Monthly Archives: May 2012

Eros & Thanatos

Eros and Thanatos

This essay will discuss sexuality in the films of Bobcat Goldthwaite and Luis Bunuel. This will be undertaken through an analysis of the life and death drives referred to, Sigmund Freud, as Eros (God of Love) and what post Freudian analysts have termed, the death drive of Thanatos (God of Death).

The Theory

Eros is the life force. This includes creativity, sexual instincts, and the ego instinct of self-preservation.  Thanatos, is the unconscious drive towards death and dissolution, eventually resulting in self-destruction via ego-splitting and conspiracy to annihilate anything of decency. Eros  is not simply a self-preservation instinct often confused with self-centeredness or narcissism (Coleman, 2006, p. 257). Eros encompasses the act of creation on every level.  The Eros life force propels one to leave a lasting legacy and to procreate.  This drives people towards sexual relations in that they not only want to live, but they want to continue through another. This is a simulation of creation. 

Thanatos corrupts Eros through the unconscious and masochistic need to destroy what one loves and/or desires (Coleman, 2006, p. 759) .  This is often in the form of fear of commitments, denial, dishonesty with oneself and recreating traumatic events.  This is a death drive because it cuts the flow of the life drive.

The Films

The films analysed are Luis Bunuel’s Belle De Jour (1967) and The Obscure Object of Desire (1977) as well as the Bobcat Goldthwaite[1] directed films Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009).  Each of these films examines Eros and Thanatos in varying degrees with the concepts of masochism, the Madonna-whore complex and masculine ego.

The Luis Bunuel films will examine these concepts from the masculine and feminine sides of Eros and Thanatos.  The Bobcat Goldthwaite films will focus on the dissolution of the romantic relationship in Sleeping Dogs Lie and the unconditional love of the Parent Child relationship in World’s Greatest Dad.  The films have been examined in this order to represent the Eros life force as an act of creation.  The ultimate act of creation being the child.

Thanatos can corrupt even the child in the development of his or her own sexuality. A good example of this is in the very brief scene of Belle De Jour where we see in flashback that Severine was created as a sexual object at a very young age.  This became part of her sexual identity.  This is often where it begins

Part One: Thanatos

Destruction of the Incomplete Feminine

‘Belle De Jour’ (1967)

Belle De Jour is about a young married upper class woman named Severine. Severine appears to be aware that she is incomplete.  This was her verdict of herself.  She wanted to function as other women do.

She has a successful husband, named Pierre, that she loves and is loved by. Pierre, is unobtrusive and appears to be sexually inactive, yet worships his wife.  In her mind, this makes her physically untouchable and undesirable. It is rarely, if ever that Severine makes physical contact with Pierre. To do this would be an act of liberation. Early in the film, Severine’s fantasy is to be tied to a tree and whipped. This represents a part of Severine that wants, or more to the point needs to be controlled and bound. When discussing sexuality and prostitution early in the film Severine said “It must be horrible with strangers.”  Yet, she was unable to engage in sex with her husband.

Severine’s basic need of the marital relationship is for the purposes of security and protection.  Therefore, sex with her husband is not unlike incest (Bunuel, Belle De Jour: Bonus Features , 1966).  She could not be intimate with a father figure and protector.  This was the beginning of Severine’s introjection[2] with the external world.  This manifests itself in her masochistic dreams and fantasies of being whipped, and of having manure thrown at her.  The masochism of Severine is the Thanatos aspect of this character. This is not so much about pleasure taken in sexual pain, this is more in line with her existential freedom. To partake in prostitution is to be bought and owned. With a client she is liberated of her own free will. Her desires and sexuality become irrelevant when she is on the clock.

 This is perhaps why her relationship to Pierre cannot be consummated. This would require Severine liberating herself as a free agent. This can be seen in the way she wears her hair tighter when alone with her husband. When she is at the clubs, in the brothel or even when sharing her scenes with Henri the hair is down.

Traditionally it is the men who are afflicted and are incapable of sex with those they love and loving those, they sleep with.  Judeo Christian sexuality is traditionally shared between the mother and the whore (Bunuel, Belle De Jour: Bonus Features , 1966). The mother side is purity.  Sexuality is removed with those that are respected and loved. The female equivalent of the Madonna-Whore complex appears to be in the juxtaposition of the kindness of one man and the nastiness of another.  This is the traditional bad boy. Some girls always fall for the wrong guy without understanding why. In Belle De jour the bad boy was a hot headed gangster. This is mostly present in the love triangle that exists between the kind husband, the prostitute and the bad boy.  There was sexual desire on Severine’s part for the bad boy but not for the husband.  The bad boy was the poorer choice and she will be worse off for this choice. Just like the man afflicted by the Madonna-Whore complex will be worse off for choosing to be with the whore.

Destruction of the Incomplete Masculine

‘The Obscure Object of Desire’ (1977)

In The Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, 1977) the Madonna-Whore Complex was presented from the masculine perspective. To look at Belle De Jour and The Obscure Object of Desire side by side they are working within similar themes of duality, the Madonna-Whore Complex and Masochism. The character Conchita from The Obscure Object of Desire is one person who represented both sides of the Madonna-Whore complex through two actors, and two very different characterisations.  There was the chastised Conchita. This was the pure version. Then there was the promiscuous Conchita. This was the impure version of the same character. There is unpredictability in Conchita and Mathieu appears to be aware that this relationship cannot work.  One Conchita loves him but wears a chastity belt. The other Conchita despises him and uses her sexuality to manipulate her environment. This Conchita goes out of her way to provoke Mathieu with sexual suggestion and has him buy her a house while turning abusive towards him at any given moment.

Eros is pushing Mathieu towards love and self-preservation by his sexual instincts of the libido.  He has no children.  His biological clock is ticking.  Therefore, it is natural that he would want a younger woman to carry on his seed.  By biological standards, it is easy to see why he wants Conchita.  However, the destructive force of Thanatos is also at work.  This is what drives him to keep returning to her like a dog to its puke.  One Conchita is Eros and the other is Thanatos.  They can only co-exist for brief period before one dominates.

In this case, the film ends in destruction.  He gets the pure Conchita and all seems good until the climactic explosion that ends the film.  Within the film, the basic explanation is that this was a terrorist attack.  This is a logical conclusion that ties in the terrorist themes of the film as well. Look a little deeper into the terror at hand.  The terror is the anxiety and fear of Mathieu.  When this anxiety and fear takes over for this character Nasty Conchita shows up and provokes him with her sexuality that he cannot have.  Nasty Conchita will always be present for Mathieu.

As good as his relationship with Chastised Conchita may be he does not know when the threat will arise. Therefore the threat is three-pronged: first there is the threat of being killed in a terrorist bombing, then there is the threat of never being loved or able to spread his seed, lastly there is the self destructive nature of Thanatos that propels him to return to what is bad for him.  Each of these threats will lead to death.

Living in a state of terror is a social death as it prohibits the autonomy of the individual.  Not having children is death as it is the biological death of the genes.  The self destruction is the most dangerous as this is the drive that propels to do what is not in your best interest. The self destructive instinct is always present and can cause dissolution of a relationship between even the most loving couple and happy couple.

Part 2: Eros

Eros as a Destructive Force

‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’ (2005)

Sleeping Dogs LieSleeping Dogs Lie (Goldthwaite, 2005) is an examination of the dissolution of a relationship and illusions of unconditional love. The film opens with Amy watching TV and in a spontaneous moment she decides to perform oral sex on her pet dog.  The film is about her crisis of conscience over carrying this secret for years until she reveals it to John; her fiancé.  This begins when John tells Amy about the dirty things he did when he was a teenager such as having to eat a ‘soggy cookie’ [3].  He explains what the game involves and this game is arguably more disgusting than the bestiality.  Yet, she repulses him and even her parents are repulsed once she is outed.

In this film, Eros compelled her to be honest which led to the destruction of her relationship.  However, this was not the specific cause of the dissolution.  John was the one who pushed her to confess and reveal her secret.  Pushing someone to be honest and reveal details that you may not handle is Thanatos in its nature.  John telling Amy about his sexual history was not an issue for Amy because she loved him and had very high interest in the relationship.

 This high level of love was not returned to her. On John’s side is where Thanatos existed.  Ultimately she just wanted to share the story about blowing her dog with someone she loved.  This was stated in the opening sequence. She knew it was disgusting but there was a part of her that thought it was funny.  The dog was not hurt and there was no serious violation.  It is nowhere near as bad as kicking or punching a dog.  It was in the end a harmless experiment. While her denial in the first act of the film and her secrecy for fear of social ostracism is also linked to Thanatos in one regard.  Her Eros nature pushed through this and prepared her for the mature and loving relationship with another man in the second half of the film.  Amy is in despair in the first 30 minutes of the film about what will happen if she is outed for performing a bestial act.  Yet, she still wants to tell the man she loves.  Her anxiety in the dream sequence where she imagines being at a cocktail party and using the icebreaker “Does anyone else know what canine semen tastes like?” is perhaps the most important scene in the film as this shows what Amy wants.

