Ciera, driving through the black of night of the Real. Black and white are thus dialectically unified opposites, as are Jerry’s ‘Minnesota nice’ and the nastiness of his two hired thugs.

With the entrance of a state trooper (and, soon enough, Marge) stopping Carl and Gaear near Brainerd for not displaying temporary registration tags, we see a new element in our allegory: the conflict between regulated forms of capitalism (as personified in the state trooper and Marge) and the unregulated, “free market” version (as personified in the lawless two thugs and in Jerry).

Yes, I have linked fascism with right-wing libertarianism, which shouldn’t be surprising, since the latter ideology has often lapsed into the former. Normally, the petite bourgeoisie advocates “small government” out of a wish to minimize their taxes, but when times get tough, as they do for Jerry, the middle class often turns to fascism and its violent, authoritarian government for help, with no particular concern for how contradictory or hypocritical the sudden switch from ‘small, non-intrusive government’ to big, authoritarian government is.

More juxtapositions between nice and nasty, and between comic and tragic, occur when Carl tries to sweet-talk the trooper, and when this doesn’t work, Gaear pulls out a gun from the glove compartment and puts a bullet in the trooper’s head. A car comes by, the driver in a hat and coat to rival Jerry’s in their dorkiness; the driver and passenger of that car are now witnesses to the cop-killing, prompting Gaear to chase after and kill them. We feel badly for the dorky guy who runs away and gets a bullet in the back; but we feel worse for the passenger in the car crash, who looks pleadingly and helplessly at her killer before she gets “this execution-type deal” (Coen and Coen, page 42)

X: Wholesomeness

Finally, we’re introduced to Marge, and in the most banal way possible. As the personification not only of justice and goodness in the movie, but also of all that is considered wholesome in mainstream American society, she is found in peaceful sleep next to her husband in the wee hours of the morning, that peace interrupted by a call telling her about the killings.

Reinforcing that wholesomeness, yet modifying it with a contemporary liberal reversal of sex roles, Marge’s husband, Norm (played by John Carroll Lynch), insists that before she goes out to do her police work, he’ll cook her some breakfast. Even more wholesomeness is shown by the fact that she is seven months pregnant.

Since this is a Hollywood movie, the moral values it represents will be those of the mainstream, bourgeois liberal variety, so those values will be personified in cops, defenders of the more regulated version of capitalism.

XI: One Capitalist Always Strikes Down Many Others

The toxicity of “free market” capitalism has affected the family, as we can see in Wade’s curmudgeonly reaction to the kidnapping of his daughter. He is so cheap, he wants to try offering the kidnappers half a million dollars instead of the full million demanded (Coen and Coen, page 47). If he’s willing to cut corners on paying out money to save his own daughter, imagine how much more he’d resist paying his fair share of taxes, or dealing with any other profit-reducing regulations.

Jerry, as the personification of the petite bourgeoisie, has to deal with such resistance to help him out of his financial tight spot, the kind of resistance that, in my allegory, the haute bourgeoisie (Wade) would give to the small capitalists to prevent them from rising to a point where they’d be a threat to the big capitalist. Wade’s resisting even when trying to save his daughter.

“And for what? For a little bit of money.” Jerry would have Jean kidnapped for that “little bit,” too (this thoughtless act is paralleled with that of the petite bourgeoisie’s embrace of fascism, who gave no thought at all to how this embrace would lead to one of the bloodiest wars in history, destroying millions of families). Here is how capitalism poisons the family.

XII: Trauma and Tripping

Speaking of poisoned families, Jerry needs Stan Grossman (played by Larry Brandenburg) to make him take note of how his son is taking this kidnapping. Naturally, Scotty is traumatized and weeping in fear for his mother. Inept Jerry never thought about this; all he’s ever thought about is the money.

Another example of the tragicomic paradox is when Jean, her hands tied behind her and a hood over her head, arrives at a lakeside cabin in Moose Lake with Carl and Gaear. When she’s let out of the car, she frantically and spastically tries to run to freedom, her every fall and clumsy misstep getting laughs from Carl. Her awkwardness may be amusing to watch on the surface, but we shouldn’t forget that that awkwardness is a natural result of how terrified she is.

Indeed, she is going to die here.

XIII: TV

An interesting juxtaposition of opposites occurs when we see frustrated Carl trying to fix the bad TV reception in the cabin. Preoccupation with superficial forms of entertainment from such things as the idiot box, as well as the aforementioned seeking of prostitutes, is a manic defence against the depression felt from loneliness. Next comes a scene with Marge and Norm in bed, not yet asleep, watching her functional TV.

Carl is yelling, cursing, and swearing about being stuck with “a goddamn mute” (Coen and Coen, page 56), his manic rage hiding his actual sadness, loneliness, and despair within. The happily married couple, however, look exhausted, as if depressed, though of course they aren’t. In this juxtaposition we see more examples of the intermingling of opposites.

XIV: Mike

Later that night, Marge is woken up by another phone call–not one about homicides this time, but one from an old friend, Mike Yanagita (played by Steve Park). In a sense, there is still a connection between these two calls. Mike feels dead, as it were, inside, a death of loneliness, a problem he hopes Marge, as personification of goodness and wholesomeness, can solve, just as she’s trying to solve the case of the triple homicide.

This loneliness of Mike’s is so extreme and full of desperation that when he meets with Marge in a restaurant, he unabashedly hits on her, an awkward moment amplified by her visible pregnancy and marriage. Again, on the surface, the awkwardness of the moment is comic, but also tragic as it reinforces the theme of cold loneliness, isolation, and desolation.

XV: Escalation

The triple homicide has heightened the tensions, pushing Carl to demand the entire ransom from Jerry. This tension exacerbates the contradictions between Jerry and Carl on the one hand (allegorically speaking, between the petite bourgeoisie and the fascists), and between Jerry and Wade on the other (i.e., between the middle and upper classes). Overall, the violence and financial strain are representative of how the contradictions of capitalism come to a head, as we see in Wade’s insistence on delivering the money himself to Carl, which as we know from the movie will end in disaster.

As I said above, the contradictions of class in Fargo do not involve any organized proletarian resistance. Allegorically speaking, it’s just different strata of the bourgeoisie struggling with each other. So when working class or lumpenproletariat characters are in conflict, they tend to fight among each other.

When Marge learns that the kidnappers (Carl, presumably) have phoned Shep Proudfoot, she can link him to the triple homicide. Being a parolee, Shep is in such a rage about the danger of being put back in jail that he finds Carl (while having sex with his second prostitute), beats not only him up, but also a neighbour, and he makes the prostitute run naked and terrified out of Carl’s room.

Now, in my allegory, Carl and Gaear personify fascism (the racism of which can be heard when Carl tells Shep, a Native American, to “smoke a fuckin’ peace pipe” [Coen and Coen, page 78]), but as small-time criminals, they–like Shep and the prostitute–are literally lumpenproletariat, people so far down the social ladder that Marx didn’t consider them to have any revolutionary potential. All they have is each other to take out their frustrations on.

XVI: Fargo and Neoliberalism

Fargo, recall, was made in 1996, five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and therefore at “the end of history.” Socialism was deemed a failed experiment, and the notion of TINA has been the predominant ideology ever since (i.e., neoliberalism). This means that the poor have had no recourse to solve their problems; all they can do is fight with each other, as we see Shep do with Carl.

