Analysis of ‘The Babadook’

The Babadook is a 2014 Australian psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, her directorial debut. It developed from her short film, Monster. The Babadook stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with Daniel HenshallHayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear.

The film received recognition and acclaim in the US and Europe. It wasn’t initially a commercial success in Australia, but it’s now on a number of lists of the scariest movies of all time.

Here are some quotes:

“Ba-ba-ba… dook! Dook! DOOOOOKH!” –the Babadook

“I have moved on. I don’t mention him. I don’t talk about him.” –Amelia, to Claire, about Oskar

“It wasn’t me, Mum! The Babadook did it!” –Samuel

Amelia: [about the Babadook] Well, I’m not scared.
Samuel: You will be when it eats your insides!

Amelia: [after Sam has snooped around in his father’s crawlspace] All your father’s things are down there!
Samuel: He’s my FATHER! You don’t own him!

“DON’T LET IT IN!” –Samuel

“Why don’t you go eat shit?” –Amelia, to hungry Samuel

Amelia: [Samuel comes out from hiding and Amelia shrieks like a banshee. Amelia starts approaching Samuel, but he starts wetting himself.] You little pig. Six years old and you’re still wetting yourself. You don’t know how many times I wished it was you, not him, that died.
Samuel: I just wanted you to be happy.
Amelia: [mocking Samuel] I just want you to be happy. Sometimes I just want to smash your head against the brick wall until your fucking brains pop out.
Samuel: [softly] You’re not my mother.
Amelia: What did you say?
Samuel: I said you’re not my mother!
Amelia: I AM YOUR MOTHER!

Amelia: I’m sick, Sam. I need help. I just spoke with Mrs. Roach. We’re gonna stay there tonight. You want that? I wanna make it up for you, Sam. I want you to meet your dad. It’s beautiful there. You’ll be happy.
Samuel: [Sam stabs her] Sorry, Mommy!

“You can bring me the boy.” –the Babadook, pretending to be Oskar

“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” –Samuel, to Amelia

“You are nothing. You’re nothing! This is my house! You are trespassing in my house! If you touch my son again, I’ll fucking kill you!” –Amelia, to the Babadook

“Happy Birthday, sweetheart.” –Amelia, to Samuel (last line)

Amelia Vanek (Davis) is a widow and mother of her almost seven-year-old son, Samuel (Wiseman); his father, Oskar (Winspear), was killed in a car accident taking her, in labour, to the hospital. The story, therefore, deals with her having to come to terms with her grief, and with Samuel dealing with the trauma of being fatherless.

The boy has constant fears and nightmares of some kind of monster attacking him. She tries to soothe his anxieties as best she can: checking under his bed and in his closet for the bogeyman, reading him stories, letting him sleep with her instead of alone in his bedroom, etc.

Though Wilfred Bion‘s notions of containment (helping others–especially babies–cope with painful experiences), detoxifying of beta elements (raw sensory impressions, typically irritating ones, received from the outside world), and maternal reverie are normally reserved for a mother’s soothing of her baby, in this film they apply fittingly to six-going-on-seven Samuel, because the trauma of not having a father has overwhelmed him so much that, without his mother’s help, he can’t use alpha function (which transforms beta elements into tolerable alpha elements) to ease his anxieties about the agitating outside world. His mother must still be the container of his tension. (See here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Though Oskar, of course, didn’t mean to abandon Amelia and Sam in his untimely death, his absence in the boy’s life can feel like an abandonment in his only-developing mind. Thus, the absent father becomes what Melanie Klein would have called the bad father, the same way she called the breast that isn’t available to feed the baby the bad breast.

Sam’s anger and frustration at the absent, bad father is projected outward, to be contained and detoxified–as he’d hope–by his mother; but since his father–in both his good and bad aspects–exists in his mind as an internal object (like a demon possessing him), the boy’s use of projection can never get rid of the bad father permanently. Repressed, bad Oskar will always return…in the demonic form of Mister Babadook.

Though Kent, when deciding on the name of her story, surely wasn’t thinking about the Mandarin Chinese version of papa, I can’t help noting the interesting coincidence between bàba and the first two syllables of Babadook, the last syllable of which seems like an onomatopoeic imitation of the knocking on a door (“Ba-ba-ba-dook-dook-dook“). So Babadook seems to mean “Papa’s knocking (on the door),” the agitating beta elements of the bad father, which both Sam and his mother would rather leave outside.

Indeed, she doesn’t want to face up to her grief any more than Sam wants to confront his trauma. She hardly sleeps at night, and during her day working as a nurse and going about elsewhere, she does so with half-closed eyes. Apart from being constantly woken up by Sam, she cannot sleep because the agitating beta elements she refuses to process need to be detoxified and made into alpha elements, which are useful for thoughts and dreaming. Without alpha elements, one doesn’t sleep.

Bion explained the situation thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Using alpha function to detoxify beta elements and turn them into alpha elements (done either by our more mature selves, or by our mothers when we’re infants, or by psychoanalysts for their psychotic patients) is just Bion’s idiosyncratic terminology for describing the psychological processing of trauma, pain, or any other form of externally-derived discomfort. And processing trauma and grief is what The Babadook is all about.

A crucial part of processing this pain is putting it into words. What’s so traumatic about what Lacan called The Real is how, in a mental realm without differentiation, experiences cannot be symbolized and verbalized, and therefore cannot be processed and healed. The Symbolic is the mental realm of healthy existence, since this is where language is housed. Amelia’s and Sam’s trauma must be verbalized in order to be healed…and this is where the book, Mister Babadook, comes in.

Healing isn’t easy, though. In fact, it’s terrifying, and that’s why Amelia and Sam try to rid themselves of both Babadook and book (putting it out of Samuel’s reach, tearing up the pages, burning it). Reading the words of the story is terrifying, because to verbalize the trauma and grief is to face their pain head on.

“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That hurts. “The more you deny, the stronger I get.” That hurts even more. Sam’s invention of weapons with which to slay the Babadook is largely futile and self-defeating, especially since his aggression only alienates people from him, and the healthy world of the Symbolic, communicated verbally, is the world of society, culture, and customs–the world of other people. Her ripping up and burning of the book is also futile, and for the same reasons.

Amelia has been trying to contain Sam’s agitations, but she cannot even contain her own. This is why, instead of soothing Sam as he needs to be soothed, she makes him feel what Bion would have deemed negative containment; instead of detoxifying his anxieties, she allows them to grow into a nameless dread, or rather a dread going by the name of the Babadook. (See Bion, pages 97-99.)

Bion’s containment theory is based on Klein’s idea of projective identification, which goes a step beyond a mere imagining that another embodies one’s projections, but involves actually manipulating the other into embodying those projections, making him manifest the projected traits. For Bion, projective identification between baby and mother is a primitive, preverbal form of communication.

Sam projects the terror of the Babadook onto his mother, hoping she’ll contain it, detoxify it, and send it back to him in a safe, purified form. She cannot do this, of course, because she has to process her own grief over the loss of Oskar, and she so far isn’t willing to face that pain. As a result, what she projects back to Sam is non-detoxified poison.

In containment theory, the contained (Sam’s fear) is given–via projective identification–to the container (Amelia) to be processed. [Incidentally, the contained is given a masculine, phallic symbolism, and the container is given a feminine, yonic symbolism.] In the film, the container is symbolized by such things as bowls of soup (which contain shards of glass–i.e., negative containment), a bathtub of warm water to contain both her and Sam (something she’d foolishly have them do in their clothes, implying an only foolishly illusory efficacy), and the bowl of worms and dirt (which are an example of the contained) given to the Babadook to feed on at the end of the film.

What Sam projects is the bad father, in the form of the Babadook; but there is a good father, too, with whom Sam would like to identify. Amelia naturally wants to reunite with this good man, too, hence all the things of his that she has in the basement to remind her of him: a photo of her and him, his violin, a hat and coat of his (put up against a wall in a way that vaguely yet eerily reminds us of the hat and coat of the Babadook–i.e., her hallucination in the police station), etc.

Oskar was a musician; Sam is a magician. The boy’s way of identifying with the good father he’s never known is to become, in a verbal sense, at least, as close an approximation to him as he can. After all, music is magic, if performed well.

Sam’s watching of DVDs of a magician gives him a kind of substitute good father to identify with. The boy enjoys mimicking the magician’s words in his act of identification with him. Note, however, how the magic can be “wondrous,” but also “very treacherous”: these good and bad sides of the magic suggests a linking of the good and bad father that Sam isn’t yet ready to accept.

Similarly, Amelia, in her increasing mental breakdown, is trying to revive feelings of the good Oskar. She has their photo…though the Babadook blotches his face in the picture, and she tries to blame the marring of it on Sam. Elsewhere, she takes Oskar’s violin with her to bed, holding it as if it were a teddy bear (in her stress and inability to accept the loss of Oskar, her holding of the violin is thus a regression to a less stressful, childlike state); Sam wants to climb in bed with her for a cuddle, but he gets too close to the violin, and she barks at him: “Leave it!”

On another occasion, she imagines going into the basement (symbol of the unconscious) and finding Oskar there. They embrace and kiss: this is an obvious case of dream as wish fulfillment. But then, he tells her that they can all be together only if she brings him (i.e., kills) “the boy,” a substitution for Sam’s name that she hates. In this request, she sees the horrific combination of good and bad Oskar that she must accept as urgently as Sam must.

The horrific contemplation of killing Sam, as a would-be sacrifice to bring Oskar back to her, is actually an unconscious wish of hers. Deep down, though it’s terrifying to contemplate, is a wish she’s had that it was unborn Sam who died in that car crash instead of Oskar. The obvious guilt, shame, and anxiety that such a wish would give her has forced her to repress it.

Whatever is repressed, however, always returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…in this case, in the form of the Babadook. It may be tempting to judge Amelia as a bad mother for having these awful feelings about Samuel, but we mustn’t judge her, for a mother is as human and fallible as anyone else. The loss of Oskar has been too heartbreaking for her to bear. Nonetheless, she must confront these dark feelings if she’s to heal.

Naturally, she tries to resist such a confrontation. Her blanket pulled over her head when trying to sleep, with the Babadook on the ceiling, symbolizes what Bion would have called a beta screen, an accumulation of unprocessed beta elements that walls up any entrance into the unconscious mind. Her locking of the doors and windows of her house can also symbolize this beta screen.

She can try to stop the Babadook from getting inside her skin, but of course she fails; it goes right in her mouth, and here begins her real descent into madness…and her abuse of little Samuel.

Since the Babadook represents the bad father and bad Oskar who–in her and Samuel’s minds–abandoned them by dying, his bad internal object entering her has turned her into Klein’s terrifying combined parent figure, the phallic mother who waves a phallic knife at the boy and hallucinates having stabbed him to death with it…another ghoulish wish-fulfillment for a frustrated mother.

She barks abuse at him, telling him to “eat shit” when he’s hungry: this represents a wish to project her own bad attributes (the contained) into him and make him a container of them (the stabbing hallucination also symbolizes such a wish to make the boy contain her rage, i.e., the knife is the phallic contained, and his bloody belly is the yonic container), so more negative containment.

When he, terrified at how vicious and psychotic she’s being, pees on the floor, it symbolizes another attempt to rid himself of bad internal objects, to project them outwards in the hopes that she’ll contain them for him; but, of course, she won’t, as her continued verbal abuse of him demonstrates. She even explicitly tells him she wishes it was he who died instead of Oskar. Now Samuel must try to eject the bad mother, which Amelia has become in her being possessed by the Babadook. He says she isn’t his mother, to which she growls insistently that she is.

In spite of her abusive rage, she is right to say she’s still his mother; for just as Samuel has split his father into good and bad internal objects, so is he splitting her into good and bad. She, too, has split Oskar into good and bad versions, the bad one being constantly projected and split-off, thrown into the external world.

Such splitting is the essence of what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), where persecutory anxiety results from a refusal to accept the split-off bad half. In order to heal, she and Samuel must go through the depressive position (D, whose depressive anxiety involves a saddening fear that one may have destroyed one’s good internal objects in the act of ejecting the bad ones), and reintegrate the good and bad parts of Oskar, realizing they’re two aspects of the same man. There must be reparation.

Since they, up to this point, still won’t accept such a reunification, they continue to reject the split-off parts of their internal object of Oskar, and those projected parts have become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of the Oskar-parts of Amelia’s and Samuel’s inner selves.

Agitating beta elements, symbolized by bugs–found on her shoulder, in a wall in her house, and crawling on her lap when she’s driving–are brushed away, kept from being processed and detoxified (recall her beta screen, a kind of wall of accumulated beta elements–symbolized by the blanket over her head and her locking of her doors and windows).

With half-closed eyes, sleepless Amelia watches TV, seeing images of such things as ants (as symbolic of beta elements as are the bugs in her house and car), a cartoon of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (like the Babadook inside her), and a scene from ‘The Drop of Water,’ from Bava‘s Black Sabbath. [If you read my analysis of that film, you’ll note my…admittedly eccentric…interpretation of the meaning of the female protagonist’s theft of the dead old woman’s ring as a symbolic lesbian rape, for which the old woman’s ghost is getting revenge. As far as I’m concerned, this is the closest to there being anything homosexual going on in The Babadook, as opposed to the Tumblr joke that the Babadook is gay.] Just as the ghost of the old woman terrorizes the young thief of the ring, so does the ghost of bad Oskar terrorize Amelia for not dealing with her grief.

Though Samuel has been splitting his parents into good and bad internal objects (PS), he comes to realize the need to integrate the good and bad (D), and to conceptualize of Amelia and Oskar each as a mixture of good and bad. Amelia is still at the height of her madness, though, being possessed of the Babadook (symbolically having introjected Samuel’s feared bad father), and so the boy must get her to release the bad introjection.

She gets into the basement, and he knocks her unconscious and ties her up, holding her against the floor. Teeming with rage when he’s on top of her, she reaches up and tries to strangle him. Now that she has (unsuccessfully) been containing the Babadook, Samuel himself must be the container of her rage, the contained. He caresses her cheek, thus soothing her and allowing her to vomit out the blackness of the Babadook. Her rage has been contained and detoxified.

Now that she no longer poses a danger to him, she can be untied. Still, she hasn’t fully confronted her grief. Samuel quotes the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The demon pulls him up the stairs and into Amelia’s bedroom; now, instead of wishing death on the boy, she wants to save him.

She goes up there to confront the Babadook. She sees Oskar again, the good version of the man of whom the Babadook represents the bad. These two must be reintegrated for her as they have been for Samuel, a shift from the paranoid-schizoid (PS) to the depressive (D) position. She must confront her loss in order to make this shift.

She sees Oskar’s head sliced in two, a representation of his death in the car accident. She must confront this pain; she must feel it to heal it.

Now she must vent out her rage. Screaming threats that she’ll kill the trespassing Babadook if it ever tries to hurt her son, Amelia forces the demon to be the container of her rage. In making it do so, she finally makes it back off and collapse. It then goes into the basement.

After this ordeal, things start to settle down for Amelia and Samuel. They can finally start to live a reasonably healthy life, for they are now facing their demons. The pain doesn’t all go away in one fell swoop, though; in fact, it never completely goes away…but now at least it is bearable, manageable. The management of pain is an ongoing, lifelong process, an oscillation back and forth between the paranoid splitting and melancholy reintegration that Bion expressed as PS << >> D.

This bearability of trauma and grief is the result of what is sometimes called doing one’s Shadow work. It’s painful facing one’s trauma, but it’s indispensable if one wants to heal…and as I said above, this facing of trauma and grief is what The Babadook is all about.

When Amelia goes into the basement (symbol of the unconscious, recall) to feed the bowl of worms and dirt to the Babadook, it frightens her with its furious growling, making her almost fall back. She is able to contain it, though, with her soothing words, “It’s alright…shh.” The fear and terror never disappear altogether, but they can be managed…contained, detoxified, and sent back, transformed from beta into alpha elements.

Now that she and Samuel have learned how to manage their pain, they have the power needed to cope with life, and she can finally give him a birthday party, for he has turned seven. He does a new magic trick for her, she is delighted and wide-eyed, and she can wish him a happy birthday with all the fullness of a mother’s love.

Analysis of ‘Black Christmas’

Black Christmas is a 1974 Canadian horror film produced and directed by Bob Clark and written by A. Roy Moore. It was inspired by the urban legend “the babysitter and the man upstairs” and a series of murders that took place in the Westmount neighbourhood of MontrealQuebec. The film stars Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, and John Saxon, with Doug McGrath, Marian Waldman, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, and Nick Mancuso (and Clark) providing the voice(s) of Billy (with cameraman Bert Dunk providing Billy’s POV).

Black Christmas is considered an early example of a slasher film, having established most, if not all, of the genre’s tropes (murderer’s POV, holiday setting, final girl), as well as being a major influence on such films as John Carpenter‘s Halloween. While it initially got a mixed critical reception, the film’s reputation has improved over the years, and it is now considered by many to be one of the best horror films ever made. Two markedly inferior remakes were done in 2006 and 2019.

Here are some quotes:

“You’re a real gold-plated whore, Mother, you know that?” –Barb, on the phone

“Let me lick ya, you pretty piggy cunt!” –Billy, on the phone

Clare: [about the obscene phone call] Could that really be just one person?
Barb: No, Clare, it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call.

“Why don’t you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it, that will give you a charge?” –Barb, to Billy on the phone

“I’ll stick my tongue up your pretty pussy!” –Billy, to Barb on the phone

“You fucking creep!” –Barb, to Billy on the phone

“I’m going to kill you.” –Billy, to Barb on the phone

[after the mysterious caller hangs up] Clare: I really don’t think you should provoke somebody like that, Barb.
Barb: Oh listen, this guy is minor league. In the city, I get two of those a day.
Clare: Well, maybe. But you know that town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago.
Barb: Darling, you can’t rape a townie.

“Speaking of professional virgins, here we have the Queen of Vaudeville circa 1891.” –Barb, upon seeing that Mrs. Mac is coming inside the house

“Well, thank you, girls. It’s lovely, really…” [muttering] “Got about as much use for this as I do a chastity belt.” –Mrs. Mac, on her nightgown gift

“Little baby bunting/Daddy’s went a-hunting/Gonna fetch a rabbit skin to wrap his baby Agnes in.” –Billy, softly singing after having killed Clare

“I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys.” –Mr. Harrison, of Clare

“These broads would hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get up there!” –Mrs. Mac, of her sorority girls

“Oh goddammit, Claude, you little prick!” –Mrs. Mac, of her cat

“You know, for a public servant I think your attitude really sucks!” –Barb, to Sergeant Nash

Sergeant Nash: Excuse me? Could you give me the number at the sorority house? Please?
Barb: Yeah, sure. It’s, ah… Fellatio 20880. Fellatio. It’s a new exchange, FE.
Sergeant Nash: That’s a new one on me. How do you spell it?
Barb: Capital F, E, little L, L-A, T-I-O.
Sergeant Nash: Thanks.
Barb: Don’t mention it.

“Nash, you stupid son of a bitch! You’ve got a big goddamn mouth!” –Chris

“Filthy Billy, I know what you did, nasty Billy!” –Billy

Barb: Did you know, this is a very little known fact, but… did you know that there’s a certain species of turtle that… there’s a certain species of turtle that can screw for three days without stopping. You don’t believe me, do you? Well, I-I mean, how could I make something like that up?
Mrs. Mac: Ah, Barb, dear, ah, I-I-I-ah…
Barb: No, really! They just… three days, 24 hours a day, wha-voom! Wha-voom! Wha-voom! Can you believe that, three days? I’m lucky if I get three minutes! Do you know how I know this? Because I went down to the zoo and I watched them. It was very boring. Well actually, um, I, uh, didn’t stay for the whole three days, I went over and I watched the zebras, because they only take thirty seconds! Premature ejaculation!

“Alligators come through the gate, but goodbye leg if ya get away late! Lollies love to pop!” –Mrs. Mac, singing as she packs her suitcase

“Nash, I don’t think you could pick your nose without written instructions.” –Lt. Fuller

Billy: [referring to her potential abortion] Just like having a wart removed.
Jess: Oh, my God!

Sergeant Nash: [after Sergeant Nash calls the sorority house] Who is this?
Jess: It’s Jess.
Sergeant Nash: Ah, Ms. Bradford, eh, this is Sergeant Nash. Are you the only one in the house?
Jess: No. Phyl and Barb are upstairs asleep. Why?
Sergeant Nash: All right. Now, I want you to do exactly what I tell you without asking any questions, okay? [Jess tries to ask something] No, no, no… no questions. Now, just put the phone back on the hook, walk to the front door and leave the house.
Jess: What’s wrong?
Sergeant Nash: Please, Ms. Bradford, please just do as I tell you.
Jess: Okay. I’ll get Phyl and Barb.
Sergeant Nash: No, no, no! Don’t do that, Jess… Jess, the caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house!

While Christmas is supposed to be a time of love and togetherness, in this film, feelings of alienation permeate the story from beginning to end. The alienation felt by Billy, the killer, is just the tip of the iceberg on these cold December nights.