She wants acceptance for who she is and for all her flaws.  John claims that he loves her ‘for everything that made her’ and that she can tell him anything.  In the end these are just words and he cannot commit to this unspoken promise.  In all honesty, who could love someone unconditionally in this regard?  It is not exactly a lie to say you will love someone no matter what, but it is delusional.  This is Thanatos and it is rooted in humiliation of the male ego. Amy said in her opening montage that Men are insecure enough about their Penis.  This turns out to be true as Amy’s mother married Amy’s father under the pretence that she was a virgin.  In fact, the mother was a bisexual Roy Orbison, Elvis groupie.  John becomes more repulsed by Amy as the film moves along. Yet, he tries to continue in the relationship until they get back together.  The relationship is shown through a montage to be a happy relationship on the surface.  The relationship self-destructs about five seconds after the montage.  In this scene, Amy and John are being intimate when he asks her if he can watch her blow his pet dog Steve.

It was the belief that love is unconditional and John’s ego that caused the dissolution of their relationship. Therefore, a romantic relationship is conditional upon factors that those in that relationship may not be aware.  To say you will love someone no matter what is a nice thing to say but very few people can actually live up to such an agreement.  Sometimes being honest and revealing too much to even those that you love can be destructive. Even though the intent may be Eros the result may be Thanatos.

In the third act Amy finds new love in a less attractive, less successful older man named Ed she resists the desire to discuss what happened with John and why she repulsed her parents.  Ed hypothesizes that she must have had an abortion and Amy allows him to believe this. This is not unlike the example set by her mother of pretending to be a virgin.  Amy appeared to understand the fragility of Eros in the romantic sphere by the final act. The love between a parent and child is a stronger love as this cannot be broken. Parent and child is a relationship that exists independently of the factors that affect a romantic or sexual relationship. Bobcat Goldthwaite’s follow up film World Greatest Dad  (2009) is a black comedy that demonstrates this unconditional bond.

‘World’s Greatest Dad’ (2009)

This film is about Lance (Robin Williams) an unpublished writer and poetry teacher. Lance is the father of a fifteen year old boy named Kyle (Daryl Sabara) who is arguably one of the most repugnant teenagers in recent memory.  Lance was suffering from the delusion that it is wrong to dislike those that you love and does not understand the distinction between liking and loving a person.  Lance appears to feel guilty in the first act about not particularly like his son.  Kyle is disrespectful and demanding. Lance attempts to compensate his inadequacies as a father by giving into Kyle and overcompensating by buying him a new computer monitor. The new computer monitor was not good enough for Kyle as he wanted a new computer to go with it.  Thirty minutes into what appears to be an extreme reinvention of the American Pie gross out movie formula, Kyle dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation[4]. The computer screen is what Kyle dies in front of while watching pornography.  The guilt is doubled in Lance for disliking Kyle and for trying to not to dislike and discipline Kyle, as he probably should have when he discovered Kyle practices auto-erotic asphyxiation in the opening moments of the film.

Auto-erotic asphyxiation is the mixture of Eros and Thanatos. There is the sexual pleasure of cutting off ones oxygen supply to release a greater orgasm. In this regard Eros and Thanatos may not actually be enemies as one would assume but companions to each other. One cannot co-exist without the other.  Where there is life there is death.  They are not actually enemies in themselves but the drives that they manifest themselves through are often in contrast.  Auto-erotic asphyxiation is the tightrope between the two.

Lance’s Thanatos solution on discovering his son with a scarf around his neck, his pants around his ankles and pornography playing on the new computer monitor is in his idealized image of the deceased.  He makes the accidental death appear to be suicide and writes a well-constructed suicide note.  The suicide note is then published in the school paper.  While he was doing this out of love, he was also humiliated by his son and in denial about how to respect the dead.  He was destroying his son’s memory as a repugnant little pervert out of a need to preserve the memory of the son he did want as opposed to the one he got.  Out of a lie, Lance continues on to gain more popularity and in a Cyrano De Bergerac style twist wins over the woman he desires with poetry, poetry written in his dead son’s name.  This is the romanticization of death.

Unlike Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1956)[5], this is not a sexual obsession with the dead.  This is not necrophilia.  However, a sexual relationship emerges over death in a dishonest manner.  It should be noted, Lance was seeing this woman in the beginning of the film but her interest in him was waning and she was obviously attracted to and possibly sleeping with the new English teacher. Lance was able to reopen the relationship and reignite the relationship with the faux poetry.  This created a new sexual dynamic between the two.  On one level it is a sexual relationship, but on another level Lance was making his transitions through the grieving process by seeking warmth in her feminine sexuality.  However, the sexual bonding is formed over death.

Part 4:

Eros and Thanatos: Side by Side

Perhaps a more useful way of looking at Eros and Thanatos is not that people either have life or death drives but that they have both. It is easier to do the wrong thing and every person has the ability to be self-destructive and to burn their bridges. Some people may be more self-destructive than others such as Mathieu. Some may not want to be free such as Severine. Some may want to be free of the past such as John and Amy. Some may want to be humiliated by the past such as Lance.  Thanatos exists within all of these characters but so does Eros. The majority of people do not conform to one side or another but are forced to live with a combination of the two. There are instances where both of these concepts can be seen and observed within these films.

Of the characters discussed in these films, Lance is the only one that is a parent.  This is the natural progression of sexuality.  This is the life force of Eros. As can be seen these characters are walking a tightrope between Eros and Thanatos.  Severine is walking the tightrope with her masochism. Mathieu is walking the tightrope within the Madonna Whore Complex.  Amy and John walk the tightrope of Eros/Thanatos dynamics of relationship boundaries and the dissolution of a relationship due to being too honest. Lance walks the tightrope of respecting the dead for who they were not for how you want them to be.

These characters can be destructive but also loving and kind. They have to walk a tightrope between Eros and Thanatos. Sometimes they fall off and become suffocated by Thanatos like Mathieu and Severine. Sometimes they can fall into Thanatos and get back up like Amy and Lance. There will be days when average people do not want to live or consider giving up due to the hardships of life but the majority of the time they will find a reason to move forward. The reasons to move forward are primarily sexual reasons such as a new love or the love of one’s children which are the offspring of sexuality. This is the life force of Eros that moves them forward.

Bibliography

Bunuel, L. (Director). (1966). Belle De Jour [Motion Picture]. France: Studio Canal Blu Ray Collection.

Bunuel, L. (Director). (1966). Belle De Jour: Bonus Features [Motion Picture]. Spain: Studio Canal Blu Ray 2009.

Bunuel, L. (Director). (1977). The Obscure Object of Desire [Motion Picture]. Spain.

Cronenberg, D. (Director). (1996). Crash [Motion Picture].

Goldthwaite, B. (Director). (2005). Sleeping Dogs Lie [Motion Picture]. USA.

Goldthwaite, B. (Director). (2009). World’s Greatest Dad [Motion Picture]. USA.

Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1956). Vertigo [Motion Picture]. USA.


[1] Bobcat Goldthwaite was a comedic actor of the 1980s from the Police Academy films.  He moved on to directing highly acclaimed independent features in the last few years.

[2] Introjection: psychoanalysis, the internalization of the parent figures and their values; leads to the formation of the superego.

[3] A game where a group of men (at least 2) stand in a circle around a cookie placed on the floor in the middle.  They then have a race to see who can cum on the cookie the fastest.  The last person to ejaculate on the cookie must eat it.  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=soggy%20cookie

[4] Autoerotic asphyxiation, also known as scarfing is the act of masturbating while cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain.  The objective is to release the scarf before ejaculation.  This creates a greater orgasm.

[5] Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1956) follows with the themes of death and desire as well.  There is Eros in the first and second act as Scottie develops his feelings for Madeleine, the second half of the film moving into a different gear when the death drive to destruction culminates with Judy throwing herself off the tower.  There are several things going on here.  First is the re-creation of a dead person.  This creates a living corpse.  Even though the living character of Judy loves him, nothing less than seeing the deceased woman he loved will satisfy him.  This is the obsession with death.  This obsession is sexual in nature.  This in itself is necrophilia.  It is an obsession with the dead that has an erotic nature.

Men in Black III

Men in Black III

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Michael Stahlburg

Running time: 114 Minutes,2012

Men in Black III, was a welcome surprise and might even go down as my favourite film of Blockbuster season. I was not expecting much from this at all. I thought the first film was amusing but average and the second film was a soulless CGI fest that seemed more interested in a talking dog than the characters. Acknowledging the break in filming, an out of control budget and script rewrites, one could be forgiven for expecting another studio “Gotta keep the franchise rights” cash grab. Despite everything against this film, Barry Sonnenfeld and his crew have moved beyond the gimmick of Men in Black to make a great summer film that feels like real film with a brisk pace, great characters and one of Will Smith’s more mature performances in recent memory.

 Not only did they move away from the gimmickry of the first two films by having no fully CGI characters or pointless cameos, they actually gave us character development. Outside of full frontal nudity and gratuitous swearing, character development was pretty much the last thing I would expect from a Men in Black film, or any film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Barry Sonnenfeld is one of the finest Cinematographers working today. As a director he generally seemed more interested in the aesthetics than character. This is what makes him such a great cinematographer but a flawed director. In Men in Black 2 it was only about getting to the next sequence and seeing what funny stuff the dog can do. With Men in Black 3, he stepped up to the plate to deliver one of the better character driven blockbusters so far this year and has developed his craft as a director and storyteller considerably since the first film in the series.   Not only were the characters great but every character in this film was integral to the story.

 If this was not enough to actually get characters in a Men in Black film, we also get an amazing performance out of Will Smith where he finally gets to move beyond the wise cracking that defined the character in previous entries. A good example of the power of Will Smith’s craft is that his finest moments come in the smallest of moments. Such as the scene where he talks to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) on the phone and just cannot connect to his emotionally distant partner. It may not sound much on paper but the emotional weight of Will Smith’s performance becomes a driving force of the film. There are several moments in the film such as this. It is these moments that hold the film together. Because of these moments it never feels like we are being assaulted by gratuitous CGI money shots. A good example would be the sensory raping delivered by Green Lantern last year. 

