Analysis of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unable was N. ere N. saw Deborah.

…and Pedro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Critical Parts,’ a Poem by Gerda Hovius

Here is another poem by my dear friend, Gerda Hovius, who’s helped me gain access to my pop songs, and an example of whose own musical talents can be heard here on YouTube. As with my discussions of other poets’ work, I’m putting her poem, “Critical Parts,” in italics to distinguish it from my own writing. Here it is:

For the love of me.
Where was I, where am I?
What is occupying me?
Do I listen to this inner voice, that is reasoning with the other parts of me?
Parts forsaken, parts withheld, parts afraid of love untold.
The rejected in me still 
Bares their love.
Will it shut me down, or am I 
Able to stand up?
Words are spells so use them well.
I am beholding myself.
I just want to be true tears and all, I may rise and I may fall.
As I rise some days are filled with Paradise,
As I fall I witness the darkness of the all.
My need to connect is real, I am allowed to state how I feel.

And now, for my analysis of the poem.

The poet has felt disoriented for a long time. “What is occupying” her are all her internal objects, particularly those of her parents. These are internal, mental images of all the people she’s made contact with in her life; we all have them, and they haunt our minds like ghosts in a house, influencing how we think and interact with others.

Often this “inner voice” is the censorious inner critic, reminding us of our faults, but sometimes it’s doing good, “reasoning with the other parts of” us. Tracing the voice back to its origin, we find it can be that of Klein‘s good mother or father, who give us what we want and need, or the bad mother or father, who frustrate us.

Afraid of the feelings we’ll find, we repress the “Parts forsaken, parts withheld, parts afraid of love untold.” There is ambivalence in the poet over the split parts, the good and bad mentioned in the previous paragraph, the wish for reparation; for “The rejected in me still/Bares their love.” She feels rejected and loved by those voices at the same time; to sort out this ambiguity is difficult and painful.

The poet doesn’t know if confronting these voices will be good for her, or bad: “Will it shut me down, or am I/Able to stand up?” Will the confrontation harm her, or will she be able to face her feelings, and carry on if they hurt?

“Words are spells so use them well.” Words can be therapeutic in expressing feelings to heal trauma, but they can also be harmful, in the form of gaslighting. We must be careful how we use them.

“I am beholding myself.” She sees herself, as in a mirror. Is this really her, or someone else? She “just want[s] to be true, tears and all,” not some phoney person trying to look happy all the time just to please everybody.

Her moods go up and down, sometimes “Paradise,” sometimes more like hell. She needs to connect with others, and to express who she really is. She should be allowed to be her real self, happy or sad. Her critical parts shouldn’t be inhibiting her free expression, as they shouldn’t be inhibiting that of any of us. Pain must be felt and expressed freely in order to heal.

Analysis of ‘Citizen Kane’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘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 ‘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.

‘Pointy Sticks,’ a Short Prose Poem by Cass Wilson

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, whose work I’ve looked at before, has recently published this new prose poem on her Spillwords page. Let’s take a look at it. Again, I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Pointy Sticks

Incessant pointy sticks, endlessly poked at her through the bars of her self imposed prison.
She grabbed at the earth, pushing it inside the wounds, foolishly thinking if she could fill the holes left by the sticks, then she’d be complete once more.
But one stick was replaced by two. Then four. Then multiplied until she was just a hole herself. Nothing left of her but a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.
The other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee, both simultaneously; just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.

And now, for my analysis.

The “incessant pointy sticks” can be seen to represent a number of things. Since they’ve “poked at her,” they can easily be seen to be phallic, the poking thus symbolic of the sexual abuse (I certainly hope, for the writer’s sake, that this isn’t meant to be literally autobiographical!) of a woman. Her pushing of the earth “inside the wounds,” suggestive of an introjection of the mother goddess in the hopes of healing, is an attempt to heal the injured female of the wounds of male dominance.

Another way to think about the pointy sticks is to think of them in terms of projective identification, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion expanded on through his theory of containment. Normally, in a healthy mother/infant relationship, the mother is a container of her baby’s anxieties, frustrations, etc., taking in those harsh emotions (the contained), detoxifying them, then returning them to the baby in a form it can tolerate, thus soothing it. (Click here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

The container is given a feminine symbol, suggesting a yoni, and the contained is given a masculine, and thus phallic, symbol. So containment, or projective identification as a primitive, preverbal form of communication between parent and infant, can be seen as symbolized by the sex act, with energy passing from one person to the other, then back again.

The problem arises when this containment is negative. Instead of leading to a soothing of one’s anxieties, a processing of trauma, in negative containment, seen in abusive parent/child relationships, the pain is intensified; this is what we see described in this prose poem. The pointing sticks are phallic daggers causing yonic wounds in the poet’s body, a symbolic rape.

Healing from such trauma isn’t a simple matter of appealing to the mythological feminine. One tries to rid oneself of the pain by pretending it isn’t there, and so one never frees oneself from one’s “self imposed prison.” It’s self-imposed because one isn’t doing what one must do to free oneself, even though one knows one must heal the pain by confronting it, by feeling it.

The pointy sticks are like the heads of the Hydra, for when one cuts a head off, it is “replaced by two.” When one cuts the two off, then there are four. Since the sticks are phallic, cutting them off–castration as symbolic of hating men–isn’t the solution, for however justified women’s anger is at the all-too-typical male attitude, hating men leads to an even more intensely misogynistic reaction from them. Whatever we send out there, karma brings back to us.

Please don’t confuse what I’ve said above with victim-blaming; I’m not trying to judge women for being angry with men, something they very, very often have a perfect right to do. This isn’t about passing judgement; it’s about finding real healing.

Ending male dominance must be dealt with more subtly, in a manner that makes an ally out of a former enemy; otherwise, the female sufferer will be nothing but a giant yonic dungeon of her own pain, of her own making, “a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.”

Part of how negative containment intensifies pain, turning anxiety into what Bion called a nameless dread, is the use of projective identification to eject parts of the self out into the external world in an attempt not to have to deal with the parts of oneself that one doesn’t want to accept. These ejected parts are the “other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee.”

If one ejects too many of the undesirable parts of oneself, one feels oneself to be disintegrating, suffering psychological fragmentation, leading to a psychotic break with reality. Narcissism can be a dysfunctional attempt to protect oneself from this kind of fragmentation, the danger of an underlying borderline structure, as Otto Kernberg has observed.

Those ejected parts of herself “just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.” Those ejections, accumulating over time, result in the fading away of the self, a gradual disintegration. The projected parts that float away become what Bion called bizarre objects, or hallucinated objects felt to be in the external world but which are imbued with characteristics of one’s own personality.

One cannot rid oneself of pain by projecting it outwards. The broken pieces must all be put back together. Instead of division and fragmentation, there must be oneness. Splitting must be replaced with integration of one’s good and bad internal objects (e.g., the internalized ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad father’ of the psyche), or reparation–a shift from what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.

The broken-off parts must be freed of their incarceration, from one’s “self imposed prison.” One’s solitude, or hiding from the world, gives an “illusionary safety,” but it will never give one lasting healing. True healing comes from connection with others, from a communal love.

Analysis of ‘Lolita’

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was made into two movie adaptations, the first one (1962) directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a screenplay by Nabokov (of which “only ragged odds and ends” were used in the film [Nabokov, page xii]; in spite of his having been credited with writing the screenplay, it was actually rewritten by Kubrick and James B. Harris). The second adaptation (1997) was directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Stephen Schiff. There have also been stage and musical adaptations of the novel, as well as an opera.

I’ll be basing this analysis on the novel, Nabokov’s screenplay (his “vivacious variant” of the book [Nabokov, page xxiii]), and the two movies. Though the story is controversial for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl, “not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov, page 4).

