Analysis of ‘Easy Rider’

Easy Rider is a 1969 film produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring both of them, and written by them and Terry Southern. The film co-stars Jack Nicholson (in a role that made him a star), Karen Black, Toni Basil (later of “Mickey” fame), and Luke Askew.

A landmark counterculture film, Easy Rider not only explored the rise of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyle, but it also helped spark the New Hollywood era of filmmaking in the early 1970s. Real drugs were used in the film.

Critics praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, and visuals. Easy Rider was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson).

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Though the film is understood to be a film for ‘rebels,’ one needs to look deeper. Wyatt, or “Captain America [!]” (Fonda), and Billy (Hopper) have names inspired by Wyatt Earp and outlaw Billy the Kid, reinforcing their image as anti-establishment rebels by associating them with the rough and violent types of the Old West. Instead of horses, they’re on bikes. What immediately should strike one with suspicion, though, is Wyatt’s display of the Stars and Stripes on his black leather jacket, helmet, and the chopper he buys after he and Billy profit off of a sale of cocaine. Wearing such colours indicates the duo’s acceptance of the values of American capitalism, not a rebellion against them.

Indeed, the film begins with Wyatt and Billy in Mexico, riding on dirt bikes to a bar where they’ll buy cocaine so they can smuggle it into the US to sell for a much higher price. Their clothes are as humble as their bikes at this time. They sell the cocaine to their “connection” (played by none other than Phil Spector, of “Wall of Sound” fame) outside at an airport, where airplanes are flying noisily overhead, as if representing the heavenly host watching over Wyatt and Billy, and judging them for their sins.

And what is their sin? I’m not so much interested in moralizing about their drug trafficking as I am in discussing what Marx wrote about in Capital, vol. 3, about “Commercial Capital” (chapter 16, pages 379-383). A merchant buys a commodity from a producer, then sells it again for a higher price to obtain a profit. Wyatt and Billy sell the cocaine they bought in Mexico to their American connection for a much, much higher price. Some might call this white Wyatt’s and Billy’s exploitation of the poor Mexicans they bought from.

Small wonder we hear, right at the end of the deal with the American connection, “The Pusher,” in which originally Hoyt Axton sang “Goddamn the pusher man” because he “is a monster,” selling you hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, and not caring “if you live or if you die.” (In the film, though, we hear Steppenwolf‘s cover of the song.) We hear these lyrics as Wyatt is stuffing their dollar bills down a plastic tube hidden inside his US-flag designed chopper. Hence, his bike is symbolic of American capitalism…Wyatt and Billy are just as much the establishment as are all the hicks who later antagonize them.

So when we see these two cool dudes riding their new choppers on the road, and we hear “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf as the credits flash across the screen, we have to be clear about what the contradiction is that is examined in Easy Rider. It isn’t between the right and the left: both sides here are capitalists through and through. It’s between conservatives and liberals. This distinction is important to make because there are many politically illiterate people out there who confuse the left with bourgeois liberalism (e.g., hippies, the Democratic Party, etc.). It’s significant that we hear Steppenwolf perform both the Hoyt Axton song and “Born to be Wild,” one immediately after the other, at this point in the film; this juxtaposition of songs emphasizes the dual nature of Wyatt and Billy, being both establishment (commercial capitalists) and anti-establishment (biker rebels) at the same time.

Now, conservative capitalists–owners of such private property as motels–won’t accommodate these two liberal capitalists. This lack of shelter for Wyatt and Billy puts them in a paradoxical situation: that of being, on the one hand, a pair of privileged white men with that secret stash of cash in Wyatt’s bike, their profit from the drug deal; and on the other hand, two men reduced to the status of the homeless.

Bourgeois lumpenproletariat: who’d a thunk it? In a sense, one might even think of what happens to King Lear.

One is reminded, in contemplating how the conservative capitalists are bullying these two liberal capitalists, of something Marx said in Capital, vol. 1: “One capitalist always strikes down many others,”(Marx, page 929)…or in this case, some capitalists often strike down these two others.

…and some far-right dummies out there equate the likes of Wyatt and Billy with communists. Give me strength.

Still, we see these two riding their choppers on roads with beautiful American landscapes and scenery on either side. One thing to remember about this land, though, is who it belonged to originally.

In a movie largely about white male rebels, we might not pay too much attention to those who are marginalized in it…probably because these people are so very marginalized: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women. It can be just as instructive to note who or what is not seen in a movie as who is seen in it.

Our two biker rebels stop at the home of a humble farmer to fix a flat tire on Wyatt’s bike. They have dinner with the farmer’s family, who say Grace before eating. This is a humble, conservative Christian family, though the father is liberal and unprejudiced enough to marry a Hispanic Catholic. Still, he expects her to run off and get more coffee.

What should be noted is not so much the contrast between, on the one side, Wyatt, Billy, and the hippies they’ll meet soon enough, and on the other side, the bigoted and outright dangerous conservatives. One should rather see these opposing sides as on a continuum with people like this farmer’s family as somewhere in between. All of these people play a role of some kind in the white settler colonial state that is the US. It is those aforementioned marginalized people (including the Mexican seller of the cocaine and the farmer’s wife) who should be set in opposition to all the others, including Wyatt and Billy, in this film.

Indeed, this dinner with the farmer’s family has a double in the later dinner at the hippie commune, before which they also pray, the camera slowly moving and showing us the faces of everyone about to eat. We’ll see that the hippies, for all their drug use and practice of free love, have a lot more in common with the Christian farmers than meets the eye.

Wyatt and Billy ride on, and soon they pick up a hitchhiking hippie, a Stranger on the Highway (Askew). When at a gas station, the hippie fills up Wyatt’s bike, having taken off the gas cap and leaving the possibility of him seeing the plastic tube with all the money in it, Billy gets nervous and wants to stop him. He’s just as protective of his wealth as any capitalist would be.

At nightfall, the three stop by the side of the road to smoke some grass, then to sleep. When Billy asks the hippie where he’s from, he’s evasive in his answer, feeling that all cities are the same. People who’ve done LSD, something the hippie will give Wyatt and Billy to do at a fitting time later, often sense a unity in everything and everyone, that everywhere is ‘here,’ so to speak. The hippie would also have Wyatt and Billy take heart of how this land they’re sitting on has its original owners, the Native Americans, buried under it.

He says that Wyatt and Billy could be “a trifle polite” in their attitude towards those dead aboriginals whose land the white man has taken from them. Billy chuckles at the hippie’s words; his attitude should be a reminder to us, as much as Wyatt’s Stars and Stripes, that these two bikers are not sticking it to the Man the way they should be.

All the two men want to do is pursue a life of physical pleasure: drugs, drinking, chasing women, and freely riding their choppers along the American landscape…from a land taken from the aboriginals. Wyatt and Billy are going to New Orleans to enjoy the Mardi Gras festival: “Fat Tuesday,” a great indulgence in pleasure before the great abstinence of Lent…in which they, of course, have no interest.

Their rebellion is against repressive, right-wing conservative authority, but it doesn’t go far enough. One cannot just do one’s own thing while coexisting with those reactionary types, for the reactionaries refuse to coexist with society’s long-haired rebels, as we’ll see by the end of the movie. Those reactionaries must be defeated and wiped out, not merely given the finger to, or else they’ll wipe out the rebels. This is the reality as understood in the intensification of class struggle, and why a dictatorship of the proletariat is needed to prevent the return of reactionary capitalism.

Wyatt and Billy take the hippie to his commune, where we see two young women who show an immediate sexual interest in the two bikers, just as they’ve been openly affectionate with the hippie. (One of these women thinks Wyatt is “beautiful,” in his Stars and Stripes outfit, which should tell you something about her and her attitude towards straight America.) Billy briefly plays ‘cowboys and Indians’ with the children of the commune, an indication not only of the spirit of levity felt by these whites towards the genocide of the Native Americans as noted above, but also how these hippies, in not teaching their kids that even playing war might lead to a warlike mentality when they grow up, don’t seem all that committed to the anti-war cause, a reminder that hippies are liberals, not revolutionaries–they’re the phonies that Zappa accused them of being.

Yet there are right-wing morons out there who claim that hippies are communists. Pathetic.

Other examples of traditionalism among these hippies–which give the lie to their ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘counterculture’ posturing–include, apart from the prayer before eating mentioned above, their singing of old-fashioned, traditional songs like “Does Your Hair [originally “Do Your Ears”] Hang Low?” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (as opposed to singing, for example, 60s antiwar/pro-drug songs), and their reluctance to accommodate any more visitors. Such a reluctance isn’t too far removed from when Archie Bunker refused to accommodate two unmarried hippie visitors to his house.

As I said above, all these groups of people in Easy Rider lie on a continuum, ranging from the bigoted hecklers and killers of Wyatt, Billy, and George Hanson (Nicholson) on the far-right side, then a little to the left of the bigots, there are the Christian farmer and his Catholic, Hispanic wife, then a little further left from them are the people in this hippie commune, then further left are Hanson, then Wyatt and Billy, and finally the hippie hitchhiker, who acknowledges the genocide of the aboriginals (without helping to do anything about it), on the other side. A real far-left opposition would include people like the Black Panthers and any Native American activists struggling against white settler colonialism, something we’ll never see in this film. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, the mainstream media ensures a very narrow, but lively, range of debate between the “left” and the right.

Wyatt and Billy–after engaging in skinny-dipping and free love with those two women from the commune, then taking some LSD from the hippie hitchhiker–continue on their way into a town in New Mexico where a parade is going on. They ride their choppers along with the parade, as if to join it, then they get arrested for “parading without a permit.” Actually, the cops just don’t like long-haired men.

Here is where they meet alcoholic Hanson, himself locked up for having overindulged in booze the night before.

Now, George Hanson, as a lawyer who has done work for the ACLU, is rather square, but also liberal and open-minded, as well as knowledgeable about the social issues of the day. He knows that this town they’re in is full of right-wing reactionaries who’d love to shave the heads of Wyatt and Billy, taking away their symbol of rebellion…like taking away Samson‘s strength by cutting his hair.

George can help Wyatt and Billy get out of jail as long as the two bikers haven’t done anything like killing someone…white, which George says with a sardonic grin, indicating his awareness of his society’s double standards against the marginalized black community.

He gets them and himself out of jail, has a bit of the hair of the dog, sees their impressive bikes, and learns of their plan to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. George is so intrigued that he’d like to tag along; he even tells them about a whorehouse there, calling the girls “US prime.” Once again, we see that these ‘rebels’ can be just as marginalizing of people as the ‘hicks’ they’re rebelling against.

So George rides as a passenger on Wyatt’s bike (something Nicholson would metaphorically be in a later film also dealing with an uncommitted progressive), wearing his nerdy helmet. They stop somewhere off of the road, as usual, that night and smoke some marijuana, which George has for the first time, him at first being reluctant, then opening his mind to it.

As they’re getting high, Billy speaks of a ‘satellite’ he’s just seen in the night sky (which, incidentally, can be vaguely associated with those airplanes flying overhead during the cocaine deal). George tells him and Wyatt about the “Venusian” pilots of the UFOs, about whom the world governments apparently know, but keep a secret for fear of creating a general panic among the world population.

