A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) “A Veiled Body”

We question a country’s self-mythology. Perfect town and perfect family are – like Westerners – part of America’s mythology, involving notions of past innocence and naïveté. But is it possible for innocence to exist while something heinous transpires elsewhere?

David Cronenberg

 

In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence something heinous transpires underneath the presentation of mythological innocence. The film starts with two gangsters who are on a venture across America; we see two bodies in a pool of blood in a convenience store and a child is being murderered. The scene is abruptly cut to the one showing a girl screaming in her bed, because of the monsters in the closet. Her father, Tom Stall, says to her that there are no such things as monsters. And yet, we have just witnessed the scene with monsters which are not imagined but live among ordinary citizens.

 The other important motif is the monsters in the closet. They are concelead, hiding, waiting to come out, perhaps not wanting to. Tom Stall is a family man, living in a nice town, with nice people, as the sheriff says later in the film. He runs a small business, a diner, has a beautiful wife and two children. William S. Borroughs once wrote: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.” There is a myth of an idyllic family life in America, but there is also evil, waiting to come to the surface.

The other important motif appears when Tom’s colleague at the diner says that he had a girlfriend who thought he was a “murderer” and stabbed him with a fork. Later, he married her. This detail foreshadows the doubt in one’s partner, in this case irrational, and the possibility that beneath the appereance there is something sinister, murderous. Two men come into the diner, trying to rob it and Tom kills both of them with the efficiency of a skilled murderer. The news present him as an American hero, since, as we know it, the Americans love heroes. Tom’s son Jack is bullied at school, and before the killlings, he says that the threat of violence directed toward him is “cruel and pointless.”

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When the bully says that his father is “a tough guy” and starts harassing him, Jack beats the bully. Violence which his father commits, although in self-defense, provokes an ethical shift in his son and he reacts with violence. When his father says that in their family they do not beat people up, Jack responds: “No we shoot them!”. The film is called A History of Violence, and the title suggests that the film presents one history of violence among many, but it also presents that violence in itself has its own history, which starts with mankind itself and it evolves from one generation to the other, it is a neverending circle which begins with the sins of the father.

 Soon, two men come into the diner, one with a severely damaged eye, calling Tom “Joey Cusack” and that he comes from Philadelphia. Tom denies it, and when he sees the black car in which the man was driving, he becomes paranoid and runs toward his house, for fear that his family will be assaulted. No one came to the house and Tom says that he fears that he is losing his mind. With the attitude of a trained killer, he says to his son that if someone comes, they will deal with it. The man with the damaged eye encounters Tom’s wife Edie in the shopping mall and says to her that her husband is Joey Cusack and that he damaged his eye with a barbed wire.

This happens precisely in the middle of the film, and in this moment, Edie starts to seriously doubt her husband’s identity. This anticipates the revelation that her husband is indeed Joey, wich happens when her husband, with the skills of a killer literally breaks the face of a man who tried to take him with them. As Tom/Joey’s personality is split into two, so is the film. When Carl Fogarty, the man with the damaged eye, tells Joey to drop down the gun, he complies and symbolically assumes his abandoned role as Joey Cusack. Fogarty is murdered at the hands of his son. The sins and the violence of the father are now a part of his son as well.

 

Vigorous lines:

I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer… the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?

Edie Stall

Joey did, both. I didn’t… Tom Stall didn’t.

Tom/Joey

 

David Cronenberg once said: “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don’t lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you are photographing is people, bodies.” In this scene, when Tom/Joey says that Joey did the killings and Tom Stall didn’t, he is filmed in a close-up and the only part of the body we can see is dressed in a patient’s gown. In other words, the character which the camera films is disembodied. In his book The Divided Self R.D. Laing writes that “in the schizoid condition… there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be the part of the false-self system.”

