Analysis of ’12 Angry Men’

12 Angry Men is a 1957 courtroom drama directed by Sidney Lumet and based on a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose. The film stars Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, EG Marshall, and Jack Warden, with Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Rudy Bond. (Sweeney and Voskovec played the same characters in the teleplay.)

12 Angry Men was selected as the second best courtroom drama, after To Kill a Mockingbird, by the AFI for their Top Ten List. The film is also considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

With the exceptions of Jurors 8 (Davis, played by Fonda) and 9 (McCardle, played by Sweeney), who reveal their names only at the very end of the film, we never learn the names of the jurors, who are all referred to by number: Jurors 1 (Balsam), 2 (Fiedler), 3 (Cobb), 4 (Marshall), 5 (Klugman), 6 (Binns), 7 (Warden), 10 (Begley), 11 (Voskovec), and 12 (Webber).

Since it will be easier to match the faces of the characters to the actors who play them than to go by their numbers, for this analysis I’ll be referring to the characters by the actors’ names. For the sake of consistency, I’ll even refer to Juror 8 as Fonda rather than as Davis, and to Juror 9 as Sweeney rather than as McCardle.

12 Angry Men is a fascinating exploration of how a consensus of opinion can be gradually changed from one side to the other, in this case from a simple preconception of events to a more nuanced, complex view of them. We see how, in the passion of his convictions, Fonda’s character is the needed agent of change from smug prejudice to sensitive observance.

Indeed, the main theme of this film is prejudice (not just of the class, racial, or ethnic kind, though in Begley [towards slum kids] and Warden [towards immigrants like Voskovec] we see ample examples of that; but also the literal judging of events before having had a proper, full understanding of everything that has happened) and of a needed confrontation with and dispelling of prejudice.

The film begins with a shot of, first, the outside of the New York City courthouse, then, a sweeping shot of the inside (to contrast, presumably, with how the vast majority of the film is shot only in the jury room); then, there’s a brief scene in the courtroom where the trial of an 18-year-old boy (played by John Savoca), from a slum and accused of stabbing his father to death, is coming to an end. The judge (Bond), who looks bored, hot, and tired, tells the jurors in a perfunctory way that they must decide either to convict or, if there’s a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt, to acquit him.

A brief shot of the young defendant shows how scared he is, for the reason of his nervousness is the same as that of the judge’s smug lack of feeling about the outcome: a verdict of guilty, leading to death by the electric chair, seems to be a fait accompli. The evidence seems to show the boy to be most obviously guilty. The verdict, however, must be unanimous.

It’s hot in the jury room, with no air conditioning, and the fan doesn’t even work, annoying Wagner in particular. Begley has a “hot weather cold”; he’s sniffling and coughing, with a handkerchief to his nose all the time. This physical discomfort is surely adding to the twelve men’s irritability.

There is a relationship between the level of irritability of each of these “twelve angry men” and their willingness or unwillingness to grow in knowledge, have their preconceptions challenged, and see things in a totally new way. Wilfred R. Bion worked out a theory of thinking that explains how growth in knowledge, what he called K, comes from an ability to process external agitations (beta elements), detoxify them (through alpha function), and make them tolerable for use in thought and dreams (i.e., turn beta elements into alpha elements).

Babies need their mothers to help them develop this ability to soothe, process, and detoxify raw, external stimuli; mothers soothe their babies by receiving, through projective identification (in Bion‘s sense, a preverbal form of communication between baby and mother), all the agitation the babies cannot cope with. Mothers soothe their babies’ anxiety through what Bion called maternal reverie and containment. As infants grow in K and are repeatedly soothed by their mothers, they learn how to soothe themselves, to be the containers of their own contained agitations, and to develop a thinking apparatus. (See this link for more on Bion and psychoanalytic concepts.)

The reason for my brief digression from 12 Angry Men is to explain the model for how the ability to grow in thinking and knowledge is based on the capacity to self-soothe when irritating external stimuli assail our senses. It is significant that the three men most resistant to changing their minds about the accused–Cobb’s, Begley’s, and Warden’s characters–are the ones most easily agitated by either sensory irritants (beta elements–the heat, a cold), or in Cobb’s case, a troubled father/son relationship.

At the beginning of deliberations in the jury room, Cobb is speaking with Fiedler in uncharacteristic calmness; Cobb is in complete denial of having any emotional stake in the case, imagining it to be such an open-and-shut case, the boy’s guilt so obvious and proven, that one needn’t discuss it any further. Just convict the boy and get it over with.

We soon learn, however, that Cobb has done an unconscious transference of his own, similarly-aged son onto the defendant. Sending the boy to the electric chair is equivalent, in Cobb’s mind, to punishing his son for having displeased him so often: seeing, to his embarrassment, his son run away from a fight, getting hit by his son in a fight of their own, and being estranged from his son ever since.

There is a mother’s containment of her child’s agitations, then there’s Cobb’s failure, as a father, to contain his son’s agitations. His son’s running away from a fight is embarrassing to Cobb’s sense of manhood, so he’s tried to toughen his son up. He’s succeeded, but at the cost of estranging his son from him. Cobb has subjected his son to what Bion considered negative containment: instead of soothing his son, Cobb has aggravated his son’s agitations.

The mechanism of containment and growing in K is projective identification, which as I said above is what Bion considered a preverbal form of communication, achieved through exchanging energy–through projection and introjection. When done well, this swapping of projections is soothing and conducive to intellectual and emotional growth; when done poorly, we see, for example, the mutual alienation caused by Cobb and his son.

Fonda, on the other hand, is trying to effect change in the jurors by achieving a more soothing, mutually beneficial exchange of energy among the twelve men. He’d replace contempt for the defendant with compassion. He tries to be as polite and reasonable as he can…though with this bunch, it can be very difficult to be nice.

The resistance of the other eleven to Fonda’s questioning of the facts of the case against the defendant can be described in terms of what Bion called attacks on linking, or the refusal/inability of the subject to link with the object (e.g., the self with other people–that is, the other jurors’ initial refusal to sympathize with Fonda), or to make links in knowledge between things. The result is, instead of a growth in K, the stubborn, adamant refusal to grow in knowledge…-K.

A few of the men, however, are open to Fonda’s wish to discuss the case further. The first of these is Sweeney, who admires Fonda’s courage in standing alone and risking the ridicule of the others. Elderly Sweeney is a wise, thoughtful, and observant gentleman. He has all the virtues one obtains from the ability to self-soothe and grow in knowledge through an exchange of energy with other people.

The opposite of such thinking can be seen in another old man, the bitter, bigoted character Begley plays. It’s not really clear if he is prejudiced against an ethnic group (Is the defendant of Italian background? Is he a Jew?) or against the working-class poor; as a garage owner, Begley is a petite bourgeois who therefore would regard himself as ‘superior’ to the working class. One therefore shouldn’t be surprised that he would have attitudes ultimately linked with fascism.

Begley’s generalizations about the defendant (“He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t [sic] even speak good English.”) are obvious projections of his own ungrammatical ignorance. His bigotry is a classic case of trying to project all that is wrong with himself onto the defendant.

Now, as wrongheaded and cruel as Cobb’s and Begley’s reasons are for insisting on a verdict of guilty, at least they have conviction, a firm position on the case, and they believe in consistency with that position. It can be argued, therefore, that Warner’s character is the most despicable of the bunch, for his whole motive in voting guilty or not guilty is in getting out of the jury room as quickly as possible…so he can arrive in time at a baseball diamond and watch the game.

A young man’s life is at stake, and all that Warner cares about is getting to the baseball game in time, so his tickets, which are “burning a hole in [his] pocket,” aren’t a waste of money. His impatience is a perfect example of the inability to soothe and detoxify external agitations, an impatience coupled with an unwillingness to grow in knowledge.

And in all irony, he changes his vote from guilty to not guilty…not because he’s had a real change of heart about the defendant (though, of course, he pretends that he’s had such a change). He simply realizes that the tide is turning in favour of acquittal, and his vote-changing, he imagines, will accelerate the end of deliberations so he can get to that baseball game sooner.

As for Begley and Cobb, their switches of a vote from guilty to not guilty come from a crushing humbling: it’s finally brought home to them that neither bigotry nor vindictiveness is an acceptable reason to send a boy to the electric chair. Warden, on the other hand, just wants to get to his precious baseball game as fast as he can. Begley and Cobb are forced to confront what’s despicable in them; Warden won’t face up to and admit his own contemptibility.

Further irony is in how what has really unfolded is not a growth in knowledge per se, but a realization of how little the men know of what really happened on the night of the murder. They haven’t established the boy’s innocence by any means; for all they know, he may really have stabbed his father. They instead have established a reasonable doubt, and that’s all that’s needed to secure an acquittal.

In Act V, scene 1 of As You Like It, Touchstone says, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Cobb and Begley have learned this truth the hard way, while Fonda has understood it from the beginning. The truth is a fluid, ever-changing thing, so the acquiring of knowledge of the truth is, accordingly, going to be elusive.

With that elusiveness also comes the pain and annoyance of having to rethink one’s position; hence, Bion’s coupling of growth in K with the soothing of external agitations, of converting beta elements into alpha elements.

All twelve men have to go through this irritation: even the best-adjusted men–Fonda, Sweeney, Fiedler, Voskovec, Klugman, Binns, and Balsam–have their angry moments, hence the film’s title. Fonda loses his patience with Cobb, calling him “public avenger,” and “a sadist” for so vehemently wanting to execute the boy. Sweeney gets mad at Warner for tossing a scrunched-up ball of paper, bouncing it off the now-working fan, and accidentally hitting Sweeney in the head with it. Mild-mannered Fiedler calls Begley a “loudmouth” for being surly with him. Voskovec is the leader of those mad at Warner for changing his vote out of mere impatience. Klugman is offended by Begley’s anti-slum bigotry. Binns threatens to hit Cobb for speaking disrespectfully to elderly Sweeney. And Balsam petulantly offers to have Begley take over as foreman, since apparently he isn’t doing a good enough job at it.

Little by little, the ‘unshakeable’ evidence is re-examined and tossed aside as inadequate, much to the frustration of those insisting on conviction. The “unusual” switchblade knife used to stab the boy’s father to death, has at least one double, for Fonda’s found one in a shop in the boy’s neighbourhood.

Furthermore, the noise of a train passing by the scene of the crime would have made inaudible the yelled threat of “I’m going to kill you!” made by the boy to his father. Had the boy killed his father, he’d also have been most unlikely to have returned to the scene of the crime, as Voskovec notes, to retrieve the knife, the fingerprints already wiped off. Finally, people often say, “I’m going to kill you!” without literally meaning it, as Fonda baits Cobb into demonstrating.

Doubts are raised about the reliability of the second witness, who, due to his being slowed down by a leg he has to drag after a stroke, wouldn’t have been able to reach and open the door to his apartment–fifteen seconds after hearing the father’s body hit the floor–in time to see the boy running down the stairs, guiltily fleeing the scene of the crime, as the man testified.

As the deliberating carries on, and more and more jurors switch their votes from guilty to not guilty, not only does the fan start working (to Warner’s pleasant surprise), but it also rains briefly, thus cooling off the heat of the day. This shift from hot to cool, from dry to wet, symbolizes the shift of thinking among the jurors, from the heat of hate, vindictiveness, and bigotry, to the cool-headedness of reason, open-mindedness, and compassion.

In psychoanalytic terms, this shift can also be seen as one from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (which Bion abbreviated to PS) to the depressive position (D). PS is characterized by splitting away from oneself what one finds hateful and intolerable (the ‘schizoid’ aspect), and then fearing persecutory attacks from what has been split off (the ‘paranoid’ aspect). In railing away against the boy, Begley and Cobb are trying to split off what they unconsciously hate about themselves and project it onto the defendant; they also fear, in paranoid fashion, the boy’s acquittal, with the implication that he’ll be free to kill again.

D, however, is characterized by a fear of losing what is good in someone, along with the split-off, projected bad parts (‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’). In confronting the false premises behind Begley’s bigotry against slum kids and Cobb’s transferred hostility to his son, these two grumpy men have to acknowledge at least the possibility of innocence, of good, in the young defendant. This causes depressive anxiety in them, turning the self-righteous anger of Begley’s rant against slum kids into shameful sadness, and turning Cobb’s fury into tears…tears symbolized by the rain.

Marshall, as one of the last men to change his vote, is largely calm, rational, and free of personal bias against the boy. (He never even sweats…apparently.) He simply isn’t yet convinced that there’s a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt. Marshall, for example, doesn’t buy the boy’s alibi about being at the movies, yet forgetting the names of the films he saw, or the actors in them. Fonda tests Marshall’s memory of movies he’s recently seen, and Marshall shows less difficulty remembering them, but a difficulty sufficiently similar to that of the boy…and Marshall is under far less emotional stress than the boy was at the time. He uses a handkerchief to wipe some sweat off his brow.

