Analysis of ‘Re-Animator’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘The Maltese Falcon’

The Maltese Falcon is a 1930 detective novel written by Dashiell Hammett and adapted into film in 1931, 1936 (a comedic version called Satan Met a Lady), the by-far most famous one in 1941, a film noir directed by John Huston, and a 1975 spoof sequel of the 1941 version called The Black Bird. The Huston film, which I’ll be discussing with the novel, starred Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, and Elisha Cook Jr.; it is also considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The 1941 film is largely a faithful adaptation, minus the novel‘s swearing (most of it Sam Spade‘s) and other scenes deemed inappropriate by the prudish Production Code, as well as other scenes that are rather superfluous as far as pacing and plot development are concerned. Apart from these differences, Hammett’s depiction of private detective Sam Spade is larger in build than that of Bogart (Spade in the novel is also blond), and the scene of Spade with the DA happens later in the novel than it does in the film.

A link to quotes from Huston’s film can be found here.

The search for the coveted Maltese falcon, a statuette of a bird of gold covered in valuable jewels, then covered in black enamel to hide its enormous worth, is symbolic of what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire.

The beautiful and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor)–desired by Spade (Bogart) and his partner-detective, Miles Archer (played by Jerome Cowan)–can be seen as a double of the black bird, another objet petit a, for she, too, is a kind of “black bird” (i.e., evil chick). The difference between these two birds is in how the pursuers of the statuette continue in desiring it no matter what obstacles are in the way, while Spade–who doesn’t trust O’Shaughnessy–must resist his desire of the femme fatale to keep her from ruining his life.

She’s been lying to Spade all the way from the beginning of the story. She even lies about her name when she meets him in his San Francisco office. She calls herself “Ruth Wonderly,” and claims that a man named Floyd Thursby has run away with her kid sister from New York, when actually, O’Shaughnessy was with Thursby in Hong Kong trying to get the Maltese falcon before its other pursuers can get their hands on it.

Her whole manner is that of the pouting covert narcissist, the one who plays the role of pitiful victim while secretly scheming to make saps out of her male colleagues. Hence, this beauty is a femme fatale.

There is a sense in this whole story that desire, be it the coveting of a valuable object or the lusting after a beautiful woman, leads to suffering, as the Buddhists understood. People have chased after the elusive falcon for centuries since pirates stole it while it was en route to King Charles V of Spain, only to be frustrated never to capture it decisively and keep it.

Similarly, O’Shaughnessy has played man after man for a fool with her charms–Thursby, Archer, and Spade–only to get them either killed or in danger of being incarcerated. The phoney name she calls herself, “Wonderly,” is reflective of her pathologically narcissistic grandiosity and False Self. She’d have Spade and Archer believe she’s wonderful, when actually she’s a con woman, out to swindle both men out of their lives to pursue her ends.

The love of riches drives those who want to possess the Maltese falcon. The addiction to female beauty drives Archer and Spade to want O’Shaughnessy. It’s clear from early on that Spade is a ladies’ man.

His wholesome but relatively plain receptionist, Effie Perine (Patrick), knows Spade will like O’Shaughnessy, for “she’s a knockout.” Later, we learn that Spade has been having an affair with Iva Archer (played by Gladys George), the soon-to-be widowed wife of Miles, who doesn’t mind looking away from her if he can have O’Shaughnessy.

When two cops, Detective Tom Polhaus (played by Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Dundy (played by Barton MacLane), who suspect that Spade may be responsible for the deaths of Thursby and Archer, hear Spade say he doesn’t know anything about women, Tom says, “Since when?” (In the novel, he says, “The hell you don’t.”–chapter two) Spade has a reputation as a womanizer, and Iva’s frequent visits to his office and elsewhere, her being eager to see him, only intensify the suspicions that he’s killed his partner, hence his wish to keep her away from him.

Soon, Spade comes into contact with Joel Cairo (Lorre), who happens, incidentally, to be the man referred to in the song, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo,” by Jon and Vangelis. Cairo is a stereotypically effeminate homosexual, something largely censored out of Lorre’s performance, for obvious reasons. In the novel, references are made to his use of chypre as a fragrance (in the film, it’s gardenia) and diamonds on a finger of his left hand. When Effie Perrine tells Spade that Cairo wants to meet him in chapter four, she says he’s “queer.” In chapter ten, Spade refers to him as “the fairy,” and O’Shaughnessy refers to a boy Cairo once “had in Constantinople,” the public exposure of his sexuality angering him, in chapter seven.

What’s significant about his effeminacy and extravagance, also seen to an extent in the novel’s characterization of portly Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), is how their decadence is related to their search for the black bird. Their decadence is of a capitalistic sort, a lust after riches and class hegemony, an internationalizing of the “American dream” felt also in Levantine Cairo.

Their decadence is that of the mafia, too, since they use muscle and guns to get what they want. We see this in Gutman’s use of Wilmer Cook (Cook Jr.), a young man shadowing Spade, though the latter is by no means intimidated by the former. Similarly, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, wanting to search his office for the falcon, though Spade manages to get his gun off of him.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, the mafia makes for a poetically resonant symbol of capitalism, its predatory seeking of wealth through questionable practices and use of violence. We see in the fierce quest for the falcon a symbol of the bourgeois search for an elevation to the highest levels of social class.

Cairo offers Spade $5,000 to help him find the black bird. Gutman offers a first payment of $10,000 to get it for him. Both men know, though, that the falcon is worth so much more as to make thousands of dollars seem like pennies in comparison. This disparity in worth is symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of labour, minimal payments to workers to extract a maximum of surplus value.

The second time Spade meets with Gutman, the latter tells the former the history of the Maltese falcon. The Knights Templar (in chapter thirteen of the novel, Gutman calls them “the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later called the Knights of Rhodes and other things”) in 1530 wanted King Charles V of Spain to give them Malta; he would do so in exchange for the tribute of a falcon to be sent to him every year in acknowledgement that Malta was still under Spain. If ever the knights were to leave, Malta would revert to Spain.

The first falcon sent to the king wasn’t to be a real, living one, but a golden statuette encrusted with the finest jewels from head to foot. In general, the falcons were meant, essentially, to be a yearly payment of rent, as a matter of form, to the king for permission for the knights to live in Malta.

The king, as emperor of that part of the Mediterranean at the time, was thus one of the most powerful men of the area during the late feudal period of Europe. Since the knights had access, through their spoils from their conquests in such places as the Middle East, to the finest jewels, metals, silks, gems, ivories, etc., the golden falcon was among the most valuable commodities ever.

The boat meant to deliver the falcon from Malta to Spain was stopped by a pirate attack. The pirates stole the falcon, and it ended up being passed around from place to place around the world over the next several centuries, up until the time of this story. Over this passage of time, history witnessed the change from feudalism to capitalism, while the bird has retained its superlative worth.

And so the Maltese falcon can be seen to symbolize the greatest attainment of class power, that which takes its owner in flight to the highest of financial freedoms. To own it is to be like a king, an emperor, owning property and wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams. To own it is to be better than the capitalist ruling class; to own it is to be like a feudal lord.

Small wonder Gutman, with his gluttony for wealth and power, wants the black bird so badly. He, Cairo, and Wilmer will use any dirty trick they can think of to get it, including drugging the drink Gutman fills and refills for Spade while discussing the history of the falcon, then while he’s unconscious, they can search for the falcon without Spade getting in the way.

Gutman may speak to Spade with cordiality, but he’s no friend to the detective, just as a boss is no friend to his employees. These are relationships of power and subservience. The drugging of Spade, as well as the use of Wilmer to push Spade around (in spite of how ineffectual Wilmer turns out to be), and the pointing of guns at Spade show clearly how unequal Gutman regards Spade as a business partner.

And regardless of how much Gutman offers to pay Spade for getting the falcon–a beginning payment of $10,000, or the full offer of $25,000 or even a quarter of a million–all these payments are microscopic in comparison to the actual, gargantuan worth of the black bird. Hence, payment for Spade’s service of securing the bird is like a small wage paid by an employer gaining a huge profit out of the deal.

Since Wilmer is also in Gutman’s employ, his relationship with Spade is full of the usual tensions between competing labourers, with the attendant alienation. In the novel, Wilmer hates Spade so much that he says, twice in chapter ten, what isn’t actually in print (for reasons that will immediately prove obvious), but what must be inferred as, “Fuck you.”

This mutual alienation among Gutman’s associates intensifies at the climax, when Spade, always trying to bargain (as a trade unionist would) for a better deal, insists on Gutman giving up a fall guy for the murders of Thursby and Archer, in addition to his cut. Spade suggests Wilmer, who naturally resents it, even though he’s surely responsible for at least the deaths of Thursby and Captain Jacobi (played by Huston’s father Walter), who dies having delivered the falcon to Spade’s office with several bullets in him, after the boat he sailed from Hong Kong to San Francisco, La Paloma, was burned down by Gutman’s men.

Gutman is hesitant to give up Wilmer to the police, claiming the boy is like a son to him (when actually, he’s worried Wilmer will squeal on him). Spade then suggests Cairo as the fall guy, or perhaps O’Shaughnessy could be considered; as long as Spade is safe from the cops. These suggestions, and the angry reactions they get, further show the growth of mutual alienation going around, all because of the power of that black enamelled commodity.

Before this climactic scene in the novel is one with Gutman’s drugged daughter, Rhea, whom Spade accidentally meets in the Alexandria Hotel (chapter seventeen). The scene is fairly superfluous to the plot, but it does help give us a more vivid idea of how corrupt and ruthless mafia-man Gutman is…that he’d allow his own daughter to be in such a state.

Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy, Wilmer, and Spade are all waiting for Effie to deliver the bird to Spade’s apartment in the morning. Gutman has given Spade the $10,000 down payment in an envelope, which Spade has given to O’Shaughnessy to watch over. At one point, Gutman takes the envelope back for a moment and looks over the bills: he finds only $9,000.

Has O’Shaughnessy stolen the missing $1,000? In the novel (and in the pre-Production Code 1931 film version), Spade takes her into his bathroom and makes her strip to see if she has the money on her–she doesn’t. Gutman has taken it to see what Spade will do, then he gives it back.

This scene is interesting in how it parallels that of the falcon’s delivery, when Gutman scrapes at the black enamel covering to see the gold and jewels underneath. There are none–it’s a fake! Just as she has had her coverings removed to find nothing of monetary value, so has the black bird. It’s a fake…and so is she.