At the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house on 6 Belmont Street, the sorority sisters are having a Christmas party. Jessica Bradford (Hussey–in Lee Hays’s 1976 novelization, Jess’s surname is Bradley) answers the phone; the mother of Barbara Coard (Kidder–Barbara Pollard in the novelization) wants to talk to her. At the end of the phone conversation, Barb is frowning (she’s so mad at her mom, she calls her “a gold-plated whore”); she’s been drinking, as usual, and she hopes that Jess, Phyllis Carlson (Martin–Phyllis Thompson in the novelization), and Clare Harrison (Griffin) will go skiing with her, in compensation for what Barb knows will be a minimal family get-together this Christmas. Her drinking, as is that of Mrs. MacHenry (Waldman), the sorority mother, is a manic defence against facing her unhappiness.

Phyll’s boyfriend, Patrick (played by Michael Rapport), will be annoyed that she won’t be available for him if she goes skiing with Barb. He’ll have to dress up as Santa for a charity gift-giving for poor kids, whom he calls “little bastards.” Already we have a sense of alienation at a time when alienation should be the last thing on people’s minds.

Speaking of swearing Santas, Billy is an evil Santa Claus of sorts, when we consider how he gets into the house by climbing up a trellis along the side of the house and entering the attic, which parallels Santa’s going down the chimney–as much a surprise breaking-and-entering of a house, when you come to think about it, as Billy’s is. He will proceed to go down from the attic to hide in the shadows of the second floor (little kids never see Santa coming, either), to make obscene phone calls to the girls, and then–instead of giving gifts–he’ll take lives.

Indeed, obscenity permeates this film as much as alienation does. We hear a consistently recurring array of four-letter words throughout the film, especially during the first of Billy’s phone calls, during which he tells of his wish to perform cunnilingus on and receive fellatio from the girls. They listen to his grunting voice with fear…and fascination–this latter feeling especially being Barb’s.

Indeed, tipsy Barb trivializes the words of the “pervert,” saying “he’s expanded his act,” which is “not bad,” and he’s “the fastest tongue in the West.” When sweet, virginal Clare warns bad-girl Barb not to provoke the man Jess calls “the Moaner,” telling of a recent rape in the town, Barb shows Clare a similar contempt. (Actually, Barb is getting back at Clare for not going skiing with her.)

This preoccupation with obscenity during the holiday season, presumed to be a time of innocent pleasures, is symbolic of the moral obscenity that Christmas in the modern world has become. Largely no longer a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ (which in turn was a Christianizing of the pagan Winter Solstice, a celebration of the rebirth of the sun god), Christmas has become a consumerist excuse to go shopping and spend a lot of money so capitalists can make big profits. And with capitalism comes alienation.

We see the problem of Christmas consumerism dramatized in Mrs. Mac’s entry into the sorority house lugging all those gifts. As it says in the novelization, “Shopping! Last minute shopping. Serves me right for waiting. Oh, my God, the people who are buyers for these shops must take tacky lessons. I’ve never seen such garbage in all my life. And the prices . . .” What’s more, she is a middle-aged version of Barb: she’s a foul-mouthed alcoholic the source of whose emotional problems, I suspect (as I also do of Barb), is a lack of sexual fulfillment.

The constant use of sexual language–especially by a middle-aged woman who presumably was raised never to use dirty words, back in the years when the prudish Production Code didn’t allow their use in movies–suggests repressed sexual frustration that resurfaces in the conscious mind in the substitutive form of obscene language. Mrs. Mac, I’m guessing, has been a widow for many years, and her lax attitude towards the carefree sex life of the sorority sisters is a projection of her own wish to be sexual.

In the alienated modern world, the physical contact of promiscuous sex (or at least the wish for it) is a perverse compensation for the kind of close human connection (physical or not) that should exist between people, especially at Christmastime. For lonely, alienated people like Barb and Mrs. Mac, drinking and indulgence in obscene language are substitutes for that needed contact: drinking can be linked to an oral fixation connected with a wish to give or receive oral sex (recall Barb’s fascination with Billy’s obscene phone call, as well as her telling dim-witted Sergeant Nash [McGrath] that the “new exchange” includes the word fellatio).

Note in this connection what WRD Fairbairn had to say about pleasure-seeking (e.g. drinking, sex) as a poor substitute for the nurturing of loving relationships with other people, what he called ‘object-relationships.’ Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

Furthermore, while Christmas is the time of the Virgin Birth, the perverse world of Black Christmas doesn’t have holy virgins, but bitter, potty-mouthed ones. If they aren’t literal virgins, they are at least symbolic ones in the form of sexually frustrated women and Billy, a presumed incel. On the other side of the coin, Jess, pregnant with the child of her pianist boyfriend, Peter Smythe (Dullea), would rather have an abortion than give birth…during the time of the celebration of the Holy Birth.

So what we have in Black Christmas is a dialectical clash of tradition with modernity: sorority sisters who used to be all virgins are now in sexual relationships with young men, much to the chagrin of Clare’s conservative father, Mr. Harrison (played by James Edmond); families that used to be close are torn apart; only a year after Roe vs. Wade, when huge masses of people still regarded abortion as murder, Jess wants to terminate her pregnancy; people frequently curse when before they only sparingly did, which was not so long before the 1970s; and finally, men’s dominance over women is beginning to weaken.

Indeed, just as Barb and Mrs. Mac are female doubles, so are Billy and Peter male doubles. Apart from the suspicion that Peter is the murderer, both young men are a kind of inadequate male who tries to compensate for his weaknesses by controlling women–Billy by terrorizing and murdering them, and Peter by posturing as a patriarch whose ‘proposal’ of marriage to Jess is essentially a command.

Jess bravely refuses to be imprisoned in marriage and motherhood, a sacrificing of her own dreams of a career. Peter claims she can still do anything she wants while married and having the baby, but we all know how disingenuous such a claim is: motherhood and career are on a collision course, and she would far likelier acquiesce to the domestic duties than Peter would become a househusband.

As I said above, Billy’s way of compensating for his inadequacies, that is, his way of dominating women, is to terrorize and kill them. When Barb refuses to be intimidated by his obscene phone call, the insecure male resorts to threatening to kill her, which of course he does later on. But first, he goes after Clare, Mrs. Mac, and a school girl whose body is found in a park during a community search of the area one cold night.

The way Clare and Mrs. Mac are killed suggests a grisly parody of Christmas decorations: Clare’s head is wrapped up in plastic, like a gift Billy has given himself; and Mrs. Mac has a hook in her neck, making her head into a kind of ball ornament hung on a Christmas tree.

The murder weapon used on sleeping Barb is an interesting one: the horn of a unicorn statuette is stabbed into her gut. The choice of the unicorn reinforces my theory that she is, if not a virgin, at least scarcely sexually experienced, “lucky if [she can] get three minutes” of sex. We all know of the association of unicorns with women’s virginity, which in this film lacks its traditional association with maidenly virtue, but rather is something to be embarrassed about in our modern-day world.

The symbolism of the unicorn, as used in this movie, goes beyond its mere association with a maiden’s virginity, though. Recall that Black Christmas, as opposed to the traditional, sweet and innocent white Christmas, subverts and perverts the wholesome ideas associated with the holiday. Such is the way the unicorn symbolism is used here; but to understand this subversion, we must first explore the old traditions about unicorns, virgins, and the Christian faith.

There’s an old medieval tradition about entrapping a unicorn by using a naked virgin. The unicorn lies in her lap, and hunters catch it, kill it, and use its horn and body for their medicinal properties. Here, the unicorn represents Christ by lying with its horn in the lap of the virgin, which in turn represents the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary; and the hunters who kill it represent, on the one hand, the Romans who crucified Christ, and on the other hand the Church in which one takes Communion (i.e., using the unicorn’s medicinal properties).

In our Black Christmas perversion of this tradition, however, the unicorn isn’t the Saviour, but rather the murder weapon. Here, Jesus doesn’t save; He kills. The unicorn’s horn doesn’t lie in the virgin’s lap; it’s stabbed into her gut. The virgin isn’t Holy Mary, the Mother of God, but sexually frustrated, dirty-minded drinker Barb, who’d have drunk all the wine Christ made from water at the wedding at Cana. And the hunters are neither the Romans nor the Holy Church, but rather they are represented in deeply disturbed Billy.

It’s interesting in this connection to note how Billy, our Satanic Santa, says, “Agnes, it’s me, Billy” while holding the unicorn statuette that otherwise would represent Christ. Apart from the fact that Agnes is a Christian saint, the name sounds like a pun on agnus, as in Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In this film’s perversion of Christian traditions, the only thing Billy is taking away are human lives from the world…and in this scene, he’s taking away sinner Barb’s life while a chorus of children are singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (“O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”) on the front porch of the sorority house.

…and who is Agnes, and what are all those voices Billy is using in his creepy phone calls? On one level, one could imagine him to be possessed of demons, this Satan Santa, as contrasted with the spirit of St. Nicholas. (In the novelization, Billy frequently says he wishes someone could stop him from killing, as if devils are forcing him to do it.) On another level, he seems to be impersonating the voices of his parents and little sister, Agnes, as if repeatedly reliving a childhood trauma.

Now, does this idea that Billy could be demonically possessed contradict the idea that he is reliving a childhood trauma by mimicking the voices of his family members? I don’t think so…not if one sees possession as symbolic of his family members as internal objects haunting his thoughts every day and night.

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

Did Billy, as an already dangerously disturbed little boy, sexually abuse his sister Agnes? Did he kill her? Is the former crime what he’s alluding to by saying, “Don’t tell them what we did,” and “pretty Agnes”? Is he tormented with guilt for what he did, yet–having his family’s object relations as his social blueprint, as it were, for all subsequent relationships–compelled to repeat the same violence with all other females, they being, in his mind, recurring versions of Agnes?

To ease his guilt and torment, he uses regression to a childish state as a defence mechanism, hence the babyish voice he often uses. Since Christmas is a time especially appealing to children, and a time we all nostalgically look back on to remember our own happy childhoods, Black Christmas uses Billy’s childish regression as yet another perverse parody of such childlike feelings.

Peter, as a double of Billy, is also showing signs of mental instability. The very thought of Jess aborting their baby is enough to shake him up so badly that he completely blows it at his piano performance in front of his stony-faced judges. Does he hit pretty much every key wrong, or is he playing an atonal piece, like one of those of Schoenberg, yet he and the judges know the piece so well that they can hear the difference between the exact pitches of the expected dissonant notes and tone clusters and Peter’s many mistakes? Either way, those discords–combined with Peter’s later smashing of the piano and the bansheelike, scraping, creepy piano effects of the soundtrack, heard whenever the killer is near–reinforce not only the doubling of Peter and Billy, but also the fear that Peter could indeed be the killer.

Though Peter is obviously no virgin, his fear of Jess getting an abortion means the danger, in his mind, of him failing to be a procreator. In traditional, patriarchal societies, it is considered as shameful for a man as it is for a woman to be childless. Since Peter has failed to create music, his failure to create a child will be emotionally disastrous for him. Such a failure will be tantamount to him remaining a virgin.

I suspect Sergeant Nash is a virgin, too. His slow-wittedness and insensitivity to people’s urgent needs will make him totally unappealing to women…and even the average virgin knows what fellatio means! His assumption that missing Clare is shacked up with a boyfriend–so offensive to Chris (Hindle), her actual boyfriend, who doesn’t want her conservative father to think of him as the kind of man who wants to corrupt her–is a projection of his own wish to get laid once in a while.

Mrs. Mac, as I’ve noted above, is at least symbolically a virgin. The nightgown her sorority sisters buy her, in its hideousness, is as useful to her “as…a chastity belt,” that is, it’s of no use to her at all. She doesn’t need a chastity belt; she already isn’t getting any, and as with Barb, her dirty mouth is a reaction formation against her never doing anything dirty in bed.

Now, this lack of, or far too scanted, sexual connection is symbolic of a scanted human connection, a lack of connection that’s particularly conspicuous during the holiday season, when human connection is supposed to be at its height…or so society would condition us to think. This symbolism brings us back to the theme of alienation I brought up at the beginning of this analysis.

Telephone calls are a perfect symbol of how mutually alienated people try to connect. One talks with someone from far away. Communicating face-to-face is far better. As Jess says in the novelization, telephone calls are “so damned impersonal”…and what is Billy’s choice method of communication?

This sense of social distancing vitiates the holiday spirit, but in Black Christmas, togetherness is also subverted and made perverse. Billy’s imitating of the voices of his family members is a perverse parody of the notion of family togetherness, when we know he’s up there all alone in the attic. If those voices are meant to indicate demonic possession, we have in that a perversion of the notion of the Christmas spirit; just as Barb’s and Mrs. Mac’s alcoholism can be seen as such a perversion, for as Ian Anderson once sang, “That Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”

This perverse sublation of togetherness and alienation is at its height when we consider how those obscene phone calls are coming from the house. So close, yet so far away. Nash’s blunt telling Jess what we, the audience, have known from the beginning, is considered one of the scariest moments in horror movie history. It’s so scary because we empathize with Jess’s shock at learning not only the proximity of the killer, but also presuming that her boyfriend–in the house at the time of a previous call, which supposedly has eliminated him as a suspect–is in fact the killer.

We the audience feel this empathy for her in a film in which all the characters generally show far too little empathy for each other during a season that’s supposed to inspire a maximum of love. Phyll tearfully empathizes with Mr. Harrison over his fears of what’s happened to Clare; Chris empathizes, too. Even Nash shows some sympathy for Jess when he clumsily tells her not to go upstairs to see if Phyll and Barb are OK (they’re dead). But none of this empathy is anywhere near enough.

We never properly see Billy’s face: we see only a shadowy silhouette, Seventies hair, and his piercing eyes (when he raises the unicorn to stab Barb, and when his one eye is seen through the door crack). The moviemakers wanted us to know as little about Billy as possible, to make him scarier. This lack of knowing who he is reinforces the sense of alienation; yet the innovative use of POV shots, making us see the world through the killer’s eyes, perversely makes us…almost…sympathize with him. Again, in this presentation of Billy, we see the perverse sublation of empathy for and alienation from him.

Such a sublation is indicative of our own alienated world: we aren’t connected to each other, so we don’t know each other as we should. We’d prefer to know each other perversely, though, ‘in the Biblical sense,’ as Barb and Mrs. Mac do. (Is Mrs. Mac’s affected charm on Mr. Harrison, apart from her wish not to get into trouble for her laxity with the sorority girls, used out of a hope that he’ll pursue her, while her giving him the finger is from her frustration with his conservative prudery and lack of interest in her, his unwillingness to respond to her ‘come hither’ signals and cues?)

Billy chases Jess into the basement, the dialectical opposite of the attic. She’ll be the killer of an innocent this time (Peter may be a sexist jerk, but he isn’t Billy), with that phallic poker in her hands. Indeed, as an early example of a final girl in an early slasher film, Jess is quite a prototypical movie feminist. She not only bravely confronts (and vanquishes he whom she believes to be) the killer, she has earlier defied Peter in refusing to back down from getting an abortion, as well as refusing to give up her career dreams just to be a mother.

So, in being Jess’s antifeminist adversary, Peter is in this additional way a double of misogynist Billy. Yet, in being in the basement and killing Peter, rather than Billy descending from the attic and killing girls, Jess is dialectically playing the killer’s role.

We can understand the dialectical relationship between the attic and the basement when we consider what they, as well as the ground and second floors, represent psychoanalytically in terms of Fairbairn’s endo-psychic personality structure. The ground and second floor of the sorority sisters’ house, being where, of course, the vast majority of the socializing happens, represents Fairbairn’s notion of the Central Ego (roughly equivalent to Freud‘s ego), linked to the Ideal Object (“ideal” because people seeking relationships with real people in the real world, as opposed to the loved and hated objects of one’s imagination, is the desired…and therefore healthy…form of object-seeking).

In contrast, the attic represents Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (roughly equivalent to Freud’s id), linked to the Exciting Object (e.g., movie stars, sports heroes, rock and pop stars, porn stars, etc.). Billy’s pathological libido targets sorority girls with obscene phone calls, then after killing Clare and Mrs. Mac, he brings their bodies (his Exciting Objects) up into the attic. He kills them because he wishes to possess them. Were the police not to intervene, Billy would bring the bodies of Barb and Phyll up into the attic, too…as I imagine he’ll do with Jess, assuming he really kills her in the end.

The basement represents Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego (vaguely comparable to Freud’s harshly judgemental superego), linked to the Rejecting Object, or Internal Saboteur. Jess, assuming Peter to be the killer, not only rejects his advances towards her in the basement, but also bashes his brains in with the poker.

Though opposites (i.e., the top and bottom of the house), the attic and basement share a dialectical unity in terms of their symbolism as unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships between the self and other, or the subject and object. One isn’t supposed to relate to others in a fantasy world of imagination, be they such desirable objects as, say, pornographic models and actors/actresses–Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object–or the hated people of one’s imagination–Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object or Internal Saboteur. We’re supposed to relate to real people in the real world–Central Ego/Ideal Object.

Though most of the action of the film takes place on the ground and second floors, crucial plot points occur in the attic and basement: Billy’s entry into the house through the attic window, his hiding up there, his ‘decorating’ of the attic with Clare’s and Mrs. Mac’s corpses, his temper tantrum up there as a vivid indication of how disturbed he truly is, and Jess’s climactic confrontation with Peter in the basement. These crucial scenes thus direct the plot and character development of the film.

The secondary importance of the scenes on the ground and second floors, as much as they make up the majority of the film, symbolize how much lesser is the functioning of the Central Ego and Ideal Object, which is indicative of the extent to which alienation pervades the story. Indeed, we see a lot of alienation even on those two floors.

And this brings us to the final scenes of the film. The police arrive at the house, and a doctor sedates Jess. Since it’s assumed that Peter is the killer, the police see no need to search anywhere else in the house. Phyll’s and Barb’s bodies are taken away, and Lt. Fuller (Saxon) leaves with most of the other police to talk to news reporters at the police station, leaving only one policeman to stand guard outside, on the front porch of the house.

Now that he knows that a murderer has killed a few sorority girls, Mr. Harrison so fears the worst for Clare that he goes into shock. The doctor and Chris have to take him out of the house, Chris trying to reassure him that there’s hope that his daughter may still be alive.

This leaves sleeping, sedated Jess all alone on the second floor of the house. The camera slowly moves over to Clare’s room, then up to the attic, where Billy still is, and where his first two victims’ bodies remain as ghoulish ‘Christmas decorations’ to be seen through the window.

Whatever Jess’s fate ends up being, her being left alone in the house with the still-undiscovered killer, who ends the film with that ominous telephone ringing, perfectly sums up the alienation that the film so unflinchingly expresses. This black Christmas is one that’s dialectically opposed to the white Christmas that’s supposed to be what the holiday’s all about: estrangement instead of togetherness, frustrated lust instead of fulfilled love, fear and terror instead of “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” modern despair instead of the familiar comforts of tradition, and death instead of birth. Such alienation and loneliness add a chilling depth to the horror of the film.

Silent night, evil night.

Analysis of ‘Rear Window’

Rear Window is a 1954 crime/suspense thriller produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by John Michael Hayes, based on the 1942 short story, “It Had to Be Murder,” by Cornell Woolrich. The film stars James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter, with Raymond Burr and Wendell Corey.

It is considered not only one of Hitchcock’s best films, but it is also considered one of the best films of all time, placing at #42 on the AFI‘s 100 Years…100 Movies list (it placed #48 on the tenth anniversary edition). It ranked #14 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list.

Here are some quotes:

“The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the work house…They got no windows in the work house. You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you’re always watchin’ worth a red-hot poker? Oh dear, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of home-spun philosophy?” –Stella

[Discussing Lisa Fremont] Jeff: No, she’s just not the girl for me.
Stella: Yeah, she’s only perfect.
Jeff: She’s too perfect. She’s too talented, she’s too beautiful. She’s too sophisticated. She’s too everything but what I want.
Stella: Is, um, what you want something you can discuss?
Jeff: Well, it’s very simple, Stella. She belongs to that rarified atmosphere of Park Avenue, you know. Expensive restaurants, literary cocktail parties…Can you imagine her tramping around the world with a camera bum who never has more than a week’s salary in the bank? If she was only ordinary.
Stella: You ever gonna get married?
Jeff: I’ll probably get married one of these days, and when I do, it’s gonna be to someone who thinks of life not just as a new dress, and a lobster dinner, the latest scandal. I need a woman who’s willing…to go anywhere and do anything and love it. So the honest thing for me to do is just to call the whole thing off and let her find somebody else.
Stella: Yeah, I can hear you now. Get out of my life. You’re a perfectly wonderful woman – you’re too good for me.

Jeff: Did you ever get shot at? Did you ever get run over? Did you ever get sandbagged at night because somebody got unfavorable publicity from your camera? Did you ever…those high-heels, they’ll be great in the jungle and the nylons and those six ounce lingerie…
Lisa: Three!
Jeff: All right. Three! They’ll make a big hit in Finland just before you freeze to death.
Lisa: Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to wear the proper clothes.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Well try and find a raincoat in Brazil, even when it isn’t raining. Lisa. In this job, you carry one suitcase, your home is the available transportation. You don’t sleep very much, you bathe less, and sometimes the food that you eat is made from things that you couldn’t even look at when they’re alive.
Lisa: Jeff, you don’t have to be deliberately repulsive just to impress me I’m wrong.
Jeff: Deliberately repulsive! I’m just trying to make it sound good. You just have to face it, Lisa, you’re not meant for that kind of a life. Few people are.
Lisa: You’re too stubborn to argue with.
Jeff: I’m not stubborn – I’m just truthful.

