Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) “Ship of Fools”

Dr. Strangelove, based on the Peter George novel Red Alert is clearly deeply rooted in its own time; shot when Cold War was in its zenith, yet it manages to speak to us. It will speak to us as long as Doomsday Machine in the form of the nuclear arsenal possessed by the major world powers exists. When the film came out in 1964, one reviewer called it: “dangerous… an evil thing about an evil thing”. Some compared it to Soviet propaganda, while others called it implausible, since allegedly, nuclear attack could not be ordered without the knowledge of the president of the USA. Today, we know this not to be true, as the New Yorker reports.

The relevance of Dr. Strangelove is all the more clear when we consider the fact that human species has lived with the possibility of an all out nuclear conflict for decades and it may be asserted that the fear of nuclear destruction is the hidden matrix of the modern mind. The shape of the nuclear detonation may very well be incripted in our collective unconsciousness, if we follow Carl Jung’s psychology and accept that there is such a thing as collective unconsciousness. We can also say that Dr. Strangelove represents the state of the Western mind at the time of the Cold War and is an invaluable historical document, or even a documentary, since the events in the film could happen in the way it was filmed.

 Mushroom Cloud

The code that the pilots in the film get, and start a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, is supposed to be used in case Washington is attacked and the president is not in a position to order a counterattack. President Eisenhower did in fact authorize six US officers to order a nuclear attack if there is not enough time to contact the president. Secretary of Defense McNamara expressed his concern regarding the possibility of a scenario we see in Dr. Strangelove, although we may presuppose that his imagination was not up to Kubrick’s.

The Cold War strategy relevant for the understnading of the movie, mutually assured destruction (MAD) implies that the nuclear conflict would lead to annihilation of all the countries engaged in the war, regardless of the military strategies used. For example, the strategy of massive retaliation, which means that the state responds with much greater force after the initial attack, can be useless if the other state’s capacity is of equal power in terms of nuclear weaponry. Doomsday Machine, a device in the film that the Soviets planned to activate and frighten the Americans, is based on the principle of releasing chemicals in the atmosphere that could make the world inhabitable for the next 100 years. In the spirit of Dr. Strangelove’s black comedy, the Soviets planned to announce that they have the device on Monday  but General Ripper already ordered the attack. Doomsday Machine is a brilliant metaphor for the nuclear arsenal the USA and the USSR possesssed, and the unimaginable repercussions an all-out war would have on the planet.

In the film, the infamous General Ripper, states that Clemenceau was maybe right in the First World War when he said that war should not be left to the generals, but in his words, the time has come when politicans are useless and the true strategists are in the military. This is a direct attack on democratic values which postulate that military is subordinated to the civil authority and echoes Okamoto’s film Japan’s Longest Day in which part of the military stages a coup to overthrow the government and continue fighting the Pacific War. The military in Okamoto’s film postulates that the country is lead by senile and cowardly politicians who need to be overthrown so that the martial spirit of the army can lead the nation. In Dr. Strangelove, General Buck explains that in case the war breaks out civilian casualties would be “only” 10-20 million and the Soviet Union would be destroyed.

Dr. Strangelove is a former Nazi scientist originally called “Merkwürdigliebe”, in English literally  Strangelove – whose name ironically alludes to Freudian eros, while General Ripper’s name is an allusion to thanatos, the destructive death drive. Strangelove is Pentagon’s leading scientist and his role in the film is that of a warning. The president of the USA listens to his advice of eugenic nature: chances to survive the catastrophe are non-existent, unless the selected few retreat 300 meters under the surface and start a new civilization. The question is, who will get the chance. The new civilization will need experts in governance and politicians are an obvious choice – that is said in a room crowded with politicans.

Those that are the superior in intelligence and strength get the chance to survive, and the means to select them are interesting. State statistics, medical records, census, all the biopolitical tools of the modern state, speaking in Foucauldian manner, are the means to select those who are “the best” to start a new civilization. The ratio of men to women is 1:10 and only attractive women should be selected “according to their sexual characteristics… of highly stimulating nature”. The warning Kubrick gives is alarming: Western democracies may be ready to accept the ideas of its sworn ideological enemy and ensure the existence of only those considered biologically superior in the face of extinction. In other words, deep down, men value eugenic and racist inclinations more than they are prepared to admit. The civilization which accepts the eugenic principles in the face of thanatopolitics is not only engineering its own destruction in terms of physical annihilation, but moral as well. Consciously attempting to create a new race of men is a straightforward National Socialist project. Dr. Strangelove calls the US president Mein Führer in a Freudian slip and instinctively raises his hand in a Nazi salute.