These scenes underscore my point towards the beginning of this analysis: both O’Shaughnessy and the Maltese falcon are ‘black birds,’ as it were. They both, on the surface, seem to be beautiful and of almost limitless value, yet when the illusions are cast aside, they’re not only of no worth, but are dangerous addictions.

Warren Farrell once said that “female beauty is the world’s most potent drug.” (Farrell, Berkeley mass market edition, October 1996, page 72) I don’t agree: money is far more addictive, though perhaps female beauty is a distant second. Hence, the two black birds of this story. It’s interesting, in this connection, to remember Tony Montana‘s words in Scarface: “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.”

We’ll note, however, that the real climax of the story isn’t the discovery that the falcon is a fake; it’s Spade telling O’Shaughnessy that he’s giving her up to the police for having shot Archer (Wilmer has sneaked out of the building while everyone’s eyes have been on the falcon, so he can no longer be the fall guy).

After Gutman and Cairo leave to resume their search for the bird, Spade bullies her into telling the truth that she shot Archer with Thursby’s gun. Since the police suspect Spade killed him to get Iva, he can’t let O’Shaughnessy’s beauty weaken his resolve to avoid being charged with murder.

It takes all of his emotional strength to look into her manipulatively teary eyes and tell her he “won’t play the sap” for her. Though he, a ladies’ man, is still enticed by her beauty and her claims that she loves him, he’s heard too many lies from her to think she’s any less a phoney than that lead bird she had shipped from Hong Kong.

The tension in Bogart‘s face vividly expresses Spade’s conflict. Still, he stays strong, and when Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy show up, Spade gives her to them. Polhaus asks about the bird, and Spade says it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” a reference to the illusory, theatrical magic in The Tempest. The theatrically presented dream of innumerable amounts of wealth is an illusion.

Indeed, though Spade can resist O’Shaughnessy’s charms as his objet petit a, neither Gutman nor Cairo can resist the lure of the Maltese falcon, their objet petit a, hence their plans to go to Istanbul to see if it’s there. Now, at the end of the novel, Wilmer shoots and kills Gutman; so Spade’s ability to resist his desires saves him, while Gutman’s inability to do so destroys him, as does Archer’s inability vis-à-vis O’Shaughnessy.

It is assumed that the reason Gutman et al received a fake falcon is because the sender, a Russian named Kemidov in Istanbul, cheated them when he found out its real worth, and that he has the real falcon, if not somebody else. But I wonder: is the whole story of the falcon actually a legend that Gutman all too credulously believes, simply because he wants to? In any case, the addiction to endless wealth never dies, though its attainment is surely only an enamelled dream for most of us.

Analysis of ‘Network’

Network is a 1976 satirical black comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall; it costars Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, and Wesley Addy.

Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar, Dunaway won Best Actress, Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay, and Straight won Best Supporting Actress. Network is ranked #64 among the 100 greatest American films according to the AFI, and it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2005, Chayefsky’s script was voted by the two Writers Guilds of America one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of cinema.

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

The opening and closing credits remind one of those of 1970s TV shows. The narrator (Lee Richardson‘s voice) fittingly sounds like an anchorman.

The essential point to the satire in the film is how the news media is reflective of the profit motive. Lower ratings for a news program, or any other TV show, mean lower profits, and this can’t be tolerated.

Longstanding United Broadcasting Systems (UBS) anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) is to be fired because his ratings have gone unacceptably low. This, among other personal problems in his life, which have arisen over the past six years or so (the death of his wife in 1970, his alcoholism), has driven him to contemplate suicide. Here we see how, under capitalism, human life is less important than profit.

Beale announces his plan, on his last TV appearance, to “blow his brains out” on live TV, shocking everybody. He is pulled out of his chair while he angrily protests with foul language and even punching someone among the crew…behaviour that’s in satirical contrast with the stereotypically calm, unemotional anchorman (in fact, soon after this incident we see a number of anchormen on TV screens discussing this sensational breaking news with the usual calm objectivity).

His announcement of his plan to kill himself on live TV has also done something that hasn’t happened to him in years: it has raised his ratings. Again, death is often more profitable than life.

His friend and fellow TV veteran, UBS news division president Max Schumacher (Holden), cares about him and wants him to have a dignified last moment on the air. Schumacher is also infuriated that Frank Hackett (Duvall), who works for the Communications Corporation of America (CCA), has made him lose face during a speech to stockholders with the CCA and UBS, planning to take over his division without having consulted him. So Schumacher’s putting Beale back on the air, instead of firing him outright, is also meant as a big “go fuck himself” to Hackett (as Schumacher explicitly says).

Again on live TV, Beale carries his newfound notoriety further and says his reason for claiming he’s intended to kill himself is because he’s run “out of bullshit.” He keeps saying “bullshit” over and over again during the broadcast, shocking some and amusing others. UBS’s ratings soar, and now we go from capitalism favouring death over life, to capitalism favouring vulgarity over “respectable broadcasting.”

Indeed, Diana Christensen (Dunaway), the ambitious new head of the network’s programming department, is thrilled with how Beale’s capricious and eyebrow-raising antics are pulling UBS out of its ratings slump by, paradoxically, dumping it into the gutter, so to speak. She wants “angry shows” that will allow the common people to vent their frustrations–not out of any sympathy for their problems, of course, but out of a wish to exploit them to make more money for UBS.

This wish of the media’s to exploit public discontent is paralleled in today’s world, where people can share all the memes, videos, and newspaper articles they want on Facebook, Twitter, etc., content that exposes all the injustices of the world, and vent all the people’s anger at those injustices…

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

Social media is more than willing to allow us to vent our anger (violations of “community standards” notwithstanding, of course), for our continued use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. ensures the continued making of profits. Christensen would have UBS do the same thing with Beale.

She manages to convince Hackett to go along with her plans, since he sees things only in terms of dollars and cents. Schumacher, who doesn’t want to see his troubled friend exploited for profit, doesn’t agree with her. Be that as it may, though, he is charmed by her beauty, and flattered by her claim to have had a crush on him when he once lectured at the University of Missouri. The two of them will begin an affair.

His infatuation with her, a narcissistic woman driven only by ambition and caring little about people or human relationships, is allegorical of our infatuation with TV, pop culture, movies, and the media in general (and in today’s world, we can expand all of this to an obsession with our relationship with social media). As Schumacher himself says to her when he finally comes to his senses and ends their affair: she’s “television incarnate.”

One of Christensen’s angry, radical targets for exploitation is a far-left terrorist organization called the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA). She sets up a TV show for them called “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.” One member of the ELA, Laurene Hobbs (played by Marlene Warfield), who calls herself “a bad-ass commie nigger,” finds herself deeply invested in the financial success of the show, always harping on angrily about her “distribution charges.”

In this satirical take we can see how even once-dedicated Marxists can sell their souls to capitalism. Consider the individuals and governments that have compromised with the market or to imperialism. Consider the Che Guevara T-shirts sold, and the Marxist books sold by eager capitalists who couldn’t care less how many people get radicalized by them…as long as the sellers are making a lot of money. Christensen, like capitalism, poisons everything she touches.

To get back to Beale, we find him having what would seem to be divine inspiration…of course, he’s simply losing his mind when hearing voices in bed, but it’s amusing to entertain the thought that he’s gone from suicidal alcoholic to the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” who is “denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” In this way, we’re rather like mad King Lear who thought of Tom o’ Bedlam as a “noble philosopher.”

This merging of a news media man with a prophet is a satirical masterstroke for Chayefsky. The paradox of juxtaposing the lying corporate media with a ‘truth teller’ who has been ‘touched by God’ is coupled with the equivalency made between two messengers that are slavishly, uncritically followed by the masses.

This hilarious mixing of contradictory…and not-so-contradictory…elements is intensified and symbolized by Beale’s sudden fainting spells. When we first see him swoon, it’s brought on by extreme stress and his growing mental instability. Every time after that, as we see on “The Howard Beale Show,” it comes across as his divinely inspired ἐνθουσιασμός.

Before the show is set up, he’s already getting followers. Hackett and Christensen are thrilled, though Schumacher is trying to stop them from exploiting Beale. Hackett calls the mad anchorman’s rantings and ravings “a big-titted hit,” commodifying Beale as one would commodify the large breasts of a porn star. In this way, Hackett is demonstrating a character orientation that Erich Fromm called “the marketing character,” someone who uses people as commodities to profit from.

Fromm explains: “For the marketing character everything is transformed into a commodity–not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles. This character type is a historically new phenomenon because it is the product of a fully developed capitalism that is centered around the market–the commodity market, the labor market, and the personality market–and whose principle it is to make a profit by favorable exchange.” (Fromm, page 388)

Fromm elaborated on this elsewhere: “In the marketing orientation man encounters his own powers as commodities alienated from him…The way one experiences others is not different from the way one experiences oneself. Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they too do not present themselves but their salable part.” (Fromm, page 53) Hackett sees himself, as a slave and hatchet-man for CCA, as a commodity; he also sees Beale as a commodity.

Everyone is worried about where Beale is, since he has unaccountably wandered off in the rain, like a wild, inspired prophet. Schumacher is worried about his friend; Hackett and Christensen are worried about their ‘product.’

Finally, Beale shows up at UBS for his next live broadcast, soaked in rain and in a coat and his pyjamas. He looks in the camera and says the famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” This is his command to his followers, who are to shout it from their windows. Of course, people all over the US are shouting the line, and Christensen is thrilled that Beale is stirring up all this emotion.

Again, though, it’s just a meaningless channeling of popular rage; it achieves nothing but an improvement in UBS’s ratings. The “not gonna take this anymore” isn’t any more conducive to revolution than “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.”

The death of Edward Ruddy (played by William Prince), one of the old guard of UBS and someone sympathetic to Schumacher’s idea of how to run the news honestly, is the subject of Beale’s first appearance on his new show, a farce of TV commercialism including other shows of the ‘prophecy/fortune-telling’ theme that Christensen has concocted. His show begins with the studio audience chanting, like obedient automatons, Beale’s “mad as hell…” catchphrase.

