Analysis of ‘The Maltese Falcon’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Network’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Killing Zoe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

Bonnie and Clyde is a 1967 crime drama written by David Newman and Robert Benton, loosely based on the early-to-mid-thirties crime spree of the Barrow gang. The film was directed by Arthur Penn; it stars Warren Beatty (who also produced it) and Faye Dunaway, and costars Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard. All five of these actors were nominated for Oscars, with Parsons winning.

Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of filmmaking (New Hollywood), with its shockingly bloody gunshot wounds (produced by squibs), jump cuts (courtesy of the direct influence of the late fifties/sixties French New Wave; in fact, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were consulted during the making of the film), and sexual innuendo, helping to bring the old, prudish Production Code to an end and replacing it with the MPAA ratings system.

As good and ground-breaking as the film is, though, don’t expect that watching it will leave you well-informed about the real history of Bonnie and Clyde. The film not only romanticizes the crime spree, making the Barrow gang into social rebels and heroes to the late sixties counterculture, but it also plays fast and loose with what actually happened back in the early-to-mid-1930s. The real crime duo’s meeting place was totally different (at the home of Barrow’s friend Clarence Clay, not at Bonnie’s home); they robbed far fewer banks (mostly grocery stores and gas stations); there’s no evidence that they robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; Bonnie was already married (to Roy Thornton, who was in prison himself during and after the crime spree), and the real Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle) and Blanche Barrow (Parsons) were totally unlike the weak, humiliated portrayals seen in the film.

The film was reviled on its first release, most audiences being disgusted with the excess violence. But over time, it has become a classic, to the point where Quentin Tarantino said film history can be divided into films made before and after Bonnie and Clyde, that is, that the cinema of the seventies started with this late-sixties movie.

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

Though the writers denied intending any deeper meaning behind their movie, their having changed so much of the history, and indulgently so (they were originally even going to have Clyde be bisexual!), to suit their purposes, suggests at least unconscious motives. Therefore, I feel free to interpret the film’s meaning as I will.

The film’s mythology of the Barrow gang, who “rob banks,” portrays them as sympathetic to the poor, and as society’s rebels who are sticking it to the Man. I will carry that line of thinking a little further, and say that their crime spree is symbolic of a revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists. Their being shot and killed by the police thus represents a counter-revolution and restoration of capitalism.

We see black-and-white pictures of Bonnie, Clyde, et al during the opening credits, establishing a photograph motif symbolizing the fixed image, the idealized myth, of the Barrow gang, as opposed to who they really were. This contrast between ideal and real is reinforced immediately after in the opening scene, with Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) nude in her bedroom and looking at herself in the mirror. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which we have the contrast between the idealized mirror reflection (her ideal-I), a unified totality (just as in those photos), and the woman looking at it, she who feels lacking, fragmented physically and psychologically, and discontented with her life.

Her inner fragmentation is related to her fragmented relationship with the outside world, that is, her social alienation and that of her species-essence. The jump cuts in this scene, the deliberately choppy editing, symbolize her fragmentation. The shot of her lying on her bed, with her head between the bars of the head of her bed, make her look imprisoned. She bangs her fists in frustration on the bars like a prisoner wanting to be free, for she has a dull job as a waitress, and she wants more out of life.

Then her chance to be free arrives, outside, by her mother’s car.

She looks out the window and sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mom’s car. Her choice of words to address him is significant: she calls out, “Hey, boy!” She’s up there, calling down to him from the second floor, addressing the young man as “boy.”

This moment introduces another theme of the movie: the reversal of sex roles. She hollers down at him, rather than, say, him looking down at her and calling her “girl.” This role reversal, many more examples of which we’ll see soon enough, symbolizes–by challenging the validity of traditional sex roles–a movement towards the equality of the sexes, which in turn is a necessary part of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.

She quickly gets dressed and goes down to meet him. They walk together, buy bottles of Coke, and the sexual innuendo between them commences as we see her with her lips around the bottle top, sensuously drinking in a way suggestive of fellatio. She’s skeptical of his claim to be a thief until he pulls out a pistol, then lowers it to his crotch area, giving the gun obvious phallic symbolism. The sexual innuendo continues when she touches his gun, as if she’d like to masturbate him.

He goes off and robs a store, firing his gun as he and Bonnie race off in a car. She’s so thrilled with his daring that she wants to make love with him. They pull over by some trees, and she jumps on him and covers his face with kisses.

Here we have another reversal of sex roles: she is the sexual aggressor, not the man. In fact, the reversal is carried even further when he has to fight her off…for we learn that he is impotent.

Making Clyde impotent is yet another indulgent invention of the scriptwriters, who earlier considered putting Clyde in a scene involving a bisexual ménage à trois with Bonnie and CW Moss (Pollard). This earlier idea was scrapped for being obviously too risqué even for the radical sixties, especially since the Production Code, though moribund from an increasingly lax enforcement, still wasn’t quite dead yet.

I wonder if the scriptwriters’ inspiration, for bisexuality on the one hand and impotence on the other, came from the fact that the real Clyde Barrow, while incarcerated in Eastham Prison Farm from 1930 to 1932, was raped by an inmate. Either way, this all adds to the theme of sex role reversal by making (or at least seeming to make) Clyde, in one sense or another, sexually passive.

In any case, he does feel emasculated, and his chopped-off toes symbolize such a castration. Small wonder he needs to fire that phallic gun of his, ejaculating bullets to compensate for what he feels to be his incomplete manhood. On the other hand, his giving Bonnie his gun to practice firing at a tire, behind a home they’ve squatted in (repossessed by a bank), is symbolically giving her a phallus, thus once again bringing about a sex role reversal.

When the fledgling duo of thieves see the family that has lost their home to the bank, they show their sympathy. Clyde fires bullets into the sign saying that the family’s home is now the bank’s property, and he tells the father, “We rob banks,” with a proud grin.

Clyde gives his gun to the father and a man named Davis (who worked there with the family), allowing them to fire bullets at the sign and house windows, to release their frustration at the bank’s taking it away from them. Davis is black, incidentally, and he is treated with pleasantly surprising respect, given the time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the American south. He is referred to by name, not as the ‘coloured fellow,’ or the ‘Negro,’ or any other word beginning with n. This sympathy and comradeship against such capitalist institutions as banks and against racism shows how the Bonnie and Clyde of the film represent socialist expropriators of the ruling class, as well as friends of the people.

Later, Clyde–after telling Bonnie not to be nervous about their next job (while he is the one obviously nervous)–attempts a robbery of a small bank that has gone out of business and lost all of its money due to the Depression. When she learns of the bank’s lack of money, Bonnie laughs at Clyde as they hurry away in their car. His embarrassment is another symbolic emasculation, a lowering of him from the unattainable male chauvinist ideal, showing him to be her equal. He fires a few ejaculatory bullets in the window of the bank in a pathetic attempt to save face.

They begin to build up the Barrow gang by adding CW Moss, a composite of WD Jones and Henry Methvin, as their getaway driver. First, Clyde shows his inadequacy during their next bank heist by only weakly saying, “This is a stick-up,” then saying it again loud enough to be heard by all in the bank. Then, Moss demonstrates his incompetence by parking their getaway car where Bonnie and Clyde can’t find it.

Both men’s failings once again show the myth of male superiority, showing Bonnie to be their equal.

While we don’t see any signs of incompetence in Bonnie, who is far less experienced as a criminal than Clyde or Moss, Parsons’s portrayal of Blanche, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), is most unflattering. Her hysterics so annoyed the real Blanche, who was alive to see the film, that she complained of the writers and Parsons making her “look like a screaming horse’s ass!”

And Parsons, of all the nominated actors in the film, was the one to win an Oscar, which must have embittered the real Blanche all the more.

While, on the one hand, we have the lowering of men from their chauvinistic high horse, we also have the urge to raise women higher, where we see Bonnie succeeding and Blanche failing. Bonnie, the liberated woman of the movie, naturally loses her patience with Blanche and her traditional womanhood. As unpleasant as it may be to watch Bonnie verbally abusing Blanche, still, the demand for her to toughen up is as necessary–for the sake of sexual equality–as it is to see the men humbled.

Speaking of Bonnie as a feminist icon in the film, another reversal of sex roles happens when Clyde takes that famous photograph of Bonnie with his cigar in her mouth and his gun in her hand, leaning against the car. The gun and cigar make her into the phallic woman, an idealized, strong version of herself making the photo comparable to the ideal-I she saw in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the film.

The ideal of those photos, still images showing people as unified totalities instead of the fragmented people we all feel ourselves to be, is a motif in this film connected with the image of Bonnie at the mirror. The pictures are representative of the Imaginary Order, establishing the self as an illusory, idealized ego.

The photos of the real Bonnie and Clyde that were discovered in their hideout in Joplin were published in the newspapers, adding to the grandeur of the myth of the Barrow gang. The contrast between, for example, the photograph of Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and the real Bonnie, who didn’t smoke cigars, demonstrates this difference between the ideal and the real. That photo may have made her look like a cigar-chomping, gun-brandishing moll, but the real Bonnie wasn’t as tough as all that.

So the screenwriters were perhaps a bit more justified in their mythologizing and romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde than it would seem, since the media of the 1930s were doing a mythologizing and romanticizing of their own. This is a story of idealized images, as contrasted with the disappointing reality of (in the film) an impotent Clyde, a dim-witted Moss, and a screaming, weak Blanche. The movie’s idealizations, in turn, contrast with the disappointing reality that these thieves were no Robin Hood and his band of merry men, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but were just common criminals, Clyde having been especially hardened by the traumatizing prison rapes he suffered.

Added to the deliberate falsifying of history is the film’s anachronistic use of bluegrass banjo music, which hadn’t existed until the mid 1940s.

More romanticizing of the Barrow gang occurs when they rob a bank, but let a poor man keep his money. They’re violent only to those who try to protect the wealth of the establishment–the cops. Hence, my allegorizing of them as socialist revolutionaries.

The stolen money is divided up fairly among all the members of the gang. Even Blanche, who sticks up for herself and demands her share, gets hers. Unlike in capitalist society, where banks can seize a poor family’s home and transfer wealth up to the 1%real robbery!–the socialists that our expropriating revolutionaries represent here understand the principle, “From each according to his ability [i.e., Bonnie, Clyde, and Buck, who’ve robbed the bank], to each according to his needs [i.e., Moss and Blanche, who were outside or in the car].”

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer follows and tries to catch the gang, but he’s caught himself, then humiliated in photos taken of him with the gang and later sent to the newspapers. This never actually happened. Hamer was a well-respected law enforcer, inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame; his posse shot and killed Bonnie and Clyde not out of a wish for revenge over his wounded pride, but out of their need to stop a gang of violent cop-killers. In fact, his widow and son sued Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character, getting an out-of-court settlement.

The Barrow gang needs a new car after that bank robbery, so they steal one owned by an undertaker, Eugene Grizzard (played by Gene Wilder). The theft of Grizzard’s car, and the kidnapping of him and his girlfriend, Velma Davis (played by Evans Evans), seem to be based on those of Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone.

Eugene and Velma have been making out when the car theft occurs, so the two lovers race out after the Barrow gang in her car. Furious, Eugene puts on a phoney show of macho bravado in his shouting that he’s “gonna tear them apart!” But when Velma, the driver, warns that the thieves may have guns, he immediately loses his courage and tells her to turn around so they can inform the police.

In this comic scene, we see another reversal of sex roles. He is all emotional, while she is keeping her cool. She is driving because it’s her car, of course, but the visuals of a woman driver and male passenger, as opposed to the traditional vice versa, still reinforces the role-reversal theme. Ultimately, though, the Barrow gang’s possession of phallic guns (including the women) vs. Eugene’s not having any is a symbolic emasculation for him, a male humiliation comparable to Clyde’s impotence, Moss’s slow-wittedness, and Hamer’s photos with the gang.

Just as a little boy experiences a symbolic castration when confronting the nom (or Non!) du père, with its prohibition against Oedipal incest with Mother, so is Eugene experiencing a kind of ‘legal prohibition,’ if you will, against getting his stolen car back; for in the world of the Barrow gang, a world symbolic of the proletarian dictatorship, the poor have the ‘legal’ right to expropriate the bourgeoisie. Eugene and Velma are, by their appearance and their nice-looking cars and house, clearly middle-class.

The Barrow gang chases after, catches, and kidnaps Eugene and Velma, and at first they’re friendly with the two, Buck telling them his silly joke about the cow’s milk mixed with brandy, and the gang buying them hamburgers. But when Eugene tells them he’s an undertaker, an instance of foreshadowing of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s fate, she gets apprehensive and insists on kicking them out.

Scared and craving a reunion with her mother, Bonnie runs off. The gang finds her, and they agree to a visit with her family. This visit, with her mother’s fear for her clearly apparent, strengthens our sense of sympathy for her and for the rest of the gang.

Clyde tries to reassure Bonnie’s mother that he’ll find legitimate work as soon as the Depression is over. Here’s the thing: economic hardship has a way of turning desperate people into criminals, for it’s capitalism’s inherent nature to lead to crises, due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The gang finds another temporary hideout, and Moss and Blanche go off to a restaurant to get takeout; but someone there recognizes them and calls the cops. Another shootout and escape leave Buck with a gunshot wound to the head, and Blanche with a bullet breaking the car window and blinding her in the left eye. They camp somewhere in the bush, but the cops find them and another shootout ensues, with the death of Buck and the arrest of grieving, hysterical Blanche. Both Bonnie and Clyde have been shot in the arm, but they and Moss get away. (In the film, by the way, we at no point see Bonnie get that crippling, third-degree leg burn that she got in real life.)

Now, if we see their bank robbing, shooting policemen, and showing mercy to the poor as allegorical of socialist revolution, then we can see the police raids as symbolic of counter-revolutionary attempts to restore capitalism. Consider, as historic examples, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the suppression of the weakly-defended, short-lived Paris Commune.

The injuries the Barrow gang have sustained, including the loss of Buck and Blanche, remind us of how important a good defence is. Similarly, during the Cold War, the USSR, China under Mao, and the DPRK learned of the necessity of having a strong nuclear defence. The Barrow gang has had only getaway cars and easily found hideaways to protect themselves in.

Moss drives wounded Bonnie and Clyde to an open-air place by a lake where a group of poor people, those that the Depression has cast aside, are staying. Moss asks them for some water. They huddle around the car to look on sympathetically at Bonnie and Clyde. Again, this solidarity among the poor and among society’s misfits shows how the Barrow gang can be seen as representative of socialists.