 

Vigorous lines:

You know when fluoridation first began?… Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

General Jack D. Ripper

The Telegraph writes: “Paranoia was common during the Cold War – the natural offspring of propaganda, ignorance, fear and secrecy”. The portrayal of Cold War paranoia is particularly vivid in the character of General Ripper who is obsessed with ideas of purity, contamination and losing one’s essence. He gets the idea, “during the physical act of love”, that America is losing its essence and is being physiologically contaminated by the communists via flouridation of water. He says to Mandrake, his subordinate: “Have you ever seen a commie drink a glass of water?… Vodka, that’s what they drink”.

In her article Purity of Essence in the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, paranoia and bodily boundaries Scarlet Higgins writes: “General Ripper narrativises his move towards nuclear apocalypse through an understanding of the (male) body – physical and national – as penetrated and fragmented by the substance most necessary to its survival – water. The paranoid subject perceives the national and/or physical body as constantly under threat of penetration by dangerous foreign forces and objects”. Ripper says that seven tenths of one’s body is made of water and seven tenths of Earth’s surface is water. He does not lead it to a conclusion, but it may very well be that since the communists don’t drink water and it is intimately connected both to the preservation of human body and Earth, the communists are bound to destroy both.

Water circle

 In one of his speeches J.F. Kennedy said: “For we are opposed around the world, by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means…” In the popular culture of the time (comic books, movies, novels), in the most popular genres, the political speeches, the signs of a paranoid structure of thought can be discerned. This can be easily understood through the fact that for the first time in history of mankind, the humanity has been lead to the possibility of complete annihilation. At the end of the film, when the bombs are falling on the Soviet Union, a pilot jumps along with the bomb, snaking and twisting as if on a rodeo horse, with a cowboy hat on his head, accompanied by a jazz tune. Kubrick majestically shows radical evil in a comic manner, and potrays how civilization ends; by forfeiting its own values, surrendering to the death drive and backed by a jazz tune.

 

References:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/bridge-of-spies/cold_war_paranoia

Scarlet Higgins, Purity of Essence in the Cold War: Dr. Strangelove, paranoia and bodily boundaries, Textual Practice, Vol. 32, 2018

Lion King (1994) “Circle of Life and the Other”

 

And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns

Nick Cave

Lion King opens with a song accompanied by beautiful scenery, showing the animals ranging from ants to elephants living in perfect harmony and joy: But the sun rolling high/through the sapphire sky/keeps great and small on the endless round/It’s the circle of life/and it moves us all/through despair and hope/through faith and love. Soon we meet the main antagonist, Scar, who appears contemptuous and cynical. When comparing hisemlf to king Mufasa, he says: “Well as far as the brains go, I’ve got the lion’s share, but when it comes to brute strength, I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene’s pool.” This is the first instance in which Scar identifies himself as cunning and crafty and Mufasa’s abilities with brute strength. Niccolo Machiavelli in his Il Principe wrote that a great prince has to have qualities of both lion and a fox. He has to know when to use brute force, and of course possess it, and learn to be cunning as a fox. Throughout the film we can see that Scar has the qualities of a fox and that Mufasa has the “brute strength” of a lion. This can be a key to understanding why both Mufasa and Scar failed as kings. Neither of them possessed both.

Mufasa says to Simba that beyond the North the territory is not theirs, and it is implicated that other animals live there. Scar tricks young Simba into going to the Elephant Valley where the hyenas reside, and Mufasa shows his strength and fends them off. Zazu defines hyenas as “slobbering, mangy stupid poachers”. Hyenas are presented as vile and reckless, yet it must be noted that their condition is that of extreme hunger. When Scar gives them meat they eat it instantly. In one word, hyenas are excluded from the animal polity and are left to starve, most likely because they are considered dangerous (and lions are sweet and symphathetic to the eye). Hyenas are not only excluded from the community of animals, but they also stagger around Elephant Valley as if being in a concentration camp.

They are in a sense, the Other, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as Dylan Evans writes, “designates radical alterity, an other-ness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification.” He also writes about the Others’ “radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness”. Scar organizes a coup through a scheme in which he kills Mufasa and forces Simba into exile, which follows his attempt to integrate hyenas into the polity. When Scar prepares a coup, hyenas are shown marching which seems to be an allusion to the National Socialist movement. Scar’s abilities of a fox win the day, but only to create a disaster since all the game escapes and hyenas are hungry once again (as well as the rest of the animals) and left unassimilated. Scar’s failure as a king can be explained in terms of Machiavelli’s republicanism; he did not succeed to rally the animals to his cause, make an “alliance” with them and thus failed.

