Monday, December 31, 2012

Violence in Film (analysis)


          Violence in Film          

The purpose of this essay is an exploration of Walter Benjamin's concept of “divine violence” which he defines in his essay Critique of Violence as the complementary opposite of “mythic” or state-founding violence. The idea for this paper arose from the question, “What would divine violence look like in film? Is it possible to represent divine violence? Is it possible for films to participate in divine violence?” My source for this examination of the possibilities of divine violence in cinema is Slavoj Žižek's recent book, Violence (2008)* in which he analyzes several different types of violence under the premise that violence is not always “bad” violence, and that in fact the most visible violence is rarely the “worst”. Starting from this premise I will attempt to extract Žižek's ideas of what constitutes divine violence as it contrasts other types of violence. Then I will look at several violent films searching for depictions of this divine violence.

The easiest way to define divine violence, due to its elusive and unclear nature, and which the structure and content of Žižek's book attest to, is negatively. Divine violence is first of all, and most obviously, not subjective violence. Subjective violence for Žižek is that violence which has (obviously) subjective motivations. Crimes of passion, in which a cuckolded lover attacks or murders the one who is perceived to have done the cuckolding, and perhaps revenge more generally, seems a prime candidate here. This type of violence is precisely pathological, not in the Kantian sense of being impure but in the common psychological sense of being motivated by the subject's inner mental processes. Subjective violence is possibly the most visible, and simultaneously the least interesting (or least revealing), type of violence.

Second of all, divine violence is importantly and, for me, most confusingly not objective violence. Objective violence is defined by Žižek as the violence necessary in order to sustain the status quo, or the “zero level” violence, as he terms it, which undergirds the symbolic order. Due to the power of ideology to efface the underpinnings of the symbolic, however, objective violence is perhaps the most invisible of the types of violence Žižek analyzes. You would never see reports of objective violence in the media because almost by definition it would be too much to handle, too traumatic, and would impede the smooth functioning of everyday life. Because of this traumatic dimension, objective violence is rarely witnessed directly and instead encountered most often as a residue, as a sort of leftover. The first example that comes to mind is if we were to come into contact with the dead body of a child who was forced to spend her life mining conflict minerals** in the Congo and elsewhere. Imagine a technophile who always buys the newest iPhone the day it comes out visiting their local Apple store to discover a pile of dead Congolese in place of the expected friendly smile of an employee. As the violence which lies underneath the symbolic, an encounter with the residue of objective violence is incredibly traumatic and as such properly belongs to the order of the Real. Society as we know it would cease functioning were we to have too direct or too constant of an encounter with it, and this is precisely why Žižek calls it zero level violence. While exposing objective violence is perhaps more important today than ever, this is nonetheless not quite divine violence.

Finally, divine violence is not, as Benjamin points out and on which Žižek elaborates, mythic violence. Mythic violence is the violence necessary to found a state, for example the violent elimination and relocation of the Native Americans over the course of the establishment of the United States. While it would be easy to dismiss an analysis of mythic as unnecessary, as something that happened a long time ago and is now over, a closer look here will reveal the fallacy of this claim. While the founding of most nations happened centuries ago, this type of violence is still visible today. Most obviously we can see mythic violence in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over the country of Israel and the Gaza Strip. While it is easy to dismiss the violence of the Palestinians as simply antisemitic, there is more to it than that. Both sides believe they have a claim to the land, and not only to the land but to the right to establish a nation of their own in this specific geographical (not to mention religious) location. Žižek makes this obvious when he proposes the thought experiment of making Jerusalem a state-free zone. This is obviously the best (or at least most reasonable) solution for both sides, so why would it not work? Because precisely the purpose of this violence is state-founding: the purpose is not to find a way for each side to be able to practice its religion freely, but to (selfishly) create a nation. Mythic violence and divine violence are very different, but it will be helpful to keep an idea of mythic violence in mind in order to properly consider a definition of divine violence since Benjamin proposes the two as opposite but complementary.

So what is divine violence? If it's the opposite of mythic violence that would seem to imply that divine violence is state destroying violence, the most obvious example of which would be war. This is not the case however (although in some cases divine violence may problematize a state's foundations). So what if we take the concept of mythic violence a little more metaphorically: if mythic violence founds the state, and therefore the law, divine violence could be that which overturns the law, destroys the status quo in order to make room for a new one. The simplest example, and one which will illuminate the inadequacies of this definition, is revolutionary violence. While this concept is closer to that of divine violence, it still misses the mark. In a rare moment of true clarity for Žižek, he provides us with a surprisingly workable (albeit still oppositional) definition:

[T]he opposition of mythic and divine violence is that between the means and the sign, that is, mythic violence is a means to establish the rule of Law (the legal social order), while divine violence serves no means, not even that of punishing the culprits and thus re-establishing the equilibrium of justice. It is a sign of the injustice of the world, of the world being ethically “out of joint. (199-200; my emphasis) 

Mythic violence, as a means, is always and necessarily purposive (the purpose being the foundation of the “rule of Law”), whereas divine violence, as a sign, is precisely the opposite: “meaningless”, or non-purposive, all it does is represent something, most often the presence of inequality (though, as Žižek points out, it does nothing to correct this situation). This distinction is important to keep in mind as we move forward into film analysis.

A problem quickly arises when trying to delineate examples of divine violence however: almost all violence, as long as it's not the result of a natural disaster***, can seem to have a purpose if we look close enough. Even if it doesn't reach its goal, all violence can be identified as a means to some end. Žižek cites the revolutionary Terror of 1792-94 as an example of divine violence, but since this is violence enacted by human agents, it is possible to identify certain motivations: the systematic elimination of the bourgeois class, purging the political system of corruption (even if these motivations were tainted by paranoia). Here Žižek makes reference to Badiou to clarify:

[I]n Badiou's terms, mythic violence belongs to the order of Being, while divine violence belongs to the order of Event: there are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine; the same act that, to an external observer, is merely an outburst of violence can be divine for those engaged in it. (200) 

Since “there are no 'objective' criteria” for distinguishing divine violence from other types of violence, a single outbreak might be experienced as divine violence by one person and not another. Here we encounter perhaps the most problematic aspect of divine violence: its experiential dimension. As an example of this, Žižek prompts us to consider the Holocaust. How impossible, how unbelievable, would it be to claim that there is a teleology underlying the Holocaust? For the Nazis, or at least for Hitler, the systematic elimination of the Jewish population was a necessary precondition for the founding of the German state, and in this way the Holocaust functions for them as mythic violence. For the Jews who experienced it, however, and for a large portion of the global population today, the Holocaust functions as a stain, as a meaningless blot disrupting the unity of an otherwise (seemingly) teleological progression of history. In this way we can begin to see the disruptive effect of divine violence. While not functioning in a progressive way, divine violence seems to break with history, not in order to begin a new era of history, but for no purpose, for disruption-in-itself.

From here I would like to move on to an analysis of several films and their relationship to these various types of violence. The vast majority of what are seen today as the most extremely violent and discomforting films fall (ironically, perhaps) into the domain of subjective violence perpetrated by some sort of pseudo-psychotic individual. The Saw films are here a perfect example. While these are easily some of the most violent, cringe-inducing movies you can watch, they revolve entirely around the idea of the primary antagonist, Jigsaw, testing out his sadistic traps on unwilling subjects. Movies ranging from cult classics such as The Human Centipede (2009) and the films of Quentin Tarantino to more mainstream classics such as Se7en (1995) and The Usual Suspects (1995) all fall too easily into this trap of assigning violence to the realm of sadism and psychosis. For this reason the films I analyze will not necessarily be the most horrifically violent or disturbing films of all time, but instead those films which deal with the subject of violence in a certain way. I will therefore look first at two very recent films, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and Skyfall (2012), which attempt to avoid a confrontation with objective violence by giving it a human face. Then I will look at The Lorax (2012) and Fight Club (1999), two films which attempt to confront objective violence in a more or less critical way and with a differing amount of success (an interesting example of what Žižek analyzes elsewhere on the topic of ideological deterioration). Finally I will look at two films that come as close as I have witnessed to depictions of divine violence: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira (1988).