Here are some quotes:

Lolita

I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, 
Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Foreword, by Dr. John Ray, Jr., PhD.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –Part One, Chapter 1, opening lines

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the deadly little demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. –Part One, Chapter 5

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set… –Part One, Chapter 2

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other… –Part One, Chapter 3, of Humbert and Annabel

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” –Part One, Chapter 5

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time… –Part One, Chapter 5

Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! –Part One, Chapter 8

Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had. –Part Two, Chapter 1

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. –Part Two, Chapter 36

Lolita: a Screenplay

The CAMERA also locates the drug addict’s implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws. –Prologue, page 1, in Quilty’s home

“My mother was an Englishwoman. Her death preceded that of my father by two decades: she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.” –Humbert’s voice, Prologue, page 4

“I loved her more tenderly than Tristan adored Isolde, more hotly than Petrarca desired his Laura, more romantically than Poe loved little Virginia.” –Humbert’s voice, speaking of Annabel, Prologue, page 6

QUILTY: Say, didn’t you have a little girl? Let me see. With a lovely name. A lovely lilting lyrical name–
CHARLOTTE: Lolita. Diminutive of Dolores.
QUILTY: Ah, of course: Dolores. The tears and the roses.
CHARLOTTE: She’s dancing down there. And tomorrow she’ll be having a cavity filled by your uncle.
QUILTY: I know; he’s a wicked old man.
MISS ADAMS: Mr. Quilty, I’m afraid I must tear you away. There’s somebody come from Parkington to fetch you.
QUILTY: They can wait. I want to watch Dolores dance. –Act One, pages 57-58

CHARLOTTE: Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the piazza? Or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?
HUMBERT: Tooth. –Act One, page 69

HUMBERT: Other commentators, commentators of the Freudian school of thought. No. Commentators of the Freudian prison of thought. Hm. Commentators of the Freudian nursery-school of thought, have maintained that Edgar Poe married the child Virginia Clemm merely to keep her mother near him. He–I quote–had found in his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm the maternal image he had been seeking all his life. What piffle! Listen now to the passion and despair breathing in the letter he addresses to Virginia’s mother on August 29, 1835, when he feared that his thirteen-year-old little sweetheart would be taken away to be educated in another home. “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter….My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away….My agony is more than I can bear….for love like mine can never be gotten over….It is useless to disguise the truth….that I shall never behold her again….” –Act One, pages 70-71

HUMBERT: Where exactly did he take you when you gave me the slip?
LOLITA: Yes, that was awfully mean, I must admit that. He took me to a dude ranch near Elphinstone. Duk-Duk Ranch. Silly name.
HUMBERT: Where exactly? What highway?
LOLITA: No highway–a dirt road up a small mountain. Anyway–that ranch does not exist any more. Pity, because it was really something. I mean you can’t imagine how utterly lush it was, that ranch, I mean it had everything, but everything, even an indoor waterfall. You know when Cue and I first came the others had us actually go through a coronation ceremony.
HUMBERT: The others? Who were they?
LOLITA: Oh, just a bunch of wild kids, and a couple of fat old nudists. And at first everything was just perfect. I was there like a princess, and Cue was to take me to Hollywood, and make a big star of me, and all that. But somehow nothing came of it. And, instead, I was supposed to cooperate with the others in making filthy movies while Cue was gadding about the Lord knows where. Well, when he came back I told him I wanted him and not that crowd of perverts, and we had a fight, and he kicked me out, and that’s all.
HUMBERT: You could have come back to me. –Act Three, pages 207-208

Lolita (1962)

Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?

Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn’t have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He’s…
Humbert[Bangs on the table loudly with the paddle] Lolita?!
Quilty: Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares? [Humbert draws a gun] Hey, you’re a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don’t think I want to play anymore. Gee, I’m just dyin’ for a drink. I’m just dyin’ to have a drinkie.
Humbert: You’re dying anyway, Quilty. Quilty, I want you to concentrate – you’re going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.

Charlotte: My yellow roses. My – daughter….I could offer you a comfortable home, a sunny garden, a congenial atmosphere, my cherry pies.
[Humbert decides to rent the room]
Charlotte: What was the decisive factor? Uh, my garden?
Humbert: I think it was your cherry pies!

“Mind if I dance with your girl? We could, um, sort of swap partners.” –John Farlow, to Humbert, about Charlotte, with whom he leaves to dance

“Did you know that you’ve had the most remarkable effect on her. Did you know that?…she’s begun to radiate a certain glow. When you get to know me better, you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded…In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded.” –Jean Farlow, to Humbert

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. –Humbert, voiceover

Lolita: Hi!
Charlotte: Darling, did you come back for something?
Lolita: Mona’s party turned out to be sorta a drag. So I thought I’d come back and see what you two were doing.
Humbert: We had a wonderful evening. Your mother created a magnificent spread.

The wedding was a quiet affair. And when called upon to enjoy my promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity, to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse, daintily running along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. –Humbert, voiceover

Charlotte: Oh Hum, hum-baby, you know, I love the way you smell. You do arouse the pagan in me. Hum, you just touch me, and I-I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

You must now forget Ramsdale and push our lot and poor Lolita and poor Humbert, and accompany us to Beardsley College where my lectureship in French poetry is in its second semester. Six months have passed and Lolita is attending an excellent school where it is my hope that she will be persuaded to read other things than comic books and movie romances. –Humbert, voiceover

I cannot tell you the exact day when I first knew with utter certainty that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. –Humbert, voiceover

Humbert: What happened to this Oriental-minded genius?
Lolita: Look, don’t make fun of me. I don’t have to tell you a blasted thing.
Humbert: I am not making fun of you. I am merely trying to find out what happened. When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita: To New Mexico…to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was, he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there…painters, nudists, writers, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him and he was on his way to Hollywood to write one of those spectaculars, and he promised to get me a studio contract. But it never turned out that way and instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others making some kind of a, you know, an art movie.
Humbert: An art movie?…And you did it?
Lolita: No, I didn’t do it. And so he kicked me out.
Humbert: You could have come back to me.

Lolita (1997)

I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face. –Humbert, voiceover

What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus. –Humbert, voiceover, last lines

Since “Humbert Humbert” (James Mason in Kubrick’s film, and Jeremy Irons in Lyne’s film) is the guilty narrator of Nabokov’s novel, we should be careful with all the information he provides. As an unreliable narrator, he will try to present himself in as sympathetic a light as possible. We should always bear in mind the assessment of him given by his psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray Jr.: “he is a shining example of moral leprosy.” (Nabokov, page 5)

This making of Humbert as a sympathetic character is extended into the two movies, which have the suave, urbane, and debonair Mason and Irons portraying him. What’s more, the films tone down his hebephilia, making only occasional references to his taste for “nymphets” in general, contrasting with his ogling of girls other than Dolores Haze, and his propositioning of an underage prostitute, as given in Nabokov’s novel and screenplay (Nabokov, pages 16-17, 21-23; screenplay, pages 8-9).

He tries to charm us with his “fancy prose style,” showing false modesty when asking if we “can still stand [his] style,” with its puns, French passages, excessive assonance, and its mellifluous, poetic rhapsodizing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by his erudition: this man is a creep.

He tells us of a childhood romance he had with “Annabel Leigh,” whose name is almost identical to that of the girl (and I do mean girl!) in Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem, a girl believed by many scholars to have been Poe’s 13-year-old bride. This love of Humbert’s youth is meant to make his obsession with 9- to 14-year-old girls seem almost legitimate, the tragic result of a childhood trauma (Annabel died of typhus); but her seeming derivation from Poe’s poem gives us the impression that Humbert has made her up.

He’s a child molester. Period.

He murders Clare Quilty (portrayed by Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s film, and by Frank Langella in Lyne’s) for having taken Dolores away from him. Humbert claims, in his narrative, that Quilty (a pun on guilty) is every bit the pedophile pervert he is, even given to enjoying and producing pornography (as well as doing drugs); but since Humbert is the narrator, should we believe his vilifying of the playwright? Is Humbert not just projecting his own sinfulness onto Quilty?

For all we know, Quilty may have innocently worked to rescue Dolores (played by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film, and by Dominique Swain in Lyne’s) from her sexual abuser, and Humbert the madman simply murdered his would-be doppelgänger out of a wish to get revenge. Then he tried to justify his murder by blackening the name of his victim. This speculation is a distinct possibility.

Nabokov leaves the murder of Quilty to the climactic near-end of the novel (Part Two, Chapter 35), while mentioning only that Humbert is a murderer…of whom?…at the beginning. Nabokov’s screenplay begins with Humbert confronting Quilty in his home, and neither man says a word, then Humbert shoots Quilty (page 2). At the beginning of Kubrick’s film, we see the confrontation with dialogue (though censored–i.e., no reference to “erector sets” is heard [note the pun]) taken from the novel’s climax; then we see an abbreviated repeat of the scene at the end. Lyne’s film begins with Humbert having already killed Quilty: he’s driving his car, swaying left and right, with despair on his face while the police are pursuing him; and this scene is an abbreviation of the pursuit at the end.

