Category Archives: Essays

Eros & Thanatos

I just saw Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel and thought I’d repost this.

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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…

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Fritz Lang’s Film Noirs and Changing Concepts of Masculinity

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The 1940s represented a time when masculine control of the world was coming undone. Men returning from war, the social paranoia of the emerging cold war and the perceived communist threat to America were all signifiers of a world where man is not as dominant as he once believed. Therefore, the masculine role was changing. When this changes the feminine roles change too. It was these social changes that led to the shaping of what we now know as Film Noir. The man losing control or giving up control is not an invention of film noir but it is a staple of the Film Noir protagonist. Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and his follow-up film Scarlet Street (1945) are excellent representations of the changes in masculinity in the 1940s. These two films starring Edward G. Robinson will be explored through this essay.

Masculine Control:

By social standards there…

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John Rambo – Martyr or Monster?

I made some minor updates and corrected one of the videos. If you haven’t read this yet, it is an examination of First Blood paralleling Rambo with Frankenstein and Jesus. I am not sure how good my reasoning is but I welcome any feedback you may have.

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First Blood (1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy and David Caruso

Based on a novel by David Morell

first-blood-1982-brian-dennehy-sylvester-stallone-pic-3First Blood was in many ways the film that made Sylvester Stallone a movie star. Before being cast as John Rambo his only hit films had been the first two Rocky films. Films such as F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley were critical and commercial failures that are rarely mentioned even among his most hardcore fans. First Blood was the film that pushed him through to stardom. While this was great for Stallone it was also unfortunate that the film First Blood and the character of John Rambo got caught up in the franchise machinery of Hollywood. While the other Rambo films are entertaining in their own right First Blood has a depth that is rarely mentioned amongst film scholars. These depths are not obvious on a first…

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John Rambo – Martyr or Monster?

First Blood (1982)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy and David Caruso

Based on a novel by David Morell

first-blood-1982-brian-dennehy-sylvester-stallone-pic-3First Blood was in many ways the film that made Sylvester Stallone a movie star. Before being cast as John Rambo his only hit films had been the first two Rocky films. Films such as F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley were critical and commercial failures that are rarely mentioned even among his most hardcore fans. First Blood was the film that pushed him through to stardom. While this was great for Stallone it was also unfortunate that the film First Blood and the character of John Rambo got caught up in the franchise machinery of Hollywood. While the other Rambo films are entertaining in their own right First Blood has a depth that is rarely mentioned amongst film scholars. These depths are not obvious on a first viewing and have only just become apparent to me now in 2013. The two points I want to address are the Frankenstein themes and the Jesus themes that run through this film.

first-blood-1982-brian-dennehy-sylvester-stallone-pic-2    First, there are the parallels between Rambo and Teasle (Brian Dennehy) with the Jesus and Pontius Pilate dynamics. Teasle does not necessarily hate John Rambo, he has a duty to keep the peace and part of keeping the peace is in keeping out those that threaten the existence of the quiet community that Teasle needs to maintain. Rambo to Teasle is not really a person he is a representation of the anarchy of war and stands as an open wound of Americana that has yet to heal at the time when First Blood takes place. Rambo is a mirror of the American soul and demonstrates an element of humanity that most would rather not look at. Whereas Pontius Pilate did not necessarily hate Jesus or even want to crucify him it was something he saw as being his duty and this is part of what makes him such a fascinating and tragic character. There are also images that connect this theme such as stripping Rambo down in the cell, the flashbacks of being tortured and tied up to a device not unlike the image of a crucifix. Then there is the resurrection in the final act where Rambo is presumed dead after being sent into the mine that the towns people blew up with a grenade launcher.

Trautman_3The usage of the local hunters forming a pack and Rambo almost killing the child is a subtly reference to Frankenstein. Where Rambo had a relationship to Teasle that was not unlike Pontius Pilate and Jesus, Rambo’s relationship to Col. Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) character is not unlike that of Dr Frankenstein and his monster. This is the man who claimed to have made Rambo.

Therefore, Rambo is essentially a creation of the American military and barely registers as a human being. Rambo is a thing to certain degree. He is an assembled creature of military training and engineering. What remains are Rambo’s base instincts for survival. This is something he shares in common with Frankenstein’s monster. This is most evident where he encounters the boy with the hunting rifle. Rambo comes close to killing the kid before his humanity returns ever so slightly. It follows from this scene to the hunters forming a mob paralleling the Frankenstein chase into the windmill.

On one side we have a Pontius Pilate character and on the other we have a Dr Frankenstein character. ‘How can Rambo be both a Martyr while also being a monster?’ you may ask. My answer is: Rambo represents the nothingness of the world that people feel the need to fill in and mirror with their own anxieties and ego’s. Teasle needed a threat to protect his town against and Richard Crenna needed to create a monster to protect his country that eventually turns against his country when under the threat of the man wanting to protect his town. Whereas the Frankenstein Monster was created with the best intentions and purpose, once that purpose was met the monster is left to the world without a purpose. Because the monster looks like a threat he becomes a threat. Rambo was that monster but he was also a sacrifice for the purposes of maintaining peace in the world but this peace was just a veiled illusion and Rambo will become whatever those that shape him need him to be.

ALIEN 3 & FILM NOIR

ALIEN 3

Directed by David Fincher

Written By Walter Hill, David Giler and Larry Ferguson

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Ralph Brown and Paul McGann

Running Time: 114 Minutes Theatrical Version/145 Minutes Extended Version.

