Analysis of ‘Le Amiche’

Le Amiche (“The Girlfriends”) is a 1955 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and Alba De Cespedes, and adapted from Tra donne sole (1949), a novel by Cesare Pavese. The film stars Eleonora Rossi DragoGabriele FerzettiFranco Fabrizi, and Valentina Cortese, with Yvonne Furneaux (who was also in Repulsion), Ettore Manni, and Madeleine Fischer. It was shot on location in Turin, Piemonte, Italy.

Le Amiche received the Silver Lion award in 1955 from the Venice Film Festival; it also won the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists Silver Ribbon Award for Best Director (Antonioni) and Best Supporting Actress (Cortese).

The name of the film is ironic and somewhat deceptive, since Nene (Cortese), Momina De Stefani (Furneaux), Rosetta Savoni (Fischer), and Mariella (played by Anna Maria Pancani) are girlfriends in little more than a superficial sense. There’s actually a considerable amount of conflict between them, at varying levels of intensity, due to jealousies over their rivalries over men, as well as their varying degrees of vanity and narcissism.

Indeed, jealousy, envy, vanity, and pride are major themes in Le Amiche. A few minor comparisons between this film and Othello can be made, as far as the themes of jealousy and envy are concerned. Rosetta can be seen as the Othello of the film (Nene, too, in an opposing way); her doomed, jealous love of Lorenzo (Ferzetti) leads to a failed suicide attempt at the beginning of the film, and a successful suicide towards the end, just as the Moor kills himself at the end of Othello. Momina, cynical and envious of others’ happiness in love, is the scheming Iago: she encourages Rosetta’s pursuit of Lorenzo, leading to a conflict she finds most amusing to watch, just as Iago enjoys watching the Moor go insane with jealousy.

In a way, a vague comparison can be made also between Le Amiche and Romeo and Juliet, since the film involves pairs of lovers from incompatible worlds. The pairings of Clelia (Drago) and Carlo (Manni), and of Rosetta and Lorenzo, are incompatible not because of feuding families, though, but because of conflicting class relations and sex roles.

Clelia, as the manager of a new fashion salon opening in Turin, is–like her boss (played by Maria Gambarelli)–as an Italian woman in the conservative 1950s, a career woman ‘before it was cool.’ Thus, Clelia is a bourgeois. Carlo, her love interest, on the other hand, is a worker. The sex-role assumption of the time was that, were they to marry, he’d be supporting her financially, not vice versa…a rather hard thing for him to do, with the lower amount of money he’s making than she is. She’d also suffer an unacceptable lowering of social rank in such a marriage.

Similarly, Rosetta is from a well-to-do family, while the man she’s in love with is a struggling artist, one struggling so much that Nene, his fiancée, is actually more successful as an artist than he. Again, the sex-role assumption is that Lorenzo is supposed to be the more successful of the couple, and therefore the more monied one, not Nene or Rosetta. Neither of these women care that he is of modest means (nor should they, of course), but his pride and male chauvinism make him envy Nene’s success, just as she and Rosetta are jealous of each other with regards to him.

Though Clelia is as bourgeois as Momina, both women are on the opposite ends of the narcissism spectrum. We can see this contrast early on in the film, when we are introduced first to Clelia, who is unassuming and, with a smile, tells the hotel maid either “signora” or “signorina” is an acceptable way to address her; then later on, we’re introduced to Momina at the front desk of the hotel, where she treats the man working there contemptuously, saying he’s “ridiculous” to think her friend, Rosetta, has already left the hotel, then orders him to call her room. We see the contrast in their attitudes towards workers, and towards class differences.

Clelia may walk around in a beautiful fur coat, but she does so not out of narcissistic ostentation; as the manager of the new fashion salon, she has an image to maintain, hence the nice clothes. Similarly, her annoyance with the workers’ slow progress in getting the salon ready isn’t out of a condescending attitude to them, but from the pressure she feels from her boss to have everything ready on time.

In Clelia and Momina we can see the Venn diagram, as it were, where narcissism and capitalism overlap. In Momina, both are apparent, since she uses the class hierarchy of capitalism as one of a number of rationalizations to demonstrate her ‘superiority’ to others. In Clelia, we just see the pressures of capitalism making her dress and act with an air of superiority, but narcissistic tendencies are minimal in her: her looking at herself in mirrors, for example, is brief. Momina, in contrast, will look idolatrously at her reflection with that of Cesare Pedone (Fabrizi) in a window in her home, idealizing the image as one of a ‘perfect couple,’ when actually, she’s married–though temporarily separated from her husband–using Cesare as one of many lovers.

A recurring issue in this film is various characters’ preoccupations with such superficialities as what dress to wear, what facial lotion to use, how is one’s reputation or social status, etc. Note again that this preoccupation with one’s public image is directly related to one’s social class, where narcissism and capitalism meet.

The big mystery early on in the film is why Rosetta has tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. On the train ride back from the girlfriends’ disastrous get-together at the beach, Rosetta confides in Clelia about her reasons for her suicide attempt: namely, she speaks of the emptiness of, for example, wondering what dress she’ll wear; soon after, she confesses the more central reason–she can’t have Nene’s Lorenzo. Still, that earlier reason carries considerable weight, and in fact it bears a relationship with the second reason.

She loves Lorenzo because she sees in him a gruff honesty that doesn’t exist in such superficial friends as Momina and the pretty, but air-headed Mariella, the latter’s preoccupations being little more than how beautiful others see her, and who will be her man. Rosetta doesn’t care whether Lorenzo is successful or not: she loves him for how he’s made her feel, in the portrait he’s painted of her.

Though Momina predictably doesn’t think much of the picture, Rosetta is touched by Lorenzo’s efforts. It felt to her as if, with his brush painting her face, he was caressing her. To look at her portrait is, for her, to look in a metaphorical mirror: in painting her, he’s created an idealized version of her to which she cannot measure up if she can’t have him. Hence, when she tries phoning him prior to taking the overdose of sleeping pills, she wishes he’d destroy the painting, as she’s destroyed all her photographs, other metaphorical mirrors of herself. She’d wipe out all traces of herself prior to her suicide.

Of course, Lorenzo being by his own admission much too vain to destroy his painting, also sees it as a kind of metaphorical mirror (i.e., of his painting ability), since apart from having painted it, he sees, in her face, her love reflected back on him, titillating his vanity. Indeed, he looks at her smiling at him, and he feels she has ‘the most beautiful smile in the world.’ His narcissism isn’t of Momina’s malignant kind (i.e., he doesn’t consciously intend to hurt Rosetta or Nene, whereas Momina finds it amusing to stir up drama in this love triangle), but it is sufficient to make him enjoy an affair with Rosetta, enjoying her charms and flattery while leading her on and causing Nene to suffer.

Now, Momina is eager to find any insights related to Rosetta’s suicide attempt, including whom she tried to phone prior to taking the pills. Momina acts as though she only wants to help, but her real agenda is to find out the truth about Rosetta and Lorenzo, in order to exploit it.

Other examples of Momina’s superficiality, narcissism, and general meanness are seen in the early scene when she asks Clelia, in her hotel room, about whom Rosetta phoned. Momina gives Clelia a backhanded compliment about how well she dresses, as good publicity for her salon, when also pointing out how, apparently, ‘fashion designers usually dress like tramps.’ She then asks about Clelia’s facial cream, Clelia getting the hint that Momina is implying how cheap it is. Clelia, lacking Momina’s narcissism, doesn’t judge a product’s worth by its price.