Especially in Hollywood, detective films abound which seem to attempt to confront their audiences with the continuing presence of objective violence. While generally glorifying this violence in a more or less hesitant way (simply consider film noir: detectives are often opposed to the police, the embodiments of the “rule of Law”, but nonetheless seem to be working towards the same goal of reestablishing a level of normalcy or returning to a “zero level”), two recent films put a new spin on normalizing the violence of the status quo. The primary antagonists of both Skyfall and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol are significantly both nationless: Silva in Skyfall lives on his own island and does not identify with any existing state or nation; and Kurt Hendricks in Ghost Protocol has an anglo name, is Swedish born, and worked for the Russian government before being exiled as a “nuclear extremist” (after which he adopted the codename Cobalt—perhaps the ultimate renunciation of personal nationality). The goal of each of these antagonists is slightly different however.

Silva wants to destroy MI6, which at first appears to be an attempt to rectify the wrongs done by MI6 in order to sustain the status quo. M, the head of MI6, receives a message from Silva at the beginning of the movie saying “Think on your sins.” This seems to be an obvious allusion to objective violence: “Think about what you've done in order to sustain the state of stasis of your organization and the nation in general.” Later, however, it is revealed that Silva meant the message and all of his acts of violence in the film as a personal vendetta against M, who abandoned him in a moment of desperation. This, unfortunately, is just the beginning of Skyfall's failure. On the other hand, Hendricks in Ghost Protocol attempts to orchestrate an act of violence which would fit better into the realm of mythic violence. Hendricks has obtained a nuclear weapon and in his central monologue he outlines his goals: “What happens after the end of the world? Every two or three million years, some natural catastrophe devastates all life on Earth. But life goes on. And what little remains is made stronger. Put simply, world destruction is an unpleasant but necessary part of evolution.” Here Hendricks is quite simply saying that there is teleological value in nuclear annihilation; that detonating a nuclear weapon would lead us to a new era of greatness; in short, that detonating a nuclear weapon is not random, subjective violence but mythic violence. Nuclear annihilation is a means to further “evolution”.

Moving on from the violence perpetrated by the antagonists, let's examine the heroes. If we identify Silva and Hendricks as the residue of objective violence, people who are outside of any conception of statehood, then Bond and Hunt (the protagonists) and their attempted elimination of their respective antagonists seem to function as more objective violence. Silva and Hendricks both aim to disrupt the status quo, they both aim to raise society above its “zero level” of stasis, and Bond and Hunt aim to stop that. As one of Hunt's associates notably says at the end of Ghost Protocol, “All these people are just happy and smiling and they’re completely oblivious to the fact that they were almost vaporized!” Both Bond and Hunt's violence is successful in that it allows the status quo to go on unimpeded, it allowed society to remain at its zero level. Because of this and because of the way the films both focus their energy toward showing how bad the violence of the antagonists is, I believe both of these films are attempting to portray what I want to call objective violence with a human face. Instead of seeing how the status quo in fact produced the existence of these “radicals”, the films merely present them as present and as dangerous. We shouldn't think, we should just be glad we weren't “vaporized”.

The next two films I want to consider deal more directly with the idea of objective violence, and instead of trying to cover it up they both endeavor to bring it to light: The Lorax and Fight Club. Both function more or less as critiques of capitalism and of the violence underlying its maintenance, but Fight Club (sort of) succeeds where The Lorax fails. The Lorax presents a society in which every tree has been cut down and there is only one seed left to create new ones. This is presented explicitly as the result of capitalist overproduction and provides a (disgusting) parallel to the conflict minerals I mentioned above. The solution in The Lorax to the problem of not having any more trees (trees make oxygen and are therefore necessary to survival, the film posits) is not a deeper critique of capitalism. The solution is simply to plant more trees. To apply this solution to the problem of Congolese mass deaths in the mining of conflict minerals, the solution is not to fix the situation so uncounted Congolese are not constantly dying or at risk of death, but to simply breed more people to mine the minerals. Fight Club, on the other hand, offers a slightly more effective solution to the problem of the objective violence inherent to capitalism: destroy the buildings that house credit records, returning everyone's credit to zero. While this obviously doesn't solve all (or even very many) of the country's problems, it does at least confront society with (some of) its foundations.

Finally, I would like to examine two films that come as close to depicting divine violence as I have ever encountered: Dr. Stangelove and Akira. Dr. Strangelove is the well known story of Cold War tensions being escalated into all out nuclear war by the paranoia of one military general. He orders pilots under his command to launch their nuclear arsenal at the Russians, and despite attempts by both Russia and the United States, these weapons are successfully detonated resulting in total global annihilation. While this attack did originally have a (paranoid-psychotic) purpose, this purpose is certainly not achieved, and, if anyone were to survive, the destruction would be experienced precisely as meaningless. So, in an analogy to the Holocaust (and here we return to the experiential dimension I mentioned), while for some the violence functions as a means, the resulting destruction is instead experienced by most as divine.

Since the inciting incident of the film is that of a paranoid psychotic taking matters into his own hands (violence as a means to eliminate the Russian threat), Strangelove perhaps doesn't come as close as to divine violence as Akira. Akira is similar to Strangelove in that the violence begins as the efforts of one pathological individual to achieve certain ends: Tetsuo (against his will) is given superpowers which he originally uses for his own purposes. The movie becomes much more nuanced as it goes on, however. Several groups of people see the superpowers as the sign of a sort of God coming to earth to usher in a new era (clearly mythic violence), but these people are ultimately proven wrong. Tetsuo eventually loses control of his new powers, and, after perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the history of Japanese animation, there is a huge explosion which destroys a large portion of the city. This explosion achieves the ends of neither Tetsuo nor the pseudo-revolutionaries (nor the scientists who gave Tetsuo the powers to begin with), and is experienced instead as meaningless, as divine violence (not, obviously, in the sense of divine intervention as the revolutionaries had expected). This final explosion doesn't function as a means, it simply functions as a sign, in this case a sign of the society's rampant technological and scientific (over)development. The explosion doesn't do anything to resolve the situation (although blowing up the city is a good start, I guess), but instead merely shows everyone who witnesses it the ultimate result of too much technological and scientific development. This is, I believe, as close as film has come to depicting Benjamin's divine violence.


*Žižek, Slavoj, Violence, Picador, New York, 2008

**Conflict minerals are resources necessary to manufacture the chips in laptops and cell phones and which are currently causing uncountable amounts of people to die in order for the “developed” world to function the way it does.

***Natural disasters can be an interesting case of divine violence. Consider Hurricane Sandy, a storm which most scientists/meteorologists at the time seemed to agree was “caused” by global warming (an obvious byproduct of capitalism). This seems a prime example of violence as a “sign” of the excesses of capitalism, but (to borrow Badiou's terminology) since we were not faithful to the Event nothing came about as a result of it. While seemingly more of an objective sort of divine violence, I believe this still contains the experiential dimension I explain in the rest of this paragraph.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Groundhog Day (review)

Groundhog Day is one of my all time favorite movies. Everyone and their mother has seen it and has their own theory about the movie and why Bill Murray is stuck repeating February 2nd. The most popular one, I believe, is that Bill Murray isn't ready for a romantic relationship and cannot make it to February 3rd until he changes that. While this fits the genre the movie is given by most DVD distribution companies (rom com) it is uninteresting, only loosely supported by the text, and probably at least a little bit sexist (Andie MacDowell only exists in order for Bill Murray to develop his romantic capabilities). Others argue that the movie simply stages through Bill Murray the classic "five stages of grief" introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. If this is the case I believe the anger stage is slightly misinterpreted and the bargaining stage is slightly missing, but even so I don't think this is the most convincing reading available (although I find Lacan convincing so can you really trust me?).

My personal favorite theory about the film (not one that I came up with myself but one to which I am adding my own personal flair) is that it depicts essentially the process of psychoanalysis, or perhaps more specifically, what to do about the fact that your life is a boring, repetitive waste of time. But instead of writing a deeply psychoanalytic scholarly article on the film which would interest few other than myself and my close friends (but which I may still write later), I've decided to do something that I've wanted to do for a long time: explain why, in each instance, Bill Murray is not allowed to continue to February 3rd; why his solution to spending eternity repeating the same day is insufficient. I'm going to categorize Bill Murray's solutions in stages, so just keep in mind that, as much as it seems like I'm falling for the "five stages of grief" interpretation, this is my own work and I'm not copying off the kid next to me (I swear).

The first stage Bill Murray goes through is the obvious but necessary stage of confusion. While for theoretical purposes this could easily be left out, it's necessary for the audience to identify with Bill. If the movie jumped past this step we would be confused, and recognizing him as the protagonist would be difficult. During this stage Bill asks Rita what's going on and performs his own tests (breaking a pencil to see if it is broken the next day), and towards the end, while conversing with some drunken locals, he realizes the initial implications of having no consequences to your actions and moves on to the next stage.