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In 1979 Alien reinvented the horror/sci fi genre with its simple haunted house in space premise. Alien also made a star out of Sigourney Weaver. This was for the most part a horror film hybrid. In 1986 James Cameron delivered Aliens. In this film James Cameron shifted gears from the first film by reinventing the formula. Aliens was an Action film in space that owed no small tribute to the Robert A. Heinlan’s 1950s pulp serial ‘Starship Troopers’ and  Rambo (1984) which was also written by James Cameron. So we had horror in Alien and action in Aliens. In 1992 Alien 3 was released with a lot of anticipation and was expected to follow the template of Aliens. David Fincher created something few expected. He took the conventions of the Alien series and introduced Film Noir. This can seen stylistically in the rustic prison scenes and in the contrasting shadows. This demonstrated the bleakness of this world, but unlike other neo-noirs that are admired for their technical skill and for referencing older films, Alien 3 is true film noir in its themes of death and as antithesis to melodrama that destroys any feelings of hope that James Cameron created in the final moments of Aliens.Where in Aliens Ripley was seen as a hero, in Alien 3 she is on a journey towards her own death. Through this essay I will demonstrate why Alien 3 is a film noir by investigating Ripley’s masochism and how the alien in Alien 3 is a metaphor for the internalized hatred of these characters.

Ripley’s death was one of the major selling points of the film. This is perhaps why Alien 3 was the highest grossing film in the series[1]. Alien 3 was also the most disliked of the series. This was due in no small part to the absence of an emotional catharsis to Ripley’s story arc. An example of this is in the closing shots of the three empty cryogenic chambers that Ripley, Neut and Hicks went to sleep in at the end of Aliens. This was another signification of the meaninglessness in the world of Alien 3. All that is left behind of these characters is a computer log recording of Ripley’s voice. If Ripley had died in a heroic blaze of glory or she had some grandstanding speech, audiences would have been more receptive to her self-sacrifice.

https://i0.wp.com/www.scifimoviepage.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/alien3-pic.jpgThe film going audience tends to enjoy this in melodrama such as Titanic and The Notebook. In the case of neo-noir films such as Alien 3, audiences often despise seeing their heroes die. The most likely difference depends on the emotional investment on the audience’s part and the belief that a character died for a good reason. Alien 3 did not satisfy in this manner. David Fincher’s film moved against the easy formula set up by James Cameron and Ridley Scott. He thrust his audience into perhaps the bleakest sci-fi world ever conceived in a mainstream film. Alien 3 in this regard was difficult for audiences in that the film was about a woman’s journey toward irredeemable death.

James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) featured the subplot of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) waking up 60 years later and knowing that her closest relatives and her daughter have passed away. By the end of Aliens she had found a new surrogate family in the form of Neut the orphaned girl and a burgeoning love interest in Hicks (Michael Biehn). David Fincher’s Alien 3 on the other hand opens with the annihilation of this surrogate family and this represents the destruction of hope for Ripley, for the future survival of the family unit and for the audience’s emotional catharsis awarded at the end of Aliens. It was this discomfort, the antithesis to melodrama and the absolute alienation of humanity in this film that brings Alien 3 into the sub genre of film noir.

Ripley’s fate was sealed in the opening act with her impregnation. Therefore the film is in its simplest form is a neo-noir about Ripley’s journey towards death. Even when Ripley realises that she is going to die at the birth of the Alien Queen, she is anomic to her own doom. She just wants it over with. This was evident in her scene with Charles Dutton’s character, the preacher. She asks him to kill her but demands that there are no references to god, no eulogies or anything else. She just wants to die. Symbolically she was already dead via the death of the family. This scene was perhaps the most important scene. This scene signifies Ripley’s need to destroy herself was a greater priority than killing another Alien.

https://i1.wp.com/application.denofgeek.com/pics/film/alien3-5.jpgThe secondary characters in Alien 3 were the prisoners. These men chose to remain on a prison planet even after the company closed down the prison and abandoned them. They not only chose to remain on the abandoned planet but they established their own religion and a vow of celibacy on a planet without women. Their incarceration manifested as religion alleviated them of their existential free will to do wrong. They were ‘condemned to be free’ and Ripley spins them out of control by posing a threat to their vow of celibacy. Whereas the prisoner’s existence represented the worst that humanity has to offer, Ripley was the representation of everything they hated about themselves.

Therefore, regardless of the Alien threat, the Prison population were going to die out. Ripley as a threat on the other hand was going to turn these men inwards and bring out the darkest instincts of human nature. The Alien in this case was an internalized hatred of themselves. Neither their prison sehttp://alienseries.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/alien_3_disc135.jpgntences, nor seclusion from the rest of the known universe, nor religion could purge their basic instincts. Even if Ripley did not sacrifice her self to neutralise the alien impregnated in her, she would have had to die to preserve the social order of the planets population.

Despite what some may say when comparing this to other stories that involve self-sacrifice Ripley’s sacrifice was meaningless to Ripley. This was because she had nothing to continue living for. Due to the nihilistic nature of this film it is easy to see why mainstream audiences reacted negatively. After James Cameron’s hope inspiring finale Ripley has a meaningless existence. This does not make Alien 3 a bad film as some would argue but in many ways there is a lot more going one beneath the surface of these characters that were pushed aside in favor of action spectacle in the previous film. Alien 3 may not be the best in the series but examining Alien 3 as a film noir or a neo-noir provides a greater appreciation for this often neglected and misunderstood film that is very much a David Fincher film.

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[1] The Worldwide box office numbers according to www.boxofficemojo.com are Alien:  $104,931,801, Aliens: $131,060,240, Alien 3: $159,773,600 , Alien: Resurrection: $161,295,658

Beyond The Flaws of ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’

In my last blog entry I reviewed ‘Star Trek‘ (2009) and demonstrated that there is more to the film than I and most Star Trek fans initially thought. After writing this entry I began to think about the other films in the ‘Original Film Series’ and how there are aspects of these films that are often overlooked. So I decided to go where ‘No Man Has Gone Before’ I am going to do something that not even William Shatner or Gene Roddenberry could do. I am going to defend Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989).

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is debatable as the worst of the Star Trek films and by all accounts it is quite bad, but it’s bad in a very ambitious way that one has to admire for at least attempting to find God in Star Trek. The effects are by far the worst of any Star Trek film and the story is not without its flaws. Flying into the center of the galaxy to find God may sound like a good idea on paper but is very difficult to pull off and was ultimately a compromised film. While the film was not successful as a Star Trek film or any film for that matter there is still something interesting going on in this film.