Further doubt is established in how it’s unlikely that the boy, far shorter than his father, would have stabbed down (as the stabbing had actually been), rather than up, with the switchblade. Klugman, having been raised in a slum and regrettably more than acquainted with switchblades, insists that the boy would have stabbed upwards.

Finally, Marshall maintains that the testimony of the first witness, a woman who had a clear view of the boy stabbing his father, is incontrovertible evidence. Cobb goes so far as to say all the other evidence can be tossed aside: the woman’s testimony alone proves the boy’s guilt.

Once again, though, a coupling of physical discomfort with a reexamination of the facts leads to a growth in knowledge. Sweeney sees Marshall rubbing his nose because impressions put there by his eyeglasses irritate him. Though Sweeney sympathizes with Marshall’s discomfort–that is, he attempts to contain it, in Bion’s sense–Marshall, further irritated by Sweeney’s probing, fails to see the significance of rubbing where the dents from his eyeglasses are.

That woman rubbed her eyes often while on the stand. She was never seen in glasses in court, but she acted unmistakably like a wearer of them. The men assume she must have wanted to look younger and more attractive on the stand without her glasses; after all, she had those same indentations on her nose, so her rubbing of her nose is linked to her wearing of glasses. She’d been in bed when the murder occurred, and she wouldn’t have had the time to reach for her glasses and put them on to see the stabbing at a far-off distance, with a train racing by in between her home and where the murder happened.

She couldn’t have seen more than a blur.

Marshall now has a reasonable doubt. He switches his vote to not guilty.

Cobb now is all alone.

With his failure to convince any of the others that the boy is guilty, Cobb can only show more of his usual rage; but none of the other eleven, just looking at him calmly, will contain (in Bion’s sense) his rage. All he can do is revert to his hostility to his son, which, recall, he’s transferred onto the young defendant.

He’s had a photo in his wallet of himself and his son smiling, with their arms around each other. Cobb looks down at it before tearing it up (and tearing up and crying): the photo is a metaphorical mirror, in the Lacanian sense; he sees in it the ideal father/son relationship, one of love, and one he knows he can’t live up to, or at least hasn’t so far succeeded in living up to. His tearing it up, and his tears of shame, reveal the true, transferred source of his hostility. Now, he can only vote not guilty.

His weeping is like that of a baby whose agitations are never satisfied–not because a bad mother (or bad father) never soothed or detoxified them (that is, contained them), but because he now is consciously aware that he is the bad father. Fonda, however, helps restore some dignity in Cobb by getting his suit jacket for him and helping him put it on. Fonda, in this way, is playing the role of good parent, being in a state of, if you will, paternal reverie (in Bion’s sense), containing Cobb’s agitations and helping him to calm down.

Everyone leaves the courthouse. It’s wet outside, but the rain has stopped. Fonda (“Davis”) and Sweeney (“McCardle”) tell each other their names and say goodbye. The film ends with Cobb, far off in the background, walking down the steps in a sulk. With the end of the rain is the end of his passage through the depressive position. Who knows? Maybe he’ll call his son up and apologize for having been a bad father.

Then, we might have two happy men.

Analysis of ‘Carnival of Souls’

Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film produced and directed by Herk Harvey, from a story by him and John Clifford, the latter having written the screenplay. It stars Candace Hilligoss, with Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, and Harvey as the main ghoul who torments Hilligoss’s character throughout the film.

Carnival of Souls was shot on a low budget, using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, in Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City. It was Harvey’s only feature film. It has a unique film score, played solely on a church organ and composed by African American composer Gene Moore.

Though the film went largely unnoticed upon release, it has since become a cult classic, influencing such filmmakers as David Lynch and George A. Romero. Many movie lists include it among the greatest horror movies ever made. It is in the public domain.

Here is a link to quotes from the film. You can watch the whole film here.

The ending of Carnival of Souls seems to indicate that Mary Henry (Hilligoss) didn’t survive the car accident on the bridge at the film’s beginning, and that her nightmarish existence throughout the middle of the film has been her soul’s unwillingness to let go of her physical existence, comparable to the hell Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) goes through in Jacob’s Ladder. I, however, will interpret the car accident and her survival/’death’ metaphorically.

Racing as representative of the pressures of competition in society.

The film starts with her and some girlfriends in a car; they meet some young men about their age in another car, and these boys want the girls to race them. They reach a bridge where their cars are going neck-and-neck, crowding each other on the bridge, and the girls’ car falls off and into the river. Only Mary (so it seems) has survived the car crash; she emerges from the water not remembering how she’s survived.

One thing that is immediately apparent about Mary is that she’s unsociable. She has apparently always been this way, since the organ factory worker says, “She’s always kept pretty much to herself.” She drives out of town without wanting to stop to see her parents; in fact, when asked if she wants to see them, she reacts to the idea with considerable agitation. Right from the beginning of the race, Mary never smiles–her face shows only anxiety, and I don’t think this is just because of the potential danger of the race.

I consider the car accident to be symbolic of a deep-seated trauma, or many traumas, stemming from her relationship with her parents, especially her father (more on this later). A troubled relationship with her parents would explain how distant she is from other people, for our object relations with our parents, the first major people to come into our lives, are blueprints, so to speak, for our relationships with people in later life. If we don’t enjoy our parents’ company, we’re far less likely to enjoy the company of anybody.

This car race, with her bunched together with the other two girls, feels claustrophobic, especially with those boys’ car trying to ram past them. The sense of competition with others can be most distressing to someone as sensitive as Mary. So a near-death experience in such a social context can be seen as symbolic of trauma causing social anxiety.

Mary is a lonely, lost soul.

The water that Mary has fallen into is symbolic of the unconscious mind. The two dead girls in the car with her, engulfed in the water, just like the ghouls emerging from water later in the film, represent so many of Mary’s internalized bad objects. So the car accident represents the repression and the return of bad objects that WRD Fairbairn wrote about.

It’s fitting that these repressed bad objects that come back into Mary’s consciousness should do so in the form of ghouls, or evil spirits; for Fairbairn likens these returning bad objects to evil spirits that possess the suffering psychiatric patient (see page 6 [or 67, from the copied book] of the above-linked pdf, Part 5–‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’).

Another symbolism for this water that kills, and from which ghouls emerge, is Lacan‘s notion of the Real, an undifferentiated mental state that cannot be symbolized (i.e., put into words–Mary can tell Dr. Samuels [played by Stan Levitt] about the main ghoul, but she cannot conceive of whom he symbolizes; could he be her father, or a minister, who may have sexually abused her when a child?), and thus is traumatic.

Her driving out of Kansas to start a job so far away, in Salt Lake City, represents her wish to get away from her trauma. She tells the organ factory boss that she’s never coming back to Kansas. She can try to run away from her problems, though, but she’ll never succeed, because her problems aren’t outside of her…they’re inside.

Mary the organist.

Another fitting thing about this films is its organ soundtrack music, which apart from occasional diegetic music makes up the vast majority of the music heard in the film. Its eerie dissonance provides so many of the atmospheric chills in the movie, and of course Mary is an organist. It’s as if she’s the one playing the soundtrack to her own story. The creepiness of the organ music, especially in the later scene when she’s in a trance, playing dissonant, “profane” music in the Utah church and she gets fired, represents her fear. It is thus a reminder that her problems stem from within (i.e., past trauma), not from without (i.e. literal spooks).

During her long drive to Salt Lake City, she looks at her reflection in the passenger window to her right. She looks there again, but sees the main ghoul, who looks middle-aged, old enough to be either her father or a minister of the church who may have molested her as a child. (Since this film was made in 1962, when the Hays Code was still censoring movies, indications of sexual abuse would have had to have been made most indirectly, subtly.) Seeing his face instead of her own in the reflection makes him a symbol of an internal bad object; seeing him again in front of her as her car is approaching him is her projection of him outside. The shock of seeing him makes her drive off the road and into a ditch, a traumatic reaction that parallels the other car falling off the bridge at the beginning.

She drives by a large pavilion near Salt Lake City that she is immediately fascinated with. What could this building mean to her? I suspect it represents in her mind a church, a cathedral she’d attended as a child. Its draw on her represents a wish in her to revisit her place of childhood trauma, to process those painful feelings and therefore cure herself of them. The place is on the shores of the Great Salt Lake–water, the symbol of her unconscious, where her bad internal objects lie, the Real, the centre of her trauma, which must be confronted.

The pavilion.

After Mary finds lodgings, she takes a bath there one night while waiting for the proprietress, Mrs. Thomas (Feist), to bring a sandwich and coffee up to her room. It’s interesting how, when she’s been in water again, a knock on her door reveals not Mrs. Thomas but the only other lodger, the lecherous John Linden (Berger), whom she’s embarrassed to meet with only a towel to cover her nakedness. Shortly after repelling Linden’s “neighbourly” ways, his thinly-disguised sexual advances, Mary goes out into the hall and is terrified to see the main ghoul looking up at her from the ground floor.

This juxtaposition of Linden, who ogles her through the door crack while she’s replacing her towel with a bathrobe, with the appearance of the lewdly smirking ghoul–a figment of her imagination and an internal object of hers–contributes to my theory that the ghoul represents someone who once sexually abused her. She is frightened of Linden’s lecherous designs, which have triggered the traumatic memory of another man’s lecherous designs.

Later that night, she can’t sleep, so she gets out of bed and looks out the window to see the pavilion so far off. Her fear of the main ghoul makes her want human company, so Linden’s appearance at her door again the next morning is welcome. He’s surprised to learn, as is her boss the minister (Ellison), that her work as church organist is purely professional, with no spiritual interest in it whatsoever.

Since Western society, especially American, was much more religious in the early 60s than it is today, we must wonder why not only is Mary not interested in meeting the congregation of the church she’s playing organ for, but isn’t interested in the religious meaning of the music she’s playing (small wonder some think her playing lacks “soul”). Such disparities reinforce my speculation that she feels somehow betrayed by the church, making her lose faith in it, while nonetheless staying near it as a professional organist–a nearness that suggests the traumatic bonding of one who was molested as a child by her minister.

Seeing the main ghoul.

She feels relatively safe in the daylight, during the waking hours when the conscious mind is dominant, but frightened at night, during the darkness of which the unconscious is given free reign. As she tells Linden, “It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” During the day, she can repress her fears; but at night, the repressed returns, in forms she fears, because she can’t recognize their true meaning.

She isn’t, however, necessarily free in the daytime, either. After getting rid of Linden, she goes shopping and tries on a black dress. When changing back in the fitting room, though, we see what looks like a rippling of water before her eyes (water, symbol of her repressed unconscious, is bringing her repressed trauma back to consciousness for her); after this, she temporarily experiences a kind of derealization. She cannot hear anything, especially people’s voices, and these people don’t acknowledge her presence–she seems invisible to them.

The sense of disconnect from other people is a symptom common in sufferers of C-PTSD, caused not by one, but by many traumas. Since Mary is experiencing such a disconnect, I suspect her car accident is really a symbolic abbreviation of many traumas she suffered in childhood.

The many traumas that result in C-PTSD make the sufferer feel as though he or she is completely, irreconcilably different from everyone else, and this in turn results in the sufferer’s withdrawal from society and into isolation, since he or she feels safe only without others around. Hence, C-PTSD can be an accurate diagnosis for Mary, who feels so different from others that, on this and again towards the end of the film, she can neither hear others nor be acknowledged by them.

Mary in the department store.

Terrified by her temporary deafness and invisibility, Mary leaves the department store and ends up in a park. Standing under a tree, she hears the chirping of a bird, symbol of freedom, and so she’s back to normal…by her standards, at least.

She goes to a fountain for a drink of water, and she hallucinates that the ghoul is standing before her. She goes into hysterics and runs into Dr. Samuels, who offers to help her. She goes with him to his nearby office…him with his hands creepily around her.

He isn’t a psychiatrist, but he seems to have dabbled in psychoanalysis, for he hints at some insights as to who the ghoul may be–Mary’s father, or some kind of guilt (i.e., shame associated with having been raped) she has buried deep down in her mind. Her vehement denial of these interpretations should, if anything, help convince us of their correctness, for her denial, calling such ideas “ridiculous,” is a typical example of the patient’s resistance to insights that uncover a deeper pain.

She has her resistances and denials, but also a conflicting desire to cure herself, and her fascination with the pavilion is part of that desire. So she runs out of Samuels’s office and goes straight there.

Now, facing one’s trauma is crucial to curing oneself of it, but one should be guided by a therapist. She thinks she’ll rid herself of the stalking ghoul by entering the pavilion and exploring it; but there’s still that part of her that doesn’t want to face the darkest of her pain, so when she looks around the place, it’s a generally peaceful experience.