After that, Moss drives them to the house of his father, Ivan Moss (played by Dub Taylor). His pa is furious that he’s got a tattoo on his chest, the influence of Bonnie and Clyde, whom Ivan would give over to the police in a heartbeat, though he gives the two thieves dissembling grins the whole time.

The conflict between father and son here is a reflection of the generation gap of the late sixties. CW Moss’s tattoo says “Love,” suggestive of the hippies, while Ivan’s disapproval of it suggests the conservative parents of that later decade.

Dim-witted CW should know better than to put the care of his fugitive friends in the hands of his arch-conservative father; but he doesn’t have anywhere else to take them. This is why a better defence is so important.

Smiling Ivan, always pretending to be a hospitable friend to Bonnie and Clyde, is like the kind of fifth-column traitor that used to sneak into the socialist states and tear them apart, bit by bit, on the inside.

And CW is just weak-willed enough to allow his father and Hamer to set a trap for the crime duo, just as Blanche–both eyes bandaged, instead of only the one injured eye–is blind to Hamer’s scheming and tells him CW’s name. Such weak-willed people in the socialist states used to help the fifth-column traitors, too, in their efforts to restore capitalism, leading in turn to today’s neoliberal nightmare.

Bonnie’s and Clyde’s injuries heal, and she writes a poem on their life together. It is sent to the newspapers, a poem that foreshadows their deaths; but as a communication of who they are to the media, it replaces photographic images with language, a far more meaningful expression. Instead of still photos giving the illusory, unified egos of the Imaginary, we have the therapeutic language of the Symbolic.

Clyde is delighted with her poem when he sees it published in the papers; he feels she has told his story to the world. This makes him feel integrated with society, rather than alienated from it. The linguistic, expressive world of the Symbolic has healed him, and he can finally make love to Bonnie. He’d also like to marry her.

The problem is that Ivan has made a deal with Hamer to set a trap for our two lovers. The police will be lenient with CW in return for Ivan’s help in catching Bonnie and Clyde.

Bonnie and Clyde are going in their car to where the ambush has been prepared. Clyde is wearing sunglasses with the left eye glass broken out, symbolic of his inability to see straight and anticipate the danger he and Bonnie are in (In fact, it parallels Blanche’s wounded left eye).

As they’re approaching the trap, she gets a pear and eats it, sharing it with him; they look rather like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and making themselves nakedly vulnerable to the death sentence they’re about to suffer.

Ivan’s truck is on the side of the road, and seeing them nearing their death trap, he waves at them and gives them another dissimulating smile. Clyde stops the car and goes over to help Ivan with his apparently broken down truck.

In this scene, just as in the beginning one of nude Bonnie in her room, we see a number of jump cuts symbolic of fragmentation. This fragmentation, however, is not that of the Imaginary, but that of the Real, in which a chaotic lack of differentiation resides, the traumatic, non-differentiated world of terror and death. The language of the Symbolic cannot express this experience.

Ivan slips under his truck for safety, just after we see a flock of birds fly out from the bushes where Hamer’s armed men are hiding; these birds are a bad omen, but the warning is too late for Bonnie and Clyde.

The jump cuts show the two lovers looking about in suspicion, then at each other one last time as they resign themselves to their fate. This looking in each other’s eyes is a mirroring of their love for each other, paralleling Bonnie’s looking in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the movie. In their love, they see themselves in each other.

Then the bullets fly out.

Since guns in this film are phallic, the bullets are symbolic ejaculations. Hamer’s sense of manhood has been humiliated, especially by Bonnie’s kiss on his lips when the photos are taken of him with the gang (hence his ejaculatory spitting on her afterwards), so his and the posse’s shooting of her and Clyde is him taking his revenge and regaining his sense of manhood. It’s his wish to humiliate them back in, symbolically, a similarly sexual and emasculating way, by raining, if you will, bukkake bullets all over their bodies, spraying red semen on them.

The two lie there dead, a physical fragmentation to complement their psychological fragmentation at the start of the film. Hamer and his posse emerge from the bushes and look at their bloody work, reminding us of the executions of the roughly 20,000 Communards, 147 of whom were shot against what’s now called the Communards’ Wall. We see Hamer’s men through the bullet-riddled glass of Clyde’s car, glass which gives some reflection of the trees behind, reminding us of Bonnie’s mirror from the beginning scene.

In all of these ways, we see the first and last scenes of the movie as doubles of each other: an opening scene of fragmentation, the alienation of capitalism; the middle of the film’s capers representative of socialist hopes; and the end as the brutal, bloody restoration of the original, fragmentary estrangement of society that is caused by capitalism.

Analysis of ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man is a 1949 British noir film directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene, from a novella Greene wrote to flesh out the story, but which wasn’t originally meant to be published. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Valli; it costars Wilfred Hyde-White, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, and Siegfried Breuer.

The film is noted for its superb cinematography, sometimes inviting comparisons with Citizen Kane (even to the point of making some think mistakenly that Orson Welles was involved with the writing and production), and for its distinctive music, all played on a zither by Anton Karas, its composer. It is regarded as one of the best films of all time.

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

A recurring theme in The Third Man is the relationship between illusion and reality. The charming zither music gives us a sonic sense of how quaint Europe comes across to American visitors, as we see with Holly Martins (Cotten–“Rollo Martins” in the novella) when he gets off the train, having reached Vienna. Anticipating getting a new job from his old boyhood friend, Harry Lime (Welles), Martins is eager to reunite with him. That zither, however, gets plaintive and gives off a dissonant chromaticism whenever scenes get tense, a sonic shift from pleasant illusion to unpleasant reality.

Similarly, we see all the beautiful sculpture and architecture of Vienna, but it’s juxtaposed with the rubble of destroyed buildings, since this is postwar Vienna, divided into zones controlled by the US, the UK, France, and Soviet Russia. Cold War tensions are in the air. The illusory charms of Europe quickly give way to the reality of WWII horrors.

The illusory pleasantness of Vienna, as symbolically understood through the zither music, is further changed to unpleasant reality when Martins learns that Lime is dead, having been hit by a car…or so we understand. After attending the funeral with such people as Lime’s ex-lover, comedic stage actress Anna Schmidt (Valli), Major Calloway (Howard) of the British Royal Military Police, “Baron” Kurtz (Deutsch), and Dr. Winkel (Ponto), Martins goes with Calloway for drinks in a bar.

Illusions are further broken when Martins learns from Calloway that Lime was involved in one of the worst rackets in Vienna. Drunk Martins doesn’t like to hear Calloway say that his late friend has been responsible for people’s deaths, and that Lime’s own death is the “best thing that ever happened to him,” so Martins tries to punch Calloway, but instead is hit by Sergeant Paine (played by Bernard Lee), who works under Calloway.

Martins begins trying to find out what exactly has happened to Lime, and the first man he talks to about this is Kurtz, an associate of Lime’s who explains how, after Lime was hit by the car, two men carried him off the road (Kurtz and a Romanian named Popescu [Breuer]), Dr. Winkel arrived, and Lime died soon after that.

Martins hears the testimony of others, including Schmidt, who is reluctant to speak about Lime. Karl (Hörbinger), Lime’s porter, however, lets it slip that there was a third man who helped carry Lime’s body. These contradictory accounts make Martins suspicious of foul play, and cause us to see further rifts between illusion and reality.

This sense of suspicion and disorientation that is growing in Martins is symbolized by the extensive use of the Dutch angle in this film. The tilted view of events on the screen suggests not just his looking askance at what people are up to, but also our looking askance at it. What he, and we the audience, see is a distortion of reality, an illusion that alienates him and us, the new visitors of Vienna.

In the novella, Kurtz wears an obvious toupee, and when Martins visits him at his home (pages 2 and 8 of the link to the novella), he sees the toupee in a cupboard, and Kurtz is not bald. Martins surmises that the toupee has been part of a disguise, “useful…on the day of the accident,” another illusion furthering his suspicions of Kurtz.

Testimony about the late Lime that Martins hears, given from the multiple perspectives of Calloway, Kurtz, Schmidt, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu (an American named Cooler in the novella) suggests the influence of Citizen Kane. Indeed, we’ll eventually learn that Lime was…and is!…as unscrupulous and narcissistic a businessman as Kane was.

In the novella, when Martins talks with Dr. Winkel in his home about Lime (page 3), and Martins hears the doctor’s laconic answers, we read a description of the copious examples of religious art and icons the doctor owns. These include a crucifix with Christ’s arms above His head; Winkler explains that this rendering is meant to show how He died, in the Jansenists‘ view, only for the Elect–arms up high to indicate how high are those who merit salvation, as it were. This is representative of the narcissism of those involved in Lime’s racket: only they ‘deserve’ to live.

Karl has been murdered for his loose lips about the third man, and some suspect that Martins, one of the very last people to talk to the porter, is his killer. Those involved in Lime’s racket wish Martins would stop his investigating.

Martins is put in a car and hurriedly driven somewhere. We suspect, as he does, that the driver has been paid to have him killed. This fear soon turns out to be yet another illusion, for the driver is actually taking Martins to the gathering of a literary club, organized by Mr. Crabbin (Hyde-White), where Martins, a novelist himself, is expected to lecture on and answer questions about all things literary.

So Martins, as a writer, is also a creator of illusions. Having a novelist as his story’s protagonist seems to be Greene’s way of making a private commentary on his own illusion-making as a writer. Indeed, the careful reader of Greene’s novella will note that it is a first-person narrative given not by Martins, but by Calloway, who is oddly able to know many of Martins’s private actions and thoughts (Calloway’s having spies follow Martins everywhere, or to have Martins tell him all that’s happened, can’t possibly account for all of the exposition of Martins’s inner thoughts and motives).

Small wonder a writer of Greene’s calibre didn’t originally want the novella published; at the same time, the later publishing of so slightly-revised a narration gives us an interesting commentary on literary illusion-making as illusion.

The literary snobs in Crabbin’s gathering ask Martins, a writer of Westerns, about all kinds of high-brow concepts (stream of consciousness, how to categorize James Joyce‘s work, etc.). Martins’s idea of great writing is Zane Grey, much to the disappointment of Crabbin et al. The illusion that Martins is a writer of their lofty literary ideals has been shattered, since along with Grey as an influence, he cannot answer their questions to their satisfaction, and they leave.

In this scene, we also have an interesting comparison of the illusion-making of authors with that of the racketeers, in the form of Popescu asking Martins about his writing (menacingly implying that he should stop it if he wishes to be safe), with Martins’s bold, defiant answer that his ‘new book’ will be called “The Third Man,” a work based on fact (i.e., the crooked circumstances that have led to Lime’s death), not fiction (his supposedly accidental death on the road).

Popescu’s men then chase Martins out of the room. He goes up a spiral staircase, of which we get an upwards shot. It symbolically suggests Martins’s attempt to escape the hell of the Viennese racketeers (and the pretentious literary types) and up into the heaven of safety. Such heaven and hell symbolism will recur later. “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Milton, Book II, lines 432-433)

He hides from his pursuers in a dark room, in which he hears a whimpering voice. Assuming it’s somebody scared because of his entry, he says, “It’s all right,” then turns on the light and sees that the voice is coming from a parrot. This chiaroscuro shift from dark to light, or from concealment to revelation, paralleling the relationship between illusion and reality, is an important feature of the expressionist cinematography in this film, something aided well with the black-and-white photography (i.e., without distracting colour). This contrast of dark and light will feature again soon enough.

Martins’s pursuers chase him out of the building, and he goes down a hill of rubble and succeeds in hiding from them. The zither music is heavily chromatic in harmony, to add to the tension. In this hell of Vienna (whose shiny wet cobblestone streets parallel the water in the hellish sewers below–more on them later), one can’t hope just to escape up to heaven, but must confront its evil (i.e., descend into it…the sewers!) in order to defeat it.

Martins sees Calloway again, and indeed, he must confront that evil: Lime, his childhood friend, really has been involved in a despicable racket. An orderly named Harbin, who works for Lime, steals penicillin he finds (available only in military hospitals), then Lime sells it on the black market, diluting it so he and his men can maximize sales; in its diluted state, though, it cannot work as an effective treatment, so patients either get worse (gangrene, exacerbation of pregnant women’s problems when in childbirth, poor physical and mental health in children, etc.) or die.

Martins’s illusions about Lime have been utterly shattered: Calloway has provided proof that Lime, Martins’s good old friend, was…is…one of the vilest human beings out there. Martins gets drunk again, in a seedy area strewn with prostitutes, but his growing romantic interest in pretty Anna Schmidt means he buys her flowers and goes to see her.

In her apartment, they discuss what he’s learned about Lime. As they’re chatting, a camera moves in on some plants on her balcony; the shot then goes through the plants and out onto the streets below. A man dressed in black hides in the shadows of a doorway, where a cat goes over to his shoes: who is he?

Martins finishes his visit with Schmidt, realizing he hasn’t got a chance to replace Lime and be her man. His illusory hopes are dashed. (Speaking of illusions vs reality, she is an actress only doing comedies, yet she seems to have a permanent frown.) He leaves her apartment and goes out on the streets near where that man is hiding.

The cat’s meowing draws Martins’s attention, and he assumes the man is a spy tailing him. In his drunkenness, Martins shouts at him to come out and reveal himself. His shouting bothers a neighbour up above, who turns her apartment light on; the light shines out and is reflected in the man’s hiding place.

Martins sees guiltily smirking Lime.

Out of the darkness, and into the light; or, out of illusions and into reality. Lime faked his death!

Or, is this revelation just another illusion? Has Martins, in his inebriation, seen a ghost, or had a hallucination? A car shoots between the two men, and after it’s gone, Martins doesn’t see Lime in the shadows of that doorway anymore; that flash of light from the window has disappeared, too–we’ve gone from light back to dark, from reality back to illusion.

Martins hears Lime running down the street, though, and he chases him to a kiosk in the town square, where Lime unaccountably disappears. Martins summons Calloway, and they and Paine go to the kiosk, where Calloway puts two and two together: the kiosk has a secret doorway leading down to the sewers. That’s where Lime went!

The three men go down into the filthy, smelly place, an underground symbolic of hell, which is an appropriate place for our villain to be hiding. Lime’s racket, the selling of diluted (and therefore worthless) penicillin on the black market, is a lawlessness symbolic of the unregulated “free market.” Calloway’s police, combined with the American and French authorities of the Viennese zones, represent postwar, regulated capitalism. The Russians, of course, represent communism.