I’d say, ironically, that Nabokov’s screenplay version of the killing is the weakest one (because, without the dialogue, what’s the point?), while Kubrick’s rewritten version is the strongest, because emotionally it’s the most powerful: for the rest of the film, we slowly discover why Humbert has killed Quilty. It gives Humbert all that undeserved sympathy, since his narration is so unreliable; but as I observed in my analyses of Falling Down and Reservoir Dogs, this provoking of false sympathy in us, the audience/readers, is a moral test of our ability to know with whom we should sympathize.

At the beginning of Nabokov’s novel, a detail is put in, as if in passing: Humbert’s “very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)” [Nabokov, page 10] back when he was three. In the screenplay, her death occurs on the boy’s fourth birthday, with a dramatic screen direction depicting her death, including this sight: “Her graceful specter floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.” (Nabokov, page 4)

Apart from the low likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year, or in one’s whole life, as well as our being given Humbert’s unreliable narration, this death is too absurd to be taken seriously. I do suspect, however, that his beautiful mother did die when he was a child, and when the boy was going through an unresolved Oedipal fixation (Freudians often consider such perversions as pedophilia to have their root in an unresolved Oedipus complex). I also suspect that it was she, and not his likely-fictional Annabel, who died of typhus in Corfu.

This unresolved Oedipal trauma would have been repressed to the point of his mother being the vaguest of memory traces in his mind (“save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory” —page 10). His subsequent desires for nymphets–so young, and therefore with their whole lives ahead of them, far less likely to die on him–can be seen as a reaction formation–a dialectical shift from the far older to the far younger–against his unconscious wish to possess his mother, or any possible adult transference of her. Hence, his revulsion to any “dull adult woman” (Nabokov, page 10). His predictable disparaging of psychoanalysis can also be easily explained away as a form of resistance.

None of this is to deny that Humbert has tried to have normal sexual relations with women, assuming he isn’t lying about his ex-wife, Valeria [pages 25-29], or Rita, the alcoholic he’s involved with after Dolores runs off with Quilty [pages 258-263]. Even if these attempts at having a normal sex life are true, though, they don’t last long. Humbert is a perv.

Nabokov’s Humbert is more honest about his perviness (though dishonest about so many other things) than that of Kubrick or Lyne. When Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, he originally tries to get a lodging in the McCoos’ house, where he’d be teaching French to the family nymphet…as well as indulging in all things “Humbertish” (Chapter 10, page 35). But the house burns down, so he goes to the Haze home instead.

He predictably finds Charlotte Haze repulsive, but when he sees her 12-year-old daughter sunbathing in the backyard (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” —page 40), he claims that he’s seen his Annabel reincarnated (page 15)…though I’d say he’s incarnated his mother in her.

The fact that Humbert would rather refer to Dolores as “Lolita” than by her real name is significant. In changing her name, in characterizing her as the giggling, sexually precocious child that the name “Lolita” is now associated with, as opposed to acknowledging her real name, Dolores (meaning “dolorous,” or sorrowful, as one would expect a traumatized victim of child sexual abuse to be), he is creating a false image of her, an idealized one to contrast with who she really is.

What must be emphasized here is that, from Humbert’s narration, we know virtually nothing about Dolores Haze; “Lolita” is a fantasy concocted in his mind. The novel’s first and last word is “Lolita” (and that includes even the Foreword by Dr. John Ray). The real girl is virtually nowhere to be found in the story.

The giggling, sassy little sex kitten, his fantasized version of her, with her “lovely lyrical lilting name,” (so expressive of the gleeful naughtiness he imagines her to have) is really just a projection of his own wickedness. Humbert writes of a boy at camp, Charlie, having already “debauched” her (Chapters 31 and 32, page 135; also, page 133), of how she tempts Humbert to kiss her in the car on the ride from camp to The Enchanted Hunters hotel (pages 112-113, Chapter 27), and of her having seduced him in the hotel (pages 132-134, Chapter 29). All of these are attempts by him to mitigate his guilt. She ‘wanted it,’ so he wasn’t all that much of a rapist/child molester. The actual, weeping Dolores is nowhere in these pages.

As his fantasized image of the perfect “nymphet,” she, as “Lolita,” is what WRD Fairbairn would have called the Exciting Object of Humbert’s Libidinal Ego (part of Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, which he used to replace Freud’s id). She mirrors back to Humbert what he projects out to her of his own sinfulness.

Normal, mentally healthy people have predominantly what Fairbairn called the Ideal Object interacting with the Central Ego (replacing Freud’s ego); this object is “ideal” because it’s made up of real relationships that one should have with other people, as opposed to the fantasized object relations we all too often have in our minds. Dolores Haze would be an Ideal Object for Humbert’s Central Ego, were he to be a normal stepfather who had no sexual interest in her at all, but only healthy, paternal affection. Instead, there’s only her as a Dolores of the mind: “Lolita.”

As I’ve argued above, “Lolita” and all other “nymphets” are just transferences of his long-lost mother, transformed by reaction formation from that older object to the younger ones that he wishes to possess. Now understood as a kind of inverse Oedipal fixation, or of a mother/son relationship metamorphosed into a daughter/father one, we can see not only his obsession with “Lolita” as his ultimately unattainable objet petit a (i.e., a sought-out replacement for his Oedipally-desired mother), but we can also see why he has such a servile attitude towards her. He’s a slave to her power the way a little boy is because he fears losing Mommy’s love.

There is a third part to Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, and Clare Quilty embodies this part: it is the Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly called the Internal Saboteur), which links with the Rejecting Object. It corresponds only roughly with Freud’s superego, but Quilty can be seen to represent both Freud’s and Fairbairn’s corresponding concepts.

Since Humbert’s narration is unreliable, his depiction of Quilty is as dubious as is his of Dolores. We know little of Quilty, except that he is a playwright and that Humbert has murdered him. Just as “Lolita” represents everything fun, sassy, and sexy in Humbert’s lewd imagination (the Exciting Object), so does “Cue” represent everything repellent in Humbert, everything he hates about himself (the Rejecting Object).

At the same time, though Humbert projects all of his hebephile perversions onto Quilty, his nemesis also embodies his guilty conscience, his superego. His conversation with then-unknown Quilty, with the latter’s taunts (“Where the devil did you get her?” and “You lie–she’s not.”–Chapter 28, page 127; and, of course, Quilty later following Humbert’s car) shows the inner critic of Humbert’s superego plainly personified. The same goes for Peter Sellers’s nerdy cop improvisation with James Mason in the corresponding scene in Kubrick’s movie.

So, both “Lolita” and “Cue” represent opposing tendencies in Humbert’s mind. In turn, these two opposing tendencies have their representations in the novel (and therefore in Lyne’s film too, since it’s far more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s is) and in Kubrick’s film respectively. Consider how Kubrick’s version greatly expands Quilty’s role; and where, as film critic Greg Jenkins noted, the film begins and ends with the word “Quilty,” just as the novel begins and ends with “Lolita.”

Humbert, at his core, is narcissistic, as is clear in his ostentatious writing style. Since, as I’ve speculated above, his hebephilia can be seen as a dialectical turning upside-down of his unconscious, unresolved Oedipus complex, which in turn is a universal narcissistic trauma (i.e., one wishes to hog Mother all to oneself), one can see how sassy “Lolita” is a mirror reflection of his narcissism.

Similarly, Quilty, being overtly narcissistic himself, is a mirror reflection of those dark qualities that Humbert wishes to disavow and project onto others. Recall how, in Lyne’s film, we see Humbert who, having confronted Quilty at gunpoint in his home, is weeping in horror at the plainly confessed lasciviousness of his would-be doppelgänger. But Quilty’s sin is Humbert’s own.

The whole novel is a journey through Humbert’s mind, with “Lolita” and “Cue” as opposing, yet dialectically akin, internal objects floating around in his head like ghosts haunting a house. The naughtiness of the spouse-swapping Farlows and Mr. Swine in Kubrick’s film are just more of such projections of Humbert’s filthy mind.