For me there are two aspects that set Star Trek apart from any other Science Fiction Series and have made sure it has endured for almost fifty years.The first is the willingness to take on grand ideas, the second is in the surrogate family of the crew.  Star Trek V: The Final Frontier taps into both of these concepts.

GRAND IDEAS

Star Trek at its best and at its worst is when it is tackling grand ideas that cannot be contained within a simple story. These are ideas that pertain to destiny, asking what it means to be human and how to maintain a sense of morality in a dehumanizing universe. As Stephen Fry pointed out Star Trek is Nietzschean in concept as man is always trapped between his intellect and his instincts. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are the definition of this in their dynamic. McCoy represents Kirk’s emotional core and Spock represents his intellect and Kirk always has to try to balance these two aspects in order to maintain his humanity. This idea was also addressed throughout The Next Generation in that whenever they had diplomatic missions the problems were either that the Aliens were too intellectual and cold-hearted or they were too instinctual and aggressive such as the Klingon Empire story arcs. So at the core of Star Trek are ideas about humanity and this is more important to the legacy of Star Trek than visual effects and plot contrivances. Star Trek V tackles ideas that are grand that they get muddled in the translation to the screen while this leaves us with a deeply flawed film we have a film that is very passionate about these ideas and deserves credit for attempting to be more than the sum of its parts.

FAMILY

What this film really has going for it and what makes it indefinably Star Trek is that this is the first film in the series which brings us back to the family dynamic of The Enterprise Crew and gives us a film that focuses on the bond of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. While Star Trek III and IV began to tap into the emotional connection between these characters and gave plenty of room for great character moments for all of the crew this was the first and only film that returns to the trio and bookended by the family bond that these three characters shared in the Original series but got lost amongst the film series. The camping sequences while as corny as they are, give the audience a glimpse of how far these characters have come and how close they now are after twenty-three years where their mortality is now bearing down upon them. This is also one of the few Star Trek films where we get to see Starfleet Officers off duty. What makes these scenes so good and yet so cringe worthy in their dorkiness is that they are not the cool kids chasing women anymore. They are like the ‘Dorkie Dads’ on their annual fishing trip. These scenes are oddly charming in this way. They return to classic Star Trek while also showing that they have grown and changed. This serves to remind us that they are not just a crew they are a family unit.

TONE OF THE ORIGINAL SERIES

While Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is undeniably brilliant and returns one of the great series villains that no other Star Trek film has ever been able to surpass Star Trek has never about the villain of the week it was always about ideas and the family of characters. Therefore Star Trek V with its bad effects grand ideas and a focus on the relationship of Kirk, Spock and McCoy may actually be closer to the concept of The Original Series than any of the other films. This does not mean that it is a better film than any of the films that surround but perhaps we have been too hard on this flawed but ambitious entry in the Star Trek film series.

Masculine and Feminine Archetypes in Fight Club, Hamlet, The Searchers & Seven Women

The female characters in John Ford’s The Searchers and Seven Women, Hamlet and Fight Club suggest that the early stages of culture are created organically by an internal ‘feminine’ process. This is not the same as an ‘organic society’ where each individual serves as part of the societal bodies functions. It is the cultivation of culture that these women represent. This will be examined by analysing the abstract ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ archetypes1 of the characters Dr Cartwright (Seven Women), Ethan (The Searchers), Jack (Fight Club) and Hamlet.

The Transition to the Feminine

The transition to the ‘feminine’ will be explained using Dr Cartwright (Ann Bancroft) and her wounded ‘femininity’. The ‘masculine’ will be examined in the outward actions of the male characters Ethan (John Wayne) in ‘The Searchers’ and ‘Fight Club’s’ Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). This will involve the impact that the female characters Debbie and Marla on these overtly ‘masculine’ characters. The ‘Fight Club’ Narrator known as Jack2 and Hamlet will be used as an example of the unfulfilled men in the middle, trapped between their internal ‘feminine’ and outward ‘masculine’ attributes. Hamlet and Jack will be contrasted and compared using the female characters of Marla and Ophelia and their ‘masculine’ responses to females in their cultures.

The internal process of culture is for the purposes of this essay the ‘feminine’ aspect of culture. In this concept of ‘femininity’ it is the internalised nature of the characters persona. This is something that is potentially being created and recreated at any given moment in both character and culture. Yet it is not self sustaining. It needs to grow and it needs to be fed. It needs to continually push outwards in the form of ‘masculinity’. The ‘masculine’ nature is the externalised outward behaviours of a person and culture. This is the core of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ attributes. The ‘masculine’ response to trauma, tragedy and drama in medieval times was to mount a horse with a lance and charge off in a state of aggression to overcome the problem and/or enemies. This is the external nature of the ‘masculine’ archetype. John Wayne’s character Ethan was a prime example of this.

‘Seven Women’

This is not to say women were incapable of ‘masculine’ behaviour. Dr Cartwright in the first two acts of John Ford’s ‘Seven Women’ (Lofts, Greene, & McCormick, 1966) was a good example. Her arrival in the fort dressed like an early incarnation of an ‘Indiana Jones’ style adventurer leads the audience to perceive her as a strong, independent and ‘masculine’ woman. She dresses like a man, drinks from a bottle, uses cigarettes obsessively as a social barrier and intentionally defies the cultural stereotypes of women. Just as Cartwright uses cigarettes to create a barrier between her and the world, Agatha and the other women use religion and the fort in a similar manner.

The only character who manages to break through this barrier of Cartwright’s smoke is Emma. This is evident in the scene where Dr Cartwright is woken and told that Emma is sick. Her first instinct was to smoke a cigarette. She puts the cigarette in her mouth and moves to light it, but she does not light the cigarette. She throws it away. Dr Cartwright would not have done that for any other character at this point in the story. There was a seed planted by Emma’s ‘feminine’ presence. This was also evident in an earlier scene where Dr Cartwright touched Emma’s arm in a rare act of ‘feminine’ kindness. Dr Cartwright remains a strong woman throughout the film. In the final act she finds greater strength in her ‘femininity’. This ‘femininity’ is most evident after she makes the pact with the Mongol leader and metaphorical devil Tungha Khan. After she makes the agreement she goes into her room to seek solace in solitude not unlike ‘The Handless Maiden’ seeking solace in the forest3 after having her hands chopped off. This is a form of ‘feminine’ initiation equivalent to the heroic actions of the ‘masculine’.