Apparently, these “Venusians” have a far more advanced civilization than ours: egalitarian, pacifist, money-less, and with futuristic technology. George says they’ve been coming here since 1946…which by the way was around the beginning of the Cold War. They’re people just like us, George says, working with us all over the Earth in an advisory capacity.

These “Venusians” sound an awful lots like communists (egalitarian, money-less, and with advanced technology) and Marxists (i.e., leftist professors in Western universities–working ‘in an advisory capacity’) to me. The capitalist governments don’t want us to know about them (as they did so embarrassingly, via McCarthy, during the 1950s) because our antiquated capitalist system, with our leaders, is no match for theirs.

You don’t believe me? That’s because the US government doesn’t want you to know how the Soviet Union went from a backward, agrarian society in the 1920s to a nuclear-armed superpower that won the space race in the late 1950s…technological advances all achieved within a mere three decades, along with progress towards equal rights for women, universal housing, education, employment, and healthcare for all. To this day, Stalin–far from being regarded as a ‘cruel dictator,’ is loved by millions of Russians for his leadership in defeating the Nazis, and majorities of Russians have consistently preferred the Soviet era, for all of its imperfections, to current-day, capitalist Russia. The same can be said of China, from the Maoist era to today.

Now, Billy, like most people brainwashed by bourgeois propaganda, thinks that what George is saying is “a crackpot idea,” because he and Wyatt are, at heart, not all that far from establishment thinking as they might seem to be. The two bikers just want to get stoned, each of the two an easy-going rider of a chopper.

…and the two of them lead me to my next point.

Duality is a major theme in Easy Rider. Apart from the two biker protagonists, there are two cocaine deals: first, the buying of it in Mexico, then the selling of it in the US–M-C-M’, or money to commodity to valorized money, that is, money with a profit, or increased value.

Wyatt and Billy visit and eat at two farms: that of the man and his Catholic wife, and that of the hippie commune, both of which include prayers before eating, and both of which have their own mixture of traditional and liberal values, in itself another duality in the film.

There are airplanes and satellites (or UFOs) flying overhead.

Wyatt and Billy spend time with two male companions, the hippie hitchhiker, and George Hanson, both of whom share valuable insights about the world while smoking dope with them (i.e., insights about the marginalized aboriginals buried in the ground where they are, and the marginalized “Venusians,” or communists, as I interpret them to be).

Wyatt and Billy have sexual encounters with two pairs of women: the two hippies they skinny dip with, and the two prostitutes they do the LSD with in New Orleans.

There are two parades: the one in New Mexico, and the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

There are two violent assaults with intent to kill: the first in which George is bludgeoned to death at night, and the second at the end of the film, when Billy, then Wyatt, are shot and killed on their bikes.

These pairs of incidents have their parallels and their dialectical contrasts. Billy is more adversarial and self-centered; Wyatt is more laid-back and generous. The first coke deal is the buying of it: the second, a selling of it.

The first farm they visit is more conservative; the second is more liberal. The first flying machines are very real, the second are more imaginary.

The hippie hitchhiker and Hanson, as well as the pairs of women, are, in their respective ways, thoroughly paralleled.

After the first parade, Wyatt and Billy are put in jail. After the second parade, their minds are ‘freed’ with the LSD.

The first violent assault leaves Wyatt and Billy hurt, but still alive. The second assault leaves them dead.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of drugs enjoyed in this film: the narcotic kind (cocaine, marijuana, and LSD), and the religious kind (the “opium of the people“). Both kinds are attempts to escape, rather than solve, the world’s problems.

There are also doublings of performers playing songs on this famous soundtrack: I already mentioned the two Steppenwolf recordings; there are also two songs by Bob Dylan and performed by Roger McGuinn–“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Ballad of Easy Rider.”

There is also a duality of time, the present vs the future, in the form of the film’s “flashforwards” that occur at various points in the story, a quick flashing ahead to the future, then back to the present. The most important of these is when Wyatt and Billy are in the New Orleans whorehouse: Wyatt reads something about death freezing one’s reputation forever, then there’s a premonition of his death, his chopper in flames and flying in pieces by the roadside. Such a fusing of present and future symbolically suggests the feeling of timelessness experienced when using psychedelic drugs.

Now, the ultimate duality–or rather, the ultimate two dualities, as I’ll explain immediately after–is the conservative vs liberal contradiction. Since the liberals here are capitalist white men enjoying the privileges of US settler colonialism not all that much less than the conservatives are, then the conservative/liberal contradiction is really hiding a much more profound contradiction that one can only see if one is paying close attention. This is the white bourgeois vs the marginalized black/aboriginal/proletarian contradiction.

Indeed, as Wyatt and Billy are riding their choppers, or walking the streets of New Orleans, we get brief peeks of rural black families, or blacks playing music during Mardi Gras, or someone dressed as a Native American in the Mardi Gras parade. All marginalized people.

To get back to the story, Wyatt, Billy, and George continue on their way, while we hear “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” by Fraternity of Man, then “If 6 Was 9,” by Jimi Hendrix. Both of these songs reflect our bikers’ attitude to life in general, and to reactionaries in particular: just keep on smoking dope, and who cares what’s going on in the rest of the world? We do our own thing, and who cares if the conservatives don’t like it?

Umm…actually, Wyatt, Billy, and George do need to care.

They stop off in a little diner where the locals make no secret of their surprised reaction to these three strangely dressed visitors. Once again, there’s a duality in these reactions: first, a bevy of cute teenage girls finds the three men handsome and fascinating; second, all the men, being bigoted, narrow-minded conservatives, engage in non-stop heckling of Wyatt, Billy, and George.

It doesn’t take long for our three heroes to face the fact that they’re clearly not welcome, so they leave, in spite of the girls’ coming out to talk to them at their bikes.

That night, Wyatt, Billy, and George camp outside as usual. George laments the direction he sees his country going in. He says, “This used to be a helluva good country.” He’s wrong. A country founded on black slavery and the genocide of its aboriginals was never a good country. What’s more, these old sins laid the foundation for the three men’s current predicament.

Though lip-service is routinely paid to the notion of the US being a country founded on the principles of “freedom and democracy,” a deeper investigation of the intents of the Founding Fathers reveals that these land-owning, upper-class white men were primarily out to protect their class interests. They made a few concessions to working class Americans as a result of indispensable political agitation.

Nonetheless, those class interests have to this day been continually maintained in such divide-and-conquer forms as racism against blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and all non-WASP immigrants; other forms of the divide-and-conquer of the proletariat have included sex roles, keeping women in the home and away from such things as voting, and belief in such nonsense as ‘capitalism is freedom,’ the ‘free market,’ the ‘American Dream,‘ and the ‘land of opportunity.’ These illusory freedoms are what the reactionary nemeses of Wyatt and Billy will fight to the death for (as George explains), while condemning the freedom that our two protagonists practice.

As soon as the illusory form of freedom is exposed as such by the real exponents of freedom, these reactionaries further expose their fascist mentality through violence. This expression of violence is why one cannot coexist with these kinds of people: they must be fought and defeated; if they aren’t defeated, they’ll not only defeat, but also kill us. This harsh reality is what Wyatt and Billy won’t accept, and it’s also what gets them and George killed.

Freedom does not come for free.

One cannot escape the fascist mentality through drugs, though Wyatt and Billy continue to try to after George’s murder.

The two get to New Orleans and decide to find the brothel that George recommended. As they’re dining in a restaurant, getting drunk, and talking about going to the brothel, we hear a song by The Electric Prunes that does a psychedelic rendition of the Mass’s Kyrie. We continue to hear the song as they wander into the brothel and look around at the artwork. These two druggies are pursuing pleasure while we hear more music about the opium of the people.

They get two prostitutes, Karen (Black) and Mary (Basil), and all four of them drop the hippie hitchhiker’s acid after entering a cemetery in New Orleans’s French Quarter. As they’re all tripping out, we hear the voices of other people there reciting the Credo, Ave Maria, and Pater Noster. Again, we have a juxtaposition of drug use with the opium of the people.

Mary gets naked, and she and Wyatt screw. Karen has a bad trip. Wyatt embraces a statue of a goddess, and, weeping, complains of his abusive mother as if the statue were of her. He seems to be having an epiphany that Billy, unfortunately, isn’t having: Wyatt seems to realize that his rebellion against society is based on his rebellion against his parents, which would seem to be the basis of Billy’s own social revolt. This is why the two bikers can’t be revolutionaries: they won’t take on the system because all they want to do is stick it to their parents, their Oedipal, love/hate relationship with their parents being a universal narcissistic trauma.

The two bikers ride out the next day, and that night, camping out as usual, they chat for a while before sleeping. Billy is thrilled to be rich from their cocaine deal, thinking with the materialism of a typical capitalist and equating their material success with freedom. Wyatt, however, knows better, saying they “blew it.” That acid trip must have helped him understand how superficial their “freedom” is.

A common experience during an acid trip is a dissolving of the barrier between self and other. One feels a sense of unity between oneself and all of humanity, like the equating of Atman with Brahman, resulting in stronger empathy. Wyatt could very well have felt such an emotional connection with the marginalized aboriginals, blacks, and female lumpenproletariat (i.e., those two prostitutes, Karen and Mary). This would have made him realize that mainstream American liberalism just isn’t progressive enough.

Accordingly, he wears his “Captain America” leather jacket far more sparingly, that is, only outside at night, when it’s much too cool not to wear it. When Billy is shot by the man in the truck, the hick who doesn’t like his long hair, Wyatt rides back to help Billy and puts his star-spangled jacket on Billy’s wounds.

He’ll die anyway, because the gunman shoots Wyatt next, destroying his star-spangled bike. What does all of this mean, symbolically? It means that the American flag won’t heal your wounds, and that American capitalism will one day destroy itself through the violence of its own bigoted, reactionary, fascist mentality. Interpreted this way, the ending of Easy Rider can be seen as a prophetic warning of what would happen to the US, and to the world it dominates, decades after the film was made.

Please indulge me in a digression through recent political history.

The US of the mid-twentieth century–with its strong unions, high taxes for the rich, and welfare, to say nothing of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation–had enormous progressive potential. The American government, however, was also giving safe haven to former Nazis in NASA, NATO, and the West German government, all rationalized as part of the effort to contain communism.

This tolerance of fascism (as seen in an allegorical sense in Easy Rider in the form of these reactionary hicks who are never properly fought off) has led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, for all of its imperfections, was an effective counterweight against US/NATO imperialism, aiding liberation movements in the Third World and goading the US government to adopt more economically progressive policies to keep the American working class from resorting to socialist revolution.

Without the USSR as that effective counterweight, the US government has since been able to do anything it wants with impunity: hence, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed the mergers and acquisitions of American media until now only six corporations control most of Americans’ access to information. Then, there’s been one imperialist war after another: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the ongoing threats of war with Iran, Russia, and China.