Now, Nabokov was known for disavowing any allegorical intent with Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita,” page 314), but I’ll give two reasons why I doubt that we should take his words at face value. First of all, he could have made such disavowals in order to prevent any one scholar’s interpretation, however convincing it may be, to be deemed the ‘definitive’ interpretation; in other words, Nabokov’s denial may have been meant to encourage a maximum of possible interpretations.

Second, even if he really meant that he hated allegorizing, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have unconsciously intended one. Certainly, Martin Amis saw in Lolita an allegory of a ‘Soviet rape,’ if you will, of Russia; and Nabokov, a classical liberal, hated communism. (For my part, I find Amis’s use of Robert Conquest‘s work in his research to be dubious in itself, to put it mildly, but I digress…) So anyway, I’d like to try a few allegories of my own.

One allegory we can see in Humbert’s seduction of Dolores (as opposed to his projection of “Lolita” supposedly seducing him; or, a reversal from Freud’s female Oedipus complex back to his seduction theory) is that of the European colonizing North and South America, with the colonizers rationalizing their conquest by claiming an intent ‘to civilize’ the natives. I’m reminded of John Donne‘s poem, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d.” (lines 25-28)

The innocent natives being plundered is symbolized by Humbert’s sexual abuse of Dolores; the converting of those natives to Christianity can be seen as symbolized by Humbert’s attempts to introduce her to culture (e.g., his buying her such books as Browning‘s Dramatic Works, The History of Dancing, The Russian Ballet, and The Theatre Guild Anthology so she’ll have something to read while in hospital [page 242]). Similarly, the white man (Humbert, the “white widowed male”) taking possession of and enslaving black Americans (represented here by Dolores) is another reasonable allegory, since Nabokov was vocal in his opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans.

Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, as symbolic of that of the European and American, is also seen in his comments on American pop culture, as opposed to European high culture. As heard in Kubrick’s film, Humbert speaks disapprovingly of Dolores’s taste for “comic books and movie romances.” He complains of her “eerie vulgarity,” a reflection of the stereotypically cultured European as against the equally stereotypical philistine American, and which can in turn be seen as symbolic of the ‘civilized’ white attitude to the ‘uncivilized’ ways of the natives.

Another allegory of Humbert’s desire for nymphets, especially evident in Kubrick’s film, is the yearning of the older characters (Humbert and Quilty) for a return to youth, as personified in “Lolita.” We see this in Kubrick’s film whenever Charlotte, the Farlows, etc., refer to each other as “kids” or “other young marrieds.” Then there’s that elderly spectator or two, envious of the smooth style of dancing Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom (later, Charlotte), trying to bop along to the music and appear as hip as they can.

But to return to one of my earlier speculations, towards the end of the novel, we find Humbert looking at pregnant Mrs. Dolores Schiller, and finding himself all the more in love with her. At seventeen years old, she’s too old to be a nymphet! As a mother-to-be, she is triggering his repressed Oedipal fixation.

“…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past…but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshiped…I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” (Part Two, Chapter 29, pages 277-278)

His loving of her, older and with another man’s baby, reminds one of a little boy’s Oedipal jealousy over his father’s having of his love-object, jealous of how she will be preoccupied with taking care of his younger sibling-to-be; because the Oedipus complex is a selfish, narcissistic trauma, and his seeing his “Lolita” in this way is bringing back those feelings that have been buried deep down in his psyche. This element, hidden among all the lies of this unreliable narrator, is the core truth of his whole narrative.

Finally, we must confront the “dangerous trends,” the “potent evils,” that Dr. John Ray warns us about in the Foreword. There have been attempts by some in the media recently to normalize pedophile desires; there has also been the growing problem of sexualizing little girls. These are, needless to say, dangerous encouragements to more child sexual abuse. Then there were Epstein‘s escapades, most of the perpetrators of which still seem largely unpunished. For these reasons, we shouldn’t let Humbert’s honeyed words charm us. We should heed Ray’s words instead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1955

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: a Screenplay, Vintage International, New York, 1961

Analysis of ‘Salò’

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) is a 1975 art horror film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The screenplay, written by Sergio Citti and Pasolini, was based on the Marquis de Sade‘s unfinished pornographic novel of the same name (sans Salò, or). Pasolini updated the story, moving it from the Château de Silling in 18th century France to the final years of WWII, in fascist Italy, during the time of the fascist Republic of Salò.

The film stars Paolo Bonacelli (who also played Cassius Chaerea in the Penthouse Caligula film), Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, and Aldo Valletti as four wealthy libertines who abduct, sexually abuse, torture, and ultimately murder a group of teenage boys and girls. The cast also includes Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, and Hélène Surgère as three middle-aged prostitutes who tell erotic stories to inflame the lust of the libertines and inspire them to acts of depravity.

Salò was and still is controversial for its shocking depiction of sexual violence against the teenaged boys and girls, at least some of whom are believed to have been underage at the time of filming, though they all look as though they could be 18 or 19 years of age. For these reasons, Salò is considered one of the most disturbing films ever made. It has been banned in many countries.

As a gay communist, Pasolini was trying to make some harsh social critiques in the making of this movie, especially as a critique of capitalism and the atrocities of fascism. He was murdered by bitter anti-communists, who allegedly had in their possession stolen rolls of film from the movie, just after its completion. Still, despite the unsettling subject matter of the film (or rather, because of it), Salò has been highly praised by many critics.

Here are some quotes, in English translation:

[first lines: four men, sitting at a table, each sign a booklet] The Duke: Your Excellency.
The Magistrate: Mr. President.
The President: My lord.
The Bishop: All’s good if it’s excessive.

“Dear friends, marrying each other’s daughters will unite our destinies for ever.” –the Duke

“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.” –the Duke

“Signora Vaccari is sure to soon turn them into first class whores. Nothing is more contagious than evil.” –the Magistrate

“I was nine when my sister took me to Milan to meet Signora Calzetti. She examined me and asked if I wanted to work for her. I said I would, if the pay was good. My first client, a stout man named Vaccari, looked me over carefully. At once, I showed him my pussy, which I thought was very special. He covered his eyes: “Out of the question. I’m not interested in your vagina, cover it up.” He covered me, making me lie down, and said “All these little whores know is to flaunt their vaginas. Now I shall have to recover from that disgusting sight.” –Signora Vaccari

“Homage to the rear temple is often more fervent than the other.” –the President

“On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” –the Duke, singing

“We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we’re masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.” –the Duke

“It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of “the people”. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist. So you wouldn’t aid the humble, the unhappy. In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” –the Duke

“I remember I once had a mother too, who aroused similar feelings in me. As soon as I could, I sent her to the next world. I have never known such subtle pleasure as when she closed her eyes for the last time.” –the Duke

The Duke: [Renata is crying] Are you crying for your mama? Come, I’ll console you! Come here to me!
The President: [singing] Come, little darling to your good daddy / He’ll sing you a lullaby
The Duke: Heavens, what an opportunity you offer me. Sra. Maggi’s tale must be acted upon at once.
Female Victim: Sir, Sir. Pity. Respect my grief. I’m suffering so, at my mother’s fate. She died for me and I’ll never see her again.
The Duke: Undress her.
Female Victim: Kill me! At least God, whom I implore, will pity me. Kill me, but don’t dishonour me.
The Duke: This whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.

The President: [while eating a meal of faeces] Carlo, do this with your fingers. [the President sticks two fingers in his mouth] And say, “I can’t eat rice with my fingers like this.”
Male Victim: [with fingers in his mouth] I can’t eat rice.
The President: Then eat shit.

“It is not enough to kill the same person over and over again. It is far more recommendable to kill as many beings as possible.” –Signora Castelli

“Idiot, did you really think we would kill you? Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” –the Bishop

“The principle of all greatness on earth has long been totally bathed in blood. And, my friends, if my memory does not betray me – yes, that’s it: without bloodshed, there is no forgiveness. Without bloodshed. Baudelaire.” –the Magistrate

[last lines: two young male guards are dancing with each other] Guard: What’s your girlfriend’s name?
Guard: Marguerita.

Four wealthy and politically powerful libertines–a duke (Bonacelli), a president (Valletti), a bishop (Cataldi), and a magistrate (Quintavalle)–discuss plans to marry each other’s daughters (without their consent, of course), as well as to abduct youths and maidens to abuse sexually and torture physically and mentally (and even kill some of them) over a period of four months.