So in my allegory, we have personifications of the middle and upper classes, and of fascism (supported by the petite bourgeoisie, but including many disaffected members of the poor and working class, so in Carl and Gaear we have some overlap between lumpenproletariat and personifications of fascism), but not of organized labour (i.e., a communist movement). Imagine WWII being fought without the Soviet Union or Mao’s communists: different factions of the bourgeoisie (i.e., the Western Allies alone against the Nazis and Italian fascists, and the KMT alone against imperial Japan) would have simply eaten each other up in a bloodbath. The violence in Fargo (the triple homicide, the deaths of Jean, Wade, and Carl, etc.) can allegorically be seen to represent such an, at best, even more pyrrhic outcome in WWII.

It’s significant how, during the confrontation between Wade and Carl, grumpy Wade refers to Jean as his “damn daughter.” Oh, the love of a rich, cheapskate father, who’s clearly more annoyed at the loss of his money than at the danger of losing her.

That Carl fills him with bullets, and he fires at Carl, the bullet grazing the side of his face, is also significant: it symbolizes how capitalism destroys itself through its own contradictions. The bloody scar on Carl’s face is also symbolic of the kind of injury that gives rise to capitalistic and fascistic narcissism. Recall how enraged Hitler and the German nationalists were to learn of how their beloved country lost WWI, when they falsely believed they were winning…and to save face, they blamed Germany’s loss on the ‘treachery’ of the Jews and communists.

XVII: At the Breaking Point

Carl finds a place on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere to hide a portion of the money he plans to keep from Gaear. The hiding place, in the snow by a barbed-wire fence, would be absurdly impossible to relocate after Carl’s going back to the lakeside cabin and giving Gaear his short-changed cut; for as it says twice in the script, as Carl is looking both ways from the hiding place, “A regular line of identical fence posts stretches away against unblemished white.” (Coen and Coen, pages 90-91)

The undifferentiated nature of this worst of hiding places, coupled with Carl’s facial wound, represents the cusp where the narcissistic Imaginary meets the traumatizing, indescribable Real. The extreme of his agitation from his injury, combined with his hopes of enjoying all that money for himself (as unlikely as he is to find and enjoy it, even if Gaear weren’t to kill him), emphasizes how close to utter madness Carl is…his extremes of pleasure and pain.

Jerry is, of course, at the breaking point himself. Having followed his father-in-law and discovered his bullet-ridden body, Jerry takes the corpse home in the trunk of his car, and he has also seen another victim of the rage of Carl’s itchy trigger finger, the parking lot attendant. It finally seems to be dawning on Jerry what a dreadful mistake he’s made in his ill-conceived plan to have Jean kidnapped to extort money from Wade.

One wonders, in this connection, when it began to dawn on all the petite bourgeois and working class Europeans, who’d supported fascism in the 1920s and 30s, what a bad mistake they’d made, too.

XVIII: Minnesota Not-so-nice

Jerry’s next conflict will be with Marge when she makes her second visit to his office to ask about any cars being unaccountably taken from his lot. In my allegory, this is the conflict between the libertarian-leaning, conservative petite bourgeoisie (lawless Jerry) and the more statist-oriented liberal (Marge).

In this scene, we also see the contrast between the superficial, phoney politeness of “Minnesota nice” and the rudeness that lies underneath when the pressure is on. There’s “no call to get snippy” with Marge, but Jerry’s “cooperating here.” (Coen and Coen, page 94) Just as the capitalist, when financial times are good, takes on a generous, congenial persona, he gets gruff, authoritarian, and outright fascist when times are bad.

XIX: More Violence

The conflict between Carl and Gaear comes to a head back in the lakeside cabin, when they argue over who gets to keep the Ciera. Gaear’s killing Carl with an axe, then disposing of the body in the wood chipper, can be seen to represent, in my allegory, such things as the violence of the Night of the Long Knives (especially the violent death of Gustav Ritter von Kahr, his body hacked to pieces with pickaxes), which included Nazis killing other Nazis; it could also represent all the attempts on Hitler’s life, resulting in the executions of the conspirators.

Yet another way one could allegorize all this mutual violence among different sections of the bourgeoisie, or of society in general as represented by Wade, Jerry, Carl, Gaear, Jean, and Shep, is to see it symbolizing the kind of social destabilization caused by the CIA’s use of mind control (MKUltra) to popularize LSD in the 1960s and weaponize the lumpenproletariat against class struggle for the benefit of keeping the ruling class in power. One need only think of the Unabomber and Charles Manson; some fear, in fact, that such violence could soon erupt again, amidst the current aggravation of neoliberal class conflict.

XX: Conclusion

Of course, the film’s way of resolving all this conflict, violence, and mayhem is a liberal one, with Marge finding the Ciera at the lakeside cabin and arresting Gaear. She, as statist liberalism personified, gives the charmingly simple question to him: don’t you know there’s more to life than money?

Now, it’s easy to pretend that money isn’t all that important if you don’t have to struggle for it, as Marge, the successful police officer, doesn’t have to. And being happily married to a good man like Norm, as we see the two of them in bed together at the end of the film, means she doesn’t have to deal with the pain of loneliness and alienation that Jerry, Carl, Gaear (who’s so isolated, he hardly even speaks), Mike, and Scotty feel.

Marge may be the hero of the story, as well as the embodiment of all that’s good and wholesome, but as an officer of the law, she also works to serve and protect the system that gives rise to the contradictions that, in turn, give rise to people like Jerry, Wade, Carl, and Gaear. She has a happy family (soon to be one of three), but the system she protects has helped tear apart the Lundegaard family. Yet another example of the black/white paradox.

Jerry, through his incompetence and lack of ethical principles, has lost everything and is in jail. Wade, through his grumpy parsimony, has lost his life. Poor Scotty, who never did anyone any wrong (all he did was say a bad word, and for all we know, he probably was just drinking a milkshake at McDonald’s), may have inherited the family wealth, but without parents or a grandfather, he has no one to be there to take care of him.

His trauma, the trauma of a loneliness and desolation as cold as that horizonless, wintery white of Fargo‘s beginning, is a blackness that can only be overwhelming for him. This pain is what results from a world in which the bourgeoisie is left off the leash, with no organized labour to curb its excesses.

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Fargo, London, Faber and Faber, 1996

Analysis of ‘Rhinoceros’

Rhinoceros is a 1959 play by Eugène Ionesco, associated by Martin Esslin with the theatre of the absurd in his book on that topic. There is, however, much more to this play than just an exploration of absurdism. Other important themes in Rhinoceros include antifascism, conformity vs. individuality, mob mentality, culture and civilization vs. barbarism, logic (treated satirically), and morality.

As a young man in Romania, Ionesco found himself surrounded by people who were being seduced by fascist ideas. Though raised as an Orthodox Christian, Ionesco was part Jewish ethnically (on his mother’s side), and he was troubled by the growing antisemitism he saw everywhere leading up to WWII. Everyone in the play transforming into rhinoceroses except the protagonist, Bérenger (representing Ionesco), personifies this seductive fascist danger.

The original Broadway production in 1961 won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, for Zero Mostel (as Jean). Joseph Anthony was nominated for Best Production of a Play, and Rhinoceros won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The play was adapted into a film in 1973, directed by Tom O’Horgan and starring Mostel as John (Jean in the play), Gene Wilder as Stanley (Bérenger), and Karen Black as Daisy. The film was poorly received, faulted by film critic Jay Cocks in Time magazine for having an “upbeat, frantic vulgarization” of Ionesco’s text; he also complained of O’Horgan having “removed not only the politics but the resonance as well.”