Mary looking around the pavilion.

The main ghoul is sleeping in the water, symbolizing how her trauma is still there, however hidden it may be. At one point during her walking around, she sees a mattress gliding down a slide. There’s no reason for it to be there, much less slide down by itself, so it must symbolize something in her unconscious–perhaps a mattress on which she was once sexually abused.

The association of her trauma with water is again reinforced when she passes a sign saying, “Salt Water Bathing,” shortly after having seen the mattress on the slide. Maybe as a child, part of her seduction by her father, or by a minister of the church (maybe her father was the minister), involved bathing her, then bedding her.

My point in all of this is that the whole film could be seen as an extended dream, chock-full of symbols related to her trauma, but presented in a distorted manner that makes them unrecognizable to her conscious mind. The root of the trauma is still buried, like the ghoul sleeping under the water.

She goes back to her rooming house and agrees to a date after work with Linden because she doesn’t want to be alone at night. When practicing the organ at church, she goes into a trance, for night has fallen, and the ghouls are seen coming out of the water of the Great Salt Lake.

Recall that all these ghouls represent the bad internal objects hiding in Mary’s unconscious (i.e., sleeping in the water) during the day, but coming out at night, when the unconscious mind is freer. These internal objects would be not only her molester (the main ghoul we always see), but also family and community members who either turned a blind eye to the abuse she suffered, or perhaps even participated in it. Their dancing, in this connection, is symbolic of sex, pairs of men and women holding each other and moving around to a rhythm.

They only come out at night.

This reliving of her trauma makes her play creepy dissonances on the organ (which she cannot hear, as with her temporary deafness in the department store scene) that her employer, the minister (whose hands grab hers, making her stop playing, and happening immediately after she, in her vision, has seen the main ghoul approach her, his hands out to grab her), regards as “profane, sacrilege,” so he dismisses her. She leaves the church and goes with Linden to a bar for drinks.

He’s drinking while she just sits there, still practically in a trance. He’s annoyed at her unsociability: she won’t drink, talk, or dance. After having just had a vision of the ghouls dancing in the dark pavilion, how could she dance? Young men and young women dancing in a pub aren’t necessarily planning to be sexual, but in the context of dating, they are exploring sexual possibilities. Such possibilities are scary enough for Mary.

They go back to the rooming house and into her room. Linden’s hopes of getting some with Mary are dashed when he realizes how “off her rocker” she is. She looks in the mirror and sees the main ghoul again, who, recall, is a projection from her own mind onto the external world. Such hallucinatory projections are what Wilfred Bion called bizarre objects.

After Linden leaves in frustration, she tries to use the furniture of her room to block all entrances, in a futile attempt to keep the ghoul outside. Of course, she cannot succeed at this, because the ghoul is in her head; no matter how hard she tries to project him outside, he’ll always return, for he is a bizarre object she’s created.

Try as she might, Mary cannot run away from him.

The next day, she packs her things and leaves the rooming house. She’d leave Salt Lake City, too, imagining that leaving the city, just as she’s left Kansas and isn’t going back, will rid her of her trauma. Of course, that will never happen, because her trauma is within, not without.

She drives her car to a mechanic, staying in her car as it’s raised up; she nods off a bit. She then experiences the following set of terrors. First, she imagines someone, the ghoul, presumably, entering the mechanic’s garage and lowering her car back down to the ground. After running out of the garage and into a bus station, we see those waves on the screen again, as in the department store fitting room: she goes deaf again, unacknowledged by others, until hearing the chirping bird in the park; she also sees the ghouls in a bus she hopes to take to escape from the city.

Next, she is in Samuels’s office, but sees the main ghoul instead of the doctor in his chair. It’s interesting how the ghoul tends to stand for men who are at least a potential threat to her: either middle-aged men in authority positions, or father-figures, like Samuels or the minister; or lecherous men like Linden. She screams and runs away.

She wakes up, though we’re not sure if she really went to sleep at first, or just put her head back and closed her eyes for a few seconds. If this moment was a nightmare, could the rest of the film be a long nightmare, too? Could this moment have been a dream within a dream?

She must confront him.

There’s nothing left for Mary to do now but to go back to the pavilion and face her demons. She drives over there just as the clouds are obscuring the evening sky. The inside of the building, accordingly, is much darker than the last time she was there.

Because night is about to fall, all those ghouls sleeping in the water of the Great Salt Lake are waking up and emerging; that is, all the internal objects of her unconscious are returning to her conscious thoughts. As I’ve said above, these aren’t just representatives of the molester(s) of her childhood and/or adolescence; they also represent her family, neighbours, and members of her congregation who, out of a wish to avoid scandal, would never sympathize with Mary or hear her cries for help.

She stands there in the shadows, frowning in her attempt to confront her tormentors. That eerie organ music is playing alongside what sounds like a calliope, or steam organ (what would be heard in a circus or carnival), implying the link between her organ playing, as traumatic bonding, with the abusive church of her childhood that the carnival symbolizes.

Again, we see pairs of male and female ghouls dancing to the calliope music. Since, as I said above, their dancing is symbolic of sex (remember that the film censorship of the time meant that sexual deviancy could only be implied, expressed symbolically), all of them dancing symbolizes the deviancy of an orgy. People with authoritarian, fundamentalist religious beliefs, in their prudery and repression, tend paradoxically to let their sexuality out in the most perverse ways, such as pedophilia, ephebophilia, and hebephilia.

Ghoul-Mary.

Finally, Mary sees, among the ghouls, herself as a ghoul dancing with the main one! Ghoul-Mary has a sad, dazed look in her eyes, the kind of look a victim of sexual abuse might have, a look of helpless resignation. Meanwhile, the smirk on the main ghoul’s face seems one of lewd satisfaction. He dips ghoul-Mary, like a lover, and she is grinning ear to ear, as if tricked into thinking she’s enjoying satisfying his lust.

Mary has thus confronted her trauma. She has remembered what was repressed for so many years, and the horror of it makes her scream and run away. As we all know by now, though, running from her trauma won’t save her; it’s always in her mind, so the ghouls all chase her outside.

Wherever she tries to hide, a ghoul’s face pops up in front of hers. Finally, she runs out and falls on the sand, screaming. The ghouls crowd around her and get down close, as if to gang rape her. To confront trauma, we can’t do it alone. Mary should be facing this with a therapist.

The film ends with Samuels, the minister, and a cop following her footprints in the sand where they unaccountably end. These men, as father figures, would seem to want to help her, but they can’t. After all, weren’t the church community represented in the ghouls just trying ‘to help’ her?

The discovery of Mary’s body in the car represents how trauma kills us all psychologically, for after enduring its horrors, we can never be the same as we were.

‘The Last Breath,’ a Poem by Rusty Rebar

‘The Last Breath’ is a poem by Rusty Rebar, a Facebook friend of mine. I gave it a quick read the day before and found it full of meaning, which I’d like to examine below. First, here’s his poem (I’m setting it in italics to distinguish his writing from mine, as always):

the last breath

1.
the way a door slammed
rattles the whole house
or how the wrong word
scorches an open heart
shoes without soles
a torn pair of pants


a moment that breaks
every second after
& you seemingly unable
to put it back together
the terror hidden in
a corner of your fears

like a shy thief lurking
afraid to risk capture
but happy to hurt you
wounds inflicted on
you powerless to stop
what keeps happening

2.
pain an offering then
a solace for all that is
no surprise whatsoever
you sit with your demons
in front of the television
mesmerized by action

quick millionaires running
around in their underwear
tights or pajamas depending
joyful endorphins popping
fulfilling safe anticipations
same play — played night

& day — over & over
spinning endless tomorrows
out of imaginary yesterdays
& what is wrong with that
a world of wonderful rules
& magically infinite chances

bread & circus the holy
flesh of brainwash — firm
faith in the glory of private
property & money as the
measure of all things held
tighter when you have neither

3.
with drugs — the effect
wears off — larger doses
needed to deaden nerves
& block the bad feelings
get back to work before
the rent check comes due

escape from a prison
inside the mind impossible
the illusion of freedom ends
& you find yourself back
in your dark lonely cell
more trapped than ever

luckily — your story also
ends — there is no such thing
as forever & no problem
death cannot solve — best
treasure what you do remember
the last breath of a lost friend

And now, for my analysis.

We have three sets of verses, the first set of which centres around pain, broken or torn things, things with holes in them. The second set centres around forms of escape from the pain: television, the American Dream, bread and circuses, distractions. The third set centres around how the forms of escape, including drugs, don’t work–one cannot escape from one’s prison, since one has to go back to work before the rent is due. Still, there is one last escape…death.

So the three verse sets can be seen as the thesis (pain), negation (escape from the pain), and sublation (return to, and ultimate escape from, the pain). It’s the dialectic, but a very physical one, a materialistic one. Marx is turning Hegel right-side up.

The first set of verses is full of the imagery of violence: slammed doors, verbal abuse, the torn pants and the soleless shoes of a soulless world that doesn’t care for the poor. Moments that break, and you can’t put them back together. Thieves are afraid to get caught, but happy to hurt you: this is a world of alienation. We feel powerless to stop the pain.

The second set of verses deals with what Klein and Winnicott called the manic defence, or any attempt to avoid dealing with the painful, depressive sides of life, and to plunge instead into the manic, or exciting, sides of life (drugs, porn, etc.). One sits a mesmerized zombie in front of the idiot box, following the latest media nonsense, or one tries to identify with the rich, fantasizing that one day, the American Dream will come true for oneself…when of course there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening.

One sees millionaires in the media dancing around in their underwear, because only they have the financial freedom to act as inanely as they like. Perhaps they’re wandering about in their pyjamas, like Hef. This empty worship of wealth goes on day after day, a hiding away from one’s secret sorrows. Those sorrows, however unacknowledged, go on “spinning endless tomorrows…”–reminding us of Macbeth‘s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech (Act V, Scene v)–“…out of imaginary yesterdays,” reminding us in turn of Macbeth’s words “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.”

Life is as meaningless for us today, with our “faith in the glory of private/property” (note the enjambment between the two words, indicating how split a concept that one is, as is so much of our psychological fragmentation, symbolized by all the other examples of enjambment in this poem), as it was for the Scottish tyrant of Shakespeare’s play. One believes in such empty capitalistic concepts especially when one doesn’t benefit from the wealth of the 1%.

The third set of verses deals with the coming down, as it were, from the high one felt in the escape of the second set. One now feels even worse than before, unable to escape the reality one keeps coming back to. Still, there’s one last escape…death. “To die, to sleep,/No more…” (Act III, Scene i) Unlike the Dane, though, we in today’s secular world don’t generally worry about “the dread of something after death, —/The undiscovered country,” so “the last breath of a lost friend,” death, is a soft breeze on our faces, and gives us hope in our despair…the hope of despair.

Analysis of ‘Vertigo’

Vertigo is a 1958 psychological thriller produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts, by Boileau-Narcejac. The film stars James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes, with Tom Helmore and Henry Jones.

The film was shot on location in the city of San FranciscoCalifornia, as well as Mission San Juan BautistaBig Basin Redwoods State Park, Cypress Point on 17-Mile Drive, and Paramount Studios. It’s the first film to use the dolly zoom, distorting perspective to create the disorientation of the vertiginous acrophobia of police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart); hence, the in-camera effect is often called “the Vertigo effect.”

While Vertigo originally received mixed reviews, it’s now considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, as well as one of the best films ever made. The American Film Institute ranked Vertigo #9 in 2007 (up from #61 in 1998) in “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies.”

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

Apart from changing the setting of the novel from WWII France to late Fifties San Francisco (as well as, accordingly, changing the characters’ French names to English ones), comparatively few changes were made in this Hitchcock adaptation from its source material (in contrast with the many changes made in Psycho, Rear Window, and especially The Birds). Marjorie “Midge” Wood (Bel Geddes) was invented for the film by scriptwriter Taylor; she has no equivalent in the novel. The opening scene, with Scottie and another cop chasing a perp on rooftops, Scottie almost falling and the other cop actually falling to his death–thus establishing Scottie’s acrophobia–was added to the beginning of the story; whereas in the novel, the trauma causing the protagonist’s acrophobia is explained in a flashback. Apart from such changes as these, though, the film follows the novel’s plot quite faithfully.

What triggers Scottie’s vertigo is, of course, looking down from great heights to abysmal depths below, reminding him of not only his close brush with death hanging from that rooftop (his survival of which is never explained), but also the death of the cop he feels responsible for. Looking down causes him vertigo.