Because The Third Man is a post-WWII British film, it ideologically represents the centrist, liberal world view, as contrasted with the unregulated, right-wing libertarian capitalism of Lime’s racket on the one side, and the left-wing, Soviet position on the other. Both of these sides are portrayed as evil, due to the Cold War Western biases of the time, as well as the Keynesian, welfare capitalism of the Attlee era.

Accordingly, not only are Lime and his ilk the villains, but also the Russians, seeking to deport Schmidt for her forged immigration papers, are portrayed as politically repressive, when a closer examination of the political predicament of, for example, East Germany, would adequately explain why the communists were sometimes averse to their citizens defecting to the West, and averse to letting fascistic types enter the Soviet Bloc.

Calloway goes to the cemetery and has ‘Lime’s’ body dug up: sure enough, it isn’t Lime’s body, but that of Harbin. The darkness of the grave hid the illusion of Lime’s death, and Harbin’s body, brought up to the light, has revealed the truth.

Martins makes an arrangement to meet Lime at a Ferris wheel. There, Lime, still fittingly wearing a black coat and hat, discusses his racket with Martins, who is horrified at his friend’s unfeeling attitude towards his victims. In the Ferris wheel, they rise up to the top where they can talk in private.

That topmost point is Lime’s narcissistic heaven, where he can feel superior to, and look down at, all the people, those little “dots,” on the ground. He feels no compassion for his victims, and sees the erasure of many of those dots on the ground as expedient for the accumulation of profit, all tax-free.

In this way, it is so fitting that the post-war film takes place in Austria, of all places.

Lime feels little pity for Anna, either, knowing of her grief over his ‘death,’ and her prospects of being deported. Nonetheless, he keeps up the illusion of loving her by drawing a heart with Cupid’s arrow in it, rubbing his finger on the window of their carriage, and writing ‘Anna’ over it.

Just as it is heartbreaking for Martins to learn how low Lime has sunk (recall his refusal to accept the truth when he’s tried to hit Calloway near the beginning of the film), so does the defender of the “free market” experience cognitive dissonance when his illusions of it are shattered upon learning of its ill effects.

The narcissistic highs last only so long, and that topmost point of the Ferris wheel where Lime is standing must come back down. Still, he wants to fancy himself among the top men of the world; so when he and Martins return to the ground, he mentions–in Welles’s famous, improvised line–that the cruelties and violence of the Italy of the Borgias also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance, while the more humane and democratic Switzerland merely produced the cuckoo clock.

Apparently, psychopathy and narcissism–rather than talent–are what create great things.

Having seen for himself in a hospital the effects on children of Lime’s diluted penicillin, Martins decides to help Calloway catch his old friend. Schmidt, however, doesn’t like knowing Martins plans to betray her former lover. Her sympathy for Lime, as over Martins and those who deserve justice for Lime’s crimes, symbolically suggests how the conditions that have given rise to racketeers like Lime will resurface in the future (see the end of this analysis)…and recall that Anna Schmidt is the sympathetic love interest of the film.

A trap is set for Lime to meet Martins in a café, but when Lime arrives and is warned by Schmidt, he runs off to the sewers again. Calloway and the police are there, though.

Trapped in that filthy underground that reeks of excrement, Lime is in his narcissistic hell, the hell of his True Self, which he hates, as opposed to the illusory heaven of his False Self, which we saw at the top of the Ferris wheel. No longer do we see the smug, smirking villain; now he is visibly scared. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. All he can do is hide in the darkness from which he can’t escape, hoping the shadows will give the illusion of his absence.

But his pursuers know he’s there: no blackness can deny the reality of his being there. He shoots and kills Paine, then Calloway shoots and wounds him, then Martins shoots him dead with Paine’s pistol. It’s with great sadness that Martins must kill his friend, but no reforms can end the capitalist evil that Lime’s racket represents; that end can only be violently forced.

Now, Lime is gone, and a second funeral is held for him; but for all we know, his racket could be continuing, if not by Kurtz, Winkel, and Popescu (who have been arrested), then by someone else. The regulatory force of the British, American, and French authorities can try all they will, but the economic system they defend still creates the want that leads to some racketeers committing such crimes…

…just as the Keynesian/welfare capitalism of 1945-1973 protected the backbone of a system that later would morph into the Lime-like neoliberalism of today, which has produced its own lethal medical frauds.

Along with these problems is the alienation this system creates, an alienation symbolized in Schmidt’s snubbing of Martins at the end of the movie; indeed, he tries to keep alive his illusion that she’ll return his love, and her walking past him replaces illusion with reality once again, with that plaintive zither playing in the background. Greene wanted the happy ending given in his novella, in which Martins and Schmidt walk together; but Reed’s sad ending worked so much better that even Greene had to acknowledge it.

This sad ending implies what needs to be said about all the political circumstances surrounding the story: getting rid of one or two bad apples (be they Lime or, in our day, Trump) isn’t enough to mend our emotional and social wounds; the entire system that causes such division–not just the lines dividing Vienna (or Cold War-era Berlin, for that matter) into zones…and we see a lot of lines, a lot of people divided and isolated, boxed into geometrical shapes, in this film!…but also the lines dividing us into classes–is what must be abolished.

Analysis of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

Napoleon Dynamite is a 2004 comedy directed by Jared Hess, and written by him and Jerusha Hess. It stars Jon Heder in the title role, with Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Aaron Ruell, Jon Gries, and Diedrich Bader.

The film is based on Hess’s black-and-white short film Peluca, which also stars Heder, though his character’s name is Seth in that film. What it shares with Napoleon Dynamite is the opening scene with the bus ride to school, his friend (Giel, instead of Pedro) shaving his head, and them buying a wig (‘peluca‘) for him.

Hess insists he got the name ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ from someone he met in Cicero, Illinois around 2000, and not from what Elvis Costello equally insists that Hess–consciously or unconsciously–must have got it from: something written on the cover of Costello’s 1986 album, Blood and Chocolate, which includes the song “Poor Napoleon.”

This song, at least by its title, would seem an appropriate one to include in the film’s soundtrack, for the title character is in a pitiable situation. He is a socially-awkward nerd, breathing through his mouth, and living in a small town in Idaho. Constantly bullied and socially excluded, he finds his sole escape in fantasy: drawing ligers, mythic animals, etc.

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

The film opens with the credits presented on–usually–plates or trays of food: tater tots, a burrito and rice, egg slices, a steak, chips, a school cafeteria lunch, a peanut butter sandwich and banana, and a burger and fries. The credits are presented in other things, too, like school stationery, school library books, ID cards, chapstick, and Napoleon’s fantasy drawings. Taken together, all of these things are commodities of one kind or another, representing needs to be fulfilled: hunger, education, escape into fantasy, and a sense of identity.

While we’re seeing these things, we’re also hearing the song “We’re Going to Be Friends,” by the White Stripes. This song is as important for establishing theme in the movie as is the presentation of all that food and those other commodities during the opening credits. This is a movie about the beginning of a friendship between Napoleon, Pedro Sánchez (Ramirez), and Deborah ‘Deb’ Bradshaw (Majorino).

So, how do we satisfy needs? Being fed is a need, of course, but should we expand this to a buying of things in general to satisfy such needs as improving our sense of self-worth? Or should we simply make friends? Do we reinforce the compulsion to shift back and forth between money and commodities, or do we strengthen solidarity among people?

We see Napoleon get on the bus for school one morning. He sits at the back, and after snapping at a boy who was just trying to make conversation, he takes out an action figure of a muscleman with a long, thin string attached to it, opens a window, flings the doll outside, and with the string, drags it on the road behind the moving bus.

Since Napoleon is being bullied at school, his dangling of the muscleman action figure can be interpreted as a symbolic fantasy of his; it’s him getting revenge on his tormentors, who are of course bigger and stronger than he is.

Escape into fantasy is a huge part of his life. Apart from his drawings of mythical animals, Napoleon speaks of magic and the Loch Ness Monster as if they were real. Instead of focusing on real people and things, he has his mind split between exciting fantasies and hated people that he rejects, and who reject him.

Because of the family and school environment that he is stuck in, one that largely lacks empathy, Napoleon reacts to the world in what WRD Fairbairn called the schizoid position. Instead of having a predominant Central Ego (similar to Freud‘s ego) related to the Ideal Object, which is a healthy, ideal object relationship between the self and other people, he is split between phantasy relationships of the Libidinal Ego (similar to Freud’s id) and Exciting Object (Napoleon’s mythical animal drawings, Nessie, his belief in magic, ‘medieval warriors,’ and his choice of high school princess/mean girl Trisha Stevens [played by Emily Kennard]) and of the Anti-libidinal Ego (vaguely comparable to Freud’s superego) and Rejecting Object (i.e., everybody towards whom Napoleon has such a sullen attitude).

This social dysfunction, however, is going to begin to fade when he meets Pedro and Deb. His growing friendship with them will bring his Central Ego out of its diminished, dormant state by strengthening it with his Ideal Object, in the forms of these two new friends of his.

Unable was N. ere N. saw Deborah.

…and Pedro.

(OK, I haven’t mastered the art of making palindromes.)

A similar transformation occurs in Kip, Napoleon’s even wimpier older brother, who communicates with “babes all day” on his computer (Libidinal Ego linked to the Exciting Object), and who fancies himself an aspiring cage fighter. When one of the hot babes, LaFawnduh, meets him and returns his affections, Kip builds the self-confidence he needs and goes from being abrasive with Napoleon to being nice to him.

Though similarly timid socially, Pedro is ideal for helping Napoleon to come out of his shell, for Pedro comes from a far more loving, empathic family. Indeed, having such a good family can make the suffering from bullies at school much more bearable. Though we don’t see Pedro getting bullied, his very association with Napoleon will ensure that he won’t be included among the “cool” crowd; on the other hand, he has those cousins in that car to help him, Napoleon, and another bullied kid.

Prior to this build-up of friendship, these characters have tended to resort to buying or selling things to boost their self-esteem; hence my reference to commodities (use-values and exchange values), especially food, during the opening credits, things that satisfy needs. The point of the film is that it’s the nurturing of relationships, not the buying and selling of things, that boosts our self-esteem and fulfills emotional needs–though what we buy and sell can help with such needs, provided we use our purchases well, and sell commodities and services with a good heart, as Deb does.

In his fantasies of becoming a “cage fighter,” Kip shows interest in what Rex (Bader) is offering in his “Rex Kwon Do” course, in a commercial on TV. This teaching of self-defence is one of many examples in the film of selling self-esteem. It is capitalism exploiting our insecurities. Kip comes to the conclusion–after being humiliatingly smacked around by Rex in his appropriately obnoxious American flag pants–that the course is a ripoff. Of course it’s a ripoff: we can’t buy or sell self-love–that comes from people, not money.

Elsewhere, Deb is trying to raise money for college by promoting glamour photography and selling handwoven handicrafts. Again, she’s shy, and a success in sales would boost her self-confidence, just as her failure to sell to Napoleon and Kip at first frustrates such hopes. The glamour photography, like “Rex Kwon Do,” would be an example of the profit motive taking advantage of people’s insecurities; but Deb, unlike Rex or Uncle Rico (Gries), hasn’t the narcissism to capitalize in such a way. When she takes pictures of people, she really wants to help them, including helping them to relax while posing, as she does for Rico.

Uncle Rico is the most blatant example of someone trying not only to sell people self-esteem (the breastenhancing herbs), but to use capitalism to boost his own deflated self-worth (in the form of a get-rich-quick scheme, employing Kip). Rico’s narcissism is a front he uses to hide the disappointments in his life: no longer the football hero of his youth, his girlfriend leaving him (which he thinly disguises by claiming he’s dumped her).

Rico’s pretence at still supposedly being a great football player is particularly pathetic, with his video recording of himself tossing a football around by the camper-van that is his home, and such nonsensical claims as his eligibility for the NFL and throwing a football over some mountains. He lives in as much of a world of fantasy as Napoleon and Kip do, and he is as much of a loser as those two start out as…until his girlfriend comes back to him at the end of the film.

Pedro imagines he can get Summer Wheatley (played by Haylie Duff), the snobbish school princess and head mean girl, to go out with him to the school dance by making a cake for her. Of course she won’t go out with him: even if she didn’t have sneering Don (played by Trevor Snarr) for a boyfriend, or such a bad attitude, she wouldn’t. Commodities in themselves don’t build love.

Napoleon thinks buying a suit decades out of style will give him cool points at the school dance; but even Pedro’s cousins giving him and Trisha a ride won’t make her like him. Even if he lived in a larger city, with better quality clothes to buy, he still wouldn’t be able to win respect at school. That can only come from making real friends.

Other examples of capitalist exploitation can be found in a job Napoleon gets: putting chickens in cages, for which he makes only a dollar an hour, paid to him in coins, symbolic of how low the pay is. The job is as unpleasant for him to do (i.e., his fear of chickens’ “talons”) as it is for the chickens themselves (Imagine being stuck in a cage so small that you can’t even turn around…before the farmers kill you.). Of course, his boss is kind enough to give his employees lunch: tiny sandwiches, egg slices, and a drink of raw egg yolk. Yum.

A turning point in the film happens at the otherwise depressingly dull, small-town school dance. Pedro sees a sign about the upcoming election for class president, inspiring him to run. The funny thing about such school elections, though, is what they have in common with political elections: they’re all popularity contests.

It makes no difference what a Trump or a Biden administration would do for the people (in both cases, virtually nothing for, and besides that, much against the people). It was only their levels of popularity, among shady liberals or far right-wing whack-a-doos, that determined the vote results. Both men have worked, with only slight variations between them, for the ruling class.

Summer Wheatley’s run for class president represents this kind of shallow appeal to popularity. Though what Pedro offers to improve things in their school (holy santos to guard the hallway and bring good luck? continuing the FFA competition?) can hardly be taken seriously, he as the underdog represents the wishes of a defeated people in the political world. Summer, on the other hand, offers commodities (two new pop machines in the cafeteria [and no more “chimini-changas”], glitter Bonne Bell dispensers for all the girl’s washrooms, new cheerleading uniforms).

The problem with the commodity fetishism that we see pervading this film in its various forms is how it reinforces alienation–relationships are replaced with things. We see the product in its finished form on the shelves of stores, ready to be bought or sold; we don’t see the work exerted in making it, the value put into it by workers. The commodity thus is like an idol to be worshipped, rather than a piece of wood, metal, etc. shaped into the ‘divine’ form we see in stores.