What Beale has to say is, in all irony, utterly true: the replacement of Ruddy–and the decent, respectable journalism that he and Schumacher represent–by Hackett, Christensen, and their for-profit news as entertainment is an abomination and growing social evil, a prophecy we can see as very real in our media world today. Still, Beale’s audience is interested only in the spectacle he puts on, not the content of his message. This is an all-too-true observation of our experience of the media today.

Beale tells them that everything they see and hear on the TV is fake…a perfectly true judgement, but this truth doesn’t move his riveted audience one bit. They want to be amused, not informed. They want to be led by him, not to think for themselves. They listen to him not to be enlightened; they listen to him for the mere sake of listening to him.

So when he tells them, like a good prophet, to go to God, go to their guru, go to themselves…they’d rather just stay rapt watching him and not move a muscle without him. He tells them to turn off their TVs, as they of course should do, turn it off right in the middle of the sentence he’s speaking…but of course, they won’t.

He is the true and false prophet, all rolled into one.

His ecstatic fainting seems staged, but that’s OK with his audience.

So, why all of this hero worship of Beale, with the entertainment gained from watching his wild antics, without listening to his message or taking it seriously?

The psychological state of his followers can be described in terms of a combination of the ideas of Lacan and Kohut. The TV screen, on which Beale is seen, is a symbolic mirror for his viewers. In admiring “the grand old man of news,” his audience is transferring their idealized parental imago onto him. This one-on-one staring at the image on the screen thus puts them in the Imaginary Order.

Now, this transferred ideal parental imago is an internal object his audience has of their fathers; it’s also an ideal-I seen originally in the mirror reflection, but now moved onto the TV screen. So in worshipping Beale, his audience is actually projecting their unattainable ideal, the narcissistic version of themselves, onto him.

Such narcissistic projection onto TV celebrities is the satirical basis of Network. Instead of us communicating with each other, listening to the words of others and sharing our own words with them, we’d rather just gaze in awe at images on a TV screen (or, in today’s world, images on a phone or computer monitor). Instead of maturing and integrating with society and culture (the Symbolic Order), we’d rather have a one-on-one relationship with a face on a screen that only seems to be looking back at us like the specular image of a mirror–a regression back to the Imaginary.

Though Schumacher would protect his friend from Hackett’s and Christensen’s exploitation of him, and though he wants to preserve an ethical way of presenting the news, he is nonetheless infatuated with Christensen, the film’s beautiful personification of the charms of TV. Because she is “television incarnate,” his looking at her face is like looking at a TV screen with mesmerized eyes. He is as drawn to the allure of television, in a symbolic way, as Beale’s audience literally is to him.

Schumacher’s infatuation with Christensen has devastated his wife, Louise (Straight, whose brief scene expressing her hurt rage was all that was needed to win her an Oscar). We see, in the scene of his confession of his adultery to her, how the media destroys human relationships–a fake one-on-one relationship replaces real relationships.

So indeed, as good as Schumacher is, he too is lured into the seductive trap of the media. For even the best of us can be sucked into staring stupidly at a screen. Christensen’s beauty and charms are a narcissistic mirror of how he’d like to see himself. His relationship with her, therefore, parallels Beale’s relationship with his idolatrous audience.

Now, Beale starts out at the lowest of the low in his life, as an alcoholic widower facing the loss of his job and contemplating suicide. Then, it’s the very wild antics of his, those that were merely his reaction to his low point, that have pushed him over the edge of that low and raised him, paradoxically, to the top.

In a number of posts, I have compared the dialectical relationship between opposites to the head and tail of the ouroboros. In Network, Beale’s suicidal ideation is the serpent’s bitten tail; his meteoric rise to fame is a move from that tail to the serpent’s biting head.

Of course, Beale carries his newfound fame and influence too far for CCA’s comfort. On one show, he discusses a plan that the conglomerate has to allow an Arab takeover of it in exchange for some much-needed money. This time, his audience does listen to him, and they do his bidding to petition the US government to stop the Arab takeover. Hackett, Christensen, and especially, CCA head Arthur Jensen (Beatty) are most upset with Beale.

Beale is taken to meet Mr. Jensen, who curiously is dressed like a man from the late nineteenth century. One is thus reminded, by his choice of clothes, of the robber barons of the era.

He takes Beale into a large conference room, where all the CCA big brass make their decisions. He dims the lights for the right dramatic effect (the scene’s darkness also parallels Beale’s scene in bed when ‘divinely inspired’ for the first time). Then Jensen rebukes Beale for having “meddled with the primal forces of nature” (i.e., stopping the CCA deal with the Arabs).

Jensen gives a long speech about how, apparently, capitalism is the Guiding Force, the pantheistic Essence, of the entire cosmos. The universal Oneness of money pervades all, it would seem. There are no nations or peoples; there is only the global, cosmic market, which permeates every atom of existence.

This equating of capitalism with God is yet another satirical masterstroke of Chayefsky, for not only does it comment on the universal worship of the Almighty Dollar, paralleling our worship of TV, computer, and smartphone screens, and of the media in general, but it also prophesies the neoliberalism that was only nascent in the mid-1970s, and is ubiquitous and in full flower now…une fleur du mal. More than even that, it links the authoritarianism of religion with capital.

Everything that people were “as mad as hell” about in the early-to-mid 1970s–the bad economy, crime, etc.–can be connected to the oil crisis of 1973, which ended the prominence of the Keynesian economics of 1945-1973 and saw the beginning of the end of the welfare capitalism of the time. OAPEC brought about an oil embargo in response to the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a move that in turn raised the price of oil and caused the first of two oil shocks.

This move of OAPEC is why Beale doesn’t want the Arabs to take over CCA and UBS. Jensen will not, however, have Beale stand in the way of fulfilling the neoliberal prophecy. In fact, he’d have Beale evangelize it on his TV show.

Jensen is now the new god inspiring Beale, it would seem.

Fittingly, when Beale does his next show, instead of giving rousing speeches that galvanize his followers, he talks about the gradual decline of Western democracy. Our lives, he says, will become increasingly meaningless and valueless.

Now, such a prophecy, starting in the mid-1970s and continuing until now, in the 2020s, has been perfectly accurate. First, there was Reagan’s union-busting in the early 1980s. Then, his and Thatcher’s deregulating and tax cuts for the rich allowed millionaires to become billionaires who could control the government all the better.

Next, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc (recall Beale’s prophecy that communism is finished even as of the 1970s), along with the reintroduction of the market in China and Vietnam in the 1980s, meant the Western governments no longer needed to provide welfare capitalism to appease the working class and stave off socialist revolution. The imperialist capitalist class could do anything to anybody, and with impunity. (Indeed, as Beale says, the US is as strong as ever, and will continue to be.)

Hence, Clinton’s gutting of welfare in the mid-1990s, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the allowing of mergers and acquisitions in the American media (aptly prophesied in Network, in CCA’s takeover of UBS), and the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo in 1999. The Patriot Act, as part of the global “war on terror,” would continue to erode Americans’ democratic freedoms, and would be re-authorized by Obama, with the NSA surveillance of emails and smartphone messages that was exposed by Snowden.

Assange‘s Wikileaks exposure of American military abuses in Iraq (via Chelsea Manning) has unleashed the wrath of the Western political establishment, and his shameful incarceration and persecution have jeopardized the future of journalistic freedom. Now, thanks to the not-so-benign agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, fear of a disease with a survival rate of about 99% has goaded people into taking dubious, hastily-produced vaccines.

Beale is right: we’ve lost a huge amount of democratic freedom thanks to the rise of neoliberalism, and our lives have become meaningless and valueless. It’s the truth, but it’s a depressing truth. Accordingly, the ratings for “The Howard Beale Show” are dropping. Naturally, CCA wants to get rid of Beale, but because Jensen likes the message Beale is preaching, he wants him to stay on the air in spite of the drop in profits. Hackett, Christensen, et al thus decide to have Beale assassinated on his show by members of the ELA.

Beale, thus, has come full circle: he has gone from wanting to kill himself over poor ratings to being killed by others over poor ratings. He has gone from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, then down the serpent’s coiled length (which symbolizes a circular continuum between the extremes) back to the tail.

It is fitting that the film ends with TV screens showing not only his bloodied body, but also commercials like the classic, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Life Cereal ad. Beale is as much a commodity as a cereal is.

Network is more than a film. It is a prophecy of our times.

Analysis of ‘Quartet for the End of Time’

I: Introduction

Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a 1940-1941 piece of chamber music composed by Olivier Messiaen. It was composed for an unusual combination of instruments: piano, violin, clarinet in B-flat, and cello; because these were the instruments played by the only musicians available to perform the piece at its premiere–Messiaen, Jean le Boulaire, Henri Akoka, and Etienne Pasquier, respectively. These four musicians premiered the piece, in January 1941, as prisoners of war in Stalag VIII-A, then in Görlitz, Germany.

Messiaen was inspired by this passage in the Book of Revelation: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…” (Revelation, 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version). What particularly struck Messiaen was the notion that there would be no more time.

He claimed that he wasn’t interested in using his music as a symbolic theological comment on the Apocalypse. After all, how can one make such a comment with only instrumental music (Iain G. Matheson, at the beginning of his essay on the Quatuor, addresses this question. [Hill, pages 234-235])? Instead, Messiaen was preoccupied with the idea of freeing music from the regularity of time.

Here are some recordings of the Quatuor, one with the score, and another of a live performance.

II: The Movements

There are eight movements: they represent the seven days of Creation, then the eighth day, Christ’s Resurrection.

i) Liturgie de cristal (“Crystal Liturgy“)
ii) Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
iii) Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of Birds”)
iv) Intermède (“Interlude”)
v) Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”)
vi) Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (“Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets“)
vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
viii) Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”)

As Robert Sherlaw Johnson noted in his book, Messiaen, there are “thematic and textural relationships between the movements, which shape the work as a whole” (Johnson, page 63): ii and vii, which share certain dissonant thematic material; iii and vi, which are monophonic, lacking in chords, harmony, or counterpoint; and v and viii, which, apart from being duets for a string instrument and piano, are also rearrangements of compositions of Messiaen’s from the 1930s.

III: Liturgie de cristal

This movement opens with the clarinet playing a blackbird’s song and the violin playing that of a nightingale. Messiaen described it thus: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

Indeed, the violin and clarinet here are playing, independently of the cello and piano, a musical trademark of Messiaen’s that he introduced for pretty much the first time in the Quatuorbirdsong.