He experiences another kind of vertigo, if you will, from looking up…in a largely metaphorical sense, mind you. He is so captivated by the beauty of Madeleine (Novak), the supposed wife of his old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Helmore), that ‘looking up’ at her–on the pedestal he’s placed her–is causing him to see a distorted, disorienting, and dizzying sight of another sort. Looking up causes him vertigo.

When he speaks to Midge about his proposed attempt to cure his acrophobia by facing it incrementally–and literally step by step, using a step-ladder–he says as he goes up each step, “I look up, I look down.” Now, his method using the step-ladder fails, but he will ultimately succeed in curing his acrophobia by looking up at Madeleine/Judy as she ascends the bell tower stairs above him, then by looking down at the stairs below when he’s almost at the top with her. Of course, this cure comes at a terrible cost–the loss of her life.

Elster takes advantage of Scottie’s phobia by using it to help him do the opposite of putting a woman up on a pedestal–to discard the wife Elster doesn’t love, the real Madeleine. Elster’s discarding of his wife, to the point of killing her, parallels the discarding of Carlotta Valdes by her husband, which lead to her own death, by her own hand, after grieving over not only this discarding, but her separation from their child.

In the identifying of Carlotta with Madeleine/Judy, which is the identifying of discarded, loathed wives with the woman Scottie has put up on a pedestal, we see the dialectical relationship between the despised and the adored, she who is looked down upon with she who is looked up to. The discarded wife, thought to be Scottie’s love, is literally looked down on after Elster has thrown her from the top of the bell tower, right after Scottie has looked up at Madeleine/Judy while following her up the bell tower stairs. And the movie ends with him looking down at dead Judy after her fall.

The duality of this dialectical unity-in-contradiction is expressed in the two-part structure of the plot, these two parts having many parallels. Each part begins with Scottie being freshly traumatized after having seen a death from falling. Judy is made to impersonate Madeleine, first by Elster, then by Scottie, who is twice obsessively in love with her.

Judy is twice going mad. The first time, it’s a combination of feigned madness–in her acting job as Madeleine possessed of the ghost of suicidal Carlotta–with her real torment from being in love with Scottie while being forced to deceive him. The second time, she’s in love with him while being forced by him to play, once again, the very role that has deceived and hurt him, causing her to be racked with guilt.

There’s his being in the restaurant with the red walls, seeing her walking out with Elster; then after the ‘suicide,’ he’s in the restaurant again, seeing a woman who looks like her, walking out with another man. He follows her green car to her home; then after the ‘suicide,’ he sees her car, but it’s been sold to another woman. He sees “Madeleine” in the museum looking at the Carlotta portrait; then, after the ‘suicide,’ he goes there again, only to see a different woman looking at the portrait. Finally, there’s the faked suicide and real murder of Elster’s wife, and the real, if accidental, falling death of Madeleine/Judy.

The opening credits, with their titles and visuals designed by Saul Bass, establish the film’s central themes. A closeup of eyes and vertiginous spirals link the obsessive gaze with dizziness. “I look up, I look down.” Regardless of if one sees the idealized or the despised/dreaded, one cannot see straight–one has vertigo.

Two things are significant about Midge, both of which we learn from the first scene between her and Scottie: they used to be engaged (until she broke it off), and she designs brassieres, one of which Scottie takes a close, fascinated look at. These details are significant in how we learn, soon enough, that Midge is maternal in her relationship with Scottie. The implied Oedipal symbolism here indicates once again the influence of psychoanalysis on Hitchcock.

Midge’s calling-off of the engagement, presumably long before the beginning of the film, is symbolically like the dissolution of a boy’s Oedipus complex, his original looking up in adoration at his mother, coupled with his looking down in horror and guilt at the unconsciously wished-for death of his father, triggered in Scottie’s case by his looking down at the death of the cop, an authority figure associated with one’s father.

Without Midge as his symbolic mother/lover, Scottie needs a replacement for his objet petit a, and that new love object becomes Madeleine. Now recall that the objet petit a is the unattainable object cause of desire, a desire coming from the lack of being able to obtain the original love-object, Mother. Because this love-object is unattainable, Scottie can’t have her even though Madeleine loves him back…for she isn’t really Madeleine, she’s just Judy. “Madeleine” is an idea, not a real woman.

Judy never is who she really is; she’s only what men want her to be–an impossible ideal who is, paradoxically, also tossed aside and therefore despised. When Scottie first sees her in that restaurant, her pretending to be Elster’s wife, he sees only an image of her, not the real her. The walls of the restaurant are a vivid red; her dress is a contrastingly vivid green. Red is the colour of dangerous passions (think of, for example, the red lightsabers of the Sith), while green is the colour of life (i.e., plants, etc.). The passion of red leads to death, making it the symbolic opposite of green for our purposes–Thanatos vs Eros.

We see her get up and walk out of the restaurant, framed by a doorway; she’s thus a portrait in a picture, like Carlotta Valdes. As an image, she’s being idealized. We see, just before she and Elster go outside, their mirror reflection; as Lacan pointed out about the mirror stage, the specular image is the unitary, idealized version of oneself, as opposed to the chaotic, fragmentary reality of the person being reflected in the mirror. Scottie sees Madeleine’s idealization in the mirror instead of Judy; he also sees Elster’s idealization as an old friend instead of the villain he really is.

Just as Judy isn’t really Madeleine, Madeleine isn’t really Carlotta, whose ghost is imagined to be inside Madeleine’s body. Carlotta, recall, was a mother who lost her husband and child, then killed herself out of grief. Once despised, looked down on by her husband, now Carlotta (in that museum portrait) is looked up to by “Madeleine.”

And just as Judy is required to imitate the looks of Madeleine (the grey suit, the white pair pinned up), so is “Madeleine” required to imitate the looks of Carlotta (the swirl of hair in the back, as seen in the portrait). She’s bought a bouquet of flowers (which could be seen as symbolic of the vulva) identical to those seen in the picture, in which Carlotta holds the flowers in her lap.

Carlotta was suicidal, so Judy as Madeleine must appear suicidal, too, hence her jumping in San Francisco Bay at Fort Point. Scottie’s rescuing her shifts his obsessive fascination with her beauty towards falling in love with her as a person, for he sees in her a fellow sufferer. His love is not merely physical: his compassion for her, seeing her pain, makes him see himself in her, as if she were a mirror.

The specular image that Lacan wrote about doesn’t have to be a literal mirror reflection; it can be, for example, the smiling face of a baby’s mother looking down at it. Since Madeleine/Judy is the objet petit a replacing Scottie’s original mother transference in Midge, when he looks into the sad eyes of his love, he’s seeing a metaphorical mirror of the pain in his own eyes. That the pain Judy’s expressing in her eyes is an acting job means that Scottie isn’t seeing straight: her feigned pain is his vertigo.

He takes her to Muir Woods, where they see the huge sequoia sempervirens trees; he translates the second Latin word as “always green, ever living.” She notes how so many people have lived and died while these trees have continued to live for thousands of years. Recall her green dress, the colour of life, worn in the restaurant scene; just as the destructive passion of red on the walls contrasts with her green dress, so does the awesome green eternity of the trees, which Scottie and Madeleine both look up to, contrast with her sudden running to the ocean in another (supposed) suicide attempt.

These ‘suicides’ always involve her going down–down into the water of San Francisco Bay, down from the bell tower. Suicide resulted from Carlotta being looked down on by her husband, so Madeleine’s ‘suicides,’ an imitation of Carlotta’s, also involve going down, because Madeleine, supposedly possessed of Carlotta’s spirit, also feels looked down on, in spite of Scottie’s idealizing of her, his looking up at her. Hence, the dialectical unity of looking up and down at her.

Despised Carlotta was a mother. Now, maternal Midge has thoughts of winning Scottie back (accordingly, we see her in a red top, the colour of her passion for him); her plain Jane looks, however, are no competition for the mesmerizing charms of Madeleine/Judy, so when Midge paints an imitation Carlotta portrait with her face replacing the original, Scottie is so unimpressed, he leaves the apartment. The tall man has looked down on the picture on the easel, and looked down on her, who is seated at the time.

As spurned a ‘mother’ as Carlotta was, Midge berates herself for her foolish move. She may be the ideal mate for Scottie, in that her wholesomeness is grounded in reality…as opposed to the fantasy world surrounding Madeleine/Judy; but Midge as Oedipal transference is passé for him.

Scottie’s vertigo, his dizzying distortion of reality coming from his looking up and down, is symbolic of his schizoid relationship with his objects, or other people. WRD Fairbairn wrote about what he called the “basic schizoid position,” which stems from a failure–varying in intensity from person to person–to establish stable object relationships grounded in reality. Such a failure is the basis of Scottie’s problems.

His relationship with Midge would be one between what Fairbairn called the Central Ego (Scottie) and the Ideal Object (Midge); she’s ‘ideal’ in the sense that she’s someone he can relate to in the real world, and such a healthy relationship is thus the best, or ideal, kind. His faux relationship with “Madeleine” is one between Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Scottie) and the Exciting Object (“Madeleine”)–it’s thrilling, but it’s just a fantasy. His relationship with those who fall to their deaths is one between Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego (Scottie) and the Rejecting Object (the cop, Elster’s wife, and Judy); Scottie looks down on them, he dreads them, he’d erase their memory from his mind if he could.

Another example of Scottie’s anti-libidinal relationship with the world is in the ordeal he goes through with the coroner (Jones), whose insensitive assessment of Scottie’s weakness, his acrophobia having prevented him from saving “Madeleine,” just rubs salt on his wounds. The coroner is another Rejecting Object because he, in his looking down on Scottie, reminds him of the harsh reality he tries to avoid by having Judy dress up as his Exciting Object, “Madeleine.”

Madeleine is dead in two senses: Elster has literally murdered his wife; and she’s dead in the sense that, as an idealization that no living woman in the real world could ever measure up to, she cannot live in the flesh. Judy, however, does exist in the real world, and she just wants to be able to live as her real self.

Small wonder we see her in that green dress in the restaurant, in a green car when Scottie is tailing her in his, and in a green outfit when Scottie talks to her in her apartment. Green is the colour of life (remember those sequoias), and she just wants to live; even when she’s impersonating Madeleine, her green dress and green car represent her wish to feel alive as herself to at least some extent.

He, of course, wants to live, too; hence we see him in a green sweater in his apartment after he’s rescued “Madeleine” from San Francisco Bay. He feels alive when he’s finally met her, because having seen the combination of her beauty and her pain (she’s wearing his red bathrobe, since she’s the object of his passions, and she’ll come to return that passion to him), he’s fallen in love with her.

His love, however, is that dangerous red passion that leads to death. Later, his obsessive wish to have Judy conform precisely to Madeleine’s looks is fully achieved to Bernard Hermann‘s music, which at that point reminds one of Wagner‘s Liebestod, or “love death.” Scottie and Judy are Tristan and Isolde, two lovers who cannot be together in the living world of reality. Their love is a vertiginous swirl.

More must be said of Hermann’s brilliant music. During the opening credits, the prelude, with its swirling arpeggios of an E-flat minor/major 7th chord (the ‘primal cell’ as described on page 4 of this PDF: ascending and descending E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, D–with an added 6th, C) in the strings, winds, and harp, playing in contrary motion, is a perfect sonic counterpart to Saul Bass’s vertiginous swirl coming out of the eye closeup. But back to the symbolism of the story.

The dialectical relationship between the idolized and the despised/dreaded can be vividly expressed through the symbolism of the ouroboros that I’ve used in a number of previous posts. The serpent, coiled into a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum with the opposite extremes meeting where the head bites the tail, and the coiled middle represents every intermediate point between the extremes.

Scottie brings Judy closer and closer to his ideal of Madeleine, bringing her up along the coiled serpent’s body towards its head, the idolized ideal. Once we’ve reached the perfected ideal (the ouroboros’ biting head), a green light shines in the room from the sign outside Judy’s apartment, glowing on both Scottie and Judy (who’s now fully dressed as Madeleine in the grey suit and with her white hair pinned at the back). That green of life shows that Scottie’s life has returned to him, for he has his “Madeleine” back.

Later, though, when he sees Judy in the black dress and they’re about to go out to dinner, he sees her wearing that distinctive red necklace that “Madeleine” and Carlotta once wore. Judy has made herself to be even more like Madeleine…too much like her. Now he shifts further along the circular continuum of the coiled body of the ouroboros; he’s passed the biting head of the Madeleine ideal over to the bitten tail of despised Judy, for now he knows that she more than merely resembles “Madeleine”…she is “Madeleine”!

She is despised because Scottie has figured out that Judy is a mere actress who helped Elster deceive him into falling in love with her, to distract him while Elster murders the real Madeleine, making everyone think her death was a suicide.