Hollywood liberals (including one or two Jewish ones) are now cheering on a Ukrainian government and military under the strong influence of Neo-Nazis. Instead of using its revenue to help the poor (a huge section of which are, of course, aboriginal, black, and female), to repair roads and crumbling infrastructure, to end homelessness, to fund education and healthcare, and to create jobs, the US government sends billions and billions of dollars to those Ukrainian Nazis in a proxy war to weaken Russia (as it had in the 1980s in Afghanistan), as part of an ambitious, yet maniacal, plan to go after China in a similar way (through Taiwan). All of these events risk a nuclear WWIII, which would kill everyone on the planet.

This is what happens when we let things slide, like an easy rider on the road that leads to the far right. The violent hicks who kill Wyatt, Billy, and George aren’t literal fascists, of course, but they share the same vicious, intolerant mentality; hence, they can be easily seen as representative of the fascists I mentioned in the previous paragraphs. If one can’t tolerate something as simple as longer hair on a white man, one isn’t going to tolerate much of anything else. These intolerant people, however, have been tolerated by liberals, not just in the film, but in our society for all these decades, leading not only to the film’s ending, but also to our current political predicament, which is why I brought it up.

The hicks fear the freedom of the longhairs because such freedom has the potential to lead to the liberation of the marginalized groups I mentioned above, including, ultimately, the liberation of the global proletariat (not that the liberals, as represented by Wyatt and Billy, are doing anything to pave the way towards such liberation). The hicks have a black-and-white view of the world in which one is either absolutely like their reactionary selves, or absolutely like long-haired ‘commies’…and the only good commie is one that’s dead, remember. This conception of the world is what links the violent end of Easy Rider to the precarious state of the world today.

Once again, the hicks are coming to get us. We’ll have to do a lot more than just give them the finger.

Pyramids

At
the
top is
the one
who gains
the most, in
death & in life.

At
the
base
aren’t
slaves,
but they
who’d hold
up the entire
edifice below.

A
lot
of the
low ones
come on up
to have their
hearts cut out,
their bodies tossed
down those stone steps.

An
idea:
because
pyramids
are houses
of dead rulers
and the mangled…

At
the
least,
we could
bury these
anachronistic
triangles, along
with their monarchs
& their lifeless victims.

Such pointless pointy things to make.

Birds

What’s
supposed
left wing is, seen more closely,
in the centre, which in turn
moves to the right.

A
bird
in flight, whose flapping wings are
left here, over there on the right,
is only so depending on your
point of view.

If
it’s
flying forwards, you will see
the left wing where it ought
to be, and where the right
should be.

If
it’s
flying backwards, right at you,
the left, centre and right
may seem a confused
monstrosity,

as
has
been the case, increasingly,
for the past forty years.
As it nears,

the
bird,
which is an eagle, quite the hawk,
shows no signs of slowing down
as it reaches us,
its prey.

Not
knowing
the left wing from the right,
we will be snatched up
in its claws, fed
to its chicks.

Daggers

This
dagger
which
hovers
before
me will be used to kill a king.
Is he a kind and gentle king,
or has
this
king
worked
hard
to get
each
stab
in

his
back
and
guts?
Good kings should not be
invited to eat, then betrayed.
Bad
ones
are
not
fed
and
bled
to

bring
about
reigns
which
renew
past tyrannies. To resurrect
him who was pierced is no
different
than
let-
-ting
his
son
sit
on
a

gold
seat
that’s
good
as new.
Kill the Duncan-killer,
let Malcolm mend our wounds,
and
all
our
red
can
be
a

poured
liquid
in
a
cup,
not spilled.

Analysis of ‘Masculin Féminin’

Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (“Masculine Feminine: 15 Specific Events”) is a 1966 French New Wave film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard (who died just over a month before I began writing this up). It stars Jean-Pierre Léaud (who also played Tom in Last Tango in Paris, by the way), Chantal Goya, Marlène Jobert, Catherine-Isabelle Duport, and Michel Debora.

The film uses many of the then-innovative film techniques of the French New Wave, such as oddly disjointed scenes without the sense of a unified, flowing narrative, existentialism and absurdism, and breaking the fourth wall.

Considered by some to be representative of 1960s France, Masculin féminin is among Godard’s most acclaimed films. At the 16th Berlin International Film Festival, the film won the award for Best Feature Film Suitable for Young People. Jean-Pierre Léaud won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for his performance in the film. The film was prohibited to French viewers under 18, however, because of its sexual subject matter; this annoyed Godard, since he’d intended the film to be seen by French youth.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, in English translation; and here is a link to the film, with English subtitles.

The main theme of Masculin féminin is alienation, a particularly bad problem for the protagonist, Paul (Léaud), who fancies himself a good communist but isn’t respectful to women; neither is his friend and fellow leftist, journalist Robert Packard (Debord). These two idealistic, would-be revolutionaries don’t seem to have taken to heart Mao’s dictum, “Women hold up half the sky.”

Indeed, these two young Frenchmen are what many people today would call “brocialists.” They oppose the Vietnam War, sign a petition to free political dissidents in Brazil, yet repeatedly appraise women’s breasts in public.

The jumpy, disjointed narrative of the movie, broken up into “15 Specific Events,” apart from being a standard experimental technique of the French New Wave, is also symbolically one of the many ways of conveying the sense of alienation that pervades this film. This alienation stifles potential for socialist revolution, a necessary condition of which is proletarian solidarity. This condition cannot be met if sexism contaminates the proletarian movement, and this sort of thing is a problem all the more today, with the degraded state that Western leftism has sunk to.

Paul frequently whistles, as we hear him do during the opening credits, an earnest whistling of “La Marseillaise,” a tune used to celebrate the revolutionary forming of the First Republic. Immediately following this whistling is Paul, writing in a restaurant, expressing the theme of alienation. So in the film’s beginning, we have dreams of revolution juxtaposed against the kind of alienation that vitiates such hopes.

“Never do two gazes meet,” he says and writes. “No sign of life. Silence. Emptiness.” How can one even hope to bring about a revolution as Earth-shaking as that one that started in 1789, if one can’t even make two gazes meet, not even one genuine moment of human connection?

He likes to put a cigarette in his mouth by tossing the filter end in, as if he were doing an impressive trick. This is our first suggestion of the kind of narcissism he will show later on, the kind that will doom any revolutionary movement.

It is with this introduction of Paul that his soon-to-be love interest, Madeleine Zimmer (Goya), enters the restaurant and meets him. He asks her if she can help him get a job at the magazine where she works, though she wants to quit the place to be a pop singer of the “yé-yé” style.

His dissatisfaction with this job or that, quitting one to find another (as he’ll do later on), ties in with his general alienation from society, since this dissatisfaction is worker alienation. Similarly, the cutting up of the film into fifteen segments, as I said above, is symbolic of alienation, in particular from oneself, for if we were to think of the film as personifying someone like Paul, it would thus be alienated from its species-essence, as Paul undoubtedly feels.

The way alienation, as presented in Masculin féminin, is lethal to revolution reminds one of what the Marquis de Sade says in Marat/Sade: “Marat/these cells of the inner self/are worse than the deepest stone dungeon/and as long as they are locked/all your revolution remains/only a prison mutiny/to be put down/by corrupted fellow-prisoners” (Weiss, page 99).

As we will see in this film, the men who would make revolution (Paul, Robert, the blacks on the train) will “be put down/by corrupted fellow-prisoners” (the women with pistols, as well as the girls in Paul’s ménage à quatre, as I speculate is what really happens to him at the end of the film.)

Paul’s conversation with Madeleine is interrupted by a fight between a man and his wife. The woman leaves the restaurant in a huff, but the man tries to take their child from her, so she stops him by getting a pistol from her purse and shooting him outside.

This act of violence symbolically sets the tone for another important theme in the film: feminist rebellion against male authority. To a great extent, Masculin féminin is thus titled as an expression of the battle of the sexes, much more so than as an expression of the sexual relationship between them. The wife’s gun, just like that of the racist white woman with the two black men on the train, is a symbolic phallus, her taking of power into her own hands, a power that is normally seen as men’s.

In the next scene, Paul has left the restaurant and gone to a smaller cafe where he meets up with Robert, who says they’re on strike at the newspaper where he works.

A man enters the cafe and asks a lady working there where the stadium is; she tells him where, and he leaves. Then Paul gets up from the table where he’s been sitting with Robert, and he asks the lady the same question. Robert asks him what he was doing by asking the same question, and Paul says he was putting himself in that other man’s shoes…and that it was all for nothing.

Paul’s spontaneous…and “pointless”…imitation of the visiting man is another example of how severe alienation is in his life, that he can’t bring himself to empathize with others, to put himself in their shoes. For Paul, to do so is at best an empty charade; this inability to feel genuine empathy for others will not only poison his budding relationship with Madeleine, but will also prove how pointless all of his leftist activism is. (Recall in this connection what Che once said about the true revolutionary and love.)

Indeed, just after this imitative asking about the stadium, Robert goes over to the table of a lady whose breasts he admires, and he asks her for some sugar. Paul then gets up and asks her for some sugar, too, and he agrees with Robert about the quality of her breasts. Now here is an instance when he can put himself in someone else’s shoes. If only he could put himself in the shoes of a woman who’d rather not have her breasts appraised by a lecherous young man.

Next, we see Paul working at a desk in his new job at the magazine. (A brief interruption of this scene is one with Madeleine and Elisabeth Choquet [Jobert], shopping in a department store. Madeleine is pregnant, and therefore this interpolation seems to be sometime after the end of the events of the film, for we can safely assume she is having Paul’s baby.) He leaves his desk to go talk with Madeleine about going out with her.

She insists that she never agreed to go out with him, and he calls her a liar. During this conversation, we get alternating shots of the two, each with just one of them while both of them exchange words. Each of these shots carries on for a while before switching to one of the other character; we get this instead of the more usual quick switching back and forth of them when it’s either’s turn to speak. The effect of each long shot of one person is to make both of them seem mutually isolated, rather than together, during the conversation. This isolation thus reinforces the theme of alienation.

When she asks him why he wants to go out with her, he answers by complimenting her on her appearance; he does so, however, with a rather cool expression on his face, as though his words are insincere, just him feeding her lines. His eyes also seem to be bordering on looking at her obsessively, like a stalker. She wonders if, by taking her out, he means to take her to bed. He responds to her question with a disquietingly long pause and a cool stare; in fact, instead of directly stating his intent, he later admits that he’d like to sleep with her.

He also admits he likes to go out with girls from time to time, girls like Madeleine. He admits to having been with prostitutes, though he says he doesn’t like being with them because of a lack of warmth or feeling. This is an odd comment to make from a young man who is pursuing Madeleine without much of any warmth or feeling.

He asks her if she’s going out with a man that night, a man he’s seen her with before, a very tall and presumably desirable man. Paul’s question suggests the beginnings of the film’s theme of jealousy, something to be developed further when he’s in the ménage à quatre with her, Catherine, and Elisabeth. He asks what she’s thinking when she looks him in the eye; she says, “Nothing.”

Next, she has a question for him: what, for him, is the centre of the world? He finds her question surprising, but his honest answer would help her to gauge the extent to which he is narcissistic. His answer is “Love,” which hardly sounds honest. She imagines–and quite correctly, as we’ll gradually learn over the course of the movie–that he’d say, in all honesty, that he considers himself to be the centre. He hesitates again when she asks if he thinks her supposition of his honest answer is strange. He simply thinks it’s natural to see, hear, and think of things primarily from his own perspective, but she means more than that.