Dr Cartwright’s action resulted in the demise of her own life, but succeeded in the continuation of another life. This was the newly born baby. One life ends and another continues. The pregnancy as a biological process also works as a clever metaphor for the internal creation of the ‘organic culture’. As one culture comes to an end another culture is created. The culture of the Christian mission was over. The culture of the nun no longer had the authority it once had. Forts were becoming a thing of the past and the horse and cart were being replaced with the automobile. Along with the death of Dr Cartwright is also the demise of the Cart in itself. One ends but another continues reinvented in a new form. One culture is born out of the last in a continual process of death and birth. This is what could symbolically be called the conception of an ‘organic culture’.

Dr Cartwright’s solution to saving the group was to embrace the ‘feminine’ aspects of her character that were previously denied. This was in not going in to conquer her enemy but by compromise. This was to neutralize herself along with the villain. The ‘feminine’ heroic action of Dr Cartwright was not of violence or destruction in the sense of Ethan through the majority of ‘The Searchers’. She did not want to triumph over evil or seek revenge. She wanted to diminish the opposition of two forces of their illusory battle (Johnson, 1993, p. 80).

‘The Searchers’

Ethan on the other hand did not hesitate to shoot out the eyes of a dead Indian and send the Indian soul into purgatory or scalp the villain Scar. Thus resorting to the same levels of the Indians he despised. He even wanted to kill the person that Debbie (his beloved Niece) had become. This was until he got to the moment where he had to choose. He could not kill her. This was most likely due to his unspoken oath to the restoration of the community and family. This was a community and family that he had no place in. He could not rejoin the community but he could help to restore and bring balance back to the culture.

Ethan had an oath to his cavalry that had no current purpose. This was a useless and unfulfilled oath that may have only been an illusion of an oath that concealed him from the real truth. This gradually gets stripped away along his journey. This started with giving away his medals and cutlass to his brother’s children and using his coat to cover the dead body of his elder niece. But he had a greater oath to Debbie. This was to protect her life. There was a paternalistic aspect to this character that had been suppressed by another potentially illusory oath. This was an oath of revenge. In the choice to allow Debbie to live Ethan had to give up an element of this ‘masculinity’ that he held onto for years during his search and
perhaps even before that. This was possibly dating to his time in the cavalry. He could either project outwards externally and shoot her, or pull her into the internal world of his ‘feminine’ archetype.

The ‘feminine’ was there to balance Ethan out. This was arguably the part of Ethan that helped to restore the community. The ‘feminine’ aspect may have only made up a small percentage of Ethan’s character. It may not have been there in force but it did provide him with something that was necessary to his internal faculties. Debbie was arguably the representation of this. She was small, undernourished and there was only a small trace of the Debbie that once was. It was this tiny remainder of the former Debbie that saved Ethan by reigniting an undeveloped element of his character. Ethan’s internal functions were then
carried over to restore the community.

‘Hamlet’

Hamlet on the other hand was too focused on his internal reflections. He lacked the ability to externalise these aspects of his character in the way that Ethan could. He was continually trying to act in an outward and external manner but his ‘femininity’ kept pulling him under. The man was torn between two worlds and only began to externalise in the ‘masculine’ sense in act five of the play. This was in the challenge to a duel from Ophelia’s brother Laertes. Hamlet lacked the benefits of certainty throughout most of the play. He even refers to himself as ‘one part wisdom and … three parts coward’ (Shakespeare, 2005, pp. act iv, scene iv).

This is not to say that Hamlet was effeminate and this is in no way a reflection on his sexual orientation. This simply means that he had ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ attributes that were unbalanced. Hamlet could not balance the two and ended up in a state of self-destruction not unlike Jack/Tyler from Fight Club. The tragedy of Hamlet is that he couldn’t find his way out. Jack found his way out of this situation in a manner that could easily be missed by the casual viewer. This imbalance is especially noticeable when compared to John Wayne’s character Ethan. Ethan was also unbalanced but in a very different manner.

‘Fight Club’

“Only after disaster can we be resurrected” was one of Tyler Durden’s memorable lines. He was only half right. The logical step that was missing that the above mentioned characters of Ethan and Cartwright understood was that it was not disaster in and of itself. It was the higher calling of their oath that provided them with ‘post-destruction’ power. They had to pay a price and accept certain truths to move into the next stage of development. Tyler Durden was the one trying to set the price and thereby removing the freewill in others that he appeared to cherish in himself.

On the flip side of Tyler Durden was Marla Singer. These two characters were essentially the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ aspects of the character we only know as Jack. Tyler begins to emerge early in the film during one of the office scenes in a brief subliminal image next to a photocopier4. Tyler only officially manifests in a fully-fledged persona after Jack meets Marla. He appeared to have no idea how to deal with Marla and seemed to be threatened by her presence. Marla’s introduction to the audience was when Jack had his face nuzzled in Bob’s breasts. The only other female character of note was Chloe who was dying of cancer and posed no real threat. Out of a response to the ‘feminine’ that he was threatened by emerges Tyler. Jack not unlike Hamlet was trapped between Marla and Tyler.

After Jack returned from the airport to discover that his apartment has been destroyed his first impulse was to call Marla. This triggered an explosion in his
mind. Her ‘feminine’ sensuality triggered something that he did not entirely understand. He denied this instinct, hung up the phone, and then called Tyler.
Calling the girl would have been the correct and logical course of action. This explosion of ‘femininity’ propels him towards a violently ‘masculine’ sense of anarchy. This was Jack’s aversion to love. A better example of Jack’s aversion is in the group meeting where Marla gives him a very sensual embrace. Jack begins to slip into actually enjoying her close contact and her warmth before emotionally and physically withdrawing and telling her that he cannot cry in front of her.