Now, Clelia’s unassuming, but her sense of social class nonetheless must exclude Carlo, as much as she likes him. Workers are typically talked down to by not only Momina, but also Cesare, who is condescending to Carlo in the diner scene when he’s with Clelia; though Mariella acknowledges Carlo is a ‘hunk.’ Clelia tries to be kinder to workers, as I pointed out with her interaction with the hotel maid, as well as with her accommodation of the vagabond in the trattoria scene, when Lorenzo fights with Cesare.

Clelia, therefore, represents the liberal capitalist, who would like to be kinder to the poor, but the pressures of her social class won’t allow her to go beyond a few token gestures of generosity. Hence, she enjoys Carlo’s company in the diner, as well as during their walk to look at furniture for the fashion salon…but marriage with him is out of the question. Just compare her coat with his to see why.

During their walk, she shows him the poor area of Turin where she lived as a little girl. Yes, she was once poor, and was able to rise out of it, so she lacks the snobbishness of Momina and Cesare. Carlo, nonetheless, can feel her airs of superiority, however much Clelia tries to minimize them, and he cannot hide his annoyance with her.

At the end of the film, when Clelia is to leave Turin by train and return to Rome, Carlo wants to be there when she leaves, but he is too ashamed of his lower social class to show himself to her. As he follows her to the train she gets on, he hides behind a vendor’s tall cart. Note how this carrier of things to sell, a symbol of capitalism, is a barrier separating Carlo from Clelia.

Rosetta similarly would love Lorenzo with all her heart, and not care that he has less money than the wealth of the snobbish family she feels little affection for. (Indeed, when her mother visits her in the hospital and is scandalized by her suicide attempt, instead of focusing on her daughter’s pain, she steps aside and looks at herself in her compact. Her narcissistic preoccupation with her own looks, her image, is a more pressing concern than Rosetta’s health and happiness.) She sees herself and Lorenzo in a large mirror while he’s lying on a bed; seeing their reflection together is her idealizing of their relationship, but for the opposite reason of Momina’s idealizing of her time together with Cesare, seeing their reflection in the window in her home. Momina loves the status of having a man like Cesare; Rosetta sincerely loves Lorenzo for himself.

It isn’t Rosetta who sees the class divide between herself and Lorenzo as a problem, though: it is he who does. His masculine pride won’t allow him to marry up, as Clelia’s pressure from the capitalist world won’t allow her to marry down (she wouldn’t want to give up her career and be a housewife/mother for a wealthy husband, but she especially won’t do so for a working-class husband–Carlo…Couldn’t she continue to work, and he be a househusband?).

In these contradictions, we see how career women rising in the context of capitalism will never assure equality of the sexes. A wiping out of sex roles–including the assumption that men are supposed to be more successful (recall Momina’s comment in this connection, during the scene in her home, something with which Rosetta vehemently disagrees), more monied, and generally ‘superior’ to women–is indispensable to such an attainment of equality…and it must be achieved in a socialist context, with a wiping-out of class differences, since sex roles, along with such things as racism, are among the many things the ruling class uses to keep the working class divided among each other.

Lorenzo, however, has internalized the social expectation of masculine preeminence, and his pride won’t let him let go of it. Hence, his fight with Cesare, whose taunts about Nene’s artistic success over Lorenzo’s failures push him beyond endurance in the trattoria scene. Cesare, of course, pretends he’s just joking around, an obvious falsehood, but one of the main themes of Le Amiche is the keeping up of appearances.

As I mentioned above, “The Girlfriends” is an ironic, deceptive name for this film. These women (and their men) largely go about keeping up the appearance of friendship, all for the bourgeois sake of saving face. Actually, all manner of animosity and hostility abound, coming to a head in the three fight scenes–first, at the beach with Momina slapping Mariella, then in the trattoria, with Lorenzo and Cesare trading punches, and finally, between Clelia and Momina in the fashion salon.

Mariella, always opening her mouth without thinking, speaks of how only Rosetta doesn’t have a man, and not noticing that Rosetta has just walked by and heard her. Wishing to avoid losing face and to keep up the appearance of them all bearing no gossipy ill will toward Rosetta, Momina scolds Mariella for speaking so foolishly. When Mariella tries to defend her choice of words and repeats the tactless remark, Momina slaps her. Rosetta, however, prefers Mariella’s tactlessness to Momina’s hypocrisy. As another manifestation of animosity thinly veiled with phoney friendship, Mariella gets even with Momina for the slap by hugging and kissing Cesare in the sand, he being Momina’s boyfriend of the moment, then confessing her motive of revenge before hugging Momina in a pretence of reconciliation with her.

Clelia’s job as manager of a fashion salon is her participating in the business of keeping up appearances, producing glamorous clothes that allow their women wearers to maintain the illusion of exquisite beauty. Capitalism is compelling Clelia to reinforce women’s socially-induced need to hide behind the illusion of beauty, reinforcing this insecurity for the sake of making a profit. Her relationship with Carlo cannot last, him wearing that dull, scruffy coat as against her fur coat, because her association with him would tarnish her glamorous image–it’s bad for business. She even has to hide a love note between the two of them from her models, one of them finding it and laughing at her boss’s expense.

The two women among the girlfriends whom one would assume to be the most mutually rancorous are actually mutually empathic–Rosetta and Nene. The former has stolen the latter’s man; Nene has seen the proof from a sketch she knows Lorenzo did of Rosetta on a matchbox, then given to Rosetta. But instead of privately fighting with her while publicly smiling with her, to keep up appearances among their girlfriends, Nene has a sad, candid conversation with Rosetta about him in private. Rosetta can’t deny being in love with Nene’s man, yet she’s also remorseful about causing Nene’s suffering.

These two, ironically, are the most like friends of all the women.

The final moment of animosity that comes to a head is between Clelia and Momina after Rosetta’s successful suicide. Weeping, Clelia calls Momina a murderess for having goaded on Rosetta to continue her doomed relationship with Lorenzo, all for Momina’s narcissistic, cynical entertainment. That Clelia has blown up at Momina right in front of her boss, a scandalous loss of face in the salon, means Clelia assumes she will lose her job. Fortunately, her boss forgives her and offers her a job in a salon back in Rome, which Clelia accepts.

The boss actually envies Clelia for having been able to get her pain off her chest. The boss, always pressured to keep up appearances, has had to bottle up all of her feelings, a suppression she jokingly claims must be causing her some kind of gastrointestinal problem.

Le Amiche is a movie all about social hypocrisy, narcissism, pressure to keep up appearances, and punishment for those who dare to break society’s rules. It’s also about how class and sex roles divide us all. One hopes that those who watch this film will learn, by example, how not to be friends.

The Sixth Poem from ‘Diverging Paths’

Here I’ll be looking at Poem #6 from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection, Diverging Paths. Recall that I’ve looked at many of his poems in previous posts, if you’re interested in looking at some of those. As usual, I’m setting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

This isn’t real this is a dream, 
When I wake I swear I will 
Never sleep again, 
Every waking moment a sin, 
God knows I’ve tried, 
But I’m lost in this, 
Magick and emotion, 
Turning down the podium, 
To stare into the heresy, 
Spiral unreality, 
Shadowing in moments lost, 
A vision of Holocaust, 
Sadly no divine intervention, 
Only death, 
And God a blemish,

And now, for my analysis.