Small wonder Napoleon marvels at the “awesome” suit he’s about to buy for the dance. Small wonder he thinks the woman’s wig they get for Pedro makes him look “like a medieval warrior.” Small wonder Napoleon initially imagines Uncle Rico’s “time machine,” “bought…online,” could be anything other than a conductor of electricity.

The low quality of the commodities that are the only things available to people in this small town is symbolic of the hollow worth of commodities in general, taken for their value in themselves only. The struggle and irritation Napoleon goes through in caging those chickens–to produce the commodities of chicken meat and eggs–are a clue as to how we should think about commodities…rather than fetishizing them.

When we see how commodities can be used to help people, however, we start to see their potentially greater worth, symbolic of the value workers put into them when they make them. Pedro may look silly in that woman’s wig, but the point is that his friends, Napoleon and Deb, are helping him in picking it out. It’s the thought that counts.

Similarly, one day while Napoleon is in a store fetishizing such commodities as a fork-shaped, trident-like toy sword of some kind, he also finds and, on a whim, buys a video tape teaching dance moves. He puts his heart and soul into learning how to dance, and he’ll use this new skill to help Pedro in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, Pedro as the representative of the ordinary, not-so-cool crowd of their school (representative, in turn, of the common people of any country), has a piñata made of an effigy of Summer, who represents the popular, “cool” crowd of their school (representative, in turn, of the ruling class of any country). The smashing of the piñata, therefore, represents the revolutionary wish to defy the ruling class; and the principal’s punishing of Pedro, by removing all of his fliers to promote voting for him, represents the repression of the defiant people by the powers-that-be.

Summer and her group of “Happy Hands Club” girls dancing to the Backstreet Boys’ song “Larger Than Life” is peak superficiality in popularity, the top of the school’s hierarchy of “cool.” Not knowing until the last moment that Pedro has to have a skit ready, too, Napoleon has to think fast; fortunately, he has the mixed tape that LaFawnduh gave him to practice dancing to.

What Napoleon is about to do is a great sacrifice for a friend. With his reputation as a mega-nerd, Napoleon is taking a huge risk in front of his entire school by dancing in front of all of them on the auditorium stage, shaking his booty to Jamiroquai’s song “Canned Heat.”

Even if he’s to fail in doing his dialectical antithesis of a nerd dance, Napoleon will still be earning respect for risking being the school’s laughing stock; for the point is, he’s helping Pedro in his time of need. The smiles on Deb’s and especially Pedro’s faces show the value of what Napoleon is doing. The school’s standing ovation, another defiant rising-up against the dominant “cool” crowd, is a bonus. Don’s and Summer’s reaction–his sneering and her ‘How dare you peasants prefer Napoleon’s skit to mine?!’ frown–adds to the pleasure in its Schadenfreude.

Because of what Napoleon has done for Pedro, Deb forgives him for the “Bust Must” outrage (which, of course, wasn’t even his fault, but rather Rico’s); and Napoleon finally has someone to play tetherball with. The addition of a friend in his life spurs him to hit the ball with a skill he hasn’t generally shown up to this point.

Napoleon is late for Kip’s wedding to LaFawnduh, but for good reason: he dramatically enters the scene riding a horse, his gift to the newlyweds. Neither he nor Kip are anywhere near cured of their geekiness, but the point of the movie is that they don’t need to be. All they need is the love of their friends, and their awkwardness will fade sufficiently in time, replaced with a self-confidence that no mere commodity can give them, or anyone.

Another message of this film is that, if you’re feeling like a geek or a loser, do nice things for people. As the angel Clarence Odbody tells George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, “no man is a failure who has friends.” Kindness kills the loser, or nerd, in us in a way that making billions selling commodities, exploiting people in the process, can never do.

Analysis of ‘On the Waterfront’

On the Waterfront is a 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a story of his. It stars Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint, with Martin Balsam (uncredited), Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle (uncredited) in minor roles.

The film received twelve Academy Awards nominations, of which it won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Director for Kazan, and Best Supporting Actress for Saint. It is considered one of the best films of all time, ranking at #8 (later #19) on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.

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

This is a film about the exploitation of workers; but in this case, instead of just being exploited by capitalists, these longshoremen are exploited, and downright bullied, by the very people who should be helping them–their union.

Corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb) has connections with the mafia; as I’ve argued in many other blog posts, the mafia can be seen to represent capitalists, so Friendly and his muscle are class traitors representing not their workers, but capital. Such betrayal has been common throughout the history of class war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, manifesting itself not only in corrupt union bosses, but in left-leaning political parties that make concessions to capital and stave off revolution.

Many sit on the fence, unsure of whether to commit to the workers’ struggle or to sell out to the ruling class. Friendly and his muscle have chosen which side of the fence to be on, and Terry Malloy (Brando) has been leaning towards their side…but a girl is about to make him go the other way.

In fact, speaking of selling out and being a class traitor, as is well known, Kazan himself was guilty of ratting out his fellow leftists to the HUAC. Indeed, before I carry on with my analysis of this film, I must be blunt in my assessment of Kazan: for all of his talents, he was–like Orwell–a snitch and a reactionary piece of shit.

By unrepentantly ratting out eight former Group Theatre members who he said had been communists (as he himself had once been), including Clifford Odets, Kazan doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. He ruined these people’s careers when a blacklisting of himself (via “d and d”) wouldn’t have harmed his career all that badly (he could have continued work in the theatre in New York).

When Kazan received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, some in the Hollywood glitterati refused to applaud. Now, these were bourgeois liberals who disapproved of him, so that should tell you what real leftists should think of him!

With all of this justified condemnation of Kazan, you, Dear Reader, must be wondering why I’m doing an analysis of one of his films, implying an endorsement of what he believed. After all, On the Waterfront was his attempt at justifying his squealing. I will argue instead that, in spite of Kazan’s conscious refusal to admit to any wrongdoing, his direction (and the writing of Schulberg, who was also an ex-communist and a fink to the HUAC…as was Cobb) unconsciously reflects his conflict and guilt over what he did, expressed through unconscious defence mechanisms, including rationalization, projection, reaction formation, denial, and turning against oneself.

Kazan’s guilt slips out in parapraxes in the film, as for example in the way the villain is named Johnny Friendly, just as Kazan, Schulberg, and Cobb were friendly with the HUAC…and as mentioned above, Cobb plays Johnny Friendly.

Kazan rationalized his guilt by imagining he was helping protect the US from ‘the Red menace,’ which I’ll bet he imagined Friendly and his corrupt union thugs to be representing. Indeed, Arthur Miller, the writer of the original version of the script (named The Hook) was asked by Harry Cohn to make the antagonists communists instead of a corrupt union, something Miller refused to do; he later refused to rewrite the script after learning of Kazan’s testimony for the HUAC.

It’s best that Friendly and his muscle be taken literally, as actual corrupt union thugs; or they could be seen to represent the anti-communist left of which Kazan himself was so obviously a part…and who should be ratted on—exposed–for the traitors to the working class that they are.

This leads us to Kazan’s next handy defence mechanism: projection. He projected his own betrayal of the working class onto those who he imagined to be the betrayers–the American Communists of which he had once been a member, then grew disenchanted with; later, he came to dislike the Stalin-led USSR, claiming the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a legitimate reason for his disillusionment, instead of coming to understand the political pressures that led to the USSR’s agreeing to the pact.

By imagining the communists to be the bad guys in the Cold War, Kazan rationalized that ratting them out was the noble thing to do, something he dramatized through Terry Malloy’s shouting, “I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I’m glad what I done!” to Friendly after informing the police of his guilt in the murder of Joey Doyle (played by Ben Wagner). On the other hand, going “d and d,” or “deaf and dumb,” is considered cowardly in the film. Not informing is represented as cowardly and weak: this is Kazan making use of reaction formation; oh, it’s so cowardly not to talk! No, Mr. Kazan, it would have been brave not to talk.

Kazan wasn’t putting himself in danger of a group of Soviet agents abducting him and throwing him in the Gulag for finking on Odets et al. He wasn’t threatening high-ranking members of the Communist Party; he was selling out fellow writers and actors, people with little political power, people he should have thought of as comrades. The American capitalists were the ones with the power, and Kazan knew that all too well.

He could use his film to deny his guilt all he wanted, but it was true: he was a snitch. Deep down in his unconscious, Kazan knew he was guilty, so the scene in which Friendly’s men beat Terry Malloy half to death can be seen as a fantasy dramatizing Kazan’s turning against himself, him taking on the punishment to assuage his guilt, since he saw himself as personified in his hero, Terry.

When we see On the Waterfront in this light, we can begin to appreciate the film’s artistic and dramatic virtues on their own terms and in spite of its director’s moral vices. Yes, it’s a film made by a class traitor about class treason; but instead of exculpating Kazan, as he’d consciously intended it to do, the film displays his betrayal of the left, however unwittingly and unconsciously. For as much as Kazan would have liked to have seen himself in Terry, his real nature is shown in Johnny Friendly, who’s friendly with the capitalist mafia, not with the ‘Stalinists.’

There’s a considerable amount of Christian symbolism in this movie, much of which is in the service of trying to justify Kazan’s naming of names. An example of this symbolism is a pigeon motif (i.e., ‘stool pigeon’), or the idea of a canary that can sing, but can’t fly (Joey Doyle); these birds can be seen to represent the Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto baptized Christ (Mark 1:10).

Joey Doyle is tricked by Terry into leaving the safety of his apartment and going up to the roof to receive a lost bird of his from Terry, who claims he’s found it. Instead, Friendly’s men throw Joey from the roof to his death. Terry, imagining they were “only going to lean on” Joey, is already feeling a pang of conscience, as if falling Joey (and not the bird) were the Holy Spirit descending on Terry, the Christ-figure of the film.

Joey’s sister, Edie (played by aptly-surnamed Saint), being pretty in a wholesome way, is the Mary-figure of the film, since it is she, in her righteous anger over the murder of her brother, who inspires Terry to do the right thing and stand up to Friendly. She symbolically gives birth to the Christ in Terry by arousing his guilt over the matter.

Edie, in her innocence, has never drunk beer before, an inexperience symbolic of virginity (i.e., the Virgin Mary). Terry, growing romantically interested in her, takes her to a bar and buys her some beer; but when her suspicions grow that Terry knows about the circumstances leading to her brother’s murder, yet he won’t talk, she leaves without drinking the beer, retaining her virginal innocence. Her piquing of his guilt is causing his ‘Virgin birth.’

Father Barry (Malden) adds to the Christian symbolism by saying to the longshoremen that each killing of those who stand up to Friendly (Doyle and Kayo Dugan [Pat Henning]) is “a crucifixion.” This is significant when we come to the beating of Terry that almost kills him, yet he rises up, is ‘resurrected,’ if you will, and saves the workers from Friendly in this act, not in his squealing.

Terry’s Christ isn’t that of the Gospels, in which Christ is the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time (John 1:1); nor is he the Christ of the Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:20-25, and Luke 1:35), nor even the Christ of His baptism (Mark 1:10), on whom the Spirit descended like a dove, and God says, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Terry’s Christ is that of Paul‘s Epistle to the Romans, in which He is declared to be the Son of God through the power of the Resurrection, but born of the seed of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3-4).

Put another way, Terry doesn’t save the workers through his word (i.e., his squealing on Friendly). He doesn’t save the workers merely through Edie’s influence; he wasn’t born a good man–he’s done many bad things in his life, and he’s had to redeem himself through his struggle and suffering, and rising up again after his beating–his own “crucifixion.”

The priest would have Terry help the workers through non-violent means, but this of course will never work. In Friendly’s bar and brandishing a gun after his brother, Charley (Steiger) has been killed by Friendly’s men, Terry is approached by Father Barry, who’d have him get rid of the gun and fight back by naming Friendly to the police. A former boxer, Terry tells the priest to “Go to hell!”, and is punched out by him; this parapraxis shows that even Kazan knew that violence is sometimes necessary, that turning the other cheek isn’t good enough.

Indeed, Father Barry’s not wanting Terry to fight back with violence, an unpleasant but necessary ingredient of socialist revolution, is analogous to having Terry ‘turn the other cheek.’ Another turning the other cheek, of sorts, was required of him by Charley when Friendly fixed Terry’s boxing match against Wilson. They wanted Terry to let Wilson, a man he could easily beat, win the fight.

In all of these things we see Kazan doing a kind of Freudian slip, revealing his real motives. Ratting on fellow leftists to the HUAC was a kind of turning the other cheek to the capitalist class. As a result of finks and traitors like Kazan, the working class has to give up on their dreams of bettering their lives, just as Terry has given up on his dreams of being a prize fighter.

Terry is a “bum” because he caved in to these phoney leftists, his corrupt, mafia-linked union. Friendly et al do not represent communists, as faux leftists like Kazan, Cobb, and Schulberg would have us believe; the corrupt union represents those three men and their loose-lipped ilk. It wasn’t the communists, Kazan; it was you.

Recall when Terry finally tells Edie what he knows about Joey’s death; it is significant that we can’t really hear his words. This not hearing the confession suggests that a part of Kazan’s unconscious didn’t want to talk, to name names, but the unwillingness has been displaced to confessing to her, just as Kazan didn’t want to confess his wrongdoing to his fellow leftists, but rather remain impenitent until his death. This scene can be seen thus as another Freudian slip of Kazan’s, for deep down, he knew, but wouldn’t consciously admit, that his squealing was a shameful thing to do.

Even if we were to ignore Kazan’s subtext about justifying being friendly with the HUAC, if we were to imagine Terry’s ratting out of Friendly as only representative of speaking out against corrupt unions, such talk is hardly a substitute for revolution. Lots of left-wing media (TruthOut, MintPress News, the Jacobin, the WSWS, DemocracyNow!, the Guardian, CounterPunch, etc.) exposes the crimes of the ruling class (and many of those just mentioned, among others, are guilty of being compromised by liberalism, Zionism, social democracy, and Trotskyism in a way comparable to Friendly’s being compromised by the mob). I write about capitalist crimes…but it’s all just writing.

The only real change to improve people’s lives is through revolution and the building of socialism. Raising awareness of the injustices caused by capitalism is a necessary, but insufficient, condition. Complaining to the bourgeois government, as Terry does in his testimony, and expecting that government to make reforms and nothing else, are typical tactics of liberals and social democrats. Committed socialists want more than that: we want to smash the entire system and replace it with something of lasting worth for workers.