This scene is one of many cinéma vérité-style interviews in the film of characters coolly asking each other questions that the one being asked finds strange, surprising, or discomfiting. The emotional disconnect that these questions cause, and are caused by, reinforces the sense of alienation between the interviewer and interviewee.

The fourth segment is introduced with the sound of a gunshot heard many times throughout the film. As a reminder of the opening scene with the woman in the restaurant shooting the man, that gunshot reinforces the theme of woman’s violent rebellion against the oppressive men in her life, a necessity that our two brocialists don’t understand.

We see the two young men walking together outside, carrying cans of paint. Paul, in a voiceover, comments on the changing times of the mid-Sixties. He speaks of James Bond and the Vietnam War, two indicators of the Cold War, in pop culture and historic form. He also mentions the hopes of the French left with the upcoming elections; any real communist, however, would reserve hope for revolutions, not for elections.

The boys meet up with Madeleine, who introduces her two roommates to them. Robert fancies Catherine (Duport) in particular, though the feeling is by no means mutual.

During segment “4A,” Paul and Robert, still with their paint, encounter a US Army car, the driver of which is distracted by Paul as Robert paints “Peace in Vietnam” along the passenger’s side of it. When the car is driven away, Paul and Robert chant, “US, go home!” Once again, we see how puerile and ineffective their would-be anti-imperialism is.

The next segment, introduced with another gunshot sound, begins with a voiceover of Madeleine while we see a train go by on an overpass. Paul’s relationship with her is getting more and more physical; Elisabeth, who it’s implied has lesbian feelings for her, is getting jealous. Madeleine is happy to have Paul’s love, but she hopes he won’t be a pest; this hope of hers ties in with both the train and the gunshot sound, as we’ll discover by the end of the film, as with the upcoming scene in the train with the two blacks in their conversation with the racist white woman.

At night, we see Paul leaving a building (Madeleine’s apartment building?) through the front doors of a store. He’s staring at the camera as if we were extras in the film; then he gets on the train. He sits with Robert.

They overhear, across from them on the train, a conversation between that white woman and the two black men that I mentioned above. This conversation is, in fact, an extremely abbreviated version of Dutchman, a short play by Amiri Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones). Here is a link to the play, and here is a link to a British made-for-TV movie of it, with Al Freeman Jr. playing Clay, and Shirley Knight as Lula.

The white woman making racist generalizations about “niggers” is of course Godard’s equivalent of Lula, and the black man with the hat parallels Clay; the other black man, in the white coat and sitting next to “Lula,” represents the young black man at the end of Baraka’s play, with a book in his hands, Lula’s next victim.

Naturally offended by the racist attitude of “Lula,” “Clay” discusses how white people love the music of Bessie Smith, yet they don’t understand what she’s really singing about. She’s actually saying, “Here’s my big, fat black ass…telling you to fuck off.” (Or, as she says in Dutchman, “Kiss my black ass.”

Next, “Clay” mentions Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, again whom his white fans don’t understand. Bird, like Bessie Smith, would kill all white people, except their music expresses their anger instead. Now, in the play, Lula stabs Clay with a knife; in Godard’s film, however, “Lula” shoots “Clay” with a pistol, that recurring phallic motif of women’s liberation, except that here, the gun is an instrument not of feminism, but of white supremacy.

So this segment, too, reinforces the theme of alienation, which ruins the hopes of proletarian revolution by diverting one’s rage from the ruling class and, instead, redirecting it against one’s fellow proletarians. Class antagonism is obscured by racial hatred, or hatred between the sexes.

In the next segment, Catherine and Elisabeth discuss which parts of the body reflect the essence of sexuality. For Elisabeth, it’s the genitals; for Catherine, it’s the skin. The touch of the skin, for Catherine, is the basis of human connection. Elisabeth wonders if such connection can be made with the eyes. In any case, little real connection occurs in this film.

The next segment shows Paul and Madeleine enter a restaurant. He wants to propose to her, but several things frustrate his attempt to tell her. Firstly, she has little time. Secondly, they sit at a table close to where two men are reading aloud an erotic story whose objectification of a woman is making Paul and Madeleine most uncomfortable. Finally, they move to another table, where they overhear a man telling a woman his unhappy story of his wife’s death and his need to start his life all over…again, something not easy to hear when a man is trying to propose.

Madeleine’s time has run out, and she must go, pressing Paul to blurt out his proposal in an awkward hurry. She says they can discuss it later, and leaves. Once again, an attempt at human connection is thwarted by the many symptoms of an alienating society.

As she’s leaving the restaurant, we hear one of her songs, “Laisse Moi,” in which she sings–it would seem, to Paul, “Let me go on just being me.” She would just be friends with him, and wishes he would leave her alone so she could be herself, as the lyrics tell us. It’s significant that he has slight regard for her music, since it expresses feelings he refuses to acknowledge.

As the song continues playing, we see Paul being the pest that Madeleine fears he will become. In her home with Catherine, she is reading a magazine that Paul grabs from her and throws back at her.

Just before and after this shot, we see shots of middle-aged Frenchwomen (mostly) either crossing the street of a shopping area, or entering and exiting a department store. Amidst all of the alienation in human relationships, there is the capitalist spectacle of consumerism. The desire to buy things has largely replaced the wish to be with people.

We hear Madeleine’s song again as she’s dancing with Elisabeth and others in a club, though Paul isn’t interested in dancing. Next, we see Paul, Madeleine, and Elisabeth buying some drinks, but the girls are annoyed with him and leave him alone to pay. A young prostitute offers to sell him a private moment in a photo booth, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay to touch her breasts. He leaves her abruptly in a huff.

Next, he goes into a neighboring booth to record himself telling her, in an attempt at romantic, poetic language, how much he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. This romanticism, just after considering using a prostitute and brushing her off so rudely!

Another of Madeleine’s songs, “Tu M’as Trop Menti,” is heard while Paul plays bowling in a small arcade. She sings, again, as if to him, that she has heard too many of his lies to believe him anymore. He approaches a man playing pinball; bizarrely, the man pulls out a knife and threatens Paul with it before stabbing himself in the gut. When you cannot project the pain of your own alienation onto others, it eats you up inside.

We see Madeleine and Elisabeth walking along the street at night among other window shoppers, this after having left Paul to pay for the drinks. Again, we see consumerism replacing healthy relationships.

Paul enters a laundromat and meets Robert there. Oddly, instead of telling Robert about the surely traumatizing experience he just had with the man with the knife, Paul tells him about men following him. These men each apologized for having scared Paul. It’s as if Paul is processing the trauma of the man with the knife by making it seem less severe, just men following him.

Robert is reading a newspaper article about Bob Dylan, whom he calls a “Vietnik,” which is a portmanteau of Vietnam and beatnik. Such a juxtaposition of ideas, like “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” reflects another theme of this film: the dialectical relationship between the socialist ideal and all that which vitiates the realization of that ideal.

Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, like Marx, represents the socialist ideal, while the beatniks whom Dylan represents (and by extension, the hippies and modern-day liberals who have come since the Dylan of the mid-sixties), and the corrosiveness of popular soft-drinks like Coke, represent the vitiating of that ideal, just as ‘brocialism’ does. Capitalist South Vietnam and liberal opportunism (which includes the progressive posturing of beatniks and hippies) were and are similarly corrosive…in a metaphorical sense.

Reading the Dylan article, Paul sings of Hitler, Stalin, and Johnson having only one thing to do: “kill ’em.” The equating of these three most dissimilar men is a typical tactic of today’s political establishment, though the liberals keep propping up the political party that gave us LBJ, who helped escalate the Vietnam War, as if it were the only one worth considering.

Paul also complains to Robert about his woman problems; he contemplates dumping Madeleine, even just after saying he wants to marry her. He also hopes to move in with her after being kicked out of his own place. He of course will move in with her, enflaming Elisabeth’s jealousy.

Robert still likes Catherine, who still doesn’t like him. He once asked her about her bra size, and she slapped him hard. Just then, a woman enters the laundromat and walks by the two seated young men, and true to their nature, they loudly appraise her breasts favourably. Paul has Robert stick out his finger, and Paul makes his hand into a yoni, then the two hands jokingly simulate sex. Paul jokes crudely, but he’s unhappy because of his faltering relationship with Madeleine. Men often don’t realize that their addiction to lewdness stems from sadness.

Robert notes that in the word masculin are two hidden words: masque and cul (“mask” and “ass”). In féminin, however, there is nothing. One is reminded of the Renaissance-era slang use of nothing, or “no thing,” or “an O-thing,” to mean vagina. We’re also reminded of how Madeleine looked into Paul’s eyes and felt…nothing. Paul frowns upon hearing Robert say “nothing.” Could this “nothing” be because of the masculine use of social masks in a quest for the feminine “no thing” and ass? Is this the true meaning of the title Masculin féminin?

In the seventh segment, we see Madeleine and Elisabeth in a cafe while Paul, in voiceover, talks of his sadness. The jealousy felt between him and Elisabeth over Madeleine (recall the implied lesbian relationship between the two girls) is the basis of the tension in the film. Jealousy is a narcissistic trait, with its origin in the Oedipal relationship with one’s parents: we would selfishly hog the loved parent to ourselves while shoving the hated parent away. As we get older, we transfer the love/hate relationship with our parents onto new people we meet, as Paul and Elisabeth have done onto pretty Madeleine. They would each hog her to themselves while shoving the other away.

A female voice (Elisabeth’s?) predicts a future sex toy that will give the user perfect satisfaction. Madeleine in a voiceover says that if we, the commodity-addicted consumers, would have our TVs and cars, we would be delivered from freedom. Who needs freedom in the capitalist world when you can simply buy stuff?

Next, we see Paul and Catherine at the dinner table at home. He has moved in, and he wonders, in an implied tone of jealousy, “Where the hell are they?”, that is, where are Madeleine and Elisabeth (“Qu’est-ce qu’elles foutent?” or, “What the fuck are they doing?”). The two girls come home soon after.

Madeleine speaks of how her music is doing on the charts in Japan: she’s trailing behind the Beatles, France Gall, and Bob Dylan. Paul, apparently annoyed with her success, reads from a blurb in a magazine on her, reading in an affectedly overly-enthusiastic way, saying the words with frantic speed. Now she is annoyed with his making fun of her.

Indicating his continued lack of interest in Madeleine’s music, he puts on a record of classical music and listens, rapt. Madeleine and Elisabeth shower together, giggling [!]. The two of them go to bed, but with Paul lying in between. Elisabeth is reading a book with her nose clearly out of joint as Paul and Madeleine lie close together, touching each other.

After this, Paul sees Catherine playing with a miniature model of a guillotine. She has the figurine of a man whose head is to be put in. She asks Paul if he’s ever heard of the Marquis de Sade, who of course was much involved with the French Revolution, which in turn was of course notorious for its use of the guillotine.

As she puts the figurine’s head in the guillotine, we hear a fiery, dramatic speech in voiceover, one addressing Mitterrand, and mentioning the dethroning of twenty kings for the sake of liberty. Again, we have the ideal of revolution juxtaposed with a left-wing leader who would, in time, prove to disappoint. (Mitterrand wouldn’t have been explicitly known as a disappointment until the 1980s, but any Marxist worth his salt–like Godard–would have already known in the 60s not to trust the results of mainstream voting.)