These four libertines obviously represent the ruling class, though in the context of late fascist Italy (i.e., Mussolini and Hitler are about to lose the war), we can see their sadism as representing capitalism in crisis (fascism, properly understood, is a kind of hyper-capitalism). When such a crisis occurs, the gentle, smiling face of the liberal is revealed to be a mask covering the scowling face of fascism. Hence, the four men’s cruelty.

The victims, frequently if not always naked, represent the proletariat: exploited, brutalized, vulnerable, humiliated, and lacking the means to live freely. Recall Hamlet’s use of the word naked (‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), to understand the symbolic meaning of the victims’ nakedness.

The studs, or fouteurs (“fuckers”) in Sade’s story (Sade, page 80), as well as the young male collaborators, or guards (dressed in the uniforms of the Decima Flottiglia MAS) represent the police and standing army of the bourgeois state. They are comparable to the militarized police of today. Without them, the four libertines would have no power, and the same, of course, goes for the state.

These young men are all rounded up to work for the four libertines, and only one of them, Ezio, is reluctant to do so. Indeed, when the guards apprehend the libertines’ daughters, all as members of the bourgeoisie who normally would be used to much better treatment (apart from their fathers’ previous rapes of them, as understood in Sade’s novel), Ezio apologizes to the women, saying he must obey orders. If only all of these thugs could understand that some orders shouldn’t be obeyed, such horrors as those seen in this movie wouldn’t happen.

But how does one get through to class collaborators?

Since capitalism is sheer hell for the poor–as I observed in my analysis of American Psycho, another story involving brutal violence inflicted by the rich–it is appropriate that Salò be divided into sections reminding us of Dante‘s Inferno: Anteinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Abandon all hope, ye proletarians who enter here.

None of the four libertines are named, and the studs and collaborators aren’t often called by name. The three middle-aged prostitute storytellers are named, but the piano player isn’t; and of the victims who are named, most have names equal or approximate to those of the actors portraying them, as if naming them was an afterthought by Pasolini. Thus, we aren’t very conscious of the names of many of the characters. This near-anonymity reinforces the sense of emotional distance, the alienation, felt not just between all the characters, but between them and us, the audience.

Indeed, one of the many reasons that this film is so disturbing to viewers, as has been noted by critics, is how we cannot get close to any of the characters, there being too many of them to focus on any; so it is difficult to empathize with, to care for, any of them individually (except for shit-eating, motherless Renata and the daughter who is tripped and raped at dinner, and these are only a few incidents, not plot points drawn out for the full length of the film), and the ability to empathize with individual characters is crucial for grounding in the story, for being able to enjoy it.

We pity the victims in a general sense, we pity them en masse, but we can’t follow any individual character arcs. There is no sense of anyone growing, developing, or changing; it’s just victims entering a sea of trauma and swimming through undifferentiated torment from beginning to end.

We know the victims are doomed, and that their depraved masters are irredeemable. There’s nothing anybody can do to help the victims, so all that there is here is a sadistic stasis throughout. Lasciate ogne speranza,…

In Sade’s novel, the characters are grouped and categorized in a manner almost like taxonomy: the four libertines, the prostitute storytellers, the libertines’ daughters, the huit fouteurs, the four elderly, ugly women, etc. The numbers of characters are often reduced (e.g., four studs instead of eight) in the film, and Sade generally names the characters, but this sense of ‘taxonomy’ is retained in Salò.

This categorizing of characters is significant in terms of the Italian fascist context of the film, since Mussolini wanted his fascist society to be broken up into corporate groups of people according to the functions they were meant to perform in society (syndicates). When Mussolini spoke of “corporatism,” this is what he meant, not the corporatocracy that we see today, the unholy alliance of business corporations with the state, which is really just the logical extreme that capitalism comes to.

The fact that the libertines allow their daughters to be abused and killed doesn’t in any way detract from them also being symbolic of the bourgeoisie. The daughters are every bit as representative of capitalists–that is, the less fortunate ones–as their fathers are. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Apart from the fact that their fathers’ cruelty to them is a reflection of the patriarchal family, especially cruel in a fascist context, the daughters as victims can be seen as representative of, for example, the Jewish petite bourgeoisie up until the Nazis stripped them of their rights with the Nuremberg Laws. Hence, the daughters being stripped naked and forced to stay naked throughout the four months, humiliated, made to serve everyone’s meals and to endure being spat on by the guards and raped by the studs.

Indeed, the first scene in which the daughters appear as naked waitresses is one that I find to be among the most painful to watch. What we see here is the essence of fascism: the guards and studs, as class collaborators instead of joining in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class, would rather target and bully a select portion of the petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the daughters.

That poor daughter who is tripped and raped by one of the studs, while the others watch and laugh at her–the bourgeois fathers would rather sing a song together than help the girl. This is the essence of the bourgeois family: being more concerned with maintaining power and prestige than even with helping their own children.

Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, wrote of how there is no meaningful sense of family among the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us [communists] with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (II: Proletarians and Communists)

Indeed, with all the teen victims snatched away from their parents (and Renata actually having witnessed the murder of her own mother, who tried to save her), we can see the truth of Marx’s observation. To make matters worse, though, we see this injustice to the family extended to that of the bourgeoisie itself, in the form of the libertines’ abuse of their daughters. The psychopathic and narcissistic libertines have no qualms at all about abusing their own flesh and blood.

The prostitutes, catering on the one hand to libertine lust with their erotic storytelling, and on the other hand being far less vicious to the victims, can be seen to represent the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class maintains its power over us with a kind of one-two punch: the liberal jab, and the conservative right-cross.

When liberals are elected, they give the people the false hope that all will be well with their modest reforms, which don’t really help the people in any meaningful way, but rather exist as concessions that keep us at bay and stave off revolution. Then, when we’re comfortable and complacent, conservatives get elected and create harsher legislation, which we hate but ultimately get used to, so no attempt is ever made, when liberals get reelected, to reverse the hated new laws. One-two punch.

We can see such a situation as symbolized by how, for example, Signora Vaccari holds naked Renata in her arms as a mother would her child. Yet it isn’t long after that that the trembling, traumatized girl is forced into a mock marriage with Sergio during the ceremony of which the Duke fondles a number of the male and female victims; then the boy and girl are pressured to fondle each other, then they are raped by the libertines to stop them from consummating their own ‘marriage.’

Later, at the beginning of the Circle of Blood, the duke, president, and magistrate, all in women’s clothes, growl at the weeping victims, demanding that they smile and laugh during this ‘joyous’ occasion of a mock wedding between the libertine ‘brides’ and the stud grooms. Vaccari and the piano player (played by Sonia Saviange) improvise jokes to make the victims laugh. We all know, however, that this is only a brief respite from the teens’ endless frowning.

Another way that the prostitute storytellers can be seen as symbolic of liberals is in how their lewd stories parody, and thus can represent, our permissive pop culture, with its gratuitous swearing in Hollywood movies and sexually suggestive pop and rock songs. We seem to be liberated with such indulgences, but in our growing poverty, we aren’t.

The scene in which the libertines have the victims, including their daughters, crawl naked on all fours and bark like dogs to be fed is significant. I suspect they have been starved, and the only way they can hope to be fed is to degrade themselves in this way. It makes me think of how capitalists use charity to create the illusion that their philanthropy is generosity rather than just good public relations. Poverty is solved by a socialist reorganizing of society, providing guaranteed housing, healthcare, employment, education, etc., not giving occasional ‘charitable’ dollars to the poor.

When the poor are given alms out of pity, that pity is really condescension coming from the ruling class. And in Salò, when one of the male victims (Lamberto) refuses to be so degraded, the magistrate whips him until he passes out. Later, the magistrate hides nails in some food and feeds it to one of the daughters, who screams in pain on having the nails stab into her mouth. Some charity.

From the Circle of Manias we go to an even more torturous one, the Circle of Shit. It is appropriate that this one be in the middle of the movie, for as film scholar Stephen Barber has observed, Salò is centred around the anus. This is true not only because of the revolting coprophagia that we see, but also in all the sodomy, that is, all the gay sex.

On one level, the coprophagia–at the dinner table in particular–represents our society’s overindulgence in junk food. When you see a fork or a spoon raising a turd from a plate up to one’s ever-so-reluctant mouth, think of a McDonald’s hamburger.