For Messiaen, birds are symbols of divinity (he was a devout Catholic his whole life). Also, their free-form singing, blissfully unaware of the musical rules of melody, tonality, and rhythm, represent the beauty of total freedom. Thus, their calls are also free of the constraints of musical time.

As part of his wish to free music of the shackles of time, Messiaen had the piano and cello each play a differing isorhythm (the piano, playing a twenty-nine chord sequence over a rhythm of seventeen values, and the cello with a five-note melodic shape over a rhythmic ostinato of fifteen values; the cello part’s rhythm is also non-retrogradable, giving no true beginning or end to the rhythm, suggesting eternity). Also, the rhythmic ostinato in the piano part is based upon three Hindu rhythms, the talas ragavardhana, candrakala, and lakshmica.

Messiaen, as something of an orinthologist, had had a love of birdsong from his early years. He used to go out into fields with sheet music and notate the bird calls he heard. Now, he was finally using their divine music as an integral part of one of his compositions, something he’d do ever after. He loved birds’ freedom to fly anywhere in the sky. As a POW in Nazi Germany, he could only have loved such freedom.

IV: Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

The angel’s announcing of the end of time comes with dissonant chords on the piano, a quick flurry of ascending and descending notes on the clarinet, then a sustained note and a trill on it while quick sixteenth notes are played on the violin and cello. These features are more or less heard again, then after quick ascending sixteenth notes on the violin and cello, we get trills on the violin, cello, and clarinet, and a dissonant piano ending leads to the ethereal, mystical middle section, with–as Messiaen called them–“the impalpable harmonies of heaven.” In this middle section, the violin and cello play the melody of the sixteenth notes, but slower and often in eighth notes. The A-B-A movement ends with more or less a repeat of the dissonant beginning, albeit in an inverted form.

It’s curious that Messiaen took the passage from Revelation, where the angel says, “there should be time no more.” Now, a more accurate translation would say, “there shall be no more delay,” as we get it in the New English Bible; the New Oxford Annotated Bible also uses “delay” instead of “time.” While I’m guessing that Messiaen’s old French Bible read, “Il n’y aura plus de temps,” my modern French Bible says, “Il n’y aura plus de délai [time-limit].” The original Greek used the word χρόνος (i.e., “time”), but in the context of the passage, it too meant “delay.” So, in most modern cases of translation, delay is used rather than time.

It’s interesting how people project themselves into their interpretations of things. (Anyone who has read enough of my analyses of films, etc., knows that I project my own inner preoccupations into them all the time.) Messiaen was preoccupied with freeing musical time from its traditional restraints, so when he read the Biblical passage, he took the word time literally, at face value, rather than seeing that what the angel really meant was, “We have no time left.”

No disrespect intended to Monsieur Messiaen (who happens to be one of my all-time favourite composers!), but this inaccuracy of his with regards to the background and creation of the Quatuor isn’t an isolated incidence. He claimed that the cello used for the premiere lacked a string, while Pasquier insisted it had all four strings, and his part would have been impossible to play with three. Messiaen claimed the premiere was performed before an audience of about 5,000 people, when there were really only about 400 (no more could have fit in).

Messiaen was correct to say that the piano had keys that stuck when played; but though he said of the premiere, “Never had I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,” one of the other musicians remembered the audience’s reaction differently. Given Messiaen’s idiosyncratic, modernist compositional style, the other musician said, “The audience, as far as I remember, was overwhelmed at the time. They wondered what had happened. Everyone. We too. We asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing? What are we playing?’”

Since we’ve established that some of Messiaen’s recollections of what happened at the first performance aren’t completely reliable, I believe that some of his other comments can be regarded with some suspicion, too. The Quatuor, as with his music generally, is considered apolitical; but given his predicament then and there as a POW of the Nazis, among the cruellest and most inhumane scum in history, I find it hard to imagine his suffering not influencing the conceptualizing and creation of the Quatuor.

He recalled being stripped naked, as were all the prisoners. They were cold and underfed. In fact, Messiaen developed chilblains because of the extreme cold and malnutrition. Even though, as a composer tasked with writing a piece for himself and the other three musicians to play, he was relieved of much of the worst treatment in the prison, he still suffered terribly. Given what we know about the brutality and contempt for human life that is Naziism defined, we can trust Messiaen to be accurately recalling this harsh aspect of life during his stay in Stalag VIII-A. It’s doubtless that he was traumatized.

Such trauma surely influenced the concept behind his composition. He claimed that there was little to no theological commentary in his musical presentation of the Apocalypse, but rather only a wish to liberate musical time…but why should we believe this? One of the central features of the Apocalypse is not only the glorious saving of the Christian faithful from the world of sin, but also the judgement and punishment of the wicked (e.g., the Nazis). Such an outcome would have to have been a wish-fulfillment for him.

Surely Matheson thought so in his essay: “Messiaen’s decision to use this particular text [Revelation 10: 1–2, 5–7] rather than any other may well have been prompted by the prisoner-of-war conditions in which he found himself, in which time might indeed have seemed literally endless, and the Apocalypse close at hand.” (Hill, page 235)

Related to the idea of time is temporality, which also refers to the laic, secular world. Indeed, the French word temps, like the Latin word tempus (which is used in the Vulgate Latin translation of Revelation 10:6), is cognate with temporal. So when Messiaen consciously wished for freedom from musical time’s traditionally equal measurements, he also unconsciously wished for freedom from this world, ruled by Satan (John 12:31), and in particular for liberation from Stalag VIII-A.

He didn’t overtly express any wish, in his music, to be anti-Nazi for fear of angering the SS. So when he was freed from the prison in 1941, he taught harmony in the Paris Conservatoire even while France was still occupied by Nazi Germany, free of any fear of further persecution. His reticence on political matters surely was a shrewd move to save his life; hence, the Quatuor is ostensibly only about ‘freeing musical time.’

V: Abîme des oiseaux

This movement for solo clarinet reminds me of Edgard Varèse‘s Densité 21,5 for platinum flute. It demands considerable technical ability on the part of the clarinettist. There are slow, long crescendos that require great breath control (see, for example, the 13th measure). Akoka grumbled and complained of how difficult this movement was to master, but Messiaen urged him and encouraged him to keep trying.

Of this movement, Messiaen said, “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

So, in time, we have sadness…for Messiaen, the sadness and weariness of having to pass the time in a Nazi prison. Since birds are the opposite of time, they represent freedom from incarceration in our temporal world. Accordingly, we hear the clarinet play birdsong. The free-form rhythm once again represents Messiaen’s wish to free musical time of traditionalistic, regular measurement.

VI: Intermède

In the centre of the Quatuor, this short, jaunty interlude in 2/4 time contains several references to thematic material heard in other movements: for example, the flurry of quick ascending and descending clarinet 32nd notes (C-sharp-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-B-natural-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural) heard in the second movement (and the third [B-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-C-sharp-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural, in the 20th measure]); also a softly played, but ominous anticipation of the opening theme of the sixth movement.

For the most part, though, the movement is a cheerful one, including a passage with the violin and cello trading pizzicatos and an arco melody of D-B-G-F-natural-B-natural-A-flat-C-sharp-G-natural in the cello’s high register; then, as a kind of relative subdominant to that, a melody of G-E-C-B-flat-E-flat-D-flat-F-sharp-C-natural (measures 24-31).

VII: Louange à l’éternité de Jésus

This movement, in which the cello plays a sobbing, plaintive, high-pitched melody over mostly soft piano chords, is a rearrangement of the fourth movement (titled either “L’Eau“…”Water” or “Oraison“…”Prayer”) of Fête des belles eaux (“Celebration of the Beautiful Waters”) for six ondes Martenots, from 1937. The tempo is infiniment lent, extatique (“extremely slow, ecstatic”): this extreme slowness is meant to represent a sense of endlessness, eternity.

The beginning of the cello melody seems to be in the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition–namely, the octatonic scale. This movement is assuredly one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote. Though the longing felt seems unfulfillable, the harmonic resolutions ultimately satisfy that longing.

One passage that I especially like is from measures 15-17, in which the cello melody tops off the piano’s playing of (what at least sounds, to my not-so-well-trained ear, as) a D-sharp dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, an E major seventh chord, a C-sharp dominant ninth chord, a D-sharp augmented chord, and a resolution to E major. Then there’s the ending (the last three measures), with the cello playing a melody of ascending notes (E-G-natural-A-sharp-C-sharp) of the diminished seventh chord, resolving on the high octave of an E-major piano chord.

By “l’éternité de Jésus,” Messiaen means Jesus as understood as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time. In this meditative music, we can sense Messiaen’s mysticism.

Since this music is derived from his Fêtes des belles eaux, and the original movement was alternatively titled “L’Eau” or “Oraison,” I find there to be interesting connotations, from a mystical point of view, in all of these titles: eternity of Jesus, the beautiful waters, and prayer.

In this music Messiaen would be both praising and praying to Jesus, an urgent pleading to save him from the Nazis. A mystical connection with the Divine, often achieved through prayer or meditation, has sometimes been described as oceanic; I have addressed this idea myself in music, and in the name of my blog.

And sometimes, in the lowest depths of our suffering, as Messiaen surely felt in Stalag VIII-A, we can find the extreme of hell phase into the extreme of heaven, a dialectical shift from one polar extreme to its opposite state. I’ve compared such a meeting of opposites, on a circular continuum, to the ouroboros‘ biting head and its bitten tail.

When Messiaen suffered in the prison, made music there, then was released, he experienced something comparable to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and so we can see in the parallel experiences a mystical union of Messiaen and Messiah, at least in a symbolic sense.

VIII: Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes

As I mentioned above, this movement parallels the third in its monophony: though all four instruments are heard, none plays harmony or counterpoint. Every single note, played collectively, is a unison or an octave.

In spite of the monophonic melody, though, Messiaen manages to infuse plenty of musical tension in his “dance of fury.” We are, after all, dealing with the Final Judgement here, the sending to hell of sinners, which contrasts dialectically with the preceding movement’s serenity. I sense his wish for his Nazi captors to receive God’s judgement.

He exploits loud and soft dynamics as well as irregular rhythms (with measures lacking time signatures), using non-retrogradable rhythms as well as augmentation, diminution, added values, and the derivation of Greek rhythm and meter. All of these techniques serve to realize his wish to free musical time of its traditionally dull regularity.