Hyena

To sum things up, hyenas are shown both as the Other which has no place in polity because of their wild nature which cannot be tamed, and as the prime danger for the community. Hyenas are excluded from the “circle of life”, nature and the community of animals, just like non-white races were excluded from “humanity”. Firstly, during the era of imperialism the “primitive” African people were excluded from “humanity” since, as Hannah Arendt writes, they were not seen as human, yet “resembled” humans. Around the same time, for example in Germany, the idea of Yellow Peril appeared and Kaiser Wilhelm II championed the anti-Asian racist policy. In one word, throughout the history of the West, there were nations, races, which were not considered as part of humanity (i.e. the circle of life). The remnants of that kind of reasoning can easily be seen today and Lion King is a perfect example how that logic operates, hidden in the black and white narrative and cloaked in animal fur. Mufasa’s words to his son: “Everything you see exists here in a perfect balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antilope.” Except the hyenas, which need to be excluded so that the “balance” is not disturbed.

 

Vigorous line:

Hakuna matata! What a wonderful phrase/Hakuna matata! Ain’t no passing craze /It means no worries/ For the rest of your days/ It’s our problem-free philosophy/Hakuna Matata!

Simba, Timon and Pumbaa

 

This is not really a line to be considered great. Yet, it serves a purpose to illustrate not only Simba’s position as a character in a Disney animated movie, but also some contemporary discussions in Western society. Simba is suffering from a guilt complex since he believes he is responsible for his father’s death and escapes into the carefree land of illusion together with his friends Timon and Pumbaa. As Nala rightfully tells him, he is fleeing from his responsibility to reclaim his former status and fight for that which is rightfully his, to protect his family and subjects. When Simba and Nala fall in love, Timon regrets it since it will bring him “doom”. Romantic commitment and responsibilities are thus equated with unnecessary trouble.

Popular psychologist Jordan Peterson believes that young men (he is primarily adressing young men) need to take responsibilities and are not encouraged enough. The same point was already made in Lion King since Simba desperately craves for his father’s encouragement and when he gets it in the figure of his father in the sky, he accepts his responsibilities and fights against Scar. He wins the fight and reclaims his position as a king. If he had remained in the “carefree Paradise”, he would never have reclaimed his true identity. He would have remained deeply confused underneath and incapable of greatness. It seems that Lion King’s message, putting aside the earlier discussed discourse on exclusion, is to refuse to take hakuna matata as one’s motto and strive to fulfill oneself.

 

References:

Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, 2006

Apocalypse Now (1979) “Tragic Character of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz”

Preliminary remarks: There are several different versions of Apocalypse Now, including the theatrical release, the Redux version which is 53 minutes longer than the original and the 259 minutes long “VHS” version, which is now all but lost. This article is based on the Redux version, while the ending of the VHS version will be mentioned, and will be crucial to the interpretation. The Redux version significantly changes the film thematically, it draws the film closer to the book on which it is based, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

While speaking in Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola said that the film was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. The very conditions of the shooting resembled the madness of war so closely that, in the words of the director, the crew went mad. In the famous documentary about the making of the film Hearts of Darkness: Filmmaker’s Apocalypse Coppola said that they had too much money, too much equipment and that the crew (and Coppola himself) descended into madness step by step.

Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the shooting and Coppola’s response was that no one was allowed to have a heart attack on his set. Quentin Tarantino said that this was the moment when Coppola’s madness had started. When interpreting the film, one can take into consideration various sets of ideas which put a different light on the movie. The emphasis could be laid on the clash of civilizations, the critique of imperialism, the Vietnam war and the character study of Lt. Kurtz. This interpretation will connect the last two and focus on Lt. Kurtz, an army officer deeply commited to his ideals and his descent into the abbys.

In the remarkable opening scene we see the trees in the wind and The Doors’ song The End is playing. The forest is soon engulfed in flames and the face of captain Willard (Martin Sheen) appears which conveys emptiness bordering on despair. He is naked, drunk and dancing, breaks the mirror and his hand is bloodied.  He is shown in the most vulnerable position and says that, very hour he spends in the room he gets weaker, while they get stronger. We see a gun and from the very beginning we understand that we are in the realm of thanatos and despair.

 

He is taken by the army and set upon a task to find and assassinate an army officer named Kurtz who resides deep in the jungles of Cambodia an whose methods, as the army officer says, have become unsound. Kurtz is accused of ordering assassinations of the Vietnamese intelligence agents he believed to be working for the enemy. It is important to note that in contrast to Marlow, who in the novel Heart of Darkness embarks on an imperialist journey in Africa as an advanturer, Willard’s journey is not of his own will. This can be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that the Americans were “thrown” into Vietnam without choice, considering the balance of powers. This thesis is soon rejected when we hear Willard’s thoughts: It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.