If Cronenberg’s films are primarily body-oriented and in the central part of the film Viggo Mortensen’s character’s body is not shown or is clothed in a gown, we can say that in this manner Cronenberg portrays a schizoid personality, which is characterized by a split between the identities. Edie asks if Joey is dead and Tom/Joey replies: “I thought he was. I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I went out to the desert, and I killed him… I spent 3 years trying to become Tom Stall.” Edie asks him if he is a “multiple personality schizoid” and is it “like flipping a switch back and forth for him.” It seems that there is certainly a schizm in Tom/Joey’s personality, but that there is also an approaching awareness regarding his identity.

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This schizm is not permanent, and the reappropriation of the former identity takes place soon enough.  When they come home, sheriff asks them if Tom is in fact Joey and Edie starts crying, denying it. The officer leaves their home and she says to him “Fuck you Joey”. Now, he assumes his former identity and his body is filmed as they have sex, which starts with violence on both sides. Cronenberg films Joey’s body during a sex act, we can now be certain that Tom Stall is no more and he is again Joey. He seems to be fully aware of his body, and camera is not afraid to show it.

His brother Richie calls him, who ranks high in the mob hierarchy back in Philadelphia, and a clash between two brothers commences when Joey comes to Richie’s mansion. This is an “Adam and Cain” encounter and both brothers are Adams, and Cains as well. Richie tries to kill Joey and in the end, Joey manages to murder him. He washes his hands in the water, as if purifying himself, and comes home to his family, now as another man. In a memorable scene, his daughter takes the plates and puts them on the table for him, and his son hands him the food. American dream is shattered for them, in a most violent manner, and they reluctantly decide to live on.

 

References: 

R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness, Penguin Books, New York, 1990

Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) “A Simphony.”

 

Manchester By the Sea is a masterpiece of modern American cinema. A cynic would say that a razor blade should distributed alongside the DVD version of the film, just like one music critic suggested regarding Leonard Cohen’s album Songs of Love and Hate. In that kind of reasoning there is a misunderstanding of the power of the melancholic experience when it is shown in art. Just the opposite, the melancholy as it is presented could be soothing to the viewer who experiences the feelings of sadness or loss. This film has the quality of a novel, although of a novel that works better on screen. Kenneth Lonergan uses the means of cinematic language, primarily montage, in an admiring manner; Jennifer Lame, the film editor deserves the praise.

The film draws its strength from the power of association, Lee’s (Casey Affleck) recollections are juxtaposed to the ongoing narrative. The memories and the present form a line of intimate connection, at times blending together and resulting in an emotional outburst. Film theorist André Bazin would call this kind of montage “expressionist”, not in terms of an artistic movement, but the expressive impact this kind of juxtaposition creates on the viewer, and in terms of the cinematic language. The juxtapositions between shots of falling snow and gray sea which is at the same time calming and treacherous. It is indicative that the film starts with a recollection, or rather, with a scene from the past. A joyous fishing trip on a boat, during which Lee, Joe and the latter’s young son Patrick joke about sharks in the sea.

This happy memory is followed by the scenes from Lee’s everyday life. He works as a janitor, does the plumming and engages in bar fights. He is withdrawn, his face shows resignation and melancholy. His brother Joe dies because of heart problems and the scene in the hospital is another example of Lee’s anger-in-sorrow and a recollection involving a caring and humorus doctor and Patrick’s mother is shown. There is a certain antithesis between the surrounding people who show care and patience, and on the other side, Lee’s behaviour and Patrick’s mother’s state of mind. Lee shows care as well, but as the movie focuses mostly on him, we see the “insides” of someone in great grief and filled with anger, in contrast to the others’ external image which seems harmonious. Lee seems to be a pariah of a kind, since the hockey coach speaks of “the story about him” and when Lee asks his acquintance about a job, the man’s wife says that “he will not come here anymore”. Lee does not seem to care about the external image he projects on people, which is something most people do almost instinctively.