Here are links to the text in English translation, an English performance of the play, and the 1973 film.

Bérenger is an everyman, yet also a bit of a social misfit, among those of whom Lacan described in his dictum, “les non-dupes errent.” Bérenger, not duped into believing in illusory social convention, nonetheless errs throughout his life: he’s late for work and get-togethers with his friend, Jean; he’s slovenly, and he drinks.

Jean, on the other hand, is quite the opposite: he’s punctual–only late for his get-together with Bérenger because he knows his friend will be late, so he adjusts his time of arrival to be just before he correctly predicts Bérenger’s tardy arrival–well-dressed to the point of foppishness, and temperate with drinking. Jean is well-schooled in Lacan’s notion of le Non! du père.

Their characters thus can be seen as dialectical opposites of each other. Their doubles can be seen in the Logician and the Old Gentleman, whose dialogue often parallels that of Jean and Bérenger, respectively (PDF, page 10–see link above). Similarly, the Housewife (with her cat) can be seen to parallel pretty, desirable Daisy (with her…I beg your pardon). Just as Bérenger has a romantic interest in Daisy, so does the Old Gentleman try to be gallant with the Housewife at every opportunity.

And just as Jean’s attempts to teach Bérenger the ‘rules’ of how to behave socially–le nom du père–attempts that fail miserably to edify his uncouth friend, so do the Logician’s attempts at giving examples of syllogisms come off as laughable (PDF, page 9). Here we see Rhinoceros demonstrating the absurdity of the human condition.

What must be emphasized here is that in all of this seemingly conventional social intercourse, we have what would appear to be the sanest moment of the play. Only one rhino has appeared as of this point in the story, and so ‘rhinoceritis’ hasn’t yet taken over society. Yet the irrational conformity that the rhino takeover to come symbolizes is already apparent in these absurd discussions.

The doubling of characters suggests this conformity, as does the frequent repetition of cliché lines by different characters (“Oh, a rhinoceros!”, “Well, of all things!”, etc.–PDF pages 4-5). The integration into society, a sharing of cultural mores, customs, laws, and language, is the essence of what Lacan called the Symbolic Order, a sharing of signifiers, of what can be symbolized in language.

The Symbolic is, mentally, the healthiest order to dwell in, for it is here that one leaves the narcissistic, mirroring dyad of the Oedipal mother/son relationship of the Imaginary, leaving the one-on-one other for the Other of many people. Also, in the Symbolic one can give verbal expression to experiences, and one can differentiate aspects of the world; but because one cannot do such things in the undifferentiated chasm of the Real, this third order is so traumatizing.

So, the socially conventional world of the Symbolic is healthy, as things are, relatively speaking, at the beginning of the play. The sighting of the one rampaging rhinoceros is seen as a mere freak occurrence. The absurd discourses of the Logician and the Old Gentleman, and the repetition of dialogue already heard, are a foreshadowing of the far more absurd expression (unintelligible, trumpet-like grunts) and conformist uniformity of the rhino epidemic to come.

One of the defining features of fascism is the use of violence to achieve its ideological ends, as I’ve described elsewhere. Since the rhinos represent the growing fascist menace that Ionesco saw all around him in Romania, the killing of the Housewife’s cat by the second rhino represents, on one level, that fascist violence.

An absurd debate ensues about whether this was the same rhino as before, or if they were two rhinos, did one of them have only one horn, and the other, two horns, and was one an Asiatic rhino, and the other an African one (actually, a satire on racism)…as if such quibbling over minutiae were even relevant. Such debating is an example of the inanities of social discourse, indicating that even the Symbolic Order isn’t all that healthy.

So the not-so-healthy realm of social convention is where the rhinos have sprung from, just as the scourge of fascism grew from the more mundane class contradictions of capitalism. The rhino, with its phallic horn (or horns), kills the Housewife’s cat (symbolically, her pussy), suggesting the toxic masculinity of fascism, a connection I made elsewhere. The phallic rhino’s killing of her cat can thus be seen as a symbolic rape.

Bérenger and Jean argue about which rhino, the Asiatic or African, has one horn or two. Their arguing escalates into them angering each other and using racial slurs (i.e., Jean saying of Asians, “They’re yellow!” –PDF, page 15). Jean thus leaves his friend in a huff, not wishing to be his friend anymore. In this exchange, we see symbolically the beginning of the breaking down of social relations, a descent from the not-so-healthy to the even-less-healthy of Act Two.

With this breakdown of social relations, we see the shrinking of that Other of many people to the dyad of other, a move from the primacy of the Symbolic to that of the Imaginary. As of Act Two, Scene One, Bérenger still cares about Daisy (though I suspect it’s mostly lust), and he wants to apologize to Jean for having angered him earlier (though instead of getting a proper reconciliation between the two friends in Scene Two, Bérenger watches in horror as Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before his very eyes). Mrs. Boeuf still loves her husband, in spite of his having transformed into a rhino, though her jumping on his back and riding off with him highly presumes that she is soon to become a rhino, too.

These are the only instances of love as manifested among the characters in the play, and even these instances are dubious, as I explained above. Instead, the pervading feeling is one of alienation, a fertile breeding ground for the hatred of fascism. Much of this alienation is worker alienation, as is felt in the office scene of Act Two, Scene One. Bérenger is late for work and drinks because his job is boring and meaningless; only the sight of Daisy cheers him up. One can hardly find such a job as anything other than boring, with its drudgery and repetition.

Just as Bérenger has his way of dealing with the dullness of bourgeois life, so does Botard, a left-leaning, unionized coworker in the office. Botard refuses to believe in the existence of the rhinos until their attack on the office staircase makes disbelief no longer possible. He argues with Daisy, who has seen the rhinos, and with coworker Dudard, who cites the newspaper as evidence, something Botard dismisses with a “Pfff!” (PDF, page 19). His distrust of the media, though wrongheaded here, would be far more justified today.

What’s interesting is how leftist Botard–as much a buffoon as all of the other characters in Ionesco’s play–upon realizing the reality of the rhinos, comes to think of their presence as a plot, an act of treason (PDF, page 27). Though liberal Ionesco had as much contempt for “Stalinism” as he had horror of Nazism, and accordingly he put comically Marxian slogans into Botard’s mouth (“Just like religion–the opiate of the people!”–PDF, page 22) to express this contempt, nonetheless, fascism was…and still is…a tactic used by the capitalist class against the gains of the working class.

There were traitors in the Soviet Union in the 1930s allying with the Nazis to undermine and overthrow the first workers’ state, which necessitated Stalin’s purge. What most people don’t want to admit is that it was Stalin who wasn’t “capitulating,” and the sacrifice of 27 million Soviet Russians is what saved Europe from the fascist rhinos, not some liberal centrism. The appeasers of Hitler in Munich, encouraging him to go East to invade the USSR, were all turning rhino, and they would only oppose him when he was threatening their own imperialist interests.

The rhino’s smashing of the office staircase symbolizes more fascist violence; one might think of Krystallnacht. The office workers’ boss, Mr. Papillon, insists that they resume work as soon as possible after being taken out of the building with the help of the firemen and their ladders (PDF, page 27). To the bourgeois mind, work and the making of profits must never stop. Not even fascism, growing out of capitalism, can stop it.