Jack’s treatment of Marla was not unlike Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia. “Get thee to a nunnery” was Hamlets response to Ophelia. Jack’s response was “If I had a tumor I would name it Marla”. This was one of the key lines in the film. This line may sound darkly comical on the surface. Look a little deeper into the statement. Compare Marla to a Tumor. There is something growing inside of Jack’s psyche that he wants eliminated, but he does not know what it is. Examined in conjunction with Chloe (the sexually starved cancer patient) and it could be argued that for Jack women are cancerous. If Marla was the tumor then Tyler was the illusory cure. Jack had this wrong. Marla was not his Tumor, Tyler was. Phonetically, Tyler sounds somewhat like tumor. Tyler was arguably the antithesis to Marla and his rejection of ‘femininity’. Similarly, the book and film were more than likely the author’s antithesis to the modern feminist movement.

Jack already had problems and Tyler was already beneath the surface. Jack had narcolepsy and similar disorders. These were all emotional problems as diagnosed by his Doctor. It was his response to Marla that propelled him into the creation of Fight Club. This is the ‘masculine’ response that was discussed earlier. The medieval Knights will mount a horse and go charging off, Ethan shoots out the eyes of dead Indians and scalps his enemy, but Jack has no horse, no lance and no gun. He didn’t even have a sword to meet the challenge set for him such as Hamlet had. Jack had an IKEA catalogue, a fridge full of condiments, and a repressed ‘masculine’ and ’feminine’ identity. The only tools he could utilize in his emotional release of ‘masculinity’ were in his fists. In a way this is more brutal than the actions of Medieval Knights, Danish Princes or Cavalrymen. There was a primal nature that he tapped into via Tyler in a response to a culture that drained his identity out of him. Jack was like Hamlet minus the prestige and class, with an ‘Oliver Twist complex’5 thrown in for good measure.

Jack’s salvation was in Marla. Marla may not have had Ophelia’s propensity to sing, but her surname was Singer. This may only be an odd coincidence, but there are strong similarities between these two characters. Similar to Ophelia singing, going insane and committing suicide after the rejection of the man she loved, Marla also attempted suicide and cried out for help. She did this on more than one occasion, such as in having Jack perform a breast exam and her story about the used bridal gown. Just as Hamlet did not
want to help Ophelia and rejected her. Jack was incapable of helping Marla. It was Tyler who helped Marla. Tyler prevented Marla from killing herself.

Ophelia on the other hand died. This led to Hamlet’s death by Laertes conspiring with Claudius to poison Hamlet with the tipped sword. Marla lived. She was also Jack’s reason for wanting to abandon Fight Club in the forth act. The more attached Jack became to Marla, such as in the above example of performing the breast exam, the more anarchistic Tyler became. This eventuated in the form of ‘Project Mayhem’. Without Marla’s living presence Jack’s chances of finding his way back from the mayhem were minimal. In fact, there is a strong probability that he would not have come back at all. It was only in Marla’s presence that he regained consciousness after shooting himself in the face. He was ‘resurrected’ after the ‘destruction’ by the ‘feminine’ representation of Marla Singer.

The importance of the breast exam scene relates to two subtle themes. The first is the cancerous woman theme as represented by Chloe and the “my tumor named Marla” line. The second and possibly the most important aspect of this scene and perhaps the entire story was that it was Jack and not Tyler performing the examination. Tyler was not needed to do this for him. Jack was present in this moment and he did not retreat as he did early in the film such as in Marla’s embrace. It was from this point that he began healing the rift and finding a balance between his ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ archetypes. Touching her breast without disassociating was the beginning of Jack’s initiation to Adulthood. This culminated with Jack shooting himself in the face to eliminate Tyler.

Thus the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ are tied together synthetically. One cultivates the culture and the other propels that culture forward until it needs reinventing or re-conceptualizing. This is not unlike the creation of a baby as exemplified in ‘Seven Women’. There cannot be one without the other. They bring balance to each other and if one is eliminated then the other will not be far behind. Of the male characters discussed in this essay the one who failed to come to terms with his ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects was Hamlet. Ethan was saved by Debbie and Jack was resurrected by Marla. Hamlet lost Ophelia and consequently lost his life. Dr Cartwright also lost her life. The distinction between Dr Cartwright and Hamlet is that she made a choice after finding strength in her ‘feminine’ aspects and not rejecting them as Hamlet attempted to do in his treatment of Ophelia.

When this synthesis breaks down, such as in the case of Hamlet, there can be no reinvention of that persona. This same rule applies to culture in an analogical sense. The elimination of the female would spell the extinction of the male and vice versa. As stated earlier it is the cultivation of culture that the ‘feminine’ represents and the women discussed in this essay are a good example of this. In each of these stories of Hamlet, Fight Club, Seven Women and The Searchers there was a seed planted by female characters very early in the stories that did not come to fruition until the final act. It was the power of the females igniting the metaphorical spark that propelled these characters forward. This allowed them and their culture to develop and to reinvent.

1 This is an emerging concept that has some loose similarities with Jung’s Anima/Animus and
gender stereotypes.
2 For the purposes of this essay Tyler will be seen from Jack’s perspective and therefore needs to be addressed as his own character due to the fact that Jack was unaware of what Tyler really was.
3 The Handless Maiden is a Fairy Tale about a Miller who makes a pact with the devil that he will give up his
unborn daughter on her sixteenth birthday in exchange for better crops and prosperity. The devil chops off her hands and carries them away. Betrayed by her by newly prosperous family, the handless maiden is content for a time, until a growing sense of desperation sends her out to the forest alone.
4 Subliminal images of Tyler were inserted into five scenes early in the film leading into his official introduction.
5 ‘Oliver Twist Complex’ is not sociological or psychology terminology. It follows the theory that some people from broken homes will perceive themselves to be emotionally orphaned and unloved despite empirical evidence. Perhaps the nearest explanation in sociology would lie with John Bowlby’s work on maternal deprivation and the growth of love.