One passage (at about 28:03 in this video), expressed in cycles of five beats (i.e., eight sixteenth notes and an eighth note), we hear notes whose pitches fly in all kinds of wild directions, yet paradoxically, the last note of each of these cycles, the eighth, is always the same pitch: an F-sharp (A-flat for the clarinet in B-flat). The result is a paradoxical juxtaposition of melodic desultoriness and stasis. This mixing of the erratic and the static can be seen to represent the conflict Messiaen felt between wanting to roam freely and being incarcerated.

Elsewhere, at about 28:35 in the video, we hear the piano and clarinet play a grim, three-note ostinato: F-natural, C-sharp, and A-natural on the piano, and G-natural, E-flat, and B-natural on the clarinet, the notes of an augmented triad. This ostinato is subjected to rhythmic augmentation and diminution: first slowly–as quarter-notes, eighth-notes, then quarter-notes again; then, as half-notes, quarter-notes, then half-notes again; then quickly three times as eighth-notes, sixteenth-notes, then eighth-notes again. Again, time is permitted no predictable sense of regularity.

IX: Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

Recall that the Biblical verses describe the angel who announces the end of time as being “clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head,” with one foot on the land and the other on the sea. The colours of the rainbow were important to Messiaen, who had synesthesia and saw colours in his mind’s eye whenever he heard this or that musical idea. In the second movement, which parallels the seventh, he used harmonies that made him see the orange and blue of the rainbow).

A dreamy tune in 3/4 opens the movement with a sad, upper-register cello melody played over soft piano chords; this theme will alternate with developments of the dissonant opening theme of the second movement. That dreamy tune will return with the clarinet in the background playing a melody based on the ascending and descending octatonic scale, the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Just before the end of the movement is the dreamy tune played in trills on both cello and violin, and on the clarinet, with piano arpeggios in the background.

As for the dissonant sections, I’d like to speculate on why an increasing use of dissonance was appearing around this time (i.e., the late 1930s and into the 1940s) in Messiaen’s musical career. To be sure, his music was, from the beginning, technically dissonant, through his use of modes based on equal octave divisions, since he liked the colours these unusual melodies and harmonies, derived from the modes, evoked in his imagination. Indeed, early Messiaen sounds like an exotic version of Debussy, who also sidestepped tonality without sounding harsh.

But the Messiaen of the 1920s and 1930s largely lacked the harsh dissonances we would begin to hear by the time of the Quatuor. The middle section of Les offrandes oubliées (<<<starting at 3:32 in the video), in its musical description of “the forgotten offerings” of grace and salvation, and therefore the descent into sin, is somewhat more dissonant. Chants de terre et de ciel has some dense piano chords, admittedly. But the really huge dissonant sonorities begin with pieces like Visions de l’amen, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and Harawi; they grow even more extreme in pieces like the Quatre études de rythme, Cantéyodjayâ, and Chronochromie. I believe these extreme dissonances were Messiaen’s way of expressing, and of exorcising from himself, the lingering trauma he received from his experience as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A.

Now, the quite dissonant Chants de terre et de ciel, composed in 1938 and premiered in 1939, was a celebration of the birth of his son Pascale in 1937, which would seem to contradict my speculation that his aggravated use of dissonance was the expression of trauma. But consider what was happening politically in Europe at the time. His son’s birth was a year before the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, when the leaders of England and France were trying to appease an increasingly ambitious, imperialistic Hitler. Underneath Messiaen’s surface joy over the birth of his son must have been an unconscious anxiety over the boy’s safety.

His trauma in the Nazi prison would have increased the kind of violent feelings he felt even after his release, and the use of tone clusters and other dissonances could have been his way of venting these violent feelings, a projection of the violence he had introjected from the Nazis. These violent melodic and harmonic ideas can be heard in this seventh movement of the Quatuor, not only in the piano chords, but also in the creepy-sounding cello glissandi and col legno, and the screeching violin, cello, and clarinet sounds at the end (38:43 in the video, just before the brutal piano in the bass register), which might remind the listener of horror movie music.

Messian’s piano arrangements of birdsong, the pitches never altered to fit any scales, are particularly dissonant, as can be heard in any of his compositions since the Quatuor. Could there be a relationship between his conception of birds’ freedom and the discordant representation of their singing…an expression of pain coupled with the yearning to fly away free?

X: Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus

This final movement is a rearrangement of the second section of Messiaen’s organ piece, Diptyque (<<at about 5:12 in the video), transposed up a major third from C to E, with the violin playing the melody over piano chords largely in pairs each of thirty-second notes and double-dotted eighth notes. In 4/4, it’s played much slower (extrêmement lent et tendre, extatique, with an MM of an eighth note equalling about 36) than in the Diptyque (with an MM of 58 equalling an eighth note, très lent), the slowness again meant to represent the everlasting life of heaven, after time has ended. This movement thus parallels the fifth.

Whereas the fifth movement contemplated Jesus as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time, now Jesus is meditated on in his resurrected spiritual body, in the Second Coming at the end of time.

The movement is scored in E-major, though the modes of limited transposition add a great deal of chromaticism to the mix. Instead of the sad, unfulfillable longing of the fifth movement, this one is full of spiritual joy, for in Christ’s immortality we have a sign of the conquering of death, something very important to Messiaen, given how close death must have felt to him as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A. It ends with a high E on the violin and high-register E-major sixth chords on the piano.

XI: Conclusion

Though for Messiaen, the Quatuor was, as he consciously expressed it, a wish to free musical time from the traditional prison of regularity and measurability, it was also, through the symbolism of the passage in Revelation, chapter ten, an unconscious wish of his to be free of his Nazi tormentors. Anyone else who happens to be a Christian can content him- or herself with the Biblical ideas musically expressed.

But what of those of us today, who love this 20th century masterwork, and don’t share the religious faith that inspired the conceptualization behind this music? How can we derive our own meaning from the Quatuor?

I’d like to propose a secular interpretation that will be relevant for us in the 21st century, one that uses Christian symbolism to illustrate that meaning. I’ve already discussed what must have been Messiaen’s extreme aversion to all things fascist, even though he didn’t dare give it expression at the time, in front of Nazi guards. Now, the polar opposite of the far right (barring such nonsense as the horseshoe theory) is, of course, the far left.

Granted, I’m sure that Messiaen, the devout Catholic, would have been just as horrified of atheistic communism as he was of fascism. But my concern here is with his unconscious feelings, the associations that the unconscious mind makes, and the way that repressed feelings return to consciousness in unrecognizable ways. Messiaen may not have liked the socialist alternative to fascism, but he definitely wanted to go as far from Naziism as he could. Maybe he simply didn’t know what he liked in political terms, for Christian moral teachings aren’t as far removed from socialism as one might think.

Though one tends to associate Christianity, and especially the authoritarian aspects of Catholicism, with right-wing, conservative thinking, there is much in the Christian tradition that can be associated with the left. Liberation theology is only the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

Just as socialists wish to feed, clothe, and give medical aid to the poor, so did Jesus say of giving such help, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) On the other side of the coin, just as socialists excoriate the amassing of obscene amounts of wealth, so did Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) And just as socialists despise televangelists who hoard wealth tax-free, so did Christ drive the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)

Furthermore, the Messiah was a revolutionary figure, meant to liberate the Jews from Roman imperialist oppression. Later on, the Church cunningly downplayed Jesus’ revolutionary leanings (i.e., “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” —John 18:36) in order to reconcile itself with the Roman authorities; but Jesus originally said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Similarly, as I mentioned above, Messiaen was smart enough to avoid admitting to any anti-Nazi intent in this composition.

Since imperialism has in our time reached an extreme that is threatening our world with nuclear war (How’s that for ‘the end of time’?), and fascism has in many places come back in style–a tried-and-true tactic that capitalists use to beat back political agitation from workers–we can see the Quartet for the End of Time as not only a music of consolation for our suffering today, but also as a clarion call–the seven trumpets!–for a revolutionary end to all the war, ecocide, alienation, income inequality, and immiseration of the Third World.

The end of time, for us socialists, is the end of the dialectical, historical struggle between rich and poor–first, master vs. slave, then, feudal lord vs. peasant, and finally, bourgeois vs. proletarian. Let this music inspire us all to break out of our fascist prisons, these cages of ours, and fly freely and sing with the birds.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1975

Peter Hill, editor, The Messiaen Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1995

Analysis of ‘Killing Zoe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

Bonnie and Clyde is a 1967 crime drama written by David Newman and Robert Benton, loosely based on the early-to-mid-thirties crime spree of the Barrow gang. The film was directed by Arthur Penn; it stars Warren Beatty (who also produced it) and Faye Dunaway, and costars Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard. All five of these actors were nominated for Oscars, with Parsons winning.

Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of filmmaking (New Hollywood), with its shockingly bloody gunshot wounds (produced by squibs), jump cuts (courtesy of the direct influence of the late fifties/sixties French New Wave; in fact, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were consulted during the making of the film), and sexual innuendo, helping to bring the old, prudish Production Code to an end and replacing it with the MPAA ratings system.

As good and ground-breaking as the film is, though, don’t expect that watching it will leave you well-informed about the real history of Bonnie and Clyde. The film not only romanticizes the crime spree, making the Barrow gang into social rebels and heroes to the late sixties counterculture, but it also plays fast and loose with what actually happened back in the early-to-mid-1930s. The real crime duo’s meeting place was totally different (at the home of Barrow’s friend Clarence Clay, not at Bonnie’s home); they robbed far fewer banks (mostly grocery stores and gas stations); there’s no evidence that they robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; Bonnie was already married (to Roy Thornton, who was in prison himself during and after the crime spree), and the real Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle) and Blanche Barrow (Parsons) were totally unlike the weak, humiliated portrayals seen in the film.

The film was reviled on its first release, most audiences being disgusted with the excess violence. But over time, it has become a classic, to the point where Quentin Tarantino said film history can be divided into films made before and after Bonnie and Clyde, that is, that the cinema of the seventies started with this late-sixties movie.

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

Though the writers denied intending any deeper meaning behind their movie, their having changed so much of the history, and indulgently so (they were originally even going to have Clyde be bisexual!), to suit their purposes, suggests at least unconscious motives. Therefore, I feel free to interpret the film’s meaning as I will.