In Looking Awry, Slavoj Zižek makes some interesting points about the dialectical relationship between the idealized “Madeleine” and the despised Judy: ‘Recall the way Judy, the girl resembling “Madeleine,” is presented when the hero runs into her for the first time. She is a common redhead with thick makeup who moves in a coarse, ungracious way–a real contrast to the fragile and refined Madeleine. The hero puts all his effort into transforming Judy into a new “Madeleine,” into producing a sublime object, when, all of a sudden, he becomes aware that “Madeleine” herself was Judy, this common girl. The point of such a reversal is not that an earthly woman can never fully conform to the sublime ideal; on the contrary, it is the sublime object herself (“Madeleine”) that loses her power of fascination.” (Zižek, page 85)

Later on, Zižek says, ‘True, Judy finally gives herself to Scottie, but–to paraphrase Lacan–this gift of her person “is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit”: she becomes a common woman, repulsive even. This produces the radical ambiguity of the film’s final shot in which Scottie looks down from the brink of the bell tower into the abyss that has just engulfed Judy.’ (Zižek, page 86)

How is Scottie able to recognize the necklace? He has such a vivid recollection of it, originally Carlotta’s, that he recalls it in a nightmare he’s had shortly after the coroner’s judgement of the “suicide.” He dreams of Carlotta standing with Estler, as if she, rather than Madeleine, were his wife. Since Carlotta, the despised and rejected mother, has been linked with similarly rejected, maternal Midge, we can see in Carlotta another Oedipal transference in Scottie’s unconscious. This in turn makes Estler an Oedipally-hated father transference, since he as the villain is the one who has caused all this pain for Scottie.

The habanera rhythm of the music heard in the museum scene, when both “Madeleine” and Scottie were looking at Carlotta’s portrait, is now heard during the nightmare scene with far more dissonant, tense music. We see a flashing of red, the colour of destructive passion, during much of this nightmare. The bouquet of flowers, symbol of Carlotta’s vulva, is seen to break apart into fragments of petals, symbolizing an unconscious desire to possess the mother transference sexually, even to violate her. This wish-fulfillment cannot come without a punishment, that of the castrating father-transference (Estler, in this context); hence Scottie sees not “Madeleine” fall to her death from the bell tower, but himself! He wakes in a sweaty terror because he imagines he has projected the punishment he’s deserved onto her.

Recall how I said that he falls in love with “Madeleine” because he sees his own pain in her. Seeing himself fall to his death instead of seeing her do so in his dream is another unconscious wish-fulfillment. He can only live–that is, be green with life–if she lives.

Still, he continues to project his pain onto her as Judy, a kind of repetition compulsion, a merging of Thanatos with Eros. Just as he feels responsible for the death of the falling cop, he feels responsible–due to his acrophobia–for her death, the death he feels he should have suffered, as in his nightmare. Yet he drives Judy to her death, not just through her fall at the end of the movie, but also through his refusal to let Judy live as herself, by making her live only as the dead idealization of “Madeleine.”

The idealized woman, “Madeleine,” exists right on the cusp where ideal sits next to despised, shunned, dreaded–that is, next to Carlotta and Judy. Carlotta the mother was supposedly possessing the body of “Madeleine,” pushing her to kill herself. This mother is the objet petit a, the object-cause of Scottie’s desire, a vividly red (i.e., the necklace), dangerous, destructive passion that kills the green of life.

Zižek writes, ‘The elevation of an ordinary, earthly woman to the sublime object always entails mortal danger for the miserable creature charged with embodying the Thing, since “Woman does not exist.”‘ (Zižek, page 84) Later, he writes, ‘The ideal love-object lives on the brink of death, her life itself is overshadowed by imminent death–she is marked by some hidden curse or suicidal madness, or she has some disease that befits the frail woman.’ (page 85)

That cusp between ideal and despised is the dialectical point on the circular continuum of the ouroboros where its head bites its tail, where one extreme opposite phases into the other. At that cusp is the Oedipally desired mother, Carlotta, who is transferred onto “Madeleine,” the unattainable objet petit a. Just as the mother, Carlotta, brought about the death–as is supposed–of Madeleine, so does another ‘mother,’ an elderly nun (associable, at least, with Mother Superior), cause the death of Judy-as-Madeleine by appearing suddenly from the shadows, startling Judy, and making her fall.

Scottie looked up to her as “Madeleine”; he literally looked up to Judy as he angrily made her ascend the stairs, handling her as aggressively as Estler held the real Madeleine before throwing her from the bell tower to her death. Now Scottie looks down ruefully at the girl he despised not only for not being his ideal Madeleine, but also, paradoxically, for being Madeleine, all-too-Madeleine.

I look up, I look down. I look up, I look down.

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

Analysis of ‘Pierrot Lunaire’

I: Introduction

Pierrot lunaire (“Moonstruck Pierrot“), or Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds “Pierrot lunaire” (“Three times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud‘s ‘Pierrot lunaire‘”), is a 1912 composition by Arnold Schoenberg for “reciter” (actually, a soprano using Sprechstimme) and small instrumental ensemble (flute/piccolo, clarinet in A/clarinet and bass clarinet in B-flat, violin/viola, cello, and piano–the groupings of these vary from one poetic setting to another, and even within individual settings). The text is Otto Erich Hartleben‘s very liberal German translation of twenty-one poems from the cycle of French poems by the Belgian Symbolist Albert Giraud.

Schoenberg was composing in a freely atonal style at this point in his musical career, having come to the conclusion that the traditional major/minor system had been more or less exhausted. He hadn’t yet devised his 12-note system, so he was faced with the challenge of giving his “emancipation of the dissonance” a coherent melodic and harmonic structure.

Luckily for him, building music around “three times seven poems,” each of which consist of three verses of four, four, and five lines (the first two lines being repeated in the last two lines of the second verse, and the first line being repeated at the end of the final verse), meant composing a short structure for each. Added to this, he used traditional musical forms for them, such as canon, fugue, passacaglia, rondo, theme and variations, and free counterpoint.

Though the dissonance of the music and blasphemy of some of the poems surely caused at least some controversy during its early performances, Pierrot lunaire is now considered one of the most important compositions of the 20th century.

Here are links to two recordings of it, one with the score, and a live performance with English subtitles. Here is a link to the text, in German, French, and English…though I–not very happy with the English translation, will mostly use one from the notes to a Deutsche Grammophon recording.

I will be analyzing Schoenberg’s selection of poems as a totality in themselves, not in the context of Giraud’s fifty poems; and I’ll hardly be dealing with these characters in their commedia dell’arte context, either. The composer’s three-times-seven, deliberately numerological selection seems to tell a narrative of its own that I want to focus on.

II: Part One

Moondrunk

The piece begins with a dreamy motif played on the piano and violin pizzicatos in three bars of 2/4 time; the music of this first poem will, for the most part, alternate between 2/4 and 3/4 time. The expressionism of the Sprechstimme adds to this dreaminess since, being halfway between singing and speaking, the soprano’s voice won’t sustain any pitches, but will rather let her voice rise up or drop down in glissandi to give off the effect of high-pitched speaking.

The wine that, with the eyes, one drinks must be white wine, for this liquor is the very moonlight. Pierrot, drunk on the moon he gazes at with “desires terrible and sweet,” is identified with the poet who, “in an ecstasy,” is inspired by her (the cello enters at Dichter). By extension, the tragicomic buffoon Pierrot can be seen as an everyman we all can sympathize with.

Colombine

The music begins in 3/4 time with a high G-sharp dotted half-note sustained on the violin for the first bar, then going down to an E-sharp dotted quarter note, accompanied by piano notes first played cantabile, then staccato, then legato.

In the commedia dell’arte, Columbina is Pierrot’s often unfaithful wife who betrays her foolish cuckold with Harlequin. A columbine is also a flower, rather like “the pallid buds of moonlight/those pale and wondrous roses.” In this we have a three-way identification of Columbina with the flower and with the moon, establishing how Pierrot, the poet, is not only inspired by the moon, but is also in love with her.

His longing would be fulfilled if only he could besprinkle on Columbina’s dark brown hair, “the moonlight’s pallid blossoms.” The besprinkling onto her hair symbolizes the transference of the moon’s divinity onto his wayward wife.

The piano stops for the moment at the words, “Gestillt wär all mein Sehnen” (“all my longings would be satisfied”), leaving the recitation to be accompanied only by the plaintive violin. Flute and clarinet begin playing staccato notes (with a return of the piano, also with staccato notes) at “leis entblättern” (“quietly besprinkle”), musically describing the sprinkling most vividly.

The Dandy

Pierrot is “the taciturn dandy of Bergamo,” who takes “a phantasmagorical light ray” and “bedaubs all his face” with it. This taking-on of the moonlight is his introjection of the moon, an attempt to make her, whom he so loves, one with him. He rejects “the red and the green of the east,” for the white of the moon is his true colour.

I find it safe to assume that, during these first several verses, Pierrot has been contemplating a full moon. This isn’t just Pierrot lunaire, but also Pierrot the lunatic. He is going mad with love–hence the wildly dissonant, expressionistic music of this melodrama. We hear this right from the beginning, with the quick sixteenth notes in the clarinet and piccolo, and in the staccato piano backing.

Laundress Moon

Next, the moon is compared to a laundry maid, her moonlight being “nightly silk garments,” her “snow-white silvery forearms/stretching downward to the flood.” I would say that comparing the moon to a laundress suggests the qualities of a dutiful mother; recall that these poems were written back in the late 19th century, when sex roles were still rigidly defined. I’ll develop the mother theme later.

The music opens with flute, clarinet, violin, and piano, all playing a soft, slow, and languid theme, suggesting the dull drudgery of the work of the laundress.

Valse de Chopin

Though this music, played on the flute, clarinet (later bass clarinet, in the third verse), and piano, is in 3/4 time, it doesn’t sound all that waltz-like (much less anything like Chopin). Indeed, Schoenberg deliberately avoided traditionalist musical clichés or repetitions, and this seems to be the real reason most listeners find his music difficult to appreciate–not so much the harsh dissonance, but the lack of a sense of musical beginning, development, and ending; which isn’t to say his music lacks these structural elements, but that they aren’t presented in the old, familiar, and reassuring ways.

The theme of sickliness is introduced in this poem, “as a lingering drop of blood/stains the lips of a consumptive,/so this music is pervaded by a morbid deathly charm.”

I sense that the moon is waning.

Madonna

The music begins sadly with flute, bass clarinet, and cello pizzicatos. It’s in common time. The piano and violin come in, with harsh chords, only at the end, as the reciter says the final iteration of the words discussed in the following paragraph.

Madone des Hystéries!” translated into German as “Mutter aller Schmerzen” (“Mother of all Sorrows“) introduces Mary as the mater dolorosa, sorrowfully contemplating the crucifixion and death of Jesus. She is to “rise…from the altar of [the poet’s] verses.” She has the wounds described here, though, not her Son’s, blood from her “lean bosom/where the sword of frenzy pierced it.”

Her “ever gaping gashes/are like eyelids, red and open.” Her eyes bleed the pain of seeing her “Son’s holy body.” The poem immediately after this one, “The Ailing Moon,” suggests a connection with this one. Mary as the Queen of Heaven suggests a connection with the Moon Goddess through an association with the pagan Queen of Heaven. Though the ancient pagan Queens of Heaven weren’t generally lunar deities (though this research suggests it could occasionally have been otherwise), the connections between Catholic and pagan, lunar Queens of Heaven are sufficient in a symbolic sense at least.

The fact that there’s an “altar of [the poet’s] verses,” and later, in poem 14, “The Crosses,” we learn that “holy crosses are the verses,” we come to realize that the poet, already identifying with Pierrot, is also identifying with Christ, the Son of the “Mother of all Sorrows,” whom we’ve also identified with the pagan Moon Goddess. Here we find the blasphemous content of these poems.

If the poet/Pierrot/Son of God is in love with the Moon Goddess/Colombina/Mother of all Sorrows, then we have an Oedipal relationship between the two. Colombina is Pierrot’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, rooted in one’s relationship with one’s mother, but later transferred and manifested in relationships with other females, those idealized as religious figures, just as one’s mother was once idealized, in childhood.

The idealizing of one’s parents, along with the notion of the grandiose self, are the two poles of what Heinz Kohut called the bipolar self, the basis for regulating one’s narcissistic tendencies. The poet/Pierrot, by blasphemously identifying with Jesus, is displaying an inflated grandiosity, while narcissistically linking with the most idealized of parents, Mary. If this bipolar configuration breaks down, the poet/Pierrot will be in danger of psychological fragmentation.

…and recall–the moon is waning…

The Ailing Moon

The music begins with a sad flute melody, in 6/4 time, accompanying the reciter. There is no other instrumental accompaniment for this poem’s musical setting. It ends with a ritardando evocative of dying.