The speaker, I suspect, is someone other than the poet, since, though I know the poet to be someone going through some difficult times emotionally, I don’t think he’s experienced a psychotic break with reality, as seems to be the case with the speaker here.

The speaker seems to be rejecting both dream and reality as too painful to bear. By a rejection of all, I mean a refusal to take in and accept any forms of stimulation from the outside world, Wilfred Bion‘s beta elements. In Bion’s theory of thinking, raw sensory data from outside, initially irritating, has to be processed (through what Bion called alpha function) into detoxified material acceptable for thought (alpha elements). In layman’s terms, this means that emotional experiences have to be processed in order for the brain to cope with them. (Click here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

If external stimuli aren’t processed and made into thoughts, one cannot sleep, dream, or even experience waking thought. Without this ability to process thought, one becomes psychotic.

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

I discussed this issue in my analysis of The Machinist, in which the main character, Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale), goes through a psychotic break with reality when he refuses to process his own emotional experiences, namely, his guilt over having hit and killed a child in a car accident, then driving away without taking responsibility. As a result, he doesn’t sleep for a whole year, descending into madness.

To get back to Jason’s poem, the speaker rejects what he’s experiencing, calling it a dream. He says he’ll never sleep again upon waking, since what he’s experienced is so intolerable, so impossible to process and turn into detoxified thought. Yet, “every waking moment [is] a sin,” so waking moments are as impossible to process as unconscious ones.

He’d rather be in a world respecting old ways and old gods, one represented by such archaic spellings as “magick.” Such an idealized world is one the speaker feels lost in, since it’s so much better than the painful one of today. He finds himself “turning down the podium” (i.e., not wanting to go up, be seen by an audience, and communicate with them). He’d rather “stare into the heresy” of an alternate reality not accepted by mainstream society (i.e., the Church), which is seen as “spiritual unreality,” but also the unreality of not wanting to face the painful, but real, world. “Moments lost” are shadowed-in traumas, that is, erased from memory, hidden in the darkness of the mind, repressed.

The pain of a trauma so severe that it must be rejected is seen as a “vision of Holocaust.” There’s “no divine intervention,” either of the Judeo-Christian or pagan kind, when psychosis has replaced coping with reality. So one experiences “only death,” and God seems to be only “a blemish.”

Note that “God” can represent an authority figure, like a stern father. So as a blemish, this harsh authority figure could be the root of the trauma that has caused the speaker to want to run away from painful reality, and to reject all stimuli and all thinking that makes a connection with the world possible.

That way madness lies.

Analysis of ‘Carnival of Souls’

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

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

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

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

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

Racing as representative of the pressures of competition in society.

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

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

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

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

Mary is a lonely, lost soul.

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

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

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

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

Mary the organist.

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

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

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

The pavilion.

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

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

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

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

Seeing the main ghoul.

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

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

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

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

Mary in the department store.

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

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

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

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

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

Mary looking around the pavilion.

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

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

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

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

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

They only come out at night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She must confront him.

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

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

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

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

Ghoul-Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

The Fifth Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s Book, ‘Diverging Paths’

Here is Poem #5 from Diverging Paths, a book of poetry and prose by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. As always, I’ll put the words of his poem in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

My illusion of good, 
And my illusion of evil, 
Differ for the cause, 
I can’t believe I used to believe 
In these flaws, 

I want my sanity, 
My mind resentful of humanity, 
Returned to me, 
Behind the backdrop, 
Of falling profanity, 

Profane, 
In the domain, 
Of the choice of everything versus nothing,

And now, for my analysis.

This poem can be seen to represent the shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. The first position is one of splitting our experience of others (our internal objects, the people we know and who inhabit our thoughts) into absolute good and absolute bad; the second position is one of reconciling the bad and good experienced in others, of allowing oneself to see in others a combination of good and bad.

Thus through psychological splitting, one sees an “illusion of good” and an “illusion of evil.” When one has achieved reparation, though, one finds the flaws of the previous, split thinking, so utterly wrong that one cannot believe one once believed the dichotomous thinking was true. The evolution, growth, and maturing of the personality requires an acknowledgement of the grey area in everyone, not just the ‘black’ or ‘white.’

When one splits objects into ‘black’ or ‘white,’ that splitting affects us internally. We try to project the bad parts, but we can’t, for they are a part of us. So, if “I want my sanity,” however “my mind [may be] resentful of humanity,” I must do this reconciling of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ into the grey that all of humanity really is. This is the only way my sanity will be “returned to me.”

“Behind the backdrop” is the unconscious mind, which is a repository of all the repressed hurt and trauma “of falling profanity,” all those hurtful words and verbal abuse that one has been subjected to all of one’s life. The splitting and projecting of the bad of others is a defence mechanism against such hurt.

But one cannot always go around seeking refuge in the illusions of splitting, which is “profane, in the domain,” an unspiritual place where illusion masquerades as truth, instead of the spiritual place of reconciled oneness, where contradictions are resolved, and the choppy fragmentation of splitting is replaced by a flowing of ups and downs.

“The choice of everything versus nothing,” caused by splitting, must be replaced by an embrace of everything and nothing, a confrontation with trauma in order to heal it; then one can have one’s sanity returned.

Analysis of ‘La Notte’

La Notte (‘The Night’) is a 1961 Italian film by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by him, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. Filmed on location in Milan, it is about the disintegrating relationship of a man and his wife, as both of them are tempted into having extramarital affairs.

The second film of a trilogy (the first being L’Avventura, and the third being L’Eclisse), La Notte continues Antonioni’s abandoning of traditional plots in favour of visual composition. The film was acclaimed for its exploration of modernist themes of alienation; it received the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a first for an Italian film, and it also won the David di Donatello award for Best Director in 1961. It’s one of Stanley Kubrick‘s ten favourite films.

Here is a link to quotes, in English translation, from the film.

When the opening credits are showing, we see a shot of a building up close, one much taller than the other buildings of the city either in the background or in the reflection of the skyscraper’s windows. The camera is slowly moving downwards.

Since La Notte is about a married couple growing alienated from each other, and we know that the essence of alienation is an inability to communicate with and understand other people, then this descending camera shot of a skyscraper suggests the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven. But God (Elohim) says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7). And indeed, after the credits are finished showing, we see the beginning stages of the breakdown in communication between writer Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and his frustrated wife, Lidia (Moreau).

Subtle associations in moments in the film with key moments in the primeval Biblical narrative can be found afterwards, too, though largely in reverse order to that of the early chapters of Genesis. I’ll return to these other associations soon enough.

Giovanni and Lidia enter a hospital where their good friend, fellow writer Tommaso Garani (played by Bernhard Wicki), is a seriously ill, dying patient in need of morphine to ease his pain. In this pitiful state, Tommaso personifies the Pontanos’ ailing marriage.

Before the couple go into his room, they’re accosted by a pretty but emotionally unstable young woman who complains of the telephone in her room not working (symbolic of already failing communication). She will later make sexual advances on Giovanni after Lidia has left the hospital in tears over the wretched state Tommaso is in. There is a clear link between seeing their dying friend and this young woman, for temptations to adultery are among the things that are slowly tearing this marriage apart.