The matter of guardianship over Patrick is posed when Joe’s will is read, and as we find out, Joe appointed Lee to be the guardian and made the necessary financial arrangements. Lee reluctantly accepts it and in one of the most powerful scenes of modern American cinema, the recollections involving the death of Lee’s daughters are shown. After partying with his friends in the basement, he watched TV and realized that there are no beers left. So he put some logs into the fire and went to the store to buy beer. Halfway to the store, he wondered if he closed the door of the fireplace, but continued walking nevertheless. He did not, and when he returned, the house was on fire, the children were left inside, and his wife Randi was found and saved by the firemen. The power of this scene rests in the meticulous editing, the associative power of his brother’s wish to take care of his son, and Lee’s guilt and sense of incapacity since his neglect caused the death of his children. The baroque composition Adagio per Archi E Organo In Sol minore, composed by Albinoni, plays throughout the scene creating a powerful impact of majestic, tragic sadness. The music, in its grandeur, almost absorbs the scene, yet the scene’s emotional impact is even stronger.

 

Patrick does not want his father to be “in the freezer”, since he cannot be buried immediately due to nature of the ground in winter. He has a panic attack when he sees frozen food in the refrigerator. Patrick’s relationship with Lee is interesting since they have a strong bond, but due to the tragic circumstances they are both withdrawn and a lot is left unsaid. They argue over everyday life of a teenager, but beneath all their arguments there is unspoken grief. It seems that they have made a pact involving dealing with grief privately, without depending on each other.

The everyday life Patrick and Lee experience together shows the tensions, the struggles and gives the events which unfold in the film a sense of everydayness which is constantly interrupted by feelings that dwell inside them. When the guardianship comes to a close after Joe’s friend decides to adopt Patrick, the latter decides to eat an ice cream, which symbolically conveys his acceptance of his father’s death. Lee wanting to leave Manchester for Boston as soon as possible, shows that he feels suffocated in the place where his children died, and the culmination of that occurs when he meets his ex-wife. They both burst in tears, unable to speak, their words overlap and they stutter in pain.

 

 

Vigorous line:

Can’t you see we are burning?

Lee’s daughter [in a dream]

 

In the scene we are about to analyze briefly we see Lee pouring the sauce in a pan while the basketball game is on TV. He falls asleep, hears his daughter calling him “Daddy” and telling him “Can’t you see we are burning?”. He replies: “No honey. You are not burning.” He wakes up and the room is in smoke, the sauce in the pan is burning. This brief scene is abundant in symbolism. Earlier in the film, as we see one of Lee’s memories, he jokingly says to his baby daughter that if he didn’t marry his wife, his kids wouldn’t exist and he could watch the game “in peace”. In the light of what happened, this came true, and his earlier words have an ominous quality. In the end, he is watching the game alone, but not in peace.

Sigmund Freud opens the last chapter of his Interpretation of Dreams with a “dream suspended around the most anguishing mystery”, as Jacques Lacan says. The mistery links the father to his dead son nearby. “As he is falling asleep, the father sees rise up before him the image of his son, who says to him, Father, can’t you see I’m burning?. In fact, the son really is burning, in the next room.” Lacan writes the following about this dream: “it is precisely reality which, incompletely transferred seems here to be shaking the dreamer from his sleep”. According to Lacan, father’s son is burning with “the weight of the sins of his father” and he connects it to the myth of Hamlet and the ghost of his father. “Where does Hamlet’s ghost emerge from, if not from the place from which he denounces his brother for suprising him and cutting him off in the full flower of his sins. And far from providing Hamlet with the prohibitions of the Law that would allow his desire to survive, this too ideal father is constantly being doubted.”

The similarity betwee Lee’s daughter’s words in his dream, and the son’s words in the dream Freud writes about is striking. The only difference is that Lee’s daughter talks in plural and is of the opposite sex. It is possible that Lonergan’s inspiration for this scene comes from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, but the obvious and important difference must be taken into account. Lee has this dream months after his daughters have died, yet the similar structure of a dream can be discerned. “The weight of the sin” of her father is why Lee’s daughter is burning in Lee’s dream and it must be noted that her statement is posed as a question: “Father, can’t you see…”.