Bibliography
Johnson, R. A. (1993). The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden: Understanding
the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology. San
Francisco: Harper Collins.
Lofts, N., Greene, J., McCormick, J. (Writers), & Ford, J. (Director). (1966). 7
Women [Motion Picture]. USA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Nugent, F. S. (Writer), & Ford, J. (Director). (1956). The Searchers [Motion
Picture]. USA: Warner Brothers Pictures.
Palahniuk, C. (Writer), & Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club [Motion
Picture]. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.
Shakespeare, W. (2005). Hamlet. England: Penguin Books.

Alienation to Anomie in ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times’

The Alienated and the Anomic in ‘Modern Times’

““Modern Times” A story of industry, of individual enterprise ~ humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”

Modern Times (1936) is considered by most to be Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece. This film was made in the post-silent era of films and is not specifically a silent film. Although there is not a lot of talking, when there is spoken dialogue the dialogue comes from a machine, either a PA system, a recording, etc. At the core of the film are two characters trying to reclaim their humanity in an industrial world. The first character is “A Factory Worker” (Charlie Chaplin) the second is  “A Gamin” (Paulette Goddard). Within these two characters are a sense of Marxist Alienation and Durkheimian Anomie (A sense of Normlessness and or hopelessness). While A Factory Worker begins with Alienation, his alienation transforms into Anomie throughout the course of the film

What distinguishes man from animal according to Marx is that our faculties, capacities and tastes are shaped by society (Giddens, 1971, p. 13). Therefore each individual by this logic is a product of the culture he was born into and the generations that preceded him or her. Durkheim similarly argued that individuals were moulded and constrained by their social environments. This was because their behaviours were regulated by social norms through institutionalized values (Abercrombie, Hill, & Turner, 1984, p. 107). This essay will investigate how these theories are distinct and yet have a logical connection and development within the isolated individual’s of A Factory Worker and A Gamin.

Part 1: ‘A Story of Industry’

Machinery

The relationship between human characteristics, productive activities, and products of these activities, allowed Marx to define alienation as any reification of men’s objects. The more Chaplin’s Factory Worker creates for ‘Electro Steel Corp’. The more they expect of him and the faster he is expected to work. The more of the product that is created the less power he has. He has no way out. Being alienated from one’s essential nature is to be other than what one is in essence. This is something other than what a man ideally could and ought to be, a free, creative, conscious man with willful control over his life activities. The despair of self-alienation is juxtaposed between a person’s actual life circumstances and his essential nature (Macfarlane, 1978).

This loss of control that he faces by attempting to adhere to the demands of the machinery spins him out of control. This propels him through the levels of Marxist Alienation from his alienation of the product of his labour, to the alienation from the act of production and eventually cuts him off from his ‘species being’.  This is the Marxist ideal of human nature. He cannot create at this point and when he cannot create something in the world he has no place to go but to allow himself to be objectified. This propels him into further torment in his commoditized sense of self in a capitalist world.

The ‘velocity of life has been speeded up by capitalist endeavours and space has been reduced between men’ (Sinai, 1965, p. 20) to the point where they pull away just to get a sense normality, but this normality no longer exists because stepping out of the line of production removes the Factory Worker from his self-created world (Sinai, 1965, p. 20). He can either be alienated by the work or alienated from society and in this case he eventually becomes Anomic.

By Marxist Standards the Factory Worker may be responsible for the creation of his alienation. This leads to the dehumanization that we see in Modern Times where he see him behaving in a mechanized manner when attempting to fix the buttons on the ladies blouse Thus man is his activity, the objects or products of this activity, and his society. Thus, alienation from man’s activities of production, his products, and his social relationships nullifies the development of human potential (Plasek, 1974). The factory worker cannot develop as a human being but can only exist as a tool within a system and alienation becomes unavoidable. It is at this point man where he ceases to be a man and therefore becomes an Alienated object.

The product becomes alien and as the creator of an alienated product the man becomes alienated. The process of production is socially organized under industrial capitalism. The products of human labor are objectified and transformed into commodities for exchange and profit. The more the worker creates the cheaper the commodity he becomes. “A commodity is a mysterious thing. This is because the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor” (Knight, 1959, p. 67).

Therefore the Factory Worker logically becomes the creator of his own alienation and this manifests itself in his psyche and filters out into the world. There is hopelessness in powerlessness. Therefore anomie could exist within alienation and be born from the womb of Marxist alienation.

Part 2: ‘Individual Enterprise’

Alienated to Anomic

Chaplin’s Factory Worker is powerless against the machinery that dominates the world and he can either be part of it, as a tool or he can be atomized in an unfulfilled, anomic and alienated existence. There is an absence of unity in alienated individuals. They are divided and ‘Alienated labor turns people against each other and themselves’ (Knight, 1959, p. 165). Good examples of this in Modern Times include the Factory Workers fighting on the production line and the prisoners turning on each other. In the second half of the film, once The Factory Worker moves to an anomic state, he finds a kinship in the department store with the robbers who were once his factory workers. They find a commonality in their despair. They have moved beyond alienation to a point where they begin to understand that there is no place for them in the world. As Gamin says in the final moments of the film ‘what’s the point in trying?’

The Individual

Marx’s conceptions of human Nature were that we have a need to create and this manifests itself in the self-creating aspects of labor. The means of work that humanity comes to create are essential, self-defining characteristics. Not only the products of labor, but also the labor activities, are extensions of Man’s own nature.

The key difference between Durkheim and Marx would appear that the Durkheim-Individual goes through a process of internalization where he absorbs the environment and eventually comes to the realization that he has no way out and no hope. Whereas it is the external forces that sculpt the Marx-Individual. The Marxist alienated individual is a man who has been overpowered by the force of another. He has been oppressed to the point of being powerless in the world. Anomie is to be cut off from the social sphere.  Anomie is the breakdown of norms in social interactions. It is the breakdown of a community in that the individuals have no place in the world.  They are detached from the collective that they were born into. Therefore, Durkheim’s anomie follows the theme of hopelessness and Marx’s Alienation follows the theme of powerlessness.