Willard’s superiors emphasize that Kurtz was brilliant and outstanding in every way, but has “obviously gone insane”. We hear Kurtz’s words on the cassete player:

I watched a snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor and surviving… But we must kill them. We must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie and we have to be merciful to those who lie. Those nabobs. I do hate them.

Nabobs were British governors in East India, wealthy individuals who worked for the East India Company. Here, we witness the first reference to imperialism and Kurtz associating the Americans with imperialist powers. A snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor is a metaphor for Kurtz’s own condition and the Americans in Vietnam. His words can be compared to the condition of the crew working on the film in the Phillipines, going mad step by step. Kurtz advocates mass killings, the destruction of animals, villages and armies; he sees hypocrisy and lies around him and proclaims the Last Judgment in the Christ-like manner, as Michelangelo depicted it in his fresco in the Sistine Chapel. His agenda is annihilation as a reaction to the utter moral corruption and meaningless destruction. At the end of the film, we can see the following words written in blood on a temple wall: Apocalypse Now! A military officer says to Willard: “Out there with these natives, there must be a temptation to be God.” This is the very definition of hubris which for the Greeks meant the will to become like gods.

Willard’s first reaction to the order to assassinate Kurtz was: Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. As Willard reads documents on Kurtz he finds out that he graduated on Harvard with a thesis on the Philippine uprising in 1898. The American invasion of the Philippines in the end of the 19th century was clearly an imperialist conquest. This is the second allusion in the film which associates Kurtz with the critique of imperialism. In the famous scene in which the American helicopters invade a Vietnamese village and Wagner plays on the stereos the American understanding of the spectacle is more than evident.

 

The spectacle and the killings merge in an all-out show wich when compared with the scene with the Playboy bunnies portrays the interplay of eros, thanatos and spectacle. The scene in which a military officer explains how they bombarded the hill for hours and found out that there was nothing there, and that the smell later was of victory shows the non-utilitarian destruction which was commonplace in Vietnam. Hannah Arendt in her book Imperialism writes: “The most radical and the only secure form of possession is destruction for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours.”

The vision of French soldiers in the mist, which appears only in the Redux version of the film, casts a new light on the narration. Now, the allusion to imperialism is explicit. We can conclude that the scene with the French was important for Coppola from the beginning, since he mentions it in the documentary, but somehow it did not reach the theatrical version. The French are presented as phantasms of the past, who refuse to leave Vietnam, although the situation for them is hopeless. They persist with the idea that Vietnam is their home, that they cannot and will not leave. They discuss the foreign policies of their country with Willard and criticize the American endeavour as a fight “for the biggest nothing in history”. The old Frenchman keeps on saying I know that we can stay… We can stay…

 

Vigorous line:

The horror, the horror…

(said in a whisper)

Colonel Kurtz

At the very end of the movie, when Willard comes to the temple where Kurtz resides with his followers, Willard sees bodies hanged, heads on the ground and a deranged photojournalist who speaks frantically about Kurtz, calling him “a warrior poet” and recalling the scene when Kurtz wanted to kill him. Willard is in contact with a plane squadron bearing a suggestive name “Almighty”, which is prepared to bomb the temple, Kurtz and his followers. This reference to the Divine is a suggestion that Kurtz is a false deity, a golden calf, and the Americans are called upon to restore the Divine order by destroying the idolatry and restoring the true order. It can also be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that  hubris of the Americans is even greater than that of Kurtz. The Americans see themselves as the impersonation of the Divine will and thus their will to be gods is absolute.

When Willard meets Kurtz, his silence is indicative. He was mesmerized by Kurtz while reading documents about him and when he meets him he is captivated by the grandiose image Kurtz projects. Kurtz says that his allies are “horror” and “moral terror”. It is obvious that his motives are of moral nature and the reading of late Nietzche’s philosophy strongly suggests that crimes done in the name of morality are the most atrocious. Speaking of his recollections when he saw the Vietnamese cutting the arms of inoculated children, Kurtz speaks of the purity of the act and the bravery those men were capable of. He is the only one who refers to the Vietnamese as men, while the rest of the characters dehumanize them (gooks). What is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Apocalypse Now is the easiness with which Coppola transposed the behaviour of the Europeans toward African natives from Heart of Darkness  to the Vietnamese setting. Kurtz says that he can be killed, but cannot be judged; this is most probably a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Will to Power in which he wrote that for nihilism to be prevailed, values that pass judgment must be prevailed as well.