Resisting the temptation to give it a more profane title, I've called this next stage the "butthead stage". When Bill Murray realizes he can do anything he proceeds to run from the cops, punch Ned (an old classmate) in the face, steal money from an armored car, and engineer a one night stand with a woman he finds attractive (which coincidentally foreshadows the next stage). While it may seem obvious why this isn't the correct response to the repetitiveness of life (no one likes a butthead), I think it's worth taking a look at since, after all, being a butthead can be very fun. I believe this stage involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that desire works. Since our desire is always the desire of the Other (grass is always greener), the answer is not to punch the Other in the face since this is effectively the same as punching yourself in the face (which is fine, and even commendable, but only if you realize that you're doing it). But we'll get to the actual answer later.

The next stage you could probably lump in with the previous one, but since it's a little more specific I'm going to talk about it separately. After losing his enjoyment in being a butthead, Bill's next course of action is to seduce Rita. Love is fine (I even consider myself to be in love now and it's pretty okay), but there are two problems. First is the stupid, obvious one: he attempts to seduce Rita by learning what she likes and then pretending that he likes the same things. Having been a chameleon boyfriend myself, I know that this is not only problematic for your partner (you're basically lying to them constantly), it is also problematic for yourself (since it's not going to last forever, when you leave the relationship your reaction is always something like "what have I been doing with my life?"). The second and probably more important problem (which I will discuss again below) is that, since he is living through the Other, he has no enjoyment of his own. Living through the Other is always necessarily a desiring position: since you have no enjoyment of your own you displace your enjoyment to some point in the future (for Bill Murray he thinks it will be having sex with Rita, something which conveniently for him never happens).

The lack of satisfaction from this stage leads right into the next: straight-up depression and anger. First we see Bill Murray drinking whiskey in front of Jeopardy!; then he captures and attempts to kill Phil the groundhog; and finally he attempts to simply kill himself. Suicide for Lacan always falls into the trap of being a cry for help, or (in his terms) an appeal to the (Big) Other. While for some victims of suicide there is a specific Other in mind (for example Sarah Borden's suicide in The Prestige is an appeal to Alfred Borden who has been ruining her life), in this case Bill Murray is simply appealing to the Big Other. For those of you who do not have the pleasure of understanding Lacanian terminology, you could pretty accurately say that Bill Murray's multiple suicides are an appeal to God to release him from his repetition of Groundhog Day. This however is a very touchy subject for some so I will move on before I make a bigger fool of myself.

The penultimate stage fits closely the contours of "acceptance" from the "five stages of grief", but since this is not in fact the last stage bears witness to the way the film doesn't follow the five stages to the letter. Here Bill Murray accepts that he's doomed to repeat Goundhog Day for the rest of his life and adopts what I like to refer to as the Amelie worldview: he begins to find pleasure in giving other people pleasure (not like that, get your mind out of the gutter). This however is a world with only pleasure and no enjoyment (a distinction which is very important for Lacan and which I can perhaps go into detail about in a later post) since it falls into the same trap I described above of living through the Other. Since desire always has the grass is always greener problem, this is like spending your life trying to keep your neighbor's lawn green since your own grass will always be less-green: your neighbor will probably appreciate it but you will never really be "happy" (despite what Amelie might have to say about it).

Unfortunately for my attempted clean cut analysis of the film, the final stage overlaps with this previous stage and involves adopting (progressively) the position that interests me most in psychoanalysis: the drive. Bill Murray starts to take piano lessons (after being inspired by the music playing in a restaurant), which presumably approximates Bill's enjoyment (piano and music in general is a great representation of the drive since you can always be better at playing your instrument—there is no clear "goal" and you are instead caught up in the "aim" of playing more music—but this, as with everything psychoanalytic, relies on your own relation to your work). Accepting the position of the subject of drive is the end goal of psychoanalysis, a position which Bill Murray enunciates towards the end of the film when he says, "No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now

"Because I love you." This is how Bill ends this quotation, and is the only real flaw I can find with the film. If Bill was happy because he loved Rita the movie could have ended after the third stage where he seduces her. Indeed we can easily imagine a (much worse) movie where Bill realizes that he's being a chameleon, starts loving Rita as himself, and is released from the repetition of Groundhog Day. But this isn't the point! The point is that he has to be suicidal, he has to attempt to live through the Other, he even has to be a butthead, before he can accept his drive as his own. Whoever added these four words to the end of this line should be shot or at least banned from the world of film.

Taking all this into consideration, I may as well give Groundhog Day a rating even though it's probably rather obvious what I think about it. Bill Murray's presence in a movie is approximately a 90% guarantee of earning at least a 4 beer rating, and Groundhog Day is one of many films where he truly shines, so I give Groundhog Day a solid 5 beers. As for its theoretical value, I would give it 4.9 Slavojs simply for those 4 words that ruin the climax of the film, but since I'm too lazy to cut a tenth off of my little Zizek thumbnail I'm (regrettably) giving it a solid 5 Slavojs.


Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit (review) & On Adaptation

So I recently saw The Hobbit in theaters and in Imax 3D, and while I thought it was great there's a slight problem (for me at least) with reviewing it. The movie, if you haven't heard, is the first of a three part trilogy and is very nearly three hours long. Stretching the book that long has allowed Peter Jackson to pull essentially all the material from the book as well as (I've heard) material from The Hobbit's appendices and perhaps other sources still. Because of this, writing a review of The Hobbit the film is little different from writing a review of The Hobbit the book, and while part of me still loves to analyze literature I have no intention of reading the book simply to review the movie.

For obvious reasons then, Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit revives the constant question of adaptation itself, both because of the pure fact that it is a literary adaptation and the fact that it attempts to keep so close to the source material. For this reason I thought it prudent to explain (very briefly) my position on the adaptation of literature to film.*

For me there seem to be two major camps with relation to the theory of adaptation. First of all, there are the purists who believe that the film should not only capture the spirit of the source material but should also replicate the symbolism and themes. Second, those who could basically care less about the source material and just want to watch a good movie.

Having a degree in English and being a lover of Shakespeare, I might seem a prime candidate for the purist category, but believe it or not I think that source material should provide inspiration and nothing else. Film and literature are completely different media, and expecting what amounts to an exact copy of a book in the form of a film (or vice versa) seems unreasonable and unwarranted. From my own experience both watching film adaptations of books I've read and reading books that provided the basis for films I've seen, I believe that disappointment in either media results from an understandable but illogical libidinal attachment to one or the other. If you loved The Hunger Games, don't go to The Hunger Games expecting the same thing. If you want the same thing, go read the book again.

That said, I did see the Hobbit in both the theater (2D) as well as in Imax 3D, and have some minor opinions as to the quality of each.

While I'm not a huge lover of 3D in general, I think it can have its place in certain movies (for example, I would have been disappointed if I had missed out on seeing Avatar in theatrical 3D despite the film's unoriginal plot), and The Hobbit is in some respects one of those places. Peter Jackson's long, wide-angle shots of the New Zealand landscape with the little dwarves running across it are well worth seeing on the big(ger) screen in 3D.

On the other hand, either the 3D or the Imax experience in general (I didn't see The Hobbit in Imax 2D or in theatrical 3D) makes the green-screening more obvious. The scene where the dwarves discover they've ended up at the gates of Rivendell is meant to be a glorious and beautiful surprise (and in the theater I thought it was), but in Imax 3D you can tell the dwarves are just staring at a giant green screen.

So with that plethora of caveats, I believe I feel safe enough to delve into a short review of the film itself.

In terms of an action/adventure movie it certainly provides what you'd expect (although this isn't exactly my favorite genre). The fight scenes are plentiful and well orchestrated: the dwarves fight trolls, orcs, and goblins, and get caught in the middle of an epic (if obviously computer generated) battle between thunder giants. My personal favorite part of the movie is when Bilbo gets stuck with Gollum. Gollum's lines and his character in general are both hilarious and pathetic (in the traditional sense of evoking pathos). For delivering on its action/adventure promise, but being both slightly longer than necessary and at this point rather formulaic, I give The Hobbit 4 out of 5 beers, although Gollum is certainly pulling his weight (what little he has) pushing that 4 up towards the 5 range.