This is why Terry’s testimony may hurt Friendly, but it doesn’t ultimately stop him at the end, as even Kazan and Schulberg have to acknowledge in their story. Friendly and his men have to put away their guns and be “a law-abidin’ union,” but they can still bully the longshoremen. Friendly just has to be patient and ride out all this pressure he’s getting from the police; once he’s off “the hot seat,” he’ll be back to his old dirty tricks.

An analogy can be made here between Friendly’s temporary capitulation to the police and the welfare capitalism of 1945-1973, meant to appease workers and dissuade them from adopting the Marxist-Leninist threat to capital that existed in the USSR, the Soviet Bloc, Mao’s China, the DPRK, North Vietnam, and Cuba. If the Western working class could be reconciled to capitalism by making it more comfortable, while the ruling class continued to loot the Third World and sabotage and undo the socialist states, then when those states were dissolved in the late 80s/early 90s, welfare capitalism would be replaced with neoliberalism.

That the anti-communist left helped the capitalists in their machinations against the global poor is what I mean by class treason, and Kazan and Schulberg were a part of that.

No, the only way to defeat Friendly and his thugs is through force…and solidarity among the longshoremen, with bruised and beaten Terry; and even Kazan and Schulberg knew this. Hence, I consider this climactic ending to be yet another parapraxis, or Freudian slip, on the moviemakers’ part, revealing that revolution, not ratting, is how you help the working class.

After Terry’s nonsense speech about being glad about ratting, his real fight with Friendly begins…an actual fistfight that makes nonsense out of Father Barry’s wish that Terry turn the other cheek and embrace the uselessness of non-violence. We can’t overthrow the capitalist class by asking them nicely to step aside. A revolution is not a dinner party.

The bloody beating Terry gets, which almost kills him, is a symbolic crucifixion, to recall Father Barry’s words. Terry’s getting back up on his feet is his resurrection, so to speak, and these heroic actions are what get the longshoremen to stand by him–just as the Church believed in Christ through His Passion and resurrection, not merely through His sermons.

Similarly, just as the New Testament writers warned against following a false Christ, or believing in false prophets and deceivers, so do Kazan and Schulberg–in spite of themselves–warn against following false socialists like Friendly. The media publications of the faux left, the anti-communist left, mix truth with falsehoods, as this movie does by mixing the legitimate struggle for workers’ rights with rationalizations for squealing against communists. When reading such writing, as with watching this film, one must have the wisdom to separate the leftist wheat from the chaff.

Remember, talk is cheap.

Analysis of ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane is a 1941 film produced and directed by Orson Welles, and written by him and Herman J. Mankiewicz. It stars Welles in the title role, or Charles Foster Kane, with Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, and Agnes Moorehead.

It is regarded as not only one of the greatest films of all time, but by many as the greatest film of all time, with its distinctive cinematography, makeup, and narrative style being seen as way ahead of their time. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus and camera angles going upward to include ceilings in shots, even cutting into the floor to achieve such unusual angles. Makeup realistically conveyed aging in Kane and other characters shown over a span of decades; and the non-linear narrative showed Kane’s life in flashbacks, from multiple points of view.

Such tropes as a reporter seeking to uncover a mystery (in this case, the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”), and the retelling of the past from multiple points of view, have influenced such films as Velvet Goldmine. And like the mysterious pop star in that movie, Kane is a wealthy, powerful, and narcissistic man loved by many…and hated by many more.

While based mainly on right-wing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a composite character based also on left-leaning newspaper man Joseph Pulitzer, and businessmen Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick, whose second wife, Ganna Walska, was a failed opera singer, like Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Comingore). Since Hearst knew the movie would portray him in an unflattering light (How else would one portray a Nazi sympathizer who published such blatant falsehoods as the “Holodomor” in his newspapers?), he tried to stop the film from being made.

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

The film begins, significantly, with a shot of a sign saying “No Trespassing” (as will be the ending shot). Next, we see a shot of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, up high on a mountain in the background. The point of this beginning is to emphasize his ownership of private property, that he is a wealthy capitalist.

We see Kane in his last moments, with a closeup of his mouth as he whispers, “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe; then he dies, and we see an approaching nurse in the curved reflection of part of the shattered snow globe. To get close to Kane–something no one’s ever really done, not even his wives–is to know him, to know the connection between “Rosebud” and the winter scene of the snow globe: the sled of his childhood. The sight of the nurse in the snow globe’s reflection is symbolic of Kane’s narcissistic attitude towards other people–they are a mere reflection of himself, not independent entities unto themselves.

The narrative introduction to him and to his death is presented in an appropriate way: he was a newspaper man, so one should present his death in the form of newsreels and front-page articles. On the one hand, Kane–like Hearst–was a purveyor of sensationalistic yellow journalism; on the other hand, people today have an especial distrust of the mainstream media (90% of the American part of which is owned by six corporations, and which is internationally networked to serve the interests of the global capitalist class). These two considerations show that we should regard this media presentation of Kane’s death as a form of theatre, as artificial, as lies mixed in with truth.

For indeed, Kane’s whole life has been a cleverly sculptured lie. And since Kane is the personification of the mass media, this means that the film is, in large part, about media dishonesty. As Kane tells a reporter, “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.” Aptly ironic words from a producer of yellow journalism who then tells the reporter to read his newspaper instead.

Just as his life has been a lie, so is Xanadu. The film makes explicit the name of the mansion as a reference to Coleridge‘s “Kubla Khan” by quoting its first two lines in the newsreel. Kubla Kane, if you will, decreed a stately pleasure dome in Florida, his failed attempt at building paradise on earth, a huge mansion on a tall mountain reaching into the sky, suggestive of Babel.

He collected two of every animal on the earth to put in a zoo in Xanadu, suggestive of Noah’s ark, a symbolic attempt to bring man back from the sinful world and into Eden, part of his failed attempt at regaining paradise. Such extravagance reminds one of Michael Jackson’s animal collections, an eccentricity only the rich can afford.

Kane’s whole life has been an attempt to regain the paradise he lost as a child, that of parental love. No animals, statues, or mansion can replace such a loss, though. He has no one, nothing to look up to.

“Rosebud,” printed on his childhood sled, is an interesting choice of words. The sled glides on snow, whose coldness is suggestive of death and alienation, whereas the rosebud is suggestive of life and the warmth of human company. Therefore, a rosebud on top of death’s coldness is symbolic of his wish to maintain life and love over death and alienation, the carefree life of childhood over the dead conformity of adulthood.

In the scene of his childhood home in Colorado, young Charles is outside with his sled and throwing snowballs. Inside his home are his mother (Moorehead), his father, and Walter Parks Thatcher (Coulouris), who are discussing how the boy will inherit a huge fortune when he reaches twenty-five years of age; but he must immediately leave his parents to be taken care of by Thatcher until he comes of age and receives the money.

A good example of the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane is this scene, in which Mr. Kane is arguing with Mrs. Kane and Thatcher over the boy’s fate. All four characters, nearer and farther away on the screen, are equally in focus, suggesting what should be their equal importance. Since, however, the mining deed leading to the boy’s future fortune is in his mother’s name, the decision to give him over to Thatcher’s guardianship is hers alone, raising her importance over that of the others.

Accordingly, she and Thatcher are in the foreground in the shot, while Mr. Kane–whose wish to continue raising his son is being disregarded–is further back in the shot, and young Charles is the farthest back, behind the window and out in the snow, the one whose future and fate are being decided without his consent, the one whose emotional needs are not only being disregarded…they aren’t even being contemplated.

His well-meaning mother wants to ensure he’s financially as well-off as possible, but she’s oblivious to his emotional needs: to have the love of his mother and father at hand as he grows up. She has given no thought at all to the psychological scars she will be causing him through this unwitting emotional neglect.

Money can’t buy you love: that’s what Citizen Kane is all about.

According to Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self, healthy psychological structure is established through two poles: one of narcissistic mirroring (the grandiose self), and one of an idealized parental imago. When one pole is compromised or frustrated, the other can compensate; when both poles are compromised or frustrated, the person in question is in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which the defence of pathological narcissism may be erected. Young Charles, wrested away from his parents and thus with neither a mirror for his grandiosity nor a parental role model to idealize, will resort to narcissism to keep from falling apart…until even his own narcissism won’t save him at the end of the film.

Added to these problems is his unresolved Oedipal conflict. (This being a 1941 film, when Freudian ideas were still in vogue, it is not out of place to analyze it with those ideas.) He asks his mother if she’ll leave Colorado with him, which of course she won’t. Since having him cared for by Thatcher is her idea, this is tantamount to little Charles’s being betrayed by the object of his Oedipal desire.

His father acquiesces to the situation, and when he speaks of little Charles’s leaving with Thatcher, he tries to put on a happy face, telling the boy that he’ll be rich. Mr. Kane’s giving in to Mrs. Kane’s and Thatcher’s wishes, therefore, is another betrayal to the boy. The result is that his parents have become what Melanie Klein called the bad mother and bad father, frustrating little Charles instead of giving what he wants and needs, as the good mother and father would do.

This parental betrayal, as the boy would see it, results in splitting, which when projected out into the world, would in turn result in a perception of the world as all good or all bad…Xanadu, or Thatcher. And because Thatcher is Charles’s new guardian, and will remain so until he reaches age twenty-five and can claim his fortune, Thatcher is receiving a transference of growing Kane’s Oedipal hostility to the bad father.

Young Kane goes to study in a number of prestigious universities, where he meets Jedediah Leland (Cotten), and where he’s expelled from each of them, presumably to spite Thatcher, and because his pathological narcissism is way out of control. Again, to spite Thatcher (with the utmost success), Kane goes into the newspaper business.

He takes over the floundering Inquirer, and resorts to yellow journalism to hurt the business interests of rich landlords and businessmen like Thatcher, again to spite him. Kane rationalizes his newspaper’s dubious reporting by claiming he’s defending the interests of the common working man against bloodsuckers like Thatcher…but we shouldn’t forget that Kane, as a capitalist, and a particularly narcissistic one at that, is no better. His attacks on Thatcher and his ilk are just that: part of his personal vendetta against the symbolic bad father who took Kane away from his good father and mother. Recall that the Oedipus complex is a narcissistic trauma, a wish to hog Mommy and Daddy all to oneself; yet Kane has had them snatched away from him by nothing less than the capitalist system itself.

At a party, Kane puts on a show with pretty young women dancers and a man singing all about how great Kane is. It’s his grandiosity all put on display, a presentation of his grandeur that’s as phoney as that of his “singer” second wife, Susan Kane, née Alexander (Comingmore), on whom he’ll later project that grandiosity.

Now as with any narcissist, this grandiosity of Kane’s is really just a front to disguise how empty he feels inside. His outer grandiosity and vanity have a dialectical relationship with his inner self-hate. As Kane is seen dancing like a ladies’ man with the girls, Leland and Bernstein (Sloane)–Kane’s business associates–are discussing him, among other things.

In another example of the effectiveness of deep focus to bring about symbolism, all three men are in the shot, equally focused on to represent what should be their equal worth; but Leland and Bernstein are in the foreground, and Kane is seen further back, in the window reflection with the dancing girls…just like the shot of him as a boy out in the snow while Mr. and Mrs. Kane discuss his fate with Thatcher. His narcissism is derived from the lack of empathy and love he got from his parents, who discussed him without involving him. The shot of Leland and Bernstein, discussing Kane without including him, symbolizes this ongoing reality of Kane’s object relations.

Other examples of scenes whose visual effects symbolize Kane’s grandiosity–as a disguise for how small he feels inside–include the shot of an aging Kane giving Thatcher financial control over his paper: Kane walks away from the camera towards windows that, at first, don’t seem large, but when he reaches them, we see they’re much larger…making Kane much smaller than he seems.

Another example is in Xanadu, by a fireplace, where he is arguing with Susan; he walks away from her and towards the fireplace which, by the time he reaches it, is seen as much larger than we thought. Yet another example is when Kane is typing and finishing Leland’s negative review of one of Susan’s performances: Kane seems huge in the foreground, but when Leland approaches, he isn’t comparatively all that big anymore.

Other examples of how the clever camerawork reinforces symbolic meaning include the upward angles, symbolizing Kane’s urge to find an ideal to look up to, someone or something to replace Kane’s long-lost idealized parental imago, or to gratify his narcissism by having us look up to him. One shot, looking up at Thatcher during Christmas when Kane is a boy, represents the idealized parental imago as spoiled, ruined, turned into the banker as the symbolic bad father substitute.

Elsewhere, Xanadu, that castle up on a mountain, is the ideal transferred onto a place, a new Eden linking Kane–or so he’d have it–to God the Father. The mirror reflections–of the nurse in the broken snow globe, Kane in the window reflection while Leland and Bernstein are chatting, and old Kane walking past a multiple mirror reflection–all symbolize his need to have his grandiosity mirrored back to him, to have others mirror empathy back to him…because he sees his worth only in terms of such mirroring.

The deterioration of his first marriage, to Emily Norton (played by Ruth Warrick), niece of the American president, is given expression through clever cinematography. First, the newlyweds are shown together at a table at breakfast and very much in love…or so it would seem. Kane, in serving her breakfast and carrying on about how beautiful she is and how much he’s in love with her, is just demonstrating the first phase of the idealize, devalue, and discard cycle of narcissistically abusive relationships.

The scene switches quickly over the years, showing the changing relationship of Kane and Emily at the table, with her complaining of his constant preoccupation with his newspaper and emotional neglect of her. He’s going into the devalue phase of the relationship. They’re filmed separately now, rather than together in the same shot.

Next, he speaks derisively of her uncle, to which she reminds her husband that her uncle is the president. Kane imagines this “mistake” will be “corrected one of these days.” On another occasion, he speaks of making people think “what [he] tell[s] them to think.” His mask of modesty is slipping; his narcissism is showing.

Finally, through a shot of the two sitting at the ends of their table, we see how estranged they’ve become towards each other. In fact, instead of talking, they’re reading newspapers: his, the Inquirer, and hers, the Chronicle.

The discard stage comes around the time when Kane hopes to be elected governor of the state of New York. He has been having an affair with Susan Alexander, and boss Jim Gettys, fearful of losing to Kane and being made vulnerable to charges of corruption from Kane, blackmails him with the threat of exposing his adultery if he doesn’t back out of the race.