Lee’s daughter’s words in the dream can be understood as a constant doubt of “this too ideal father”. This structure of the unconscious (understood by Lacan as fundamentally associated with language) continues to live in Lee and his sin continues to be a burden to him as well. In the dream he hears his daugther’s doubt and the legacy he left to his daughter. His sin was, to put it bluntly, not caring enough. He could have returned after pondering if he had left the door of the fireplace opened or closed, but he kept walking to the store. This drunken decision at the crossroads had tragic consequences and left him scarred for life. The brilliance of Manchester By the Sea is turning the image of the scar into blossom of art.

 

References:

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton & Company, London, 1998

A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009) “The Comedy of Job”


What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls to tears.

Seneca, To Marcia On Consolation

The veracity of Seneca’s words can be debated upon, but they seem to fit to describe the Coen brothers character Larry’s fortune in the film. Yet, A Serious Man is a comedy. We laugh as Larry goes from a bad situation to a worse one. Coen brothers stated: “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.” It seems that the directors were on a ‘sadistic streak’ involving their character, but to what purpose, one may ask. Aside from their iconic black humor, Coen brothers’ films are an inquiry into human condition, either in the specific historical situation, as in Hail Caesar! or the eternal questions of human existence, like in No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man falls in the latter category; it is a film which deals with the mundane and the man’s relationship to divinity and fate (or fortune, one may say). In this film, Judaism is more present than in any other Coen brothers’ piece of work.

The film opens with a folk story in which a man comes to the house where a man and a wife live, and the wife claims that the man died a few years ago and he is a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit. She stabs him in the chest with a knife, and shortly after, he starts bleeding. Whether he is a dybbuk or not, we do not know. The Coen brothers stated that this scene does not mean much, that it just sets the tone for the film. The scene sets the tone in terms of atmosphere, but also thematically. The man who lives in the house says that he is a “rational person” and does not believe that man is a dybbuk, while his wife behavior may be termed as superstitious, although her vocabulary has religious overtones. The relationship between rationality and the irrational forces in life seems to be an important element in the film. The other imporant motif is that the folk story’s ending opens up two possibilites and we cannot be certain which one is true.

This kind of reasoning is crucial for the understanding of the film, since there is an uncertainty which permeates the film’s main character Larry. He comes home from work to his family, (he works as a physics professor at the university) and we can hear peaceful music, he watches his neighbour mowing the lawn and the setting of a typical American family is portrayed. The illusion of a perfect life is instantly crushed since his wife condescendigly tells him that she has someone else and wants a divorce. She tells him that she wants a ritual divorce, so she can marry another man and that he should “act like an adult” about it. His wife’s lover Sy patronizingly hugs him and tells him everything will be all right; Larry is forced to move to the cheap motel nearby. Forced may be a strong adjective to use, it would be more accurate to say that he complies with it.

He comes to see three Rabbis and engages with three lawyers; the rabbis represent the spiritual sphere and the lawyers the civic one. The first Rabbi is young and seems like a rather ignorant example of an ecstatic mystic. He tells him that he should change his perception and see God in things, in the parking lot for example. The second Rabbi tells him a rather long story about a dentist who found inscriptions in Yiddish on a patient’s teeth and asked for an explanation for it, the way to understand it as a sign from God. The conclusion of the second Rabbi is that one should be a good man and says that God “doesn’t owe us an answer. He doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” Larry’s confusion about the “first principles” that should guide his life’s path is equivalent to his lack of trust in everything that surrounds him.

His son gets involved in a  Columbia record scam, and his real-estate lawyer dies of heart attack when he needs to give legal advice about Larry’s home. The first lawyer Larry goes to becomes a sort of analyst who listens to his problems. The third lawyer sends him a bill for 3000$. Sy dies and Larry “has” to pay for his funeral. In short, Larry’s life gets worse and worse as “Uncle Arthur” gets involved with the police over gambling. His nightmares mirror his state of mind as he sees himself having sex with his married neighbour and Sy harassing him, practically putting a coffin on him. He dreams of himself writing formulas on the huge board and says: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.”