As I’ve already said, the moon is “ailing” and “death-awaiting” because she is waning. Pierrot, as her son/lover, is suffering in his own way because she is leaving him, abandoning him. Just as the mater dolorosa suffered to see her Son suffer, Pierrot suffers to see his Mother ailing. The two are symbiotic in their mutual empathy.

She is a mirror reflection of him; she reflects his narcissism. She is white, and Pierrot is white. She’s dying “with unrequited love,” a reflection if his own unrequited love…and a projection of it. He is a lover, “stirred by sharp desire” who “exults in [her] bright play of light,” but she is waning, so the bipolar configuration I described above is breaking down, and Pierrot is coming into a state of mental instability.

And with this breakdown ends Part One.

III: Part Two

Night

The light of the moon is gone.

All is black.

Pierrot has lost his beloved moon, and he’s descending into a state of madness. He, as the poet, is comparing the blackness of night to black moths killing the bright rays of the sun. These moths are “great hordes of monsters” coming down to earth.

The music is in the form of a passacaglia, opening and ending with a dark, brooding motif in the bass, beginning with three notes wth the melodic contour of a rising minor third, then a descending major third, played on the piano (very low register), then accompanied on the cello and bass clarinet in the form of a canon; after these three notes, there is a trail of seven mostly descending chromatic notes (the last being an ascending major 6th). This motif is heard in a number of variations throughout the poetic setting.

As the reciter speaks/sings of “Erinnerung mordend!” (“destroying memory,” that is, causing the fragmentation of the foundation of Pierrot’s sense of mental stability), we hear sul ponticello (am Steg in German) in the cello, a creepy sound that adds to the horror of Pierrot losing his mind.

Those monsters come down “on the hearts and souls of mankind,” a projection of Pierrot’s inner turmoil onto the rest of us; because madness is an intolerable agitation that must be expelled.

Prayer

With the blackness of the new moon opening Part Two, the poet/Pierrot has lost his idealized parental imago, and therefore he must rely on himself for narcissistic mirroring, the grandiose self. He doesn’t have her for a mirror anymore, so the poet must rely on the idealized version of himself, Pierrot, for that mirror.

This idealization of Pierrot, who as I mentioned above has been identified with Christ, the Son of the Queen of Heaven, is now the object of the poet’s prayer, since this idealized self in the metaphorical mirror is also alienated from the self, as Lacan explained. The poet has “unlearnt” his laughter, or hidden it between his teeth, as Giraud’s original text says. With the loss of his beloved moon, the poet, like Hamlet, has lost all his mirth. (Recall that Hamlet, in Freud‘s interpretation, has lost his unconsciously Oedipally-desired mother, Gertrude, to his uncle Claudius, leading to the Danish prince’s possible…if not probable…descent into madness.) The brightness dissolves (“Zerfloß!” as given succinctly in Hartleben’s German translation) in a Shakespearian mirage, according to Giraud’s original text.

The papillons noirs of Night are now the pavillon noir that “files…now from [the poet’s] mast.” He prays that that ideal-i of his mirror reflection, white Pierrot, the Christ-like “healer of spirits,/snowman of lyrics,/monarch of moonshine,” will give him back his mirth, his laughter, changing black back to white.

Throughout, the music has clarinet and piano accompanying the reciter, in common time.

Loot

We hear flute, clarinet, and muted violin and cello, opening in predominantly staccato notes, in common time. We hear a lot of hurried sixteenth and thirty-second notes, suggesting the rush to commit a theft. This poetic setting ends with some soft piano notes in a final bar of 4/4.

Pierrot, in his growing state of mental instability, is taking to crime to vent his frustrations. But what does he want to steal? “Ancient royalty’s red rubies,/bloody drops of antique glory.”

The rubies are symbolic of the blood of Christ, with whom Pierrot narcissistically identifies, for narcissistic identification with something grandiose is an effective defence against fragmentation. He and his criminal gang of partying drinkers would steal this blood, then he’d incorporate it to make himself more at one with Christ. Giraud’s original French uses the word ravir, which is ‘ravish’ in English, and rauben (‘rob,’ also ‘ravish’) in German. This is more than theft: it’s also a blasphemous suggestion of homosexual rape.

He and his friends would try this outrage, but fear stops them, “turns them into statues.” Pierrot still cannot be quite this wicked.

Red Mass

This music opens in 3/4 time with bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano. We hear the first note of the piccolo on the word “Kerzen,” or “candles.” We hear some ascending solo piccolo notes between the first and second verses. On the words, “Die Hand” (“the hand”), we hear loud dissonances on the piano, when Pierrot’s hand is tearing through his priestly clothes.

Pierrot continues with this blasphemous identification with Christ by approaching an altar in priestly vestments, which he tears during this “fearsome grim communion.” He shows the frightened faithful a dripping, bloody Host, identified with his heart, and which is therefore blasphemously in turn identified with the Sacred Heart.

Song of the Gallows

Continuing in his wickedness and madness, all the result of the disappearance of the moon, his mother/lover, Pierrot replaces her temporarily with “the haggard harlot.” Though he’d imagine this girl to be “his ultimate paramour,” the hastily sped-through music (sehr rasch), played on piccolo, viola, and cello in 2/4 time, suggests she’s only a passing phase for him.

The thin girl, with her long neck and pigtail being like a rope, would make his mating with her seem like him hanging himself, his sinful indulgence with her an act of self-destruction. For she, as his whore, is the opposite of his saintly moon, his life-giver.

Decapitation

The moon is waxing.

In the horned shape of a quarter moon, she is “a polished scimitar,” or a short sword with a curved blade. With all of the wicked things Pierrot has done in her absence, he is feeling guilt and fear. He has blasphemously tried to identify with Christ, and he has been unfaithful to her by fornicating with the skinny harlot. Now he feels he must be punished for his sins by feeling the “hissing vengeful steel upon his neck.”

We hear bass clarinet, viola, cello, and piano playing tense, dissonant music in common time to express his inner turmoil. After the recitation of the poem, we hear a soft postlude with a bar of 3/4, then in 6/4, played on the flute, bass clarinet, viola, and cello. In the midst of this postlude, we hear a bar of 3/4 with viola pizzicatos, then a return to 6/4 time with the viola returning to arco playing, and sul ponticello on the viola and cello.

The Crosses

The music begins with the piano accompanying the reciter. After the first verse, there’s a bar of quick solo piano playing, with sixteenth and thirty-second notes, a crescendo, and trills. The flute, clarinet, violin, and cello all come in at the end of the second verse. The third verse opens with soft music, but it gets loud and tense with the final repetition of “Heilige Kreuze sind die Verse!” (“Holy Crosses are the verses!”), after which a soft, brief flurry of flute notes is heard, and finally, loud, dissonant chords on the piano, accompanied by trills on the flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.

Just as Pierrot identifies with Christ, so does the poet, having already identified with Pierrot. Just as the narcissist identifies with grandiose ideals, so does he like to see in himself a pitiful victim. Seeing oneself as Christ on the Cross is perfect for both purposes.

He “bleed[s] in silence” with similar articulate martyrs. “On their bodies swords have feasted,” reminding one of the spear in Christ’s side (John 19:34). Pierrot’s crucifixion-like suffering would thus provoke the lamentations of the Mother of all Sorrows, identified here with the waxing moon, which will appear after the sinking “sun’s red splendour.”

With this ends Part Two, and the moon is back.

IV: Part Three

Nostalgia

This one opens in 4/4 with a bright, arpeggiated piano chord, accompanied by a violin pizzicato note. The violin then switches to arco, and the clarinet comes in with staccato sixteenth-notes. The music has a soft, plaintive sound. After the second verse, we hear the clarinet, violin, and piano playing belebend (“invigorating”) music that gets loud, with trills in the piano right hand.

The third verse includes time changes to a bar of 3/4, then a bar of 2/4, then 4/4, as Pierrot forgets his old, tragic ways. The final repeat of “Lieblich klagend–ein krystallnes Seufzen!” (“Like a plaintive sigh of crystal”) is played very softly, then there’s a very fast cello part, accompanied by trills and tremolos in the clarinet, piccolo, and piano.

“Pierrot is now…sickly sentimental,” remembering his old days performing in the Italian commedia dell’arte. But now that he has his moonlight back, “the pallid fires of lunar landscape,” and “the foaming light-flood [that] mounts his longing,” he “abjures the tragic manner.” Remembering the good old days, and having his moon-lover back, Pierrot is happy again.

Atrocity

The music begins in ziemlich rasch (“quite fast”) 3/4 time, with violin pizzicatos of two and three notes at a time, the cello playing mostly sixteenth notes, and a piano chordal backing. The now-softer piano slows down at “mit Heuchlermienen” (“with hypocritical expressions”), the violin and cello no longer playing for the moment. Piccolo and clarinet come in, with the violin and cello returning, at “einen Schädelbohrer” (“a skull-drill”); the flurry of notes heard suggests the shock and surprise of hearing such a word.

At the end of the second verse, we hear a piercingly shrill note on the piccolo, like a scream in response to the tobacco shoved in the hole of the skull of Cassander, “whose screams pierce the air.” Next, a descending pair of notes from the clarinet, and a return of the tense opening violin and cello playing brings in the third verse. The music ends, Pierrot tapping ashes from the bald pate of Cassander, with five more piercingly high notes on the piccolo, a kind of pipe, if you will, suggesting the puffing of Pierrot’s ‘pipe.’

Cassander is the father of Colombina, Pierrot’s ever-unfaithful wife. Pierrot is also Cassander’s servant. Since I’ve identified her with the moon, and the moon in turn with Mary, mother to Pierrot’s Jesus, I have described his love for her as Oedipal.

Cassander, as Colombina’s father and Pierrot’s master, can also be seen as a transference of Pierrot’s Oedipally-hated father. Such a relationship would explain Pierrot’s comically violent and irreverent behaviour with regards to Cassander.

Here, Pierrot drills a hole in Cassander’s bald pate, then stuffs tobacco in the hole. Next, he sticks a pipe in and smokes the tobacco.

Pierrot may have the moon back, but the trauma he has suffered from her absence–however temporary it may have been–still lingers in his mind. The Oedipal loss of a boy’s mother to his father is best understood as a narcissistic trauma. The nom…or Non! du père forces a child out of his dyadic, one-on-one, mirror-like relationship with his mother and into a relationship with a society of many others.

Pierrot doesn’t want this forced change, so in his narcissistic fantasies, he plays out a farcical, commedia dell’arte-like skit of himself as disrespectful to this father-figure in Cassander as a kind of ‘screw you’ to him.

Parody

The music opens with clarinet, viola, and piano in 4/8 time. The piccolo comes in, with chromatic descending thirty-second notes, at the end of the first verse, with its reference to a red dress. The time changes to a bar of 7/8 at “sie liebt Pierrot mit Schmerzen” (“she loves Pierrot with aching pain,” which the Sprechstimme of the reciter delivers with melodramatic ornament), then goes back to 4/8 time. It’s as if the one bar of 7/8 is meant to give a sense of the awkward irregularity of her misplaced love. Some solo dissonant piano is heard for a few bars before the repeat of the first two lines, about knitting, when the other instruments come back with the reciter.

The music shifts from the louder, jaunty opening music and goes into a softer ritardando between the second and third verses. At this point, the Duenna can hear, in a sharp whistle in the breeze, the Moon-goddess tittering. The music speeds up and gets louder again (in the piano), as we find the Moon doing a parody of the Duenna’s knitting and desiring of Pierrot.

The knitting Duenna, in a red dress as stated above, “loves Pierrot with great passion.” Note how Duenna (used in the German translation, which being what Schoenberg set his music to, is our main concern with regard to interpretation) is practically a pun on Dirne (“harlot”) from “Song of the Gallows,” the skinny girl Pierrot has had a sexual encounter with. The Duenna can thus be seen as a double of the Dirne.

The Moon-goddess–having every confidence that she is the one whom Pierrot wants, and not the Duenna (he only had the Dirne because the Moon-goddess momentarily wasn’t there to satisfy him)–laughs at and mocks the Duenna in her knitting and hoping to have Pierrot.

A brief, dissonant segue on the piano in 3/4 time, ending with a thrice-stated motif of three notes with descending major seconds and ascending fourths (C-sharp, B-natural, E-natural; B-flat, A-flat, D-natural; and A-flat, G-flat, C-natural) in the left hand bass, leads us to the next poetic setting.

The Moon-fleck

The Moon-goddess wants Pierrot’s attention, so she shines a fleck of moonlight “on the shoulder of his black silk frock-coat,” as he strolls about at night (with a jaunty clarinet melody), looking for adventure. Normally, he wears white: why is he in black?