Lisa[preparing to leave] I’m in love with you. I don’t care what you do for a living. I’d just like to be part of it somehow. It’s deflating to find out the only way I can be part of it is to take out a subscription to your magazine. I guess I’m not the girl I thought I was.
Jeff: There’s nothing wrong with you, Lisa. You’ve got this town in the palm of your hand.
Lisa: Not quite it seems. Goodbye, Jeff. [She turns and starts for the doorway]
Jeff: You mean, ‘Good night.’
Lisa: I mean what I said.
Jeff: Well, Lisa, couldn’t we just, uh, couldn’t we just keep things status quo?
Lisa: Without any future?
Jeff: Well, when am I gonna see you again?
Lisa: Not for a long time…[pause]…at least not until tomorrow night.

Lisa: How far does a girl have to go before you notice her?
Jeff: Well if she’s pretty enough, she doesn’t have to go anywhere. She just has to be.
Lisa: Well, ain’t I? Pay attention to me.
Jeff: Well, I’m, I’m not exactly on the other side of the room.
Lisa: Your mind is. When I want a man, I want all of you.

Jeff: I’ve seen it through that window. I’ve seen bickering and family quarrels and mysterious trips at night, knives and saws and ropes, and now since last evening, not a sign of the wife. All right, now you tell me where she is…
Lisa: Maybe he’s leaving his wife, I don’t know, I don’t care. Lots of people have knives and saws and ropes around their houses and lots of men don’t speak to their wives all day. Lots of wives nag and men hate them and trouble starts. But very very few of them end up in murder if that’s what you’re thinking.
Jeff: It’s pretty hard for you to keep away from that word isn’t it?
Lisa: You could see all that he did, couldn’t you?
Jeff: Of course, I…
Lisa: You could see because the shades were up and, and he walked along the corridor and the street and the back yard. Oh Jeff, do you think a murderer would let you see all that? That he wouldn’t pull the shades down and hide behind them?
Jeff: Just where he’s being clever. He’s being nonchalant about things…
Lisa: Oh, and that’s where you’re not being clever. A murderer would never parade his crime in front of an open window.
Jeff: Why not?
Lisa[pointing to the newlyweds’ window] Why, for all you know, there’s probably something a lot more sinister going on behind those windows.
Jeff: Where? Oh, no comment.

Lt. Doyle: Didn’t see the killing or the body. How do you know there was a murder?
Jeff: Because everything this fellow’s done has been suspicious: trips at night in the rain, knives, saws, trunks with rope, and now this wife that isn’t there anymore.
Lt. Doyle: I admit it all has a mysterious sound. Could be any number of things – murder’s the least possible.
Jeff: Well, don’t tell me he’s an unemployed magician amusing the neighborhood with his sleight-of-hand. Now don’t tell me that.
Lt. Doyle: It’s too obvious, a stupid way to commit murder in full view of fifty windows? Then sit over there smoking a cigar, waiting for the police to come and pick him up?
Jeff: Officer, go do your duty. Go pick him up!
Lt. Doyle: Jeff, you’ve got a lot to learn about homicide. Why, morons have committed murder so shrewdly it’s taken a hundred trained police minds to catch them. That salesman wouldn’t just knock his wife off after dinner and toss her in the trunk and put her in storage.
Jeff: I’ll bet it’s been done.
Lt. Doyle: Most everything’s been done – under panic. This is a thousand to one shot. He’s still sitting around the apartment. That man’s not panicked.
Jeff: You think I made all this up, huh?

Jeff: [Jeff watching Lt. Doyle staring at Miss Torso dancing in her room] How’s your wife?

Lisa: It doesn’t make sense to me…Women aren’t that unpredictable…A woman has a favorite handbag and it always hangs on her bedpost where she can get at it easily. And then all of a sudden, she goes away on a trip and leaves it behind. Why?
Jeff: Because she didn’t know she was going on a trip. And where she’s going she wouldn’t need the handbag.
Lisa: Yes, but only her husband would know that. And that jewelry. Women don’t keep their jewelry in a purse, getting all twisted and scratched and tangled up.
Jeff: Well, do they hide it in their husbands’ clothes?
Lisa: They do not. And they don’t leave it behind either. Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take makeup, perfume, and jewelry…That’s basic equipment. And you don’t leave it behind in your husband’s drawer in your favorite handbag.

Jeff: You know, much as I hate to give Thomas J. Doyle too much credit, he might have gotten a hold of something when he said that was pretty private stuff going on out there. I wonder if it is ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do you, do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove that he didn’t commit a crime?
Lisa: I’m not much on rear-window ethics.
Jeff: Of course, they can do the same thing to me. Watch me like a bug under a glass if they want to.
Lisa: Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see.
Jeff: What?
Lisa: You and me with long faces, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a little bit happier that the poor woman is alive and well. Whatever happened to that old saying: ‘Love thy neighbor’?
Jeff: You know, I think I’ll start reviving that tomorrow. I’ll begin with ‘Miss Torso.’
Lisa: Not if I have to move in to an apartment across the way and do the Dance of the Seven Veils every hour. [She lowers the blinds] The show’s over for tonight. [She picks up her overnight kit of lingerie] Preview of coming attractions.

Thorwald[entering Jeff’s apartment] What do you want from me? Your friend, the girl, could have turned me in. Why didn’t she? What is it you want? A lot of money? I don’t have any money. Say something. Say something. Tell me what you want! Can you get me that ring back?
Jeff: No!
Thorwald: Tell her to bring it back.
Jeff: I can’t. The police have it by now.

The obvious, overarching theme of the film is voyeurism, a recurring trait of Hitchcock’s camera, especially in films like Psycho. In Rear Window, though, this voyeurism is taken to the hilt.

But what is the point of voyeurism here? One is fascinated with other people, how good they look or whatever interesting things they’re doing that catch our attention.

This leads to an understanding of Lacan‘s thoughts on desire, which he said “is the desire of the Other,” that is, a desire to be what the other desires, or to be recognized by other people.

Now, there’s watching those whom we desire, then there’s being watched by others, which causes anxiety, something Lacan regarded as linked with desire. Lacan said that our anxieties spring from not knowing what others want–“the sensation of the desire of the Other…Anxiety is the feeling of the over-proximity of the desire of the Other.”

What both of these emotions have in common (in the Lacanian sense) is the preoccupation that the subject has for the object, or that the self has for the other. People gazing at other people–voyeurs–they’re people looking into metaphorical mirrors; for there is a dialectical unity between the self and other that I’ve explored before.

One desires to be what the other desires, to be as desirable to the other as one desires this other. Such is the feeling all men have for the provocatively dancingMiss Torso” (Georgine Darcy, whose mother suggested, by the way, before she got the part in Rear Window, that she become a stripper for a “fast buck”!). Since she moves her booty around by a huge, open window so all her neighbours, like Mr. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Stewart), can enjoy the show, it’s safe to assume that she, at least unconsciously, wants to be as desired as she desires the company of male admirers (i.e., all those men she dates…while her beau is in the army!)

Then there’s anxiety when one is confronted with the other. Mr. Thorwald (Burr) takes a look around the rear windows of his neighbours just in case any of them is curious about what he’s doing with Mrs. Thorwald. Similarly, Jeff quickly rolls his wheelchair back into the dark whenever Mr. Thorwald looks into his window. When Thorwald confronts Jeff in the dark in his apartment at the end, he asks the voyeur in the wheelchair, “What do you want from me?”

In Woolrich’s short story–in which discussion of the neighbours (page one of the link provided above, in the first paragraph) is limited to the newlyweds and their forgetting to turn off the lights when they leave home, a lonely widow who inspires pity in the first-person narrator, and Mr. Thorwald–there are several examples of Thorwald making sweeping gazes of the entire community of rear windows, from one side to the other. This surveying is a vivid example of anxiety confronting the desires of others far too close to oneself.

And what are the desires of Jeff, the voyeur who is far too curious about the goings-on of the Thorwalds? To know his desires, we must go into his background. He is a professional photographer (i.e., his very job is seeing people and events and taking pictures of them…he was a voyeur of sorts long before he broke his leg). He has been stuck in that wheelchair in that boring apartment with nothing to do, for the past six weeks.

The breaking of his leg is a symbolic castration, a lack giving rise to his desire for something to relieve his boredom, and Thorwald has given him that relief. His beautiful, sophisticated, and fashion-conscious girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Kelly), would love to marry Jeff, but he’s afraid of commitment, using stories of the danger and discomfort of his job as a traveling photographer (Has he made these stories up?) as excuses to deter her from pressuring him to marry her.

…And here’s where his notion of Thorwald’s killing of his wife comes from, in my interpretation. Jeff wants to project his distaste of marriage, and the guilt he feels over his fear of commitment, onto Thorwald. Whether or not Thorwald is actually guilty of uxoricide is irrelevant as far as Jeff’s psychology is concerned: it’s all about making himself feel less guilty about not wanting to marry Lisa.

So the neighbours on the side opposite to Jeff are metaphorical mirrors, each in different ways, of different aspects of Jeff’s personality. Miss Torso reflects his wish to have a flamboyantly sexy and beautiful lover, those aspects of Lisa that he likes; the newlyweds represent a part of him that would like to commit to Lisa; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) represents his fears of loneliness if he never marries; and the Thorwalds represent his wish to end his relationship with Lisa.

This mirroring is also an expression of feelings of empathy: Jeff feels sorry for Miss Lonelyhearts, and he can understand Mr. Thorwald’s unhappiness with his marriage, hence his projection of ill intent to his woman onto Thorwald (however repressed Jeff’s own ill intent towards Lisa may be). We, as an audience of voyeurs into his world and those of his neighbours, also feel empathy for Jeff whenever he feels a hard-to-reach itch, then share his relief when he finally scratches it.

Now, just as Thorwald has his anxieties over whatever Jeff could want from him, Jeff too has anxieties over what Lisa wants from him. What is Jeff supposed to be for her? A future husband? The loss of his freedom to travel the world taking photos terrifies him; Lisa as his wife would make him feel as grounded as Thorwald feels with his invalid, bedridden wife (See how the two relationships mirror each other.). Still, what heterosexual man in his right mind would ever refuse a woman of Grace Kelly’s beauty?

Pairings of characters are mirrors to each other. Lisa’s vanity mirrors Jeff’s narcissistic wish to continue being an adventurous, risk-taking, globe-trotting photographer. Thorwald’s apparent wish to knock off his wife reflects Jeff’s conflicted wish to avoid marriage with Lisa.

Elsewhere, Miss Torso’s desirability mirrors how desirable she finds so many men. The newlyweds reflect their passion to each other so intensely that they often have their window coverings down…on days so hot (symbolizing the heat of desire) that one always wants to keep one’s windows open. A piano-playing songwriter’s creativity (envied by Lisa), as well as the creativity of “Miss Hearing Aid,” the sculptress (Jesslyn Fax), reflects Jeff’s artistic talents as a photographer. And Miss Lonelyhearts’s fantasy dinner-date with an imaginary man looking back at her at her dinner table reflects the emptiness in her heart, her feeling of not even existing herself.

People are mirrors of each other in this film–a reflection of how there is much of the self in the other, and vice versa–hence all the gazing and voyeurism, representing a wish to connect with other people, WRD Fairbairn‘s object-seeking libido. That intoxicating shot of Grace Kelly’s face up close when we’re introduced to Lisa–we the audience want to be who Lisa desires, yet she desires smiling Jeff, and she gives him a kiss we’ve wanted to receive from her.

While Jeff eventually manages to get her and Stella (Ritter), the insurance company nurse, to believe his suspicions about Mr. Thorwald; his friend, a New York City Police detective named Tom Doyle (Corey), refuses to believe him until the end of the movie. I’m inclined to side with Doyle.

Though it’s assumed at the end that Thorwald is indeed guilty of murdering his wife (and of course he probably is), technically speaking, we see and hear nothing more than circumstantial evidence throughout the film. Mrs. Thorwald’s body is never produced, and we only assume that she never really went upstate on vacation. (Actually, there’s a scene–at night, when Jeff is sleeping–with Mr. Thorwald leaving his apartment with a woman: is this a mistress? The more natural interpretation is that this is simply Mrs. Thorwald.)

Whatever crime Thorwald confesses to is never explicitly stated as him having killed his wife; a detective at the end only tells Doyle that Thorwald will take them “on a tour of the East River,” which presumably will lead to finding his wife’s body (there’s incriminating evidence, which the dog was digging up in the flower bed, and is now in a hat box in Thorwald’s apartment; we never explicitly hear what it is), or it could refer to a different crime, one Jeff has known nothing about, but which could be what Thorwald has referred to by mentioning how Lisa could’ve turned him in, but didn’t.

Thorwald’s attempted murder of Jeff may be for either this suspicion of another crime, or for a fear that Jeff is going to blackmail him with something else (i.e., Jeff’s note about whatever Thorwald has “done with her,” and Jeff’s remark on the phone about Thorwald’s “late wife” could have been interpreted by the confused receiver of the note and phone call as a threat other than knowing about an uxoricide…perhaps a threat to kill his actually still-living wife). Thorwald could simply be a man with a nervous disposition, with as vivid an imagination as Jeff has for dreaming up threats against himself (making him all the more a mirror reflection of overly-imaginative Jeff!), and Thorwald’s resulting fear would be enough to drive him to want to kill Jeff.

Granted, my own devil’s-advocate, speculative reinterpretation of Thorwald’s motives is probably even more far-fetched than Jeff’s suspicions seem to Doyle, but my point is that–even allowing for Jeff to be perfectly correct about Thorwald–Jeff’s suspicions have less to do with him being right than they do (from the point of view of theme) with him projecting his wish to avoid marriage onto Thorwald. In fact, Thorwald’s attempted murder of Jeff turns projection into projective identification, which is a manipulation of the one on whom projections are hung into being the very embodiment of such projections…hence, Jeff’s suspicions become a self-fulfilling prophecy, goading Thorwald into being the very murderer Jeff has fantasized that he is.

What’s more, Lisa’s belief that Jeff is right about Thorwald stems in large part from her noticing how his wife has left the apartment without her handbag or jewellery; this, too, seems to be a projection of Lisa’s own preoccupation with having such things available to her at all times. Again, who knows what possible reason Mrs. Thorwald could have had for not taking them? Just because we don’t have an available alternative explanation doesn’t mean no such explanation can exist.

To return to the theme of desire, we should consider Lacan’s dictum that “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship,” meaning that feelings of romantic love between two people are an illusion, right from the beginning of courtship. Jeff can intuit this, so in spite of his physical attraction to Lisa, he knows their love will decay. Similarly, Stella knows such decay will apply to Miss Torso, who she says will “wind up fat, alcoholic, and miserable.”

We see the illusion of romance manifested among all the neighbours, in one form or another. Obviously, the romance died a long time ago (among other things, it seems) with the Thorwalds. The songwriter dreams up illusory expressions of love at the piano. The middle-aged couple that sleep outside show more affection to their dog than to each other. Miss Lonelyhearts is constantly frustrated in her efforts to find love (with her imaginary date, with the young man who attempts a sexual assault on her…and though her time in the songwriter’s apartment, listening to his new song, gives us hope for her, we have no guarantees things will work out for her afterwards).

Furthermore, Miss Torso is unfaithful to her short army boyfriend, yet she also has to fight off a lecherous date at her door. Doyle is married, yet he ogles Miss Torso, giving Jeff an opportunity to project his own fear of commitment onto the police lieutenant. Finally, even the newlyweds–whom we’ve assumed to be so happy and deliriously in love–have an argument when the wife realizes her husband has quit his job.

Oneself is afraid of losing the other, but one doesn’t want to be entangled with the other, either. Hence Jeff’s mixed feelings about Lisa, and whatever problems there have been with the Thorwalds.

This love/hate relationship we have with each other is a projection of the love/hate relationship we have with ourselves. As a man stuck in a wheelchair and unable to go outside, Jeff is dependant on others to give his life meaning…yet he’s afraid of commitment to Lisa! External, social alienation comes from inner, psychological fragmentation, which is symbolized by Jeff’s broken leg(s).

Rear Window may feature a murder, but the film in its essence is about relationships, the jolts of attraction and repulsion that exist between the sexes. Woolrich’s story, lacking the girlfriend for the protagonist/narrator, and without the variety of neighbours and their idiosyncrasies, is just about solving a murder that is proven to have happened.

Hitchcock’s film expands the murder case into a study of the dialectical paradoxes of human relationships: we attract and repel each other; we love and hate each other; we’re lonely, yet afraid of losing our free solitude; the self and other are dialectical reflections of each other, reflections expressed through mutual projection and introjection.

Speaking of dialectical paradoxes, another one is that between light and darkness, something exploited in Woolrich’s story, too. This opposition is sublated in the climax when Thorwald, trying to approach Jeff, is blinded by the flashes of Jeff’s camera. The villain emerges from the darkness only to be put in deeper darkness from the light of the flashes.

What makes Rear Window such a great film–in my opinion, for what that’s worth–is this interplay of unified opposites: love/hate, attraction/repulsion, self/other, loneliness/entanglement with others, and light/darkness. As I concluded in Un Chien Andalou, the union of opposites is a universal quality, and greatness in art comes from universality.

Analysis of ‘The Birds’

The Birds is a 1963 natural horror film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Evan Hunter, based on the horror short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and costars Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, and Suzanne Pleshette.

The film is so completely different from the short story that the only two things they have in common are the title and the premise of birds violently attacking people, the attacks being interrupted by pauses, rests of several hours each. Everything else–the setting, characters, and the incidents–are completely reworked to the point of the film being an utterly different story from du Maurier’s version.

In 2016, The Birds was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Here are some quotes:

Melanie: Have you ever seen so many seagulls? What do you suppose it is?
Mrs. MacGruder: Well, there must be a storm at sea. That can drive them inland, you know.

Mitch[deliberately mistaking Melanie for a sales clerk] I wonder if you could help me?
Melanie: Just what is it you’re looking for, sir?
Mitch: Lovebirds.
Melanie: Lovebirds, sir?
Mitch: Yes, I understand there are different varieties. Is that true?
Melanie: Oh yes, there are.
Mitch: Well, these are for my sister, for her birthday, see, and uh, as she’s only going to be eleven, I, I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative.
Melanie: I understand completely.
Mitch: At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof either.
Melanie: No, of course not.
Mitch: Do you happen to have a pair of birds that are just friendly?

Mitch: Doesn’t this make you feel awful… having all these poor little innocent creatures caged up like this?
Melanie: Well, we can’t just let them fly around the shop, you know.

Mitch: We met in court… I’ll rephrase it. I saw you in court… Don’t you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate-glass window?
Melanie: I didn’t break that window. What are you, a policeman?
Mitch: No, but your little prank did. The judge should have put you behind bars. I merely believe in the law, Miss Daniels… I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag. What do ya think of that?
Melanie: I think you’re a louse.
Mitch: I am.

Mitch: Well, small world…How do you know Annie?
Melanie: We went to school together – college…
Mitch: So you came up to see Annie, huh?
Melanie: Yes.
Mitch: I think you came up to see me.
Melanie: Now why would I want to see you of all people?
Mitch: I don’t know. You must have gone to a lot of trouble to find out who I was and where I lived.
Melanie: No, it was no trouble at all. I simply called my father’s newspaper. Besides, I was coming up anyway. I’ve already told you that.
Mitch: You really like me, huh?
Melanie: I loathe you. You have no manners, you’re arrogant, and conceited, and I wrote you a letter about it, in fact. But I tore it up.

“I’m neither poor nor innocent.” –Melanie

Annie[after birds attack the children at a party] That makes three times.
Melanie: Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it? The gull when I was in the boat yesterday. The one at Annie’s last night, and now…
Mitch: Last night? What do you mean?
Melanie: A gull smashed into Annie’s front door. Mitch – what’s happening?

“I wish I were a stronger person. I lost my husband four years ago, you know. It’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone. I’d love to be able to relax sometime.” –Lydia

“Oh Daddy, there were hundreds of them… Just now, not fifteen minutes ago… at the school… the birds didn’t attack until the children were outside the school… crows, I think… Oh, I don’t know, Daddy, is there a difference between crows and blackbirds?… I think these were crows, hundreds of them… Yes, they attacked the children. Attacked them!” –Melanie, on the phone

“Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.” –Mrs. Bundy

“It’s the end of the world.” –drunk

“I think we’re in real trouble. I don’t know how this started or why, but I know it’s here and we’d be crazy to ignore it… The bird war, the bird attack, plague – call it what you like. They’re amassing out there someplace and they’ll be back. You can count on it.” –Mitch

“Look at the gas, that man’s lighting a cigar!” –Melanie, as she sees a man lighting his cigar as gasoline is leaking around him

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” –mother in diner, to Melanie

Cathy: Mitch, can I bring the lovebirds in here?
Lydia: No!
Cathy: But Mom, they’re in a cage!
Lydia: They’re birds, aren’t they?
Mitch: Let’s leave them in the kitchen, huh, honey?