On a deeper level, though–and this is especially evident in the notorious scene in which the Duke defecates on the floor and forces Renata to eat it–the coprophagia can be seen to represent the splitting-off and projection of hated aspects of oneself (understood as internal objects of the negative aspects of one’s parents), to be introjected by others. Melanie Klein observed that a baby, experiencing what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, would engage in projective identification, ejecting unwanted parts of itself and making its mother receive those projections, which in unconscious phantasy often come in the forms of faeces or urine.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s notion of projective identification further, stating that babies and psychotics use it as a primitive, pre-verbal form of communication. Bion‘s theory of containment is normally applied to a mother’s soothing of her distressed, agitated baby, or to a therapist dealing with a deeply disturbed patient. Negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), however, results when a narcissistic or psychopathic parent, or therapist–or in the case of Salò, the four libertines–do the opposite of soothing, worsening the agitation of the baby, patient, or Salò victims, so that the distress changes into a nameless dread.

The container, or receiver of the stressful emotions (the parent or therapist), is given a feminine symbol, implying a yoni; the contained, or projection of those emotions (those of the baby or patient), is given a masculine symbol, implying a phallus. So the process of containment can, in turn, be symbolized by the notion of making love. In Salò, however, the container isn’t symbolized by the yoni, but by the anus.

The soothing of containment as symbolized by lovemaking, therefore, has relevance in Salò only in the context of homosexual sex, hence the homoeroticism in the film shouldn’t be surprising. The only mutually pleasurable sex in this film is between libertines and their willing gay partners (symbolic class collaborators), i.e., the bishop and his stud, and the duke and his catamite (Rino), one of the few boys among the victims who, because of his willing submission, isn’t brutalized. Apart from these oases from abuse (including some lesbian sex among the female victims), there is only rape.

This rape, be it penile/vaginal or anal rape, is all a symbol of the negative containment described above. The libertines, studs, and guards project their viciousness onto their victims, either in the form of rapes, or, using their shit as the contained, they project their cruelty into their victims’ mouths, another container.

The resulting trauma is the victims’ nameless dread. The introjectively identified cruelty is then manifested in the victims when they later betray other victims, or when Umberto, a victim promoted to guard/collaborator to replace Ezio, calls the boy victims “culattoni!” (faggots!)

One doesn’t have to accept Freud‘s theory of anal expulsiveness (i.e., drive theory) to see its symbolic resonance as applied to Salò. Two noteworthy traits associated with anal expulsiveness are cruelty and emotional outbursts, as are seen plentifully among the libertines in this film. Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism are understood to be caused to a great extent by childhood trauma, which is then projected onto others in the negative container/contained way described above. It’s easy to believe that the four libertines were abused as children, then grew up to be abusers themselves; the same goes for the studs and guards.

At the beginning of the Circle of Blood, we shouldn’t mistake the libertines’ cross-dressing for transgenderism. If anything, their transvestitism and gay marriage to the studs is a fascist mockery of the LGBT community. These are the kind of men who would put muscular transwomen into sporting competitions with cis-women to ensure that the latter lose every time. It’s a typical divide-and-conquer tactic that the ruling class uses to keep the people distracted from revolution.

Fascists and Nazis, of course, have never tolerated the LGBT community. Even Ernst Röhm, the gay leader of the SA, was an exception proving the rule. He was only grudgingly tolerated by Hitler until the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazis eliminated all of their potential political enemies, using the very politically powerful Röhm’s homosexuality as a rationale to have him killed (apart from an unsubstantiated claim that he was trying to wrest Hitler from power, the so-called “Röhm Putsch”). So when we see any gay sex or cross-dressing among the libertines, none of it should be understood as an affirmation of LGBT rights: it’s just that those four men can do anything they like, because they can, because they have the power.

The mounting suffering of the victims, and their powerlessness, causes their alienation to grow, meaning–apart from the occasional lesbian sex we see–they never feel any sense of solidarity, togetherness, or mutual aid. So when the bishop comes into their sleeping areas and threatens them with punishment for breaking any of their little rules, the victims promptly betray their fellow sufferers so they can save their own skins. This culminates in the betrayal of Ezio, the only guard who obeys the libertines with reluctance.

He is found making love with a black servant girl, offending not only the libertines’ disgust at the sight of penile-vaginal sex (and the implication that the boy and girl are fucking because they love each other, like the husbands and wives they lampoon with their mock marriages), but also arousing their abhorrence of interracial sex. And Ezio’s final offence is his raised fist: the two naked lovers are then shot.

The lovers’ nakedness shows their proletarian identification with the victims. His bold standing there, frontally nude (before four men with lecherous desires for young male bodies) and raising his fist, emphasizes his defiance of their hegemony.

They hesitate before killing him. Is it their lustful reluctance to waste a beautiful body they haven’t taken the opportunity to enjoy? Is it awe at his boldness, when he has absolutely no means to defend himself or fight back (refer above to Hamlet’s use of the word naked)? Is it shock at his unexpected socialist salute, indicating their unwitting employment of one they’d deem a traitor?

The only other reluctant collaborator among them is the piano player, who upon realizing the full extent of her employers’ murderous designs, jumps out of a window and kills herself. Such is the despair that so aggravated a form of right-wing hegemony can arouse in those who love freedom.

Finally, the libertines choose those victims they’ll have murdered, including all their daughters. Wearing blue ribbons around their arms, they await their doom, the daughters sitting in a large bin filled with shit. The daughter who was tripped and raped by the stud at dinner, imitating Christ on the Cross, shouts, “God, God, why have you abandoned us?” When a parent frustrates his or her children (or in this case, abuses them), their oft-used defence mechanism is splitting the parent into absolute good and bad, with a wish to expel the bad parent and keep the good one near; in this case, God as the good father is gone, while the libertines as all-too-bad fathers are all-too-present.

Not only are these victims murdered, they are killed in the most agonizing, sadistic, and drawn-out of ways. The boy Sergio is branded on the nipple. The daughters are raped one last time, one of them killed by hanging. The boy Franco has his tongue cut out. Renata’s breasts are burned, as is a boy’s penis, and a girl is scalped.

The libertines, studs, and guards are the gleefully willing perpetrators, of course, but each libertine goes inside the house to take a turn to watch the murders, which occur outside, from a window, viewing the cruelty through small binoculars. This voyeurism is comparable to our watching of violence in movies and on TV: we’ve seen so much of it that we’re desensitized to it; the voyeurs’ watching of the violence from farther away symbolizes our emotional distance from such violence when we see it on TV and in film.

The two guards we see at the end of the film, two boys dancing to music–can be seen as another fascist mockery of the LGBT community. One of them has a girlfriend named Marguerita–I don’t think he is bisexual.

The horrors seen in this film should be understood as prophetic, a dire warning of a reality that is more and more apparent each coming year. The film’s sadism only symbolizes that reality, but it’s no less of a reality just because of symbolism. Neoliberal capitalism hadn’t yet come into its own as of the mid-Seventies, but Pasolini knew that all of the imperialist ingredients were already on the table. The fascist shit dishes were going to be made and eaten, and quite soon: he could smell them.

Analysis of ‘RoboCop’

RoboCop is a 1987 science fiction action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. It stars Peter Weller in the title role, as well as Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O’Herlihy, and Ronny Cox.

It is considered one of the best films of 1987, and it spawned two sequels, several TV series (including two cartoons), video games, and a comic book, as well as a remake that got a comparatively lukewarm reception. There is much more to this film than just the usual ‘shoot-’em-up’ action film formula: there is much social commentary on the evils of capitalism, media manipulation, gentrification, and one’s sense of identity.

Here are some quotes:

“I’d buy that for a dollar!” –Bixby Snyder, repeated line from a TV show

Dougy: We rob the banks but we never get to keep the money.
Emil: Takes money to make money. We steal money to buy coke then sell the coke to make even more money. Capital investment, man.
Dougy: Yeah, but why bother making it when we can just steal it?
Emil: No better way to steal money than free enterprise.

Good night, sweet prince.” –Joe Cox, to Murphy after the gang has shot him

Bob Morton: How does he eat?
Roosevelt: His digestive system is extremely simple. This processor dispenses a rudimentary paste that sustains his organic systems.
Johnson: [Roosevelt dispenses the paste into a cup and hands it to Johnson] Tastes like baby food.
Bob Morton: Knock yourself out.