Kane’s campaign as a “fighting liberal” and advocate for the common working man, as against corrupt Gettys, is more fakery on Kane’s part. His public image as a “friend of the working man” is an example of his narcissistic False Self; he, the future “landlord” of Xanadu, is as much a rapacious member of the ruling class as Gettys is. Kane’s campaign occurs fairly near the time that he, in Europe, has hobnobbed with Hitler and Franco. His later denunciations of them mean nothing: a true friend of the working man would never be friendly with fascists. Here’s an example of Kane as representing Hearst.

Thatcher, in his animus towards Kane, calls him a “communist” (as many right-wingers do to anyone who is even one or two millimetres to the left of them), in spite of how fake his sympathies with the working man are. Actual labour organizers denounce Kane as a “fascist.” Yet Kane, in his false modesty, just considers himself an American–hence the ironic title of the film.

In his associating with fascists, then denouncing them (only for the sake of his public image, of course), Kane is really just showing himself as a typical example of the shady liberal, who bends to the left or right depending on which way the political wind happens to be blowing at the time. Comparable examples include LBJ and his war on poverty, along with his escalation of the Vietnam War on the mendacious Gulf of Tonkin incident. Elsewhere, there’s when Obama spoke of wanting to “spread the wealth around” while on the campaign trail; then when president, he bailed out the banks, and helped with the coup d’état that kicked out pro-Russia Yanukovych from Ukraine and replaced him with a pro-Western government and paramilitary units with neo-Nazis!

To go back to his beginning relationship with Susan, Kane meets her when a coach has splashed mud all over his suit, and she laughs at him, causing him a narcissistic injury he keeps well under control, but lets out just enough to ask her why she’s laughing. She doesn’t know he’s a big newspaper tycoon, and she’s encountered him in a vulnerable state, like a mother with her little boy.

In her apartment, he likes how she, not knowing who he is, likes him just for himself; so he opens up to her, as a little boy might divulge his vulnerabilities to his mother. Kane speaks of meaning to head over to a warehouse holding old possessions of his from his childhood (which, by the way, include his “Rosebud” sled); he also mentions the death of his mother years ago. This divulging of his personal life to a pretty young woman he hardly knows, to a woman who charms him with her giggles and her toothache, is because of a transference of his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Susan. In her, Kane has found a new ideal…

His forced defeat to Gettys (on whom, speaking of transferences, he’s shifted his hate of Thatcher), as well as the loss of his financial control over his newspaper businesses to Thatcher because of the Depression, means the pole of Kane’s grandiose self has taken a beating. As I said above about the bipolar self, though, Kane has the other pole, that of idealization, to compensate for his loss of narcissistic grandiosity.

…and this is where Susan, the would-be opera star, comes in.

Kane divorces Emily and marries Susan, planning to make her a great opera star; but in all of this, he’s just making her into an extension of himself (just as the narcissist has made “the working man” an extension of himself, people whom he’d gift with benefits, rather than people with rights they should have always had). Significantly, he says “we” will be an opera star, rather than she will be one. He thinks he owns her, just as (as Leland has observed) he thinks he owns the working man.

The particular problem here is, apart from Susan’s not really wanting to sing opera, that she simply isn’t talented enough. Still, Kane is fixated on making her a great opera singer, a fixation that begins when, on their first meeting, she mentions her mother having wanted her to sing opera; recall that here he’s just spoken of his mother’s death to her, too, and so this fixation is another of those elements that connects Susan to his Oedipal feelings for his long-lost mother, his original ideal.

Still, Susan can’t sing. Her singing teacher is frustrated with her inadequate voice to the point of throwing comical temper tantrums. She is especially incapable of the dramatic aspect of opera, for which Leland’s blunt review gets him fired by Kane. She cannot be his ideal…yet he won’t let her not be his ideal. As with Kane’s public persona and his newspaper, her ‘virtuosity’ is a lie.

Her suicide attempt forces Kane to accept her giving up on her singing. Their relationship continues to deteriorate after that. Her only way of passing the time half-way pleasurably is to do jigsaw puzzles, one of the first of which we see, significantly, is of a winter scene. Elsewhere, there’s the snow globe, which he first sees when he meets Susan.

When Jerry Thompson (played by William Alland), the reporter assigned to investigate the meaning of “Rosebud,” discusses at the film’s end how he’s never discovered that meaning (he himself is usually shrouded in shadows, implying that he’s the personification of Rosebud’s never-answered mystery), he speaks of Kane’s last word as a missing puzzle piece. Susan, the winter scene puzzle, the snow globe, the sled, and Kane’s mother back in snowy Colorado–they’re all interconnected.

When Susan finally leaves Kane, he falls apart because–having already lost the pole of grandiosity–he’s now lost the other pole, the compensating one of ideals. He, lacking psychological structure, fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle taken apart. By trashing the bedroom, he is trying to project outwards the tearing-apart of his inner world.

Kane’s loss of Susan, the ideal on whom he transferred his Oedipal feelings for his original ideal, his mother, has led him to contemplate the snow globe, whose winter scene and house remind him of his original Xanadu, his childhood home in Colorado, where he had the love of his parents, especially his mother. Losing Susan feels like losing Mother all over again; her leaving him is like Mother’s betraying signature on the dotted line and sending him away with Thatcher.

I’m guessing his mother bought him the sled. Even if not so, “Rosebud” symbolizes Kane’s objet petit a, what he chased for all his life–in the forms of the Inquirer, Emily, governor of New York, Xanadu, animals, statues, and Susan–but never got…his mother’s love.

Analysis of ‘Seven Samurai’

Seven Samurai is a 1954 Japanese epic film directed by Akira Kurosawa, and written by him, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. It stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, and Daisuke Katō, with Keiko Tsushima, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Minoru Chiaki.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, having a great influence on innumerable films after it. The Magnificent Seven is a 1960 cowboy adaptation of it. The assembling of the team of men to fight the villains, having originated in Seven Samurai, is a trope used by many films since, including even Marvel‘s Avengers. The climactic fight in torrential rain has been imitated in films like Blade Runner and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Quotes from Seven Samurai in English translation can be found here.

Though few will doubt the greatness of this film, many will find its length, almost three-and-a-half hours, daunting; and non-Japanese viewers may be bored with having to read the subtitles of a black-and-white film set in feudal Japan. So how can we help a young, Western audience used to the flash of contemporary action and superhero films appreciate this old classic? How can we get the current generation to relate to the predicament of its protagonists, peasants from a world long gone?

I believe we can achieve this by doing a Marxist allegory of the conflict between bandits and peasant farmers, who enlist the aid of samurai to stop the bandits from taking their food, as a conflict between capitalist imperialists, who invade Third World countries, and the oppressed poor of those countries, who need the aid of a revolutionary vanguard to stop the imperialists.

After all, what are the imperialist countries of the US and NATO, if not bandits who invade, bomb, and steal resources from other countries, as they have in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria? If the American imperialists don’t steal by direct means as these, they’ll do so through orchestrating coups d’état, as they have in countries like Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or the ultimately failed coup in Bolivia in 2019-2020.

Only through the organization of a vanguard political party could the Soviets have succeeded in repelling the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and in the Red Army‘s defeat of the Nazis during WWII. The peasant farmers in Seven Samurai are powerless against the bandits, who are armed not only with swords but also with muskets; just as the global proletariat is helpless against the imperial war machine, armed with state-of-the-art weapons technology…and with nukes. The proletarians of the global south need the leadership, training, weapons, and encouragement of a vanguard.

The film begins with the thundering hooves of the bandits’ horses as they approach the village of the peasants. Civil War in late 16th-century Japan has left the land lawless. Since Japan in my allegory is representative of our world today (recall that the film was made in 1954, when US imperialism was a big enough problem even then [e.g., the total destruction of North Korea during the Korean War, something Japan herself had experienced not quite even a decade before] to justify my allegory), the civil war can be seen to symbolize the current state of perpetual war, and its lawless disregard for the sovereignty of nations.

A peasant overhears the bandits discussing the plan to return to the village and steal the farmers’ barley once it’s harvested many months later. The peasant goes to tell the other villagers of the future danger, and they all plunge into grief and near despair.

The fear of a future attack can be compared to how Russians today must feel, with NATO activity near the Russian border; or to how Chinese must feel, with not only American military bases virtually surrounding their country in the shape of a giant noose, as John Pilger has described it, but also the US-backed provocations of the Hong Kong protestors, the American navy in the South China Sea, and the sale of over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan.

On top of this are the starvation sanctions imposed on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, and the continuous threats to their countries, as well as the economic embargo on Cuba and its recent labelling by Mike Pompeo, who freely admits to being a liar, as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Back to the film. While Manzō (played by Kamatari Fujiwara) suggests simply giving in to the bandits and hoping enough food will be left over so they’ll have enough to survive, one hot-headed peasant named Rikichi (Tsuchiya), angry because of a particular outrage (to be revealed later) done by the bandits against him the last time they attacked, wants to fight back. The willingness to acquiesce to the bullying bandits parallels how many today passively accept rising income inequality, endless wars, surveillance, and the piecemeal removal of all of our freedoms, while Rikichi’s hunger for revenge is comparable to those of us who know that revolution is the solution to today’s ills.

Other, more despairing peasants complain of land taxes, forced labour, war, droughts, and a useless, unsympathetic magistrate, and now there are bandits! These peasants wail that the gods never help them, and they wish just to die. Here we see parallels to today’s world, in which the middle classes are taxed up the kazoo rather than the rich; the government, which works for the rich, doesn’t care about the poor, and religion increasingly shows itself inadequate in giving us comfort.

The peasants decide to ask Gisaku (played by Kokuten Kōdō), a wise elder of the village, what he thinks they should do. He knows of a time when samurai saved peasants from a bandit attack, so he suggests finding samurai to help them. His declaration of the effectiveness of this plan is like a prophecy: thus he is like Marx, foreseeing the revolutionary uprising against our rich oppressors.

The peasants have no way of paying the samurai, though. All they have of value is their food. The old man suggests, therefore, that they find hungry samurai. We today must also find leaders who are as desperate as we are to help us free ourselves from oppression.

Millions of Americans find themselves jobless and in danger of being thrown out on the street; meanwhile, the wealth of the billionaire class continues to rise. They are today’s bandits, making peasants of us all.

Rikichi, Manzō, and their scouting party leave the village and go to a city in search of samurai, several of whom can be seen walking about with their sheathed swords. The peasants try asking a few for help, but are rebuffed by the arrogant samurai, who think it galling that lowly farmers would ask to hire men of their higher social class.

Since I consider the seven samurai who will help the peasants to represent the vanguard, these unwilling samurai can be seen to represent those more snobbish leftist academics and intelligentsia who would rather talk the Marxist talk than get their hands dirty and be in touch with the working class. Similarly, Trotsky didn’t think much of peasants, as contrasted with the sympathetic attitude of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao toward them.

And since we learn, later in the film, that samurai have actually attacked peasant villages, we can compare these arrogant samurai to the class traitors among the would-be vanguard, like Trotsky, Khrushchev, etc. This arrogance leads us to a discussion of one of the central themes of Seven Samurai: pride/honour vs. humility/shame, and the dialectical relationship between the two.

The peasants’ fortunes change when they encounter an aging rōnin willing to rescue a boy being held hostage by a thief in a small house. This samurai, named Kambei Shimada (Shimura), cuts off his chonmage (deemed a shocking degradation for a samurai) and dresses in a monk’s robes to trick the thief into thinking Kambei won’t hurt him.

Upon killing the thief and saving the boy, Kambei wins the admiration of all witnessing the rescue. He’s humbled himself by shaving his head and pretending to be an unassuming monk, but in doing so, he’s also raised his status among his onlookers to such a point that not only do the peasants hope for his help against the bandits, but the young son of a samurai named Katsushirō (Kimura) bows before him and begs him to let the boy be his disciple.

We see more of the dialectical unity of opposites when, after Kambei–humbly denying his greatness as a warrior (i.e., he’s typically lost battles)–refuses to be Katsushirō’s master, we see proud, buffoonish Kikuchiyo (Mifune) claim he’s a samurai; then Kambei, not wanting the boy to be influenced by such a fool, becomes his master.

At this point, it is apposite to explore how the characters compare and contrast with each other. These are fully-rounded characters, each with his or her share of faults, but still sympathetic and likeable.

Kambei is wise, reserved, and humble, but still able to laugh and be merry. Katsushirō is naïve, inexperienced, and eager to find men to look up to and idealize, and the handsome boy’s youthful passion allows him to be distracted by the charms of Manzō’s pretty daughter, Shino (Tsushima); but he has a noble heart, and he fights bravely.

Kikuchiyo may be a loud-mouthed ass who acts impulsively and earns the ridicule of the samurai far too often, but he also earns our sympathy when we learn that he was a peasant who lost his family in a samurai raid; and when he fights bravely and sacrifices his life to kill the leader of the bandits in the final battle, he earns our respect.

Rikichi is quick to anger, especially when the samurai tease him about needing a wife. He takes offence to these taunts because, as we learn later in the film, during the previous raid, the bandits abducted his wife (played by Yukiko Shimazaki) and made her their concubine.

Manzō is absurdly over-protective of Shino. Fearing she’ll be a target of samurai lust, he insists on cutting her hair short (making her feel dishonoured in a way comparable to how one would think Kambei would feel after his shaving of his head) and making the samurai think she’s a boy. Manzō’s patriarchal pride turns to shame when he sees his greatest fears realized: Katsushirō has seduced her. The shame is Manzō’s, though, not the young lovers’, for Katsushirō doesn’t see her as a mere plaything…he’s in love with her, and her foolish father doesn’t want to accept it.

So in these, and in all the other protagonists, there is a humanity that inspires sympathy in us and justifies the length of the film, for we learn to care about them. When we consider who these characters represent in my allegory, our caring for them can inspire us to care about the poor all over the world. These characters all have their needs, desires, hopes, fears, and pain, just as the global proletariat do, however invisible they may be to us in the First World.

Our introduction to the stoic master swordsman, Kyūzō (Miyaguchi) is another opportunity to see the dialectical relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō tests his abilities with another man in an open area, but they use lances. Kyūzō says he struck first, while the other man insists it was a tie, and he is so offended with the pride he projects onto Kyūzō that he challenges him to a swordfight.

Kyūzō warns him not to be foolish, but the proud opponent won’t take no for an answer. They fight with swords this time; Kyūzō’s opponent is loud, blustery, and ostentatious in his aggression, as against Kyūzō’s quiet poise and calm. Predictably, Kyūzō strikes first and kills the man.

