Manhattan (1979) “Woody Allen’s 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

 

Mean Streets (1973) “Benevolence Is Akin to A Flame”

Mean Streets is one of Martin Scorsese’s early pictures and a very personal one. As it is well-known, he wanted to become a Catholic priest and grew up in Manhattan, in Little Italy, a famous New York neighbourhood. He later reminisced that it was like a “Sicilian village”. The film follows Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a psychotic young man aspiring to become a respected mob member. De Niro plays the part with virtuosity (he was 30 at the time) that anticipates his later tour de force performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mean Streets is not just a milestone in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant career, it may very well be one of his finest pictures. The film deeply influenced Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie As Tears Go By.

De Niro’s genius is openly manifested in the portrayal of his character’s erratic behaviour and is an antipode of Harvey Keitel’s character Charlie, who is calm, rational and does not succumb to desires easily. A shot in which Johnny Boy shoots in the air trying to shoot the lights on the Empire State Building is a synechdoche that points to the type of character Johnny Boy is. His ravaging irrationality puts him at odds with men he cannot control, as he cannot control himself.

He does not care for family bonds, religion, or anything whatsoever that does not bring him pleasure. He has no fear at all, a characteristic that Aristotle defined as immoderate folliness. On the other hand, for Charlie, family and religion are important, and that, paradoxically, puts him in an impossible position of trying to save a man, whose head is deep under the water, from drowning. Shots of fire are often shown in the movie and its symbolism is twofold. On one hand, fire represents temptations that can lead to divine punishment of suffering in hell; on the other – madness. Fire, along with water is an element that is commonly associated with madness (for connections between symbolism of water regarding to madness, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is a perfect example).

Bob Dylan’s song Joey, originally from the album Desire can be beautifully juxtaposed to the world of Mean Streets.

 

The world of Mean Streets can also be compared to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, most particularly his The Idiot. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Teresa; Charlie can be compared to Prince Myshkin, a naïve man who is trying to “save” his erratic and murderous friend Rogozhin; Johnny Boy is a version of the latter. The Idiot ends with main characters either succumbing to madness or ending up in Syberia, and Mean Streets does not end on a much lighter note as well. On the other hand, music in the film (e.g. the Rolling Stones) gives the grave matters it discusses a tone of playfullness; lighthearted humour, bar fights and improvized scenes, ultimately bring the viewer enjoyment.

 

Vigorous line:

Nobody tries anymore… Just tries to help, that’s all, to help people.

Francis of Assisi had it all down.

Charlie

El Greco, St. Francis’s Vision of the Flaming Torch

Note: Martin Scorsese uses El Greco’s Christ in his latest film Silence

Francis of Assisi was born an Italian as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was a founder of the Franciscan order; in 1219 he went to Egypt to convert a sultan to put an end to a conflict. In the country chapel of San Damiano, the Icon of Crucified Christ spoke to him with words “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Keeping in mind these anecdotes, we can perceive the appeal St. Francis had to Charlie. In the opening captions we can see Charlie shaking hands with a Catholic priest and at the beginning of the film he says: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” During the film there are numerous voice-overs of Charlie’s introspections from which we can learn much about his character, religiosity and social views.

He is a ridiculed figure at times because of his devotion to Catholicism; his constant aim during the film is to save others from themselves. At the end of the film, he lies and makes up a story about himself to “save” a Jewish woman from the life of prostitution. On the other hand, during the dialogue by the sea, Teresa tells him that everyone must take care of himself (a Nietzschean worldview). Their moral stances are in a constrast, and we can see internal tensions in Charlie’s character as well. He tries to live up to the appearances that he thinks must be upheld, but at the same time follows his principles.

 In a way Mean Streets is a morality tale. It would be much different if in the end Charlie pays  the ultimate price, but it seems that Scorsese wanted to praise Charlie’s way of living not as a naïve one, but heroic and worthy. We can ponder if his devotion to family and helping Johnny Boy is of any use at all and that precisely is Scorsese’s brilliance. Mean Streets is a film open to interpretations, moral discussions and at the same time serves as entertainment. Its twofold characteristic – it brings both enjoyjment and material for reflection – makes it a brilliant piece of art.

Hrvoje Galić