In Scene Two, Bérenger goes to Jean’s apartment to apologize for having upset him. It is during this scene that Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before Bérenger. What is interesting about this scene is how Jean presented himself to be so much more the cultured, thinking man than Bérenger, yet now we see Jean retreating into barbaric animalism, and Bérenger defending human civilization.

Jean, the one who knows far better than Bérenger how to fit in with society, is now showing how his fitting in is little more than mere conformity, by going along with the current trend of joining the rhinos. Since rhinos represent fascists, Jean is demonstrating how any normal member of society can be susceptible to extremist, even despicable, attitudes merely because this is what most other people are doing.

The society of the Symbolic Other is degraded into the collective narcissism of the Imaginary other: instead of seeing Other people as entities unto themselves, one sees a collective other as an extension of one’s own ego, and oneself as an extension of that collective other. The narcissistic mirror reflects both ways.

Jean’s turning green, and his ranting about “natural laws,” reflect the ideology of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard, who upheld “natural laws” as a bulwark against what they saw as the “Jewish inventions” of the modern West’s humanist values. Similarly, the Iron Guard wore a green uniform, hence Jean’s skin turning green.

Since he and Jean are switching roles, Bérenger, as the new defender of culture, civilization, and humanistic values, is trying to discipline himself to drink less, while Jean is making more and more of those trumpet-like rhino grunts. What’s more, Bérenger tries to convince Jean to see a doctor, yet Jean muses, “Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist.” (PDF, page 31)

The breakdown of relationships continues when Jean says, “There’s no such thing as friendship. I don’t believe in friendship,” which Bérenger finds “very hurtful” (PDF, page 31). Indeed, Jean speaks of being “misanthropic,” and liking it (PDF, page 32).

What we see here is the seductive threat of fascism, something not only small-c conservatives and right-wing libertarians can succumb to, but even liberals can. Consider the backing that such liberals as those in the Canadian government, the Democratic Party, and Hollywood liberals have given to a Ukrainian government littered with fascists, just because they don’t like Putin.

Surely this sort of thing is what Stalin meant when he said, “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Modern liberal democracy, more accurately called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, puts on an affable, smiling face when all runs smoothly for the ruling class; but when the capitalists feel in any way threatened, that smile quickly turns into a fascist scowl. Put another way, people transform into rhinoceroses.

This is how we should think of Jean, who normally holds it all together so well, but who now turns into a rhino. At first, he’s against the transformations into rhinoceroses, as everyone else is at the beginning of the play. Then he grows more lenient to the idea, more ‘open-minded’ in his attitude. Finally, he transforms into one.

A similar mentality can be seen towards fascism ever since the end of WWII. First, we were horrified by Nazi victimization of the Jews (even though a considerable number of ex-Nazis were given prominent government jobs in the US and West Germany). Then, demonization of the Soviet Union during the Cold War allowed us to regard such people as right-wing nationalist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as ‘champions of freedom.’ Then, Ukrainian neo-Nazi propaganda like the Holodomor hoax was uncritically accepted as ‘truth’; and now, NATO is backing up those very neo-Nazis in a dangerous escalation with Russia that could lead not only to WWIII, but also nuclear war. Rhinos, rhinos everywhere.

Lenience and open-mindedness can lead to one’s brain falling out.

In Act Three, Dudard visits a very distraught Bérenger in his apartment. He’s had a nightmare, and he is terrified of turning into a rhino. According to the stage directions, his apartment bears a striking resemblance to Jean’s (PDF, page 35), suggesting more doubling of characters, another variation on the play’s theme of conformity.

Yet again we have this character doubling in the form of Bérenger debating about the validity of the rhino transformations, but with Dudard this time, him now taking on Jean’s lenient and open-minded attitude. More doubling still is in Dudard’s fancying of Daisy, as Bérenger does. We sense the rivalry between the two men over her when she arrives with a basket of food, though Dudard pretends that he doesn’t wish to intrude on her get-together with Bérenger. And like Jean, Dudard will eventually become a rhino, too.

We learn over the course of the three characters’ discussions that Botard, Papillon, and the Logician have all become rhinos (PDF, page 44). It’s easy to see how their boss would transform: after all, fascism grows out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Left-leaning Botard’s change is a bit more puzzling, though far from inexplicable or impossible; opportunism can spread like a pestilence throughout the left (consider Trotsky‘s flirtation with Nazis in a hope to oust Stalin from power). The verbal absurdities of the Logician seem to anticipate the obscurantist, reactionary post-modernist French intellectuals, used by the CIA to lead leftists astray.

When only Bérenger and Daisy are left, and he is growing desperate, she starts showing signs that eerily remind us of the path that Jean and Dudard have just taken. She says that everyone has the right to change his mind about whether or not to turn into rhinos, even Botard (PDF, page 44). Rhinos’ grunts are heard on the telephone and on the radio (PDF, pages 49 and 50).

Bérenger wants her to help him repopulate the Earth (PDF, page 51), rather like Noah’s sons and their wives after the Flood wiped out all of humanity, but she is cool to the idea. She eventually comes to find the rhinos to be passionate; she imagines they have a language, something Bérenger scoffs at. Could the rhinos have entered the Symbolic, while he and she have left it? Indeed, she imagines it could be the remaining humans who now need saving. She imagines the rhinos to be singing. When he slaps her for sympathizing with them, it would seem that he is the barbaric one, and not the rhinos.

In her disillusionment with Bérenger and growing sympathy with the rhinoceroses, Daisy leaves him to join them, leaving him the sole remaining human. Being all alone with neither the Other of society (as radical alterity) nor the dyadic other of one person to mirror and be mirrored against (i.e., Daisy could be seen as a transference of Bérenger’s Oedipal feelings towards his mother), he has left the Symbolic and is in danger of being trapped in the traumatic, undifferentiated world of the Real (traumatic, because being surrounded by horned representations of fascism can only be thus; undifferentiated, because there’s no differentiation between all those who used to be human).

Significantly, Bérenger looks at himself in a mirror, the only place he’ll ever see a human face again. He acknowledges that he’s “not a particularly handsome specimen” (PDF, page 52). In near despair, he calls out to Daisy, begging her to come back to him. Like the crushed cat, he’s a “poor little thing,” being “left all alone in this world of monsters” (PDF, pages 52-53).

He can feel himself coming apart, in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which his only defence is the narcissistic illusion of the egoistic Imaginary. Hence, he continues to look at himself in the mirror as he talks to himself. He sees himself in the reflection, but he talks to the reflection as if it were another person. He’s lost everyone else who could act as a metaphorical mirror to himself, including Daisy, his love, his ‘other self,’ as it were, so all he has left for this mirroring purpose is himself. He’s like an infant seeing itself in a mirror for the first time, paradoxically recognizing itself and establishing its sense of self, yet also, in seeing itself ‘over there,’ sees itself as other, and is therefore alienated from itself…fragmented.

His defiance of the rhinos should be understood in this context. As representations of fascism, they are a real evil to be opposed to, but one must also consider Bérenger’s fragile mental state as one alone against the world. He would try to communicate with them, but he can’t speak their language (PDF, page 53)…he has left the Symbolic and its linguistic connection with society, culture, customs, laws, etc. He’s so confused, he’s not even sure if he’s speaking French (or English, as far as the play’s translation is concerned). Does his language even exist anymore, if he’s its only speaker, and no one else can understand him? Are the trumpeting sounds of the rhinos, the only shared form of communication left in the world, the only true language? And by extension, has fascism become no longer just an extremist ideology, but the truth?