Kambei and the peasants would have such a skilled swordsman join their cause, but he joins them only after a period of time to consider it. Kambei’s old friend and comrade, Shichirōji (Katō), joins them, as does good-natured Gorōbei (Inaba) simply because he finds Kambei an intriguing fellow samurai to work with.

Another example of nobility in humility is when Gorōbei meets Heihachi (Chiaki), a samurai of moderate ability who is willing to chop wood for an elderly man in exchange for food. These are the kind of people one wants for a vanguard: not careerists or opportunists who will drop us at the first sign of promotion or higher pay, but who understand the nobility of helping the poor for its own sake.

Near at hand is Kikuchiyo, who has been following the samurai and insists on joining them. His pride shifts dialectically into shame when he produces a scroll purportedly of his samurai lineage, though the name “Kikuchiyo” on the scroll indicates someone who’d be thirteen years of age as of the time of our story, not the actual thirty-something samurai wannabe.

Nonetheless, he is accepted into the group, if only because his asinine behaviour amuses the others; and so the group of seven samurai is complete. Indeed, when it is announced to the villagers that the samurai have arrived, and the villagers–under the paranoid, anti-samurai influence of Manzō–are afraid to come out of their huts and meet their seven visitors, Kikuckiyo sounds the village alarm, suggesting a bandit raid, and the villagers come out, begging the samurai to protect them. He has thus shown his usefulness.

Three samurai look over a map of the village and surrounding area, planning how they will defend it from a bandit attack. Shichirōji will have a fence made to block the western entry point, the southern entry will be flooded, and a bridge will be destroyed to prevent entry from the east. This use of tactics is paralleled by the use of theory by Marxists: without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement, something many on the left fail to understand.

The vanguard is also typically not appreciated by many on the left, just as the samurai aren’t initially appreciated by the peasants. Many on the left, if not most of them, sadly, believe the bourgeois lies and propaganda vilifying Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, failing to put the problems of the years of their leadership in their proper political and economic contexts; it’s assumed that the vanguard are the same as any other power-hungry group of politicians and demagogues.

Similarly, the villagers, having listened to Manzō, are afraid their daughters will be used by the samurai for their sexual sport, or are afraid that these seven samurai are no better than the typical, arrogant, predatory samurai. These forms of dissension are as bad for the peasants as is the danger of the bandits; just as the anti-communist left is as bad for the global poor as the capitalists are.

Another difficulty the samurai must deal with is their inability to defend the three outlying buildings. The core twenty in the centre are the priority, but those villagers living in the outlying areas don’t want to accept having to give up their homes and move into and crowd the centre.

In fact, while Kikuchiyo tries to raise the morale of the villagers by joking about the men giving their wives some loving that night, those villagers from the outer areas get angry and try to walk out. Kambei scolds them and, threatening them with his sword, makes them return.

Here we learn an important message about solidarity. We can’t repel imperial invasions and capitalist plunder without a unified working class and peasantry helping each other. Dissension among the various factions of the Soviets in the early 1920s, during a dangerous time when capitalist encirclement threatened the end of the USSR, forced the vanguard to be authoritarian.

Still, most of the Soviets backed their government, and poll after poll since the USSR’s dissolution has shown that a majority of Russians consider life under the Soviet system to have been a happier one than the current capitalist one in their country. Similarly, in the movie, the peasants come to love and appreciate the protection they get from the samurai.

After the intermission, we see the peasants harvesting the barley in the fields, and Kikuchiyo is eyeing the young women workers lustfully. Rikichi gets offended at some banter from Heihachi about getting a wife. That night, Heihachi talks to Rikichi about what’s troubling him and tries to get him to open up, which he won’t do, for he’s too ashamed to let the samurai know his wife has been abducted to be used to satisfy bandit lust.

Still, part of solidarity is the need for open communication among comrades, something difficult to achieve when there’s so much alienation caused by class conflict. Though the world depicted in Seven Samurai is that of late 16th century feudal Japan, the class conflict of such a world is easily compared with that of the modern world of capitalism. For as Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The conflict between feudal lords and peasants is clearly paralleled with the conflict between bourgeois and proletarians. Poverty and want compels many to commit theft in order to live, hence the bandits, as well as all the crime we witness in modern capitalist society. Providing for people’s basic needs–food, shelter, health care, education, employment, etc.–would reduce the compulsion to commit crimes to a minimum…except that the capitalists, who exploit workers and get rich off their value-producing labour, are the greatest bandits of all, and won’t allow for the needed provision.

Back to the film. Three bandits are spotted in the hills and, later, looking through the fence onto the village. Kikuchiyo opens his big mouth, endangering the village by revealing to the bandits that samurai are there to defend it. Kyūzō, Kikuchiyo, and Katsushirō are tasked with leaving the village and catching the three bandits before they can tell the others.

Kambei instructs Katsushirō only to watch the other two men catch the bandits. He lies hiding among the flowers while Kikuchiyo is up in a tree, ready to pounce on a bandit, and Kyūzō is sitting at the foot of the tree, hiding behind it and meditating as the three bandits approach.

In his meditation, Kyūzō is demonstrating No Mind, or wuxin. By emptying his mind of all distracting thoughts, he is embracing the void that dialectically encompasses nothing, or No-thing, and the Brahman-like everything, or what I would call the Infinite Ocean. This focus gives Kyūzō the connection to divinity needed to be ready to strike and kill without missing his target. The wise, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone, as it says in the Tao Te Ching.

When the bandits appear, Kyūzō strikes down and kills two of them, while Kikuchiyo falls on and captures the third, who–bound–is taken back to the village and forced to disclose the location of the bandits’ hideout. The villagers want to kill him, something to which the samurai are opposed; but an old woman whose son has been killed by the bandits wants her revenge (as does Rikichi, of course), so the samurai reluctantly allow her to have it.

Now Rikichi, Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyūzō go off to find the hideout. It’s burned down, with many bandits killed, but Rikichi discovers his wife-turned-concubine there, too; too ashamed to return with him, she runs into the flames and dies. In an attempt to rescue Rikichi, Heihachi is mortally wounded in the fighting, and his death compounds Rikichi’s grief.

Immediately after the burial and mourning of Heihachi, the bandits attack. It is discovered that they have three muskets, so the samurai and peasants must be careful. Kikuchiyo foolishly taunts the users of the muskets, and he’s lucky not to be shot by any of them.

Those who own the three outlying houses are not so lucky, though, for the bandits burn down those houses in revenge for the burning down of their hideout. The old man, Gisaku, is too stubborn to leave his house, so he dies in the fire. A mother who has been speared stays alive just long enough to save her baby. Kikuchiyo takes the child and wails in grief, for he is reminded of how he and his family suffered the exact same fate when he was a child.

In the context of my Marxist-Leninist allegory, the bandits’ reprisal, as well as the suffering it causes, is a symbolic reminder of the constant danger of counterrevolution, that with every small victory can come new threats from those who would try to restore the oppressive, predatory old way of doing things. This danger is what forces socialist states to take harsh measures to defend themselves.

The three muskets represent a superior form of technology (in today’s world, that would be nuclear weapons) that must be appropriated–not for attack, but for self-defence. People in the West often decry the ‘danger’ that the DPRK supposedly poses with its nuclear weapons programme, while hypocritically oblivious to the double-standard that indulges Western possession of such weapons (England, France, surely Israel, and the one country to use them to kill people, the US). Socialist states like the USSR and Mao’s China needed nuclear weapons to deter a Western attack, not to attack the West, as is popularly assumed.

Similarly, the samurai know that they need to get their hands on those muskets, so Kyūzō runs off to get one. His success awes Katsushirō, who gazes in admiration at a swordsman so humble that he doesn’t even seem to understand why the boy is idolizing him so much.

Later, Katsushirõ tells Kikuchiyo about how impressive he finds Kyūzō; the fool pretends he couldn’t care less, but he secretly envies the swordsman, and in his pride, Kikuchiyo goes off to the bandits to steal another musket. He too succeeds, having disguised himself as a bandit and tricking one who has the second firearm. When Kikuchiyo proudly returns to the village with the musket, though, Kambei’s reaction to his recklessness is only anger.

Here again we see the film’s dialectical presentation of the relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō gets a musket, but not for his own personal glory; he does so out of duty. Hence, he is admired by Katsushirō. Kikuchiyo covets that admiration, and in doing the same thing as Kyūzō, though with selfish motives, he is shamed.

With each ensuing battle, many bandits are killed, and we see Kambei paint Xes in the circles representing the bandits on a sheet of paper. He does so with a mix of satisfaction and sadness, for with these killings of bandits, there have also been deaths on their own side, in particular, the deaths of Gorōbei and timid, simple old Yohei.

Despite having been verbally abused as stupid and weak throughout the film, Yohei dies (with an arrow in the back) honourably, having bravely helped defend the village as best he could. (Earlier, we see Yohei, having speared a bandit, in an absurd pose of paralytic shock, his mouth agape at its jaw-cracking widest.) Again, humility/shame and pride/honour are dialectically united.

Also, the deaths on both sides can be seen to symbolize, on the one hand, the progressive erasure of class differences (the bandits, understood as personifying the predatory bourgeoisie), and on the other, the withering away of the state, as personified by the seven samurai as vanguard.

The samurai must prepare for the final confrontation with the remaining bandits, which will happen on a morning of heavy rain. The night before, tensions are high in anticipation of the morning’s danger, and a furious Manzō has discovered his daughter in a tryst with Katsushirō.

Manzō beats her and publicly shames her, but the other samurai try to get him to forgive her, explaining that the tensions of the moment can provoke reckless behaviour. Rikichi scolds Manzō, saying there’s nothing wrong with being in love; at least Shino wasn’t raped by the bandits, as Rikichi’s wife was.

In this night of wild emotions, we see the opposite of the wuxin mindset that is ideal for preparation for battle. Instead of emptying one’s thoughts to find one’s connection with the divine, one is overwhelmed with one’s preoccupations, leading to confusion and raising the level of danger.

The rainy morning of the battle, however, finds the samurai and peasants in a focused mindset; it’s as if the passions of the preceding night have purged them of preoccupations, causing a dialectical shift from extreme distraction to extreme focus; it’s as if they’ve all learned from the foolishness of Manzō’s anger. (Recall his previous worries about Shino being seduced by a samurai, and Gisaku telling him how foolish it is to fear for one’s whiskers when one’s head is to be cut off.) One might think a torrential downpour would be irritating and distracting, but our protagonists don’t allow themselves to be swayed by such discomfort in the least.

The bandits are clearly losing, one of them having fallen off of his saddle and being dragged in the mud by his horse. Still, the leader of the bandits has the last musket, and like a coward, he hides in a house with the screaming women of the village, whom he threatens to kill if they make more noise.

He shoots and kills Kyūzō, enraging Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo, the latter racing after the villain in the house and getting mortally wounded himself. Still, the dying man proves his worth in the end and stabs the bandit before falling to the ground himself. Kambei tells Katsushirō they’ve won; all the bandits are killed. The boy wails in anguish, though, for he never got his chance to avenge Kyūzō.

On a pleasant, sunny day afterwards, we see the peasants planting crops in the fields and playing celebratory, victory music, with Rikichi–smiling, for a change–chanting and playing a drum, and Manzō playing a flute. The three surviving samurai–Kambei, Shichirōji, and Katsushiro–are standing by the burial area of their fallen comrades and frowning. Shino passes by and snubs Katsushirō, for the patriarchal influence of her father has made her too ashamed to continue her romance with him, however much he sill loves her, and doesn’t care about their class differences.

Kambei sadly observes that the victory belongs to the peasants, not to the samurai. In the context of my allegory, this makes sense, for in spite of the anti-communist slanders about a vanguard’s supposed hunger for power, the vanguard–as symbolized by these seven samurai–really want to have the power to end hunger. The battle was never about glorifying the higher-caste samurai; it was about liberating the peasants, as is the vanguard’s intention for the working poor of the world.

This understanding should be our response to critics’ allegation of Kurosawa’s ‘elitism.’ Though it is more than safe to assume that Kurosawa was nowhere near being a communist, making my Marxist allegory seem out of place, he was a more progressive writer/director than he seemed. Having seen only Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran, I can’t speak with any measure of authority on most of his films; but in the case of this one, the presentation of social class and sex roles isn’t meant as a defence of the old traditions, but as a critique of them.

Remember that his heroic samurai are the exception, not the rule, in this film. Most of the samurai are arrogant, and it’s known that they are often the attackers, rather than the defenders, of peasants, who are regarded most sympathetically, in spite of how bumbling they are often portrayed. For these reasons, I consider the critics’ charging of Kurosawa of elitism to be invalid, at least with regard to Seven Samurai. In any case, his one non-Japanese language film, Dersu Uzala, was partly Soviet-financed, so I doubt that he was all that inimical to the more egalitarian leanings of socialism.

The analysis and interpretation of a film needn’t strictly conform to what its auteur has said about it, since–as I’ve learned from psychoanalysis–unconscious meaning can be expressed through parapraxes, revealing intent far removed from what the creator has explained in interviews. Therefore I stand by my leftist interpretation, especially since I believe it can inspire new viewers of Seven Samurai to apply its notions of heroism and sacrifice to today’s problems.

Analysis of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

Johnny Got His Gun is a 1938 anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo, published the following year, and adapted into a 1971 film, which was also written and directed by him (with an uncredited writing collaboration from Luis Buñuel). The film stars Timothy Bottoms, with co-stars Kathy FieldsMarsha HuntJason RobardsDonald Sutherland, and Diane Varsi.

The book was temporarily taken out of print several times, when such wars as WWII and the Korean War broke out; for the book’s anti-war sentiment was deemed inappropriate at those times. Having been a member of the Communist Party USA during WWII, Dalton agreed to the non-printing of his novel, as long as the Soviet Union remained allies with the US against the Nazis during the war. As for the far right, isolationists among them sent Trumbo letters asking for copies of the book while it had been out of print. He reported the letter-writers to the FBI, but it turns out the FBI was far more interested in him, a leftist, than in the rightist writers.

The novel tells the story through a third-person subjective, or limited, narration, meaning we get the story from the protagonist’s point of view, that of Joe Bonham (played by Bottoms in the film). This means that the perspective of the medical staff is given only in the film adaptation. Other differences between novel and film include the rearrangement of some scenes into a different order, and the inclusion of scenes in the film with Christ (Sutherland) generally having been written by Buñuel (assuming IMDb is trustworthy here), although the scene of Christ playing cards with Joe, the redhead, the Swede (played by David Soul), and the other soldiers is in the novel (Book II, Chapter 16), and around 27-30 minutes into the film.