In stark contrast to the ending of Heart of Darkness in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s wife about his demise, Colonel Kurtz wants Willard to tell his son the truth about him. The question which needs to be posed is whether the truth about someone so inhuman yet all-too-human can be said to those who live in the comforts of civilization. This is one of the tragic elements of Kurtz’s destiny. During the scene in which by brilliant editing (cross-cutting) Willard’s murder of Kurtz is shown (who wanted to die like Socrates, if we are to believe Nietzsche), it is juxtaposed to the ritual slaughter of an animal. This suggests that Kurtz’s murder is also of ritual nature; in ancient civilizations the ritual slaughter of an animal was associated with an act of purifiction. Thus, Kurtz’s murder is puryfing, in the first place for him, since his life had become a circle of death and madness without end. His last whispers the horror, the horror, suggest that proposition.

When considering Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is necessary to highlight the distinction considering the word “tragic”, which exists in Croatian language. These are “tragično” and “tragičko”. The first one denotes the everyday use of the word “tragic”, which borders on banal. On the other hand, “tragičko” is characteristic of Nietzsche’s philosophy which foresees a tragic age (which existed in the pre-Socratic Greece) which will be the age of great purification, outbursts of genius and creative energy, but also the destructive age abundant with horrors and disasters.

Nietzsche saw Greek tragedy as the affirmation of life, but it must be highlighted that tragic characters in, for example, Aeschylus’ tragedies brought their fate upon themselves by their hubris. The same is implied for Kurtz; when he accepted to play role of a deity for the natives (as have all the imperialist powers) he precipitated his doom. The tragedy of Walter E. Kurtz is that the best of us can be tempted, fail to resist and fall into the horror of darkness. When Kurtz is killed, Willard sees a book in which the following written: Drop the bomb, exterminate them all. In the longest version of the film, the natives surrender and nevertheless, the bomb is dropped on them and they are all exterminated, as is vividly shown as a spectacle in the ending credits. Allmighty strikes, and the “Divine Order” of annihilation is established.

 

Manhattan (1979) “Monochromatic Nymph”

It is 1979 and in Manhattan the psychoanalyst is on acid, as well as the editorial staff of a comedy show and most likely half of the town Woody Allen is in love with. At the beginning of the film, his character Isaac talks about the decay of his times in regard to “drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…” This referral to decay may be nothing more than a pose, a phantasm of a nervous mind, since this stance seems to appear in almost all cultures regardless of time and place; in a more articulate manner, yet perhaps no more truthful. In Manhattan the Freudian psychoanalysis is not yet replaced by Xanax, present in his recent film Blue Jasmine; the woman at a party claims that ther doctor told her that she has (finally) had a “wrong orgasm”, Isaac’s friend’s lover Mary, which is later involved with Isaac himself, claims that her dog is a “penis substitute” for her; Isaac admits that he tried to run his ex-wife’s girlfriend over with a car, after being cornered via Freud.

To comprehend the movie, we must turn to its end in which Isaac says and records: “An idea for a short story about, um, people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves cos it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable terrifying problems about the… universe”. The “real unnecessary neurotic problems” seem to operate according to the logic of the iron necessity; the characters can’t escape them, yet Isaac sees their illusory lack of substance. Both Mary and his ex-wife told Isaac, or wrote in the memoirs, that his recourse to the “terrifying problems of existence” is sort of a diversion aiming to escape the immediate realities of everyday life.

His narcissism mostly consists of the fact that he sees grandiose narratives involving cosmic ideas in his everday experiences (his paranoid character in Hannah and Her Sisters does the same). Isaac’s “unnecessary neurotic problems” result in a unnerving relationship between the mundane and “cosmic”. During a confrontation with his friend toward the end of the film, he says that he has to model after someone – God.  His recourses and  the embrace of life’s pleasures come in form of the romantic relationships and humor. Groucho Marx is one of the “things” that give his life meaning, since via humor, one can grasp the immediate and mundane, as well as universal, in a manner that affirms life.

 

During a scene at a planetarium, where the interplay of dim light from the planets and shadows forms a beautiful visual imaginarium, in the context of discussing Saturn’s moons, Isaac says to Mary that the facts “mean nothing ’cause nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind…You rely too much on your brain.” Mary suggests that he finds her “too cerebral”, but Manhattan can be described as such as well. The emphasis is not on the “rational thought”; the film seems to project an impression of the elaborate rationalization of characters’ romantic issues, life stances and emotions, yet passion is the main drive that fuels the narration.

The main objects of passion in the film are New York City and Tracy, Isaac’s 17 year old girlfriend, in whose company he feels free and natural. The irony is that while trying to escape commitment with Tracy, (he does not take her seriously since she is a teenager), he gets entangled in strong feelings toward her. Isaac says to Tracy: “You know what you are? You’re God’s answer to Job… He would have pointed to you and said, ‘Y’ know, I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these.” As he recalls all things in life that make it worth living, he singles out Tracy’s face as well. In Nick Cave’s words:

He said that in the end it is beauty

That is going to save the world, now

(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Nature Boy, Abattoir Blues, 2004)

 

Vigorous line:

Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it out of all porportion… To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.