Could he still be feeling guilt over his actions in his Moon-lover’s absence? His search for adventure suggests a longing to sin again, while the Moon-goddess is trying to bring him back to her by putting white on his black, to remind him of his natural whiteness, a mirror of her own.

Instead of enjoying the sight of her presence on him, Pierrot sees “something wrong with his appearance.” Imagining it’s plaster, the fool tries…and fails…to rub the white off. This occurs when we hear a nervous violin part playing sixteenth and thirty-second notes as a tone painting of his nervous rubbing.

The music becomes palindromic in the piccolo, clarinet, violin, and cello parts; we hear a crab canon, in which the canon is reversed, right at the middle of the second verse (“…und findet richtig,” “and finds”), when Pierrot turns back to look at the moon-fleck. The music reverses right at his looking back, another example of Schoenberg’s tone painting. The reverse happens right at the repeat of the opening two lines.

This fleck of moonlight on him symbolizes her as his mother/lover, an internal object he has introjected. Though he feels Oedipal love for her, this kind of love is actually part of a love/hate relationship that is inevitable for a son or daughter to have for his or her parents. By troubling him thus with a guilt-inducing reminder of the allegiance he owes her, he is frustrated with her, seeing her as what Melanie Klein called the bad mother. Pierrot’s rubbing at the moon-fleck thus represents a wish to project and expel unwanted influence from his mother/lover object.

Serenade

Pierrot is scraping away discordantly on a viola, plucking a pizzicato or two…though Schoenberg oddly doesn’t score this poetic setting for viola, instead for cello and piano (his perverse sense of humour, I’m guessing). We hear the dissonant fiddle playing at the beginning, including pizzicatos, but they’re done in the high register of the cello. Even at the end, with a happy postlude for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano segueing into “Journey Home,” there is no viola part, as there are in some of the other poetic settings.

Cassander is furious (“wütend“) to hear the noise that this nighttime “Virtuosen” (note the sarcasm) is making. In another ‘screw you’ act of defiance to his master/father-figure transference, Pierrot tosses aside the viola, takes Cassander by the neck, and plays him like a newly-found fiddle.

Journey Home

This poetic setting is a barcarolle, naturally, because the poem narrates Pierrot on a boat going home. It’s in 6/8 time, typical of barcarolles. The music begins with the flute continuing from the postlude of Serenade. Soft pizzicatos are heard in the cello and violin, then the clarinet and piano softly play. These instruments, especially the piano’s ascending and descending arpeggios, play with a wavelike rhythm, suggestive of Pierrot’s oar pushing through the water.

Reunited with the Moon-goddess, whose “moonbeam is the oar” to guide him through the water on his waterlily boat, Pierrot, having satisfied his urge to spite Cassander, can now sail home contented.

He is the “snowy king” (“le neigeux roi,” in Giraud’s original), as white as his mother/lover, and no longer clad in black to reflect his guilty pleasures of before, in her absence. He is at peace as he sails in the approaching dawn.

O Ancient Scent

The soft piano and Sprechstimme open this final poetic setting (with the clarinet in the third bar playing three soft notes) with near triadic, almost tonal melody and harmony, suggestive of the sense of emotional resolution Pierrot is finally feeling. The clarinet returns and, later, the flute comes in at “Sinne” (“senses”) at the end of the second line. Violin and cello come in a few bars later.

The flute switches to piccolo in the middle of the third verse. At the end, we hear that ‘near-triadic’ harmony in the violin and cello, playing thirds. The whole piece ends shortly after, softly and at peace.

Again, Pierrot is nostalgic of old times, wishing to smell old fragrances again. With “desire finally gratified,” his…and the poet’s…”melancholy is dispelled.” He would seem to be happy with his beloved moon back, but…what of her next waning?

V: Conclusion

Schoenberg had a superstitious fondness for numerology, hence his grouping of these melodramas in three parts of seven poems each. Both numbers have a sense of completeness, of finality. Three gives us beginning, middle, and end, quite appealing to a classical musician trained to compose music with a ternary structure of A-B-A (statement, departure, and return).

We see this statement, departure, and return in the form of the moon that wanes, is temporarily absent, and waxes again, returning. Also, seven is a number of completeness in the sense that it suggests the seven Biblical days of creation. The final poem–the third seven–gives a sense of rest similar to God’s resting on the seventh day.

As we know from the Biblical story, though, right after God’s rest, the first man and woman find themselves succumbing to temptation and bringing about the Fall. I suspect that, after Pierrot’s restful moment, remembering old fragrances, he’ll be up to some more narcissistic naughtiness as soon as the moon wanes again. After all, some consider the narcissist to be something of a performing clown.

Analysis of ‘Re-Animator’

Re-Animator is a 1985 horror-comedy film directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris, and Gordon; the film is loosely based on parts of the HP Lovecraft 1922 horror serial novelette, “Herbert West–Reanimator.” The film stars Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton; it costars David Gale and Robert Sampson.

Apart from the basic premise of Lovecraft’s story–namely, a serum that brings the dead back to life, created by the narcissistic young scientist Herbert West (Combs)–not much is taken from the tale and put directly into the film. Dr. Alan Halsey (Sampson), dean of the fictional Miskatonic University medical school, refuses to let West and the narrator (Dan Cain in the film–played by Abbott) do the reanimating experiments on corpses on the campus. The dean himself dies and is reanimated, making him a wild, cannibalistic, zombie-like monster and forcing him to be committed in an asylum.

The above plot elements are from the first two episodes of Lovecraft’s story, while also being updated (by Norris) to the 1980s and expanded to include Halsey’s pretty daughter, Dan Cain’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Another doctor, the middle-aged Carl Hill (Gale), who is decapitated and reanimated by West, seems to be derived from the last two episodes (as is the plot of the first sequel–link in the next paragraph), from a WWI surgeon who is also decapitated and reanimated; and who, as in the story, commands an army, as it were, of reanimated corpses at the climax.

The film spawned a few sequels, 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. While the sequels weren’t well-received, the first film was, and it is now considered a cult classic.

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

During the film’s opening credits, we hear a soundtrack (composed by Richard Band) that is a blatant and intentional rip-off of the opening theme of Psycho. Only a few minor differences and variations are heard, with an original wind melody (bass clarinet?) played over the strings and a drum beat in the background. The film’s obvious campiness–a kind of black comedy whose over-the-top, even humorous violence may remind us of that of Titus Andronicus–inspired Band to make a similarly obvious, campy, and tongue-in-cheek reference to Psycho‘s stereotypical horror film music. Apart from this joke-reason, can we find others to justify the link between Re-Animator and Psycho?

I believe we can find other such reasons. With similar musical themes, we can also find similar motivic themes. Indeed, a careful analysis and comparison of the themes, symbolism, and motifs of both films shows striking similarities. Does all of this justify ripping off Bernard Herrmann‘s music, beyond it being a musical joke? I’ll let you decide, Dear Reader.

In Psycho, after Norman Bates has murdered his mother, in order to rid himself of the unbearable guilt of his crime, he tries to ‘reanimate’ her, in a way–not literally, of course, but in his mind. He uses a number of elaborate methods to convince himself of his delusion that she’s still alive. He robs her corpse and uses taxidermy on it to stave off decomposition as best he can. He dresses in her clothes, including a cheap wig he’s bought, and speaks in her voice. He gives over half of his life to bring her back from the dead.

Similarly, Herbert West deludes himself that his serum will restore life, when all it does is it turns the corpses it’s used on into savage killers…rather like Bates’s mother personality.

Another thematic similarity between the two films is that of invasion of privacy, intrusion, penetration. (See my Psycho analysis to see how I explain these themes in that film.) West intrudes on the world of Dan Cain and Megan, just after they’ve made love, and says he wishes to rent the basement of his house; he meets Dan at the front door of the house when Dan has only a sheet to cover his nakedness.

Later, the couple’s cat, Rufus, dies–did West kill it for use in his macabre experiments? West has the cat’s body in a small refrigerator, the sight of which naturally upsets Dan and Megan, the latter of whom has, in fact, invaded West’s privacy by going into his room without his permission, because she has been looking for her missing cat. Still, West will have to explain why he’s using their dead cat, without their consent, for his experiments.

The injecting of West’s vaccine-like [!] serum into the cat’s corpse, and later into corpses at the university morgue in defiance of Dean Halsey’s express forbidding of it, is further intrusion and unwelcome penetration. Indeed, it’s as if the violent reactions of the revived corpses are a reflection of how they hate the penetrative intrusion of West’s syringe jabs.

The stabbing of West’s needle into the corpses, like the stabbing of Bates’s knife into showering Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast (if in only a symbolic sense), is a projection of West’s psychopathy into the dead, making them as violent to the living as he is to the dead, by making them take on their stabber’s violent traits. Recall that narcissistic West doesn’t actually care about helping humanity with his reanimating; he just wants to play God, amazing all his science colleagues with his brilliance.

He has no respect or empathy for the feelings and rights of others, living or dead. This is why he has no qualms about insulting Dr. Carl Hill to his face, or using pets and human corpses without anyone’s consent in his experiments. West is thought of as a rather weird fellow, but the point is that he’s cold and calculating. Like Bates, West feels no human, emotional connection with others; all that matters to him is the reviving of the dead, as Bates wants a relationship with only his ‘reanimated’ mother.

West, like Bates the ghoul who stole his mother’s corpse, is an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm wasn’t necessarily, or even primarily, referring to a sexual attraction to dead bodies; he was referring to people who have a morbid fascination with death and destructiveness.

West’s wish to bring the dead back to life mustn’t be confused with Fromm’s notion of biophilia, a love of life; rather, West’s claim to want to give people life is a reaction formation. West is fascinated with death for its own sake. The human body is a soulless machine to him; death just means that the body has broken down, malfunctioned, and reanimation is a repairing of the human machine, which, being soulless in his eyes, is already as dead as a machine, anyway.

Fromm explains: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

West isn’t reviving the dead out of a wish to generate the biophilic joy of living; he is just fascinated in the technique of repairing biological machinery, as he sees it. In describing the necrophilous character, Fromm was referring “…to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way.” (Fromm, page 382, his emphasis)

To return to a discussion of the intrusion/penetration/invasion-of-privacy theme, the equally narcissistic Dr. Hill enjoys stealing other doctors’ research (hence, West’s contempt for him), and when he tries to steal West’s work, West kills him with a blow to the head with a shovel (reminding us of the ending, a kind of second matricide, of Psycho II, a film made just two years before Re-Animator).

Hill also intrudes on reanimated Halsey’s personal space by lobotomizing him, with the intention of controlling him through telepathy after brain surgery. The ultimate invasion of privacy, however, is when decapitated, reanimated Hill uses zombie-Halsey to abduct his daughter Megan, has Halsey take her while she’s unconscious to the university morgue, has Halsey strip her naked, and ties her to a table so the lecherous doctor can enjoy her.

Hill’s sexual assault on her can be paralleled with the shower scene in Psycho, in which naked Marion is, figuratively speaking, raped by Bates’s penetrating, phallic knife. Hill’s voyeuristic lusting after naked Megan parallels Bates’s lusting after Marion, watching her undress through his peep-hole in the wall.

Yet another point of comparison between Re-Animator and Psycho is, to be put in general terms, the conflict between the older and younger generations, usually understood in a psychoanalytical sense as the Oedipal love-hate relationship a son or daughter has with his or her parents. Bates Oedipally loves…and hates…his emotionally abusive, domineering mother, and her bringing a lover into his house pushes him over the line, making him kill them both with strychnine, which causes them to convulse violently and painfully before they die. West’s serum causes a similarly violent, toxic reaction in those reanimated by it.

Instead of domineering mothers, in Re-Animator we have a domineering father, Megan’s father, the dean, who angrily forbids Dan and West (he is a symbolic father to them) to do their experiments in the university morgue, to the point of threatening to kick them out. The two young scientists’ defiance of Halsey infuriates him, causing an argument between him and Megan in the hospital near the morgue, in which he tells her she’s his daughter and she’ll do as she’s told…just before he’s killed by a reanimated corpse there.

When Bates’s mother-personality forbids him to give Marion any food from their house, he defies ‘her’ by making Marion a sandwich. Since Hill is old enough to be the father of West, Dan, and Megan, and since Hill as a professor of medicine is as much an authority figure over West and Dan as Dean Halsey is, Hill can be seen as another symbolic father (i.e., through transference) to the two young scientists, and maybe even to Megan, too.

When West makes Hill lose face during his medical lesson, West is defying what could easily be a father-transference. West’s breaking of pencils, and later decapitating of Hill with the shovel he’s hit him with, are symbolic castrations, reminding one of Cronus‘ castration and dethroning of his father, Ouranos, and then, according to the interpretations of Freud (page 469), Robert Graves, and John Tzetzes, Zeus’ castration and dethroning of his father, Cronus. West would similarly dethrone Dr. Hill as god of medicine. (Just before the reanimated corpse kills Halsey, it bites off two of his fingers, another symbolic castration.)