Paul will come to dislike his job at the magazine, and he’ll quit, soon to find a job interviewing and polling people for IFOP. We see an interview he has with a girl named Elsa, a friend of Madeleine’s. The whole time, we see only Elsa, hearing Paul’s questions and her answers. As with the other interview-like dialogues occurring before and after this “Dialogue With a Consumer Product,” there is a sense of alienating disconnect between man and woman here, reflected in seeing only her face and never his, instead of the camera going back and forth between speakers.

He asks her a number of questions concerning politics and other subjects she feels unqualified to answer, and therefore questions that make her feel awkward. He often interrupts her when she answers. It’s as if he were trying to impose his ideology on a girl who clearly prefers the liberal democracy of the US to socialism. We socialists won’t win people over to our cause with Paul’s tactics.

Outside the room they’re having the interview in, we hear, from time to time, the giggling of girls (Madeleine? Catherine? Elisabeth?). The implication is that women live much happier lives without pests like Paul around.

In the ninth segment, we see Paul playing pinball in a restaurant; Elisabeth is there, too, using the phone. (We also hear another of Madeleine’s songs, “Si Tu Gagnes Au Flipper.“) He rudely calls out to her to sit with him and eat. As they’re eating, she mentions a man that Madeleine has been with, enflaming Paul’s jealousy, something it’s safe to assume that Elisabeth is trying to do. Madeleine will join them soon.

During his chat with Elisabeth, we see included in the shot a German man sitting right next to Paul, though he’s of course not at all involved in the conversation. This man will later sit at a booth with a German-hating prostitute who Madeleine recognizes as the same woman who shot her husband at the beginning of the film.

The alienation is swelling now.

The German tells the prostitute that he dissociates himself from his country’s Nazi past. (Actually, it was the East Germans who successfully dissociated themselves from it), since she hates the Germans for what they did to her parents in the concentration camps.

Next, Elisabeth notices a man talking to Brigitte Bardot about some lines she is to recite, lines he feels she’s been saying too slowly. His criticisms tie in with the theme of alienation in how we often communicate poorly. We saw this in Paul’s interview of Elsa for the IFOP, and Paul himself, by the end of the film, realizes the error of his questioning methods during those interviews.

After this scene, we see Paul, Madeleine, Elisabeth, and Catherine go to the movies to see a Swedish film about a woman abused by her man (It seems to be Godard parodying Ingmar Bergman‘s The Silence.). We hear “Comment le Revoir,” another of Madeleine’s pop songs playing as the usher helps the four find their seats.

Elisabeth doesn’t like Paul sitting next to Madeleine, for obvious reasons, so she puts herself between Madeleine and him, angering him. He also changes seats, but not sitting on the other side of Madeleine in Elisabeth’s original seat–he sits on the other side of Catherine instead, to spite Madeleine for her acceptance of Elisabeth at her side.

The film they’ve come to see begins: we see the dominant man going after his woman outside on the winter streets, to grab her and control her. Later, we’ll see them in their apartment.

Paul needs to use the washroom, but in there, he finds two gay men kissing in one of the toilet stalls. Paul’s homophobic disgust at them is presumably mainly for the usual reason, but these two male lovers probably also remind him of a certain pair of female lovers. (Incidentally, we will soon see Elisabeth’s hand stroking Madeleine’s hair as they watch the movie.)

Paul has little interest in it, but he goes out and complains to the projectionist about the format of the film (e.g., its aspect ratio, etc.; they are all, in Paul’s opinion, not acceptable). The point is that he’s so disconnected from human communication that he focuses more on the technical aspects of the film than its expression of one of the fundamental problems of male/female relations: the abusive dominance of one over the other. This oversight of Paul’s also reflects his own refusal to acknowledge his disrespectful attitude towards women.

The brutish man in the film, who typically grunts his commands at the woman and makes her perform sexual acts on him, is quite the animal. Indeed, he looks at himself in the mirror, seeing it distort his face as if to tell him that he truly is bestial. He pouts at what he sees. Soon after, we see him kissing the woman in front of the mirror, holding her by the hair to control her. One imagines him pleased to see this in the reflection, his Lacanian ideal-I as a powerful man in the specular image.

Paul frowns as he watches the film, with the abusive man making the woman, it would appear, perform fellatio on him. Paul the idealist wants to see romanticized images of men and women on the screen (much as how the abusive man wants to see himself in the mirror as a desirable lover, rather than as a controlling man), not the unsettling reality of relations between the sexes as seen in the film…or as seen in Paul’s own actual relations with women.

The twelfth segment is introduced with the gunshot sound again. At home, Catherine and Robert are having a conversation that parallels the one between Paul and Madeleine when he was asking her to go out with him. Robert, however, is much less successful with Catherine, of whom he can’t take the hint that she doesn’t like him. Again, we usually only see the face of the one, or that of the other, for long stretches of the conversation, reinforcing the sense of mutual alienation.

She’s eating an apple, like Eve with the forbidden fruit (or like Lula and her apples while aggressively coming on to Clay in Dutchman–links above): does her rejection of Robert at all compare with the ruin of Adam, or of Clay? In any case, we see in all these scenes more of the tensions between the sexes, the kind that ruin all possibility of proletarian solidarity.

Catherine asks Robert if he has ever been with prostitutes, as Madeleine asked of Paul; Robert admits to it with a smile, making him all the less attractive to Catherine. He asks her a number of personal questions she feels are none of his business. He speaks of his plans to bring about “a complete revolution,” yet he’s so charmless that he can even connect with a girl like her. The sense of mutual alienation between them is such that, even in those shots that include both of them, his head is obscured by the door of a cupboard (they’re in her kitchen), a symbolic expression of that estrangement.

He’s jealous because he thinks she’s in love with Paul, which she isn’t–she just doesn’t like Robert. She notes at the start of their conversation how difficult it is for him to talk: this inability to communicate is, with jealousy, one of the main themes of this film. We hear Madeleine’s song, “Sois Gentil” during this chat: it’s as if she’s telling Robert to be more of a gentleman on Catherine’s behalf.

His chatting with her about politics is as awkward as it was between Paul and Elsa. Interrupting their chat, ever so briefly, is another shot of women shopping in a department store, another iteration of the theme of consumerism trumping human connection. As we can see, revolution is not possible in such an alienating society that prefers commodities to community. Small wonder this film is “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” stated in a famous inter-title with the gunshot sound to introduce the next segment.

Paul and Catherine walk down the street. A man borrows Paul’s matches without giving them back, but using them to immolate himself as a protest against the Vietnam War. One is reminded of the Buddhist monk in South Vietnam who did the same thing a few years before this film. If only Paul had the strength of character to protest the war in such a brave way.

Paul and Catherine visit the recording studio where Madeleine is recording “D’Abord Dis Moi Ton Nom.” Paul, still with no interest in or respect for her music, walks right into the recording area, as if her talking to her narcissistic boyfriend were more important than her art.

Paul, Catherine, and Madeleine go outside, where a music journalist asks her a few questions. She mentions loving Pepsi–once again, such commodities as cola get in the way of Marxist revolution.

In the next segment, we hear Paul speaking in voiceover, acknowledging how misguided his questions for the IFOP polling have been. This admitting of bad communication will be too late, though, for he will soon die. During his speaking of his need to change his interviewing style, we see lots of shoppers on the streets, another juxtaposition of the failure to communicate with a fetishizing of commodities.

In the fifteenth and final segment, also…and most significantly…introduced with the gunshot sound, we see Catherine and Madeleine in a police station telling the officer there how Paul died, him having fallen from a window of his recently purchased apartment in a high rise. The girls insist his death must have been an accident rather than a suicide. When Catherine says it was “a stupid accident,” she looks down and away from the officer, suggesting she’s lying.

Significantly, I believe, Elisabeth isn’t there to talk to the officer, but we learn that, while Paul wanted Madeleine to move in to his new place, she wanted Elisabeth to move in with them, too, which of course jealous Paul would never have accepted. There was fighting, then the “accident.” I don’t believe he killed himself in heartbreak over learning of his woman’s lesbian relationship with Elisabeth, which they, having all lived together for so long, couldn’t have kept secret from him for so long. He must have already known for at least quite a while, and he and Elisabeth were competing for Madeleine, which finally came to a head.

I believe the girls are covering up how jealous, lesbian Elisabeth actually pushed Paul off the building (it fits in with the theme of women killing men that has appeared in so many forms throughout the film). One can sense a trace of guilt in pregnant Madeleine’s eyes, especially since she’s contemplating…however hesitantly…getting an abortion.

The film ends with the word “féminin” shown on the screen, then with the gunshot sound and the “émin” removed to indicate “fin.” Indeed, the film ends with the women, who without the proper masculine support, won’t ever join in proletarian solidarity with them.

We’d kill a man, rather than go after The Man.

So Undeserving

In spite of how logically indefensible as the belief in a just world is, in spite of how high the evidence is piled against believing in such an absurdity, many people out there still believe in it.

The reasons for having such a belief range from the religious, or a notion of philosophical idealism (the mind, or soul, determines how the world is), that ‘God’ is watching over everything and therefore He in His infinite wisdom will set everything right sooner or later, to the emotional need to feel safe and comfortable in such a disordered and scary world. If I’m good, nothing bad will happen to me, and if it does, with a little patience, I’ll see the wrong turned to right.

If not, then I must have deserved the wrong.

Here is where belief in a just world is not only logically indefensible, but morally indefensible, too, for victim-blaming is about as despicable as despicable gets.

In a previous post, I wrote about how wrong it is to think it’s cowardly and weak to say that we aren’t where we want to be because of other people’s thwarting of us in some way. There may be individual instances when it’s nobody’s fault but our own, but one would be amazed to find out how often our misery is caused at least partly, if not wholly, by others.

Similarly, the individualist capitalism of our day all too often attributes the great successes of those in our billionaire class to their own individual talent, while saying little (if anything at all) about the many people who helped those fat cats get so fat. Little attention is given to the people who were stepped on as those billionaires made their ascent to success, too.

The idea that the global poor ‘deserve’ to be as they are in ‘God’s just world’ because they are ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’ is itself an intellectually lazy–and therefore stupid idea. The poor work very hard because they have no choice but to do so…otherwise, they’d starve. If they seem ‘stupid’ to you, consider the fact that they typically don’t have the money to get a proper education.

That the rich supposedly deserve to own millions or billions of dollars, while paying minimal if any taxes, because they ‘work so hard’ is also a dubious argument. There are only twenty-four hours in a day: how much ‘hard work’ can be done in a day for someone like Jeff Bezos…justifiably…to make $321 million per day?

It’s elementary Marxism (a materialist philosophy, as opposed to the idealism of the just-world fallacy) to know that capital is accumulated through the exploitation of labour, that is, the overworking and underpaying of workers–the talent and hard work of the capitalist, however present they may be, are if anything, more of a detail than a central element of his success, which is typically being born into at least some degree of affluence. Consider, on the other hand, the slavish suffering of Amazon workers, who have to piss in bottles so as not to be late with deliveries, and so Jeff could go up into space in his cock-rocket.