The one gripe I think some people may have is that Agent J’s (Will Smith) connection to the past is obvious pretty early in the film. Some may disagree but I don’t think they were going for a twist. This subplot provides an emotional investment in Agent J’s journey and once you see the film you will understand how these characters have come full circle and how strong the unspoken bond is between Agent’s J and K.

I would recommend this film to anyone who feels jaded by the last few years of emotionally vacuous blockbusters such as Transformers and Dark Shadows that are little more than very expensive pacifiers of your time.  This film is in my opinion a very welcome and entertaining surprise that not only never feels gimmicky but has genuine emotional moments without being too sentimental or overtly obvious.

A STUDY IN THE CHARISMA & NONCHALANCE OF CARY GRANT

Very few actors have the ability to balance the dual persona of romantic hero and comedian.  A lot of the time these two persona’s will be played by two actors such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Cary Grant however, simultaneously played both romantic hero and comedian (Britton, 1983).  He had the ability to perform Jerry Lewis pratfalls with Dean Martin’s charisma.  He could be funny and still get the girl even when he would play a geek.

Grant’s career spanned from the early 30s through to the late 60s.  Through almost four decades as a screen icon, he went through several phases.  Grant’s most popular films are most likely his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.  Films such as North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and Charade (1963) have given him continued popularity with modern mainstream audiences.  However, the Cary Grant Persona was established by the time he made these films.

To understand the appeal of Cary Grant and his persona this investigation will look at his pre-Hitchcock films.  These films were primarily romantic and screwball comedy[1].  The focus here is on Grant’s screwball comedies from the 1930s through to the late 1940s and early 50s. These films utilize Grants skills to better effect than other genres that he worked in.  The Screwball period includes his collaborative efforts with Directors George Stevens, Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks[2].

Leo McCary’s main contribution to Grants persona was Marx Brothers style slapstick.  This was most noticeable in The Awful Truth (1937).  This is the film where Grant began to incorporate his acrobatic training into his cinematic performances.  Before this point, he appeared to be physically stiff.  Good examples can be seen in his Mae West collaborations I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong (both 1933).  From Awful Truth onwards he became a very physical comedic actor.

The Persona of Cary Grant was already in its early stages when he made his Howard Hawks films[3].  What these films did was highlight Cary Grants charisma with rapid-fire dialogue and strong leading women such as Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn.  The Hawks films are also some of his most popular and enduring comedies.

The screwball comedy not only cultivated the persona but also used the persona as a comedic tool.  For example, in the opening scene of Monkey Business Cary Grant opens a door and attempts to walk out.  Howard Hawks voice is heard saying “Not yet Cary.”  This gag was repeated three times in the opening scene.  The brilliance of this meta-joke is that it makes it clear that you are watching Cary Grant and whatever character he is playing is largely irrelevant.  The Cary Grant persona is what the cinema audiences were paying to see.

The films in question were all Black and White.  They also predate the common usage of the widescreen lens.  All they had to use in these technically modest productions were costuming and basic framing techniques to draw the audience’s attention to the central character.  This is why Cary Grant was often dressed in whites and long coats that made him appear to be taller than his co-stars.  The white suits were a reinvention of the knight in white armour.

A good example would be Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.  In this film, Grant was dressed in light colours.  These were white and tan clothes as opposed to darker dirtier shades on the other actors.  Hawks filmed him from a low angle looking up.  It was also common for Hawks to position Grant a few feet closer to the camera.  This made Grant look larger than life.  Yet, his character in this particular film was distant from those around him.  Grant appeared to be on a different plain than the rest of the pilots featured.

He was the quintessential Gentleman.  This is different from a ‘ladies man’, a ‘Casanova’ or a general pursuer of women.  Cary Grant represented what few men do.  He had the confidence to make himself subtly unattainable.  If a woman wanted Cary Grant, she would have to work for his affections[4].

Director Peter Bogdanovich once asked Howard Hawks why in his films the women chase Cary Grant.  His response was “Did you ever see anything sillier than a man making a pass?”(Jeremy Northam, 2004).  This is one of the key points to understanding Grant’s persona.  He rarely if ever chased women.  When he did however, there was always another woman chasing him or another man competing with Grant.  For example in George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942), Jean Arthur played a woman caught in a love triangle between two men. In the final moments of the film she tells Cary Grant’s character that the other suitor has proposed.  Cary Grant’s wry response was “He’s a good man.”  In other words, “have a nice life together.”  He proceeds to turn and confidently walks away from her.  Jean Arthur follows him after a brief pause.  She tells him that he is the one she chooses.  In this scene, she was attracted to this man like a magnet.  Why did she choose Cary Grant after he removed himself from the equation?  It is simple.

Most men in these films would either fall into two categories.  The first category of men were the over bearing character types.  They were intent on possessing the female leads.  A good example would be Hugh Marlowe’s character in Monkey Business; he played Grant’s romantic Nemesis vying for Ginger Rogers’s affections.  Then there is the push over types who women could not respect.  A good example would be Ralph Bellamy’s characters in Awful Truth and His Girl Friday.  He often played the fiancé’s of the ex wives that Cary Grant wanted back.  He was always too eager to please.  Cary Grant however was in a different category.  He kept his cards very close to his chest.  He represented the third and most unique character type.  This is category of male is often forgotten.  This was the Gentleman.

The Gentleman is possibly the most misunderstood character in the screwball comedy genre.  In Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire (Britton, 1983) the writer argued that Screwball comedy was “the comedy of male chastisement.”  Film Professor Wes Gehring argued that Screwball was an “eccentric battle of the sexes, with the male generally losing” (Gehring, Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy, 2002, p. 4).  These scholars may have missed the point of what Grant was actually doing on screen.

Screwball romance in this writer’s opinion was more like a game of bluff.  The first to reveal their feelings or make physical contact had the greater interest in that relationship.  By revealing their interest, they give up an element of their power to the other party.  The party that loves the most will always be at a slight disadvantage.  Unfortunately, no two people will ever love each other equally.  One will always love more than their other will.  This may only be a five percent difference.  It is not a drastic difference just a slight tilt of the scales in one persons favour.

In I was a Male War Bride for example, there was a scene in a café where Grant and Ann Sheridan are drinking coffee.  She begins to fall in love and strokes his arm.  Grant remains stoic.  In a wry tone he says, “I should tell you one more thing…  You’re paying for the coffee.”  He was stoic and he was nonchalant.  He existed in his own space.  By remaining self contained and keeping his hands to himself, he epitomised the gentleman.

Grant was predominantly the ‘nice guy’ with the unique ability to say “NO.”  For example in the Mae West film I’m No Angel (1933) she had the power to make any man in the room fall at her feet and give her whatever she wanted.  When it came to Cary Grant and her offer to “come up and see me some time” Cary Grant told her he was busy.  This elevated her interest in Grants character over every man in the film.  He was different because he was indifferent.  He was respectful and he was funny.  Ultimately he was a Gentleman with the highly uncommon character trait that is discipline.  He wanted her and he gets her in the end by removing himself with grace, and maintaining his self-respect.  It was not unlike a poker game where he would hold onto his cards for as long as possible even when he knows that he has a winning hand.  To some viewers this inaction appears to be weak.  However, this nonchalance won the girl by allowing her to think she has won him.  This is an absolute strength and is in no way representative of male chastisement.

Even when his female leads would become hostile or insult him his smile never waivered and his wry wit remained intact.  He was his own man.  This was his erotic appeal.  He understood how to behave.  He appeared to understand that if he gets angry with a woman, he loses.  If he bows down to her, he loses.  When he neutralises the conflict with nonchalance he becomes more attractive.  This is because he is not an easy target and is not an easy catch.  Cary Grant represented the fantasy of the Gentleman.  The fantasy is the unattainability of his persona.  It is to want what you believe you cannot have.

Howard Hawks used the screwball romance formula to lesser effect in Rio Bravo (1959).  In Rio Bravo Angie Dickinson played a girl named Feathers who was John Wayne’s Love interest.  John Wayne’s character always played down his interest in the girl.  This would leave her to pursue him.  The love story used in Rio Bravo was the same formula that Hawks used for Cary Grant.  However, John Wayne did not have the charisma that Grant had. This is not to say John Wayne was without confidence.  It simply means that Cary Grant’s confidence was different.  He would probably be less confident picking up a gun or leading troops into battle as John Wayne would.

What worked for Grant did not work for Wayne even though they had the same director and scriptwriter from Only Angels have Wings (1939).  Therefore, Grant’s appeal was not in the writing.  It was not in the directing.  It was not in the cinematography.  It was in his confidence. It was in his self-control.  Ultimately it was in his ability to challenge and perplex the women around him.  His power was in his self-containment and his autonomy.

He not only had autonomy and absolute command of himself.  He also had a self-conscious self-sufficiency, interpreted as vulnerability.  Despite Grant’s swagger, he did have vulnerability.  He just never revealed it in its full capacity.  He would only ever give his audience and his ‘Leading Ladies’ a whiff of vulnerability.  A mild odour was all that was necessary and Cary Grant appeared to be intuitively aware of exactly how much was required.  This vulnerability showed he was human.  A good example of this was in Only Angels Have Wings.  He played a cantankerous mail pilot running cargo during World War II. This was a great combination of comedy and drama.  This character was darker and drier than the screwball characters that he had played in the past.  This character could have been tough and over bearing, but Grant played this character as a man with a slight chink in his armour.  By only revealing, a hint of vulnerability when indulging in a cigarette he avoids going over the edge into marchioness.  He still maintains the fantasy of the Gentleman.