 

 

The film opens with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue playing and Isaac’s voice-over telling us of the start of his new book which is inspired by New York City, the city he romanticizes and adores. The City for him means, in a customary Allenesque style – beautiful women –  the crowds and “street smart guys who seemed to know all the angles”. In sum, for Isaac the city is its  people, but also its surreal black and white landscape. The city pulsates; it vibrates to the tunes of the great American composer. The city is his nymph, an inspiration and a muse. It is not uncommon for men of all nations who live in urban areas to form a strong connection with a city they live in, to idolize it: a man and the city coalesce; the city’s streets are his veins, the main square a heart beating with crowds and the street lamps windows of his soul.

In her study Fragmented City: The Intersection of Surrealism and Urban Reality, which will be quoted more extensively, Lauren Hackett writes: “The contrast between modernist rationality… and the surrealist pure thought, is exemplified by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. He recounts the individual experiences of Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier upon their arrival in New York City. Le Corbusier sees in New York City the potential for a rationalized, truly modern city. He critiques its shortcomings as ‘utterly lacking in order and harmony and the comforts of the spirit which must surround humanity.’ He believes that the city wants such rationalization, but he ignores the capacity of the psychological space of the city to overcome its physical rationalization. The only order in Manhattan is the grid. Everything else is able to ocurr freely upon that grid.

Dali immediately realizes the playful imagination of New York. While trying to sleep, he is disrupted in a dream by the roar of lions from the Central Park Zoo. ‘This silence, broken only by roars and savage cries, was so unlike the din that I had expected – that of immense ‘modern and mechanical city’ that I felt completely lost…’ He has realized that the actions that take place in the city traverse the rationalization of the grid. The grid exists only as a field for urban realities to establish relations upon. In this sense, New York City is Surreal. The common person feels liberated by the absurdity of physical relationships.”

The contrast between over-rationalization which most of the characters in Manhattan force upon themselves and the Surreal New York City is the main tension in the film. They should feel liberated due to the “absurdity of physical relationships” and enjoy the Surreal New York City, yet mostly they are entrenched in their own rationalizations. The scene in the planetarium and the one by the Queensboro Bridge are the precious moments in which the characters are lost in their surroundings and truly enjoy life in the night that is theirs and in the city which is their own.

 

 

References:

Hackett, Lauren “Fragmented City: The Intersection of Surrealism and Urban Reality” (2009), Architecture Senior Thesis. Paper 84.

 

Vertigo (1958) “Reliving the Memory”

Alfred Hitchock’s desire was to make movies in which dream and reality are indistinguishable. In his Vertigo, he creates a nightmarish world in which Scottie (James Stewart) draws the female progatonist into a surreal ordeal, or it is the other way around; at certain moments we cannot really tell. The film is centered around several themes and reccurent motifs:

  1. The impact of psychological trauma on a person
  2. The necessity to preserve (relive) the memory
  3. Erotic obsesssion (amour fou – mad love)

The film opens with a tragic death of a police officer who was trying to save Scottie, and that very experience shook him and had a severe impact on him, although this is not mentioned in the film; he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, after that event. Psychological trauma he experiences later in the film is the perceived death of a loved person and a feeling of guilt because he did not prevent it because of his own incapability.

The scene in the courtroom after “Madelaine’s” death is surreal in its structure and it can mirror Scottie’s psychological state; the judge blaming him for her death because of his “weakness” seems to personify his conscience. In the hospital, Mozart’s music is played to Scottie while he is suffering from melancholia; his friend says that it won’t really help and it would be a wonder if it could; it amounts to playing cheerful folk music at a funeral.

Vertigo

The scene by the sea, when “Madelaine” and Scottie kiss each other, has the quality of a memory, of something that longs to be preserved. The whole set-up Scottie got into is imbued with the reliving of memories and pyschological traumas, a suicide, to be more precise, because a mother lost a child. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madelaine and her death; after meeting Judy his obsession can be materialized into another “object” of passionate love. Georges Bataille once wrote: “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” This quote can be compared to Scottie’s desires toward Madelaine and Judy.

In Scottie’s dream, we can see flowers disintegrating, him falling from the roof (the guilt complex) and looking into a tomb. The woman in the painting, who was presented as a great-grand mother of Madealine, appears as well. The colours change forming an esoteric nightmare of utter terror to the dreamer. Life and death, his own fears and sufferings, all merge into a singular uncanny experience.