So undeserving, on both sides.

Did so many get plunged into poverty, often even greater poverty, over the past two years because they were ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid,’ or was it because of ill-advised lockdown policies and the exploitation of the pandemic (whose danger many of us still insist has always been exaggerated) by the capitalist class, causing the wealth of men like Bezos and Gates to go through the roof?

So undeserving, on both sides.

So many of us have lost work, going from fully employed to underemployed or completely jobless, and facing the danger of no longer being able to pay our rent or other basic necessities. Is this our fault? Not at all. The capitalist class–with its crises of overproduction and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, problems we have known about and been able to foresee happening for decades if not centuries–are the ones to blame, as they are for the exacerbation of this problem with their exploiting of Covid as described in the paragraph before my refrain:

So undeserving, on both sides.

The capitalist class thrives, while the rest of us suffer. These economic problems have been further exacerbated by the backfiring sanctions on Russia, and the refusal to allow Europe to use Nordstream 1 and 2, just to kowtow to the US imperialists in their anti-Russian agenda, means Europeans will have to endure a winter without gas, or to buy the much more expensive American gas. This, even though Putin is willing to boost gas supplies to Europe after repairs (following sabotage that, in all likelihood, was caused by the US).

[These macrocosmic, global injustices have their parallel on the microcosmic level, in families and other social groups tainted with narcissistic abuse. The narc enlists flying monkeys and other enablers to assist in bullying and scapegoating the chosen victim, typically a highly-sensitive person who sees through the falsely altruistic veneer of the narc, calls him or her out for it, then suffers the consequences, being publicly shamed for merely telling the truth. Meanwhile, the narc continues to be admired and is never suspected.]

So undeserving, on both sides.

Now, we can see, as I observed in my post, The Toxic Family of Imperialism, how the global media celebrates political villains while scapegoating political victims, as is happening with the dangerously escalating war between Russia and Ukraine, one that–contrary to popular belief–was anything but “unprovoked.” Many of us have been trying to tell the uninformed and propagandized that Russia’s intervention had been thoroughly provoked for a period of eight years since a 2014 US-backed coup d’état replaced the democratically elected, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military that includes Russian-hating Neo-Nazis. They make up small percentages, but they’re politically very influential.

These Ukrainian fascists have been discriminating against, physically attacking, and killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for eight years. Putin has tried to establish peace negotiations, first with the thwarted Minsk Accords, then in April of this year (thwarted by an intervention by BoJo), and recently with the Zelenskyy and American governments, both of which have refused to talk to Putin. Meanwhile, everyone demonizes Putin for merely trying to protect his country.

Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian Nazis are celebrated and regarded as heroes, and the US and NATO are perceived as ‘defending freedom and democracy,’ while they use this ridiculous slur on their scapegoat: “Putler.”

So undeserving, on both sides.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t regard Putin as any kind of political ideal. He’s a bourgeois, reactionary politician who assuredly has his own secret, ulterior motives for wanting Russian control over the newly-annexed, formerly Ukrainian territories. But I see no reason not to regard the referenda results, of the people living there who mostly voted to join Russia, as legitimate. (I don’t trust the Western media bias against the Russian referenda; the West refused to legitimize them before they even got the results, as they were biased against the Crimea referendum.)

A great many of the people living there are ethnic Russians, and most eastern Ukrainians speak Russian (a language the Ukrainian Nazis wanted to prevent them from speaking): why would they want to stay in a country unprotected against Russophobic fascists? In any case, whatever faults are to be found in Putin are minuscule compared to those of the US/NATO warmongers (who have military bases all over the world, and are stealing oil and wheat from Syria, of which they’re controlling a third), who are pushing us all to the brink of WWIII and nuclear annihilation…all because the American ruling class refuses to accept the emerging multipolar world.

None of us is deserving of being killed in a nuclear holocaust.

Now, some of you who have read my posts on what I call The Three Unities, those being the Unity of Space, of Time, and of Action, may be thinking that, as they read this little rant of mine, I’m being hypocritical and self-contradicting. My discussion of The Three Unities, as well as my post, Beyond the Pairs of Opposites, in no way necessitates a belief in a just world. I’m not saying that the ups and downs of life are somehow equalized, and therefore ‘just.’ On the contrary, I stressed that the evils of the world “are all unqualified evil.” Good can flow from those evils as a dialectical response to them (and through human effort), though it far too often doesn’t.

Our negative belief systems (e.g., the illusion of a separate ego, black-and-white thinking, capitalist apologetics, bigotry, etc.) cause our problems to a far greater extent than the external difficulties of life. My Three Unities are an attempt to remedy those bad beliefs, not to deny the existence of evil.

Indeed, the belief in a just world is one of those very negative beliefs. The paradox of such a belief is that it leads to less empathy, or to no empathy at all, for those who suffer (i.e., victim blaming). Granted, to be fair, such a belief doesn’t absolutely lead to no empathy or to victim-blaming, but it does tend toward such an attitude.

On the other side of the coin, acknowledgment of the many injustices of the world tends to prod people towards trying to right those wrongs…again, I mean this as a tendency, allowing for many exceptions.

So, what should we think about the idea of a ‘just world’? It shouldn’t be conceived as already existing; it should rather be something to strive for, with all our hearts.

Don’t see a just world…make a just world!

Slopes

When
we slide
down a hill
on a sled, we
don’t think of
the speed of the
slipping, the danger.

The
thrill of
the feeling
of freedom will
blind us to how we
will crash at the foot
of the hill of our pride.

A
few
decades
ago, we all
thought of the
West as invincible;
we saw no cracks in the ice.

The
liberal
Sisyphus
must roll a rock
up a hill, just to go
back and roll it again.
We always go down, not up.

All
of this
time, we
keep rolling
lower and lower,
no hope of ascent,
or of even staying put.

The
crash
at the
bottom is
coming, and
it’s going to hurt.
Will we be ready for it?

Analysis of ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’

We’re Only in It for the Money is the third album by Frank Zappa‘s band, The Mothers of Invention. It came out in 1968, the album cover parodying the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As is typical with Zappa’s music, the lyrics of this concept album satirize the social hypocrisies of 1960s straight America–in this particular case, those of conservatives and of a particular kind of liberals whose hair was as long as that of Zappa and the Mothers…the hippies. Musically, we hear a mix of psychedelic rock (a parody of it), and the influence of such post-war avant-garde composers as Varèse and Stockhausen.

Zappa used montage recording techniques, including musique concrète, speeding up the tape, and abrupt interruptions between abbreviated songs, splicing in segments of dialogue and unrelated music. These montage techniques were also used on Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which came out at about the same time as Money, and is its sequel, or “Phase 2.”

While Zappa had intended the outer front and back cover, as well as the inner sleeve photo, to parallel those of Sgt. Pepper, Verve decided to reverse the intended inner and outer designs out of fear of legal action resulting from a lack of assurance of permission from the Beatles’ business managers.

So on the front cover, we see–from left to right–bassist/vocalist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Don Preston, drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group,” as he himself tells us twice on Side One), and keyboardist/wind player Ian Underwood; and on the back, we see–from left to right–Zappa (asking if this album is Phase One of Lumpy Gravy), drummer Billy Mundi, and saxophonist Bunk Gardner. They are posed against a yellow background, as in the inner sleeve of the Sgt. Pepper album, but instead of wearing marching band uniforms as the Beatles wore, Zappa and the Mothers are all in drag, their facial hair all intact, for sure, and Zappa’s hair in the cutest of pigtails (or ‘bunches,’ if you prefer).

The inner sleeve shows the parody with the Mothers in drag again, as well as a collage of faces in the background, those generally more obscure than the famous faces seen on Sgt. Pepper. These include Zappa’s father, Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot, a pregnant Gail Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and LBJ. Instead of the bright blue sky at the top of the Beatles’ front cover, we see a dark, stormy sky with lightning.

The other side of the inner sleeve shows the lyrics and album credits against a red background, with the Mothers in drag again at the bottom; though instead of seeing most of the band facing forward (as in the case of Lennon, Harrison, and Starr) and one member facing backward (i.e., McCartney, who, recall, was “dead”), here all of the Mothers have their backs to us, and only saxophonist Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood is facing us, which I guess is because he had the “teen appeal” that the band needed so desperately.

The title of the album is a cynical take on the financial success of bands like the Beatles, who presented their music as an inspiration to the hippie counterculture; yet as with the hippies themselves, the music of these bands was something Zappa considered to be equally fake. The album’s title is also ironic, since no one would seriously consider music of such an experimental nature (far more avant-garde than the sonic experimentation of Sgt. Pepper) to have been conceived to make much of any money, let alone solely to make lots of money.

The overall theme of Money is phoniness: the phoniness of conservative parents, of the hippie ‘counterculture,’ and of “American womanhood.” On a deeper level, we can see the dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal to be a false one, as exposed as such on this album. Indeed, both groups of seemingly opposed people are really just upper-middle class bourgeois who, though pretending in their own respective ways to uphold either traditional or progressive moral values, are really just preserving their class status in society.

This is not at all to say that Zappa himself was ever interested in upturning class privilege any more than the hippies were. He openly expressed his dislike of communists and his disdain for any kind of labour movement. During a gig in Berlin back in the late 1960s, he was annoyed when radical leftists in the audience heckled him and his band by calling them “The Mothers of Reaction.” Similarly, as a bandleader, he was clearly the boss, making his musicians play only his music, and dictatorially demanding exacting performances of his music from them.

Still, Zappa wasn’t as paranoid about communism as so many on the right in the US have always been. I would characterize his politics as a libertarian-leaning centrism: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Though he would never have advocated my proposed solutions to the problems of conservative vs. liberal/hippie phoniness, I can nonetheless use his satirical depiction of the faults of these only seemingly opposed groups as a basis for diagnosing them as bourgeois symptoms, indications of class and imperialist privilege that would be alleviated by a revolutionary class struggle that Zappa would have wanted no part of, having been quite bourgeois himself.

Side One fittingly opens with Eric Clapton asking a question whose answer in the affirmative would seem to be the root of all the phoniness Zappa observed in the conservatives and liberals/hippies of the time: “Are You Hung Up?” A preoccupation Zappa had throughout his career, and the basis of his work as a social critic and satirist, was people’s mental health…are we, or are we not, hung up? Are the repressions of our conformist society inhibiting us from expressing ourselves, each of us in a unique, creative way?

Zappa’s preferred alternative to the hippie scene was the California freak scene, a group he hoped to promote and organize into a Mothers fan club called “The United Mutations.” He preferred the freaks to the hippies because the former group dressed, acted out, and danced to his music in creative and non-conforming ways without the use of drugs, of which he never approved. (Back in the 1960s, Zappa tried smoking marijuana about ten times, but he never liked it.)

The next track on the album is “Who Needs the Peace Corps?“, which it’s safe to assume isn’t about the American government organization, but is rather a metaphor for the peacenik hippies. Zappa despised the phoniness of the hippies not just because of their conformist adherence to the fashion trends of the time (long hair, beads, leather headbands, etc.), or their getting stoned and partying, only to go back home to Mom and Dad; but also because their dreaming of a world of peace and love was hopelessly naïve and utopian.