As for theoretical issues, the premise of the movie seems slightly paradoxical to me (and perhaps this is due to Jackson's meddling with the source material—suddenly I've switched sides! Just kidding). The dwarves quest is to venture back to their homeland of Erebor and reclaim it from the dragon Smaug. To translate into Lacanese, what it seems to me that they're doing is putting themselves in constant danger of encountering the Real in order to regain the security of the Symbolic. As Balin points out in the first act of the movie, however, the dwarves already have a new home, so there's clearly something more at stake. Perhaps the dwarves are seeking revenge on Smaug, or perhaps they simply want their gold back (as seems to be the case in the book). In any case the film provides us with some interesting symbols and themes to think about, and treats them with enough respect that I think it deserves 3 out of 5 Slavojs, although I can see myself possibly regretting this based on how the next two movies turn out.




*Malgorzata Marciniak, a film professor at the University of Toledo, has an excellent (as well as short and readable) essay on adaptation of literature to film which I think is well worth the read if you're interested, and which, for the sake of length, I have resisted the temptation to plagiarize (her essay can be found here).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Le Samourai (analysis)


Walking the Thin Line Between Symbolic and Real

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï depicts one of the most interesting characters from the French New Wave: Alain Delon's Jef Costello. A cold and almost completely silent contract killer, Jef is explicitly meant to symbolize the Japanese idea of the samurai from which the film gets its title. This is not the only reason audiences are drawn to his character, however. Much more compelling is Jef's relation to the Lacanian drive and the way he skirts the edge of the Symbolic order and touches the Real. There are three elements which allow us to trace Jef's drive and the way he edges on the Real: first, through atmosphere and setting; second, through several precise, ritualistic repetitions Jef performs; and third, through his clothes and their gradual disintegration.

Le Samouraï opens with a wide angle shot of Jef's apartment which is very dark, small, and sparsely furnished. The walls aren't falling apart, but it seems there's very little left holding them up. There is little visible aside from a bed, a bird cage, and a chair or two. At first we can barely even see Jef lying on his bed. The only sound is the occasional chirping of the bird until Jef lights a cigarette. There are a couple of other places in the film with a similar mise-en-scène. Before committing his first murder, Jef goes to a hotel room where several men, all smoking, are playing a card game. The room is foggy with all the smoke in the air and seems to perfectly fit the ideal of a gangster hideout. The final location that shares this mise-en-scène is a garage where Jef takes stolen cars to have their license plates changed. The garage is so dark that the mechanic needs a large floodlight in order to change the plates in the back of the car. Like Jef's flat and the hotel room, the garage is also dirty and generally unkempt.

This low-light, disheveled, almost other-worldly mise-en-scène characterizes half of the locations in the movie, and is starkly contrasted by the other half. On this other side, first of all, we have the night club where Jef commits the first murder in the film. There is an abundance of clean white plastic, clear glass, and bright lights. The club looks incredibly modern. There are only sharp, precise angles or perfectly smooth, round surfaces. Everything looks pristine. The other places that share this crisp mise-en-scène include the police station where Jef goes after being picked up as part of a routine roundup. There is very little color: instead things are either white as ivory or black as coal, and everything looks clean enough that you could eat off of it. Finally, the pianist's apartment shares this same sort of idealistic appearance, and this is coincidentally the first clue that she's not on Jef's side (despite the fact that she manages to save him from arrest).

These two types of mise-en-scène can be read as representing two different orders from Lacanian psychoanalysis. The dingy, poorly lit locations represent places which lean towards the Real, an unsafe place outside the comfortable confines of the Symbolic. In Jef's apartment, he has a stack of money cut in half which he hides in the chimney. This embodies perfectly the inconsistency in the Big Other. This uncanny item is evidence for Jef that the Big Other, embodied in currency, is always (literally) split, and thus cannot give consistency to the Symbolic order. In both the hotel room and the garage there are illicit activities going on. In the hotel room players are gambling outside the view of the Big Other, and the hotel also serves as part of Jef's alibi for a murder he actually did commit. The garage allows Jef to steal any car he wants while staying outside the gaze of the Big Other by changing the car's license plates. These locations are thus not only outside of the law but also outside of the realm of the Big Other and therefore outside the Symbolic. Interestingly, these unsafe areas are the places that Jef appears most comfortable.


The other, well-lit, pristine locations serve as the very heart of the Symbolic order. The night club, perhaps the most confusing of the three places, might seem to be a space outside the Symbolic (and in fact night clubs are often portrayed this way in cinema). However, the night club instead serves as a way to contain the desire to drink alcohol in a safe environment and under the gaze of the Big Other. You cannot drink excessively since bartenders have the right to deny you drinks, and you can also be removed from the establishment for disorderly conduct. Finally, and most importantly, the way Martey's murder and Jef's death affect the crowd clearly indicate that this is not a place where bad things happen. The police station is a much more obvious space in which the Symbolic has complete reign. The only reason Jef manages to escape is that he has constructed an alibi through which the Big Other cannot see. In contrast to the former Real locations, when under the gaze of the Big Other Jef is constantly on his guard.

The reason Jef feels more comfortable when he's closer to the Real than the Symbolic is that he is a subject of drive. Zizek differentiates the subject of desire from the subject of drive in terms of the difference between the aim and the goal:

of course every object of desire is an illusory lure... however, it is here that one should fully assert Lacan's claim that les non-dupes errent. Even if the object of desire is an illusory lure, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive nature is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real... There is a parallax shift at work here... in Lacanese, the shift from desire to drive... This gap that separates the aim from the goal “eternalizes” the drive, transforming the simple instinctual movement which finds peace and calm when it reaches its goal... into a process which gets caught in its own loop and insists on endlessly repeating itself. (LITET, 72-3; my emphasis)

In short, the subject of desire focuses on the goal of an action, for example the pleasure gained from finishing a paper, whereas the subject of drive focuses on the aim of the action, for example, the enjoyment gained from the act of writing itself (see what I did there?). The crucial difference here is not (only) the difference I have alluded to here between plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (enjoyment), but (also) the way that focusing on the aim of an action “'eternalizes' the drive”. Jef endlessly repeats what gives him enjoyment (killing people for money) even at the risk of his own death. Le Samouraï stages exactly this process of a subject of drive pursuing his enjoyment precisely to the point of his death (the reason Freud called it “death drive”).


We can see the way Jef embodies the subject of drive in two distinct rituals he performs before his murders. These are not simple approximate repetitions, but due to the way they are filmed they are almost perfect mirrors. The first action is the way Jef puts on his hat: he puts it onto the front of his head first and them pushes the back of it down, and famously runs his thumb and forefingers back and forth across the brim. Before the two successful murders, of Martey and Rey, we see Jef do this in front of the small mirror in his apartment and, except for the fact that he's wearing a different coat (a fact I will discuss below), the two scenes are identical. The second ritual Jef performs in slightly more complicated. As he approaches his targets we get a close up shot of him removing his white, glove-clad hands from his pockets without a gun, a cut to his target pointing a gun at him, and then a cut to Jef firing his own gun (mysteriously retrieved from his pocket between shots). Zizek argues that these ritualistic “empty gestures” are the essence of the ethics of the drive:

It is not just that the subject must not “give way as to his drive”; the status of the drive itself is inherently ethical... The point is not to remember the past trauma as exactly as possible: such “documentation” is a priori false, it transforms the trauma into a neutral, objective fact, whereas the essence of the trauma is precisely that it is too horrible to be remembered, to be integrated into our symbolic universe. All we have to do is to mark repeatedly the trauma as such, in its very “impossibility”, in its non-integrated horror, by means of some “empty” symbolic gesture. (FTKNWTD, 272; my emphasis)

Jef's ritual repetitions are precisely such a “marking” of trauma. The first ritual, of putting his hat on a certain way in front of a mirror, marks the trauma of the entrance into the Symbolic order through the mirror stage and the attendant loss of direct access to jouissance. The second ritual, of seeming to be caught unprepared before miraculously producing a gun and killing his targets, is a repetition of Jef's Symbolic death which he had to experience in order to become a subject of drive. Because of this death he can now access enjoyment (albeit indirectly) through his adherence to the ethics of the drive. Significantly, when Jef knows he is going to die and the endless cycle of the drive is going to end, he no longer follows these rituals. He leaves his hat at the coat check and pulls out his gun before his target.