In simpler terms, Anomic individuals are ‘sponges’ and alienated individuals are ‘marble’. To be Anomic over Alienated by this argument would mean that the Anomic individual has a greater degree of insight into his own nature and his own situation. This would perhaps make the Anomic individual the more tragic figure. Charlie Chaplin’s Factory worker for example begins his journey as an alienated man but along the way he matures and after meeting ‘A Gamin’ begins to absorb the world.

This transference takes him from Marxist Alienation to Durkheim’s anomie. By the end of the film he is smarter and has developed his instincts for getting by from the influence of A Gamin but his Anomie has propelled him further from society than where he began. He is no longer a part of the herd of the working class. There is a sense of hopelessness and dread beneath the surface of the man who has nowhere to go and no way of defining his identity.

 Identity

In a world where an identity is defined by vocation the individual without a respectful vocation will not only become powerless in his alienation from production but he will also be without hope, as he cannot fit into the world without a vocation. Charlie Chaplin is credited as “A Factory Worker”. There is no name to this character. Similarly, his employer has a glass door that reads “PRESIDENT… ELECTRO STEEL CORP.” there is no name attributed to this character outside of his title. Yet there is enough space between his job title and company to make it obvious that something is missing. What is missing is the identity that one should have outside of their job. In the modern world our professions define us. This hopelessness is Anomic despair because there is only one way to fit. This is to be part of the social machinery that can be seen in Modern Times.

A Gamin’s Anomie

What separates Gamin from Chaplin’s factory worker is that Gamin is not cut off from her work; she is cut from her family. She was robbed of the ones she loved by the bureaucratic system and ‘Without the duration of families no society can be stable’ (Durkheim, 1897, p. 160). This took her from a place of social alienation to a state of anomie where she became aware of the world and the way it worked. She had the insight to know that the cards were stacked against her while Chaplin’s Factory Worker was still going through the motions and not necessarily understanding the world he lived in or why it was not working for him. Thus you have the alienated worker and the anomic Gamin.

Amongst the herd of the working class and of the socialised animal that man supposedly is, is the lone individual. Thus to be an individual is not an easy task. The difficulty involved in individuality is what makes it an enterprise. It would appear that it is easier to be a part of the system. A part of industry, so why would a person want to be individualised if this makes them powerless and hopeless? What hope is there for the man without power? It is argued that anomie results from blocked opportunities. The individual is prevented from achieving his objectives and the powerlessness of alienation is replaced by a sense of hopelessness (Wilkins, 1965).  This hopelessness is an unquenchable thirst.

Part 3: ‘Humanity Crusading in the Pursuit of Happiness’

The Thirst

As Durkheim stated “Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture” (Durkheim, 1897). This thirst arises for novelties, nameless sensations and pleasures and yet they lose their savour once known. Therefore, “Humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness” is in the Durkheimian sense the crusade for the pursuit of happiness is an inextinguishable thirst. Therefore man is constantly in search of new ways to quench his thirst and ‘Reality seems valueless compared to the dreams of fevered imaginations; reality is abandoned and possibility is abandoned when it becomes reality’ (Durkheim, 1897).

A good example of this can be seen in the dream sequences of Chaplin’s Factory Worker where he fantasises about the house with all the latest modern luxuries and the department store sequence where they utilize the comfortable beds and modern utilities to excess. Luxuries and commodities were of the highest value in the world of Modern Times.

The Continuum of Despair

There would appear to be two fundamental disparities in the means-ends continuum: first, between people’s existing life circumstances and their generic human capacities.  Second is inability to believe in objects and the inability to function without them (Knight, 1959). The life of The Factory Worker is dejected and heavy laden, oscillating between fatalism and frenzy, tossed between the despotism of the factory and the anarchy of the outside world (Sinai, 1965, p. 30). This denies or thwarts his natural human capacity for free, spontaneous, self-realizing activity that is an assumed part of his essential nature. The notion of self-alienation emerges here as a strategic concept which underlies all forms and manifestations of alienation in society (Scheitzer, 1991).

The themes of despair were cleverly constructed not only in the character of ‘A Factory Worker’ and ‘A Gamin’ but also from the usage of black and white. Good examples include the clock in the opening credits; the white hand is counting the seconds while the Black Hand is barely moving, the white cattle with one black member plodding through, and the subway with variations of black, white and grey hats but no faces. Then there is the work place where the employees are clocking on. Here we see white hats, one black hat and no faces. The individual is rare in this world and they stand out like a black sheep.

What reason would a man have to want to live a life that is regulated, where his freedoms are lacking and where he can only act in accordance with what is expected of him? The answer that Chaplin proposes is that the need for normality in your life and wanting to fit in is based on the desire for love and affection from a partner or family.  Therefore, if as Durkheim argues ‘People are only happy when their wants are proportionate to their means’ then how can an alienated worker not be anomic?

Does this despair not go hand in hand between alienation and anomie? The criteria for the community would be that there is a collective force behind the community and sense of fellowship to live united but there is no fellowship in the anomic community. So, would one man create an anomic community or become a threat to the way of life established such as The Factory Worker ceasing to function and needing to be reformed and rehabilitated as a member of society.

‘We’ll get along, as long as we stick together’

Can two anomic individuals ever be happy together? There is an absence of norms here and nothing to contain them but the neglect of the outside world. The anomie is not going away and by the close of the film with their backs to the camera they may appear to be walking of into the sunset with the myth that two people can complete each other but this not a reality. The most likely outcome is that they are walking to their doom. The police want them and there is nothing on the horizon. The anomie is actually growing. It is almost as if the despair of Gamin’s anomie has infected The Factory Worker. The romanticised cheeriness of “we’ll get along” will soon fade once the reality that even together the anomic person is still isolated. Therefore, the story ends and alienation may pass but Anomie goes on.

The End.

Bibliography

Abercrombie, N., Hill, S., & Turner, B. S. (1984). The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. London: Penguin.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide. paris: Routledge Classics.

Giddens, A. (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Universirt Press.

Herzog, W. (Writer), & Herzog, W. (Director). (1974). The Enigma of Kasper Hauser [Motion Picture]. Germany.

Herzog, W. (2009). Werner Herzog Interviews.