His defiance, his “not capitulating,” is for obvious reasons noble on one level, but it’s also proud, narcissistic, on the other. He has gone full circle, from the slovenly drunkard who didn’t fit into society to the sole human who still doesn’t fit in. He wouldn’t capitulate to the lifestyle of a sober, well-groomed, and punctual contributor to society then, and he won’t conform now.

Like a narcissist, he goes from hating himself for being an ugly human (since being a rhinoceros has become the new aesthetic ideal) to being a proud defender of his difference from the rhinos. His honest humanity is, paradoxically, his False Self. He regrets being unable to change into a rhinoceros; then he puts on a false front of pride for not being one of them.

As Esslin comments: “His final defiant profession of faith in humanity is merely the expression of the fox’s contempt for the grapes he could not have. Far from being a heroic last stand, Bérenger’s defiance is farcical and tragicomic, and the final meaning of the play is by no means as simple as some critics made it appear. What the play conveys is the absurdity of defiance as much as the absurdity of conformism, the tragedy of the individualist who cannot join the happy throng of less sensitive people, the artist’s feelings as an outcast…” (Esslin, page 183)

Esslin continues: “If Rhinoceros is a tract against conformism and insensitivity (which is certainly is), it also mocks the individualist who merely makes a virtue of necessity in insisting on his superiority as a sensitive, artistic being. That is where the play transcends the oversimplification of propaganda and becomes a valid statement of the fatal entanglement, the basic inescapability and absurdity of the human condition. Only a performance that brings out this ambivalence in Bérenger’s final stand can do justice to the play’s full flavour.” (ibid, p. 183)

So, the absurdity of the human condition is universal in Rhinoceros. Every character without exception is flawed in one way or another. The human rhinos are absurd in their extreme conformism, and Bérenger is absurd in the narcissistic extreme of his individualism.

The paradox of the Symbolic is in how, though it represents the healthiest of mental states, it is also rife with social hypocrisy, hence “les non-dupes errent,” as exemplified in Bérenger and his gaffes. This paradoxical sane phoniness of society is extended into the illusion of freedom in modern-day liberal democracy, or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, as, as I said above, it should be called; this ‘freedom,’ it should be noted, extends only as far as the border of the nation-state. Thus, it should be no surprise that ‘democracy’ degenerates into fascism, or some other form of authoritarian rule, whenever society feels itself to be endangered.

Slavoj Zižek elaborates: ‘This leftover to which formal democracy clings, that which renders possible the subtraction of all positive contents, is of course the ethnic moment conceived as “nation”: democracy is always tied to the “pathological” fact of a nation-state. Every attempt to inaugurate a “planetary” democracy based upon the community of all people as “citizens of the world” soon attests its own impotence, fails to arouse political enthusiasm.’ […] ‘What is at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing: the “other” wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our “way of life”) and/or it has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the “other,” is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment (the smell of his food, his “noisy” songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work–in the racist perspective, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor).’ (Zižek, page 165)

Now, how can Rhinoceros be relevant to today’s world?

Well, apart from the recent resurgence of fascist tendencies around the world (Golden Dawn and their ilk in Greece, Svoboda and the Azov Battalion in the Ukraine…and its backing by the US/NATO, Marine Le Pen‘s near-win in the French elections, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and “MAGA,” among many others), we can also see rhino conformity as a symbol for all the mask-wearers of today, as well as the authoritarian measures of governments all over the world to mandate universal vaccination.

The absurdity of the extremes of both conformity and of individualism as seen in Rhinoceros, to be fair, can be seen in the whole ‘rona debate, too. I oppose the vax mandates and the capitalist media manipulation and scare-mongering, to be sure; but I do so not from the excessive ‘individualism’ of the right-wing libertarians, who simple-mindedly call all these anti-covid authoritarian measures a form of “communism.” Similarly, one can receive the vaccines–either through personal choice or coercion…”no jab, no job”–and still be opposed to the mandates.

The absurdity of Bérenger’s “not capitulating” can be seen in anyone stubbornly refusing to wear masks and having to pay fine after fine, or refusing the jab and remaining unemployed, then evicted. In some countries, such as Canada with its defiant truckers, a real effort is being made to undo the mandates; but in such places as the small East Asian island I live on, the locals are so uncritically compliant with the government that it doesn’t even occur to them that resistance exists as a possibility. Here, I am a Bérenger among mask-wearing rhinos; my resistance is futile because it’s meaningless.

The lesson to be learned from Rhinoceros is to find a comfortable middle ground between conformism and individualism; les non-dupes errent, but they must still hang onto some sense of society to maintain their sanity. Remember how the individualism of ‘anti-state’ right-wing libertarianism often leads, ironically, to fascism. What many today call the “communism” of the emerging NWO is really the capitalism of Bill Gates and his flying monkeys in the media he pays to control the narrative about the pandemic.

By all means, don’t capitulate; but don’t stare at the mirror for too long, either.

Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, London, Penguin Books, 1961

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

Analysis of ‘The 39 Steps’

I: Introduction

The 39 Steps is a 1935 thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though the plot differs considerably from that of John Buchan‘s 1915 novel, it is considered by many critics to be the best adaptation of his novel, the other versions having been made in 1959, 1978, and 2008.

Hitchcock’s adaptation stars Robert Donat as Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, with Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, and Wylie Watson. It’s widely been acknowledged as a classic; Orson Welles called it a “masterpiece”; it came in 4th in a 1999 BFI poll of British films; and in 2004, Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Since there are many plot points in Buchan’s novel that are as relevant to my interpretation as are those of the film, I’ll be doing a comparison and contrast of both plots. It would also be helpful to go through a bit of Hannay’s character history, as well as a bit of the history of the British Empire, to be able to put the novel and film in their proper political context.

II: Context

From a bourgeois perspective, Hannay is a dashing hero with a stiff upper lip, who is trying both to clear his name of a false accusation of murder and to stop foreign spies from taking crucial military information out of Britain and giving it to her enemies. I, however, will be viewing the film and novel from an internationalist, Marxist perspective; so if such a reading is not your cup of tea, Dear Reader, I suggest you stop here and read a different analysis of this film.

Though the Hannay of Hitchcock’s film is Canadian (with no attempt made by British Donat to imitate a rhotic North American accent, I’ll add), the Hannay of Buchan’s novels is Scottish, as was the author, hence his extensive descriptions of the Scottish countryside in The Thirty-Nine Steps, no doubt.

Hannay went with his father to South Africa in the late 1880s. As a mining engineer many years later, he made a small fortune in Bulawayo. After that, he fought in the two Matabele Wars; he also fought, as a member of the Johannesburg Light Horse Regiment, in the Second Boer War. One would be well-advised to know how the British Empire waged these wars to get a sense of the character of our dashing hero, who so willingly participated in the waging of those wars.

The novel takes place just before the outbreak of WWI. The film takes place in the mid-1930s, and though the historical events of the time aren’t mentioned, if we know our history reasonably well, we’ll know that a fear of enemy countries gaining military intelligence of Britain could have resulted in circumstances far direr than those that would happen to Britain a mere half-decade after the end of the events of the film.