Cathy: Mitch, why are they doing this, the birds?
Mitch: We don’t know, honey.
Cathy: Why are they trying to kill people?
Mitch: I wish I could say.
Cathy: I-I’m sick, Melanie.

There is no apparent reason for birds of all kinds to be suddenly swooping down on and attacking people, pecking and clawing at them. I find the best way to find meaning in these attacks is to see them as symbolic of something else…a different attacker from the skies.

To determine what, or who, this other attacker could be, I recommend a reading of du Maurier’s short story. Hints can be found in such things as the different setting. In her story, the bird attacks occur not in California, but in England; they also occur not in the early 1960s, but just after WWII.

When one considers the destruction Nazi Germany’s bombings of England caused, as well as the trauma they caused the survivors, we can see how du Maurier’s The Birds can be seen as a near pun on the Blitz, and therefore also be symbolic of it.

So the birds, in her story and–by extension–Hitchcock’s film, can be seen to symbolize bomber planes. Nat Hocken, the farmer and protagonist of the short story, believes it’s the colder weather that’s making the birds so aggressive. Later on in the story, a farmer claims it’s “the Russians” who have somehow incited the birds to attack by poisoning them (page 9 from the above link). Mrs. Trigg, the wife of his boss, wonders if the cold weather is coming from Russia (page 4).

Given that du Maurier’s story takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War, and therefore at the beginning of the Cold War, we can now see what the colder weather and reference to Russians are hinting at: the attacking birds represent a paranoid fear of a Soviet invasion.

A few bird attacks on Nat, a WWII veteran, would trigger PTSD responses in him, making him fantasize about bird attacks happening all over England, symbolic of airstrikes. Since the story is essentially–though not exclusively–from his point of view (even though it isn’t a first-person narration), we can easily view the story as a hallucinatory fantasy in his mind.

With these insights from the short story, we can gain an understanding of what’s going on in the film. Hitchcock spoke of how the birds are getting revenge on man for taking nature for granted; instead of birds being caged, they force people to cage themselves in houses, restaurants, telephone booths, etc.

The changing of the setting to California (in the coastal town of Bodega Bay, about an hour-and-25-minute drive from San Francisco) is instructive in this regard of birds’ revenge on man. If their attacks symbolize aerial bombardments (kamikaze-like in the short story, with birds dying upon hitting the ground), we could see this revenge as symbolizing that of those countries the US had so far bombed: Japan and North Korea; also, there was the US-supported coup in Guatemala in 1954, which included air bombings of Guatemala City and the threat of a US invasion. The birds’ attacks thus can be said to symbolize a fear of other nations bombing the US in revenge for having been bombed.

This theme of revenge first appears right at about the beginning of the movie, when Mitch Brenner (Taylor) enters a pet store where birds are sold on the second floor, and pretends that he thinks Melanie Daniels (Hedren)–who has played a practical joke leading to a broken window and a legal case that he, a lawyer, knows of–works in the store. He plays this trick on her in retaliation for her practical joke, which caused such annoyance to those affected by it.

He asks her about buying a pair of lovebirds as a gift for his younger sister, eleven-year-old Cathy Brenner (Cartwright). Annoyed at the comeuppance she’s received, yet also finding him attractive, Melanie wants to spite Mitch by, on the one hand, delivering a pair of green lovebirds to his home personally, and on the other, writing a note to him that she hopes the birds would “help [his] personality”…though she tears up the letter.

It’s interesting in this connection to note that, for pretty much the remainder of the film, she is dressed in a distinctive green outfit. A green ‘bird’ is giving Mitch green birds. This ‘bird’ also played a practical joke resulting in a broken window, just like the many broken windows caused by the bird attacks, which have begun since her arrival, in that green outfit, in Bodega Bay. Indeed, a hysterical mother in a diner blames Melanie for bringing the bird attacks to the town.

So we shift from lovebirds to violent ones, suggesting a dialectical relationship between love and hostility. This dialectical tension is sublated in how Mitch and Melanie are themselves two lovebirds who, in spite of how annoyed they are with each other at first, are attracted to each other.

Film critic and historian Andrew Sarris noted how complacent and self-absorbed the main characters are: Mitch, Melanie, Annie, and Lydia. Such self-absorption and egotism suggest the effects of alienation in a capitalist society, one about to be attacked in symbolic revenge for the attacks of imperialism on other countries. One manifestation of contradiction in dialectics is that of attack vs. counterattack, or revenge; another such manifestation is action vs. passivity, or resting. In the short story, Nat speculates that the birds attack at high tide (thesis), and at low tide (antithesis), the birds rest (page 12 of the above link).

The first major bird attack and the climactic last one are on Melanie (the bird nips at Mitch’s fingers and ankle at the very end are so brief as not to count for much). This is her karma–birds attacking a bird, the dialectic of attack vs. counterattack.

Another thing to remember about Melanie is that she is a bourgeois. Her father owns a newspaper, and she drives into Bodega Bay wearing a luxurious fur coat over that green outfit. So as the deliverer of the green lovebirds to Mitch and Cathy, Melanie–as an embodiment of capitalism and a personification of the birds–is symbolically bringing the avian aerial bombardment on the town. This linking of capitalism with aerial bombing is brought to you courtesy of imperialism. The hysterical mother in the diner is right to blame Melanie for all the mayhem.

The US bombed Japan and North Korea. Due to racist immigration policies, only limited numbers of Asians had been allowed to live in California by the time of the filming of The Birds. Melanie tells Mitch her family is sponsoring a Korean boy, but her charity won’t come near to compensating for the imperialist destruction she personifies, or the racism of the government that supports her class interests: those bird attacks are symbolic of, in part, an Asian, avian revenge.

This 1963 film came out at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came inches close to nuclear war. During the previous decade, there had been the McCarthyist Red Scare, the fear of which I dealt with in my analysis of The Manchurian Candidate.

The bird attacks can thus be seen to represent a repressed fear of a communist invasion, a revenge bombing for all the American imperialist bombings and coups that went on between the end of WWII and the early 60s. Now, what is repressed will return to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form: thus, bomber planes resurface in the conscious mind in the form of birds.

This is the fear of a socialist revenge on capitalism, a repressed fear, since bourgeois Hitchcock would never have seen it as such in his own film; he’d instead speak of caged birds getting revenge on man, their cagers and polluters of the air. Recall the amateur orinthologist, Mrs. Bundy (played by Ethel Griffies), speaking of how peaceful birds usually are, and that it’s man who makes life unliveable for all. Those who have a historical materialist understanding of the world can easily translate “man” as ‘the capitalist.’

Now, just as capitalism (personified here in rich bitch Melanie Daniels) destroys everything around it (symbolized in her arrival in Bodega Bay with the lovebirds, followed soon after by the bird attacks), so will capitalism ultimately crumble under its own contradictions, as Marx predicted in Capital, Vol. 3, in his discussion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (in the film, symbolized by the birds attacking Melanie, ‘the bird,’ at the end, almost killing her).

Another issue capitalism raises is alienation, shown symbolically in the film through the love/hate relationship of not only Mitch and Melanie, but also that of him and his mother (Tandy), who sabotaged his relationship with Annie Hayworth (Pleshette), his previous girlfriend. On top of this is Melanie’s estrangement from her mother, who ran off with another man.

To get back to Lydia, who disapproves also of her son’s budding relationship with Melanie and tries to sabotage it by telling him of a scandal involving Melanie falling naked into a fountain, his mother fears his commitment to a woman will result in him abandoning his mother. Mitch’s father died several years before the beginning of the film, so Lydia is afraid of having to carry on life alone.

This fear of loneliness, coupled with difficulties forming healthy relationships, is often a consequence of alienation under capitalism. Dialectically speaking, this clinging love of Lydia’s, which spoils Mitch’s love life, is another sublation of the film’s theme of the love/hate opposition, which is symbolized by the green lovebirds and Melanie in her green outfit on the one hand, and the attacking birds on the other.

One interesting contrast between the short story and the film is how, in the former, the first of the bird attacks happens on page two of the link provided above, but in the latter, we must wait about fifty minutes until a group of birds attacks children at Cathy’s birthday party. Prior to that attack, there’s only the one gull that hits Melanie on the head, the one that crashes into Annie’s front door, and the ominous hovering and resting of birds on several occasions throughout the film.

Because all that matters to imperialists is the controlling of other countries, the ruling class gives not a second of thought to how their bombs not only kill people, but also traumatize and disrupt the lives of the survivors. The lengthy process of developing the main characters, prior to the birds’ first major attacks, humanizes them for us in a way that the East Asian or, more recently, Middle Eastern victims of bombings are never humanized.

We see the traumatized reaction of Lydia when she sees her neighbour’s eyeless corpse, and we sympathize with her. We rarely contemplate the trauma of the surviving Japanese after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We imagine North Koreans to be neurotically servile to the ruling Kim family; we never consider how the North Koreans’ collective trauma, after the US bombed their whole country, drove them to look up to the strength of the Kims to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.

We see the terror of the children attacked by the birds at Cathy’s party, then later as they run from their school. We seldom consider, for example, the Yemeni children killed in a school bus after being hit by an airstrike. The only way many of us in the West can contemplate such horrors is if they’re inflicted on us, but with the bombs replaced with birds. Recall how, in the diner scene, the bird attacks are sometimes referred to as a “war” being waged against man.

Speaking of the diner scene, a tense discussion of the bird attacks there brings up responses as varied as the denials of Mrs. Bundy, the hysterics of the mother of two children, and a drunk Irishman proclaiming doomsday. His insistence on it being “the end of the world” makes me think of Biblical allusions other than his to Ezekiel, though.

Recall how this all more or less started not only with Melanie’s buying a pair of lovebirds, but also, just before her entrance into the pet store, hearing a boy on the sidewalk whistling at her, all while we hear the cawing of a huge flock of black birds in the sky; the boy’s and birds’ sounds are similar enough to suggest that the whistling may not have been from him, but may have actually been one of the birds screeching. It’s as if the birds were the ones making the pass at her.

These associations symbolically suggest the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4, who are sometimes identified as angels (i.e., winged ones!), looking down from heaven onto the daughters of men (e.g., Melanie) and wishing to mate with them. This unnatural love union led to the sinfulness of the world that led, in turn, to the Great Flood, another ending of the world. Here again we see the birds’ dialectical linking of love and violence. (Recall also how Nat, from the short story, theorized that the birds’ attacks coincided with the high tide, a rising of water that can be associated with the Flood.)

Another way the bird attacks suggest “the end of the world” is how they symbolize avenging angels, coming down to earth with Christ’s return and bringing about Armageddon (Matthew 16:27).

To return to the airstrike symbolism, a closer linking of the birds with bomber planes is suggested when–after a bird attacks a man at a gas station and causes him to drop the fuel dispenser of a gas pump, spilling gasoline all over the ground–a man parks his car by the spillage and, unaware of the gas, lights a cigar. His dropping of a match causes an explosion, killing him and causing a huge fire in the area. Bird-bombers, as it were, have caused explosions and a fire, however indirectly.

The disruption of people’s lives continues when we learn that Annie, Mitch’s original flame, has been killed by the birds, her corpse lying out by the stairs in front of her porch and traumatizing poor Cathy, who looks on from inside Annie’s house. We rarely think, however, of how bombings cause the same kind of suffering in those countries victimized by imperialism.

The self-absorption and narcissism we have seen in the main characters, especially in Melanie, have abated now that the terror of the birds has forced everyone to work together, help each other, and sympathize with each other. Since bourgeois Melanie–bringer of the lovebirds and, symbolically, the bird attacks–represents capitalism, her subsequent helpfulness should be seen to represent how capitalism sometimes tries to make accommodations to appease the working class, as was seen in the welfare state from 1945-1973. Nonetheless, accommodations to the labour aristocracy of the First World are never good enough to compensate for the wrongs done to the Third World.

Holed up in the Brenners’ house, Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy are safe for the moment. Cathy would like to bring her lovebirds into the living room, but Lydia won’t tolerate even those birds, as harmless as they are in their cage. These two birds are the dialectical opposite of the violent ones, though, so there’s no need to fear them.

No one knows why the birds are trying to kill people; neither, I imagine, do many of the poor people in the humble, provincial villages of the Third World understand why drones fly over them and kill innocent civilians there. Especially ignorant of the reasons for this violence against them are their children…just like Cathy.

More bird attacks come, even after Mitch’s efforts to board up the windows. Melanie goes up to the attic, and she experiences the climactic bird attack. Just as she’s learned “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag,” now she learns what it’s like to experience an extreme, life-threatening bird attack, just as eyeless Dan, Lydia’s neighbour, and Annie have. Luckily, though, she barely survives.

Imperialists sometimes treat their bombing atrocities as if they were as trivial as practical jokes, the way Hillary Clinton cackled at the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi. Sooner or later, though, all empires fall, as the American one is expected to do within the next ten to fifteen years or so. Just as birds attack Melanie, so will the ‘practical joker’ US/NATO one day get their comeuppance, perhaps in the form of a bombing.

If and when that happens, it truly will be the end of the world…the world of capitalism, that is, since many have speculated that the latest economic collapse could very well be the self-destruction of capitalism that Marx predicted, symbolized in the film by the near-fatal attack of birds on the green-suited bird.

After the attack on her, the birds are at rest. Now would be a good chance to get Melanie to a hospital in San Francisco; Mitch and the others would be putting themselves at great risk of being exposed in their car to another bird attack, but Melanie’s injuries are so severe that her life depends on getting her to a doctor.

As Mitch gets the car ready for Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy, he hears a radio newscast mentioning the possibility of involving the military. Naturally: the bird attacks symbolize a foreign aerial invasion. Indeed, as Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy get into the car, we see the tense enveloping of the area with resting birds. The sight of so many birds suggests the occupation of a foreign army…or air force. In this symbolic sense, Americans can get an inkling of what other countries must feel when they have US military bases in them.

So the ending of the film is an ambiguous one: how much longer will the bird attacks continue? The short story’s ending seems more pessimistic, as we find Nat smoking a cigarette–like a man condemned to a firing squad–as he awaits the next bird attack. He seems resigned to his fate. Many victims of US imperialism must feel the same resignation when confronted with endless air strikes.

The hope that Mitch et al must feel, as they drive Melanie to a San Francisco hospital, would symbolically reflect the Western hope of reviving from a vulnerability that other countries have felt, courtesy of the US/NATO alliance. As we witness the geopolitical shift from a unipolar world to a multipolar one, Westerners may find their hopes dwindling.

Analysis of ‘King Kong’

King Kong is a monster movie of which three versions have been made, in 1933, 1976, and 2005, the three that I’ll be focusing on. I’ll also make a brief reference or two to the giant ape’s other appearances in the franchise.

The 1933 film stars Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray, and Bruce Cabot, and was produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The 1976 remake stars Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange (in her first movie role), and Charles Grodin; it was produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin. The 2005 remake stars Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis (as Kong in motion capture, and as a cook on the ship); it was co-written, produced, and directed by Peter Jackson.

The 1976 version is considered the weakest of the three, but it offers a few interesting variations on the plot, including an oil company instead of a moviemaking crew searching for Skull Island, and Kong takes the blonde beauty (Dwan, played by Lange, instead of Ann Darrow, played by Wray and Watts) up to the top of the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. What’s interesting about these changes is how they develop the central theme of the story: exploitation, which I’ll elaborate on below.

Here are some quotes from all three films:

1933

And the Prophet said, “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.” –Old Arabian Proverb in the opening scenes of the film.

“It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” –Denham, to Darrow

“You won’t find that island on any chart. That was made by the skipper of a Norwegian barque…A canoe full of natives from this island was blown out to sea. When the barque picked them up, there was only one alive. He died before they reached port, but not before the skipper had pieced together a description of the island and got a fairly good idea of where it lies.” –Denham, on Skull Island

“I think Denham’s off his nut taking you ashore today…Denham’s such a fool for risks, there’s no telling what he might ask you to do for this picture….He’s crazy enough to try anything. When I think what might have happened today. If anything had happened to you…I’m scared for you. I’m sort of, well I’m scared of you too. Ann, uh, I, uh, uh, say, I guess I love you…Say, Ann, I don’t suppose, uh, I mean, well you don’t feel anything like that about me, do you?” –Jack Driscoll, to Ann

Denham: Wait a minute. What about Kong?
Driscoll: Well, what about him?
Denham: We came here to get a moving picture, and we’ve found something worth more than all the movies in the world.
Captain: What?!
Denham: We’ve got those gas bombs. If we can capture him alive.
Driscoll: Why, you’re crazy! Besides that, he’s on a cliff where a whole army couldn’t get at him.
Denham: Yeah, if he stays there. But we’ve got something he wants [looking at Ann].
Driscoll: Yep, something he won’t get again.

Denham: Well, the whole world will pay to see this.
Captain: No chains will ever hold that.
Denham: We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been King of his world. But we’ll teach him fear! We’re millionaires, boys, I’ll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: ‘Kong — the Eighth Wonder of the World!’

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here tonight to tell you a very strange story — a story so strange that no one will believe it — but, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we — my partners and I — have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible deaths. And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.” –Denham, to New York audience

“Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of chrome steel.” –Denham

Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

1976

“I’m Dwan. D-W-A-N, Dwan. That’s my name. You know, like Dawn, except that I switched two letters to make it more memorable.” –Dwan

“You know I had my horoscope done before I flew out to Hong Kong. And it said that I was going to cross over water and meet the biggest person in my life.” –Dwan

Fred Wilson[As the “Petrox Explorer” comes in sight of Skull Island] Did you ever wonder how Hernando Cortez felt when he discovered the Lost Treasure of the Incas?
Jack Prescott: That wasn’t Cortez; it was Pizarro. And he died flat broke.

“You Goddamn chauvinist pig ape!” –Dwan

Dwan: How can I become a star because of… because of someone who was stolen off that gorgeous island and locked up in that lousy oil tank?
Fred Wilson: It’s not someone! It’s an animal, a beast who tried to rape you.
Dwan: That’s not true. He risked his life to save me.
Fred Wilson: He tried to rape you, honey. And before you cry a lot, you should ask the natives on that island what they thought loosing Kong.
Jack Prescott: Actually, they’ll miss him a lot.
Fred Wilson: Like leprosy.
Jack Prescott: No, you’re dead wrong. He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their god.

“Lights! Camera! Kong!” –Wilson

Jack Prescott: Even an environmental rapist like you wouldn’t be asshole enough to destroy a unique new species of animal.
Fred Wilson: Bet me.

2005

“What are they going to do, sue me? They can get in line! I’m not gonna let ’em kill my film!” –Denham

“Goddammit, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!” –Denham

“Defeat is always momentary.” –Denham

Carl Denham: Ann, I’m telling you. You’re perfect. Look at you, you’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met. You’re gonna make ’em weep, Ann. You’re gonna break their hearts.
Ann Darrow: See, that’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Denham. I make people laugh, that’s what I do. Good luck with your picture.

“Actors. They travel the world, but all they ever see is a mirror.” –Jack Driscoll

Jimmy[Referring to Heart of DarknessWhy does Marlow keep going up the river? Why doesn’t he turn back?
Hayes: There’s a part of him that wants to, Jimmy. A part deep inside himself that sounds a warning. But there’s another part that needs to know. To defeat the thing which makes him afraid. “We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign, and no memories. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there, there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”
Jimmy: It’s not an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?
Hayes: No, Jimmy. It’s not.

“There’s only one creature capable of leaving a footprint that size… the Abominable Snowman.” –Lumpy (Serkis)

[recognizing Jimmy, he confiscates the gun] Hayes: Jesus, Jimmy!
Jimmy: Hey, I need that!
Hayes: I’m not giving you a gun!
Jimmy: You were younger than me when they gave you one!
Hayes: I was in the army. I was trained. I had a drill sergeant!
Jimmy: I wanna help bring her back.
Hayes[haltingly giving him the gun] Don’t make me regret it.

Jack Driscoll: I always knew you were nothing like the tough guy on the screen. I just never figured you for a coward.
Bruce Baxter: Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me, not in the real world. In the real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun, who’s lost his motivation. Be seein’ ya.

“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.” –Ann Darrow, to Kong

Preston: He was right. About there still being some mystery left in this world… and we can all have a piece of it… for the price of an admission ticket.
Jack Driscoll: That’s the thing you come to learn about Carl. His unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.

A lot of what is, or at least seems, implied in the 1933 film is made explicit in the 2005 remake. The film is set in what was the present, that is, the early 1930s, and therefore in the grip of the Great Depression. We are introduced to poor Ann Darrow (Wray), who is so hungry, she attempts to steal an apple; she’s also in old, rather shabby-looking clothes.

Moviemaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) doesn’t come off as overtly exploitative, since as one of the main characters, he’s more sympathetic; added to this, since people back in the 1930s were, on average, far less sensitive to the plight of animals in captivity, they were far less likely to judge Denham for wanting to capture Kong and put the giant ape on display for human entertainment. Nonetheless, he is an exploiter, even if the audience doesn’t think of him as much of one.