The theme of stifled communication is developed in Giovanni’s repeated self-deprecatory remarks about his fading abilities as a writer. The ability to use language is crucial to a writer, of course, but also key to having healthy relationships, especially in a marriage. Language is a central part of Lacan‘s Symbolic Order, brought into being through the prohibition of Oedipal indulgence via the Nom, or Non! du père, and bringing the child out of his narcissistic, dyadic relationship with mother and into the world of society, culture, and shared customs. Giovanni’s indulgence with pretty girls like this wild woman in the hospital, and later with Valentina Gherardini (Vitti), is a regression to a self-centred, childish state, a retreat from society (coupled with his fading ability to write, to use language) that will wreak havoc with his marriage.

The funny thing with Lidia, as far as Giovanni’s temptations with both women are concerned, is that she isn’t jealous. She’s just disgusted with him. It’s a clear sign that the love has died in their marriage. This is why we see her walking off from him, going off alone so many times.

First, she has to go off alone at the hospital, after empathizing with the pain of Tommaso, the personification of her marriage to Giovanni. Then, at the promotion of his new book, La Stagione (“The Season”), she walks off again. Finally, at the Gherardinis’ party, she’s often alone.

She’s sometimes tempted by other men, directly or indirectly, as Giovanni is by young women. During her walk-off from his book promotion, after which he goes home surprised to find her not there (and turns off a recording of an English lesson, the translation of English vocabulary into Italian; his turning off of the recording is symbolically another indication of the ending of language, and therefore, of communication), she encounters some people and things that can at least symbolize, or be associated with, thoughts of her being with other men.

At one point, Giovanni lies down and naps for a bit. Lidia walks along a sidewalk with short stone posts that are phallic in shape; she touches one or two of them, and passes by an old woman who would seem to be a reflection on her own aging…and fear of further aging.

Later, having been driven around in a cab (her riding with a male driver other than her husband suggestive of an adultery fantasy), she encounters a gang of boys, two of whom get into a fistfight. Though she naturally abhors the sight of violence, and promptly stops the fight, one suspects that she–being a woman raised in a traditional society–would find two virile young men fighting to be erotically stimulating, at least on an unconscious level.

After that, she sees rockets being fired into the sky. The sight strongly suggests ejaculating phalli. Such images of virility, something that seems conspicuously lacking in mild-mannered Giovanni, suggests the root of her problems with him: he seems impotent (an at least psychological inadequacy, if not a physical one), and only able to get it up with young women. In fact, even with the wild woman in the hospital, he doesn’t seem to be aroused.

Early during her walk, she comes to the run-down buildings of some poor people and finds a child crying. Though she, as a bourgeois, is not of the poor child’s class, she nonetheless sympathizes; and her wish to comfort the child suggests her frustration at never getting to be a mother. Indeed, we know of no sons or daughters from the Pontanos.

Giovanni wakes from his nap in an agitated state, suggesting he’s just dreamt what she experienced alone outside. It’s another example, as I’ve noted in Blowup and The Passenger, of Antonioni verging on, though not quite lapsing into, the surreal, the borderline between reality and dream, or fantasy. In any case, Giovanni’s worst nightmare is being realized: she’s falling out of love with him and having adulterous thoughts of her own.

She telephones him and has him pick her up in a place where they used to live, a reminiscence of a happier time when they were still in love. In response to his worries, she says it’s “nothing”…as in Much Ado About…When he arrives, he notes a train track now covered in vegetation; he remembers when the train was once used. Back in the time when they’d lived there, their love was going places, like that train. Now, their love goes nowhere…like that train.

When they get home, she takes a bath. The scene is interesting in that it was originally censored for giving us one or two brief flashes of Moreau’s breasts. (Other scenes in the film, such as the wild woman’s seduction of Giovanni, including her undressing after their kiss, as well as his and Lidia’s rolling around in the dirt kissing at the end, and one of two ladies walking together saying ‘whore’–or ‘tart,’ depending on the translation–at the Gherardinis’ party, were also censored.) Giovanni shows no sexual interest in his naked wife, adding to her frustrations.

Night is approaching, their marriage’s ‘dark night of the soul,’ so to speak, and Lidia doesn’t want to sit around at home. They’ll go to the Gherardinis’ party, but first to a night club. She shows herself off to him in a new black dress, but he shows minimal interest, disappointing her once again.

At the night club, they watch a striptease/equilibrist perform while balancing a wine glass. The juxtaposition of Giovanni and Lidia watching a woman being undressed (by her husband?) with her balancing of a glass half-filled with wine, which she later drinks, vaguely suggests Genesis 9:20-22, when Noah got drunk and naked in his tent, and Ham saw him. Ham thus is cursed.

The shame in the scene in the film, though, is in how the erotic dancing does nothing to inspire passion in Giovanni, a passion that he could direct at Lidia. As he says to her, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.” She is thus once again frustrated. Their marriage is cursed.

They arrive at the Gherardinis’ party, where the lady of the house (played by costume designer Gitt Magrini, who incidentally also played Jeanne’s mother in Last Tango in Paris) greets them.

Her husband is a curious sort: he would seem to be a socialist’s fantasy of what a boss ought to be like. Mr. Gherardini (played by Vincenzo Corbella) speaks of not being interested in making profits, but rather producing things to be remembered. He imagines that Giovanni writes out of necessity. He also offers Giovanni a job, to write the history of Gherardini’s company. Giovanni probably won’t accept the job offer: after all, as a bourgeois with a servant in his home, Giovanni would seem out of place working for a ‘socialist.’

Still, he might consider taking the job after all…if he can get closer to the Gherardinis’ pretty daughter, Valentina. Giovanni Pontano’s philandering with young women suggests that his surname is a pun on puttana, or more aptly, ‘puttano,’ a male whore.

He begins his pursuit of Valentina by playing a game she’s devised, that of sliding her compact across a floor of checkered tiles with the aim of it landing on one specified tile, to win points. By participating in this game, Giovanni is demonstrating what a ‘playa‘ he is.

He is so careless and foolish that just after the end of their game, he kisses her…and Lidia sees him do it! This is shortly after she’s learned, from having telephoned the hospital, that Tommaso has just died. She isn’t jealous of her husband with Valentina because she knows her marriage is dead.

Soon after, it starts to rain. This heavy rain can be compared to the forty days and forty nights of rain of the Great Flood. Now, the placement of the rain in the time sequence of the film is one of the few instances that don’t coordinate with the reversed time sequence I mentioned above about the major events of the early chapters of Genesis. Still, the Biblical parallels are enough to make my point about Giovanni’s and Lidia’s marriage: it’s going backward, not progressing.

The cause of the wickedness of the world leading up to the Great Flood, as described in Genesis 6:1-4, was the sons of God mating with the daughters of men, a forbidden mixture of the human and divine worlds that brought chaos to God’s ordered creation. The ‘sons of God’ of La Notte are Giovanni and Roberto (played by Giorgio Negro), who show a sexual interest in, respectively, Valentina and Lidia, the ‘daughters of men’; and the former pair pursues the latter pair before, during, and after the rain, which doesn’t quite correspond with the reverse order of the analogous events in the Bible. Still, I say the correspondences are close enough.

At first, many of the guests at the party use the rain to elevate their hilarity and fun–a number of people jump in the swimming pool, reinforcing the association with the Flood; ultimately, however, the rain causes certain crucial guests to split up and go their own ways, a breaking up of the universal socializing and communicating that is the essence of the Symbolic. Giovanni and Valentina become a dyad, and so do Lidia and Roberto.