It’s only natural that most of us want to end all the wars in the world (especially now, in the 2020s!), but before we can end war, we have to understand it. People from upper-middle-class, petite bourgeois America are the least likely or motivated to take the time to learn of the origins of warmongering. Their class privilege makes the hippies far too complacent.

The Russian working class and peasants, back in the 1910s, eagerly wanted to get out of WWI. Lenin, who theorized about the imperialist competition for land that was the basis for the war, promisedPeace, Land, and Bread” to the Russian people, and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they delivered on their promise, though they had to make a number of unpleasant compromises in the process. (And granted, the Russian Civil War came almost immediately after that, but that was the fault of the capitalist invaders, not of the Bolsheviks.)

Communists have fought wars far more often out of necessity than out of choice, as we’ve seen imperialists do routinely; the Soviets often tried to influence the peace movement. Even Soviet military interventions were less the result of wanting to fight than of being manipulated into it, as was the case with Afghanistan in the 80s. The Red Army bore the brunt of a Nazi invasion that Stalin bought time against with a non-aggression pact (since a detailed discussion of the history of this is beyond the scope of this post, I refer the reader to this).

My point in bringing all this up is that the only realistic way to end war and achieve a lasting peace is to eliminate imperialism, which is a chronic cause of war, as we’ve seen to be especially true since the dissolution of the USSR. Similarly, the only way we’ll all sincerely love one another is to end the alienation that capitalism causes. Hippies, with their typically bourgeois social background, are hardly inclined to make the necessary changes. These people are phonies because they lack revolutionary potential.

In fact, hippies are so reactionary that they tended to go from the 60s counterculture to the liberal establishment of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s…up until now. They’ll tell you, “Vote blue no matter who!”, even if the blue candidate is an imperialist warmonger like Biden, who is pals with the GOP. Zappa once observed that hippie types would even reinforce conformity in the music industry.

The next song is “Concentration Moon.” The first word of the title is clearly referring to a concentration camp, so we prisoners see the moon at night outside our cell there. The references in the song to the police shooting and killing “creeps,” as with the reference in the previous song to the police who “kick the shit out of me,” are indications of the fascist nature of the authorities associated with a concentration camp. “Over the camp in the valley” cements this interpretation, since it also alludes to Kafka‘s “In the Penal Colony” (more on this short story later), which is a concentration camp in a valley on an island.

Note the juxtaposition of a concentration camp with hippies in the song, and keep this in mind when you recall what I said above about hippies all too quickly becoming part of the political establishment…a liberal establishment that, far from promoting peace, has for years now been banging the war drums against Russia. Instead of wanting a quick end to the war with Ukraine, these liberals are cheering on the Ukrainian army, which includes Neo-Nazis, of whom they’re either willfully ignorant or in denial, or whose existence they’re rationalizing and/or minimizing.

Social democracy is, essentially, left-leaning liberalism, like the kind these former hippies tend to espouse. Recall, however, Stalin’s words: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Small wonder Zappa considered hippies to be a bunch of phonies.

So the juxtaposition of hippies in a concentration camp, hippies who’d rather be “back in the alley,” is symbolic of the surprisingly close relationship between conservatives and liberals. Contrary to the spurious horseshoe theory indicating a closeness between communists and fascists (actually two ideologies as far apart from each other as any could be), it’s the liberals who are far closer to fascism.

Next comes “Mom and Dad,” which is, by Zappa’s standards, a surprisingly serious song. Here we have a kind of diagnosis of American society’s problems at their root: the dysfunctional, emotionally neglectful family.

The cops’ violent reactions to the hippies and freaks made it difficult for the Mothers to perform on the West Coast; instead, they had to play in New York City if they wanted to make any money. In the song, however, the parents’ callous attitude to the “creeps” whom the cops were killing is rationalized with the observation that “they looked too weird.”

The song’s indictment of the parents grows bitter during the bridge, when it’s asked if they’ve ever taken a minute “just to show a real emotion.” Do the parents have any appreciation of their kids’ talents, or even a sincere love for them? Just as the hippies have drugs, their good, upstanding, God-fearing parents have a drug of their own–alcohol, which they’re usually too embarrassed to let their kids watch them drink.

Do the parents even notice how unhappy their kids are? For all their pretensions to being good, virtuous, Christian families, these conservative parents are every bit as phony in their own way as are the hippies, who as we know will become quite conservative themselves when they get older. The idea that you “have to love a plastic mom and dad” really gets you in the heart. In these toxic families, “love” is really just obligation; one “loves” one’s family because one has to, not because one wants to. Small wonder the teens become hippies, as a way not to be like their moms and dads.

After the “Telephone Conversation” with Suzy Creamcheese (Pamela Zarubica, actually) comes “Bow Tie Daddy,” which continues the satire on conservative parents, but is light-hearted and focuses on the father’s hypocrisies rather than those of the mother, as we heard in “Mom and Dad.” We sense that the root of Dad’s bad temper is his frustrations with his personal inadequacies (i.e., “getting too old,” and his “drinkin'”). The bow-tie and parody of old-fashioned music, of course, emphasize how decidedly unhip Daddy is, hence the teens’ desire to rebel against him.

Harry, You’re a Beast” opens with dramatic piano arpeggios played by Ian Underwood. The song satirizes “American womanhood” by pointing out how “phony” these females are with their use of makeup (“You paint your head.”) rather than accept their facial imperfections (a lack of acceptance that is society’s fault, mind you, not theirs), as well as how air-headed Zappa perceived them to be.

Now, this song’s satire of American women borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, outright misogyny in how it makes light of a rape. “Harry” the “beast” attacks a woman, “Madge,” and while the censored version of the rape is played backwards, the uncensored version gives us an allusion to part of an old Lenny Bruce routine, “‘To’ is a Preposition; ‘Come’ Is a Verb” (“Don’t come in me, in me,” the woman begs her rapist, four times.). Her comical crying afterwards (with a return of the piano arpeggios), and his buffoonish excuse that he “couldn’t help it…doggone it,” is a kind of humor that should apply only to Harry’s hypocrisies of an outward mask of virtue (“it’s not merely physical”) and not to Madge’s trauma.

Next comes, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which is a parody of the doo-wop that Zappa loved to listen to as a teen back in the 1950s, and which he made a tribute to–and a parody of–on the album Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. As we listen for the first time, we assume that a criticism of one’s physicality is coming, and we’re surprised to hear that it’s our mind that is the ugliest body part.

The ugly minds are those of the teens’ parents, who don’t like “all those creeps” the teens hang out with; they’re “creeps” because of how ‘ugly’–in the parents’ judgement–they look in their non-conforming clothes. The parents’ intolerance and narrow-mindedness is what makes their minds so ugly, and what makes their teen kids rebel to the extreme point of doing drugs and engaging in free love.

The doo-wop suddenly switches to a 7/8 section in which Zappa indicts the parents with telling their kids “lies”–emotionally abusing them by teaching them bigoted ideas and moulding them into adopting a socially conformist mindset. A brief section in 3/4 time expresses a mother’s worry that her daughter, Annie, is hanging out with “creeps” before returning to the 7/8 riff and Zappa’s further indicting of the parents’ “ignorance.”

A pretty piano passage by Underwood, with arpeggiated chords played so fast that they sound strummed, opens the next song, “Absolutely Free,” another Zappa parody of hippie idealism and psychedelic music, somewhat imitative of the Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds,” with its almost Baroque keyboards and trippy imagery in the lyrics. At the end of the opening piano, we hear Suzy Creamcheese say she “won’t do publicity balling…anymore,” with the word “balling” originally censored from the album.

When Zappa begins by saying “discorporate,” meaning “to leave your body,” he’s talking about the mind-expanding effects of drugs, and the naïve belief that they will liberate us from the stunting effects of conformist society. While some, like George Carlin, have had positive, mind-opening experiences from doing LSD, even he acknowledged how dangerous such experimentation can be (i.e., doing too much, or doing the wrong kind).

Most of the music has a waltz-like triple metre, except for a bar of 4/4 played on the harpsichord before we hear “Unbind your mind, there is no time,” which is sung in three bars of 3/4 and one in 2/4, before going back to the usual triple metre. ‘Unbinding one’s mind’ can refer to the ‘liberating’ drug use, or to the letting go of inhibitions to lead the carefree, hippie life. After the first declaration that “You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be,” we hear a brief riff in 7/8 before going back to 3/4.

A reminder that Zappa doesn’t believe a word of what he’s singing is in another censored line: “Flower power sucks!”

The next song to make fun of hippies is “Flower Punk.” The main riff is played in a fast 7/8 time, which alternates with 5/8 sections with singing. With this album, we note the conspicuous absence of lead singer Ray Collins, who briefly left the band, meaning Zappa here is singing pretty much all the lead vocals, though his voice often isn’t recognizable, as he tends to speed up the vocal track, which he did on “Flower Punk.” (Here is a version with digitally slowed-down vocals, making his voice recognizable.)

The “Hey, Punk” questions are a parody of “Hey Joe,” a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix. The usual hypocrisies of hippies are exposed in how, far from being committed to promoting peace and love, these are people who just want to party and get laid, or who have fantasies of becoming “rich and famous” rock stars. One of the air-headed hippies that Zappa (with sped-up tape for his voice) lampoons even acknowledges that it’s all a “gigantic mass deception.”

Hot Poop” ends Side One with the whispering, paranoid voice of Gary Kellgren, who has been doing this whispering at various points on the album, and will do so again on Side Two. He usually speaks of Zappa as if obsessed with him, as if Zappa’s presence in the control room of the recording studio were omniscient and oppressive. The first side of the LP that I used to own, when a teen, ended with a particularly delightful, even melodious, “snork” (by Dick Barber) that I, regrettably, haven’t been able to find on any of the YouTube videos of Money.

Side Two begins with the musique concrète of “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” which includes Eric Clapton’s declaration that he has ‘seen God.’ Towards the end of it, we hear a bit of surf music interrupted by what sounds like a stylus being abruptly pulled off of a record.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is based on the true story of the antics of Ronald “Ronnie” and Kenneth “Kenny” Williams, neighbours of Zappa when he was living in Ontario, California back in the early 1960s. Ronnie and Kenny would engage in such after-school fun as making “blue angels,” that is, to “burn…poots away,” all while their parents, “Daddy Dinky” and their mom were at work, her in a restaurant “with her apron and her pad” (this latter being censored after being confused with a sanitary napkin).

I think that the point behind Zappa’s inclusion of this story among the songs on this album was to contrast the weird antics of Ronnie and Kenny against, on the one hand, the phony conformity of the conservative parents who, for all their posturing as good Christians, just emotionally neglect their kids and get drunk, and on the other hand, the phony ‘non-conformity’ of the hippies who, for all their posturing as progressive pacifists, just want to party, get high and get laid, then “go home to bed.”

As odd–and outright disgusting–as lighting farts, pissing in jars, and collecting snot (“pneumies”) on one’s bedroom window are as pastimes, at least Ronnie and Kenny were engaging in behaviour that can be genuinely called non-conformist. These two freaks, or “creeps” were being different in an honest way; they weren’t just following a fashion trend.