Normally, we think of the son being afraid of being castrated by his father, but West symbolically reverses this. West should be afraid of the symbolic father’s wish for revenge, though, especially since West has reanimated him. Bates similarly should fear the revenge of the mother he’s killed and ‘reanimated,’ for by giving her half of his life with the mother-personality, he is being possessed by her internal object, what WRD Fairbairn called the return of repressed bad objects (Fairbairn, page 67). She avenges her murder, as it were, by possessing him as an evil spirit would, dominating him even in death.

Reanimated Hill attempts a similar revenge in death by controlling the lobotomized, reanimated Halsey (who as Megan’s father and Dan’s once-hoped-to-be father-in-law, is thus a double of Hill), and by using the serum and research he’s stolen from West to reanimate all the corpses in the morgue, sicking them all on West, Dan, and the Megan who rejected his advances.

Now, while West’s interest in reanimation is of a necrophilous nature (recall that he shows not even the slightest sexual interest in the sight of the lovely and naked Megan), Dan’s interest in West’s obsession is of a biophilous sort. Dan has a genuine wish to save lives, as seen at the beginning and at the end of the film. First, there’s a dying woman he tries feverishly to save, but his superior, Dr. Harrod (played by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), tells him to face reality: the woman is dead, and he must give up trying to save her.

At the end of the film, the far more devastating death of a woman is a fear of Dan’s that’s come true. Hill and his army of reanimated zombies have been mostly defeated, but not before one of them has strangled Megan to death. Dan’s attempt to revive her has failed just as it had with the woman at the beginning of the film. Dan does have West’s serum, though, and with her having just freshly died, surely her reanimation will give him her whole personality intact…won’t it?

Her scream, just before the ending credits, raises our doubts.

Analysis of ‘Killing Zoe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abusers’ Cloud of Willful Unknowing

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

In my post, Absence Makes the Mind Go Fonder, I wrote of how the low emotional intelligence of abusers in the family will cause them to say and do foolish things that go totally against their interests as far as maintaining family unity is concerned, because they value controlling the abuse victim over healing old wounds and trying to rebuild a relationship with him or her.

The abusers’ narcissistic, inflated sense of self, a False Self, causes them to have no sense of introspection. One could call it ‘the Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers,’ where the more abusive they are, the more they’re committed to a delusional belief that they are not only not abusive, but are an especially kind and loving group of people.

I have to be blunt and call these people who they are: pardon my French, but they are assholes. In fact, they are worse than assholes, for they don’t even know they’re assholes. They refuse to contemplate the very possibility that they’re assholes. At least with those of us who are victims of emotional abuse, our cruel inner critic keeps us aware of our faults; the abusers, on the other hand, seem to go through their lives thinking they’ve done nothing wrong.

I discovered this reality about my late, probably narcissistic mother, my golden child older sister, and my two older bullies…er, brothers. This group of emotional abusers actually think they’re an exemplary family.

It doesn’t matter how nice the abusers are to each other, or to their own kids, or to other people they meet out there in the world. If they scapegoat even one family member (in my family’s case, me, as well as my three cousins), they are already abusive assholes from that fact alone, because even a half-decent family would never treat their own flesh and blood, for all of his or her admitted faults, in that way.

They don’t, however, seem to know the truth of their dysfunction. Some kind of mental mechanism, some cloud, must be what they use to protect themselves from ever knowing.

Wilfred Bion, in his book, Learning From Experience, wrote of something he called -K (‘negative knowledge’), which represents a stubborn refusal to gain knowledge. He says that the origin of -K is an infantile form of envy, as Melanie Klein described it–the wish to spoil the good breast of the mother by projecting bad things into it.

This infantile envy, as with Klein’s notions of the paranoid-schizoid (PS) and depressive (D) positions, only starts with the baby; these mental states continue throughout life. Just as there’s an oscillation back and forth between PS and D (Bion notates this oscillation more or less as PS <-> D), so can there be an oscillation back and forth between envy and gratitude throughout life.

So this envy, as exacerbated in such dysfunctional families as those run by narcissistic parents, can be the source of a stubborn refusal to learn (-K) from previous mistakes, the low emotional intelligence I mentioned up at the beginning of this article. Now, according to Bion, the acquisition of knowledge (K) starts in the commensal relationship between mother and baby, the soothing container/contained relationship. As the child grows, he or she learns how to do the containing, essentially, for him- or herself, the processing of irritating raw sense data from outside into tolerable experiences and thoughts. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Sometimes, however, we need others’ validation, or containing, as we grow older. Then, the acquisition of K is a symbiotic relationship between the self and other people.

When one grows up in a family with narcissistic parents, with golden children for siblings (either relatively so in comparison to the scapegoat, as my elder brothers were compared to me, or in the absolute sense, as with my elder sister), and oneself is made into the scapegoat, or identified patient, no such symbiotic relationship of people helping each other grow in K will exist to any substantial extent. No empathy is felt between family members competing for the love of the narcissistic parents, so there’s little containment, or soothing, of each other’s agitations and anxieties.

Instead of soothing forms of communication, which Bion described as a passing back and forth of energy through projective identification, family members pass back and forth negative energy, or negative container/contained projections and introjections. Feelings of anxiety and agitation then metastasize into what Bion called a nameless dread, or what I would simply call trauma.

Instead of communicating, family members fight, which increases mutual alienation and an aversion to learn anything from each other, to grow in K. This mutual alienation has been caused by the machinations of the narcissistic parent, who envies the sensitivity of one of his or her children, and who thus spoils the goodness of that child by using gaslighting techniques and by teaching the siblings to despise him or her.

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

The contempt that the golden children have for the scapegoat is rewarded with the ‘love’ that the narcissistic parent gives them for their loyalty. This ‘love’ and reassurance causes them to be smug and self-satisfied in their attitude; they never suspect that they’ve misunderstood the scapegoat, and they’re convinced of the ‘morality’ of their despicable treatment of the victim. This is the essence of -K as derived from envy.

As I would extrapolate from Bion’s explanation in Learning From Experience, the abusers, instead of cultivating a superego and having a proper sense of right and wrong, they develop a “super ego,” an inflated sense of their own worth, which makes them believe they’re too superior to learn anything with regards to their relationship with their victim…a relationship of -K and negative containment.

Bion says, “It is a super-ego that has hardly any of the characteristics of the super-ego as understood in psycho-analysis: it is a “super” ego. It is an envious assertion of moral superiority without any morals. In short it is the resultant of an envious stripping or denudation of all good…” (Bion, page 97)

The negative containment “shows itself as a superior object asserting its superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is its hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed. The emergence therefore of any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality and in short to be scientific in no matter how rudimentary a fashion is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority…” Negative containment “asserts the moral superiority and superiority in potency of UN-learning.” (Bion, page 98)

Anything unpleasant about the abusers is projected outward and onto the victim instead of properly dealt with. This is negative containment, a passing on of negative energy, not in the hopes of having it soothed, but with the aim of making others suffer it, so the abuser doesn’t have to suffer.

The abusers imagine the negativity to be all on the shoulders of the victim, so the abusers can now kid themselves that they are normal, mentally healthy, and fully-functioning, respectable members of society.

Abusers thus don’t even know they’re assholes.

That cloud of willful unknowing protects them from contemplating the truth about themselves.

Ignorance is bliss.

One way this refusal to know things shows itself is in how the abusers refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. My mother’s lies about my supposedly having an autism spectrum disorder, described in the language of narcissism (an obvious projection of her own pathologies), resulted in the family taking the attitude it had towards me that I, with all of my own faults and peculiar childhood behaviour, was ‘born this way,’ rather than manipulated and bullied into behaving as I did.

Telling me, about nine or ten at the time, that the psychiatrist who’d examined me (or so Mom’s legend went) said I was, apart from being autistic, so extremely retarded that I should have been locked away in an asylum and they should have “thrown away the key,” my mother didn’t want to take any responsibility for the psychological damage she’d done to me. My ‘having grown out of’ this extremely inauspicious mental state was, according to her, “a miracle from God.” (She wasn’t ever religious.)

Instead of confronting how her tactless choice of words had affected the psyche of an impressionable child, she decades later modified her lie with a new and equally phoney, amateur diagnosis (in the early 2000s, when I was in my early thirties) that I have Asperger Syndrome, since it was obvious that I’ve always been far from mentally incompetent. This refusal of hers to learn from past mistakes not only proves my point about her and -K, but it was one of the things that caused my permanent estrangement from the family.

One of the other major causes of this estrangement was her insistence, back in the mid-2000s, that I–having lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996–not fly back to Canada to visit my sister and her then-terminally-ill husband because, apparently, I’m so “tactless and insensitive” that I might put my foot in my mouth and inadvertently say something to agitate and upset the already grieving couple. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to my mom that simply telling me to be careful of what I said would have sufficed; or more accurately, she didn’t seem concerned about how tactless and insensitive her own rejecting words were to me.

That infuriating, estranging incident was followed ten years later, in the mid-2010s, with a kind of reversal of roles for her and me. By this time, I’d realized just how horrifyingly habitual her lies, triangulation, smear campaigns, and divid-and-conquer tactics were that I knew I never wanted to fly home to visit her in Ontario ever again. I told her so, right after she’d told me a string of about seven lies, in a brief and blunt email. As if she’d completely forgotten having had the same rejecting attitude towards me ten years earlier, she put on this melodramatic reaction of having been so “hurt” by my email, which was really just me trying to protect myself from further mind games. Really, though, that “hurt” had just been my having caused her narcissistic injury.

Once again, she let -K come between herself and her last-born son.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

My older brother, F., used to bully and terrorize me all the time when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist studying stress in early childhood to know that bullying children will cause them to develop dysfunctional, self-isolating habits; it should be common sense that constant bullying of a child will make him or her fear the world and self-isolate in order to feel safe. Emboldened by having heard Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ F. many years later, when both he and I were adults (and he, over six years older than I, therefore should have had the maturity to know better), attributed my solitary tendencies to an intrinsic vice I’d been born with rather than admitting to himself that he had always been one of the chief causes of my self-isolating.

-K strikes again!

Similarly, my elder brother, R., and elder sister, J., said and did mean, hurtful things to me over and over again throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, never contemplating the damage they were slowly but surely doing to their relationship with me, abuse usually provoked either by relatively minor things I did to annoy them (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, procrastinating with washing the dishes, or…my idiosyncratic musical tastes, FFS!!) or the desire just to have fun making me feel worthless.

J., as the chief golden child of the family, chooses to blot out all the bad things she did from her memory because of how unflattering it is to her; on the other hand, she magnifies the significance of this or that memory of her having done favours for me, as evidence of her ‘boundless love’ for me…all to flatter herself. The fact is, people tend to remember the hurtful stuff more than the helpful stuff, by a wide margin. Still, it’s inconceivable to her, R., and F. that I would remember their majority of nasty moments over their minority of nice ones.

Because of this skewed perception of how they treated me, they’ll assume my estrangement from them is based on an ‘ungrateful attitude’ on my part, rather than my having no illusions about how ‘helpful’ they’ve all been to me. J. fancies that she, during my adolescence and young adulthood, was trying to help me build self-confidence and assertiveness skills; that she constantly spoke condescendingly to me and barked verbal abuse at me whenever I tried to stick up for myself, to silence me, makes me doubt the sincerity of her ‘intentions.’

This kind of puffing up of their pride at my expense–Mom’s amateur psychiatry, J.’s trying to remake me in her image (as Mom had done to her), and R.’s and F.’s imagined superiority to me–is what I mean when I talk about the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers.’ The more vicious abusers are, the more they delude themselves into thinking they’re being kind to their victims.

Charles Bukowski once said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” I’d say the same thing can be said about the relationship between the smug, self-satisfied abusers and the abused, who engage in endless second-guessing.

I say it’s high time that we victims of emotional abuse stopped doubting ourselves and our experience of our tormentors. If they can be cocky and over-confident, blissfully unaware of what assholes they are, then we can be reasonably confident of our understanding about what was done to us.

Just because we may have never told our bullies that they’re assholes, doesn’t mean they aren’t assholes. Their -K, and their refusal to link their mistreatment of us to our natural, estranged reaction to them, is their fault, not ours.

We didn’t deserve to be bullied just because we may have this or that fault. Legitimate anger doesn’t translate into the illegitimacy of abuse. We weren’t bullied because of defects in ourselves, but because of defects in our bullies.

Their not knowing of their defects doesn’t make those defects non-existent. In fact, their cloud of willful unknowing is what makes their defects especially apparent.

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.