In My Favourite Wife (1940) for example, Grant plays a recently remarried widower.  His long lost wife (Irene Dunne) returns to discover that her family has moved on with out her after five years.  In the final act after he gets his original wife back, she is still angry with him and resentful.  He asks, “Can’t you see how I feel about you?”  She is indifferent towards him.  He asks her when she wants to see him next.  She tells him in a sarcastically aggressive tone to “come back at Christmas.”  He exits the room and she is lying in bed worried that he will not be back.  There are loud sounds of rustling suitcases and luggage thrown around off screen.  In these moments she is petrified that she has lost the man she loves.  Then Cary Grant re-enters the room in a Santa suit shouting Merry Christmas.  She lights up and hugs him.  The brilliance of this scene was that she had to lose him before she knew how much she truly loved him.  In this scene as well as every film viewed for the purposes of this essay, he never said the words “I love you.”

A scene such as the one above is also a good example of Cary Grant’s physical comedy.  He was capable of performing pratfalls and slapstick.  This style of comedy was usually for the buffoons or the female leads such as Katherine Hepburn’s eccentric character in Bringing up Baby (1938) (Jeremy Northam, 2004).  Cary Grant had the ability to be foolish at times while never becoming the fool.  The Awful Truth is also a good example of this.  He was ‘the dignified folly’.  This is “the ritualistic humiliation of the man” (Gehring, Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy, 2002).  Dignified silliness was common in Screwball comedy.  The silliness of Monkey Business (1952) for example, escalated in the final act to the point where the whole principle cast are swinging from light shades and playing water fights.

Looking at the wry wit and the nonchalance of his early films through to the outright silliness of War Bride and Monkey Business it is clear that Cary Grant went through several reinventions.  Each reinvention added something new and distinct.  The acrobatic training was already in place from an early age.  The nonchalant attitude towards women was present well before Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks worked with him.  These attributes were already present they just needed refinement.  Cary Grant is the refined version of Archibald Leach. Therefore, Cary Grant may not even exist outside of the persona.  This leads to one final question.  What is Cary Grant?

In this writers opinion Cary Grant is the fantasy of what a man should be.  A man should be confident, self-contained, witty, slightly unattainable and nonchalant.  However, very few men can maintain these qualities twenty-four hours a day. Even Cary Grant could not live up to the persona he created.

In one of his final appearances during a live series of lectures titled An Evening With Cary Grant he reportedly said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant…  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Bibliography

Britton, A. (1983). Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire. Newcastle, NSW: Tyneside Cinema.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1938). Bringing Up Baby [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1952). Monkey Business [Motion Picture]. wentieth Century Fox.

McCarey, L. (Producer), & Kanin, G. (Director). (1940). My Favourite Wife [Motion Picture]. RKO Radio Pictures.

Ruggles, W. (Director). (1933). I’m No Angel [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Sherman, L. (Director). (1933). She Done Him Wrong [Motion Picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.

Charles Lederer, B. H. (Writer), & Hawk, H. (Director). (1940). His Girl Friday [Motion Picture]. USA.

Dale, A. (2000). Comedy is a Man in Trouble. Minesota, USA: University of Minesota Press.

Gehring, W. D. (2005). Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy. Toronto: Scarecrow Press.

Gehring, W. D. (2002). Romantic Vs. Screwball Comedy. Oxford, UK: Scarecrow Press.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1940). His Girl Friday [Motion Picture]. USA: Columbia Pictures.

Hawks, H. (Director). (1949). I was a Male Warbride [Motion Picture]. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Stevens, G. (Director). (1942). Talk of the Town [Motion Picture]. Columbia Pictures.

Harvey, J. (1987). Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturgess. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Hawk’s, H. (Director). (1938). Bringing Up Baby [Motion Picture]. USA.

Trachtenberg, R. (Director). (2004). Cary Grant: A Class Apart [Motion Picture]. USA: Turner Classic Movies.


[1] The basic difference between Romantic and Screwball comedy is that Screwball has an unpredictable element such as rapid fire dialogue and faster pacing.

[2] Howard Hawks was a screenwriter, director and producer during Hollywoods golden years.  Leo McCarey was equally famous in his day through his work with the Marx Brothers and his unique approach to filmmaking and improvisation.

[3] The Howard Hawks films were His Girl Friday (1940), Bringing up Baby (1938) and When Angels have Wings (1940), “Monkey Business (1952) and I was a Male War Bride (1949).

[4] This is not to say Grant was rude or disrespectful.  In reality, he may have been rude and obnoxious in his personal life. Some rumours even claimed Grant and Randolph Scott had a sexual relationship.  Whatever Cary Grant did in his personal life is irrelevant to this discussion.  What is of importance is his screen persona.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth

Directed by: Jim Henson

Starring: David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly with Ron Mueck and Brian Henson

Remastered 2K DCP Print, 91 Minutes, 1986

Cinema: Exclusive to the Astor Theatre.

Labyrinth is a 1986 Jim Henson directed fantasy about Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who accidentally wishes that the Troll King (David Bowie) would take her baby brother away. To get him back, she must find her way through a labyrinth to reach The Troll Kingdom. The story is quite simple and does not require much analysis. The appeal of Labyrinth is not in the storyline. The appeal is in David Bowie and Jim Henson.

If you have seen Labyrinth before, and you feel as strongly about this film as most people I have spoken with, then the Astor’s restored 2k print will be sure to please. It looks pretty good for a twenty five year old film but not quite as polished as some of the other 2k prints they play at The Astor such as Logan’s Run. This is in no way a discredit to Labyrinth. Logan’s Run has a cleaner more sterile look than Labyrinth so it is an easier film to convert.

The limitations were most evident in the dance sequence with the dancing puppets with the rolling heads. You could see the black outlines around the composite shots of Jennifer Connelly. To Jim Henson’s credit, this was ahead of its time and incredibly well done. I can’t imagine this film looking much better without doing a multi-million dollar ‘George Lucas’ style clean up. Old George was a producer so there may be hope.

For those who haven’t seen or fallen in love with this film as many have, you may want to read on. There is something oddly refreshing about seeing a real and tangible fantasy world coming to life. No matter how grand they try to make a film such as Avatar or John Carter I struggle to get past the fact that these creatures were created on a computer and in my mind they lack the presence that I need to be emotionally engaged in a fantasy film.

Now, don’t get too excited if you are coming in fresh. This is not a perfect film and it is debatable whether Labyrinth matches the greatness of The Never Ending Story or other fantasy films from this era. As much as I loved the above elements, on a critical level, Labyrinth, as a whole was slightly hit and miss for me. The downside of this film compared to The Princess Bride for example is that I felt it was too focused on smaller children instead of maintaining a larger audience appeal. I was also slightly disappointed in Jennifer Connelly’s performance. I think she is an incredible talent but in Labyrinth she seemed to be playing the character too childish to be consistently convincing or emotionally engaging. Regardless of these minor quibbles, there is definitely more to like than dislike in this film. Even if the acting is a little unbalanced at times. It should be taken into account that Jennifer Connelly was the only actor on screen for the majority of the running time and David Bowie has enough charisma to get just about any film over the finish line.

I would recommend Labyrinth to those who want to simply have fun at the movies with no afterthought, or to experience the nostalgia of Labyrinth and the heyday of theatrically produced original Jim Henson films, or if you want to take your children further into the world of Jim Henson after seeing the Muppets a few months ago. The 2k digital print is very good but not quite perfect. I honestly think it is the best version that you will get to see of this film since its original theatrical run. It is also a lot of fun watching Jim Henson inspired silliness in a theatre with an audience. It should also be noted that this was the last film that Jim Henson directed. This film was, to a degree, the end of an era of theatrically released Jim Henson films. We got a few minor Muppet films released through Disney in the 90s that were mostly cash grabs such as Muppets in Space, but there were no groundbreaking theatrical efforts after Labyrinth. This was a shame because it is clear from their television works such as The Storyteller and Farscape that the Jim Henson Company had a lot to offer. Despite some wonky acting in places it is unlikely that you will regret having seen Labyrinth on The Astor Superscreen.

The Fall

The Fall

Directed by Tarsem

Starring Lee Pace & Catinca Untaru

2006, 115 Minutes

Reviewed by Wayne Pollock on 17/02/2012

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To put it mildly The Fall is a visual treat filmed on location across 20 countries that was especially jaw dropping on The Astor’s Superscreen. Most of these locations had never been used in a fictional film before. To get a rough idea of what to expect, I would say to think of a melding between the cinematography of Baraka with a story reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth.

To discuss only the locations and the aesthetic beauty of The Fall would be, in my opinion, a disservice to the film as a whole. For the aesthetics are the ingredients and not quite enough to get a Tarsem Singh film to the finish line. This was evident in his latest film ‘Immortals’ (2011). A film generally considered ‘nice to look at with no emotional investment’. The Fall is not about the visual flair. The visuals add to the story; just as a visual effect should.