Knight, E. (1959). The Objective Society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Macfarlane, A. (1978). The Origins of English Indivualism. Great Britain: The Camelot press.

Plasek, W. (1974). Maexist anjd American Sociological Conceptions of Alienation: Implications for Social Problems. Social Problems , 21 (3), 316-328.

Scheitzer, D. (1991). Marxist Theories of Alienation and Reification: The Response to Capitalism, State Socialism and the Advent of Postmodernity. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy , 11 (6/7/8), 27-52.

Sinai, J. R. (1965). The Challenge of Modernisation. London: Ghato and Windus.

Wilkins, L. T. (1965). Social Deviance. New Jersey: Tavistock Publications.

Fritz Lang’s Film Noirs and Changing Concepts of Masculinity


The 1940s represented a time when masculine control of the world was coming undone. Men returning from war, the social paranoia of the emerging cold war and the perceived communist threat to America were all signifiers of a world where man is not as dominant as he once believed. Therefore, the masculine role was changing. When this changes the feminine roles change too. It was these social changes that led to the shaping of what we now know as Film Noir. The man losing control or giving up control is not an invention of film noir but it is a staple of the Film Noir protagonist. Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and his follow-up film Scarlet Street (1945) are excellent representations of the changes in masculinity in the 1940s. These two films starring Edward G. Robinson will be explored through this essay.

Masculine Control:

By social standards there are certain qualities that a man should have, such as being protective, providing and aggressive when needed. What all of these have in common is the need to have some form of control over ones environment. Film Noir, stripped its male protagonists of control and emasculated these characters by turning them into the weaker sex.

The two Edward G Robinson characters, Richard Wanley from Woman in the Window (1944) and especially Christopher Cross in Scarlet Street (1945) are examples of the emasculated man. Cross was a character that appeared almost asexual in his desires. His need was to be loved and to be needed or at least appreciated. Wanley on the other hand wanted adventure and to relive his glory days.

Cross

Cross never had these glory days. Yet his masculine desires were still prevalent. This is evident in the scene where he stabs Kitty (Joan Bennet) with an ice pick and the earlier scene where he  attacks Johnny (Dan Duryea) with an umbrella.

The use of phallic objects was also prevalent in his paintings with the snake and the long-stemmed flower in the bathroom. This was a man who was not allowed to be a man. The only masculine outlet he had been his art. This can be seen when the art dealer questions Kitty about the paintings and says that he can usually see the difference between art painted by a man and a woman. She not only stole his art but she also robbed him of what little masculine pride he had.

 At every turn Cross was being emotionally castrated by the world he lived in. A good example can be seen in the bathroom where his wife throws away the flower. All he had to show for 25 years of work locked in a cage cashing paycheck’s was a gold watch and a demanding wife that disrespected him. Cross had no human contact by anyone but those who wanted to use him. The person who cared about him the most was his boss. His boss was the closest thing he had to a friend and the watch signified the deep respect that he had for Cross. This was a seventeen jeweled, fourteen-carat gold, pocket watch. This was the man who Cross betrays. He does so by taking money from the cashier station. The alternative would have been to sell the watch. Stealing from a person that has been loyal to him for twenty-five years was in this writers opinion Cross’ calculated downfall. If Cross is fired then he cannot pay any more bribes and he can remain an emasculated, victimized man. This appeared to be easier for him than actually standing up to the people in his life.  This negates his responsibility for his own actions. This was the one action that he controlled but he was not completely aware of why he chose this course of action.

Wanley

Wanley on the other hand had the confidence that Cross lacked. Wanley puts forward the argument in the opening of the film that ‘the man who kills for self-defence should not be tried in the same way as the man who kills for personal gain’. This sounded like a fair judgment. Unfortunately he did not have the perspicacity to form such a judgment. Wanley and his friends were old men who sat around smoking pipes and sipping port with butlers doing their deeds. This was a controlled environment for Wanley. These were men of inaction who wanted to engage in-action. Fritz Lang procedes to contrast the fantasy of adventure with the reality of horror.  The horror is that in reality these men have no control over their world and that evil exists within all men.

Wanley had never been in a dangerous situation where he had to fight for his life and the evil within Wanley had never been provoked. After killing the finance with the scissors, Wanley was able to rationalize his actions as self-defence. If he truly believed in his own ideals and what he taught his students he would not have covered up his crime. He rationalized this too by saying that he will be ruined either way. By giving in to the temptation of a woman and his desire for adventure Wanley takes a path that is in stark opposition of the values that he and his friends make a claim to. Without his butler to nurture him he delves into the evils of his own psyche just by accepting an offer to have a drink.

Wanley’s attempt to regain his masculine control was to drink poison but even this was outside his control. He awakens in what could be either, his real life, the after life or purgatory. Cross goes in the opposite direction by living as a condemned man who will never move beyond his actions. He lives in an emotional purgatory whereas Wanley, (in the after life theory) has a ‘blissful ignorance’.

Entrapped in a Changing World

Anxiety and entrapment became dominant motifs as a response to masculine and feminine social structure. This is because they are trapped between masculine and feminine roles in society. Therefore, anxiety and entrapment became a motif because since that time, the world that preceded film noir, the world of an illusory masculine control over the environment has not been restored. Therefore, Robinson’s characters of Wanley and Cross were archetypes for our own discomfort and despair at this time in history. We are still afflicted by the past, and like the film noir protagonists we as a society rarely learn from the past until it is too late.

Bibliography:

Geoff Mayer & Brian McDonnell, Encyclopedia of Film Noir, pp. 90 – 92, 141 – 144, 242 – 244, 321 – 323, 365 – 367, 382 –383, 398 – 400. 435 – 437, 446 – 449.

Andrew Spicer, Film Noir, Ch. 5

Tony Williams, ‘Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader.

Richard Lippe, ‘At the Margins of Film Noir: Preminger’s Angel Face’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader.

Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, Part 111, esp. ch. 6

Gaylyn Studlar, ‘Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema’ in Bill Nichols, Movies and Methods, Volume 2

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.

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