The film’s mythology of the Barrow gang, who “rob banks,” portrays them as sympathetic to the poor, and as society’s rebels who are sticking it to the Man. I will carry that line of thinking a little further, and say that their crime spree is symbolic of a revolutionary expropriation of the capitalists. Their being shot and killed by the police thus represents a counter-revolution and restoration of capitalism.

We see black-and-white pictures of Bonnie, Clyde, et al during the opening credits, establishing a photograph motif symbolizing the fixed image, the idealized myth, of the Barrow gang, as opposed to who they really were. This contrast between ideal and real is reinforced immediately after in the opening scene, with Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) nude in her bedroom and looking at herself in the mirror. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which we have the contrast between the idealized mirror reflection (her ideal-I), a unified totality (just as in those photos), and the woman looking at it, she who feels lacking, fragmented physically and psychologically, and discontented with her life.

Her inner fragmentation is related to her fragmented relationship with the outside world, that is, her social alienation and that of her species-essence. The jump cuts in this scene, the deliberately choppy editing, symbolize her fragmentation. The shot of her lying on her bed, with her head between the bars of the head of her bed, make her look imprisoned. She bangs her fists in frustration on the bars like a prisoner wanting to be free, for she has a dull job as a waitress, and she wants more out of life.

Then her chance to be free arrives, outside, by her mother’s car.

She looks out the window and sees Clyde Barrow (Beatty) trying to steal her mom’s car. Her choice of words to address him is significant: she calls out, “Hey, boy!” She’s up there, calling down to him from the second floor, addressing the young man as “boy.”

This moment introduces another theme of the movie: the reversal of sex roles. She hollers down at him, rather than, say, him looking down at her and calling her “girl.” This role reversal, many more examples of which we’ll see soon enough, symbolizes–by challenging the validity of traditional sex roles–a movement towards the equality of the sexes, which in turn is a necessary part of the revolutionary liberation of humanity.

She quickly gets dressed and goes down to meet him. They walk together, buy bottles of Coke, and the sexual innuendo between them commences as we see her with her lips around the bottle top, sensuously drinking in a way suggestive of fellatio. She’s skeptical of his claim to be a thief until he pulls out a pistol, then lowers it to his crotch area, giving the gun obvious phallic symbolism. The sexual innuendo continues when she touches his gun, as if she’d like to masturbate him.

He goes off and robs a store, firing his gun as he and Bonnie race off in a car. She’s so thrilled with his daring that she wants to make love with him. They pull over by some trees, and she jumps on him and covers his face with kisses.

Here we have another reversal of sex roles: she is the sexual aggressor, not the man. In fact, the reversal is carried even further when he has to fight her off…for we learn that he is impotent.

Making Clyde impotent is yet another indulgent invention of the scriptwriters, who earlier considered putting Clyde in a scene involving a bisexual ménage à trois with Bonnie and CW Moss (Pollard). This earlier idea was scrapped for being obviously too risqué even for the radical sixties, especially since the Production Code, though moribund from an increasingly lax enforcement, still wasn’t quite dead yet.

I wonder if the scriptwriters’ inspiration, for bisexuality on the one hand and impotence on the other, came from the fact that the real Clyde Barrow, while incarcerated in Eastham Prison Farm from 1930 to 1932, was raped by an inmate. Either way, this all adds to the theme of sex role reversal by making (or at least seeming to make) Clyde, in one sense or another, sexually passive.

In any case, he does feel emasculated, and his chopped-off toes symbolize such a castration. Small wonder he needs to fire that phallic gun of his, ejaculating bullets to compensate for what he feels to be his incomplete manhood. On the other hand, his giving Bonnie his gun to practice firing at a tire, behind a home they’ve squatted in (repossessed by a bank), is symbolically giving her a phallus, thus once again bringing about a sex role reversal.

When the fledgling duo of thieves see the family that has lost their home to the bank, they show their sympathy. Clyde fires bullets into the sign saying that the family’s home is now the bank’s property, and he tells the father, “We rob banks,” with a proud grin.

Clyde gives his gun to the father and a man named Davis (who worked there with the family), allowing them to fire bullets at the sign and house windows, to release their frustration at the bank’s taking it away from them. Davis is black, incidentally, and he is treated with pleasantly surprising respect, given the time when Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the American south. He is referred to by name, not as the ‘coloured fellow,’ or the ‘Negro,’ or any other word beginning with n. This sympathy and comradeship against such capitalist institutions as banks and against racism shows how the Bonnie and Clyde of the film represent socialist expropriators of the ruling class, as well as friends of the people.

Later, Clyde–after telling Bonnie not to be nervous about their next job (while he is the one obviously nervous)–attempts a robbery of a small bank that has gone out of business and lost all of its money due to the Depression. When she learns of the bank’s lack of money, Bonnie laughs at Clyde as they hurry away in their car. His embarrassment is another symbolic emasculation, a lowering of him from the unattainable male chauvinist ideal, showing him to be her equal. He fires a few ejaculatory bullets in the window of the bank in a pathetic attempt to save face.

They begin to build up the Barrow gang by adding CW Moss, a composite of WD Jones and Henry Methvin, as their getaway driver. First, Clyde shows his inadequacy during their next bank heist by only weakly saying, “This is a stick-up,” then saying it again loud enough to be heard by all in the bank. Then, Moss demonstrates his incompetence by parking their getaway car where Bonnie and Clyde can’t find it.

Both men’s failings once again show the myth of male superiority, showing Bonnie to be their equal.

While we don’t see any signs of incompetence in Bonnie, who is far less experienced as a criminal than Clyde or Moss, Parsons’s portrayal of Blanche, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), is most unflattering. Her hysterics so annoyed the real Blanche, who was alive to see the film, that she complained of the writers and Parsons making her “look like a screaming horse’s ass!”

And Parsons, of all the nominated actors in the film, was the one to win an Oscar, which must have embittered the real Blanche all the more.

While, on the one hand, we have the lowering of men from their chauvinistic high horse, we also have the urge to raise women higher, where we see Bonnie succeeding and Blanche failing. Bonnie, the liberated woman of the movie, naturally loses her patience with Blanche and her traditional womanhood. As unpleasant as it may be to watch Bonnie verbally abusing Blanche, still, the demand for her to toughen up is as necessary–for the sake of sexual equality–as it is to see the men humbled.

Speaking of Bonnie as a feminist icon in the film, another reversal of sex roles happens when Clyde takes that famous photograph of Bonnie with his cigar in her mouth and his gun in her hand, leaning against the car. The gun and cigar make her into the phallic woman, an idealized, strong version of herself making the photo comparable to the ideal-I she saw in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the film.

The ideal of those photos, still images showing people as unified totalities instead of the fragmented people we all feel ourselves to be, is a motif in this film connected with the image of Bonnie at the mirror. The pictures are representative of the Imaginary Order, establishing the self as an illusory, idealized ego.

The photos of the real Bonnie and Clyde that were discovered in their hideout in Joplin were published in the newspapers, adding to the grandeur of the myth of the Barrow gang. The contrast between, for example, the photograph of Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and the real Bonnie, who didn’t smoke cigars, demonstrates this difference between the ideal and the real. That photo may have made her look like a cigar-chomping, gun-brandishing moll, but the real Bonnie wasn’t as tough as all that.

So the screenwriters were perhaps a bit more justified in their mythologizing and romanticizing of Bonnie and Clyde than it would seem, since the media of the 1930s were doing a mythologizing and romanticizing of their own. This is a story of idealized images, as contrasted with the disappointing reality of (in the film) an impotent Clyde, a dim-witted Moss, and a screaming, weak Blanche. The movie’s idealizations, in turn, contrast with the disappointing reality that these thieves were no Robin Hood and his band of merry men, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but were just common criminals, Clyde having been especially hardened by the traumatizing prison rapes he suffered.

Added to the deliberate falsifying of history is the film’s anachronistic use of bluegrass banjo music, which hadn’t existed until the mid 1940s.

More romanticizing of the Barrow gang occurs when they rob a bank, but let a poor man keep his money. They’re violent only to those who try to protect the wealth of the establishment–the cops. Hence, my allegorizing of them as socialist revolutionaries.

The stolen money is divided up fairly among all the members of the gang. Even Blanche, who sticks up for herself and demands her share, gets hers. Unlike in capitalist society, where banks can seize a poor family’s home and transfer wealth up to the 1%real robbery!–the socialists that our expropriating revolutionaries represent here understand the principle, “From each according to his ability [i.e., Bonnie, Clyde, and Buck, who’ve robbed the bank], to each according to his needs [i.e., Moss and Blanche, who were outside or in the car].”

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer follows and tries to catch the gang, but he’s caught himself, then humiliated in photos taken of him with the gang and later sent to the newspapers. This never actually happened. Hamer was a well-respected law enforcer, inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame; his posse shot and killed Bonnie and Clyde not out of a wish for revenge over his wounded pride, but out of their need to stop a gang of violent cop-killers. In fact, his widow and son sued Warner Bros.-Seven Arts for defamation of character, getting an out-of-court settlement.

The Barrow gang needs a new car after that bank robbery, so they steal one owned by an undertaker, Eugene Grizzard (played by Gene Wilder). The theft of Grizzard’s car, and the kidnapping of him and his girlfriend, Velma Davis (played by Evans Evans), seem to be based on those of Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone.

Eugene and Velma have been making out when the car theft occurs, so the two lovers race out after the Barrow gang in her car. Furious, Eugene puts on a phoney show of macho bravado in his shouting that he’s “gonna tear them apart!” But when Velma, the driver, warns that the thieves may have guns, he immediately loses his courage and tells her to turn around so they can inform the police.

In this comic scene, we see another reversal of sex roles. He is all emotional, while she is keeping her cool. She is driving because it’s her car, of course, but the visuals of a woman driver and male passenger, as opposed to the traditional vice versa, still reinforces the role-reversal theme. Ultimately, though, the Barrow gang’s possession of phallic guns (including the women) vs. Eugene’s not having any is a symbolic emasculation for him, a male humiliation comparable to Clyde’s impotence, Moss’s slow-wittedness, and Hamer’s photos with the gang.

Just as a little boy experiences a symbolic castration when confronting the nom (or Non!) du père, with its prohibition against Oedipal incest with Mother, so is Eugene experiencing a kind of ‘legal prohibition,’ if you will, against getting his stolen car back; for in the world of the Barrow gang, a world symbolic of the proletarian dictatorship, the poor have the ‘legal’ right to expropriate the bourgeoisie. Eugene and Velma are, by their appearance and their nice-looking cars and house, clearly middle-class.