“Your move, creep.” –RoboCop

Reporter: Robo, excuse me, Robo! Any special message for all the kids watching at home?
RoboCop: Stay out of trouble.

“Murphy, it’s you!” –Officer Lewis

Officer Lewis: I asked him his name. He didn’t know.
Bob Morton: Oh, great. Let me make it real clear to you. He doesn’t have a name. He’s got a program. He’s product. Is that clear?

“I dunno, I dunno, maybe I’m just not making myself clear. I don’t want to fuck with you, Sal, but I’ve got the connections, I’ve got the sales organization, I got the muscle to shove enough of this factory so far up your stupid wop ass, that you’ll shit snow for a year!” –Clarence

“What’s the matter, officer? I’ll tell you what’s the matter. It’s a little insurance policy called ‘Directive 4’, my contribution to your very psychological profile. Any attempt to arrest a senior officer of OCP results in shutdown. What did you think? That you were an ordinary police officer? You’re our product. And we can’t very well have our products turning against us, can we?” –Dick Jones, when ‘Directive 4’ interferes with RoboCop’s attempt to arrest him

“It’s a free society – except there ain’t nothin’ free, because there’s no guarantees, you know? You’re on your own. It’s the law of the jungle. Hoo-hoo.” –Keva Rosenberg, Unemployed Person

Nukem. Get them before they get you. Another quality home game from Butler Brothers.” –Commercial Voice-Over

Dick Jones: That thing is still alive.
Clarence Boddicker: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dick Jones: The police officer who arrested you, the one you spilled your guts to.
Clarence Boddicker: Hey, take a look at my face, Dick! He was trying to kill me!
Dick Jones: He’s a cyborg, you idiot! He recorded every word you said! His memories are admissable as evidence! You involved me! You’re gonna have to kill it.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, listen, chief…your company built the fucking thing! Now I gotta deal with it?! I don’t have time for this bullshit! [heads for the door]
Dick Jones: Suit yourself, Clarence. But Delta City begins construction in two months. That’s two million workers living in trailers. That means drugs. Gambling. Prostitution. [Boddicker stops, backtracks into the room] Virgin territory for the man who knows how to open up new markets. One man could control it all, Clarence.
Clarence Boddicker: Well, I guess we’re gonna be friends after all… Richard. [Jones tosses Boddicker RoboCop’s tracker.]
Dick Jones: Destroy it.
Clarence Boddicker: Gonna need some major firepower. You got access to military weaponry?
Dick Jones: We practically are the military.

“It’s back. Big is back, because bigger is better. 6000 SUX – an American tradition!” –Commercial Voiceover [caption on screen says “An American Tradition. 8.2 MPG”]

“You are illegally parked on private property. You have twenty seconds to move your vehicle.” –ED-209, seeing RoboCop drive up to the OCP entrance

[last lines] Old Man: [to RoboCop] Nice shootin’, son. What’s your name?
RoboCop: [stops and turns around; to Old Man] Murphy. [warmly smiles and walks out]

The sardonic take on the media is apparent right from the beginning, with TV newscasters played by none other than Mario Machado and Leeza Gibbons (she having been on such programs as Entertainment Tonight) discussing the shooting of Officer Frank Frederickson, the policeman Murphy (Weller) is replacing in the local Detroit police force. An example of media phoniness is seen when newscaster Casey Wong (Machado) roots for Frederickson to recover from his injuries.

The police are having such difficulties dealing with the rampant crime in Detroit–a problem exacerbated by the plans of megacorporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to privatize the force–that one angry cop suggests going on strike.

As I’ve argued in other posts, I see the mafia, as well as police–and most obviously, corporations like OCP–as representing differing facets of capitalism: the crime gang headed by Clarence Boddicker (Smith) symbolizes the “free market” version; and the cops are, apart from their role as capitalists’ bodyguards, representative of a more government-regulated version of capitalism. How the mafia, cops, and corporations intermingle is made blatantly clear in the movie.

In fact, when Murphy and Lewis (Allen) have chased Clarence’s gang into an abandoned steel mill (the gang’s hideout), we hear Emil (played by Paul McCrane) chatting with Dougy about “free enterprise,” in the form of stealing in order to finance their cocaine business. Capitalism in general is about stealing (the fruits of worker labour in the form of surplus value) in order to accumulate capital.

Capitalists don’t screw over only their workers, though. They also step on each other in the brutal, dog-eat-dog world of competition. As Marx said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) We see examples of this striking down in the rivalry between Dick Jones (Cox) and Bob Morton (Ferrer) over who has made the superior mechanical cop.

Clarence’s gang doesn’t just kill Murphy: they mutilate his body in swarms of bullets. His hand is blown off by a shotgun, then his entire arm before Clarence finishes him off with a bullet in the head. Indeed, there’s quite a lot of mutilation in this film: consider Emil’s fate, his body deformed in a soaking in toxic waste before his body sprays into pieces after being hit by Clarence’s racing car.

Soon after, Leon (played by Ray Wise) is blown up from having been shot by Lewis with the Cobra Assault Cannon, a weapon Jones has supplied Clarence’s gang with to destroy RoboCop. Morton is also blown up by a grenade set off in his home by Clarence; and Jones’s body is riddled with bullets before he falls to his death at the end of the film. People don’t just die: bodies get destroyed.

This mutilation is symbolic of how capitalism alienates us not just from each other, but also from our own species-essence. This is precisely what Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg symbolizes. He, as a cop defending the capitalist class, is reduced to a machine. His quest for the remainder of the film is to reclaim his identity, something all tied up with this alienation from himself, as a cop who exists only as a product of a corporation.

Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg has been compared to the death and resurrection of Christ. His character in general has been so compared; Verhoeven himself has made this comparison, and one can’t so easily brush aside the interpretations of the movie-maker himself.

Still, I must respectfully disagree. Though RoboCop is the hero of the movie, there’s nothing particularly Christ-like, or even Christian, about him. He’s still a cop: (especially American) cops kill, but Jesus saves. A bullet shot clean through Murphy’s hand could have symbolized the stigmata; instead, his hand (and arm) are blown right off.

Even if one were to say RoboCop’s wading in ankle-deep water is symbolically like Christ’s walking on water, the comparison is superficial. RoboCop is wading in the water pointing his gun at Clarence, saying, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” implying he’s going to shoot and kill the mob boss in cold blood. Christ walked on water to help his frightened disciples on a boat in a storm at sea, to teach them about having faith. The meaning between the two moments couldn’t be farther apart.

We shouldn’t always take movie-makers’ interpretations of their films at face value. How they discuss meaning in their films can often have more to do with stimulating interest in the films and making money off them (speaking of capitalism) than in telling us their real intents. Saying RoboCop represents Christ can easily be seen as a marketing trick to get religiously-minded people to want to buy a ticket and see the film.

So instead of comparing Murphy’s metamorphosis into RoboCop with Christ’s resurrection (how does a mechanical body–not easily perishable–represent a “spiritual body“–utterly imperishable?), I would compare it to a rebirth, almost a reincarnation. Bob Morton is the father, and though he’s playing God in his creation of a part-human, part robot policeman, the ruthless capitalist is no Holy Father; Tyler (played by Sage Parker), the female head of the team of scientists who make RoboCop can be seen as his new mother–she even kisses her baby at a New Year’s Day party, her red lipstick supposedly meant to arouse Oedipal feelings in her ‘son.’

Psychologically, RoboCop can thus be seen as a baby…not the ‘babies’ I characterized Carrie and Hannah as, with their waif-like innocence, naïveté, and vulnerability, of course, but in the sense that, newborn, he has no more than fragments of memories of his former life. He has no sense of self, or a meaningful sense of his past; it’s as if he were born yesterday. He even eats baby food.

Morton, as RoboCop’s ‘father,’ wants total prosthesis (i.e., all mechanical limbs) for his new product, so he insists on amputating Murphy’s one good arm. This amputation is a symbolic castration, yet another symbolic example of the mutilation and disempowerment inherent in capitalism.

Along with this, Morton goes over RoboCop’s Prime Directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. These directives represent the Name of the Father: symbolically castrated RoboCop is being introduced by his ‘father’ into the law and customs of society, though his ability to connect with others, and therefore to know himself, has been severely compromised.