These two dyads, metaphorical mirrors looking into each others’ eyes and reflecting each others’ egoism, are experiencing what Lacan called the Imaginary. The desire one member of each dyad has for the other is a wish to be at one with the ideal-I that is experienced in the reflected faces of their metaphorical mirrors. The one desires to be the desire of the other, or to be recognized by the other. Giovanni wants the youth and vitality of Valentina, since he’s losing his own virility with age. Lidia hopes to be a sexy, desirable woman for Roberto, since she cannot be such a woman for her husband.

So both husband and wife have regressed from engagement with the Other (society in general, mingling with many people instead of just focusing on one) to engagement with the other (just one other person, making a dyad with him or her, a transference of the mother/son or father/daughter, Oedipal pairing). These narcissistic duos, reflecting each other like mirrors, are a regression from the adult world of the Symbolic to the infantile Imaginary, and thus constitute a breaking down of communication.

Now, it isn’t so easy to regress into the secondary narcissism of the revisited Imaginary without the danger of lapsing into the terrifying chaos of the Real, which is what the Deluge-like rainfall symbolizes. Narcissism is a defence against psychological fragmentation, a falling-apart of the self and a psychotic break with reality.

Lidia is in Roberto’s car during the heavy rainfall; they are in ‘Noah’s ark,’ so to speak. We see them through the car windows, chatting with and smiling at each other, enjoying one another’s company; but we don’t hear a word they’re saying. Inside the car is the narcissistic dyad of the Imaginary; outside the car, out in the rain–like the forty days and forty nights of rain that killed everyone on Earth–is the traumatic, undifferentiated horror of the Real, what cannot be symbolized with language.

This scene in the film reminds me of what Slavoj Zižek once said about the inside and outside of a car as it relates symbolically to the Real. In Looking Awry, he commented on a passage in Robert Heinlein‘s Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. A couple are in a car driving home, but are told under no circumstances, no matter what they see, to open the windows of their car. They witness, during their drive, a child hit by a car, and naturally feel the urge to roll down a window, just a bit, to tell a patrolman about the accident. Instead of seeing all that they’ve seen through the closed windows, though, they see through the opening “Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life.” (Zižek, page 14)

So what is this “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life,” Zižek asks, “if not the Lacanian real, the pulsing of the presymbolic substance in its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the place from which this real erupts: the very borderline separating the outside from the inside, materialized in this case by the windowpane…To those sitting inside a car, outside reality appears slightly distant, the other side of a barrier or screen materialized by the glass. We perceive external reality, the world outside the car, as ‘another reality,’ another mode of reality, not immediately continuous with the reality inside the car. The proof of this discontinuity is the uneasy feeling that overwhelms us when we suddenly roll down the windowpane and allow external reality to strike us with the proximity of its material presence…But when we are safely inside the car, behind the closed windows, the external objects are, so to speak, transposed into another mode. They appear to be fundamentally ‘unreal,’ as if their reality has been suspended, put in parenthesis–in short, they appear as a kind of cinematic reality projected onto the screen of the windowpane. It is precisely this phenomenological experience of the barrier separating inside from outside, this feeling that the outside is ultimately ‘fictional,’ that produces the horrifying effect of the final scene in Heinlein’s novel. It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside reality had stopped working, as if, for a moment, we had been confronted with the formless grey, with the emptiness of the screen…” (Zižek, pages 14-15)

In La Notte, however, it isn’t seeing out from the inside, from the narcissistic veil of illusion out onto the harsh reality of outside, but the other way around. From the Real that is outside, one looks inside to see two people experiencing the illusion. It is just like Noah’s family and the pairs of animals, experiencing the comfort of the illusion of life, as opposed to the chaos and destruction of the Flood going on outside, killing everyone and every land animal, a return to the tohu-wa-bohu of primordial Chaos. Accordingly, Lidia can enjoy the feeling of being courted by Robert; but when they park the car and get out, and he continues his pursuit of her, she snaps out of it and realizes she cannot cheat on her husband. She has had a taste of the Real, standing out in the rain for a moment, and her narcissistic illusions have been shattered.

She cannot cheat on Giovanni, even though she knows he hasn’t been faithful to her; this is partly because of the patriarchal double standard that indulges a husband’s affairs, but not a wife’s. Also, she cannot cheat on him simply because she’s much more responsible and adult than he is. We’ve seen her smile and watch the jazz band play up close, admiring these attractive, talented men. She has gotten in the car with Roberto. But she never fully acts on her temptations as Giovanni does. She won’t even kiss Roberto.

When Giovanni and Valentina are alone in the house, she plays a tape recording she’s made of what seems affectedly poetic TV dialogue; she feels embarrassed about it, for she asks him to promise not to make fun of her for having recorded it. After playing it, he wants to hear it again, but when she rewinds it, she also erases it, considering the recording to be “drivel.” Once again, La Notte shows how the removal of language and communication vitiates relationships.

When Lidia and Roberto return, she and Giovanni have to confront each other’s temptations to adultery. Giovanni is offended at something Roberto says to him with challenging eyes, that in democracy we “take things as they come”; it would seem more reasonable to assume he’s more annoyed at Roberto being alone with his wife (i.e., free to take her as she comes) than at what he has said. As mentioned above, though, Lidia denies any feelings of jealousy over her husband’s interest in Valentina, even though he’s made no attempt to hide that interest.

Instead, she feels as if she wants to die, for she knows she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore. Like Tommaso, her marriage is dead. The Cain of her husband’s concupiscence has made her no longer able…or, Abel?…to love him anymore. Giovanni, his eyes wandering in the land of Nod, knowing those other than his wife, has murdered her love, just as Cain killed his brother.

The morning has come, and it’s time to leave the party. Giovanni and Lidia decide to walk through Mr. Gherardini’s golf course. She finally tells Giovanni about Tommaso’s death; he’s annoyed that she didn’t mention it earlier, but he was playing (i.e., the game with Valentina with her compact slid across the checkered tiles–trying to seduce her). With the mention of Tommaso’s death comes her final confrontation with Giovanni about the end of her love for him…and vice versa.

She reads him an impassioned love letter she’s had in her purse. Though he’s visibly moved by the letter’s contents, he has forgotten that he, in fact, wrote it long ago, back when he still truly loved her. His obliviousness to what he wrote proves his love, too, has died–how his ineptitude with language has ruined their relationship.

He won’t accept this painful truth, though, so he makes unwanted sexual advances on her. They’ve been sitting by a group of trees, him rolling on top of her in the dirt. This moment is comparable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

His pitiful attempt at lovemaking reminds us of St. Augustine‘s interpretation of original sin, coming from concupiscence, or involuntary desire, which has been plaguing their marriage from the beginning. His uncontrolled arousal was directed at women other than Lidia; this same involuntary arousal was no longer directed at her, so when he tries to make love with her there, it’s fake, and she knows it (i.e., she knows he hasn’t got an erection–he’s impotent). He’d wished, in his love letter, for his love for her to be immortal, but not even his memory of the letter was immortal. Small wonder she, too, has looked outside their marriage for love.