In the 2005 film, also set in the 1930s, the plight of the poor during the Great Depression is shoved in our faces right from the beginning. Darrow (Watts) is struggling as an out-of-work vaudeville performer, and Denham (Black) is a certified snake ready to take advantage of her desperation.

The 2005 remake also makes shrewd use of the old Al Jolson recording of “I’m Sitting On Top of the World,” which in the context of the film is an obvious reference to Kong on top of the Empire State Building, at the time the tallest building in the world. Because we hear the song during shots of the poor in New York City, its gaiety comes off as bittersweet, especially with the line, “Just like Humpty Dumpty, I’m going to fall.” Similarly, though Kong is regarded as a king on Skull Island, he’s a brutally exploited and ultimately victimized animal in the ‘civilized’ world, killed for being in a place he should never have been brought to.

Armstrong’s 1933 Denham is criticized only for being “reckless” and “crazy,” but he should be seen as every bit as exploitative as Black’s Denham of the 2005 version. He lures poor Ann onto the boat, knowing full well what potential danger he’s bringing her into, all just to give his audience what they want: a pretty girl as the love interest in his new movie.

Though he promises her “no funny business,” he also promises her “money and adventure and fame…the thrill of a lifetime,” with a big smile on his face, as if he were the director of a pornographic movie tricking a pretty young woman into participating in it by pretending he’s going to make her a Hollywood movie star. Even if the more innocent audiences of the 1930s couldn’t see it at the time, Denham, I insist, is an exploiter.

The Denham of the 2005 film is even more overtly exploitative, even tricking his screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Brody, as opposed to the sailor in the 1933 film who is played by Cabot), into staying on the boat–with a promise to pay him–until it sets sail and he’s stuck for the ride to Skull Island.

When they get there, they discover a tribe of natives getting ready to sacrifice a girl to Kong. Here we see the natives exploiting one of their own to appease their giant simian god; but then they see Ann, with her golden hair, and decide they’d rather exploit her, since Kong will surely like her better.

Ann, back on the boat with the crew, is abducted by the natives and given to Kong. It’s interesting here to compare the different Kongs of the three movies, and even with those of the others of the franchise. He is usually a giant ape with humanoid characteristics, that is, standing more or less upright and with some of the features of human understanding–greater intelligence, as well as his love of, and willingness to risk his life to protect, Ann; the exception to this is the 2005 Kong, who is more or less just a gigantic silverback gorilla with no anthropomorphic features. So, his capture and exploitation by Denham can be seen to represent that of animals, as in a zoo, or it can symbolize the exploitation of primitive man, as seen in human zoos.

The encroachment of Denham and the crew onto Skull Island–first to exploit it in order to make, as he originally hopes, a hit movie, and then to capture Kong and get rich using the giant gorilla as an entertaining spectacle–is easily seen as symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of the Third World. The 1976 remake–with the Petrox Oil Company hoping initially to secure vast untapped deposits of oil on Skull Island, then when realizing there’s minimal commercial oil there, Fred Wilson (Grodin), the remake’s equivalent of Denham, decides to capture and capitalize on Kong instead–is all the more a comment on capitalist exploitation.

The wall separating the tribe from the jungle represents that last remaining vestige of civilization, as against the wild, chaotic, vicious world of might makes right and everyone for himself. Such desperate circumstances are what the Third World is left with after having been so over-exploited by the imperialist First World, so we see Kong surrounded by hostility, always having to hate, and always having to fight.

Kong’s encountering of Ann/Dwan, her beauty symbolic of her gentleness, makes him see for the first time that kindness and love can exist. He is touched by her. The 2005 Ann does her vaudeville routine to entertain him, and instead of scowling, the big ape actually laughs. She looks out at the sunset/sunrise with him, and says, “Beautiful,” to teach him how to appreciate it.

In the 1976 film, Dwan–an anagram of Dawn–is the dawn of an understanding for Kong that love and beauty do exist. Her calling him a “chauvinist pig ape,” saying “eat me” gets him to empathize with her vulnerability. Kong in all three films represents the stereotypical brutish male, and Ann/Dwan is the stereotypical woman as civilizing influence on the male. Beauty truly kills the beast.

A parallel situation can be found in the 1933 film, in the relationship between first mate Jack Driscoll and Ann. At first, he speaks contemptuously of women, regarding them as a nuisance; but her beauty and sweetness tame the cool macho man in him, so that by the time they reach Skull Island, he’s in love with her. After he rescues her and they return to New York, they’re engaged.

To return to Kong, though, he still has to contend with the hostile world around him. In the 1933 film (and the 2005 remake), we see him fight off a Tyrannosaur (or T-rex-like predatory dinosaurs) and a pterodactyl (or giant bats) in his efforts to defend Ann and himself; and in the 1976 film, Kong fights with a giant–and fake-looking–giant snake.

It’s interesting in this connection to discuss Toho‘s King Kong vs. Godzilla, with Kong fighting another dinosaur-like monster. Since Godzilla, or Gojira, is a kaiju-sized reptile woken and empowered by nuclear radiation, he is symbolic of the horrors and destructiveness of nuclear war.

Kong (as representative of the people of the Third World) fighting Godzilla thus can be seen to symbolize the people of oppressed nations fighting off the imperialist threat of aerial bombardments, nuclear or non-nuclear. For not only did Japan suffer a thorough American bombing from both nuclear and non-nuclear bombs, but so did North Korea, though only with non-nuclear bombs, prompting the DPRK to create a nuclear weapons program to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.

Kong takes Ann up to a cliff where they will be safe from attack, at least for the moment. In his sexual curiosity, Kong can’t resist the temptation to see how beautiful Ann’s/Dwan’s body is without her clothes on, so he tries to peel some of them off. When the prudish Production Code was established a year after the 1933 film was made, scenes like this one, as well as many of the other violent scenes (Kong’s victims in his mouth, stomped on, or dropped to their deaths) were censored and removed later in the 1930s.

Some have accused King Kong of reinforcing racist attitudes, by suggesting that Kong represents the ‘brutish, uncivilized’ black male stereotype. This scene of him peeling off her clothes would thus seem to imply the ‘dangers’ of race-mixing. Now, the film’s creators insisted that they intended no allegorical meaning, let alone a racist one; I, however, would see Kong’s voyeuristic curiosity about Ann’s body as symbolic of how those in poor countries must wonder about the wealth of the West.

The scene of Kong fighting off the pterodactyl/giant bats on that cliff, as Driscoll rescues Ann, parallels the final scene of Kong fighting off airplanes on the top of the Empire State Building. Just as he literally dies at the end of the film, he metaphorically dies when Ann is taken away from him. This metaphorical death is emphasized in the 2005 remake, when we see Kong chained up on display in New York, with that despondent look on his face from having lost her.

This capturing of Kong, without the slightest regard for the ape’s feelings, this turning of a living being into a mere commodity so Denham can get rich, is the essence of capitalist exploitation. New markets have to be opened (displaying Kong) when others fail (Denham’s movie project; Petrox not finding any oil on Skull Island), in order to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This spectacle, symbolic of human zoos (for recall Kong’s anthropomorphism and superior intelligence by gorilla standards, as seen in all King Kong films other than Jackson’s), shows the one valid way we can compare him with black people: not as a racist caricature meant to promote xenophobia or to discourage interracial marriage, but as a pitiable victim of Western imperialism.

Here we can see an irony in naming the giant ape King Kong (in the 1976 film, he is even wearing a giant crown): as Denham says in his introduction to his New York audience: “He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity.” As a symbol of the conquered and oppressed people of the Third World, Kong has been degraded, lowered from his rightful place as ruler of his own destiny, to a merely entertaining spectacle for the white bourgeoisie.

While some might do a racist interpretation of Kong’s size, strength, and aggressiveness by seeing them as representative of the traits of blacks, something terrifying to white supremacists, I see something far more fundamentally threatening in these attributes of Kong. These can be attributed to the global proletariat, provided they all come together in solidarity and rise up against the ruling class. Together, we’re as big and as strong as Kong; but separate and alone, we’re small and weak.

Indeed, when Kong sees Ann again–by the stage in the 1933 film, and when he sees a tied-up lookalike of her in the 2005 remake–he is reminded of what he lacks, which gives rise to his desire to have her again. This drives him to break free from his chains and get her, an act symbolic of that proletarian revolution, since her beauty represents all the First World luxury the global poor lack.

Kong breaks out of the theatre and rampages through the streets of New York City, the centre of global capitalism. Indeed, when imperialism goes too far in oppressing the Third World, sometimes the oppressed fight back…and that’s what we see symbolized in Kong’s rampage.

The bourgeois producers of the 1933 film are scarcely sympathetic to Kong, so he is portrayed as bestial and terrifying; but much more sympathy is shown to him in the 1976 and 2005 remakes, so we see Dwan and Watts’s Ann in tears when the men in their flying machines shoot at the ape. Such growing compassion reflects the changing values of Western society towards a more loving and sensitive attitude to animals…and to the poor, of whom I see Kong as symbolic.

The World Trade Center had replaced the Empire State Building as the tallest in the world, hence the change in the 1976 remake. Kong’s ascent to the top of this pair of buildings with Dwan, especially when seen in light of my interpretation of him as representative of the people of the oppressed Third World (e.g., the Middle East), makes it irresistible for me to make associations of it with the 9/11 terrorist attacks (including when Kong makes a helicopter crash into the side of one of the buildings).

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the 1976 remake is in any way prophetic of 9/11, as many conspiracy theorists have imagined with other examples of pop culture, including this fanciful one of Supertramp‘s Breakfast in America album cover. I only mean, through my associating, that Kong’s ascent, and subsequent battle with the fighter helicopters (as with his ascending of the Empire State Building with Ann, and subsequent confrontation with the fighter planes), symbolizes the kind of struggle the global proletariat has always had with US imperialism, the 9/11 attacks being the anti-imperialists’ greatest counterattack in recent memory.

So, Kong is “sitting on top of the world,” and “like Humpty Dumpty,” he is “going to fall.” If we see his rampage through downtown New York City as symbolic of a retaliation of the oppressed poor of the world, and Kong’s ascent to the top of the Empire State Building/World Trade Center as symbolic of a proletarian victory, this victory is a short-lived one, like those of the Paris Commune or the Spanish Revolution of 1936.

Those airplanes/helicopters shooting at Kong and killing him are thus symbolic of the forces of reaction, who fight to restore the original status quo of class and imperialist oppression. The raining of bullets that bloody Kong’s body represent such reactionary violence as the executions of 20,000 Communards, Franco‘s fascist repression of the Spanish revolutionaries, the IDF shooting at unarmed Palestinian protestors, the napalming of Vietnam (recall the flamethrowers used against Kong in the 1976 remake), and the imperialist invasions of such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, all in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’

Kong’s fall and death can be seen to represent the fall and destruction of so many states and societies that have dared to defy imperialism. Denham declares that “It was beauty killed the beast,” but we don’t see him punished for the mayhem he is responsible for having provoked. Similarly, far too few of the soldiers of imperialism have ever been adequately punished for their war crimes. Bush has even been rehabilitated by the public…for being seen as not as bad as Trump!

As people mourn the almost 3,000 deaths from 9/11, they should also condemn the imperialism that provoked it. Similarly, those whose loved ones have been killed by Kong should demand justice from reckless, exploitative Denham. At least his equivalent in the 1976 film, Fred Wilson, is crushed under Kong’s foot. That’s some justice, at least.

If my imperialist allegorizing of King Kong seems far-fetched to you, Dear Reader, consider the explanation of the original film’s meaning, as given by one of its producers/directors. Cooper said that his movie represented how primitive societies were doomed under modern civilization. My allegory is only a slight variation on that comment: the Third World has been, and continues to be, doomed by the First…unless something can be done about it.

Analysis of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

I: Introduction and Quotes

The Manchurian Candidate is a 1962 political thriller directed by John Frankenheimer and written by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon. It stars Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, and Janet Leigh, with Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Henry Silva, Khigh Dhiegh, John McGiver, Leslie Parrish, and Douglas Henderson.

The story is about a communist conspiracy to use a sleeper agent, Raymond Shaw (Harvey), to assassinate the American president so his chosen vice-president, Senator John Iselin (Gregory)–a McCarthyite red-baiter in public, but secretly a communist–will become the new president, using the assassination to gain emergency, dictatorial powers, thus making the US into a socialist state. Put another way–and as a leftist myself, I must be blunt here–this film, as entertaining and thrilling as it is–is simply a piece of Cold War, anticommunist propaganda.

So, Dear Reader, you might ask why I would choose to write up an analysis of a film to whose ideology I’m so opposed? Because, apart from my ability to distance myself emotionally and ideologically from such a film in order to appreciate its artistic merits (good acting and writing, etc.), I find it interesting to do a kind of psychological study of the story, to unearth the unconscious motives of the writers (Axelrod and Condon). Since, apart from the McCarthyist paranoia of the time, there were very real capitalist conspiracies aimed at subverting and undoing the socialist states, to restore capitalism to them, I shall endeavour to prove that the writers were projecting their own conspiracy-mindedness onto the USSR and Maoist China, while little Freudian slips popping out here and there reveal who the real conspirators were and are.

Here are some quotes:

[Repeated line] “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” –said by Major Ben Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards)

“Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them – or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies’ garden club is in progress.” –Dr. Yen Lo

Chairlady: You will notice that I have told them they may smoke. I’ve allowed my people to have a little fun in the selection of bizarre tobacco substitutes… Are you enjoying your cigarette, Ed?
Ed Movole: Yes ma’am.
Dr. Yen Lo: Yak dung!… hope tastes good – like a cigarette should!

“The Queen of Diamonds is reminiscent in many ways of Raymond’s dearly loved and hated mother and is the second key to clear the mechanism for any other assignment.” –Dr. Yen Lo

[repeated line, to Raymond] “Why don’t you pass the time with a game of solitaire?” –Mrs. Iselin, etc.

“His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it’s been dry-cleaned.” –Dr. Yen Lo

Dr. Yen Lo: Attractive plant you have here.
Zilkov (Albert Paulsen): Thank you, doctor. It’s actually a rest home for wealthy alcoholics. We were able to purchase it three years ago. Except for this floor and the floor above it, which is sealed off for security purposes, the rest functions quite normally. In fact it’s one of the few Soviet operations in America that actually showed a profit at the end of the last fiscal year.
Dr. Yen Lo: Profit? Fiscal year? Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! Beware, my dear Zilkov, fires of capitalism are highly infectious. Soon you’ll be lending money out at interest. [Chuckles] You must try, Comrade Zilkov, to cultivate a sense of humor. There’s nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burdens of the day. [To Raymond] Tell me, Raymond, do you remember murdering Mavole and Lembeck?

“I have here a list of the names of 207 persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party… I demand an answer, Mr. Secretary. There will be no covering up, sir, no covering up. You are not going to get your hands on this list. And I deeply regret having to say…” –Senator Iselin

Mrs. Iselin: Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?
Sen. Iselin: Yeah. Just one, real, simple number that’d be easy for me to remember.[Mrs. Iselin watches Sen. Iselin pour Heinz Tomato Ketchup (with its “57 Varieties” slogan on its label) onto his dinner plate]
[Cut to Senate chamber]
Sen. Iselin: There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!

“Why don’t you go and take yourself a cab and go up to Central Park and go jump in the lake?” –Bartender, overheard by Raymond, who had just primed himself to receive a command by dealing the Queen of Diamonds

“I keep telling you not to think. You’re very, very good at a great many things, but thinking, hon’, just simply isn’t one of them. You just keep shouting “Point of Order, Point of Order” into the television cameras and I will handle the rest.” –Mrs. Iselin, to Senator Iselin

“What was Raymond doing with his hands?… How did the old ladies turn into Russians?… What were you doing there?” –Marco, to Chunjin, while they’re fighting

“My mother, Ben, is a terrible woman. A terrible, terrible woman… You know, Ben, it’s a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn’t always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her. But after what she did to Jocie and me, that’s when I began to hate her… Jocie Jordan – Senator Jordan’s daughter… Thomas Jordan’s daughter and Johnny Iselin’s step-son… Years later, I realized, Ben, that I am not very loveable… Some people are loveable and some people are not loveable. I am not loveable. Oh, but I was very loveable with Jocie. Ben, you can’t believe how loveable I was.” –Raymond Shaw

“I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselin-ism has come to stand for. I think if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now.” –Senator Thomas Jordan

“I’m gonna beat that vile, slandering, son-of-a-numbskull to a bloody pulp.” –Shaw, of Iselin

“So the red Queen is our baby. Well, take a look at this, kid… and while you’re looking, listen. This is me, Marco talking. Fifty-two red Queens and me are telling you – you know what we’re telling you? – it’s over. The links, the beautifully-conditioned links are smashed. They’re smashed as of now because we say so, because we say they ought to be smashed. We’re bustin’ up the joint, we’re tearin’ out all the wires, we’re bustin’ it up so good all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men will never put ol’ Raymond back together again. You don’t work anymore. That’s an order. Anybody invites you to a game of solitaire – you tell ’em: ‘Sorry, buster, the ball-game is over!'” –Marco, to Shaw

“You are to shoot the Presidential nominee through the head. And Johnny will rise gallantly to his feet and lift Ben Arthur’s body in his arms, stand in front of the microphones and begin to speak. The speech is short, but it’s the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on here and in Russia on and off for over eight years. I shall force someone to take the body away from him. And Johnny will leave those microphones and those cameras with blood all over him, fighting off anyone who tries to help him, defending America even if it means his own death, rallying a nation of television-viewers into hysteria to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy. Now this is very important. I want the nominee to be dead about two minutes after he begins his acceptance speech, depending on his reading time under pressure. You are to hit him right at the point that he finishes the phrase, ‘nor would I ask of any fellow American in defense of his freedom that which I would not gladly give myself – my life before my liberty.’ Is that absolutely clear?” –Mrs. Iselin, to Shaw

“I know you will never entirely comprehend this, Raymond, but you must believe I did not know it would be you. I served them. I fought for them. I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you. I told them to build me an assassin. I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers and they chose you because they thought it would bind me closer to them. [She places the sides of his face in her outstretched hands.] But now, we have come almost to the end. One last step. And then when I take power, they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously under-estimating me.” –Mrs. Iselin, to Shaw

“You couldn’t have stopped them, the army couldn’t have stopped them. So I had to.” –Shaw, to Marco, after killing his mother and Senator Iselin

“Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul, he freed himself at last and in the end, heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country. Raymond Shaw… Hell… Hell.” –Marco

II: A Brief but Necessary Digression

American paranoia about foreign governments trying to undo American “democracy” is not limited to communist conspiracies, of course, though in recent years such paranoia has been linked with communism. For the past four years, we’ve heard nonsense about Trump being a supposed puppet of Putin and the KGB (which hasn’t even existed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union!); now, Trump’s supporters are claiming that Biden is a puppet of Xi Jinping…a Manchurian candidate for our times, as ridiculous and unfounded an idea as the Russophobic one.

What is never acknowledged in any of this paranoia and red-baiting is that the US and its capitalist and fascist allies, past and present, have conspired to undo socialist governments all over the world. The rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 30s, bankrolled by capitalists, thwarted attempts at socialist revolution in such places as Italy and Spain, and helped Hitler rise to power.

Elsewhere, corrupt Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD and traitor, helped the imperialists in their attempt to tear apart the USSR from within, necessitating Stalin‘s purge. Trotsky, though paying lip-service to antifascism, was willing to work with fascists in his attempts to overthrow Stalin, who as General Secretary was so far from being an actual dictator that he attempted to resign from the position four times, but he couldn’t because the Central Committee knew he was doing such a good job, and because the Russian people loved him. Decades of treasonous acts in the USSR slowly helped weaken the system until its final dissolution in 1991.

Elsewhere and more recently, Juan Guaido is a kind of ‘Manchurian candidate’ for imperialists in Venezuela, as Añez was in Bolivia. Then there are the pressures being put on China now, from such collective ‘Manchurian candidates’ as the imperialist collaborators in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

During the Cold War, the CIA manipulated the media through such diverse methods as Operation Mockingbird, the diverting of left-leaning intellectuals away from Marxism-Leninism towards Trotskyism, postmodernism, abstract expressionist art, etc., and through the production of such anticommunist movies as The Manchurian Candidate.

III: Nothing Is As It Seems

The point I was trying to make in the last section is that what we’ve been taught was true during and since the Cold War (including this current cold war) has typically been far from the truth. This sense of deception pervades the film, too…in ways both intended and unintended.

The world is tricked into believing that Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw rescued his squad from the enemy during the Korean War. Two of his men were killed during the rescue…or so the story goes. Actually, Shaw killed the two men himself. We are also tricked into believing that his mother and stepfather, the Iselins, are ultra-patriotic, far right-wing fanatical anticommunists. Actually, it seems they’re working for the USSR and Maoist China, in full knowledge that Shaw is their sleeper agent.

I’m arguing that we can carry the film’s deception even further. The fear of communist ‘totalitarianism’ is, as I said above, a projection of the Western imperialist ambition to rule the world and impose predatory capitalism on all countries, whether they wish it or not. So, the narrative of a communist takeover attempt on the US is itself a deception. There are occasions even in the film itself that suggest that the narrators are, if only unconsciously and in a piecemeal fashion, willing to reveal this deception.