This repeated confrontation with Jef's trauma does not come without a cost. There is a deleterious effect on Jef which can be traced through the clothing he wears. As Stella Bruzzi argues,

Spatial intrusions mirror the critical dissolution of Jef's sartorial image, moments of crisis in Le Samouraï being marked by the gradual, painful fragmentation of the initial Trilby, suit and trenchcoat 'ideal'. The crisis moment that graphically embodies Jef's inevitable disintegration occurs after he has been shot going to collect his money for the hit job at the beginning of the film. For the only time, Jef is forced to remove he 'suit of armor' in order to dress the bullet wound. In terms of clothes iconography this is a complex sequence. Fashion or clothes seem to substitute an ideal body for a real body, and the sight of Delon's real body in a white T-shirt doubly signals Jef's vulnerability and the loss of his ideal, as he has become both the incomplete gangster and the object of the erotic gaze. (Bruzzi, 80)

In order to withstand his constant confrontations with the Real, Jef must wear a “suit of armor” comprised of his hat, suit, and trenchcoat, as well as his famous white gloves. This suit of armor gradually disintegrates throughout the film as he confronts trauma, however, and signals Jef's proximity to death. After he is shot trying to collect his money, Jef has to wear a different coat over his suit, and this new coat is black while his original trenchcoat is light brown (see my above analysis of mise-en-scène). Also significant is that, in the final scene where he is killed, he gives his hat to the lady checking coats and doesn't even take the ticket he would need to retrieve it later. At this point he recognizes that he has been caught and no longer needs his complete “suit of armor”. Because of this, Jef's clothing functions for him as his sinthome, that which gives him access to jouissance and which also simultaneously gives consistency to his being and announces his inevitable destruction:

Symptom as sinthome is a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment... What we must bear in mind here is the radical ontological status of symptom: symptom, conceived as sinthome, is literally our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject. In other words, symptom is the way we – the subjects – 'avoid madness', the way we 'choose something... instead of nothing...' through the binding of our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation which assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world. If the symptom in this radical dimension is unbound, it means literally 'the end of the world' – the only alternative to the symptom is nothing: pure autism, a psychic suicide, surrender to the death drive, even to the total destruction of the symbolic universe. (TSOOI, 81)

Thus Jef's clothing, his composite image of the “gangster”, is his only defense against the Real, the only thing keeping him from “surrender[ing] to the death drive” (as opposed to adherence to the ethics of the drive). It is at the same time the only thing which allows him to enjoy, the only thing which allows him access to jouissance as opposed to mere plaisir.

Jef follows the ethics of the drive as far as he can. He provides an example of the way a subject can gain access to jouissance: through an endlessly repeated marking of the subject's past traumas. Jef does a good job defending himself from his repeated encounters with the Real through the ethics of the drive, but because for him there is no Big Other, when Jane asks him, “What can I do Jef?” the only answer he can give is, “Nothing. I'll work it all out.”


Work Cited (references to Zizek's works are by book title)

1. Melville, Jean-Pierre, Le Samouraï, Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinématographique, 1967
2. Bruzzi, Stella, Undressing Cinema, Routledge, New York, 1997
3. Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, Verso, New York, 2008
4. Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, New York, 2010
5. Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology Second Edition, Verso, New York, 2008

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Lorax (review)

I. Hate. Musicals.

For me there are only two musicals: Singing In The Rain (1952) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). While this may be due to the fact that I haven't seen all that many musicals, every time I try to watch more I see that musicals just aren't made for me. I just wanted to plant that seed before digging into my review of The Lorax, an animated musical from the director duo who brought us Despicable Me two years ago.

Was The Lorax good enough to overcome my general distaste for musicals? No, not really; but there is something in it that I think is worth talking about. So let's get right into it.

What did I like about The Lorax? As Todd McGowan once told me, it turns a story about environmentalism into a critique of capitalism.* And this critique does have its moments, to be sure! The film starts off with a great opening musical number depicting the fetishistic disavowal necessary to live in Thneedville (a hyper-capitalist society which is so polluted the citizens have to purchase filtered air): "In Thneedville/We don't want to know/Where the smog and trash/And chemicals go."

Then later in the film, two salesmen try to pitch the idea of bottling air in small, personal-sized bottles to Mr. O'Hare (of O'Hare Air) saying, "Our research shows that people will buy anything if you put it in a plastic bottle!" While on the surface this is a clear allusion to the absurdity of buying bottled water, it also points to a truth about objet a: the reason we buy bottled water or a coke or something isn't because we want to drink it, but because of the packaging, because there is something preventing our consumption. We desire not because of the object itself, but because of the barrier to obtaining the object.

So what's the problem then? The problem isn't (only) that the critique of capitalism falls short, that it doesn't critique enough, but that the film's proposed solution to the excesses of capitalism in fact justifies more (over)production, more excess.** (WARNING: If you care about having the end of movies spoiled you should stop reading now, skip down to the end of the review to see the score I gave the movie if you want, and go back to whatever you were doing before reading this review.) At the end of the movie, the Once-ler (who basically created this hyper-capitalist society, but who now regrets his actions) tells Ted (the protagonist), "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better... it's not." Ted then proceeds to plant the very last truffula seed.

Great, right? We have to change capitalism to make it better! No. The movie says that all we have to do is compensate for capitalism's excesses; or, in the movie's terms, if capitalism needs to cut down all the truffula trees then all we have to do is plant more. How is the obscenity of this solution not apparent to the filmmakers? This is the equivalent of saying, "It's okay that uncountable amounts of Congolese die to harvest the materials to make our laptops and cellphones: all we need to do is make sure that more Congolese are born to take their place!" I love the quote from the Once-ler, but Ted's (and the world's) reaction needs to be radically different.

That said, I think the movie still has some value as a critique of capitalism, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. For this reason I give 2 out of 5 beers to The Lorax for having its moments but not being enough to overcome my hatred for musicals (as far as I can tell from behind my biased glasses this movie wouldn't be very enjoyable even for someone who liked musicals). Furthermore, I (cringe to) give it 2 out of 5 Slavojs for shifting the focus of the original story from environmentalism to capitalism and getting parts of the critique of capitalism right.




*Just realized this might not be as obvious an improvement to everyone, so I thought I'd explain my position. Shifting the focus of the critique from environmentalism to capitalism is important because capitalism appears (to me) closer to the root cause of our ecological problems.

**The inspiration for this critique of The Lorax came from reading Slavoj Zizek's Violence (2008), especially the chapter on "SOS Violence".

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Campaign (review)

The recent political comedy The Campaign had everything going for it: two great stars (Galifianakis and Ferrel), a great cast of supporting actors (Sudeikis, Lithgow, Aykroyd), and the possibility for political commentary during an election year. It received generally negative (or at least unenthusiastic) reviews from critics, however, scoring a 50% on Metacritic and a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes.*

So what's the problem with The Campaign? Browsing through reviews would give you the impression that the movie either was too long and outstayed its welcome (see reviews in Time, the Arizona Republic, or the Philadelphia Inquirer) or simply wasn't funny (see especially the reviews in the New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Post). The highest, most favorable review the movie got according to Metacritic was from Entertainment Weekly, which anyone familiar with that particular film rag knows is never a good sign.

Before I get into my own opinion about the film I'd like to point out that I am far from knowledgeable in the area of comedy. My top 5 favorite comedies are (in no particular order) I Heart Huckabees (2004), Kung Fu Panda (2008), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Be Kind Rewind (2008), and Schizopolis (1996), only two of which (and most likely just Strangelove) actually deserve to be on anyone's top 5 anything.

That said, on a purely stupid, emotional level I loved the film. I thought the jokes were funny and the movie was well paced, despite a slight lack of character development (Why exactly does Galifianakis's character want to get into politics? We don't find out until the very end of the film and there's no foreshadowing for this development). And yet there is something wrong with the movie. Some reviewers hint at what I see as the true problem, but only two that I've read (Village Voice & the Wall Street Journal) come right out and say it: the film may be funny, but as far as actual political commentary goes, the film has basically nothing to say.

This is what I see as The Campaign's greatest failure. The film looks at serious political issues (the preference for saying what the audience wants to hear instead of taking a solid position on issues; the problems created by the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court) and instead of offering genuine political commentary it resorts to personal attacks (aimed mainly at Brady) and ends up trivializing the issues it confronts.

One scene in particular is revealing on this issue (and contains no spoilers from what I can tell): Huggins airs a political ad on TV calling for truthfulness. Great, right? I mean, if we could have gotten a little more truthfulness from Romney's campaign about their economic policies maybe he would have been a more reasonable candidate to vote for. But instead what results is a montage of scenes in which the people watching the ad turn to the person next to them and confess a sexual infidelity on their part.