His attempt at lovemaking is so fake that it should be obvious even to him that his love for her died long ago. He knows, as if from eating the…here, bitter…fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that their love is dead. Only his narcissism would push him to hide his shame by pretending to feel desire for her, paradoxically related to the shame that made Adam and Eve want to hide their genital arousal by covering it with fig leaf aprons.

They roll in the dirt of his concupiscence, for Giovanni, like Adam, is dust, and like their marriage, to dust shall he return. From the Tower of Babel of the opening credits, to the…Edenic?…ending of the film, their marriage has gone backwards, not forwards.

This ‘Edenic’ ending is not a return to the lost paradise, for Giovanni and Lidia remain in their fallen state; they know their love is dead–they aren’t the naïve, unknowing naked pair before having eaten the forbidden fruit. Fully clothed, they’re like Adam and Eve only after God has clothed them in animal skins.

Now, it isn’t that sex per se is dirty, as Augustine conceived it; it’s that desire isn’t controlled–it’s misdirected. Sex itself didn’t bring about the Fall of Man; God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Childless Giovanni and Lidia were never fruitful. Desire brought about the fall of, respectively, both the naked and the clothed couples of the Bible and La Notte. The Buddhists agree that it’s desire that is the root of human suffering, and the Pontanos’ misdirected desire has been causing their suffering throughout the dark night of their marriage.

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, OCTOBER Books, London, 1991

The Fourth Poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s Book, ‘Diverging Paths’

Here is another poem by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at so many times before. This is Poem Four from Diverging Paths. As usual, I’ll be putting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine:

Disillusioned
I face my personal hell, 
I am the illusion, 
Of a man you know well,
 

Time is a distance, 
Scattered betrayers, 
Crucify me, 
With the intrepid 
Definitions of reality, 

You are the only being, 
That I could care less if I see, 
When I realize I am not me, 
But a fool looking to the sky for substance and 
meaning,

And now, for my analysis.

I don’t believe the poet is speaking in his own voice here. Instead, this is a person confronted with his own phoniness. He’s lived with a False Self for much of his life, but at some point he cannot maintain his illusions. His “personal hell” is the realization that he can no longer pretend illusion is reality.

The pain of this realization is a kind of narcissistic injury, so it’s easier to blame his woe on “scattered betrayers” who “crucify” him, rather than take the responsibility for himself. Making his pain into something as grandiose as to be compared with Christ’s Passion, he can try to hold on to some sense of illusory greatness. Try, but not succeed.

The “definitions of reality” are “intrepid” because the truth is that fearless in how it hurts us without remorse. The person to whom he speaks is someone much better; he “could care less” if he sees this person, which is better than not caring less, so this person is of at least some value to him, in his otherwise empty life.

It is the ideals that he looks up to, symbolized by a heaven that supposedly has “substance and meaning,” that are what make up his not being himself. It is the narcissist’s tendency to idealize someone else, and to want to emulate that idealization, that creates the False Self; for the idealization is a false person, too. So the person to whom he addresses his identity crisis is, presumably, that idealized person, who is now not so ideal, hence he “could care less” to see him or her.

This loss of someone to idealize is the essence of his “disillusioned” state, for the idealized other is a face mirroring back one’s own narcissistic, illusory self. Note also the continuous use of commas, especially at the end, suggesting that this is an ongoing, unending pain. For though “time is a distance,” that distance in time from the original injury to one’s ego will never erase the pain entirely.

Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

‘Complete,’ a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

Here’s a new poem by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose work I’ve looked at many times before. This one is another one with a happier theme–love. Again, I’ll put his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

I ran into the mirror
Fell right through
Woke up without eyes
But could see you
You were brighter than the moon
You smiled I swooned
Kissed your lips with my finger tips
I wrote our love sonnet
Upon your flesh
Awoke with a Memory
And a belief
That today we may be strangers
We will meet one day
And we shall be
Complete

And now, for my analysis.

Note the relationship between running into a mirror and seeing the person he loves. When we see a mirror, we see ourselves, of course; but mirrors can be metaphorical, too. The mirror in the Lacanian sense can be a metaphor for the face of another looking back at you, an idealized version of yourself, or an idealized parent looking back at you, mirroring your love back to you.

The Oedipal relationship with the idealized parent gets transferred onto someone that one later falls in love with. The poet “fell right through” (i.e., in love) and “could see” his love “without eyes,” because as we know, love is blind. His love was “brighter than the moon,” the same moon that was envious of her maid, the sun Juliet, for being far fairer than she (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii, lines 2-10).

Another indirect reference to Shakespeare can be found in the poet having written their “love sonnet.” They “will meet one day/And…shall be/Complete.” This is the lifelong drive to attain the idealized state of the object seen in the mirror (the “Memory” from one’s first childhood experience of looking into the mirror and establishing a sense of self…a repressed, unconscious memory), to try to be as perfect as the image one sees on the other side, with whom one feels a stranger. To have one’s love, projected into and embodied in that other person.

Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

Analysis of ‘Rope’

I: Introduction

Rope is a 1948 thriller film produced (with Sidney Bernstein) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Hume Cronyn and with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. It is based on the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play of the same name (called Rope’s End in American productions), the play in turn having been inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.

The film stars James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. It’s the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited to seem a single, continuous shot through the use of long takes. It’s also the second, after Lifeboat, of his “limited setting” films, since Rope takes place entirely inside an apartment (the outside showing only during the beginning credits and through windows throughout the rest of the film).

Contemporary reviews of the film were mixed, it did poorly at the box office, and neither Hitchcock nor Stewart were happy with the results of the real time experiment. The film’s reputation has improved over the decades, though, and it has, as of this writing, a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 49 reviews), with this consensus: “As formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, Rope connects a powerful ensemble in service of a darkly satisfying crime thriller from a master of the genre.”

Quotes from the film can be found here.

II: Getting a Grip on the Rope

The symbolism of rope, and of rope’s end, ought to be discussed first. The continuous length of rope suggests the continuance of life, just like the real time continuity of the film. Still, the rope must come to its end, rather like the thread of life spun by Clotho, of the Fates, and cut by Atropos.

Similarly, though the film tries to simulate the effect of one seamless take of eighty minutes, back in 1948, takes couldn’t be any longer than ten minutes; so such tricks as having actors’ backs, or those of furniture, block the screen to allow unnoticed switches of reels, were necessary. Also, several cuts are unmasked, as at 19:45, 34:34, 51:56, and 1:09:51. So, there’s the continuity of Rope, as well as the Rope’s End cuts.

The symbolism thus is of life juxtaposed against death, for the ‘life’ of the party that carries on through most of the film coincides with the knowledge that there’s a dead man’s body hiding in a large antique wooden chest, on which dinner is served. Rope, of course, is also the murder weapon.

Hamilton’s play is also continuous in action, adhering to the three unities of place (one setting: the apartment), of time (that of the evening’s party, and no other), and of action (only the one plot of the party and the secret murder). Even this continuous action, though, is divided by the curtain fall at the end of each act: Rope‘s continuity is cut at Rope’s End.

Hamilton’s is what one would call a “well-made play,” whose characteristics are combined with the classical unities mentioned above; this form that it’s in is also symbolic of the elitist thinking of the murderers, who fancy themselves ‘well-made men.’ They are Wyndham Brandon and Charles “Granno” Granillo in the play, but respectively renamed Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger) in the film.

