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

Death In Venice (1971) “Beauty Amidst Decay”

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies. The main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. Gustav’s friend despises his self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world.

Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts.

 

When Gustav comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees.

The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. Since Gustav is a composer in Visconti’s film, this may imply the decadence of music in contemporary times, a topic interestingly explored by Theodor Adorno. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Gustav says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The  perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty is deeply present throghout Death In Venice.

 

Vigorous lines:

You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.

Gustav von Aschenbach

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. This form of “divine madness” is love that comes from gods Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; he does not engage in contact with him until the last part of the movie. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty.

No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Alfred

In the ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing sublime beauty. Symbolically it conveys the moment in which the artist  creates works of the purest aesthetic value and his decline as an artist commences. It also points to an aesthetic experience which is an everlasting benchmark for comparison with other objects of aesthetic appreceation, bordering on adolation.

When an artist reaches the zenith of his abilities, only decadence can follow, since all living things either grow or decay. Old age and decadence are contrasted with youth and purity. Gustav’s friend Alfred says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.” The film’s title Death In Venice (Venice is often called serenissima – “the calmest”) carries an explicit allusion to sickness and decadence (the plague) which are juxtaposed to purity and beauty (Tadzio); a synthesis is formed out of oppositions. Thus, art is only possible in the realm of finality and entropy; nevertheless, when the screen freezes, the beauty is preserved.