Scottie is caught in a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling; this type of love deranges the senses and is essentialy an obsession, amour fou, as it came to be called by the surrealists. In other words, love is a type of madness. His need to relive the memories he experienced with Madelaine compels him to turn Judy into his doll, resembling Madelaine down to the most precise details. It is the same person, but at the same time it is not. It seems that in Vertigo Hitchock captures the spirit of erotic feelings in their fullest force. The title of the film does not allude only to Scottie’s fears, but to his desires as well.

 

Vigorous line:

It is as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of the corridor, there is nothing but darkness.

Madelaine

Broken Mirror

“Fragments of the mirror” may represent memories, what was once a whole, a life experience  now shattered into fragments of dispersed memories. Vertigo’s life force relies on memories, on the past and on the days long by, which need to be relived again. The darkness which represents death needs to be overcome so life can take its place. In Hitchock’s artistic world this is an illusion. Scottie’s sin is not his “weakness” and fear, it is his hubris, a belief that he can enjoy days that have passed.

 Memories cannot be relived again, and the very attempt to do this is a starting point for a nigthmare, more darkness and thus death. This may be the moral of Vertigo, told in a surrealist fashion which traps the characters into a corridor through which they walk, observing fragments, memories, trying to reshape them into life, but in the end they fail – tragedy is inevitable.

Hrvoje Galić

Badlands (1973) “Romantic and Soulless Killing Spree”

[This article has been edited on 11.3.2018]

Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first film is loosely based on real-life events following the murders a couple had commited in 1958, in the United States.  In 1993 the United States National Film Registry elected Badlands for preservation since they considered the film to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. The film inspired a singer-songwriter Bruce Sprinsteen and his title song Nebraska; Springsteen saw it on television.

 

I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton

Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died

(Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, 1982)

Springsteen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find at that time; that very short story can be juxtaposed to Malick’s film;  O’Connor and Malick share their religious beliefs. One can wonder if Malick agrees with the title of the story; his oeuvre seems to confirm this assumption.

Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and a 15 year old girl Holly who start a killing-spree across the country. The way in which they end up together is peculiar to say the least. He seduces her and she quickly falls in love with him. They are both interesting individuals; we don’t know Kit’s background yet we can reconstruct Holly’s. At the beginning she says: “My mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man.”

The act of keeping and burying certain important or symbolic items is present throughout the film; Kit does it often. Holly’s throwing out her fish after it got sick is of immense importance for understanding her character. She says that’s the only thing she did wrong. Since her father did not want her and Kit to be together, Kit shoots him. When her father died, his lips resembled those of fish; in Nick Cave’s words:

Well you know those fish with the swollen lips

That clean the ocean floor

When I looked at poor O’ Malley’s wife

That’s exactly what I saw

(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads, O’Malley’s Bar, 1996)

Since she threw out the fish and her father resembled one when he died, we can conclude that Holly felt guilty of her father’s murder. After his death, Kit burns Holly’s house while Carl Orff’s Passion plays.

 

The act of burning the house and Holly’s father killing the dog is, in part, what made Holly indifferent and empty. Everything she loved and cherished – was destroyed. Her indifference to the murders and the tone of her voice implies apathy; it can also be explained as a defense mechanism. When someone sees horrors and suffers greatly, one may become apathetic out of desire to prevent further suffering (he or she recedes as if into a shell).

Kit, on the other hand is psychotic; that very thing makes him an individual, different from the rest. At the beginning Holly says: “And as he lay in bed in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes he’d see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead.” Kit’s seeing her in “beautiful white robes” may imply that he longs for innocence and purity he cannot find in this world.

 

Vigorous line:

Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if they’d have the doctor pronounce him dead, or if he’d read what the papers would say from the other side.

Holly

Holly tells us this after a beautiful and simple shot in which Nat King Cole sings: “The dream has ended, for true love died.” She decides that she will never hang around with another “hell-bent” type, no matter how in love she was. There is no tone of regret or sadness in her voice when she tells this, only indifference, although secretly filled with a yearning for life. The darkness surrounding them as they dance symbolizes the vacuum created in their souls and the ending of a romantic relationship.

Kit contemplates his path into eternity, he wants to be in contact with this world even after death; more importantly, he wants to know what people say about him. Kit’s words open up a question regarding a relationship between a mass murderer and his presentation in the media. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers particularly deals with this issue in a tone of a powerful and psychotic satire. The media report the killings and people seem to be fascinated with them to a troubling degree.

Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence writes about a “great criminal” who inspires admiration in the masses due to his total disregard to the existing legal order. Kit as a mass murderer fascinates us when we see him on film, most likely due to Martin Sheen’s astonishing performance and his character’s ravaging individuality. This is particularly vivid at the end of the film when the policemen seem fascinated with Kit, ask him why he had done the killings and ask each other about their favourite musicians. Kit even gives them his personal belongings as mementos.