The film was originally a modest success, but became a cult film after Metallica‘s video for their songOne,” which included scenes from the film, revived interest in it. In fact, Metallica bought the rights to the film so they could use scenes from it in their video without having to pay royalties on it.

Links to quotes from the film can be found here.

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in WWI, has been severely injured from the blast of an artillery shell, rendering him limbless, eyeless, deaf, and without a nose, tongue, or teeth. To make matters worse, the army medical staff taking care of him, not knowing who he is (three minutes into the film), and mistakenly thinking he’s decerebrated from his injuries, assume that he feels no pain or pleasure, and that he has no memories or dreams; so they keep him alive for medical research.

Joe gradually comes to the horrifying realization that all that’s left of him are his torso, genitals, and mutilated head (from Chapter 3 onward), with only the sense of touch left to link himself with the world, and with his consciousness intact to realize the virtually hopeless state that is the remainder of his natural life. This is alienation in the extreme, as only war can cause it.

The medical staff are keeping him alive so they can study him, the rationalization being that such study can be a help to future injured soldiers. When he realizes fully what’s been done to him, he’d like to kill himself by cutting off his own breathing, but he can’t, because the staff have him breathing through tubes directly connected to his lungs (Chapter 5, pages 28-29).

So, the overarching theme of the story is loss, lack. Joe has lost not only all the body parts that can make him useful, help him to enjoy the company of other people, or give his life meaning; not only has he lost his will to live and his faith in God (especially by the end of the story); but he has lost the very ability to end his life.

Normally, desire is aroused by a stimulation of the senses, so we’d think that a lack of those senses might cause one to be able to resist the sensual temptations of the world and attain peace, nirvana; but Joe is someone used to the physical pleasures of the world, to the enjoyment of relationships with other people, so being deprived of all of that, all of a sudden, is something he cannot accept. His is a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire: a desire to be useful to others, to be recognized and acknowledged by others, to be wanted by others (e.g., his girlfriend, Kareen [Fields]).

How can he be worth anything to anybody (other than that impersonal medical staff who are exploiting him for their own purposes) in his mutilated state? As a quadruple amputee with his face blown off, he’s been symbolically castrated, though, ironically, his genitals are still intact (Joey’s got his gun), they being the symbol of desire par excellence. Instead of letting go of his desires, which would lead to nirvana, he has them all the more, trapping him in a symbolic samsara. His is a living death: note how the novel is divided into two books, called ‘The Dead,’ and ‘The Living.’ It’s as if he’s dying (despair), then living again (new hope), then dying again (frustrated hope), then living again (revived, if feeble, hopes), a symbolic reincarnation into a world of endless suffering, of hell.

His hell is the undifferentiated world of what Lacan called the Real. He cannot tell day from night, dream from waking life, or fantasy from reality (especially with all the sedatives he’s getting). He cannot measure time with any degree of accuracy, though he certainly tries very hard to.

Communication borders on impossible for him, except towards the end of the story, when a nurse uses her finger to spell “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on his bare chest (Chapter 17, page 86); and when he uses the Morse Code, tapping the back of his head on a pillow, to communicate with the army brass, only to have his wishes rejected. Therefore, his connection with the Symbolic Order, the therapeutic world of language, culture, and society, is a tenuous one.

The paradoxically terrifying/beatific world of the Real, or to use Bion‘s terminology, O, is one beyond the senses, a suspension of memory and desire. James S. Grotstein says, “A transformation in ‘O’ is attainable only by the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” Such a place could be heavenly, like nirvana, if Joe could just let go of his ego and the world he’s lost; but of course, he’ll never do that, so he can only experience the hellish aspect of O, the Real, which is dialectically right next to the heavenly aspect (consider my use of the ouroboros, which symbolizes a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites [i.e., the serpent’s head biting its tail], to get at my meaning), depending on whether or not one clings to desire.

Trumbo’s novel begins with memories of sounds, like the sound of the telephone ringing. His hearing is the first thing he discovers he’s lost, and ironically, he has a ringing sound in his ears, reminding him of the telephone. Added to this, he remembers a sad phone call at work in the bakery: he must go home, for his father (Robards) has died. More of the theme of loss.

Other sounds Joe remembers are of music, his mother’s singing (beginning of Chapter 2) and piano playing (Chapter 1), something he’ll never get to enjoy again. In subsequent chapters, Joe remembers other sensory pleasures, like his mom’s home cooking (Chapter 2), a listing-off of various delicious foods (her baked bread, her canned peaches, cherries, raspberries, black berries, plums and apricots, her jams, jellies, preserves, and chilli sauces; the sandwiches of the hamburger man on Fifth and Main, etc.), all foods he’ll never get to taste again. He describes the aches and pains in his arms and legs, doing hard physical labour, in the hot sun, to the point of exhaustion (Chapter 4, pages 19-21).

He describes going to bed with Kareen (Chapter 3, page 15; and about nine minutes into the film), their one and only intimate time before he’s shipped off to fight the war, an indulgence her father allows, amazingly. All of these vivid sensual descriptions are here to underscore, for the reader, all that Joe has lost.

The film symbolically reflects the difference between what he had (and what he wishes he still had) and what he’s lost by showing his memories, dreams, and fantasies in colour (the dreams and fantasies being in saturated colour), and showing his current, hellish reality in the hospital in black and white. Indeed, all he has left are his memories and fantasies.

All these memories of his reinforce in our minds that Joe is a human being, with a heart and feelings, with dreams, hopes, and desires, like everyone else. He’s more than just a guinea pig for the medical staff to study and experiment on.

This understanding is the anti-war basis of the story: soldiers aren’t just pieces of meat (like the piece of meat that Joe has been reduced to) for the army and ruling class to use for their selfish purposes. Of course, these selfish purposes–the imperialist competition to control the lion’s share of the world’s land and resources–are cloaked behind rationalizations of keeping the world “safe for democracy.”

Now, what is meant here by “democracy” is not really the power of the people, but what is properly called the dictatorship or the bourgeoisie, or the rule of the rich. Boys like Joe are recruited to kill and die to protect and serve the interests of the capitalist class. This story’s setting during WWI is significant in how Lenin at the time wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, a polemic against the war (understood as an inter-imperialist competition among the great powers of the time for land and resources), which was very unpopular in Russia. And as soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they worked to get Russia out of the war.

If only American communists could have been so successful.

The novel’s defiant, anti-war tone reaches its highest pitch at the ends of Books I and II, in which Joe speaks contemptuously of that old lie about the “fight for liberty.” As Joe says on page 49, “What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?” His response to the importance of liberty is “my life is important” (page 50). As for Joe’s defiance of the war machine and what it has done to him, hear Donald Sutherland’s reading of passages from the end of Book II (pages 103-104).

Now, since Joe has realized what a big mistake he made believing the bourgeois imperialist lie of ‘fighting for democracy,’ we should try to understand what originally drove him to buy into that lie. It was his love of his father and his wish to identify with him, to win his father’s love. Though his father cynically realizes that ‘defending democracy’ is really just about “young men killing each other,” Joe as a naïve little boy just goes along with the apparent virtue of such a fight. After all, as his father says, “Young men don’t have homes; that’s why they must go out and kill each other.” (Recall, in this connection, the fourth line in the bridge to the lyrics of the Black Sabbath song, “War Pigs,” which came out close to the same time as the film.)

Joe deems his father a failure who has nothing but his phallic fishing pole to give him distinction (not even Joe has distinction, apparently, as his father frankly tells him), but this is the only father little Joe has. Joe manages to lose that fishing pole one day when fishing not with his dad, but with his friend, Bill Harper (Chapter 9, and at about 1:16:30 into the film). The loss of the fishing pole is another symbolic castration. Joe’s memories of his father hugging him, and wanting to receive a hug from him, are–I believe–wish-fulfillments of Joe’s (the line separating his actual memories and how he wishes to remember his past is a hazy one). His father’s death, and the loss of the fishing pole, goad Joe–through guilt feelings–into being willing to do what “any man would give his only begotten son” for…kill and be killed for democracy.

This choice of words, “only begotten son,” is intriguing. It reminds one of John 3:16. Joe’s father would give his only begotten son to die for an ideal, freedom, which sounds like God the Father giving His only begotten Son to die for our sins, so sinners can live in an ideal world, heaven, which is freedom from sin and death.

This comparison leads us to the understanding that Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is comparing himself, however obliquely, to Christ. He is suffering in an excruciating manner similar in a number of ways to how Jesus suffered. In his state of living death, Joe is harrowing Hell, so to speak, as Christ did.

The two books of Trumbo’s novel, recall, are named “The Dead” and “The Living.” The reverse order of these names suggests resurrection. On the other hand, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). This understanding gives depth to Joe’s dreams and fantasies of conversing with Christ, for it gives meaning–and a sense of grandeur–to Joe’s suffering.

His dream of a rat biting into a wound behind a bandage on his side, or his chest (something he, at first, can’t tell from waking reality–Chapter 7, page 41; and 45 minutes into the film) suggests the spear in Christ’s side. The loss of Joe’s limbs is analogous to the stigmata in Christ’s hands and feet; recall how he believes the doctors have amputated his arms and legs–for example, he feels the pinching and pricking of sharp instruments when they remove the bandages from where his left arm would have been (Chapter 3, page 13). And the mutilation of Joe’s face parallels Christ’s crown of thorns, the digging of those thorns into His head.

The mutilation of Joe’s body, and the mental disorientation he feels as a result, symbolizes and literally means that he is in danger of suffering psychological fragmentation. Pathological narcissism–in Joe’s case, the covert kind in which one sees oneself as a grandiose victim–is an effective–if dysfunctional–defence against such fragmentation. In Joe’s case, this narcissism expresses itself by his comparing of his suffering to that of Christ.

In the film, when Joe is with Christ in one of his fantasies (46-50 minutes into the film)–when Christ is doing His carpenter work–and Joe is speaking about his fears of having the rat nightmare again, the two are looking in each other’s faces as if Joe were looking into a mirror…that is, the narcissistic mirroring of the self in the other. As a dream, the scene is a wish-fulfillment for Joe in which he hopes to find a solution to the rat nightmare problem, which of course Christ can’t solve, because Joe’s problems are material, not spiritual, ones: Joe has no mouth with which to yell himself back into consciousness, he has no eyes to open, and he has no limbs with which to knock the rat off of him. This must have been a scene that atheist Buñuel wrote, for Christ is no help to Joe, and He Himself acknowledges that no one really believes in Him.

Joe remembers his Christian Science preacher from childhood telling him that God is Spirit (35 minutes into the film), as is man in his true nature, which makes Christ vaguely comparable with Joe, who barely has a body anymore, and barely has any sensory contact with the physical world. Joe, like Christ on the Cross, feels “forsaken” (Chapter 20, page 101) by the medical staff, who refuse to grant him his request to be taken around in a glass box and presented as a kind of freakish icon to teach people about the horrors of war.

To be taken all over the US and displayed thus, as an anti-war icon, is comparable to Christian missionaries traveling the world and spreading the Word of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). Joe’s message of saving lives, though, is the salvation of physical lives, not that of spiritual ones. “He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be.” (Chapter 20, page 103)

As we can see, this association of Joe with Jesus is far more apparent in the novel, especially towards the end, than in the film. And if he is like Christ, we can find Mary parallels, too.

First, when Joe realizes the extremity of his predicament, he feels as helpless as a baby in the womb (Chapter 7, page 37), and he–in his thoughts–calls out to his mother for help (Chapter 5, page 25). This association of limbless Joe with a baby in the womb can also be linked with his recollection of his mother’s telling of the Christmas story, with Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to find an inn in Bethlehem to spend the night (Chapter 17, pages 88-90).

Without his mother to know of his mental cries for help, Joe must rely on the care of the nurses, on whom he transfers his Oedipal feelings, which have resurfaced as a result of his regression to an infantile state, this being part of his coping mechanism.

Having transferred feelings of Oedipal love from his mother onto the nurses, Joe finds one nurse in particular–as noted especially in the film (Varsi)–whose tearful compassion for him is receptive to that love. Accordingly, she masturbates him (Chapter 14, page 72); about an hour and fifteen minutes into the film). Remember, though, the blurred line between his fantasy world (i.e., wish-fulfillment) and his reality. How much of her massaging is real, and how much is his imagination?

Since the Oedipal transference is sent to her, and since it is she who writes “MERRY CHRISTMAS” with her finger on his chest, this nurse can be seen as the Mary to his Jesus. The tears in her eyes over his suffering make her a kind of mater dolorosa, Our Lady of Compassion.

Now, these Christ and Mary parallels do not mean that Trumbo was trying to present a Christian “prince of peace” kind of anti-war story. Such symbolism only serves to express the gravity of Joe’s suffering through the use of familiar religious imagery. This is no story about “faith, hope, and charity“: on the contrary, it is about bottomless despair, which is especially apparent at the end of the film.

Joe’s pitying nurse would be an exterminating angel, were one of the doctors not to stop her from cutting off Joe’s air supply to euthanize him. The doctor, whose “stupidity” is bluntly noted by the chaplain in the film, would keep Joe alive in that hellish state so he can continue to be studied. For this is the whole point of war: the exploitation of young men to kill, to be killed, and to be otherwise used as a kind of commodity for the benefit of the powerful.

Unable to kill himself, unable to live in any meaningful way, unable to communicate and be listened to (i.e., to re-enter the social world of the Symbolic; our libido seeks other people’s company, as Fairbairn noted), and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness because of the sedatives the doctors keep giving him, Joe is trapped in the undifferentiated void of the Real. If he could only let go of his attachment to his ego, that illusory self we all have from our contemplation of our mirror reflection, the Imaginary, then he might find peace.

But his was never a Buddhist or Hindu upbringing, of course: it was a Christian one, from which he derived his narcissistically amplified ego by identifying with Christ. And since even the religious systems of the Far East typically hold up the authoritarian and class basis of their respective societies, they would be of little help to him, anyway. His predicament is a material one, not a spiritual one. The eternal death of his Hell is not being able to choose when he can die.

He might see himself as Christ-like, as a fisher of men, but he lost his father’s fishing pole…just as he’s lost everything else. And just as Joe’s father is dead, so is God the Father dead…hence, there’s no Christ to wake Joe out of his nightmare.