III: Beginnings

So Hannay is a bourgeois with imperialistic military experience as of the beginning of our story, either bored out of his mind, as we read in chapter one of Buchan’s novel, or relieving that boredom in a London music hall theatre at the film’s beginning. The Hannay of the film establishes his nationality as Canadian by asking the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal of “Mr. Memory” (Watson), a man whose eidetic powers of recall are such that he remembers the many details he reads every day and thus boasts that he can answer any question. (In this connection, it’s interesting to point out that Buchan was Governor General of Canada from 1935, the year the film was made, until his death in 1940.)

In the novel, Hannay briefly attends a London music hall, but gets bored of it and leaves. He gives half a crown to a yawning beggar, sympathizing only with his apparent boredom, an attitude that shouldn’t be surprising in a bourgeois (page 5 of the PDF–link above). When Hannay returns to his flat, he meets Franklin Scudder, a nervous freelance spy who tells him about the plot to take military information out of the country.

In the film, the spy is a female not willing to reveal her nationality and calling herself Annabella Smith (Mannheim), though judging by her accent, one might think her surname is Schmidt. In the novel, the German agents call themselves “The Black Stone,” whereas Smith alludes to “The 39 Steps,” which is revealed by the end of the film to be the name of the foreign spy organization. (In the novel, there are an actual set of thirty-nine steps leading to the location of the escape point for the conspirators.)

IV: Conspiracies

In the film, the information to be taken out of England is for the design of a silent aircraft engine. In the novel, the stolen information is British plans related to the outbreak of what will be WWI. Scudder tells Hannay of an apparently anarchist plot to destabilize Europe with this war, including a conspiracy to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during his visit to London. This assassination seems to be a fictionalizing of that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the straw (of accumulated European grievances) that broke the camel’s back and led to the July Crisis and the beginning of WWI.

Scudder’s description of this plot includes, among all these “very dangerous people,” (page 8) “financiers who were playing for money” (page 9) Apparently, “the aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.” (page 9)

Scudder goes a little bit into capitalist involvement in the conspiracy, but he gets antisemitic when he claims that “the capitalists would rake in the shekels,” and “the Jew was behind it.” He raves on: “The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.” (page 9)

Buchan’s writing has been criticized for its colonialism, racism, and antisemitism. One suspects that the passages quoted in the previous paragraph reflect his sympathy for Scudder’s prejudices, and his use of a colonialist for a hero in his novels suggests not only his imperialist sympathies, but also–given the British Empire’s treatment of black Africans back then–his racism. Certainly, Buchan’s wearing of a Native headdress as Governor General in 1937 would be considered racist by today’s standards.

V: Smith > Scudder

Smith’s description of the conspiracy is far briefer, leaving its mystery to be revealed by the end of the film. Leaving out Scudder’s offensive conspiracy theories makes her much more likeable, too.

Making the freelance spy of the film a female is intriguing in how she asks Hannay to let her go home with him that night, after the music hall show. Though he acknowledges her as beautiful, he makes not even the slightest sexual advance on her. Granted, our hero is a gentleman, and the prevailing morals of the time would not have tolerated the depiction of a one-night stand in the movie; but not even the subtlest of sexual innuendo between Hannay and Smith anticipates the rather subdued sexual chemistry to be seen later between him and Pamela (Carroll), which in turn suggests Lacan‘s notion that there’s no sexual relationship between men and women (more on that later).

Our instinctive sense of gallantry causes us to be more shocked by the knife in her back than in the knife in Scudder’s heart (page 22). Unlike in the novel, Smith dies with a map in her hand, allowing Hannay to search for and find the house of the spies, rather than him stumbling upon it by chance, as he does in the novel, a most implausible thing to be able to do in such a vast area of land as in the Scottish countryside. Hannay looks at the map and determines where the head of the spy organization is, in a house named Alt-na-Shellach, in Killin, in the Scottish Highlands. The head of the spies, Professor Jordan (Tearle), is a master of disguise, but as Smith has told Hannay, Jordan is missing the top joint of his left hand’s little finger, a symbolic castration. This lack will give the villain away.

VI: Disguise

Disguise is a recurring motif in this story, especially in the novel. Scudder, having figured out the whole conspiracy, fakes his death and disguises himself several times as he moves from Paris to Hamburg, then to Bergen, Norway, then to Leith, then to London (pages 13-14). When Hannay has to escape his flat and evade Smith’s/Scudder’s killers, who are waiting for him outside his apartment building, he borrows a milkman’s uniform (chapter two; also in the film). Later, in the Scottish countryside, he swaps places with a road mender, this disguise also fooling his pursuers there (chapter five).

Towards the end of the novel, when Hannay is back in London and has cleared his name of Scudder’s murder with Scotland Yard, he is at a meeting in Sir Walter’s home, where he learns the “First Sea Lord” is really one of his pursuers in disguise (pages 144-145). Finally, Hannay finds his three pursuers in such brilliant disguises, and so convincingly acted, that he doubts his own senses when confronting them (pages 165-174).

What does all of this disguising mean, especially in the case of Hannay pretending to be a worker? I’d say Buchan’s novel includes a number of what I, in other posts, have called Freudian slips, some of which are preserved in the film, which unconsciously go against the bourgeois bias of his narrative. Capitalists and imperialists often like to project their guilt onto others and portray themselves as victims, as when Nazis, for example, blame the Jews for the exploitive depredations of capitalism, something we’ve already seen Scudder do. Elsewhere, capitalists blame intrusive government of sullying the ‘purity’ of their idolized economic system; they also claim that anything even slightly socially liberal is ‘communist’ or ‘socialist,’ and is therefore ubiquitous in the political world, schools, and media, ‘oppressing’ the conservatives.

Hannay disguising himself as a milkman, then as a road mender, symbolizes the bourgeois dreaming of himself as a humble, common worker, fighting against the odds and prevailing against difficulties (the ‘self-made man’), rather than admitting to himself that his social class has already given him a leg-up against everyone else.

VII: Imperialism

As for the disguises of the spies, foreigners pretending to be Englishmen just show, in symbolic fashion, how the imperialist is as internationalist as is the communist. I’ll give a few examples. Consider those, of not only British nationality, who would work together to establish the settler colonial state of Israel through the Balfour Declaration (decades later, even the USSR would help in that establishment, though the Soviets would repent of their involvement soon enough). Consider the many American companies that would do business with the Nazis. Consider the European countries that would allow the Nazis not only to take the Sudetenland, but eventually work their way over to invade the Soviet Union.

My point in bringing up the above is that, contrary to Scudder’s notion that “anarchists” (i.e., leftists) are conspiring to destabilize Europe, the descent into WWI was due to various players among the European ruling classes. The war was an inter-imperialist competition over who would control the largest piece of the pie, as Lenin observed in his analysis of the situation.

Talk of ‘this nation vs. that nation’ is how the ruling classes of the world divide the people and make them kill each other, while the rich of all these countries get richer through the racket of war and through imperialist plunder of other countries’ resources. It doesn’t actually matter, therefore, if the conspirators are from ‘this country’ or ‘that country.’ The spies aren’t “anarchists,” or necessarily Jews: they’re working for just plain capitalists, so if they’re, say, Germans brilliantly disguised as Englishmen, it’s all the same to me.

VIII: On the Train, On the Run

Back to the story. Hannay gets on the express train, the Flying Scotsman, to get to Scotland, and evades his pursuers for the time being. In the film, he sits in a cabin with two businessmen discussing their product: ladies’ undergarments. (When this British film was to be shown in American theatres in the mid-thirties, did the Production Code approve of this scene? I have my doubts.) One of the businessmen is disappointed to read in the newspaper of the ladies’ undergarments of a rival company doing better business than his own.