The Barrow gang chases after, catches, and kidnaps Eugene and Velma, and at first they’re friendly with the two, Buck telling them his silly joke about the cow’s milk mixed with brandy, and the gang buying them hamburgers. But when Eugene tells them he’s an undertaker, an instance of foreshadowing of Bonnie’s and Clyde’s fate, she gets apprehensive and insists on kicking them out.

Scared and craving a reunion with her mother, Bonnie runs off. The gang finds her, and they agree to a visit with her family. This visit, with her mother’s fear for her clearly apparent, strengthens our sense of sympathy for her and for the rest of the gang.

Clyde tries to reassure Bonnie’s mother that he’ll find legitimate work as soon as the Depression is over. Here’s the thing: economic hardship has a way of turning desperate people into criminals, for it’s capitalism’s inherent nature to lead to crises, due to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The gang finds another temporary hideout, and Moss and Blanche go off to a restaurant to get takeout; but someone there recognizes them and calls the cops. Another shootout and escape leave Buck with a gunshot wound to the head, and Blanche with a bullet breaking the car window and blinding her in the left eye. They camp somewhere in the bush, but the cops find them and another shootout ensues, with the death of Buck and the arrest of grieving, hysterical Blanche. Both Bonnie and Clyde have been shot in the arm, but they and Moss get away. (In the film, by the way, we at no point see Bonnie get that crippling, third-degree leg burn that she got in real life.)

Now, if we see their bank robbing, shooting policemen, and showing mercy to the poor as allegorical of socialist revolution, then we can see the police raids as symbolic of counter-revolutionary attempts to restore capitalism. Consider, as historic examples, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the suppression of the weakly-defended, short-lived Paris Commune.

The injuries the Barrow gang have sustained, including the loss of Buck and Blanche, remind us of how important a good defence is. Similarly, during the Cold War, the USSR, China under Mao, and the DPRK learned of the necessity of having a strong nuclear defence. The Barrow gang has had only getaway cars and easily found hideaways to protect themselves in.

Moss drives wounded Bonnie and Clyde to an open-air place by a lake where a group of poor people, those that the Depression has cast aside, are staying. Moss asks them for some water. They huddle around the car to look on sympathetically at Bonnie and Clyde. Again, this solidarity among the poor and among society’s misfits shows how the Barrow gang can be seen as representative of socialists.

After that, Moss drives them to the house of his father, Ivan Moss (played by Dub Taylor). His pa is furious that he’s got a tattoo on his chest, the influence of Bonnie and Clyde, whom Ivan would give over to the police in a heartbeat, though he gives the two thieves dissembling grins the whole time.

The conflict between father and son here is a reflection of the generation gap of the late sixties. CW Moss’s tattoo says “Love,” suggestive of the hippies, while Ivan’s disapproval of it suggests the conservative parents of that later decade.

Dim-witted CW should know better than to put the care of his fugitive friends in the hands of his arch-conservative father; but he doesn’t have anywhere else to take them. This is why a better defence is so important.

Smiling Ivan, always pretending to be a hospitable friend to Bonnie and Clyde, is like the kind of fifth-column traitor that used to sneak into the socialist states and tear them apart, bit by bit, on the inside.

And CW is just weak-willed enough to allow his father and Hamer to set a trap for the crime duo, just as Blanche–both eyes bandaged, instead of only the one injured eye–is blind to Hamer’s scheming and tells him CW’s name. Such weak-willed people in the socialist states used to help the fifth-column traitors, too, in their efforts to restore capitalism, leading in turn to today’s neoliberal nightmare.

Bonnie’s and Clyde’s injuries heal, and she writes a poem on their life together. It is sent to the newspapers, a poem that foreshadows their deaths; but as a communication of who they are to the media, it replaces photographic images with language, a far more meaningful expression. Instead of still photos giving the illusory, unified egos of the Imaginary, we have the therapeutic language of the Symbolic.

Clyde is delighted with her poem when he sees it published in the papers; he feels she has told his story to the world. This makes him feel integrated with society, rather than alienated from it. The linguistic, expressive world of the Symbolic has healed him, and he can finally make love to Bonnie. He’d also like to marry her.

The problem is that Ivan has made a deal with Hamer to set a trap for our two lovers. The police will be lenient with CW in return for Ivan’s help in catching Bonnie and Clyde.

Bonnie and Clyde are going in their car to where the ambush has been prepared. Clyde is wearing sunglasses with the left eye glass broken out, symbolic of his inability to see straight and anticipate the danger he and Bonnie are in (In fact, it parallels Blanche’s wounded left eye).

As they’re approaching the trap, she gets a pear and eats it, sharing it with him; they look rather like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and making themselves nakedly vulnerable to the death sentence they’re about to suffer.

Ivan’s truck is on the side of the road, and seeing them nearing their death trap, he waves at them and gives them another dissimulating smile. Clyde stops the car and goes over to help Ivan with his apparently broken down truck.

In this scene, just as in the beginning one of nude Bonnie in her room, we see a number of jump cuts symbolic of fragmentation. This fragmentation, however, is not that of the Imaginary, but that of the Real, in which a chaotic lack of differentiation resides, the traumatic, non-differentiated world of terror and death. The language of the Symbolic cannot express this experience.

Ivan slips under his truck for safety, just after we see a flock of birds fly out from the bushes where Hamer’s armed men are hiding; these birds are a bad omen, but the warning is too late for Bonnie and Clyde.

The jump cuts show the two lovers looking about in suspicion, then at each other one last time as they resign themselves to their fate. This looking in each other’s eyes is a mirroring of their love for each other, paralleling Bonnie’s looking in her mirror reflection at the beginning of the movie. In their love, they see themselves in each other.

Then the bullets fly out.

Since guns in this film are phallic, the bullets are symbolic ejaculations. Hamer’s sense of manhood has been humiliated, especially by Bonnie’s kiss on his lips when the photos are taken of him with the gang (hence his ejaculatory spitting on her afterwards), so his and the posse’s shooting of her and Clyde is him taking his revenge and regaining his sense of manhood. It’s his wish to humiliate them back in, symbolically, a similarly sexual and emasculating way, by raining, if you will, bukkake bullets all over their bodies, spraying red semen on them.

The two lie there dead, a physical fragmentation to complement their psychological fragmentation at the start of the film. Hamer and his posse emerge from the bushes and look at their bloody work, reminding us of the executions of the roughly 20,000 Communards, 147 of whom were shot against what’s now called the Communards’ Wall. We see Hamer’s men through the bullet-riddled glass of Clyde’s car, glass which gives some reflection of the trees behind, reminding us of Bonnie’s mirror from the beginning scene.

In all of these ways, we see the first and last scenes of the movie as doubles of each other: an opening scene of fragmentation, the alienation of capitalism; the middle of the film’s capers representative of socialist hopes; and the end as the brutal, bloody restoration of the original, fragmentary estrangement of society that is caused by capitalism.

Abusers’ Cloud of Willful Unknowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignorance is bliss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-K strikes again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unable was N. ere N. saw Deborah.

…and Pedro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘On the Waterfront’

On the Waterfront is a 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a story of his. It stars Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint, with Martin Balsam (uncredited), Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle (uncredited) in minor roles.

The film received twelve Academy Awards nominations, of which it won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Director for Kazan, and Best Supporting Actress for Saint. It is considered one of the best films of all time, ranking at #8 (later #19) on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.

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

This is a film about the exploitation of workers; but in this case, instead of just being exploited by capitalists, these longshoremen are exploited, and downright bullied, by the very people who should be helping them–their union.

Corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb) has connections with the mafia; as I’ve argued in many other blog posts, the mafia can be seen to represent capitalists, so Friendly and his muscle are class traitors representing not their workers, but capital. Such betrayal has been common throughout the history of class war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, manifesting itself not only in corrupt union bosses, but in left-leaning political parties that make concessions to capital and stave off revolution.

Many sit on the fence, unsure of whether to commit to the workers’ struggle or to sell out to the ruling class. Friendly and his muscle have chosen which side of the fence to be on, and Terry Malloy (Brando) has been leaning towards their side…but a girl is about to make him go the other way.

In fact, speaking of selling out and being a class traitor, as is well known, Kazan himself was guilty of ratting out his fellow leftists to the HUAC. Indeed, before I carry on with my analysis of this film, I must be blunt in my assessment of Kazan: for all of his talents, he was–like Orwell–a snitch and a reactionary piece of shit.

By unrepentantly ratting out eight former Group Theatre members who he said had been communists (as he himself had once been), including Clifford Odets, Kazan doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. He ruined these people’s careers when a blacklisting of himself (via “d and d”) wouldn’t have harmed his career all that badly (he could have continued work in the theatre in New York).

When Kazan received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, some in the Hollywood glitterati refused to applaud. Now, these were bourgeois liberals who disapproved of him, so that should tell you what real leftists should think of him!

With all of this justified condemnation of Kazan, you, Dear Reader, must be wondering why I’m doing an analysis of one of his films, implying an endorsement of what he believed. After all, On the Waterfront was his attempt at justifying his squealing. I will argue instead that, in spite of Kazan’s conscious refusal to admit to any wrongdoing, his direction (and the writing of Schulberg, who was also an ex-communist and a fink to the HUAC…as was Cobb) unconsciously reflects his conflict and guilt over what he did, expressed through unconscious defence mechanisms, including rationalization, projection, reaction formation, denial, and turning against oneself.

Kazan’s guilt slips out in parapraxes in the film, as for example in the way the villain is named Johnny Friendly, just as Kazan, Schulberg, and Cobb were friendly with the HUAC…and as mentioned above, Cobb plays Johnny Friendly.

Kazan rationalized his guilt by imagining he was helping protect the US from ‘the Red menace,’ which I’ll bet he imagined Friendly and his corrupt union thugs to be representing. Indeed, Arthur Miller, the writer of the original version of the script (named The Hook) was asked by Harry Cohn to make the antagonists communists instead of a corrupt union, something Miller refused to do; he later refused to rewrite the script after learning of Kazan’s testimony for the HUAC.