In the multiplicity of life’s misfortunes, he loses his sense of self and the way to encounter life with Lebowskian Taoist simplicity. This is simply not an option for him. The only moment when he relaxes is when he smokes marijuana with his neighbour but God (or Coen brothers in this case – it is sometimes hard to discern the two when this film is in question) does not leave the act unpunished. In the end, after he realizes that he can keep his job, although Sy was sending letters stating Larry is immoral to the university, the doctor calls him and implies that he has lung cancer.

 

The title card at the beginning of the film says: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” – Rashi. This may be an advice from Coens to their character: to stop searching for answers in the moments of misery, to reduce the complexity of chaotic life circumstences to an attitude of simplicity and renounce the need to establish divine order of things in a world, which is in itself chaotic. One should receive their misfortunes with a simplicity, like the character from a Wong Kar-wai film who compares the end of romantic relationship to the changing color of one’s hair. Or, it can be a rather cruel joke from Coens, since tortured Larry doesn’t seem to find the answer in a simple change of perception, in line with the advice from the first, young Rabbi.

 

Vigorous lines:

I haven’t done anything… 

Larry

Doing nothing is not bad. Ipso facto.

Professor at the University

 

The conversation in the context of Larry’s tenure on the university seems to be a key to understanding Larry’s character and his actions. In one way, he can be compared to the Old Testament figure of Job, who is tested by God by being afflicted various misfortunes, which makes Job lose his faith. On the other hand, he is not like Job, whose family is killed, who is assailed by deseases and ends up in the belly of a whale. Job simply cannot answer this misfortunes with actions, they are of such gravity that only passive acceptance is the way of dealing with them. Larry, on other hand, could rise up to his misfortunes and stand up for himself. He does not. His character in some ways echoes the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, who lie in the pool dressed in black and do nothing for days. In other words, in A Serious Man a Coen brothers’ vindication of passive nihilism is vivid.

The scale of Larry’s compliance to the actions of others which bring him misfortunes is admirable. He does next to nothing when confronted with the agents of his misfortunes. The philosophical or religious doctrines that preach detachment from the world, passive stance, renunciation of passions and desire, as Emil Cioran’s thought or Buddhism do, may be admirable worldviews. Yet, even Buddha had to distance himself from the position of a prince to start teaching and practicing his ideas. If one is entangled in numerous social obligations, the stance of passivity may very well be one’s downfall. Larry may had been born under an unlucky star, as the Ancients would understand it, but the degree of his suffering could have been different if he took a different stance. Nevertheless, as we learn  that Larry has cancer, his fate seems to be more similar to that of Job. The engineers of his doom are, on the other hand, Coens themselves.

 

References:


Seneca, Moral Essays Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, London, 1990

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) “Path to Completion”

 

Title card: The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

Never Let Me Go is based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; the film describes the dystopian reality which takes place more than 50 years before the film was made. It seems to imply that the portrayed reality could occur now, as it could occur 50 years ago. It can occur at any time when the principles of civilization are rejected at the prospect of progress of “mankind” by the murderous enslavement of others. Clones are raised in a boarding school, they live a life which is both artificial (they buy stuff with tokens, simulate ordering tea in a bar) and deeply human. They are told horrific stories about the destinies of children who transgress the boundaries of the institution, most probably false. They are surrounded with lies, barriers, yet they live in accordance with their roles with almost joyful compliance. Throughout the film there are practically no warm colors, sunlight is scarce and the atmosphere is of damp sadness, accompanied by static shots of nature with dazzling beauty.

Raised to be donors for the human population, they use the term “completion” to describe their death, when they cannot donate more organs. The ironic term, since completion can be used to describe the completion of a spiritual path, and the establishment of harmony in the soul. The film centers around Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, a love triangle is formed. Tommy and Ruth end up together, while Kathy lives a rather solitary life in the Cottages, where they are sent before donating. They are in search for their original models, in other words, in search for who they are. Kathy browses through a pornographic magazine and Ruth sees that act as an attempt to understand sexuality. Yet, we find out that she does it because she believes that her model might be in there, since she posseses strong sexual craving. We can see that her act shows that she understands little about her urges, as it is difficult for her to order food and beverages in a bar. They are almost extinguished socially as they are raised for one simple function.