The Idiot Bastard Son” is a kind of sequel to the previous track, since it also involves Ronnie and Kenny, who raise the abandoned “idiot boy,” the illegitimate love-child of a congressman and an LA prostitute. (Fittingly sandwiched between these two songs is the actual Ronnie Williams performing “a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on Earth”: backwards, distorted, guttural vocal noise that makes me imagine what an alien might consider to be beautiful, lyrical, mellifluous singing. It’s another manifestation of Zappa’s favouring of the creativity of freaks over hippie phoniness.)

That the congressman would be called a Nazi is apt, for it fits in with the theme I’ve described above, of how there’s a continuum ranging from hippie ‘counterculture’ to mainstream liberalism, then to the conservatism of one’s parents, ultimately leading, under the right social and economic conditions, to fascism. As we’ve watched the degeneration of American society over the past sixty years, from parental conservatism to the hippies in the 60s, to the mainstream liberalism of the 70s, then to the return of conservatism (in the form of neoliberalism) in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and now to the resurgence of fascism in the 2010s and 2020s, we can see how prophetic Zappa really was. Recall his fears of the US developing into a “fascist theocracy,” and how Roe vs. Wade recently got overturned.

Again, the hypocrisy of the conservative congressman and his ‘good, Christian values’ is exposed by his getting the hooker pregnant and abandoning the baby “in back of a car.” He’s an “idiot boy” because his neglectful upbringing, stashed “away in a jar” by Kenny, precludes any proper education, something most of those on the American right are averse to providing.

The song is interrupted by another spoken word segment, a chaos of voices, some with sped-up tape, of men talking about the different kinds of booze they’ve drunk. Just like hippies’ use of drugs, getting drunk is another manic defence against facing the depressing realities of life, another time-wasting indulgence Zappa disapproved of.

Back to the song, we’re reminded of all that snot on Ronnie’s bedroom window. Elsewhere, the idiot bastard son will spend his time at church, “warming his pew,” which could mean that he’s just sitting there because he’s been made to go, and he isn’t listening to the preacher; or he could be warming his pew with his flatulence, the result of the loving influence of Ronnie and Kenny.

Under the tutelage of the flatulent duo, indeed, the boy will “thrive and grow,” entering our world of corrupt “liars and cheaters”…for what other world is there for him to enter? The hippie communes won’t be much better for him.

Lonely Little Girl” was originally listed as “It’s His Voice on the Radio,” which was how I had it on my old LP. Apart from being another complaint about emotionally neglectful, psychologically abusive, conservative parents, this short song also repeats a line from “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” namely, “All your children are poor unfortunate victims…” etc. A quick flurry of guitar notes segues into the next song.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Danceexisted in other forms prior to this one. There was an instrumental version Zappa recorded back in 1961, then one with lyrics in 1965, a straightforward pop song called “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” and there’s another instrumental version, “Take Your Clothes Off,” ending Side Two of Lumpy Gravy.

The version on Money is another satirical dig at the hippies and their idealistic view of how life will be one day when we’re all “free to sing and dance and love.” We won’t care how our hair looks, we won’t be ashamed if we’re overweight, and one day, we’ll even dance naked. Of course, no program of social transformation to bring about this utopia is ever discussed; communists have revolutionary theory, whereas liberal hippies are just dreamers.

The next song is a reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which replays the doo-wop opening, and ends with a weird, comically eerie repeat of voices saying, “I think it’s your mind.” Recall that these ugly minds are those of both the conservatives and the hippie liberals, against whom Zappa would contrast his preferred freaks, or “creeps,” or…

Mother People,” which begins fittingly with some snorks, has a guitar/keyboard riff first in 3/4 (for three bars), then a bar of 6/16, then one in 3/8, then two in 6/16, these last two bars with a guitar lead playing notes a perfect fifth between them. These Mother People “are the other people,” those other than the conformist conservatives and the phony hippie liberals.

You might think they’re “crazy, out of [their] mind,” but wait ’til they tell you who they really are, and what their plan is, for each of them is “another person” than the “creepy” one you’ve misunderstood them to be. This section, clearing up the misunderstanding, is musically set in a tense 7/8, which soon switches to 6/8.

The music of this 7/8, then 6/8, section has a second verse with naughty words; this verse was originally censored, but Zappa put it backwards on the end of Side One. (Here is the uncensored version of the song.) Before the third playing of this section, with the lyrics described in the previous paragraph, the song is interrupted with a brief orchestral arrangement, rather like something in a film soundtrack; it can also be heard on Lumpy Gravy.

The final track on Side Two is “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” This piece is another example of Zappa’s avant-garde, experimental leanings. We hear dissonant piano after an ominous fade in, then birdsong-like woodwinds and chaotic percussion, then a dark section including an eerie bass clarinet, then maniacal laughing with the…arbitrary…inclusion of the word “arbitrary.” Finally, we have acoustic guitar playing dubbed notes, accompanied by percussion, and an ominous fade-out.

Zappa advises us, in the liner notes, to read Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” before listening to this final track. Once we’ve listened to it, our own crime will have been carved on our back. A brief synopsis of Kafka’s story is thus indispensable here.

An officer demonstrates to an “explorer” an “apparatus” for executing criminals in a most sadistic way, carving the crime on the back of the condemned. Though the explorer, as any reasonable person would, disapproves of the cruelty of the apparatus, the officer is in fanatical support of it, loving the former commandant of the island’s concentration camp for having devised it. Despairing over the explorer’s disapproval, and knowing the camp’s new and more humane commandant would do away with the apparatus, the officer gets naked and puts himself in the apparatus, killing himself with it, with the intention of having the message “BE JUST!” carved on his back (though the poorly-maintained machine fails to do so). After seeing the grave of the old commandant, the explorer gets on a boat and leaves the island.

What I find to be the most significant part of the story is how the old commandant’s gravestone has an inscription prophesying that he will rise again and lead his followers to retake the penal colony…”Have faith and wait!” Though Zappa was thinking about the Japanese internment camps of WWII, and how Reagan, then-Governor of California, might have used the camps for the hippies, I see other dangers in this prophecy.

Though Kafka wrote the story in 1914 and published it in 1919, the cruel, authoritarian nature of the old commandant and his loyal, son-like officer seems to anticipate the then-imminent arrival of fascism. That these two men’s sadistic ways were defeated by the more liberal-minded new commandant (old ways that are prophesied to return) is in turn a prophecy–as I see it–of the return of fascism today, something Zappa was surely predicting, however indirectly, by referring to Kafka’s story on this album. This was a fear of his back in the late 60s, when one would never have imagined a return of fascism…that is, if one were blinded by the ideals of the mainstream liberalism of the time.

As I said above, only the communists of today have remained vigilant against the recent resurgence of fascism, while partisans of the DNC and GOP have turned a blind eye to it in Ukraine. Even Zappa, addled by anticommunist propaganda, didn’t really see it coming back when he was hanging out with Václav Havel.

As a registered Democrat, Zappa may have gotten politically active in the 80s as he, rightly, fought the PMRC; still, his real focus was never politics but, of course, music. He didn’t live to see the evils wrought by the Clintons in the 90s, evils exacerbated not only by Bush and Trump, but also by Obama and Biden today. Though Zappa was no hippie, thank God, and though he rightly saw the danger of allowing the Christian fundamentalists among Reagan and his ilk to have their way, he didn’t see the road fiscal conservatism was taking us all on.

So in sum, though We’re Only in It for the Money does do a legitimate and important critique of many aspects of the problems of American society, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t do enough. All the same, I believe we can use the album as a starting point to critique those other aspects.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Three

The interminable series of commercials is over, and the news is back, with updates on the progress that the People’s Liberation Army is making all along the West coast of the island, and how feebly the local forces are trying to repel them. I just gulped down the last of my drink, and I’m off to fix myself a second Jim Beam and Coke.

With that done in my kitchen, I’ve returned with my refilled glass to the living room. Having set my glass on the coffee table and sat down, I’ve picked up the joint I rolled and I’m lighting it. I toke on it a few times and hold the smoke in for as long as I can hold my breath. I finally let it out and look down at my ecstasy pills.

I pick one up and break it in half. Before I pop it in my mouth, I look over at my window and listen to the outside gunfire and explosives for a few seconds. A gulp of my drink takes the half-pill down my gullet.

I see President Harris on the TV again. “My fellow Americans, we have a job to do,” she says in that posturing, ‘patriotic’ voice of hers. “My administration will do all it has to do to preserve and protect our fragile democracy from the aggression of autocratic Russia and China. This is our last chance at saving freedom for the world. The enemy is an evil that must be stopped at all costs.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I grunt, then reach for the remote and turn the TV off. “I can’t take any more of that.” Preserve and protect our feeble democracy, I think. What democracy, even if a feeble one, do we have in a world where the richest eight men in the world share the same amount of wealth as do the poorest half of all the world, millions of people in Third World countries? How do we all have freedom, even fragile freedom, when every time we leave our homes and go outside, we have to wear masks because of a disease that, especially now, is largely no worse than a head cold? What freedom exists in a world where we can only vote for politicians whose only concern is protecting the interests of the rich? Is protecting this ‘freedom’ worth risking nuclear annihilation? “I need music.”

I get up and go over to my CD player and CDs. I find a CD of some old South Indian Carnatic music on the Nonesuch label, music played on the flute, violin, and tabla drums. I put that on and go back to sit by the coffee table. I hear the drone of the tanpura beginning the music, and I sit back on my sofa, enjoying the high I’m getting from the joint and waiting for the E to kick in.

Thanks to the joint, everything looks, sounds, and feels slower and more intense. Music always sounds better when you’re stoned. In fact, the tapping of the tablas is, for the most part, drowning out the noise of the gunfire and explosions outside, so I don’t feel so paranoid. I reach over, pick up the joint, and take a few more puffs.

The bird-like tunes of the flute, as well as the violin glissandi, are making me feel as if I’m in the peaceful environs of nature. I sit back on the sofa, close my eyes, and imagine myself in such a serene place.

I try doing something I’ve done many times, with varying degrees of success and failure, to give myself peace of mind. I meditate on the unity of everything in the universe at the subatomic level, on how at that level, nothing really matters, because everything is all one there. If so, there is no death, because there’s no life either, with any of life’s pain and suffering. Think of how Thích Quảng Đức was able to immolate himself back in 1963.

So if I die from gunfire, a conventional bomb, or a nuke, why should I care, right? It’s only a reshuffling, as it were, of all the subatomic particles, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

A few of the explosions outside are getting louder, which is hardly reassuring for me. On the other hand, a half hour has gone by, and I can feel the E starting to kick in. Sparkly sensations of love are tingling all over my body. I just need to feel more of the illusion of protection.

Time to snort a line of K.

Thrones

She
had
the
big
chair, just
as so many
before her

used
that
seat
with
the intent to
take over and
plunder worlds.

One
may
sit
and
rest, while
many more
must fight

to
be
in
an
adequate
state of
existence.

One
can
sit
and
take it easy
on a throne
without gems,

and
the
men
and
women of the
world can be
seated as well.

So
we
in
an
abased state
must rise up
so all may sit.