The core of the film is in the relationship between Roy, the stuntman who may never walk again and Alexandria, a seven-year-old girl with a broken arm who has just lost her home and her father. They share a story that begins as a way of manipulating the little girl into doing favours for him. Through this story more and more of his personal story of recovery and his feelings come through. What makes this work so well is that the chemistry between Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) and the adorable new comer Catinca Untaru feels genuine.

Similar to the recent Hugo and The Artist, Roy is a relic of the silent film era. Just as George Melies (Hugo) and George Valentin (The Artist) are saved from their emotional wounds by unassuming acts of innocence Roy is saved by Alexandria. A little girl that is unaware of the ritual of sharing bread. When Roy asks if she is trying save him by sharing holy bread, she has no idea what he is talking about. He proceeds to explain what the nuns use Holy Bread for. It is these moments of affection that move this film beyond a work of aesthetic beauty and create a film of emotional reverence.

I find it hard to believe that this film is only now just finding its way into cinemas and to Australian DVD retailers. I actually bought the Blu Ray four years ago on import from Amazon as a blind purchase. It has since become my favourite demo disc for my home theatre system. The scene with the Elephant on Butterfly Island is one of my favourite things to show people. Seeing this at The Astor in a 4k digital print was beyond anything I ever imagined. I highly recommend seeing this at The Astor, but if you cannot wait that long I suggest getting the Blu Ray. It definitely stands up to and benefits from repeat viewing.

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THE CINEMATIC BODY OF BRUNO.S: ‘THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER OF CINEMA’

THE CINEMATIC BODY OF BRUNO.S: ‘THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER OF CINEMA’ 

 

This essay will discuss the two Werner Herzog films that featured a performer known as Bruno. S. These films were The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977). This will be done using a non-representational model of film theory to explore the cinematic experience of the spectator. In order to accomplish this task the film itself will be examined as an affective body conceptualized through Herzog’s Cinematic Tableau and Bruno’s embodied performance.

WERNER

The films of Werner Herzog straddle the line between documentary and fiction (Ebert, 2010). He is perhaps more famous for his documentaries to contemporary film audiences, and he is often regarded as one of the more eccentric filmmakers in his approach and the stories that surround his productions. A good example would be pulling a handgun on Klaus Kinski to get him to continue filming. There is also the story of him hypnotising his crew on the set of Heart of Glass (1974). The most famous Herzog story is perhaps from the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982), in which he had a full-scale three hundred and sixty-ton steamboat hauled over a forty degree mountain slope in the Amazon jungle to mirror the grandiosity of an Opera. He seems to care more about the image he can create and effect he can have than the accuracy of a story. This is why the line between fact and fiction in any film of Werner Herzog is constantly shifting leaving his audience in a state of flux. Two of the best examples of the shifting balance in the filmic world of Werner Herzog would be Stroszek (1977) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). The man who may define Werner Herzog as a man and as a filmmaker is an anonymous persona known to audiences only as Bruno. S.

BRUNO

Bruno was the son of a prostitute who physically abused him from birth until he was placed under state care. He was so shy and traumatised that they believed him to be retarded and placed him in a school for special needs children. He spent the next twenty-three years in and out of correctional institutions before finally entering the world in his late 20s. While he was not a trained actor he had the unique life experience, or perhaps a unique lack of life experience to embody the character of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek.

THE FILMS

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) was based on a German legend about a man who had never lived in society. Herzog cast Bruno because Bruno’s real life story mirrored the story of Kaspar Hauser. Where the film is telling the story of Kaspar it is also telling the story of Bruno who is to a degree not actually acting. He is ‘being’. Stroszek on the other hand was a film written and created especially for Bruno. The film was constructed around his life history and the environment that he lived in. This tells the story of Bruno in a modern setting where the man has no place in the world and therefore pursues the American dream only to realize that it is an illusion {Vernon, 1977 #5}. This film, like most Werner Herzog films draws a fine line between being a documentary and a fictional film. The one thing that is without question is the authenticity of Bruno’s performance and the embodiment of these characters. Bruno’s face and expression is unlike any performance in cinema.

 

FACT, FICTION AND THE AFFECT

While watching these films we are watching something that can affect on a level that we do not understand. This is because the emotions that we see on screen are real. Herzog did not even know a lot of his performers surnames. The hunters on the highway in Stroszek were not actors. They were just a couple of guys who pulled up when Herzog asked them if they wanted to film a scene. He never saw them again after they drove off. This was filmed in real time with no actors. Yet there is an authenticity here and there is something very real about this that transcends what we are used to seeing as an audience. It is in a state of flux where the spectator is never quite sure where they are within the filmic world of Werner Herzog (Gideon 1977).

HERZOG’S TABLEAU

Herzog holds his images for a long time. This allows the image to become a tableau that works its way into the audience. The opening scenes of Kaspar Hauser  for example opens with obscure shots of rivers and paddocks and a woman washing her clothes in silence. These scenes do not have anything to do with the rest of the film in a narrative sense. What they do is move the audience through a process from the obscurity of the outer world into the internalized world of Kaspar living in his cave with nothing but a toy horse. This enables the spectator to look at the world as an enigma, as something that does not make sense. It feels as if we are looking at the world through the eyes of a man who has never seen the world before. This is before we even meet Kaspar Hauser in his cave. As you can see from the pictures everything is just out of focus and slightly off balance.

 

In one of the greatest shots of Stroszek, Bruno stands with his back to the camera while he watches his mobile home taken away. This opens the scene up to a barren landscape with a telephone pole and a stray dog in the distance. The landscape of America is vast and open compared to the claustrophobia of the German suburbs. There is a sense of hopelessness that creeps into the audience. This is Bruno’s hopelessness. Herzog holds this scene until the bleakness of Bruno’s inner landscape is almost unbearable.   Within the framed shot we see Bruno taking up only a small portion. He is standing to the left and just below the centre of the frame. This shot taken even out of the context of the rest of the film still has an overwhelming affect. Within the context of the film and tied in with the affective force that is rooted in Bruno’s performance.

This is beginning of the climax that ends with the dancing chicken fading out to Sonny Terry’s blue grass harmonica tune. There is no ‘the end’ and there are no credits. The chicken keeps dancing. While it is easy to fall into the representational model of trying to sum up what the chicken means, Werner Herzog stated in the DVD Commentary “When I first saw the dancing chicken, I knew I was going to use it for a grand metaphor. I don’t know what that metaphor is” We can feel the despair that leads us into the final act. It is a foreboding sense of nothingness that comes from the landscape on Wisconsin.

This is not the only piece of music that Herzog uses to create his tableau. He juxtaposes two other sequences using Chet Atkins roots music. He uses the same piece of music to emphasise the happiness of coming to America and then to emphasize the despair of Bruno’s isolation and the way in which he was kicked around physically in Germany and then abused mentally in America. The musical pieces are exactly the same but the affect between the scenes is completely different. Because the scenes are completely different in tone the music changes in our perceptions.  The usage of the same music contrasted may only be evident after repeated viewings but the point is that the audience is changing along with Bruno and there is a shift in the perspective of the spectator. The landscape does not change. Before he comes to America the open land is seen as his freedom now he only sees how lonely freedom is. So he gets beat down by thugs in Germany,  beat down by the capitalist system of America where they take away his home and tell him to have a nice day and he is finally crushed by his own existential freedom. It is this perspective shift that makes this sequence such an amazing moment.

UNDIAGNOSED MADNESS

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on the other hand is a tableau of madness and undiagnosed madness of the world. If everyone is mad then the sanest man, by contrast is the strangest. Therefore the sane man is actually the maddest man in the village. The original title: Everyman for Himself and God Against All sets up this film as deformed society. The man at the centre of the deformed society is a man of no social shaping. This man is the Deleuzian ‘body without organs’. He impacts every other body that he comes in contact with and yet is unconscious of his own bodily functions such as pain. A good example of this would be Kaspar placing his hand over a flame and being completely unaware that his hand is capable of being burned. Kaspar is the man without essence as he has not been constructed within the world. As Deleuze and Guattari explain the body without organs it is a process moving towards a course of continual becoming. The paradox is that body cannot break away entirely from the system it wants to escape from. Kaspar Hauser is the man who is born outside of the body of society and therefore has a body that impacts the larger system. He is not an organism that fits into the world. The man on the outside of society is a man of Solitude. Therefore Kaspar cannot be de-formed when entering society so late in life. He is in a way, an anomaly and a filter for the rest of us to step outside of what we conceive to be the truth of our lives.

The conventional performance that the cinemagoer is accustomed to seeing is not present in these films, but there is something else here that draws the viewer in and does not let them go. This is why after Thirty-Four years these films are still relatable and despite the hair cuts and cars featured in Stroszek they still feel contemporary. There is something ageless about this story of the outsider. The filmic body is still fresh. It still has life. The clothes and hair has changed but these characters have not aged. In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser we see the world as it was, it makes no sense to Bruno, and it makes little sense to the spectator. In Stroszek we are seeing ourselves from the outside in.

BRUNO”S PERFORMATIVE FORCE

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek are variations of the same story mirrored in two different time periods of men without culture (Roger 2007).  Without the cultural background Bruno is a person without the social formation that we use to define ourselves. He can be seen from two perspectives. On one side is an uninformed fool but on the other hand he may be more human than any of us. He only appeared in these two films and he is what Werner Herzog refers to as ‘the unknown soldier of the cinema’. Bruno. S has no name that was publicly known until his passing in 2010 (Ronald 2010).