How has this stifling of his sense of self and others happened? Consider the screen that has been fitted in front of his eyes. That screen is symbolically like a filter, blocking out the human connection felt between two faces–i.e., two pairs of naked eyes–looking at each other, empathically mirroring each other. It’s another symbolic manifestation of alienation.

His screen is similar to the TV screens people feel themselves glued to, addicted to, watching the news, commercials, or the TV show funnyman who’d “buy that for a dollar!” It’s similar to our experience today on social media, staring at phone screens instead of looking at each other, person to person, in real life.

In the film, we often see characters breaking the fourth wall and looking at us, who see them from RoboCop’s point of view, through that screen, which has an imperfect resolution like that of the TV screen showing Casey Wong and Jess Perkins (Gibbons), with people communicating insincerely and manipulatively.

Since I compare RoboCop to a psychological baby, I find it apt to compare the screen before his eyes to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of a beta screen. Normally, raw sensory data (beta elements, which tend to be agitating) that we receive from the outside world are taken in and processed in our minds (through alpha function) and turned into alpha elements (emotional experiences now made tolerable and usable as thoughts, dreams, etc.). Some beta elements remain intolerable and are never processed; they’re either projected onto other people, or they accumulate on the periphery of our minds in the form of a beta screen. Excessive accumulations of them can result in psychosis.

RoboCop–someone more machine than man, and who is relegated to the form of a mere product working for a mega-corporation (his ‘father,’ Morton, tells Lewis he has no name–he’s a product)–is no longer able to relate to people normally; so he cannot exchange emotional experiences with them in the form of processing beta elements and turning them into alpha elements, a processing that is the basis for growth in knowledge (Bion’s K) and learning from experience. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

These deficiencies of Murphy’s are far from absolute, though. Those fragments of memories still loom in his unconscious mind, for they have already been processed as alpha elements, and so they can be used in dreams. RoboCop has a dream about having been killed by Clarence’s gang; he wakes up, and he’s determined to find his killers. He’s no longer working under OCP’s orders, and this new willfulness of his makes his creators nervous.

Lewis stops RoboCop as he’s leaving the police station, for she knows who he originally was. She stands before him, looks him in the face–attempting genuine human contact and empathic mirroring–and wants to tell him his name is Murphy. With that screen–his symbolic beta screen–before his eyes, though, he can’t process the emotional experience properly. He can only drone, “How can I help you, Officer Lewis?” in the monotone voice of an automaton. He will, however, remember the name ‘Murphy,’ since his programming records everything, as if on tape, so he’ll eventually learn who he was.

Here’s a paradox about RoboCop: he has few human memories, just scattered fragments (he later tells Lewis that he can feel the memories of his wife and son, but he can’t remember them); any new experience, though, is literally videotaped through his programming, and is ‘remembered’ in minute detail.

When learning the names of all the members of Clarence’s gang, RoboCop finds Murphy’s file, is shocked to see the word “deceased” shown on it, and learns of his old home address. He finds the house, which is now up for sale, since his wife and son, understanding that he’s dead, have left. Fragments of memories of them flash in his mind as he looks about the house, in which a TV shows a real estate agent advertising the virtues of the house.

The pain of realizing what he has lost drives RoboCop to punch the TV screen. Screens divide people from each other; capitalism causes mutual alienation.

Meanwhile, Jones wants revenge on Morton for making him lose face with the success of RoboCop over the disastrous failure of ED-209. Morton’s murder reveals Jones’s business relationship with Clarence. This in turn symbolizes certain paradoxes about capitalism: one capitalist may strike down another, but that same capitalist may, at other times, also cooperate with a third capitalist if doing so is in his interests.

Right-wing libertarians like to fantasize that “free market” capitalism, devoid of government influence, is a purified version that will never result in corruption. This is nonsense, and is a grotesque oversimplification of the problem. Capitalism, in any form, cannot exist without at least some state intervention, and the corporatocracy (what libertarians label with the misnomer “corporatism“) that the “free market” is supposed to prevent is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism.

In capitalism, the 99% don’t count: only the 1% do. This means not only don’t workers count, but small businesses don’t, either. As for the 1% of super successful businesses, we see in them the concentration and centralization of capital; the state doesn’t cause this to happen–the capitalists are doing it all themselves. The only role the state plays is in protecting the interests of the ruling class, and this relationship between the state and capital is what we see in RoboCop.

Corporations, the state, and the market are all intertwined; there’s no separating them from each other. We see this intertwining in OCP, the police department, and Clarence’s gang. Because Clarence has connections with Jones and OCP, he feels free to demand the cocaine he buys from Sal and his mafia business for a lower price. One capitalist strikes down another.

Upon arresting Clarence, RoboCop learns of his connections with Jones. But when he goes to arrest Jones, RoboCop learns of a new, fourth primary directive: he cannot arrest a senior officer of OCP. Here we see the main point of having police–they serve and protect the ruling class. Yes, they catch criminals, but it’s always been about protecting private property; this is a historic fact. This is why the criminal activity of, for example, Wall Street bankers is rarely if ever punished.

Jones tries to have RoboCop destroyed, first by an improved ED-209, then by his police force, and finally by Clarence and his gang. When Delta City is set up, a gentrification project pushing the poor out and getting the rich to buy up the homes, Jones motivates Clarence to kill RoboCop by proposing that the crime boss run the poor areas, making it possible for him “to open up new markets” in prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc. Here we see the mafia again as a metaphor for capitalists.

Lewis and a damaged RoboCop hide out in the abandoned steel mill. He removes his helmet and visor, revealing Murphy’s face again, and he can see through his own eyes. He then sees a reflection of his face. Since, as I’ve argued above, RoboCop is like a baby psychologically, his seeing himself is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, helping him establish a sense of self. Though the ego is ultimately an illusion, RoboCop didn’t even have a sense of that before. He is now becoming reacquainted with his humanity and identity.

Now, when Clarence’s gang comes to fight him, RoboCop isn’t going to arrest them because of a computer program: he wants to kill them in revenge for having destroyed his life. This is how he isn’t symbolic of Christ.

When he arrives at the OCP building, RoboCop must again face ED-209, who tells him he’s trespassing on private property; once again we see the real purpose of the police. Fortunately, Murphy is several cuts above mere protectors of private property, so he destroys ED with one of Clarence’s Cobra Assault Cannons.

When RoboCop presents an incriminating video-recording of Jones confessing to the killing of Morton, Jones puts a gun to the head of The Old Man (O’Herlihy) and attempts to take him as a hostage. When The Old Man fires Jones and elbows him in the gut to get free of him, that fourth directive no longer applies to Jones, so RoboCop is free to shoot him.

The contrast between ruthless Jones (the bad capitalist) and the “sweet Old Man” (the ‘good capitalist’) is a reflection of bourgeois liberal Hollywood’s attitude toward capitalism, and this point is my one bone of contention with the movie. In liberals’ opinion, capitalism just needs to be reformed, its excesses kept in check by the state. In my opinion, capitalism must be completely annihilated; there is no reconciling of the market with socialism. Weaning ourselves of the market may take time, eliminating it bit by bit, but it must be done away with, not just extensively regulated.

The difference between the liberal version of capitalism and the hard right-wing version is seen in how The Old Man wants to build Delta City ‘to give back’ to the people; whereas for Jones, Delta City is a gentrification project. That the ‘kinder, gentler capitalism’ of The Old Man is a sham is made clear when his response to malfunctioning ED-209 is to be upset essentially about the loss of millions of dollars, the brutal, bloody killing of Kinney having caused a minimal emotional reaction in him.

On the other hand, Morton’s “contingency” plan, RoboCop, brings a smile to The Old Man’s face, since it may save him that loss of fifty million dollars in interest payments. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned a CEO may be: the preoccupation with dollars and cents is inherent in the system, no matter how much ‘state planning’ is added to mitigate the deleterious effects of capitalism.

This is why, though RoboCop is several cuts above the average cop in terms of doing the right thing, as a protector of the interests of the ruling class, he is still far from being a Christ figure. Police who don’t protect the capitalist class would be more along the lines of the militsiya and the Voluntary People’s Druzhina, that is to say, armed militias, as well as an army of the people. No, these Soviet police were no saints, but they were much better than the kind that keep taking the life and breath out of people because of the colour of their skin.

Oh, and incidentally, a hypothetical Canadian communist RoboCop would not be Jesus, but Murphy.