These well-to-do young men would end a man’s life to clear the way for the lives of “superior” men like themselves. They use rope as an executioner would, and as Rupert Cadell (Stewart in the film) says at the end of the play, they’ll hang (i.e., by rope–perfect karma) for their crime (Stewart’s Cadell says they’ll die).

Apart from the paradoxical life/death symbolism, the rope can also represent a link between words and deeds. As Slavoj Zižek explains, ‘By means of a prohibition of montage, Rope enacts a psychotic passage à l’acte (the “rope” from the title of the film is, of course, ultimately the “rope” connecting “words” and “acts,” i.e., it marks the moment at which the symbolic, so to speak, falls into the real…the homosexual, murderous couple take words “literally,” they pass from them immediately to “deeds,” realizing the professor’s [James Stewart’s] pseudo-Nietzschean theories that concern precisely the absence of prohibition–to “superhumans,” everything is permitted).’ (Ziźek, page 42)

Another symbolism for the rope is to be understood in light of how the murder of David Kentley (played by Dick Hogan; in Hamilton’s play, the victim is named Ronald Kentley) is, metaphorically speaking, an act of gay sex. In this context, Kentley’s head and neck are the phallus, and the rope is–pardon my crudity, Dear Reader–the tightening sphincter.

This all ties in with the next topic of discussion.

III: Of Homosexuals and Homicide

With the prudish Production Code at the height of its authority and power in the late 1940s, one would think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to include any gay innuendo in a film. Nonetheless, Hitchcock managed to pull it off with Rope, as he would later do in Strangers On a Train.

Though Hitchcock was a bourgeois liberal, he actually had quite a progressive attitude towards homosexuality for people of the time, and he was intrigued with the idea of suggesting that not only the two young killers, but also Cadell, were gay. Hitchcock often pushed the censors as far as he could (recall the kissing scene in Notorious between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and how close we seem to come to seeing Janet Leigh naked in the shower scene in Psycho); so it would have been irresistible to him to drop many, many hints that the two young killers in Rope are a couple.

Not only are the characters gay, but so were the actors: Dall (closeted) and bisexual Granger. In fact, even the scriptwriter, Laurents, was gay…and he often wondered if Stewart knew that the character he was playing was gay. So Hitchcock had no bigotry towards LGBT people (recall that Anthony Perkins was also bisexual).

These characters in the film are gay because Brandon and Granno are hinted at being gay in Hamilton’s play, too. This is so because, in turn, Leopold and Loeb were actually gay lovers. Hamilton was a socialist, as Hitchcock was socially liberal, so both playwright and auteur would have wanted to address homosexuality in their productions of this story.

Now, the film begins with the strangling of (or symbolic sex with) David, who gives off quite an…orgasmic…scream. The lights are off, the curtains drawn in the middle of a sunny day outside; after all, we generally prefer to screw in the dark, don’t we? Especially if it’s in the socially taboo form of gay sex, something especially taboo before the second half of the twentieth century.

Phillip/Granno wants to keep the lights off and the curtains drawn for a while longer, since he’s the weaker-willed of the killers. Brandon fittingly lights a cigarette. Both are panting. They put Kentley’s body in the wooden chest, on which Brandon would proudly have dinner served.

After handling a phallic champagne bottle, Phillip asks Brandon how he felt doing “it,” a euphemism at the time for homosexual sex, but also of course referring to the murder, since the latter sin is symbolic of the former in Rope. Brandon answers that when David’s body went “limp” [!], he felt “tremendously exhilarated.” Now, how should we think about associating gay sex with murder?

The Legion of Decency–a group of Catholics working in association with the Hays Code, and watching every film of the time like a hawk to see if anything even suggestive of lewdness was there, and thus needing to be censored, boycotted, or banned–surely must have sniffed out the homosexual innuendo in Rope. Still, they approved of it. I suspect that they allowed Rope to go past the censors because, in their Catholic bigotry, they were happy to present to the public a film that associates homosexuality with homicide, a morality tale to deter the Christian flock from ever practicing…it.

But surely neither Hitchcock nor Laurents wanted to promote such an idea, did they? This seems to be where the good gay character, Rupert Cadell, comes in. Now, with Jimmy Stewart’s box office draw and charm as a movie star, the homosexuality of his character had to be toned down. The scenes in which Brandon and Cadell discuss “strangling chickens,” though, would be enough of a hint at Cadell being as gay as the killers.

The association of homosexuality with murder also hints, however subtly, that Cadell is either gay or at least philosophically approving of homosexuality. His defence of murder can thus be seen as a code for defending homosexuality. He is a liberal defending something deemed a sin by society; but like many a liberal hypocrite, he’s disgusted and horrified when presented with a graphic presentation of the act, as we see symbolized by Kentley’s murder, at the end of Rope.

The association of homosexuality with murder, in a way, can be seen historically in the homophobic fear–a totally irrational fear given the low percentage of the world’s gay people (as can be seen, for example, in these statistics of LGBT people in the US)–that tolerance of such sexual practices (anal and oral sex, mutual masturbation, or…choking chickens!) would result in a society producing far fewer children than an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous one. Such “murderers of [their] own posterity” as gays and perpetual bachelors were seen to be detrimental to the survival of any society (Farrell, pages 73-74).

Now, empires, in their political strength, have been somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality; but the Abrahamic religions started out as persecuted minorities, in whom a quick population increase was desperately wanted. Hence the homophobic passages unfortunately immortalized in the Bible (Leviticus 20:13) and the Koran (Al-Nisa, verse 16), meant to discourage gay sexuality, or similar scriptural passages condemning any sexual acts that didn’t result in children protected through the institution of heterosexual marriage.

Small wonder the Nazis condemned homosexuality as contributing to ‘race suicide,’ and put gay men in concentration camps. There was, however, Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, and a practicing homosexual. His sexuality was known, and Hitler grudgingly tolerated him for a while, because Röhm was so highly placed in the NSDAP; but when Hitler had come to power and needed to wipe out anyone who was deemed a threat to him, Röhm’s homosexuality was conveniently used as part of the rationale for having him killed.

A discussion of Nazi ‘superiority’ over homosexual ‘inferiority’ thus ties in with the next topic.

IV: From Untermenschen to Übermenschen

One of Hitchcock’s main purposes in making Rope was to discredit the Nazi notion of the ‘superior Aryan.’ We can see an irony in having two gay men, considered ‘inferior’ not only by Nazis but also by conservative society in general, who fancy themselves examples of the Nietzschean Superman. Röhm would have seen himself racially thus, too, as would his gay deputy, Edmund Heines.

[It’s interesting to note in passing that some have speculated that Nietzsche was gay. Also, one should recall how his younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, edited his writing to make his notion of the Superman seem proto-Nazi.]

To get back to Hitchcock’s intentions for the film, though, and his commendable use of Rope as a condemnation of Nazi thinking, on the other hand one mustn’t forget his reactionary stance as a bourgeois liberal, who during the late 1940s would naturally have been eager to distance himself from fascism as much as he could. All the same, consider in this connection what Stalin once said about liberals and their ilk: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Nazis are to be crushed, not merely distanced from; and Western liberals were using unpunished ex-Nazis to help them fight the Cold War, starting right around the time that Rope was made.