It’s best that Friendly and his muscle be taken literally, as actual corrupt union thugs; or they could be seen to represent the anti-communist left of which Kazan himself was so obviously a part…and who should be ratted on—exposed–for the traitors to the working class that they are.

This leads us to Kazan’s next handy defence mechanism: projection. He projected his own betrayal of the working class onto those who he imagined to be the betrayers–the American Communists of which he had once been a member, then grew disenchanted with; later, he came to dislike the Stalin-led USSR, claiming the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a legitimate reason for his disillusionment, instead of coming to understand the political pressures that led to the USSR’s agreeing to the pact.

By imagining the communists to be the bad guys in the Cold War, Kazan rationalized that ratting them out was the noble thing to do, something he dramatized through Terry Malloy’s shouting, “I’m glad what I done to you, ya hear that? I’m glad what I done!” to Friendly after informing the police of his guilt in the murder of Joey Doyle (played by Ben Wagner). On the other hand, going “d and d,” or “deaf and dumb,” is considered cowardly in the film. Not informing is represented as cowardly and weak: this is Kazan making use of reaction formation; oh, it’s so cowardly not to talk! No, Mr. Kazan, it would have been brave not to talk.

Kazan wasn’t putting himself in danger of a group of Soviet agents abducting him and throwing him in the Gulag for finking on Odets et al. He wasn’t threatening high-ranking members of the Communist Party; he was selling out fellow writers and actors, people with little political power, people he should have thought of as comrades. The American capitalists were the ones with the power, and Kazan knew that all too well.

He could use his film to deny his guilt all he wanted, but it was true: he was a snitch. Deep down in his unconscious, Kazan knew he was guilty, so the scene in which Friendly’s men beat Terry Malloy half to death can be seen as a fantasy dramatizing Kazan’s turning against himself, him taking on the punishment to assuage his guilt, since he saw himself as personified in his hero, Terry.

When we see On the Waterfront in this light, we can begin to appreciate the film’s artistic and dramatic virtues on their own terms and in spite of its director’s moral vices. Yes, it’s a film made by a class traitor about class treason; but instead of exculpating Kazan, as he’d consciously intended it to do, the film displays his betrayal of the left, however unwittingly and unconsciously. For as much as Kazan would have liked to have seen himself in Terry, his real nature is shown in Johnny Friendly, who’s friendly with the capitalist mafia, not with the ‘Stalinists.’

There’s a considerable amount of Christian symbolism in this movie, much of which is in the service of trying to justify Kazan’s naming of names. An example of this symbolism is a pigeon motif (i.e., ‘stool pigeon’), or the idea of a canary that can sing, but can’t fly (Joey Doyle); these birds can be seen to represent the Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto baptized Christ (Mark 1:10).

Joey Doyle is tricked by Terry into leaving the safety of his apartment and going up to the roof to receive a lost bird of his from Terry, who claims he’s found it. Instead, Friendly’s men throw Joey from the roof to his death. Terry, imagining they were “only going to lean on” Joey, is already feeling a pang of conscience, as if falling Joey (and not the bird) were the Holy Spirit descending on Terry, the Christ-figure of the film.

Joey’s sister, Edie (played by aptly-surnamed Saint), being pretty in a wholesome way, is the Mary-figure of the film, since it is she, in her righteous anger over the murder of her brother, who inspires Terry to do the right thing and stand up to Friendly. She symbolically gives birth to the Christ in Terry by arousing his guilt over the matter.

Edie, in her innocence, has never drunk beer before, an inexperience symbolic of virginity (i.e., the Virgin Mary). Terry, growing romantically interested in her, takes her to a bar and buys her some beer; but when her suspicions grow that Terry knows about the circumstances leading to her brother’s murder, yet he won’t talk, she leaves without drinking the beer, retaining her virginal innocence. Her piquing of his guilt is causing his ‘Virgin birth.’

Father Barry (Malden) adds to the Christian symbolism by saying to the longshoremen that each killing of those who stand up to Friendly (Doyle and Kayo Dugan [Pat Henning]) is “a crucifixion.” This is significant when we come to the beating of Terry that almost kills him, yet he rises up, is ‘resurrected,’ if you will, and saves the workers from Friendly in this act, not in his squealing.

Terry’s Christ isn’t that of the Gospels, in which Christ is the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time (John 1:1); nor is he the Christ of the Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:20-25, and Luke 1:35), nor even the Christ of His baptism (Mark 1:10), on whom the Spirit descended like a dove, and God says, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Terry’s Christ is that of Paul‘s Epistle to the Romans, in which He is declared to be the Son of God through the power of the Resurrection, but born of the seed of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3-4).

Put another way, Terry doesn’t save the workers through his word (i.e., his squealing on Friendly). He doesn’t save the workers merely through Edie’s influence; he wasn’t born a good man–he’s done many bad things in his life, and he’s had to redeem himself through his struggle and suffering, and rising up again after his beating–his own “crucifixion.”

The priest would have Terry help the workers through non-violent means, but this of course will never work. In Friendly’s bar and brandishing a gun after his brother, Charley (Steiger) has been killed by Friendly’s men, Terry is approached by Father Barry, who’d have him get rid of the gun and fight back by naming Friendly to the police. A former boxer, Terry tells the priest to “Go to hell!”, and is punched out by him; this parapraxis shows that even Kazan knew that violence is sometimes necessary, that turning the other cheek isn’t good enough.

Indeed, Father Barry’s not wanting Terry to fight back with violence, an unpleasant but necessary ingredient of socialist revolution, is analogous to having Terry ‘turn the other cheek.’ Another turning the other cheek, of sorts, was required of him by Charley when Friendly fixed Terry’s boxing match against Wilson. They wanted Terry to let Wilson, a man he could easily beat, win the fight.

In all of these things we see Kazan doing a kind of Freudian slip, revealing his real motives. Ratting on fellow leftists to the HUAC was a kind of turning the other cheek to the capitalist class. As a result of finks and traitors like Kazan, the working class has to give up on their dreams of bettering their lives, just as Terry has given up on his dreams of being a prize fighter.

Terry is a “bum” because he caved in to these phoney leftists, his corrupt, mafia-linked union. Friendly et al do not represent communists, as faux leftists like Kazan, Cobb, and Schulberg would have us believe; the corrupt union represents those three men and their loose-lipped ilk. It wasn’t the communists, Kazan; it was you.

Recall when Terry finally tells Edie what he knows about Joey’s death; it is significant that we can’t really hear his words. This not hearing the confession suggests that a part of Kazan’s unconscious didn’t want to talk, to name names, but the unwillingness has been displaced to confessing to her, just as Kazan didn’t want to confess his wrongdoing to his fellow leftists, but rather remain impenitent until his death. This scene can be seen thus as another Freudian slip of Kazan’s, for deep down, he knew, but wouldn’t consciously admit, that his squealing was a shameful thing to do.

Even if we were to ignore Kazan’s subtext about justifying being friendly with the HUAC, if we were to imagine Terry’s ratting out of Friendly as only representative of speaking out against corrupt unions, such talk is hardly a substitute for revolution. Lots of left-wing media (TruthOut, MintPress News, the Jacobin, the WSWS, DemocracyNow!, the Guardian, CounterPunch, etc.) exposes the crimes of the ruling class (and many of those just mentioned, among others, are guilty of being compromised by liberalism, Zionism, social democracy, and Trotskyism in a way comparable to Friendly’s being compromised by the mob). I write about capitalist crimes…but it’s all just writing.

The only real change to improve people’s lives is through revolution and the building of socialism. Raising awareness of the injustices caused by capitalism is a necessary, but insufficient, condition. Complaining to the bourgeois government, as Terry does in his testimony, and expecting that government to make reforms and nothing else, are typical tactics of liberals and social democrats. Committed socialists want more than that: we want to smash the entire system and replace it with something of lasting worth for workers.

This is why Terry’s testimony may hurt Friendly, but it doesn’t ultimately stop him at the end, as even Kazan and Schulberg have to acknowledge in their story. Friendly and his men have to put away their guns and be “a law-abidin’ union,” but they can still bully the longshoremen. Friendly just has to be patient and ride out all this pressure he’s getting from the police; once he’s off “the hot seat,” he’ll be back to his old dirty tricks.

An analogy can be made here between Friendly’s temporary capitulation to the police and the welfare capitalism of 1945-1973, meant to appease workers and dissuade them from adopting the Marxist-Leninist threat to capital that existed in the USSR, the Soviet Bloc, Mao’s China, the DPRK, North Vietnam, and Cuba. If the Western working class could be reconciled to capitalism by making it more comfortable, while the ruling class continued to loot the Third World and sabotage and undo the socialist states, then when those states were dissolved in the late 80s/early 90s, welfare capitalism would be replaced with neoliberalism.

That the anti-communist left helped the capitalists in their machinations against the global poor is what I mean by class treason, and Kazan and Schulberg were a part of that.

No, the only way to defeat Friendly and his thugs is through force…and solidarity among the longshoremen, with bruised and beaten Terry; and even Kazan and Schulberg knew this. Hence, I consider this climactic ending to be yet another parapraxis, or Freudian slip, on the moviemakers’ part, revealing that revolution, not ratting, is how you help the working class.

After Terry’s nonsense speech about being glad about ratting, his real fight with Friendly begins…an actual fistfight that makes nonsense out of Father Barry’s wish that Terry turn the other cheek and embrace the uselessness of non-violence. We can’t overthrow the capitalist class by asking them nicely to step aside. A revolution is not a dinner party.

The bloody beating Terry gets, which almost kills him, is a symbolic crucifixion, to recall Father Barry’s words. Terry’s getting back up on his feet is his resurrection, so to speak, and these heroic actions are what get the longshoremen to stand by him–just as the Church believed in Christ through His Passion and resurrection, not merely through His sermons.

Similarly, just as the New Testament writers warned against following a false Christ, or believing in false prophets and deceivers, so do Kazan and Schulberg–in spite of themselves–warn against following false socialists like Friendly. The media publications of the faux left, the anti-communist left, mix truth with falsehoods, as this movie does by mixing the legitimate struggle for workers’ rights with rationalizations for squealing against communists. When reading such writing, as with watching this film, one must have the wisdom to separate the leftist wheat from the chaff.

Remember, talk is cheap.

‘Critical Parts,’ a Poem by Gerda Hovius

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

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

And now, for my analysis of the poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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