Therefore the body of these films is built around the embodied performance of Bruno. In the Deleuzian sense the ‘body’ is any whole composed of parts that stand in relation to one another and can be affected by other bodies ((Ed) 2011). They are a reflection of Werner Herzog’s deep affection for this man. As a result these films are not about the stylization that endows most films. These films are about the way we suffer in silence. Yet this is not melodrama, as we would see in the films of Douglas Sirk. With Bruno, we are affected by true suffering. This is perhaps something that cannot be ‘acted’ or even expressed in language. True suffering is something that most of us never feel. It may actually be beyond explanation.

 

While some actors have the ability to transform into a role very few can truly embody a role. As Bruno can embody the man outside of society or the way Klaus Kinski could play a deranged madman with a god complex. As a result the film becomes an embodied performance. The locations in Germany were places that Bruno would actually frequent in real life and the personal props and the apartment belonged to Bruno. So for the sake of argument I will be referring to all of the characters played by Bruno as simply Bruno. Some of the articles were about Kaspar Hauser and some were about Stroszek but the characters were reflections upon the life of Bruno. Where Bruno was the embodiment of these characters the films were the embodiment of Bruno.

 

THE AFFECT

In the opening sequence there is a man emerging that we cannot quite make out until he walks past the camera. The camera still holds the shot of the prison gates for what feels like a long time after Bruno and the guard leave. Bruno is being released from prison. This is a long sequence where we see Bruno and a guard entering through two prison gates.

 

We see Bruno collecting his items from the guards before leaving. In this scene there is a single close up of Bruno that appears to be out of place with the rest of the scene. It looks a little bit like a blooper. From a lesser filmmaker or editor this may have looked like poor editing. This is because it feels disjointed and separate from the film. It is as if we get a glimpse into Bruno beyond the character and into the man. We see Bruno looking away from the camera and to a degree he is looking away from the audience. This was similarly done in Kaspar Hauser where Bruno appears to be aware of the camera and averts his gaze. Yet there are moments early in Kaspar Hauser where it feels as if Kaspar is watching us back. It is almost as if he can look through the camera and see the audience seeing him. For most actors this would be breaking character, or at least the fourth wall. For Bruno, this is the character that is out of sync with the world. He can see what we cannot. This may include us as viewing objects.

“Because Bruno is now entering Freedom”

This begins the film.  We see the world in one of the opening shots in a foggy inverted haze that makes what we see indecipherable. We do not know what we are seeing until the camera pulls to reveal that we are looking through a glass bottle hanging from the ceiling in Bruno’s cell. Bruno is staring through this water botte, behind the water bottle is a window, and behind the window there is what appear to be people digging in the prison yard. Similar to the prison gates we have a man who is perpetually behind walls just as the spectator is also behind a screen looking out through Bruno’s eyes trying to look back in. Therefore through Bruno, we can see ourselves.

Looking at what one does not immediately understand puts the spectator into a new mode of experience. From here they can understand what they have seen only after they have seen it. Our attention is then taken away from the water as we see that we are not seeing the water, we are now within Bruno’s performance.

The first thing he does after leaving the prison is go to a bar. He does this after his parole officer has begged him to stay away from alcohol. This is part of the cycle of Bruno. Just like being on the chairlift going round he continually reverts back to what he knows and what he appears to know is that he is on a  merry-go-round about that he cannot get off.

CINEMATIC POESIS

In Brad Prager’s ‘The Cinema of Werner Herzog’ (Prager 2007). He argues that Herzog moves beyond the prosaic and the rational into a Poesis. Herzog’s interests appear to not be in the facts. He appears to be searching for an aesthetic standpoint beyond our conventional means of experiencing the world. It is in the conjunction of music, images and poetic epigraphs that his aesthetic standpoint is achieved not through the accumulation of facts. Herzog wants to find the alternative, or outside position from where we can stand and view ourselves. The problem is that we can never stand outside; we can only imagine what it feels like to stand outside. Where some filmmakers would attempt to do this by standing back in judgment, as in they want us to look at ourselves to see how we can better humanity. Herzog on the other hand wants to see through eyes that are other than our own. These are the eyes of the animal or alien.

Aliens are what he continually refers to his characters as in interviews. His films feature animals to such a degree that they have become a Herzog trademark. A good example is the seven-month premature baby holding on to the Doctor. This is incredibly disturbing and yet strangely moving to see a human being that is so premature that it barely resembles a human being. The premature child appears almost alien. What was extraordinary about this scene was the way in which the doctor demonstrates to Bruno the will to survive and cling to life by lifting the child with the baby grasping his fingers.

 

By doing this we can look at the world through the eyes and ears of those that do not understand what they see or what they hear. This quest could be seen as transcendental or perhaps Herzog is the first post human filmmaker. Bruno is the lens for us to encounter our own inhumanity.

In the cinema of Herzog, language is a boundary that must be overcome. He attempts to overcome this with the ecstatic image and with poetry. However language is needed to identify the limits of language. For Herzog film is a poetic medium not a means for conveying information. In this way he constantly challenges our preconceptions of the cinematic form. He challenges genre boundaries in a way that forces us to re-evaluate and reassess our expectations and understanding of not only cinema but also ourselves.

(Ed), A. P. (2011). The Deleuze Dictionary Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Gideon, B. (1977). “The Man on the Volcano: A Portrait of Werner Herzog.” Film Quarterly 31(1): 2-10.

Prager, B. (2007). The Cinema Of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth. London, Wallflower Press.

Roger, C. (2007). ‘THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER’ Werner Herzog (1974) ; STORY OF THE SCENE. The Independent: 1.

Ronald, B. (2010). Obituary: Bruno Schleinstein: Actor and musician known as Bruno S, chosen by Herzog to play his social misfits. The Guardian: 30.

Vernon, Y. (1977). “Much Madness: Werner Herzog and Contemporary German Cinema.” The Hudson Review 30(3): 409-414.

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Hallie’s Choice

John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is arguably one of the great westerns of its era. In some ways it represents the end of the John Wayne era of Westerns before the arrival of Clint Eastwood. What interests me in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart or the animalistic intensity of Lee Marvin, it is Hallie’s (Vera Miles) choice that I always felt was at the core of the film. They appeared to be asking what is it that makes a woman choose one man over another? What are the qualities that make a certain type of man more attractive? Is it his money, social status or job, or is it something primal that is beyond words? Why Hallie chose Ransom Stoddard over Tom Doniphan and whether she could have chosen better will be investigated through the works of Durkheim, Weber, Sartre, Freud and Nietzsche. If Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) offers idealism, comfort and justice, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) violent freedom and Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) just does what he has to do. Could Hallie (Vera Miles) have chosen better?

Desire and Discontent

At the opening of the film Ransom and Hallie had obviously been together for some years. The desire and passion appeared to have faded some time ago. Via flashback it can be seen that Hallie wanted a better life. She got this. She wanted to read. She was taught to read. She wanted real flowers. She got these as well. This was not quite enough. By the time we see her later in life she is longing for a simpler life.

Hallie was discontented after receiving what she claimed she wanted or at least what Ransom thought she wanted. Perhaps she did not want these materials. On the other hand maybe she lost her values as a trade off.  Such values include friendships and familial relationships to her employers and her connection to the townsfolk who depended on her as a waitress and cook. Ransom gave her these opportunities.

Ransom did not ask for anything in return. He was not looking for a wife and had no intent in possessing her as Tom Doniphan did. He could have easily lived his life in much the same manner with or without her.  Tom Doniphan on the other hand fell apart once he gave up the girl. He had a drunken tantrum and set fire to his house. This is why Ransom was the more desirable of the two. He was not dependent upon her. He did not profess his intent to marry a girl who was not even his girlfriend and did not give her flowers and trinkets like a schoolboy with a crush. Tom on the other hand gave her a cactus flower for no apparent reason other than obviously trying to win her over. This explains why she preferred Ransom but whether she could have chosen better is another matter. The reasons why people make choices or desire one person over another are not always for reasons in their best interest.

Sartre claims that ‘desire’ is the attempted incarnation of the consciousness of the other (Detmer, 2008, p. 108). Once this desire is met in the first kiss, in coitus or in the absolute certainty that you can have this person then desire is dead. Therefore by Sartre’s interpretation ‘pleasure kills desire’ (Detmer, 2008, pp. 96-98). Hallie could not be possessed and Tom could not take her freedom by steering her away from an education, without failure.

Tom’s desire for Hallie was insatiable and “insatiability is a sign of morbidity… Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture” (Durkheim, 1897, p. 208). Tom’s intentions were obvious and his attitude was too eager. This negated Hallie’s desire for Tom. Ransom on the other hand was a harder fish to catch. Not that Ransom was playing hard to get by normal standards but juxtaposed with Tom, Ransom was the greater challenge for Hallie. Her awareness of Tom’s feelings made Ransom more interesting by contrast. Even if one was to assume that Hallie was interested in Tom as the audience is supposed to accept, Tom did not make his move. He let the moment pass him by and opportunity has a tendency to step out of the way to let a man pass it by.

Take Ransom out of Shinbone and away from the excitement of Liberty Valance and there is a good chance that he was a very dull man. Once she married Ransom there is a high probability that she would eventually lose interest. This was evident in their later life scenes that bookended the film.