Another scene, which rolls during the credits of the film, depicts the winner of the congressional race denouncing two CEOs (Lithgow & Aykroyd) who have a history of funding political races. Citizens United is even mentioned in this scene! It gets so close to pointing out an actual problem with the contemporary political scene and then what happens? The CEOs are instead brought up on charges of collaborating with a wanted felon. Can the filmmakers not see how this is (as Zizek often says) ideology at its purest? Who cares about Citizens United, we have a crime on our hands!

Even the simple fact that the movie is about two candidates running for state congress instead of for president or at least for national congress seems to trivialize the whole movie.

But the movie was funny, right? So where does this leave us? This is the first review-style analysis I've done about a film, so I'd like to inaugurate (haha political pun) a new, and as far as I can tell unique, dual system of movie rating: Beers vs. Slavojs. I give The Campaign 4 out of 5 Beers for being generally enjoyable and good for an easy laugh, but only 1 out of 5 Slavojs for attempting to confront real political issues but basically falling flat on its face.




*Metacritic averages the actual scores given by, in this case, 35 professional movie critics, while Rotten Tomatoes gives the percentage of their total critics who gave the film greater than a 50% rating.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Conversation (analysis)

Here is as close as I've gotten to a final draft of my paper analyzing The Conversation through Freud, Lacan, and Zizek. It is the mostly deeply Freudian paper I think I have ever written and because of that and its originality (it obviously takes something from Zizek and even more from Kaja Silverman, but as far as I can tell most analysis of the film concentrates instead on the sort of ethics of surveillance in the film) it has a special place in my heart. If you are interested in other analyses of the movie there is a huge amount of scholarship dedicated to the film (and I'm sure somewhere in there someone's already made this argument, but screw them). Anyway I hope you enjoy it as it is the first paper in a series of about six psychoanalytic film papers I wrote for school and which I am now revising and publishing here. Please let me know if I can clarify anything since not everyone speaks Lacanese and someone else probably has the same question. 


Harry's Attempts to Return to His Caul

In Francis Ford Coppola's film The Conversation (1974), Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a “surveillance and security technician” as Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) euphemistically puts it: Harry takes jobs offered by private parties to spy on individuals with equipment used to capture sounds. The film revolves around a single conversation (giving the film its title) which Harry is contracted to record. He never knows the reasons for which he is hired, and in fact makes a point of remaining exterior to the issues of each case he takes on. His desire for exteriority will be crucial for my analysis as the central conversation in the film causes Harry to lose this safe position as an outsider. By analyzing and over-analyzing the conversation he tapes at the beginning of the film and subsequently investigating the case personally, Harry's work constitutes a, unconscious search for his lamella and an attempt to return to a pre-Symbolic reality before his separation from his mother. In the process of this search, Harry gets too close to his objet a and has a traumatic encounter with the Lacanian Real.

The film begins with the conversation between a man, Mark (Frederic Forrest), and a woman, Ann (Cindy Williams), which Harry has agreed to surreptitiously tape for his most recent customer. Harry records the conversation using three different microphones placed strategically throughout the square where the conversation takes place. Not each microphone can accurately pick up the conversation by itself since the couple is constantly walking around, so what the audience hears of the conversation is at this point in the movie broken up by fragments of static. These missing fragments of the conversation provide a perfect analogy for that which cannot be understood within the Symbolic and foreshadow Harry's eventual encounter with the Real. During this scene the couple conversing notices one of Harry's men operating a microphone hidden within a shopping bag. Subsequently, the man removes himself from the square and returns to the van out of which this surveillance team is operating. This foregrounds Harry's need to remain exterior to the scenes he observes which we will later see mirrors his desire to extricate himself from the Symbolic order.

Harry then returns to his office where he attempts to unite the data received by the three microphones into one coherent conversation. After syncing the tapes and adjusting their respective volumes so that the three tapes become one, he records this onto a fourth tape which he will turn in to his customer. In this process he manages to eliminate all the static and make the entire conversation intelligible except for one comment whispered from the Mark to Ann. This fragment which cannot be integrated coherently into the conversation will become significant as it eventually sparks Harry's desire and causes him to become an actor in the action which he has until now only been observing.

Before Harry attempts to make sense of this remaining senseless piece of sound, we are given several examples of Harry's attempts to extricate himself from the Symbolic order and return to a pre-Symbolic time when he has full enjoyment of his lamella. Lacan describes the lamella as follows:

It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life. It is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction. And it is of this that all the forms of the objet a that can be enumerated are the representatives, the equivalents. The objets a are merely its representatives, its figures. (Lacan, 198)

Lamella is not only the true embodiment of objet a, what pursuing objet a aims at, but the “pure life instinct” which the subject loses as part of the process of subjectification. In this way lamella is something Real, something beyond or before the Symbolic which the subject, as a subject, no longer as access to. As that which objet a represents, it is something which grants direct access to jouissance, something which allows pure enjoyment without guilt, something beyond the superego. This is what Harry (and every subject, as its loss is constitutive of subjectivity) lacks, and what he is searching for in deciphering the conversation and investigating the people involved. Unfortunately what Harry doesn't realize is that the only ways out of the claustrophobic deadlocks of the Symbolic are through fantasy, which Harry ultimately finds unsatisfying, or through the Real, which is traumatizing. There is fundamentally no way back to the comfortable jouissance of childhood, only the traumatic jouissance of the subject of the signifier. 

In the first example of Harry attempting to extricate himself from the Symbolic, he receives a gift from his landlady for his birthday, and instead of being thankful he worriedly calls her to ask how she got into his apartment and how she even knew it was his birthday. Presumably the landlady excuses herself for having an extra set of keys (we can't hear her side of the conversation) in order to protect Harry's personal items in the event of a fire because Harry replies that he “[doesn't] have anything personal, nothing of value, nothing personal except [his] keys, which [he] would really like to have the only copy of.” Thus the only thing Harry values is his privacy, or in other words, his ability to remain unnoticed by the Big Other who grants consistency to the Symbolic. Second, he visits his girlfriend, and after she asks him to tell her secrets and about his life he tells her he “[doesn't] like it when people ask a lot of questions.” He also seems upset by the fact that people know when his birthday is despite never having told anyone. This shows that he doesn't want to have a stable identity within the Symbolic, he doesn't want to be pinned down, regardless of whatever his own imaginary identifications may be. Third, he asks both his work partner Stan (John Cazale) and his rival Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) not to take the Lord's name in vain. This appears to be out of a fear of being watched in a violent way by God. Kaja Silverman argues that

Harry is haunted by the thought of a heavenly surveillance system which might at any moment be turned against him. Since 'to use the name of the Lord in vain' would be to incriminate himself with the operator of that system, he not only avoids swearing himself, but demands the same from his colleagues (Silverman, 89; my emphasis). 

Harry is paranoid that, if he does not behave properly, the Symbolic (father; God) will turn his gaze to Harry as punishment. The final example of Harry's obsessional avoidance of encounters within the Symbolic is when he has his friends over to his house after a convention of other wire-tappers. At one point during the party Harry separates himself from the others with a woman to whom he eventually reveals his troubles with his girlfriend (without directly describing them, of course). Meanwhile, unknown to Harry, the conversation is recorded by a pen with a microphone in it that Bernie gave him earlier at the convention. When this recording is played back, Harry becomes furious and kicks everyone out of his house except the woman, who then puts Harry to bed as would a mother. These examples all show Harry's paranoia of being watched by the Big Other and of being integrated successfully into the Symbolic. Additionally, the woman's position as a mother figure hints at the fact that the only way to access purely pre-Symbolic jouissance is through the enjoyment of the mother in childhood.

After this comes the crucial moment for my analysis of the film: Harry returns to his office in order to decipher the fragments of the conversation that has until now been obscured by static. Harry uses a piece of equipment of his own invention (which Coppola notes in his commentary didn't exist at the time) to reduce the noises outside the conversation in order to zone in on the voices and what they are saying. If we take this moment of static as something unrepresentable within the Symbolic as I have argued above, Harry's attempt to decipher this inaudible dialogue becomes a perfect analogy for his desire to return to a pre-Symbolic state, or at least to escape the Symbolic. Lacan's first graph of desire depicts two intersecting vectors, one going from S on the left to S' on the right, and another going from Δ on the right to an S with a diagonal bar through it on the left (for which I will simply use “$” for lack of a better option).