There is a paradox in showing the underclothes without a woman in them, these exchange-value commodities, as there is later in Hannay’s unwelcome kissing of Pamela to evade the police he knows (from the same newspaper) have fingered him for Smith’s murder. Here we see again, in symbolic form, Lacan’s notion that there’s no relation between the sexes, an alienation brought on by the capitalist system.

Hannay’s having to get off the train to get away from the police, and to go on foot through the Scottish countryside, symbolically suggests that bourgeois fantasy of imagining oneself to be a victim hounded by the authorities, as if Hannay were one of the poor residents of this rural area, a simple place cut off from the industrialized, modern world, symbolic of the Third World. (It’s useful to mention in this connection how the movement for Scottish independence had already existed for quite some time by the writing of Scottish Buchan’s novel.) Remember that Hannay’s underdog running from the law should be seen in context of his having fought wars for the British Empire in southern Africa, him having pointed a gun at and having shot blacks.

In the novel, Hannay is chased even more extensively through the Scottish countryside than he is in the film. In the novel, he’s given accommodations several times, but in the film, there’s only one significant accommodation before he finds Professor Jordan’s house. In this one accommodation, he meets a middle-aged crofter (Laurie) and his pretty young wife (Ashcroft). The crofter is easily jealous and suspicious of the dealings of handsome young Hannay with his wife, of which nothing sexual results beyond a quick kiss. There’s no relation between the sexes even in the rural part of our alienated, capitalist world.

IX: So Close, Yet So Far Away

We can find a thematic unity in these varying manifestations of what we could call, ‘so close, yet so far away.’ Hannay is so physically close to Annabella, then Pamela, then the crofter’s wife (then Pamela again), and yet so far away in how so little, if anything, in the form of a romantic bond develops between him and each of these women (except, maybe, the potential of hand-holding Hannay and Pamela at the end of the film). This thematic unity is shared in both the film and the novel.

The spy organization (“The 39 Steps,” or “The Black Stone,” whichever name you prefer) is in the UK, yet inimical to her interests. Hannay would help the UK, that is, he’s close to her heart, yet he’s perceived as a violent threat, and so he’s pursued by the police. The presumption of his guilt in Smith’s/Scudder’s murder might suggest a sympathy with, a closeness to, the spy organization, yet his wish to expose them shows his distance from them, therefore he’s pursued by the spy organization as well as by the UK police.

This thematic unity is thus a dialectical one. As Slavoj Zižek points out in Looking Awry (pages 100-101), Hannay is both the persecuted (by the UK police and foreign agents) and the persecutor (a threat to the spies, in wishing to expose them). Note that Buchan, prior to being the Canadian Governor General, worked for the British Empire in South Africa and based Hannay on a friend and colleague there, Edmond Ironside, a spy during the Second Boer War.

Ironside unsuccessfully disguised himself as an Afrikaans-speaking Boer after the war. It’s easy to see a link between not only Ironside’s impersonation and those of Hannay, but also those of the spy organization as depicted in both the novel and the film. As I’ve said above, Ironside’s and Buchan’s imperialist work and that of Hannay (a fictional idealization of both Buchan and Ironside) provide the necessary context for understanding Hannay as both the persecuted and the persecutor.

X: Colonizer as Victim?

The imperialist feels no sensitivity whatsoever for the suffering he causes the colonized. In fact, as I mentioned above, he fancies himself to be the victim, of competitive foreign imperialism or of those he victimizes. Recall how in Kipling‘s poem, the “half-devil and half-child” peoples that the ‘burdened’ white man colonizes are resentful of his efforts ‘to civilize’ them. (Note also how Hannay in the film refers to his awkward, hand-cuffed relationship with Pamela as “the white man’s burden.”)

Hitler and the Nazis rationalized their lebensraum imperialism on a belief that the Jews and communists, millions of whom they murdered, were economically oppressing Germany. Capitalists bemoan the wildly exaggerated number of ‘victims’ of communism, who were mostly other capitalists who, had they been given their way, would have resumed their immiseration of the erstwhile liberated working class. (Don’t believe me? Check out what happened to Russia in the 1990s.) Hannay may not have killed Smith/Scudder, but as a participant in the Matabele and Second Boer Wars, he would have been at least partly responsible for many deaths then.

Such is the historical context for sublating the dialectical contradiction of Hannay as persecutor and persecuted. Like any capitalist or imperialist, he would project imperialist guilt on foreign imperialist spies while conveniently forgetting the British imperialist espionage of men like Ironside, Hannay’s very inspiration. ‘So close, yet so far away’: foreign imperialist crimes are so identical in terms of the bourgeoisie’s class motives that they’d might as well have been committed by the imperialists in one’s own country.

XI: The Manhunt Continues

The crofter’s wife has given Hannay her husband’s coat, which has the crofter’s hymn book in it. Her ever-jealous husband is so angered, having already been suspicious of her having adulterous designs with Hannay, that he hits her offscreen (I can’t imagine the Hays Office not insisting that this scene be cut out for the American release of the film). She’s helped Hannay sneak out of their house before the police can get him, so he continues through the countryside in the direction of Alt-na-Shellach.

The manhunt continues, with not only police chasing Hannay on foot, but also using an autogyro. This parallels passages in the novel with not only the police but also the spies chasing him, the latter using an aeroplane. This aeroplane chasing him reminds me of that famous scene in North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film of an innocent man on the run, pursued by spies. I wonder if the scene could have been inspired by the passages in Buchan’s novel, if Hitchcock hadn’t been able, due to budget constraints, to include them in The 39 Steps, then (unconsciously?) decided to do a similar scene with Cary Grant.

At one point in the countryside chase, Hannay meets with a man, Sir Harry, who has to give a political speech he feels himself ill-prepared for, and being impressed with Hannay’s experience in South Africa, he would have Hannay give such a speech at an election meeting that afternoon. (This passage, in chapter four, has its equivalent in the film much later in the story.)

XII: Speeches

In the novel, Hannay’s speech includes talk of “the kind of glorious business [he thinks can] be made out of the Empire if [they] really put [their] backs into it.” Such talk surely reflected Buchan’s imperialist ideology. In contrast, Hannay describes the “appalling rot” of Sir Harry’s poorly-prepared speech: talk about “the ‘German menace,’…[meant] to cheat the poor of their rights and keep back the great flood of social reform, but that ‘organized labour’ realized this…” (pages 67-68). One wouldn’t expect bourgeois imperialists like Hannay or Buchan to sympathize with ideas like the rights of the poor, social reform, and organized labour.

Another contrast with these speeches can be seen in Hannay’s speech in the film, which transforms him from a flaming right-winger into a liberal. Though Buchan and the script-writers (Charles Bennett and Ian Hay) were unlikely to have had political opinions that were even approximate to each other, it’s worthy to note what such political agendas have in common, in spite of their obvious differences, as seen in the novel and the film. Hannay’s speech in the film could be seen as a sublation of his and Sir Harry’s speeches in the novel.

Hannay’s speech in the film, a response to questions about the “idle rich”–given as he sees his pursuers at a political meeting, them waiting to arrest him–is all about the hope of changing society and political life into one in which every man and woman has an equal chance in life, in which people are no longer hunted, hounded, persecuted, and without a friend in the world to help them. If one didn’t know any better, one would think he was speaking of the true wretched of the Earth: the poor, those discriminated against, victims of bigotry and prejudice, etc.