IV: The Korean War

To put the opening scene–of the American soldiers with the South Korean prostitutes in the brothel–in its proper context, we have to understand the true context of the origin of the South Korean state. It was never a democracy to be contrasted with the ‘totalitarian’ North. South Korea was always an American military occupation, part of the Cold War effort to contain communism.

The two Koreas are more than willing to have their nation reunited, but the West would want the North first to embrace capitalism, even if only in the way that Vietnam did. Continued military exercises between the American military and their South Korean collaborators have continued to build tension, justifying the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, since they’ll never allow the US to repeat their having bombed every inch of the North during the Korean War.

The procuring of South Korean prostitutes, something these conservative, modest people would never have normally allowed, for American soldiers was one of the many ways that the US forced their way on the Korean people. Now we see who is really trying to take over another country…and we see it right at the beginning of The Manchurian Candidate, the film’s first Freudian slip.

Chunjin (Silva) appears to be a collaborator with the Americans until their ambush by the communists. Later in the film–once we’ve understood him to have been working with the communists–he’s become Shaw’s personal servant, and here we see Chunjin as the stereotypical Asian: meek and subservient. (It’s also interesting to point out here that the two main Asian characters in the film–Chunjin and Dr. Yen Lo–aren’t played by Asian actors, but by American ones in Yellowface.) In his service to Shaw, we see no connection with the communist conspiracy; he doesn’t do anything to advance the Iselins’ cause. It’s as if he were just working for a bourgeois, just for the employment. This mundane employment of him is another Freudian slip.

V: Sleeping With the Enemy

The scene with the demonstration of Shaw’s abilities as a killer–that is, the first of the nightmare scenes–begins as a seminar of sorts on the topic of flowers, held by a group of daintily dressed old ladies. What strikes me about the ladies we see, be they the white ones of Marco’s dream or the black ones of the dream of Cpl. Melvin (Edwards), is how bourgeois they look, in stark contrast to the Soviets and Maoists who, we understand, are really in attendance. And bourgeois is bourgeois, regardless of sex or skin colour.

We’re to understand that these recurring nightmares are, as it were, video replays of the exact same incident that occurred with the communists; even the soldiers’ impression that they’re actually with the ladies discussing flowers, as a result of brainwashing, is a repeat of their experience as captives in Manchuria during the Korean War. Since when are dreams ever detail-for-detail repeats of past experiences from beginning to end? The only aspect of the dreams that seems dream-like is Shaw playing solitaire, but with no cards in his hands.

I would say instead that these dreams are just dreams, symbolic of a more general experience of being indoctrinated and transformed into mindless, remorseless killers–the unthinking American soldier who just obeys orders. The traumatic element of waking up screaming from a nightmare is just symbolic of soldiers’ PTSD. As far as the communists are concerned, their giving of orders to kill people, without mercy or pity, is a projection of ruthless imperialists onto their enemy. In any case, according to the Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Prisoners of War (pages 17 and 51), there is no evidence that ‘brainwashing’ results in the kinds of permanent radical changes in personality and loyalty of those subjected to it, as seen in The Manchurian Candidate.

As I see it, the ladies, symbolic of the imperialist bourgeoisie, are the ones giving the orders to kill. We are led to believe that they are the illusion, and that the communists are the real indoctrinators; I’d say it’s the other way around. Recall that the triggering of Shaw to obey orders unquestioningly is–upon playing a game of solitaire (a card game played alone, this solitude being symbolic of alienation), caused by the uncovering of the Queen of Diamonds–symbolic respectively of both maternal authority and capitalism.

That it’s also called the red Queen may, on the surface, suggest the red of socialism. It may also be the red of the Republican Party, of which the Iselins are more than likely members. And the maternal authority of the red Queen links well with Shaw’s domineering mother.

It’s important also to link the notions of sleeping, dreaming, brainwashing, and the unconscious. These soldiers are unaware of what they’re doing; they’re being hypnotized into a state of unquestioning obedience. In a larger sense, this is what happens to soldiers in general, regardless of their political affiliation or what country they’re loyal to: they’re transformed into unthinking, killing machines–unthinking, unconscious, unaware automatons.

And while we’re on the topic of the unconscious, Jung noted a tendency, called enantiodromia, in which an extreme conscious urge can provoke its dialectical opposite in the unconscious. This notion in turn leads us to a discussion of the dialectical unity of opposites. One tendency will phase into its diametrical opposite if pushed to an extreme, an idea I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros, the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail representing those meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, which is symbolized by the coiled length of the serpent’s body.

So, in the unconscious, in this dream of a switching back and forth between ladies discussing flowers and communists discussing the brainwashed American soldiers, we can switch from the notion of the former discussion being the illusion, and the latter being the real event, to the notion of the former being real and the latter being the illusion. We switch from one extreme opposite to the other, through Jung’s enantiodromia.

In other words, in a dream in which the writers of this story would have us believe that ladies discussing plants is really communists discussing their plot involving Shaw as their sleeper agent/assassin, I would argue that it’s the communist conspiracy that is only apparent, and that the bourgeois ladies, symbolic of imperialism, are the real conspirators whose schemes are projected onto the Soviets and Maoists. The ladies’ inclusion in the dream, however symbolic it may be, is therefore the key to understanding who the real manipulators are.

VI: A Few Capitalist Freudian Slips

One Freudian slip, in my interpretation, occurs when the chairwoman of the flower ladies talks about indulging the American soldiers’ smoking of cigarettes; then she turns into Dr. Yen Lo (Dhiegh), who jokes that this indulgence “tastes good, like a cigarette should,” a reference to a commercial slogan, something inherently capitalist. What seems to be a communist joking about capitalism should be seen as a capitalist promoting her economic ideology.

Later in the film, when Shaw is in a rest home the Soviets have purchased, supposedly healing from an injury from a hit-and-run incident, he has actually had the brainwashing mechanism activated, and he finds himself part of a conversation Yen Lo is having with the Soviet Zilkov (Albert Paulsen) over whom Shaw should kill to test if his brainwashing is still functional. In his brainwashed state, Shaw can be described as being in a dream, unconscious; therefore the sight of conversing communists can be deemed an illusion, an unconscious projection of American, imperialist plotters.

So when Zilkov tells Yen Lo that the purchasing of the rest home has yielded a profit, and the latter light-heartedly speaks of the evils of the profit motive, we can see this as yet another Freudian slip revealing capitalist, rather than communist, plotters (at least symbolically speaking); for communists would never speak of worker exploitation in a spirit of levity. To show further what a capitalist in communist clothing Yen Lo is, we learn that he leaves to go shopping at Macy’s [!].

VII: Who are the Oppressors, and Who are the Liberators?

It is assumed throughout the movie, as it was throughout the Cold War and up until this day by most people, that the Soviets and Maoists have just wanted power for its own sake. No reference is given anywhere in the film to all of the achievements of the communists in their efforts to eliminate famines (contrary to the lies that communists deliberately starved people), illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness, discrimination against women, etc. There’s no reference to their efforts at establishing universal healthcare, free education, the reduction of poverty, or the transformation of backward, peasant societies into modernized, industrialized superpowers in a matter of a few decades. Since the end of the Soviet era, we find a consistently large number of East European people nostalgic for the old socialist states, as well as having a love of Stalin.

On the other side of the coin, the US is portrayed as a bastion of freedom and democracy rather than a nation founded on the slavery of blacks, the genocide of the American aboriginals, and a class system that keeps the poor poor in spite of the lies of the “American Dream.” On the one hand, we have an African-American psychiatrist in the film (played by Joe Adams), but on the other, the supposedly leftist Mrs. Iselin mocks Chunjin’s name in the typically racist bourgeois fashion.

Hence, my charge that the accusation of a tyrannical nature in the communist characters is really a projection onto them from the real tyrants, the capitalists. An epidemic of homelessness can be seen in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Dublin. Such forms of hostile architecture as spikes put on the ground and bars on benches, to prevent the homeless from resting on private property, and laws against feeding them, are clear indications of the cruelties of capitalism; yet millions are still deluded that capitalism is freedom, and that socialism is oppression.

The liberal bias of this film would have us believe that the extreme right-wing thinking publicly displayed by the Iselins–a reaction formation against their, as we understand, private communism–is no more uncomfortable an extreme than socialism is, and in fact is also virtually identical with it. This is that old, pernicious horseshoe theory, as unfair to communism as it is inaccurate.

VIII: Shaw’s Relationship with his Mother

It is clear from the outset that Shaw is a sick man. His brainwashing, being made to follow orders that would be repellant to his nature, can be seen as symbolic of a kind of psychotic break with reality; for if one’s sense of reality were intact, one would never put a bullet in the head of one’s beloved wife or her father, and one would never ride in a taxi to Central Park and jump in the lake.

(Recall the link above [Part V] that concluded that there’s no evidence of brainwashing having a permanent effect on the psyche; in fact, the original Chinese use of brainwashingxinao, had a positive meaning, that of purifying the mind of unwholesome attitudes and beliefs, which the Maoists used with the intent to rid people of reactionary thinking…though not with the sense of forcefulness and manipulation that the anticommunist propagandists have accused the Maoists of.)

Shaw’s being triggered to obey on the sight of the Queen of Diamonds–associated with his “dearly loved and hated mother,” as Yen Lo says–shows how powerful Mrs. Iselin’s influence is on Raymond. His being made to play solitaire, as I mentioned above, is symbolic of his loneliness, for as we know, “Poor friendless, friendless Raymond” is “not loveable.” In Condon’s novel, Raymond’s father divorced Raymond’s mother (then committed suicide) long before the beginning of the story (when he was a twelve-year-old boy), so for many years, it is as if he never existed for Raymond at all.

Lacan‘s theory of psychosis, of which delusional paranoia is a manifestation, is based on something he called foreclosure, which is a disavowal of, and a refusal to acknowledge, the existence of one’s father. Shaw is so repudiating of his father that he won’t even acknowledge his stepfather, Senator Iselin, when Chunjin makes the faux pas of referring to Iselin as Shaw’s father.

According to Lacanian theory, the father is crucial in bringing a child out of the dyadic relationship with the mother (part of the narcissistic, mirror-like Imaginary Order) and into the broader society (the Non! du père forbids the child to indulge in an Oedipal, incestuous relationship with Mother, making him enter the Symbolic Order, a world of language, social customs, laws, culture, etc.). Any child who fails to make this transition from one-on-one with Mother to a wider relationship with friends is going to be in trouble. Such trouble is what we see in friendless Shaw.

Something that is only implied in the film (Mrs. Iselin giving Shaw a long kiss on the lips) is made explicit in the novel: her committing incest with him. Though partly motivated by sexual perversity (she had powerful Oedipal feelings for the father who sexually abused her as a child, and she transfers these feelings onto Shaw towards the end of the story because he reminds her of her father at this time), she seduces her son, in all likelihood, as an extension of her long-existing narcissistic wish to control him.

So the trauma of having an incestuous relationship with his mother has compounded the difficulties he has in his dyadic relationship with her, this trap that won’t allow him to have healthy relationships with other people. This makes it easier for her to control him.

Now, her total control over him raises a significant question: if she and Senator Iselin are secretly communists, how come Shaw doesn’t know anything about it (until the end of the movie), or even suspect it? Perhaps the novel, which I haven’t read, has a rationalization for keeping him in the dark for so long; but I don’t buy it, whatever it is. With Mother and son being so close [!] for so many years, something had to have slipped out at some point, exposing her hidden ideology.

We can suspend our disbelief that his brainwashing has made him unaware that he’s a sleeper agent (for this assassination mission is classified information), but not for his ignorance of his mother’s ‘communism.’ For if her right-wing blustering is just a charade, why does she do it with him in private places, too?

Her maternal dominance would be enough to make him not only keep her secret, but make him a secret ‘commie,’ too. Her dominance pervades his life in more than her physical presence: it’s symbolized in the Queen of Diamonds (symbol of a capitalist mother, in my interpretation), in the old ladies’ discussing flowers, and in his transference of his mother onto Jocelyn Jordan (Parrish), his sweetheart when she wears the card as a costume at the party meant to reunite her with him.

It’s interesting to contrast his relationship with his mother with that of Jocelyn. His mother is the whore, the bitch; Jocelyn is the sweet, nice girl, the angel. A similar submissiveness can be seen in Eugenie Rose (Leigh) and her relationship with Marco. This Madonna/Whore dichotomy is typical of the right-wing ideology of the writers, who would project the whore aspect onto communism, rather than admit that their sexism is a part of capitalism.

IX: The Assassination

It’s understood that, according to Dr. Yen Lo, the key to triggering Shaw’s obedience (as well as freeing him from it, as Marco will realize) lies in the Queen of Diamonds, symbol of his (as I’d have it) capitalist mother’s dominance. Marco presents a forced deck of all Queens of Diamonds to Shaw’s face in the hopes of freeing him from the brainwashing.

We don’t know if Marco’s plan works (Shaw is supposed to call him before the assassination of the president, but he doesn’t) until the very end, when Shaw, instead of pointing the rifle at the president, points it at the Iselins and kills them.

The plan has been to kill the president, followed by a short but rousing speech by Senator Iselin, giving him sympathy and emergency, dictatorial powers: those of a communist, or of a fascist?

If the Iselins really are communists, then the film’s lampooning of paranoid McCarthyism through clownish Senator Iselin is self-defeating, since the very premise of the film and novel is that there indeed were communists who had infiltrated American politics. The Manchurian Candidate intends both to satirize and to justify Joseph McCarthy, an odd thing to do.

On the other hand, contrast the obvious opulence of the Iselins (private jet, Mrs. Iselin’s pretty clothes, their beautiful home) with the far more modest possessions of even the top-ranking Soviets and Maoists, whose privileges over those of the proletariat were small compared to the privileges of the bourgeoisie over the poor in capitalist countries. Neither Mao nor Stalin ever wore finery or had scores of luxuries, but Mrs. Iselin does.

She leads me to another point: she says to her son that she’s worked and fought for the communists, and that once she and Johnny Iselin have taken power after the president’s assassination, she will get revenge on those very communists who have taken Raymond’s soul away from him, they who have also underestimated her. How has she, who wants revenge on them, worked for them? As Yezhov did? That is, pretending to be a communist while secretly working to undo them?

Such duplicity on her part makes perfect sense, given the nature of the film’s themes. At first, the Iselins seem like McCarthyist cartoon characters; then they seem–in a shocking plot twist–to be the very communists they accuse other American politicians of being; and finally, upon blaming the assassination of the president on the communists, the Iselins assume emergency, dictatorial powers and–in my interpretation–reveal themselves to be outright fascists!

Since the liberal writers of this story think, as many today do, too, that there is little if any difference between fascists and communists, it should matter little to them if the Iselins are on the far right or the far left. But to leftists like me, who know of the huge sacrifice that Stalin’s Red Army made in defeating the Nazis and saving the world from fascism (for the time being, at least), losing about 27 million Soviet lives in the process, the difference between fascism and communism is like that between night and day. Indeed, the only unity to be found between these opposing extremes is a dialectical one, that is, a struggle between the two, of the one passing into its opposite once the former has been defeated, like going past the ouroboros’ biting teeth over to its bitten tail.

When I write of the projection of conspiratorial intent from the capitalist West onto the socialist East, as I sense is in the creators of the novel and movie, I understand the use of this defence mechanism, to deflect guilt away from the writers, to be unconscious. The writers weren’t consciously aware of how they were denying their own guilt in slandering socialism with the attribution of imperialist vices. Ego psychology explains how much of ego defence is unconscious, and thus more effective when undetected (see also Mitchell and Black, page 26), since much of the ego itself is unconscious and preconscious.

This unconscious state is perfectly symbolized by the way Raymond doesn’t know of the crimes he’s committing. He imagines someone else has shot his wife and father-in-law, just as we assume that communists are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, rather than capitalists.

Analysis of ‘Black Sabbath’

I: Introduction and Quotes

Black Sabbath, or I tre volti della paura (“The Three Faces of Fear”), is a 1963 Italian horror film directed by Mario Bava and starring Boris Karloff. It’s an anthology of three horror stories loosely adapted (or so it claims in the Italian credits) from tales by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, ‘Ivan Chekhov,’ and Guy de Maupassant: “The Telephone” (‘F.G. Snyder,’ in all probability a pseudonym for Bava and fellow screenwriters Marcello Fondato and Alberto Bevilacqua; in any case, the story is vaguely influenced by “Le Horla,” by Maupassant), “The Wurdalak” (Tolstoy), and “The Drop of Water” (‘Chekhov,’ but probably based on a story by Franco Lucentini).

The American version of the film moved “The Drop of Water” to the front; I prefer the original Italian ordering, as it gives the film a kind of ABA, ternary form in terms of theme–statement, departure, return. Furthermore, the prudish Production Code, while waning, was still in effect enough to censor the American version of “The Telephone,” removing the hints at a lesbian relationship between Rosy and Mary, and at the fact that Rosy is a call girl, vengeful Frank being her former pimp.

Having seen people lined up at the local cinema to watch the movie back in the late 60s, the heavy metal pioneers decided to name themselves after it (this renaming in English being a fortuitous choice for them, since it bears no relation at all to the film; the renaming was just to lull movie-goers over to it after the success of Bava’s Black Sunday); the band marvelled at how people are willing to pay to be scared. As a result, the band invented heavy metal, with its doom-and-gloom sound, as a kind of rock version of horror movie music, in contrast to the ‘happier’ hard rock of the likes of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Van Halen.

The film didn’t do well commercially or critically on release, but it has since seen its reputation improve. “The Telephone” is an early Bava attempt at giallo in film.

Here are some quotes:

“Come closer, please! I’ve something to tell you. Ladies and gentlemen, how do you do? This is BLACK SABBATH. You are about to see three tales of terror… and the supernatural. I do hope you haven’t come alone. As you will see from one of our tales, vampires – wurdulaks – abound everywhere. Is that one, sitting behind you now? You can’t be too careful, you know. They look perfectly normal, and indeed they are. Except… they only drink the blood of those whom they love the best. Ah… there I go, talking shop again! Let’s get on with our first tale.” –Boris Karloff, first lines

“You have no reason to be afraid.” –Mary, to Rosy

“What’s the matter, woman? Can’t I fondle my own grandson? Give him to me!” –Gorca, to Ivan’s mother

II: Unifying the Stories

So, why did Bava choose these “three faces of fear” in particular? Why these three stores, as opposed to any other three? If they were merely chosen at random, such a choice would seem to detract from the overall quality of the movie, one which is now ranked #73 on a Time Out poll of the best horror films. Surely, these three specific choices, and how they were crafted, have a meaning in itself.

Since the three stories are separated in terms of plot, time, and setting (the first in early 60s France, the second in 19th century Russia, and the third in London in the 1910s), the link uniting them seems to be one of theme.

Indeed, there are several themes that I’ve found uniting the three stories, especially the first and last in this ABA structure. The main theme is the relationship between fear and desire.

Lacan said that desire is “the desire of the Other,” meaning that we desire to be what other people desire (what we think they desire), and that we desire recognition from others. As for fear, Lacan said that our anxieties spring from not knowing what others want–“the sensation of the desire of the Other…Anxiety is the feeling of the over-proximity of the desire of the Other.” Hence, the link between fear and desire.

Is the desire of others a wish to rape or kill us? Is it their wish to absorb our identity into them and to make us one of them? Is it their wish to take from us what they lack? These are “the three faces of fear” that confront us–sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically–in this film.

III: The Telephone

Though a telephone is a means of communication, of connection, it’s paradoxically also a cause of alienation, since we use it to converse from far distances, making face-to-face communication impossible. This is the central problem of Rosy (played by Michèle Mercier), a pretty young call girl who gets a series of threatening phone calls at home one night from a mysterious person.

She hears the voice of a man who claims to be watching her every move in her apartment: knowing when she’s changed into her dressing gown, when she’s exposing her pretty legs, when she’s hidden her valuables. This knowing is an erotic link between fear and desire; it’s Freud‘s Eros connected with Thanatos, for though the caller craves her beautiful body, it’s to kill her, not to caress her.

She learns from the newspaper that Frank (played by Milo Quesada), her former pimp against whom she testified, has broken out of prison, and she understands that it’s he who has been calling her, wanting to kill her in revenge. She calls her former friend, Mary (played by Lydia Alfonsi), to come over to her apartment to help her feel safe; immediately after hanging up, she gets another threatening call, her victimizer knowing she’s just chatted with Mary on the phone.

Little does Rosy know that Mary, a lesbian admirer who’s had a falling-out with her, is the caller. Mary’s terrorizing of Rosy, to pressure her former lover to let her come back into her life–and into her home, which is symbolic of Rosy’s vagina–is a symbolic lesbian sexual assault. (I’ll return to this symbolism in “The Drop of Water,” the returning A of this ABA structure.)

So, the alienating effect of the telephone conversations, as opposed to Mary’s entering of Rosy’s apartment to talk to her face to face, represents the kind of object relations that WRD Fairbairn wrote about: the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration (Mary and Rosy, when face to face), the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration (Mary and Rosy when on the phone, with Mary’s desire to have Rosy again), and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration (Mary’s threats to Rosy, when impersonating Frank on the phone).