The Death of Liberty

When Tom shot Liberty Valance he not only killed Liberty Valance but he killed his own liberty in the process.  Tom was the counterpoint to Liberty in almost every respect. Eventually the knight has no more enemies. At the point where all enemies are defeated the knight has no purpose. This lack of purpose resulted in his self-destructive behavior just as the superego is out of balance without the id. Then the question needs to be asked; “if Tom were so heroic and magnanimous, why would Hallie choose Ransom?” This is because Ransom was noble but he could potentially move in another direction[1]. He wants to fight his own battles and he does. But not in the way that Tom fights. Ransom uses a pen and a book. Ransom was the symbol of modernity. He was the modern man and the old ways of law at the end of a gun were coming to an end. He was the grey area between Tom and Liberty. Therefore Tom’s time was coming to an end regardless.

The Abdication

It could be argued that Tom was a tragic Abraham-figure in that he gave Hallie up. Or so it seemed. This may have been an act of love or perhaps Tom finally saw the reality of the situation. Despite what Tom may have thought, giving up Hallie was not his decision. He never had her to begin with and he was certainly no relation. This assumption was Tom’s greatest flaw. Although it was alluded to that Tom and Hallie would marry, Hallie did not show a romantic interest in Tom. There were no signifiers of romantic interest and no physical contact on her part such as touching his arm or laughing at his jokes. She was certainly not impressed when he told her she’s pretty. The only times when she did communicate with Tom was when she wanted a favor. Such as needing him to save Ransom.

There was no visible connection between Hallie and the living Tom. This did not seem to matter to Tom. It also did not occur to Tom that he could not lose something he never had. Tom’s old-fashioned ideals towards women and his insecurity towards himself held him back.  By that logic Tom did not give Hallie up, he gave up his pursuit of Hallie.

To give something away as Tom claimed to be doing with Hallie and giving up on something are two very different processes. If Tom had been the master, his loss would have been his own choosing in giving up Hallie. People don’t usually kill themselves or self-destruct over things they consciously choose. If Tom actually lost hope and therefore gave up pursuit, then he had the most common motivation for self-destruction/suicide – ‘reaction by spitting the dummy against not getting one’s own way’.

If Tom was truly magnanimous and had given Hallie away as he claimed then he would not have self-destructed. The real tragedy of Tom is that he lost the girl to a tenderfoot, a pilgrim, the only man without a gun. This was a blow to his masculine and his egoist sensibilities.

The Grey

Shinbone was black and white, and Ransom remained in the grey in his acceptance of the falsity of his life and in the doubt he had in Hallie’s love for him. It is the legend that sells papers and truth becomes an irrelevancy in the modern world. By accepting this Ransom becomes disenchanted himself and liberty in Ransom dies when the choice between good and evil is removed. Tom and Liberty were like the devil and angel on his shoulder in a battle for his soul. This is perhaps why he was called Ransom. His dignity and self worth were being held to ransom.

The town of Shinbone was not accustomed to the ways of the modern world. Ransom had the best intent for the community by not carrying a gun and paving the way for the modern world. Ransom was in a sense the mediator. In Freudian terms Ransom could be considered the ego[2]. He fits right in between Liberty’s id[3] and Tom’s superego[4]. Ransom as the ego works in that he is the connection to the world outside of Shinbone. Tom on the other hand just did what he thought was right. He was a man who enjoyed his reputation as the white knight. He had to make the moral choices. Up until the death of Liberty Tom behaved in a socially acceptable manner.

Tom was the one who stood between Liberty and Ransom during Liberty’s moments of aggression. Liberty on the other hand was driven by instinct and self-gratification. Therefore they could not exist independently of each other. Tom faded away into obscurity before dying with no children to carry on his bloodline. Ransom gets the girl and the good job with the prestige but there was no family.  Ransom and Hallie did not have children and thus never moved into a totality in their love. Perhaps the sterility of the story implies the sterility of their relationship. Ransom is also dead in this regard in that his genes will not be carried forward.

The Bells

Liberty Valance of course gets shot. This death was the symbolic death of the community. Liberty had the freedom that Tom and the townsfolk only desired. After removing Liberty from their lives they lost a part of themselves. The bells stopped ringing and the townsfolk were not dancing any longer. The party was over in shinbone. They were no longer in fear and without this fear there was less to value. There was lawlessness in Liberty Valances time. There was anomie[5]. This anomie appeared to be a bad thing but once civil laws were in place freedom was subjugated. Thus there was the fear of Liberty Valance that was then replaced by Social Justice. Simplified in that the gun was traded for a law book. In the new world the pen is mightier than the sword. This was also symbolized by Tom apparently not using his gun in his remaining years and Ransom insisting that Tom be buried with his gun belt and boots.

The Family

The absence of family does not just go for Ransom and Hallie but for the town in general this was the decomposition of community. In fact, family as we know it and family values to a lesser extent were absent from Shinbone. The family structure and the respect developed from parental guidance that is transcended to authority were absent. In these cases social values remain undeveloped (Durkheim, 1897, p. 159). In the later years It was almost as if Shinbone was sterile or impotent. ‘Without the duration of families no society can be stable’ (Durkheim, 1897, p. 160). Therefore without family the community dies. Social norms and interactions break down leading into Durkheim’s concept of anomie.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote in response to what women want. “They want more people to talk to. They want a large extended family to gossip to at family barbecues while their men tell silly jokes to one another”(Vonnegut, 2007). When there is no one else in the life of a married couple they eventually get bored with one another. Imagine knowing every little detail about the person you will spend the rest of your life with. Boredom creeps in and ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. This is where Hallie and Ransom were by the later stages of their life. Hallie was longing to go back to the community. For perhaps the first time in years, Hallie appeared joyful  when Ransom suggested moving back to Shinbone. The Shinbone that once was, is no more.

The Lie

Hallie would have had a fair idea that Ransom was not the man who shot Liberty Valance. Not unlike the journalists, she probably preferred the fantasy that is easier to live with. One form of self-deception is to embrace opinions of others in avoiding your own opinions (Audi, 2006, p. 70).  The community had a high opinion of Ransom and he went along with it, until he blew out the match.

The character that did not betray his ideals, and was authentic in and of himself, was Liberty Valance. Liberty was the only free man. Therefore, why would Hallie not choose Liberty if he could offer freedom? Perhaps Ransom was somewhat unavailable, yet Liberty was completely unavailable. Hallie would have been smart enough to see Liberty was psychotic.

Liberty was truthful to himself and there was no internalised deception. Liberty will act in his own vested interest. There is truth in this. Lenny Bruce once stated, “the truth is, what is; and what should be is a fantasy. A terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago”. The lie was everywhere but in Liberty. Even Tom betrayed his beliefs by killing a man, Ransom betrayed himself by accepting the lie and the journalists refused to let truth get in the way of a good story. Liberty would only kill Ransom in self-defense, by this reasoning it was unlikely that Liberty would have killed Ransom in cold blood. By Liberty dying Ransom still loses to Liberty in that the Ransom that once was is no more. The old Ransom disappeared when he accepted the lie.

The Coffin

This brings us back to Hallie. If Hallie had no interest in Tom, why did she put the cactus flowers on his coffin? Perhaps this was out of guilt or a platonic love. In the closing scene when Ransom asked who put the cactus flower on the coffin Hallie replied, “I did”. In this statement Hallie was protesting against the life Ransom gave her and finally become her own person in her own right in a modern world.

Hallie may have asked herself, “what if I chose the wrong man?” or “did I make a mistake?” The reality was, for better or worse Hallie was with Ransom. If Hallie and Tom attended Ransom’s funeral there is a chance she would have behaved in a similar way. This does not lead to the conclusion that she had romantic interest or that Tom was a viable option.

It could be argued that Hallie’s interests were irrelevant in the old west. Women did not have equal rights in the old world symbolized by Tom and Liberty. If this is a valid argument then “choice” in and of itself becomes a moot point. Perhaps Hallie did not get a choice. After all it was Tom that allegedly gave her away to Ransom after revealing he killed Liberty. If women had no rights, Tom giving her away like a piece of property left her with no choice regardless of the man she wanted. Taking this into account she could not have chosen better because there was no choice for her to make other than not choosing Ransom.

By Tom telling Ransom he could have her was telling Ransom that he could never get her on his own. This relates to the earlier scene where Ransom picked up the steak and demanded, no one fights his battles for him.

Tom was fighting the battle for Ransom in giving Hallie away. Therefore Ransom did not earn her. Tom ends up giving up all livelihoods. Even in death Liberty Valance triumphs.

The modern world as represented by Ransom, women do have choice. Therefore assuming that she did have choices twenty years later and reflect upon the life choices she may have made if given the choice to make choices.

Hallie was given a new choice at the end of the film in the prospect of moving back to Shinbone. Hallie chose her old life in Shinbone and put the cactus flower on the coffin. Perhaps she would have chosen Tom if given the choice. On the other hand, perhaps it was safer for Hallie that Tom made the choice for her. This is not to say that Hallie would not have made the choice to go with Ransom, but once Tom gave up there was no need for her to worry or feel guilty. When Tom is gone Hallie has no protector and now has freedom to choose, but is condemned to be free with Ransom.

The Weight

Shinbone needed Liberty. Ransom and Tom both needed an enemy. This ties in with Nietzsche’s master morality. The Nietzsche master is separate from the herd by the ability to decide for themselves a course of direction in their lives. This is what Ransom and Tom were able to do with Liberty Valance in their lives.  ‘The master will be able to move on from the misdeeds of his enemies’ (Nietzsche, 173, p. 451), Ransom was able to do this by picking up the steak. To be nonchalant in this manner is a sign of strength and richness.