He, of course, is really thinking about himself, a bourgeois who sees himself as the victim, but who’s really, in one form or another, a part of the British Empire/Commonwealth. He’s such a member regardless of whether he’s the Scottish Hannay of Buchan’s novels, or the Canadian of Hitchcock’s film. As a colonialist or as a member of a white settler colonial state, Hannay is a man of an imperialist world order whose claims of victimhood would sound strange in the ears of those truly victimized by colonialism. Since liberals talk the progressive talk, but would also preserve their imperialist and class privileges, Hannay’s speech in the film thus sublates this speech with those of the novel perfectly.

XIII: The House of the Spies

Eventually, Hannay in his travels in the countryside finally reaches the house of the spies. In the novel, this occurs in chapter six, when he meets a “bald archaeologist” who welcomes him in his home, pretends to be a friend warding off the police, yet who also knows he is Hannay. Hannay’s only escape from the storage room he’s been locked into is to use the explosives stored inside to blow his way out, risking injury or death.

After blowing his way out, and luckily experiencing only minimal injury, he gets outside and has to hide on the roof of a neighbouring building until nightfall. It’s like being a homeless man: Buchan is thus once again presenting the bourgeois fantasy of a colonialist as a victim.

In the film, Hannay meets Professor Jordan, who similarly lets him in his house with all cordiality, gets rid of the police, then in a private conversation with Hannay, reveals himself to be the man missing the joint on his left hand’s little finger.

As I mentioned above, this lack of that joint is a symbolic castration, a lack that gives rise to desire, the sinful desire of a villain. Accordingly, Jordan pulls out a phallic pistol from his pocket, the weapon compensating for his lost joint. He shoots Hannay, knowing he can’t let the fugitive jeopardize his mission as a spy; but that hymn book in the crofter’s coat has absorbed the bullet and saved Hannay’s life.

XIV: Friends of Spies

Hannay escapes Jordan’s home and goes to the police station of Sheriff Watson (played by Frank Cellier), who was at Jordan’s get-together when Hannay fled from the police to his home. Watson, just like Jordan, pretends to be friendly and sympathetic with Hannay, but has policemen arrive to arrest him. Hannay jumps out of a window and escapes.

Since Watson is friends with Jordan, the leader of the foreign spy ring, we can see this friendship as symbolic of how different imperialist countries often collaborate with each other for mutual advantage. So far away, yet so close: national differences mean little when it comes to imperialism, making Hannay’s pro-British heroics dubious at best.

XV: A Fine Romance

The relationship between him and Pamela resumes when she finds him doing his impromptu speech about the rights of man (little that he cares about them, of course). Recall the forced kiss he gave her on the train, followed by her giving him over to the police. Here at the political meeting, she betrays him to the police again. After their ride in the police car, interrupted by a flock of sheep on the road, a cop handcuffs the man and woman together, since they need her to corroborate that he’s Hannay. They’re stuck together again, in spite of their mutual dislike. So close, yet so far away: there is no sexual relation, symbolized in the pair’s predicament.

Actually, these arresting officers are only posing as cops: they’re part of the espionage conspiracy, something Hannay’s realized from noting that the car is going in the wrong direction. So close, yet so far away: all the foreign spies’ pretending to be the British authorities is symbolic of the blurry distinction between the powers-that-be among locals and foreigners.

Hannay and Pamela are stuck together because of the handcuffs, meant to keep them together in the car while the agents clear the sheep off the road; but Hannay demonstrates his iron will by escaping and making Pamela go with him. This disparity, between him getting his way and her not getting hers, is symbolically another manifestation of the impossibility of the sexual relationship.

XVI: No Sexual Relationship, and No Female Voice?

Lacan’s meaning is that there’s an asymmetry between the male and female sexual position (I’m not talking about those of the bedroom!), through the phallus as signifier, giving one entry into the Symbolic Order of language, culture, and social custom, while not providing a corresponding signifier for women. Rather than interpreting this asymmetry as sexist, since it’s about disparities in language qua social organization (Zižek, page 136…as opposed to Freud‘s preoccupation with the psychological consequences of the literal genital difference between the sexes), we should rather see the asymmetry as a comment, a social critique, of sexism.

Hannay takes charge and forces Pamela to go along because society has given him, not her, a voice. His imperious attitude to her fittingly dovetails with his experience (in the novels, anyway) as a colonialist in South Africa. Only through equality of the sexes can there be a sexual relationship; similarly, alienation will end only with the end of capitalism.

XVII: Censorship and Sexual Relationships

Another scene that symbolically expresses the impossibility of the relation between the sexes is when Hannay and Pamela have to share a room at a Scottish inn for the night, pretending to be a married couple. Such a scene would have run afoul of the censors as surely as, among the other scenes mentioned above, Hannay’s saying the word damn several times.

It didn’t matter that the couple is never indecent (Pamela removes only her wet stockings–surely this won’t enflame our passions too much!), nor do they ever engage in any heavy petting, or any touching, while lying side by side, fully clothed, on the bed. The only reason they’re together is the handcuffs, from which she later frees her hand while he’s sleeping. Still, the prudish Production Code wanted the scene deleted.

An alternate final scene was filmed, to placate the censors (but never used in the film’s final cut), of the couple in a taxi–in which Hannay says that, under Scottish law, their having registered as man and wife at the inn was a public declaration of marriage and therefore their night on that bed together was not immoral.

All of these evasions of sex, whether due to the pressures from the censors, or because Hannay and Pamela still don’t like each other, reinforce in a symbolic fashion how there is no rapport between the sexes. So close (together on a bed), yet so far away (fully clothed).

XVIII: An Unsexed Objet Petit A

Indeed, the objet petit a, or unattainable object-cause of desire, is not a sexual object at all in The 39 Steps. Rather, the objet petit a is the MacGuffin of the film: the information the spies want to sneak out of the country.

This leads us to the final scene of the film, which is the same setting as the opening scene, the London music hall, giving the film a nice ABA structure with another demonstration of the talents of Mr. Memory. The addition of this character to the story, we learn, is crucial to the plot, for the plan is to use his memory skills to help the spies export the detailed knowledge he’s obtained of a silent aircraft engine’s design.

So the objet petit a isn’t for carnal knowledge, but just plain knowledge–there’s no sexual relationship. Now, when Hannay, still trying to clear his name, importunes Mr. Memory to disclose the meaning of “The 39 Steps,” our formidable brain is briefly in conflict over his id‘s desire to display his knowledge and be admired by the crowd, his ego‘s need to be safe against being shot by Professor Jordan (present at the music hall, on a balcony seat with his pistol), and his superego‘s obligation to honour his publicly-stated commitment to answer any question correctly. He honours this commitment and gets his admiration, but it costs him his life.

XIX: Conclusion

Jordan’s objet petit a, that very MacGuffin, is the coveted spy information, which isn’t expressed as a sexual desire except in a symbolic sense: the symbolic castration of his finger joint, a lack giving rise to his desire and compensated for with the phallic pistol, which ejaculates a bullet into his desired male Mnemosyne, but not a bullet of Eros…one of Thanatos.

In a world of capitalist, inter-imperialist competition, the resulting alienation is the non-existent sexual relationship (note that Hannay will join up to fight in WWI soon after the novel’s end). All Hannay, still with the handcuff around his wrist, and Pamela can muster in the way of affection is a holding of hands…and how many steps will go by before those hands come apart?