Put another way, Mary is torn between feelings of love and desire (her Libidinal Ego) for Rosy (Mary’s Exciting Object), and feelings of hate and resentment (Mary’s Anti-libidinal Ego) for the ex-lover who spurned her (Mary’s Rejecting Object). Mary’s claim of bearing no grudge is thus an obvious example of denial.

Mary has resolved her conflict between the Eros wish to kiss Rosy, on the one hand, and her Thanatos wish to kill Rosy, on the other, by making the threatening calls. On the one hand, Mary enjoys terrorizing Rosy, and on the other, she is goading Rosy to let her come in [!] her home. Mary’s putting of a knife under Rosy’s pillow suggests that Mary knows Frank is really coming over.

There is the ever-so-slight influence of Guy de Maupassant’s horror short story, “Le Horla” on “The Telephone.” The American bowdlerization of “The Telephone,” not only removing the hints at lesbianism and prostitution, but also making Frank into a ghost who sends Rosy a self-writing letter, makes the story a little closer to Maupassant’s, with its sense of an evil presence encircling, watching, and ultimately controlling the protagonist (who at the end attempts to kill his/her tormentor, but ultimately fails); I must say, however, that this alteration comes off as contrived when compared with the vastly superior Italian original, which needed no supernatural trappings of any kind.

The link between the influence of The Horla (loosely translated, “[that thing] out there,” hors-là), who wants to possess the body of the narrator, and “The Telephone” reinforces my interpretation that the encroachment into Rosy’s apartment is a symbolic rape, especially since I see Frank as a projection of Mary; her impersonating of him on the phone represents a wish-fulfillment to attack Rosy.

Mary gives Rosy a tranquilizer. We see Rosy lying on her bed, towards the end of her sleep; and the light of dawn (by which time the threatened killing of her is supposed to have already happened) is coming through a window. Mary is at a nearby desk writing a letter to Rosy, confessing that she was, in fact, her terrorizer: this was the only way she could be with Rosy again. I wonder–while Rosy was out, did Mary enjoy her? It seems unlikely that Mary would have passed up such an opportunity.

Then, Frank comes in and, thinking it’s Rosy at the desk writing the letter of confession, strangles Mary with one of Rosy’s stockings. Since I see Frank as a projection of Mary’s aggressive feelings towards Rosy, this killing can be seen to symbolize Mary’s Anti-libidinal Ego momentarily triumphing over her Libidinal Ego, meaning that it’s Mary who has wanted to kill Rosy after all. Still, that part of Mary that still loves Rosy wins out in the end, for the knife Mary put under the pillow is used by Rosy to kill her attacker, that projection of Mary’s killer instincts onto Frank, which is once again rebuffed by Mary’s Rejecting Object.

IV: The Wurdalak

A wurdalak is a kind of Slavic vampire that feeds on the blood of those it especially loves–its family and close friends. Here again we see the meeting of fear and desire.

This story is the most faithful of the three to its purported literary sources, in this case, Aleksey Tolstoy’s Family of the Vourdalak. Here we see Boris Karloff doing his thing, and hearing his lines dubbed into Italian is the only drawback of Bava’s original version.

Travelling Vladimir Durfe (played by Mark Damon) stops when he sees a decapitated corpse with an unusual dagger stabbed in its chest. Later, he comes to the cottage of a family, having taken the dagger with him. He enters the cottage and sees an empty space on a wall where the dagger is meant to be hanging.

One of the men of the cottage, Giorgio (played by Glauco Onorato), points a rifle at Vladimir and demands he return the dagger to the family. The dagger is an obvious phallic symbol (as is the rifle), and its not being in the possession of Giorgio’s family is thus a symbolic castration, a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire.

The rest of the family present themselves to Vladimir: Giorgio’s wife (played by Rika Dialina) and their little boy, Ivan; Giorgio’s younger brother, Pietro (played by Massimo Righi), and the men’s sister, the breathtaking Sdenka (played by Susy Andersen), with whom Vladimir is immediately smitten. More desire emerges.

A terrible fear is consuming the family: their old patriarch, Gorca (Karloff), has gone off to destroy a wurdalak. If the old man doesn’t return until after five days (ten days in Tolstoy’s story), then he’s become a wurdalak himself, and he must be destroyed, an agonizing task for his family.

Gorca does return, at just about the last moment when such a return would be safe…or has it been just slightly too late? He looks ghastly and pale, and he’s irritable. He also has a gory wound on his chest, a yonic hole, another symbolic castration, a lack leading to desire.

Indeed, he does feel desire: the creepy old man wishes to “fondle” his grandson, Ivan; the family must indulge him. Here we come to the uncomfortable symbolism of the wurdalak‘s craving of the blood of family–it represents incest, both literal and psychological, leading to enmeshment.

Sexual perversity is at the core of Black Sabbath, the merging of fear and desire: lesbian rape (bear in mind that I am not the one making moral judgements against lesbianism here, the film is; in 1963, homosexuality was far less socially accepted–I’m just exploring theme here), the symbolic necrophilia that I see in “The Drop of Water” (see below), and the vampiric incest in this story.

Vampire stories are a form of erotic horror, with phallic fangs biting into flesh and sucking out blood, leaving pairs of yonic wounds. Such attacks can be seen as symbolic rapes, a taking possession of the victims. I demonstrated such forms of erotic perversity as these in my novel, Vamps, and in my analyses of Martin and ‘Salem’s Lot. From this reasoning, I can conclude that the families of wurdalaks, craving the blood of their kin, are incestuous.

This incestuous desire goes way beyond children’s Oedipal desires for their parents, but it shares the same Oedipal narcissism. One regards one’s whole family as a possession to gratify only one’s own desires, never an outsider’s desires, such as those Vladimir has for Sdenka. For this reason, she feels she cannot escape with him, for Gorca owns her.

Similarly, even before Ivan’s mother has been made a wurdalak, she is so attached to him that, knowing he’s a wurdalak, she won’t let Giorgio destroy Ivan; she would kill herself before allowing that to happen. She takes a knife and stabs Giorgio instead, then opens the door to let her vampire son (and Gorca) inside the house, risking the turning of her entire family into wurdalaks. Such extreme, irrational, overprotective love, going beyond even her love of her husband, suggests a Jocasta complex.

Vladimir’s love for Sdenka offers her the hope of escaping this narcissistic, emotionally abusive family. She runs away with him, stopping at an abandoned cathedral, but the wurdalak family–Gorca, bitten Giorgio and his wife–find her there and, biting her, force her to return with them.

The enmeshment of the abusive family is complete: they just have to ensnare Vladimir with a bite from Sdenka when he returns to their cottage.

V: The Drop of Water

This story is claimed to be based on one by ‘Ivan Chekhov,’ though the actual source is “Dalle tre alle tre e mezzo” (“Between Three and Three-thirty”), by Franco Lucentini, under the pseudonym of P. Kettridge. This third part of the movie shares enough thematic similarities, by my interpretation, to “The Telephone” to indicate a return to A in the film’s ternary form.

Helen Chester (played by Jacqueline Pierreux), a nurse in 1910s London, is in her flat one night; just as Rosy, in “The Telephone,” has returned to her apartment, in early 60s France, at night. In both stories, the protagonist is a woman in modern western Europe, at home at night. Both of them receive irritating phone calls at the beginning of the story.

The caller requires Helen immediately to go to the home of an old medium who has just died; the caller, the medium’s timid maid, needs Helen to dress the body and prepare it for burial. Annoyed, Helen goes over there.

The maid is too afraid to go near the body of a woman who has tampered with the spirit world, so Helen must do all the work unaided. The body has a grotesque, eerie grin on its face. On its finger is a sapphire ring that Helen covets.

Since the maid isn’t there to see Helen’s act of petty larceny, the nurse thinks she’s safe in pulling the ring off the corpse’s finger and stuffing it in her blouse. As soon as she wrests the ring off the dead medium’s finger, though, it falls on the floor; and when she goes down to find it, the corpse’s hand drops on her head, knocking over a glass of water and causing it to spill and drip water on a tray. Then a buzzing fly is seen on the finger where the ring was. It’s as if the medium’s soul has passed by metempsychosis from her body into the fly, so it can pester Helen in revenge for stealing the ring.

Now, to be sure, it is a nice ring, but is it nice enough to steal? I suppose; but would the ghost of the medium be so enraged with Helen’s theft as to want to torment her to the point of making her choke herself to death…over a ring?…over something the medium cannot take with her into the afterlife?

I believe the theft of the ring is symbolic of a far worse outrage, and the medium’s involvement with spirits, likely including evil ones, makes such an outrage plausible, if only symbolically expressed. I see the ring as a yonic symbol, the band representing the vaginal opening, and the sapphire representing either the clitoris or the hymen.

Helen’s theft of the ring, her having been under the demonic influence of one of the spirits with whom the medium has made a dangerous acquaintance, thus symbolizes a lesbian, necrophiliac rape. This symbolism would link this last story thematically with the first one (Mary’s presumed having of Rosy while the latter has been tranquilized), and such an outrage on the corpse would give the medium’s ghost sufficient motive for revenge against Helen.

The spilled glass of water, like those glasses of alcohol Helen drinks in her apartment, would thus also be yonic symbols of her sapphic, sapphire desires [!]. We also see in all of this the link between fear and desire; for right after she slips the ring on her finger and admires it, a symbolic vaginal fingering, she starts noting all the strange, frightening occurrences: the pesky fly having followed her home; the sound of dripping water, symbolic of vaginal discharge, heard everywhere; the power outage (indeed, that light outside her window, flashing on and off, can be seen to symbolize the bright fire of never-fulfilled desire when contrasted with the darkness of fear); and the medium ghost’s appearances, all to terrify Helen.

The link between fear and desire here is in Helen’s guilt over her theft of the medium’s symbolic yoni, her symbolic rape of the corpse. Helen goes mad with guilt, what she sees and hears being visual and auditory hallucinations, and in her madness, she chokes herself to death.

The next morning, a pathologist and doctor discuss Helen’s discovered corpse with her landlady (played by Harriet White Medin), who the night before had to break open the door to discover what Helen’s screaming was all about. Just as Mary pays with her life for Rosy’s symbolic rape, the forced entry into her apartment, and her projection of Frank trying to kill Rosy, so has Helen paid with her life for her symbolic rape of the dead medium.

A cut, or bruise, on Helen’s ring finger indicates that the ring has been pulled off. One may assume that the medium’s ghost has taken it back; but as I said above, the ghost has no use for a ring in the afterlife. I suspect that the landlady, having an agitated look on her face when hearing the sound of dripping water, has stolen the ring.

After all, Helen’s corpse now has an eerie grin just like that of the dead medium. A fresh, white dress is laid out on her bed, just as the maid left one out for the medium. All of these observations suggest a passing-on of the evil from victim to victim, suggesting in turn that, while alive, the medium outraged a previous female corpse, taking the sapphire ring while under the influence of an evil spirit; and now the landlady will be terrorized by Helen’s ghost, and when the landlady dies with an evil grin of her own, yet another woman will snatch the ring [!], and so on, leaving a bruise on the landlady’s finger, symbolic of the injured vaginal walls of a rape victim.

Such passings-on of evil have been observed in the other two stories: Mary’s resentment against Rosy is passed, projected onto Frank, and their aggression is passed on to Rosy, who kills him, with his own killing of Mary being symbolic of her self-destructive lust; the evil of the wurdalak is passed onto Gorca, then to Ivan, to Giorgio and his wife, and finally to Sdenka and Vladimir. Finally, the ghoulish lust for the yonic ring is passed on from woman to woman.

All violent forms of sexuality, three faces of fear, merged with three faces of desire.

Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

Pet Sematary is a 1983 supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, the one he considered his scariest (King, page ix) because of a real-life situation in which his toddler son ran off to a road and almost got hit by a truck (page xi). It has been made into two film adaptations, the 1989 one starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, and Fred Gwynne; and the 2019 version starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.

Here are some quotes from the 1989 film, the screenplay written by Stephen King:

“But he’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat… let God get His own if He wants one… not mine.” –Ellie Creed, afraid of her cat, Church, dying on the road in front of the Creed’s home

“The barrier was not meant to be crossed. The ground is sour.” –the ghost of Victor Pascow

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.” –Jud Crandall

Louis: Has anyone ever buried a person up there?
Jud: Christ on His Throne, NO! Whoever would!?

“Today is thanksgiving day for cats, but only if they came back from the dead.” –Louis Creed

“I knew this would happen. I told her when you were first married you’d have all the grief you can stand and more, I said. Now look at this. I hope you rot in hell! Where were you when he was playing in the road? You stinkin’ shit! You killer of children!” –Irwin Goldman, at Gage’s funeral, to Louis…then punches Louis

Louis: I’ll bite, Jud. What’s the bottom of the truth?
Jud: That, sometimes, dead is better. The person that you put up there ain’t the person that comes back. It might look like that person, but it ain’t that person, because whatever lives on the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain’t human at all.

Rachel: It’s okay, Ellie! You just had a bad dream.
Ellie: It wasn’t a dream, it was Paxcow! Paxcow says daddy is going to do something really bad!
Rachel: Who is this Paxcow?
Ellie: He’s a ghost, a good ghost! He was sent to warn us!

“Rachel, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. And now I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again… Never get out of bed again…NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!” –Zelda Goldman

“I’m coming for you, Rachel… And this time, I’ll get you… Gage and I will both get you, for letting us die…” –Zelda, who then cackles

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

The deliberately misspelled title is derived from an actual pet cemetery whose sign had the same misspelling, made by a child (page x). In the story, as in the real pet cemetery (it’s safe to assume), a number of the grave markers of the children’s dead pets have other misspellings; these all give a sense of the innocence of children who must learn to come to grips with loss.

I see another possible interpretation of the “Sematary” spelling, that it is a pun on seminary, or a school of theology. To study God is to study life’s meaning, as well as the mystery of death, the afterlife, and how to cope with suffering and loss. In this connection, recall the surname of the protagonist, Creed (the Christian belief system), and the name of their cat, Winston Churchill, usually shortened to Church. Pets are churches that, through their deaths, teach children about loss.

There are two cemeteries in the story, the good one (the Pet Sematary) and the bad one (the Micmac burial ground). The good one helps children deal with their grief and to learn to accept loss; but the bad one, which resurrects the dead and transforms them into demonic versions of their former selves (because the ground is inhabited by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the First Nations tribes of the area), is for those who cannot accept the loss of loved ones.

So, the Pet Sematary is a kind of seminary, if you will, teaching children how to process the grief they feel after losing their beloved pets. The children can imagine that their pets are going from there to ‘dog [cat, hamster, etc.] heaven.’ The misspellings on the sign and grave markers, as I said above, show us the sweet naïveté of these children in their contemplation of God-like things; for as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pet Sematary is in a forest at the end of a long path from behind the house that the Creed family has just moved into. The religious often speak of following the right path to salvation, and the wrong path to damnation. There’s the path to the Pet Sematary (“It’s a safe path…You keep on the path and all’s well.” –page 39), and there’s also that road in front of the Creeds’ new house, where the Orinco trucks dangerously speed by, often killing people’s pets, thus filling up the Pet Sematary.

The inevitability of these trucks going by, something that happens regularly, is symbolic of the unescapable reality of death. Each truck is a juggernaut–not the actual Jagannath of the Hindus–but the apocryphal interpretation that Western observers made of it centuries ago: the idea that the chariot carrying the Hindu idol went non-stop down the road, and ecstatic worshippers threw themselves on the road to be crushed under the wheels of the chariot, in a rite of human sacrifice.

The name of the company printed on the trucks, Orinco (almost an anagram of the Cianbro truck King saw almost hit his little boy–page xi), sounds like a pun on Orinoco, the South American river whose name is derived from a term meaning “a place to paddle,” or a navigable place. Well, the road is good for Orinco trucks to drive on, since nothing can stop those juggernauts…nothing can stop death. The trucks are one with this road of death, a kind of via dolorosa.

So, the path to the Pet Sematary is a way to get to (pet) heaven, and the road the Orinco trucks drive on is a kind of highway to hell…or at least to Sheol. Then there’s the way beyond the Pet Sematary, the deadfall leading up to the Micmac burying ground, an evil sublation of the thesis–the Pet Sematary leading to eternal life for pets–and the negation of that thesis–the Orinco truck road to death. The Micmac burial ground is a place of living death.

That the Pet Sematary and the evil land of the Wendigo, leading to the Micmac burying ground, are closer together than the former is to the road suggests my ouroboros symbolism for the dialectical relationship between opposites (see these posts to understand my meaning)–the closeness between the Pet Sematary’s heavenly Godliness, if you will, and the devilish hell of the Micmac burial ground.

When Jud Crandall (played by Gwynne in the 1989 film, and by Lithgow in the 2019 one) takes Louis (Midkiff, 1989; Clarke, 2019) past the Pet Sematary and up the deadfall–“the barrier [that] was not made to be broken,” page 161–there’s a further trek of “Three miles or more” (page 164) to the burial ground, but before long one senses a hellish, demonic presence among the eerie animal sounds one hears (pages 166-169)…the Wendigo. They may be a while before getting to the burial ground, but they’re already in a kind of hell…Little God Swamp, or Dead Man’s Bog.

The dangerous climb up the unstable branches of the deadfall represents that meeting place where the teeth of the ouroboros bites its tail (symbolizing the meeting of the opposites of life and death, of heaven and hell), that meeting of opposites where, paradoxically, too much careful and nervous climbing leads to falls and injury, whereas climbing that is “done quick and sure” (page 161), never looking down, results in a miraculously safe and successful ascent.

That barrier is not made to be broken because it is so easy to break. Victor Pascow himself–a jogger hit by a car and killed before Louis can save him (page 89)–breaks the barrier to warn Louis never to break it, in thanks to the doctor for at least trying to save his life.

Jud advises Louis to have Church fixed (pages 23-24) because fixed cats “don’t tend to wander as much,” and therefore the risk of him running across that treacherous road, and getting crushed under the wheels of one of those Orinco trucks, will be lessened. The castrating of the cat, though, does nothing to prevent him from suffering the very fate Louis has tried to prevent. His daughter, Ellie (Berdahl in the 1989 film; Jeté Laurence in the 2019 film), loves Church so much that she will be heartbroken to learn he’s dead.

All of this leads us to a discussion of desire and the inability to fulfill it. Lacan considered the phallus to be the most important of the signifiers, since its lack (through symbolic castration) leads to desire, which can never be fulfilled. For Church, desire means the wish to roam and run about freely, whether fixed or not, whether the fulfillment of that desire is or isn’t excessive, transgressive, or dangerous (i.e., the racing across the road as symbolic of jouissance).

For humans, desire is symbolically expressed in being the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, though we can apply Lacan’s idea more generally–that of desire as ‘the desire of the Other’ (i.e., wanting to fulfill the desires of other people, wanting others’ recognition)–to the desires of the Creed family and Jud. Louis fixes Church in the hopes of keeping him safe, for Ellie’s sake; but when Church is killed, Jud has Louis take the corpse to the burial ground for her sake, too.

Louis, whose father died when he was three and who never knew a grandfather (page 3), has had strained relationships with father figures, particularly with his father-in-law, Irwin Goldman (played by Michael Lombard in the 1989 film). Irwin actually took out his chequebook and offered Louis a sum of money so he wouldn’t marry Rachel (page 146)!

If we see Louis’s love for her as a transference of Oedipal love for his mother, then his hostility to Irwin can be seen as a transference of Oedipal hate toward the father who left this world before Louis could even get a chance to know him. And Irwin’s disapproval of Louis marrying Rachel can thus be seen as a symbolic Non! du père, in turn resulting in Lacan’s notion of the Oedipally-based manque.

Louis has an even better reason to hate Rachel’s parents when he learns that they made her, as a little girl, take care of her sick older sister, Zelda, whose spinal meningitis made her so deformed and ugly that the sight of her traumatized little Rachel…especially when she found Zelda dead in her bed!

But in Jud, “the man who should have been his father,” Louis has found a good father figure, someone onto whom he can transfer positive Oedipal feelings (page 10). So when Jud, influenced by the Wendigo of the Micmac burying ground, has Louis bury Church there, Louis goes along with it, against his better judgement. After all, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he?

Lack gives rise to desire: Church’s castration, meant to keep him safe from the trucks, drives him to run across the road, to the point of him getting killed by a truck after all; “Cats lived violent lives and often died bloody deaths…Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there.” (pages 52, 53) The Creeds’ lack of a cat drives Jud, feeling compassion for Ellie, to have Louis bury the cat in the burial ground, though Jud knows it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do. And Louis, lacking Gage after he is killed by an Orinco truck, is driven to exhume his son’s corpse and–with all the pain and exhausting work it involves–to rebury him in the burial ground. Then he’ll do the same with Rachel after demon-Gage kills her.

All four of these lacks lead to desires, which are excessive wants. The barrier that isn’t made to be broken is, symbolically, the barrier to jouissance, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desire. We all have basic, biological needs, and as we learn language, social customs, culture, etc., in entering the Symbolic Order, we use language to make demands; but demands, especially the demand for love, are never expressed completely through the limitations of language, so some of that need and demand is never fully satisfied.