Connected to all of this is a passage about homosexuals in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: ‘homosexuals or inverts…are men and women who otherwise have reached an irreproachably high standard of mental growth and development, intellectually and ethically, and are only afflicted with this one fateful peculiarity. Through the mouths of their scientific spokesmen they lay claim to be a special variety of the human race, a “third sex,” as they call it, standing with equal rights alongside the other two. We may perhaps have an opportunity of critically examining these claims. They are not, of course, as they would gladly maintain, the “elect” of mankind; they contain in their ranks at least as many inferior and worthless individuals as are to be found among those differently constituted sexually.’ (Freud, pages 313-314)

I bring up this quote because Hitchcock was known to have been heavily influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and gay Brandon’s and Phillip’s preoccupation with Nietzschean ‘superiority’ causes me to wonder if Hitchcock ever read the above-quoted book by Freud, its ideas influencing him in his making of Rope.

In any case, Brandon’s (especially) and Phillip’s/Granno’s sense of superiority doesn’t stem from their homosexuality, but rather from malignant narcissism, in which we see a huge overlapping of extreme narcissistic and psychopathic (ASPD) personality traits. Though the two may have felt narcissistic injury from being regarded by society as ‘sex perverts,’ and therefore wish to assert their ‘superiority’ by displaying the courage to kill, the thrill factor in killing Kentley seems to indicate the psychopathic side to Brandon’s personality, an impatience with boredom.

Now, Phillip/Granno, being the weaker-willed of the two killers, and lacking Brandon’s ability to tolerate stress (even though it is Phillip who does the actual strangling of Kentley!), is racked with guilt and stress throughout the film. While this guilt is surely a factor in his outburst, denying he’s ever strangled a chicken, this denial seems more connected with the implication, as stated above, that he’s gay rather than a killer. In other words, his lie that he’s never strangled a chicken seems to be his narcissistic rage at being implicitly labelled ‘queer.’

The narcissism of the two young killers can be linked to something else, in fact, something far more significant than being gay or wishing to emulate the philosophy of Nietzsche: it’s their elevated social class that gives them a false sense of superiority to most other people.

This ties in with the next point.

V: The Übermenschlichkeit of Capital

Brandon and Phillip/Granno, just like their real-life inspirations, Leopold and Loeb, are spoiled, well-to-do kids from affluent families. They’re preppy students living in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, wearing nice suits, drinking fine champagne, and inviting similarly upper-middle-class friends to their evening party. They also have a servant in their employ, played by Edith Evanson.

Their smug belief in their supposed superiority is therefore symbolic of the narcissism of capital in general. Capitalist imperialists, like those in the British Empire, and now the US, have justified their plundering of the world–killing millions in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (whether directly or indirectly)–by imagining their stock and civilization to be superior to all the brown people they’ve brutalized. Killing a fellow preppy like Kentley doesn’t deflate my argument, for those white imperialists, the Nazis, killed such whites as Jews and Slavs in their racist hubris, too.

Cadell’s ‘defence’ of murder is meant to be heard as a sardonic take on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, not as a green light for Brandon and Phillip/Granno to kill. Cadell’s words, like Sade‘s glorification of the most heinous of crimes, are cloaked in irony. Cadell points out, in Hamilton’s play, that war is murder on a mass scale, and thoroughly approved of by patriotic society. Similarly, Hamilton’s Cadell approves of theft because society already condones capitalists’ theft of the poor through their ownership of private property: in this observation, he refers to Proudhon‘s notion that property is theft. Hamilton the socialist would have wanted to make this point to his audience, in the hopes of promoting progressive social change. In these ways, Cadell’s approval of crime is the opposite of capitalist Brandon’s relishing in crime.

…and the notion of narcissistic, bourgeois hypocrisy ties in with the final topic.

VI: Opening the Chest

Another part of narcissism is presenting a False Self to the world, a hiding of one’s True Self. Brandon’s and Phillip’s/Granno’s pretensions to superiority are an example of the False Self, while the concealment of their crime in the chest symbolizes the hiding of the True Self.

Since the crime is also symbolic of gay sex, the two killers are presenting themselves publicly as straight, ‘respectable’ members of society with their innocuous, high-class party. Phillip’s vehement yet dishonest denial of having ever strangled a chicken is an example of such pretending. Cadell, who knows better, and who is growing increasingly suspicious of his two young hosts, cross-examines Phillip, so to speak, while the latter is playing the piano. Cadell has witnessed the…choking of chickens…and knows Phillip has lied in his denial of committing the act. This cross-examination happens while Phillip has been playing, over and over again, the first of Francis Poulenc‘s Trois mouvements perpétuels. (Poulenc, incidentally, was also gay.)

The harmonic construction of the piano piece is a perfect parallel to the growing tension in the movie. It starts off with a pretty, light tune, the ideal sort of musical setting to a party with such people as the father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), girlfriend (played by Joan Chandler), and friend (played by Douglas Dick) of the murder victim, none of whom of course know of the murder. But as the piano piece carries on, it grows–however subtly–more and more dissonant, something paralleled in the unease that the guests are feeling over Kentley’s never showing up for the party. Though Phillip never plays the first movement to the end, anyone who has heard it knows it ends at the height of inconclusive dissonance, just as the film ends at the height of tension and uncertainty for the two killers.

Now, Phillip has been revealing his guilty True Self through such parapraxes as breaking a wine glass in his bloodied hand and letting out nervous outbursts; his heavy drinking is also facilitating his disclosing of guilt. Brandon, on the other hand, enjoys suggesting that he’s guilty of murder, for he fancies himself above the common man’s hypocritical pretences of virtue.

In these ways, just as Rope demonstrates the dialectical relationships between life and death, continuity and breaks in it, ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority,’ and pride (Brandon) vs. shame (Phillip), so does it demonstrate the dialectical opposition between hiding one’s True Self behind a mask of one’s False Self on the one hand, and on the other, removing the False Self mask to reveal the True Self, be such a removal through parapraxes or through the criminal’s vanity, his proud wish to display his murder to the world.

Just as the murder symbolizes gay sex, so does hiding the body symbolize hiding one’s homosexuality, while Brandon’s unconscious wish to have his mentor, Cadell, know of the crime represents a wish to come out of the closet…or come out of the casket, as is the case here…Brandon’s defiant wish to tell the world that homosexuality is no crime.

In keeping with the gay interpretation, though, we find that liberal Cadell, in his condemnation of the two young men’s symbolic gay sex act, is a hypocrite himself. He has philosophically condoned the act a mere 40 minutes before this condemnation, an unmasking of his own False Self. He thanks Brandon for this unmasking, just as Brandon has wished to be unmasked, too.

At the same time, though, in keeping with the capitalist/imperialist interpretation (particularly in Hamilton’s play), Cadell redeems himself by, first of all, frankly acknowledging his own guilt in killing in war and stealing in his ownership of private property, and second of all, condemning Brandon’s and Granno’s murdering of Kentley (an excess Cadell would never lower himself to), all out of a narcissistic fancying of themselves as superior.

Cadell’s redemption, however, is only partial: for as a liberal (as Hitchcock was), he is symbolically condemning the excesses of fascist delusions of superiority used to justify killing, while maintaining the bourgeois liberal class structure of society out of which fascism arises in times of crisis…just as Cadell’s verbal approval of murder inspired these two bad boys’ achievement of murder.

The rope that links the teacher and his pupils doesn’t end here, doesn’t get cut off, through the difference between word and deed. The continuity between the former and the latter is as smooth as Hitchcock’s deft camera tricks hiding the cuts between long takes.