Without the enemy (in this case Liberty Valance) the master has nothing to challenge or be challenged by. A good example was Tom’s outburst and his descent into obscurity and eventual death after losing his enemy.  Ransom without Liberty on the other hand lives his life as a falsehood. He had his job handed to him based on something he had not done and he had a woman that he believed he did not earn.

The Absence of Fear

Everyone has a calling. They have a job. Even the town sheriff had the job of sheriff but he also had the purpose to make Ransom look smarter, to make Liberty Valance look cool and to make Tom look brave. Labor has come to be seen as an end in itself. This does not change, even for the wealthy. It was this asceticism that neutered the spontaneous nature of life in Shinbone. This was and still is ‘The fate of the times’ to live in a society characterized by ‘mechanized petrification’ (Giddens, 1971, p. 216). Therefore with Liberty gone there was no known or comprehendible fear, or an emotional threat. Predictability began seeping through the cracks. As stated above, familiarity breeds contempt. The bells no longer ring and the honeymoon was over.

Hallie’s Choice

Hallie may have been happier if she spent her life in Shinbone never knowing what was outside the walls. If she had never learnt to read or write and had never met Ransom then she most likely would have either married Tom or gotten old waiting for him to make his move.  In this respect there was not really a choice there.  It was Ransom or wait for Tom to grow up.  Based on Tom’s behaviour in the final act it was unlikely that he would be able to maintain an adult relationship. However the idealistic lawyer that Hallie first met was a different Ransom to the political Ransom that she married.

The Ransom of Shinbone existed within the trinity of Tom and Liberty. Remove Liberty and remove Tom and there is not a lot there to hold Hallie’s interest. Therefore she could have chosen better if given the choice. She may have had children with Tom but it is still unlikely that she would have chosen Tom.  This was due to the fact that Tom was too eager to please. Tom may have made a more loving husband and provider.  On the other hand Tom’s world was coming to an end. Men like Tom and Liberty were becoming extinct. Ransom was the future therefore Ransom was the best choice that she could have made.

Regardless of whom Hallie chose she would have ended up marrying one and forever wondering “What if?” about the other.

Bibliography

Audi, R. (2006). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Detmer, D. (2008). Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity. USA: Carus Publishing Company.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory; An analysis of the writing of Durkheim, Marx $ Weber. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haase, U. (2008). Starting with Nietzsche. Bungay, Suffolk, Great Britain: Continuum.

Nietzsche, F. (173). Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil. (R. Hollingdale, Trans.) Harmmondswaorth: Penguin.

Vonnegut, K. (2007). A Man Without A Country. Random House Publishing.


[1] He was a lawyer after all.

[2] The ego is based on the reality principle.  The ego understands that other people have needs and desires. Sometimes being impulsive or selfish can cause harm in the long run.  The ego’s job is to meet the needs of the id, while taking into consideration the reality of the situation.

[3] Freud believed that the id is based on our pleasure principle.  In other words, the id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the reality of the situation.

[4] Superego is the moral part that develops due to the moral and ethical restraints placed on us by our caregivers.  Similar to the conscience as it dictates our belief of right and wrong.

[5] Anomie is a social condition characterized by the breakdown of norms governing social interactions.

[6] Bad Faith is Sartre’s concept that self-deception or denial is a way to avoid comprehending or taking responsibility for ones own life and or choices.

The Haptic image of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’

The Fountain

This was one of my favourite films of 2006. While it failed critically and commercially with film festival attendees in Venice publicly booing the film. The Fountain is an emotionally overwhelming film but for some reason this movie stayed with me. I watched it several times on DVD, loving the experience but never understanding what it was that I enjoyed. I just knew that there was something unique that Darren Aronofsky captured.

This piece will look at two scenes that provoked an emotional response. The bathtub scene with Izzy and Tommy, and the Museum scene with Izzy and Tommy. These scenes were selected for analysis not because they are the most interesting visually, because these scenes push the film forward as the most affective character sequences.  These scenes will be examined through the conceptual theory of the “haptic image”; this is a physical and unconscious response to something seen.  In the bathtub scene the audience feels the love these characters share, in the museum scene we experience the disconnection between life and death.

These scenes not only have a sensory response through the “haptic image” but once the haptic response has manifested in the audience, the film takes on a new life. This is a film that at its core is a metaphor on coping with death. It is a film about loss and isolation.

Three Timelines

The Fountain is a film within three time lines. This moves from a historical period film to contemporary drama and psychedelic post-mortem science fiction. All three time lines contain characters with variations of the names Thomas and Isabelle (played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz). Tomas the conquistador is searching for the ‘Tree of Life’ on behalf of Queen Isabella. Tommy the contemporary neurologist trying to extract a cure from a rare tree found in Guatemala for Izzy; his dying wife. Tom the astronaut maintains a solitary existence in an indecipherable point in space and time. Tom is travelling through space in a bubble with the ‘Tree of Life’. This appears to be the future as Tom is travelling through space, where future and the past meet at the edge of the universe where the only way to continue to exist is to die as an act of creation.  This film moves into its dramatic core with the two central characters of Tommy and Izzy. This becomes a film of not only aesthetic beauty but a film with an emotional core.

The Bathtub

A film such as The Fountain is a film to be experienced not seen. The experience of this film is too much for a single viewing. It has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey for its final act, unlike Kubrick this film is an affective visual experience. It creates affective responses not only via the effects but through the affective performances of Jackman and Weisz whose close-ups in the bathtub scene where Izzi admits she is afraid and she feels her body changing tie the film together in one of the simplest scenes but also one of the most affective due to the use of ‘the gaze’.

The haptic visuality of this scene is that it feels as if Izzi is right in front of you. This produces a sense of empathy for Izzi where the audience can feel Tommy’s love for Izzi and her love for Tommy. There is nothing else on the screen but Weisz and Jackman. It is just the two performances that contain several close-up’s of the actors that bring the audience in closer than at any other point in the film. This scene moves us into Tommy’s point of view. Tommy’s gaze. This moves the viewer away from just being an observer on the journey of Tom (future) and Tomas (past). This close up brings the audience into the intimacy between Tommy and Izzi. This scene may not be the most visually spectacular it is arguably the most moving. This is a focal point in the story of a woman accepting her death. The close ups of Tommy mirror the emotional state of the viewer. This is Izzi’s world we are journeying through and Tommy/Tom/Tomas is the traveler. This scene fades to white [1].

Death as an act of creation.

Izzi visits the museum and discusses death with Tommy using the metaphor of Xibulba[2] theorizing that ‘death is an act of creation’ where new life springs from the dying person’s life force. The first father of her story from the Mayan allegory dies in act of creation in that he fuses with the star to give birth to mankind.

Tommy sees death as a disease; something to be cured. Izzi dying is something he is unable to deal with. In trying to save Izzi, she is neglected. As Tommy moves away from Izzi to get the car. The light changes from a golden light to a white spot light directly on Izzy. Izzy looks up to the ceiling before fainting. Tommy catches her just in time. The scene cuts to the eternal man’s nebula and then quickly moves back to the hospital.

Within this scene there is a mental and a bodily  experience. The audience can haptically feel the life being pulled out Izzi with the adjustment of the lighting and Hugh Jackman’s departure to get the car after hearing something profound about death. This was something Tommy needed to hear. The book Izzi is writing that the audience experience is a parting gift for Tommy. The fountain pen as a gift is not only symbolic of the title being ‘The Fountain’ but is something Izzi leaves for Tommy to complete. From this point it becomes clearer that the journey of all of these characters are intrinsically connected by death and rebirth and the journey of Tom, the space traveler has new meaning.


‘The Fountain’ as an extension of the mind

Where the spectator is within this story is debatable. On one level Izzi is writing a story that contains the historical and futuristic aspects. The story she is writing titled “The Fountain” is a mimesis of her internal struggle to deal with death. Tom the eternal man of the future floating through space in a bubble to deliver the tree of life appears to be fully aware of everything that preceded him. Tom appears to be aware of the present events and Izzi’s death as if they are a distant memory or a premonition of what is to come. The Mayan warrior who kills Tomas has a vision of Tom as the first father. As Izzi moves closer to death so does the tree in the space bubble. Thus there is no single point in time, in which this film stems from. Each story exists within the other stories. Trying to find a beginning and end to a film about life cycles is a moot point.

Whether these alternate events take place within Tommy’s mind, Izzi’s novel or if Tommy and Izzi are distant memories is debatable. Perhaps grief cannot be put into words and needs to be experienced. Visualization of the grieving process is not an easy task without going into melodrama.

The representations we seek and the ‘haptic’ perceptions we discover

The language of film taps into our psyche. We do not always understand what we see. We may attempt to create our own meaning as a representation of our lives. We often want to relive an aspect of our lives through film. Occasionally films do not conform to the representational model. They may exist outside normal perceptions where we cannot relate what we are seeing to our lives. This often happens with films that are abstract and challenge conventions of the film formula of the three-act structure. These films often become absorbed in our unconscious. Even with these films we still try to make sense of them. Where some scenes from The Fountain fit with reality the viewer is able to relate to what is happening on screen. The story of present day Tom (Hugh Jackman) trying to save his wife is relatable to an audience. This is a love story, to a degree the entire film is a love story about loss and accepting death as a natural part of life.


[1] The white fade out is common in the films of Darren Aronofsky. In The Requiem for a Dream DVD Commentary, he said that he uses the white fades early in the film to represent hope for his characters.

[2] This was a Mayan nebula that surrounds a dying star.

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