Someone described the government in the film as “fascist”. The term can be applied to the system of authority described in the movie if we consider Michel Foucault’s understanding of modern state and racism. In his lectures Society Must Be Defended he says: “What is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die… It is in short a way of seperating the groups that exist within a population. It is… a way of establishing a biological type of caesura within a population that appears to be a biological domain.” In one word, racism establishes a relationship which purports: “If you want to live, the other must die”. Clones are obviously a type of species, human in every manner, biological organisms capable of producing life for others by giving their own organs. In the process, they “are completed”, they die.

                                Tree-lung

This is the realm of thanatopolitics, as Foucault understands it, which forces one to die. The relationship between the clones and humans who raise them to be donors is a biopolitical relationship, the power which operates is power over life – biopower. In one word, the government in the film can be seen as fascist, since it employs the racist distinction between the ones who are entitled to live, and the others who are to forced to die because of their objective characteristics (they are clones). The film is a critique of the path modernity can take when its own fundamental values are renounced and the bleakest side of modern state prevails (Foucault believed that racism is incorporated in every modern state, to some degree). Namely, that the power over life becomes total, and forces some to die so that the majority of population can be biologically empowered, their lives prolonged and diseases eradicated. At the institution where clones grow up, Hailsham, Madame finds a few cigarettes which clones smoked. She says that they are  explicitely forbidden to smoke. Their organisms are of essential value and power which operates over them is the type of power which maximizes the vital functions of their biological organisms.

Utilitarian moral theory emphasized that it is  ethical to maximize total happiness while minimizing total pain. To save lives of many, it is ethical to let some die, since, in that case, total happiness is greater than if you let many die. Utilitarians were often of liberal orientation, which holds the human life sacred, yet there is a tension between these principles and the utilitarian ones which emphasize the importance of happiness of as many people as possible. The famous trolley problem implies an ethical choice which gives an agent a choice between causing one death and saving five lives, or letting five people die, but not causing the  death of anybody. According to the surveys, most Americans would choose causing one death and saving five lives. In the film the offical in the institution of Hailsham, Miss Emily, says: “Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. You have to understand – cancer used to kill almost everyone. Now it kills no one at all… You see – it’s not an ethical issue – it’s just about the way we are. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer and breast cancer and motor neurone disease… they simply say no. Do you understand?” In one word, Miss Emily presents the problem as if there is no ethical question at all. It is who we humans are, prepared to sacrifice some individuals to escape death and suffering.

 

Vigorous line:

We didn’t have the Gallery in order to look into your souls. We had the Gallery in order to see if you had souls at all.

Miss Emily

Tommy hears that a couple who is truly in love can get a deferral and spend a few more years together. This seems to be a desperate illusion which celebrates romantic love to the extent that it produces the opportunity to live, when life is denied. He comes up with a rather creative idea that the Gallery, in which the artworks they made as children are stored, exists because the administration needs proof that the couple is in love. This idea is shattered and along with it the notion that “love conquers all”. Tommy succumbs to despair. The administration’s endeavour to see if they had any souls is interesting. Wouldn’t it be easier to raise clones so they can give organs, if one thinks that they are soulless?Maybe the intention was to find out that they are. In this case, creating art is a way of examining one’s authenticity, in other words, humanity. In the end, Kathy ponders: “I remind I was lucky to have had any time with him at all. What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.”

Kathy’s ruminations equate the clone’s destiny with the destiny of men – “we all complete”. What’s given to the clones is an authentic attitude toward their death. Their strong bonds shatter like glass in the storm, the angst makes them even more alive. Left with memories, they cherish them with care, knowing that their own end approaches. They have a strong sense of purpose, especially Kathy, who nurtures her kind while they slowly fade away with less and less strength in them. The clones are sacrificial lambs, but the ones which nurture authentic sensitivity, the sense of duty and the need for forgiveness, as we can see in Ruth’s case. They seem to be the answer to the questions about our own existence, most particularly our relationship to the finite nature of our lives.

References:

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Picador, New York, 2003

 

 

Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 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 (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 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 (Francis Ford Coppola, 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.