The residual lack gives rise to desire, an excess that’s never fulfilled. This remainder, incapable of being symbolized in language, is in the realm of the Real Order, a traumatic world symbolized by the frightening, inarticulate animal cries in the land of the Wendigo and the Micmac burial ground…”the real cemetery.”

The Buddhists teach us that suffering is caused by desire, attachment to things in a universe where all things are impermanent. The reality of death is an impermanence too painful for Louis Creed to bear, so his lack of Gage and, at the end of the novel, Rachel, drives him to feel a desire so excessive as to want to use the burial ground to raise them from the dead.

One cannot have the originally desired object–the Oedipally-desired parent, a universal, narcissistic desire, since, as a child looking up into the eyes of that parent, he or she is looking in a metaphorical mirror of him- or herself, a manifestation of the Imaginary Order–so one spends the rest of one’s life searching for a replacement of that object, the objet petit a. This replacement can never be a perfect substitute for the original, so desire is never fulfilled.

The demonic replacements of Church, Gage, and Rachel can be seen to represent the objet petit a, for they, of course, can never replace the originals…though Louis does all he can to have them replace his lost loved ones. When Jud’s wife, Norma, dies, he wisely accepts her death and never even considers burying her in the Micmac burial ground; but its demonic influence drives him to desire to have Church buried there, for Ellie’s sake, since desire is of the other, to wish to fulfill what one believes others want. Similarly, Louis reburies Gage there in part out of a wish to fulfill what he at least imagines is what Rachel would want…to have her little boy back (“She cried his name and held her arms out.” –page 527).

So, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desires, jouissance, symbolized by the demonic resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel, is another example of the dialectical relationship between opposites–pleasure/pain, bliss/suffering, heaven/hell, life/death–as I would represent with the head of the ouroboros biting its tail. In passing into jouissance‘s indulging in transgressive pleasure, one goes past pleasure and suffers pain; whereas in the Pet Sematary, one learns to accept loss.

Young Jud originally buried his dog, Spot, in the Micmac burial ground (page 181); then, when he saw what trouble the resurrected dog was, he came to his senses, killed it, and buried it in the Pet Sematary (page 45). The problem is that the desires kindled by the Micmac burial ground are addictive, like a drug–hence, Jud’s ill-advised taking of Louis there with dead Church.

One always wants more, that ‘surplus value,’ or the plus-de-jouir that Lacan wrote about. When animals are brought back, their demonic nature is usually not so bad as it is with resurrected humans (“…because Hanratty had gone bad, did that mean that all animals went bad? No. Hanratty the bull did not prove the general case; Hanratty was in fact the exception to the general case.” –page 390); again, as with the animals buried in the Pet Sematary, they act as a kind of warning to us not to play around with life and death, especially not with human beings.

There is our attachment to what we can’t keep, what we love; and there’s what we wish we never had, what we hate, yet what we must have at least sometimes in our lives. The Buddhists speak of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed represents all those things and people we want in excess, because we want to keep them, but must one day let go of them–still, we won’t want to let go of them: hence the resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel.

Hatred represents what we wish would be gone, but must have, hence Rachel’s trauma in dealing with Zelda, and her shame at feeling glad her sick sister finally died…but the painful memories live on, haunting her, for she can’t get rid of Zelda until she’s properly processed her pain. Hatred is also in Irwin’s refusal to accept Louis as a son-in-law.

Delusion is the false belief that things can be permanent, hence Louis’s reburying of Church, Gage, and Rachel. Even though he sees how evil resurrected Gage is, Louis still fools himself with the belief that resurrected Rachel will be better, because apparently he waited too long with Gage. “Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel…” (page 556)

So, the message of the novel is that we can’t force our desires onto the world…but we can’t help doing so, even though doing so will only make our suffering worse. We know this, but still do it. “Sometimes, dead is better”…but we refuse to accept it.

The sweetness and innocence of children and animals, as expressed in the Pet Sematary–that seminary, if you will, that teaches us to have the misspelling simplicity of a child entering the kingdom of heaven–turns rotten, into Oz the Gweat and Tewwible (pages 510-511, 513ff), if we try to bend the world to our will. The Wendigo makes all the difference.

As we already know, the Micmac burial ground is a demonic double of the Pet Sematary, with their spirals (pages 386-387, 498) and graves curling like the coiled, serpentine body of the ouroboros; the land of the murderous, greedy, cannibalistic Wendigo that so frightens Louis on his way to rebury Gage, is right where the serpent’s teeth bite into its tail, the abyss where heaven and hell meet.

It’s so easy for the sweet and innocent to phase into their opposite, the Gweat and Tewwible.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary, New York, Pocket Books, 1983

Analysis of ‘The Boys from Brazil’

The Boys from Brazil is a 1978 thriller film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and written by Heywood Gould, based on Ira Levin‘s novel of the same name. It stars Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, with James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Walter Gotell, Michael Gough, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, and Jeremy Black.

Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck) is trying to revive Hitler by cloning him 94 times and paralleling Hitler’s life by, at this point in it, having all the clones’ adoptive fathers killed when the clones (played by Black) are around thirteen/fourteen years old. Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) has learned of the planned assassinations and is trying to piece together what Mengele is doing.

While the film had a generally positive reception, with praise for Peck’s and Olivier’s performances, some critics have considered the plot to be dubious, even ludicrous, and the acting to be inane and overwrought, with bad imitations of accents. I consider this film worth analyzing, though, because it can be seen as an allegory on the danger of a revival of the far right, which has been happening in recent years in many parts of the world. Hence, though this film’s praise has been far from universal, it is an extremely relevant one for our times.

Here are some quotes:

Barry Kohler: Okay, I’m running it down now. It will only take a second.
Ezra Lieberman: Take your time, old men don’t go back to sleep once they’ve been awakened.

“[Mengele was] the chief doctor of Auschwitz, who killed two and a half million people, experimented on children – Jewish and non-Jewish – using twins mostly, injecting blue dyes into their eyes to make them acceptable Aryans… amputating limbs and organs from thousands without anesthetics.” –Lieberman, speaking to Sidney Beynon about why he is searching for Josef Mengele

Sidney Beynon: Have you any idea how many men in their mid-60s die every day?
Ezra Lieberman: I try not to think about it.

“Would you like me to tell you who really killed him? God. To set free a stupid little farm girl after twenty-two years of unhappiness. Do Nazis answer prayers, Herr Lieberman? No, that is God’s business and I have thanked Him every night since He pushed Emil under that car. He could have done it sooner, but I thank Him anyway.” –Mrs. Doring (Rosemary Harris), to Lieberman

Lofquist: Good God man, you are an officer of the SS! Have you forgotten? ‘My honour is loyalty.’ Those words were supposed to be engraved on your soul.
Mundt (Walter Gotell): It isn’t Lundberg…[throws Lofquist off the dam, watches him fall to his death]…and it doesn’t have to be Saturday.

“Are you, my SD Chief of Security, telling me that a project twenty years and millions of dollars in the making will be dropped because of this insignificant impotent old Jew?” –Mengele, to Seibert

“You’re not a guard now, madame! You are a prisoner! I may leave here today empty handed. But you… are not going anywhere.” –Lieberman, to Frieda Maloney

“He betrayed me, he betrayed you, he betrayed the Aryan race!” –Mengele, of Mundt

Gertrud: [Mengele has just knocked Mundt to the floor] Get a doctor!
Dr. Josef Mengele: I *am* a doctor, idiot.
Gertrud: Don’t you come near him!
Dr. Josef Mengele: Shut up, you ugly bitch.

Eduard Seibert: [after discovery of Mengele’s plan by Lieberman] The operation has been terminated.
Dr. Josef Mengele: Terminated… by whose authority?
Eduard Seibert: General Rausch… and the Colonels.
Dr. Josef Mengele: [enraged] I told you… I told you from the beginning! Kill him! Kill him! It would have been so easy!

Eduard Seibert: Your operation has been cancelled.
Dr. Josef Mengele: No, *your* operation has been cancelled! Mine continues. [raising his hand] Heil Hitler.

Professor Bruckner: Cloning. What if I were to tell you that I could take a scraping of skin from your finger and create another Ezra Lieberman?
Ezra Lieberman: I would tell you not to waste your time on my finger.

[Bruckner begins listing the boys’ common features on a chalkboard] Professor Bruckner: Now, Mengele would certainly know that every social and environmental detail would have to be reproduced. Thus, if the parents were divorced when the boy was ten, this would have to be arranged…
Ezra Lieberman: [in horrified realization] Dr. Bruckner… the one who is cloned, the donor, he has to be alive, doesn’t he?
Professor Bruckner: Not necessarily. Individual cells, taken from a donor, can be preserved indefinitely. With a sample of Mozart’s blood, and the women, someone with the skill and equipment could breed a few hundred baby Mozarts. My God… if it’s really been done, what I’d give to see one of those boys. [turns around and sees the room is empty] Herr Lieberman?

“Not Mozart. Not Picasso. Not a genius who will enrich the world. But a lonely little boy with a domineering father, a customs officer who was 52 when he was born. And an affectionate doting mother who was 29. The father died when he was 65 when the boy was nearly 14… Adolf Hitler.” –Lieberman, to Bruckner

Ezra Lieberman: Did you kill Wheelock?
Dr. Josef Mengele: [sarcastically] No, he’s in the kitchen mixing us some cocktails!

“Do you know what I saw on the television in my motel room at one o’clock this morning? Films of Hitler! They are showing films about the war! The movement! People are fascinated! The time is ripe! Adolf Hitler is alive!” [Takes photo album and places it on his lap] “This album is full of pictures of him. Bobby Wheelock and ninety-three other boys are exact genetic duplicates of him, bred entirely from his cells. He allowed me to take half a liter of his blood and a cutting of skin from his ribs.” [laughs] “We were in a Biblical frame of mind on the twenty-third of May 1943, at the Berghof. He had denied himself children because he knew that no son could flourish in the shadow of so godlike a father! But when he heard what was theoretically possible, that I could create one day not his son, not even a carbon-copy but another original, he was thrilled by the idea! The right Hitler for the right future! A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000s!” –Mengele, to Lieberman

Dr. Josef Mengele: You are a clever boy. Are you not? You do not do well at school, but it’s because you are too clever. Too busy, thinking your own thoughts. But you are much smarter than your teachers, hah?
Bobby Wheelock: My teachers are nowhere.
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are going to be the world’s greatest photographer, are you not? Have you ever felt superior to those around you? Like a prince among peasants?
Bobby Wheelock: I feel different from everyone sometimes.
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are infinitely different. Infinitely superior. You are born of the noblest blood in the world. You have it within you to fulfill ambitions one thousand times greater than those at which you presently dream, and you shall fulfill them, Bobby. You shall. You are the living duplicate of the greatest man in history. [raising his hand in a heil motion] Adolf Hitler.
Bobby Wheelock: Oh man, you’re weird.

Dr. Josef Mengele: Bobby!
Bobby Wheelock: [screaming] You freaked out maniac! [to dogs] Bite!

David Bennett: We have the right and we have the duty.
Ezra Lieberman: To do what? To kill children?

The movie begins in Paraguay where Barry Kohler (Guttenberg)–a former member of the militant Young Jewish Defenders, but who now works alone, like Lieberman–has been tracking down members of the far-right Comrades organization. Through the help of a Paraguayan boy named Ismael (played by Raul Faustino Saldanha), Kohler is able to plant a bug to record a meeting of these ex-Nazis, chaired by Mengele in his mansion.

What is significant about having so much of this story associated with South America (Hitler clone babies born in Brazil, these Nazis in Paraguay) goes far beyond the obvious fact that many ex-Nazi war criminals went there to hide and avoid being brought to justice. Fascism is the logical extreme of capitalism and imperialism; and South America, as “the backyard of the US,” has been dominated by the US for decades and decades.

Any attempt by South, Central, and other Latin American countries to liberate themselves from the yoke of US imperialism, through democratically electing leftist governments, is thwarted either by CIA-influenced coups (Chile in 1973, Bolivia in 2019, Guatemala in 1954, to give a few examples) that install right-wing dictatorships, or it is sabotaged through starvation sanctions (Venezuela). So a movie with Nazis in the land of Operation Condor is chillingly fitting.

Kohler and Ismael are discovered for having bugged the room where the meeting is held. As Mengele is walking before a lineup of the Latino servants (including Ismael) while holding the removed bug, it is interesting to see the stark contrast between the Nazis, as domineering members of the white bourgeoisie, and the swarthy servants, as the intimidated proletariat.

Oh, the difference between the First and Third Worlds. Mengele is aptly wearing a white suit.

Kohler and Ismael are killed, but Mengele, before giving the order to kill the boy, gives him an avuncular smile–another chilling contrast.

Gregory Peck researched his role thoroughly, for he shows the same affected charm to children that Mengele was known to have shown. Back when Mengele was doing his sadistic medical experiments on Jewish and Romani children in the Nazi concentration camps, he was called the “Angel of Death.”

He charmed the little kids (typically twins), giving them candy, etc., before doing such sick things to them as injecting blue dye into their eyes (to make them “acceptable Aryans”), amputating limbs, removing organs, or sewing kids together–without anaesthetic–to make them into conjoined twins. One story of him doing this last, cruel operation on a pair of Roma children, who later died of gangrene after days of being in agony, is especially heart-breaking.

Lieberman has received the tip from Kohler about the planned murders of those 94 men (Europeans, Canadians, and Americans, mostly civil servants), and he begins his investigation. The problem is, Lieberman is no longer listened to or taken seriously. Such a change in fortune is symbolic of mainstream liberal society’s growing apathy to the dangers of fascism. Sidney Beynon (Elliott) finds Lieberman annoying, and tries to avoid him.

Similarly, over the past ten years, there has been minimal outrage over the US’s replacing Yanukovych‘s Ukrainian government with one tolerating neo-Nazis, or over far-right politician Marine LePen‘s near victory in France, or the fascist rumblings in Poland, Greece (though suffering a setback, Golden Dawn could rise again), Austria, or Spain…to say nothing of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Añez in Bolivia, or, of course, Trump, with his concentration camps for immigrant kids, his apologist attitude towards the right-wing militias attacking BLM protestors, and the federal officers shoving Portland, Oregon protestors into vans to be taken God knows where.

As Lieberman interviews the widows (Harris, Meara) of the men killed so far, certain patterns emerge: the murdered fathers are in their mid-sixties, while the mothers are much younger. Each family has a son about 13 or 14 years old…and the boys look exactly alike! Even their personalities are similar: gruff, rude, belligerent…the hallmarks of a spoiled child. The fathers are similarly gruff and harsh-tempered, and the mothers generally dote on their boys.

When Lieberman learns that the boys are adopted, that’s when he starts to put it all together. Furthermore, the adoption arrangements were done by Frieda Maloney (Hagen), an ex-Nazi who, as a guard in a camp, “strangled young girls with their own hair, bayonetted infants,” and who is now incarcerated. He goes to the prison holding her and interviews her there, tolerating her antisemitic taunts as best he can.

Through this interview, he learns where and when a victim will soon be hunted down: a man named Henry Wheelock (Dehner) in Pennsylvania, owner of a number of Doberman pinschers trained to attack and kill anyone who might threaten his life.

Meanwhile, General Rausch and the colonels leading the Comrades organization are getting nervous about what Lieberman is finding out, so they finally terminate Mengele’s operation, infuriating him and making him carry on alone. The lack of commitment of Colonel Eduard Seibert (Mason) and the others to the Nazi cause parallels, on the other side of the political spectrum, Lieberman’s lack of commitment to the antifascist cause at the end of the film, when he refuses to give David Bennett (Rubinstein) the list of names and addresses of all the Hitler clones so the Young Jewish Defenders can kill them.

Lieberman learns about cloning through an expert on the subject, Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz, who incidentally also played Hitler, decades later, in Downfall). Though many critics considered the film’s portrayal of the cloning of a man to be scientifically ludicrous, I think we should focus instead on what the cloning symbolizes.

While fascism today obviously isn’t and cannot be the same as it was back in the 1920s and 1930s, the same basic ingredients for its resurgence today are here as they were back then. Fascism is an ideology promoted and allowed to grow by the ruling class whenever their power and privileges are threatened by a working class uprising.

Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al all rose to power as a response to failed socialist revolutions in their respective countries. Similarly, in today’s world, left-wing anger towards the excesses of neoliberalism has resulted in right-wing reactions like Trump, Bolsonaro, Añez, etc. They’re not exactly the same as the old Nazi reactions of the 1930s, of course, but neither are the Hitler clones exactly the same (in personality) as Hitler.

Bobby Wheelock, the closest approximation the movie offers to Hitler, is a photographer, not a painter. Though his father, Henry, has a gruff personality comparable to that of Alois Hitler, and Henry has racist attitudes of his own (he claims that it’s “the niggers” that Americans need to worry about, not the Nazis [!]), Bobby clearly loves his adoptive father, and avenges his murder by sicking his Dobermans on Mengele (ironically making ‘Hitler’ the hero of the film). When Alois died, however, little Adolf wasn’t exactly heartbroken, for now he could freely pursue his dream of becoming an artist and be spoiled by his mother, Klara.

A number of details about Hitler’s life don’t seem to have been paralleled in the clones. Little Adolf had a younger brother, Edmund, whose death had a profound effect on the future Führer. While Edmund was alive, little Adolf was a happy, confident boy who did well at school; after Edmund died, little Adolf grew bitter and morose, and his academic performance declined, leading ultimately to his quitting high school at about 16, his underachievement as a young man, and the frustration he must have felt from his failures.

Furthermore, Alois Hitler was a patriotic Austrian, loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy; whereas Adolf cultivated German nationalism, which I suspect was, at least unconsciously, meant as a big “screw you” to the father who had beat him and tried to dominate his life. I suspect that the Anschluß gave Hitler glee from the thought of dominating the country Alois had so loved.

None of these historical issues are dealt with in the film. (If they are dealt with in Levin’s novel, which I haven’t read, anyone who has read it can enlighten me in the comments below–I’d appreciate that.) It seems odd that families capable of having their own kids (i.e., ‘Edmund’ equivalents) would be eager to adopt, even to the point of being rejected by adoption agencies until the Comrades organization offered them babies. And how would every adoptive father’s nationalism be guaranteed?

Still, with all these differences from the life of the actual Hitler, the clones still seem dangerously close to their original, especially Bobby Wheelock, who in an added final scene (with a similar ending in Levin’s novel), admires his photos of the bloody Nazi and Jewish visitors to his house, and gazes with awe at Mengele’s jaguar-claw bracelet.

The scene before that one, with Lieberman in hospital and Bennett visiting him, disappointed a number of critics. Bennett and the Young Jewish Defenders want to find and kill the boys, while Lieberman takes on the wishy-washy liberal attitude that killing innocent children makes the killers no better than Nazis.

The point is that the Hitler clones are too dangerous to be left alive, free to develop, grow to adulthood, and be whatever kind of men they will be. The cruelty of killing teenage boys must be weighed against the cruelty of allowing 94 potential fascists to rise up and, quite possibly, take over the world, then kill millions of Jewish, Roma, and other children.

The logic of killing the Hitler clones is understood in a symbolic, not a literal, sense. The clones symbolize the resurgence of fascism, something we’re seeing today, as I pointed out above, and something Levin was prophesying. That the boys are clones is symbolic of how like-minded far right-wing thinkers are: embracing capitalism, hating foreigners, pushing for state authoritarianism and ultra-traditionalism, promoting patriotic historical narratives, using violence to achieve their ends, and not thinking independently.

In contrast, the ideological differences between different leftist groups (anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, etc.) are huge…hence, our difficulties in uniting against the right. Moderate conservatives, and even some liberals, find reason to unite with (or at least wink at) fascism if their class privileges are threatened; hence, the current revival of fascism that Levin’s novel and this film are warning us about.

What many fail to appreciate is that fascism never really died…it just went underground, as the Comrades organization represents in the movie. The Nuremberg trials were more of a show than anything else. Many ex-Nazis not only went unpunished, but were given jobs in the American and West German governments, the rationalization being that they were needed to help fight the communists during the Cold War. Small wonder East Germans built the Berlin Wall, calling it the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart.

So, when Mengele says that his clones are “A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000s,” we should understand what he means in an allegorical sense. The novel and film should be seen as a prophecy for our times. When Mengele tells Lieberman he was in his motel watching TV programs about Hitler, and that “People are fascinated!” and “The time is ripe,” this should be understood as a foretelling of the contemporary resurgence of fascism.

If Peck’s Mengele and the other Nazis in the film seem absurd to you, consider how absurd fascist ideology is in general. ‘If your life is hard, don’t blame the rich–blame foreigners for taking away your jobs! Blame the Jews: after all, capitalism is bad only when they practice it! Fight imperialist wars to strengthen the Motherland–get your aggression and hatred out of your system in that way!’ Far too many people take these idiotic ideas seriously, so the film’s over-the-top acting is fitting.

On the other hand, there’s the liberal who either trivializes the fascist threat, or ignorantly equates fascism with communism: this is the thanks the Red Army gets for having done most of the work defeating the Nazis, losing about 27 million Soviet lives.

This is why studying history is so important.