The question which should be posed is not only a relationship between mass murderers and media in real life, but also between presentation of mass murderers on film. There seems to be a triangular relationship regarding to mass murders involving the real-life events, the media and fiction. This is the essence of Kit’s words when he wonders what will the media say about him when he dies (since he is a fictious character, based on a real-life one, and contemplates the role of media when he is gone).

His narcissistic curiosity overshadowed with metaphysical questions explores another aspect of the relationship of a criminal and mass media, his fascination with his own projection which can be a motive for further acts of violence. During the film he records himself leaving fragments of his thoughts while having illusions of grandeur.

When the policemen finally catch Kit, he builds a grave for himself with the stones he found on the road. The longing to be remembered is equally strong in human beings as to be remembered for something “extraordinary” (with and without quotation marks) and becoming a mass murderer fits that description in a gruesome fashion (think of Charles Manson). The last shot in the film shows the airplane soaring in the sky and we see a beautiful shot of clouds and the Sun. The airplane symbolizes the soaring of the soul into afterlife.

sunset-1625073_960_720

 

Hrvoje Galić

The Master (2012) “Did You Ever Go Clear?”

HPaul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of his underrated movies, which is completely unjustified. It is the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career; his portrayal of an aggressive, erratic yet extremely complex character will leave an indellible mark in the history of film. The Master is a heaven for psychoanalysts, if there are any of them left (e.g. Slavoj Žižek). It follows a war veteran with mental issues, Freddie Quell, who succumbs to the will of a charismatic and narcissistic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. We can tell that he is a narcissist not only by observing his erratic, but controlled behaviour. The subtitle of his second book, as it is shown in one frame, is “As a gift to homo sapiens”. This may inspire one to recall, (or imagine to be more correct) Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance about his own importance to the mankind; when was half-mad toward the end of his sane life he signed himself as “Christ” and “Dyonisus”. The film obviously explores the emergence of cults and their attraction to men who lack direction and purpose in life. A famous Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen writes to his friend in his beautiful song Famous Blue Raincoat:

Did you ever go clear?

“Going clear” is a direct reference to the practices of scientology, meaning that one should be free from past traumas and uncontrolled desires. Lancaster Dodd is an amateur psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing hypnosis and the so-called processing. The rituals that Lancaster imposes on his followers have a double nature: they are both an initation into the cult and the means of controlling the followers. By the promise of eliminating instincts, aggressive impulses and traumas he offers salvation, but that very “salvation” results in slavery. His methods have a counter-effect, thy produce a being that is more irrational and obsessed with power than before.

 

Later in the film, he tries to help Freddie by controlling his anger and agressiveness, but we can see that he did not (completely) succeed. What’s more interesting than the above mentioned notions, along with the exploration of the psychological state of war veterans in the post WW2 environment, is the father-son relationship between Lancaster and Freddie. This seems to be an important theme for Anderson, since it is explored in There Will Be Blood,  as well. There Will Be Blood and The Master seem to form a strange diptych; Daniel Planview is reincarnated in both Freddie and Lancaster with overtones of ravaging pleonaxic desires and Lancaster reincarnates Eli, a charismatic priest with a similar lust for power.

Although they are often in a conflict, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be stuck in an unusual  relationship, that of a mentor and a follower, but also a very intimate one. The father-son relationship as presented in the film is a constant battleground of testostorones and urges in which the dominated strives for domination. It is not a relationship based on mutual trust and respect but a power relation in which there an be no winner, but in death. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights was deeply influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; The Master seems to be as well. The life of a group which has family structure seems to be Anderson’s constant preoccupation.

 

Vigorous line:

Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas… If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.

Lancaster Dodd

Sea Waves

It is interesting that Dodd mentions the term “master” since he is one throghout the movie. This line can be interpreted in terms of the famous Hegelian master-slave dialectic. According to the professor Eric Steinhart the Hegelian master-slave dialectic occurs when two self-consciousnesses confront each other. It is doubtful if we can call Freddie “self-conciouss” at all, at least during the first half of the film. He is already a slave, to his desires and to Lancaster Dodd. Later, he gains self-consciousness and the battle may begin.

They decide not to fight, although they do fight earlier in the film and Lancaster implies that they will be mortal enemies in their next lives. For Hegel, this would be barbaric, the two sides need to learn how to cooperate, not to fight an endless struggle into eternity (logically). Lancaster “lets” Freddie live his own life as he pleases, he is “off the hook”; it is an open ending. Freddie decides to live as a free man, but, does he serve any master? Or the master should be himself, exercising power over himself. This may be the message of The Master, one should learn to control oneself, by oneself – alone.

Hrvoje Galić