Zizek analyzes how for Lacan this graph illustrates the process of signification:

Lacan structures this double movement quite differently: some mythical, pre-symbolic intention (marked Δ) 'quilts' the signifier's chain, the series of the signifier marked by the vector S'. The product of this quilting (what 'comes out the other side' after the mythical – real – intention goes through the signifier and steps out of it) is the subject marked by the matheme $ (the divided, split subject, and at the same time the effaced signifier, the lack of signifier, the void, an empty space in the signifier's network). (Zizek1, 112). 

Thus to bring the analogy back to The Conversation, we have the “effaced signifier, the lack of signifier” $ in the form of the (initially) undecipherable dialogue within the conversation which until now could only be heard as static. Through attempting to decipher this static, Harry is attempting to trace the “effaced signifier” back to its mythical (pre-Symbolic) intention (Δ). For better or for worse, Harry fails at this task. Instead of discovering the speaker's mythic intention, he simply removes the static to uncover what the whispered, unheard dialogue is: “He'd kill us if he had the chance.” Thus, instead of reaching Δ, Harry has been caught in the quilting of the signifier and presented instead with S', or the simple chain of signifiers used to express this pre-Symbolic intention. Because of this, despite all of Harry's efforts, he remains stuck within the Symbolic order, and consequently he continues to attempt to extricate himself from it.

At this point it becomes important to understand Harry's own fantasies because, as Silverman points out, this chain of signifiers which Harry has created “must be doctored to the point where it is virtually constructed by Harry” (Silverman, 90; my emphasis). Because Harry has “constructed” this part of the conversation himself, it is inextricably tied up with his own fantasy frame. Thus both Harry and the audience hear the phrase emphasized “He'd kill us if he had the chance.” This plays perfectly into Harry's fantasy of his own reunion with his mother since the mother figure in the conversation is threatened with death which he fantasizes himself capable of preventing. Silverman points out Harry's intense fascination with another moment in the conversation he has taped where Ann pities a bum and says that every time she sees a homeless person she thinks that “he was once somebody's baby boy, and he had a mother and father who loved him”. She argues that

This speech intersects with two other details from the conversation, which also resonate with maternal affect, and which are similarly privileged by Harry. One of those details is the sound of Ann's voice singing snatches from [a] child's song.... The other is the image of her solicitously removing a speck from her companion's eye. (Silverman, 89) 

These images all symbolize Harry's desire for reunion with his mother: first her pity for a grown-up boy and his lost family, second her singing a lullaby, and third her motherly care for her companion. Thus it is significant that Harry (and the audience) at first understand the statement “He'd kill us if he had the chance” as a threat to the maternal figure embodied by Ann.

Here the film cuts from Harry asleep in his bed to a short segment of the conversation in which all we can hear is static and finally to a dream sequence. Harry dreams of an encounter with Ann over which Coppola inserts the same odd-sounding static. In the dream Harry introduces himself to Ann and tells her, in true Freudian fashion, about his childhood:

I was very sick when I was a boy. I was paralyzed in my left arm and my left leg. I couldn't walk for six months. One doctor said that I'd probably never walk again. My mother used to lower me into a hot bath as therapy. One time the doorbell rang and she went down to answer it. I started sliding down. I could feel the water starting to come up to my chin, up to my nose, and when I woke up, my body was all greasy from the holy oil she put on my body. 

Here Harry is describing to (his fantasy of) Ann a scene of his failure in childhood to fully enjoy his mother. He finishes the story by saying “I remember being disappointed I survived,” indicating that this is not a scene of satisfaction or jouissance. While this may at first appear to discount my attempts thus far to show that Harry desires to return to this point (why would he want to go back if he wasn't happy then?), on closer inspection this moment in fact reinforces my argument. First of all, the obvious point: the driving force behind Harry's attempts is above all unconscious. He is not saying to himself, “If I were to prevent this murder, it would be like being with my mother again,” but instead this is what's pushing him to break his rules about not getting emotionally involved in the cases he accepts. Second, this memory (whether it is accurate or not) actually functions as the driving mechanism behind Harry's actions. As a memory it has a functional place within the Symbolic: it is not a memory of pre-Symbolic time. It is thus, to turn it on its head, a precise confirmation of my argument in that he defines himself with this memory as someone unable to fully enjoy his mother since he is crippled (paralysis) and his mother has other desires (answering the door). He is therefore trying to return to a point even before this memory, a point which perhaps never existed, in which he was fully capable of enjoying.

After Harry's discovery or fantasy of a possible murder plot, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He goes to the hotel mentioned in the conversation and rents a room adjacent to the room in which the two planned to meet. After examining the interior of the room, he goes onto the balcony where he witnesses the planned murder through pebbled glass. The problem is that the murder is not of Ann nor Mark, but a third element, Ann's husband. This does not fit within Harry's fantasy, and this reversal of the subject to be saved causes Harry to be traumatized and run inside and curl up (significantly) into the fetal position in his bed. He is in this way repressing the traversal of his fantasy and exposure to the Real with a fantasmatic return to childhood or a retreat back into fantasy. This reversal, however traumatic, reveals to the audience that the correct emphasis is actually “He'd kill us if he had the chance,” justifying the couple's murderous intentions instead of providing Harry with a possible position as savior.

When Harry wakes up he picks the lock for the adjoining room and enters, looking for evidence of the murder. He goes into the bathroom and examines the shower drain and the toilet bowl, both objects which Zizek identifies as “focal objects” and which he argues are “cracks” through which “we can perceive just the abyss of a netherworld. When we look through these cracks we see the dark other side where hidden forces run the show” (Zizek2). Then what Zizek identifies as “the ultimate horror” occurs: Harry flushes the toilet and, instead of flushing, the toilet bowl fills with blood and tissue which proceed to overflow onto the floor. This is the emergence of the Real for Harry. He has come too close to the mythical intention, Δ, too close to objet a, that which organizes and gives consistency to his desire. This is especially so since the murder was not of Ann, but of her husband. This unexpected reversal completely dissolves Harry's fantasy of reunion with the mother, since the mother in this scenario is in fact a killer intent on destroying the image of the complete, unalienated family unit. Harry eventually returns to his apartment where he plays his saxophone (something he does to relax) in an apparent attempt to regain control of the situation. Instead he receives a call (despite never giving anyone his phone number) from the customer who gave him the original assignment. The voice on the other end says “we'll be listening to you” and then plays a recording of the music Harry was just playing. This completely destroys what was left of Harry's fantasy of separation from the Symbolic and causes him to tear apart his entire apartment looking for microphones or other surveillance equipment. He fails to find anything, and the movie closes with a shot of Harry's wrecked apartment which pans back and forth, imitating a surveillance camera. Thus Harry (and the audience) is denied his (our) fantasy of separating himself from the Symbolic and returning to a pre-Symbolic state before the loss of his lamella where he was reunited with his mother.


Works Cited

1. Coppola, Francis Ford, The Conversation, Paramount Pictures, 1974
2. Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Norton, New York, 1978
3. Silverman, Kaja, The acoustic mirror: the female voice in psychoanalysis and cinema, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 1988
4. Zizek1, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, New York, 1989
5. Zizek2, Slavoj, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Mischief Films, 2009

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Silly Nosferatu Reading

Just wrote a short, somewhat disingenuous reading of Nosferatu for class today and figured I'd post it up here since I haven't posted anything since school started. Was just supposed to be a one paragraph response so there's really not a lot to it, and there is at least one scene missing (Nosferatu on the boat), but I found it entertaining to think this one through. Hope you like it.

In Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006), Zizek reads the attacks of the birds in The Birds (1963) as externalized maternal superego. Count Orlok's attack on Hutter's wife Ellen at the end of Nosferatu (1922) functions in a similar way. At the beginning of the film, Hutter is sent to Transylvania to talk to Count Orlok about buying property in Wisborg. He stops at an inn on his way and discovers a book about vampires, which begins to function as his and the audience's fantasy frame to explain the presence of Nosferatu. While he is out of town his wife stays with his friend Harding who Hutter becomes jealous of, symbolized by the obvious vampire bite on his neck (which he explains away as mosquitoes) and by his writing to Ellen while he is gone despite the fact that he is only supposed to be away for a few days. He then confronts Count Orlok, now in the form of the “Bird of Death”, the external embodiment of his jealous superego, and he falls unconscious. It is noteworthy to mention that Orlok/Nosferatu does not kill or even attack Hutter (at least in the way he later attacks Ellen) since it is traumatic for him to encounter his unconscious desire, but not deadly. Orlok/Nosferatu and Hutter eventually make it back to Wisborg, and Hutter (unconsciously) gives Ellen her final test: he tells her not to read the book about vampires Hutter took from the inn (which of course would make no sense if there was a real vampire on the loose, since he would want her to be prepared, but makes perfect sense in the interpretation of the book as his fantasy frame, one of his most intimate secrets) which she does anyway. By failing this test Hutter knows Ellen has been unfaithful (symbolized by Nosferatu entering her bedroom while she's there alone), or at least that she can no longer occupy the position of objet a for him (since she knows his fantasy & betrayed his demand/desire), and Orlok/Nosferatu/Hutter's jealous superego kills her.

While it could be possible to argue that there is an actual vampire loose in Wisborg as evidenced by the deaths around town, these deaths are perfectly accounted for in the movie: plague.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ethics in Pulp Fiction

Quick post. Just rewatched Pulp Fiction (1994) and aside from the amazing, intricately woven storytelling and some beautiful long shots I noticed something else to love about the movie. There are two main transformations that occur during the film, and both point toward the ethical potential of the death drive, or at least toward the possibility of an ethical act (in the most Zizekian meaning).

The first occurs with Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is out to get Butch because Butch double-crossed him: he was supposed to go down in a boxing match but won brutally instead. After being cornered in a pawn shop by Marsellus, both characters are taken hostage by the store owner, Maynard (Duane Whitaker), and his police officer friend Zed (Peter Greene). It is revealed that Maynard and Zed are perverts who plan to rape Butch and Marsellus. They choose Marsellus to go first, and while they are in another room Butch breaks free. He is on his way out of the store but he pauses at the door and goes back to try to save Marsellus. He thereby decides to doubly risk his life at the hands either of Maynard and Zed (who want to rape and probably kill him for pleasure) or of Marsellus (who wants to kill him for the double-cross). Here we have, I believe, the ethical act at its purest: realizing that if the roles were reversed and he was being raped and tortured he would want Marsellus to come back for him, he does so for a man who not too long ago was firing a handgun at him. It seems to me this act takes the form of the death drive since Butch is driven even towards to uphold his ethical code. The problem with interpreting this as drive is that, as I mentioned above, this is something of a transformation for Butch. He is normally not a very ethical man: double-crossing a man who has given him a large sum of money to go down in a fight, even just the basic act of taking money to fix the match itself. And because Butch's story ends with this act, there is no real element of repetition in the diegesis of the film, an element which seems quite necessary to the drive.

The second transformation occurs in the character of Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and takes almost the exact same structure. At the end of the movie Jules is in a diner which is being robbed. when one of the robbers attempts to take the suitcase which Jules has been trying to deliver to Marsellus Wallace, Jules turns the situation around, taking the robber's gun and pointing his own. He then recites Ezekiel 25:17 to the robber:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

He quotes this line one other time during the movie, and claims to quote it whenever he is about to kill someone. In this case however he does not kill the robber and instead of interpreting himself as the "righteous man" or even the "Lord" himself as he seems to previously, he tells the robber, "you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd". He then gives the robber the money in his wallet and lets him leave the store. Here we have what is definitely an ethical act (side note: As I was thinking about it I considered that maybe the ethical act would be to force the robber to give everyone their money back, but that seems to fall into the trap of believing in the power of money, which at this point in the movie Jules definitely doesn't, and which we all probably shouldn't. On the other hand, money isn't going away, and maybe we need it to change the system. I don't know.) but this act takes the form of the drive slightly more than Butch's. Jules has a strange, pathological compulsion to repeat this quotation, and here at the end of the movie he transforms this previously unethical repetition into an ethical one.

I may elaborate on this post in the future.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hegel Watches Zombieland

Several days ago, my good friend and I were rewatching Zombieland, a movie we both rather enjoy (not exactly a top 10-type movie, but good enough to warrant multiple viewings). About a third of the way through the movie, after Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) steal Tallahassee's (Woody Harrelson) Escalade and discuss their plans to escape to Pacific Playland, my friend commented that he really doesn't like this part. Specifically, he didn't like Wichita's and Little Rock's seemingly illogical attachment to and belief in a zombie-free Pacific Playland. Why are Wichita and Little Rock convinced Pacific Playland is zombie-free? The only response I could come up with at the time was that the movie is revealing Wichita and Little Rock's pathological side. I argued that this was supposed to help you sympathize with the two characters since everyone has their weaknesses.

Whether this is a convincing argument or not aside, I came across an answer which I find more appealing and which seems to fit the disaster genre better. The answer came from Zizek's The Ticklish Subject (Verso, 2000) which I was reading at work. As with most of Zizek's writing, I'm not sure if I have interpreted this passage correctly since I have only very minor exposure to Hegel. However, I will try my best. Zizek begins the section by describing "stubborn attachment", a term from Hegel's Phenomonology. According to him, it "stands for the pathological attachment to some particular content... scorned by the moralistic judging conscience" (121). Simple enough: Wichita and Little Rock are pathologically attached to the idea of Pacific Playland and "conscience" tells us that this is bad (i.e. our reaction when watching, especially on multiple viewings). Wichita even admits to Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), "I know this Pacific Playland thing is nuts, but it's been so long since she got to be a kid." Here we have a perfect example of fetishistic disavowel: I know very well (that something is not the case), but I still believe (that it is the case). On the other hand, Hegel (via Zizek) actually thinks stubborn attachment is (or could possibly be) a good thing:

Such an attachment is the ontological a priori of an act - the hero's (active subject's) act by means of which he disturbs the balance of the socio-ethical totality of mores is always and necessarily experienced by his community as a crime... [W]hen, irrespective of circumstances, I stubbornly attach myself to some accidental particular feature to which I am bound by no inner necessity, this 'pathological' attachment enables me to disengage myself from immersion in my particular life-context... The paradox, therefore, lies in the fact that I can arrive at the Universal-for-itself only through a stubborn attachment to some contingent particular content, which functions as a 'negative magnitude', as something wholly indifferent in itself whose meaning resides entirely in the fact that it gives body to the subject's arbitrary will. (121-2)

With Zizek, "act" is always a loaded term with more significance than any simple action. An act for Zizek is "an 'immoral' lie which answers the unconditional call of duty, enabling the community to start again from zero" ("The Act and its Vicissitudes") or, as in the quote above, a "crime" to the community which disrupts the "socio-ethical totality of mores" in order to create new socio-ethical regulations. An act, therefore, is always something that doesn't quite fit within the symbolic order, which in fact ruptures the symbolic and allows the community to create new symbolic rules. In this case the "crime" Wichita commits is breaking her only rule with Little Rock to "trust no one, just you and me" and trusts (albeit temporarily) Columbus and Tallahassee. The fact that her stubborn attachment happens to be to Pacific Playland is unimportant because it "functions as a 'negative magnitude'", its only important lies in the fact that it embodies her will. When confronted with the choice to leave Columbus and Tallahasee behind, Wichita temporarily wills away her ethical stance of trusting no one in order to create a new community. This act, however, is not enough. Later on she confronts the Real of her desire when she and Columbus are drinking in Bill Murray's house and they become somewhat romantically attached. The next morning Wichita and Little Rock leave without Columbus and Tallahassee and the community that had been formed is disbanded.

It takes a second act, this time on the part of Columbus, to truly form a new community. At the very end of the film Columbus commits the "crime" of violating his rule "Don't Be a Hero" in order to save Wichita from a zombie-clown. This act reunites the four heroes and allows Columbus to realize "that those smart girls in that big black truck and that big guy in that snakeskin jacket, they were the closest to something I had always wanted, but never really had: a family... we had each other. And without other people, you might as well be a zombie." While this initial failure of Wichita's act followed by Columbus's successful act may seem to shed an unfortunately anti-feminist light on the film, what is actually at work here is Hegel's "negation of negation":


The inner logic of the movement from one stage to another is not that from one extreme, to the opposite extreme, and then to their higher unity; the second passage is, rather, simply the radicalization of the first... '[N]egation of negation': its matrix is not that of a loss and its recuperation, but simply that of a process of passage from state A to state B: the first, 'immediate' negation of A negates the position of A while remaining within its symbolic confines, so it must be followed by another negation, which then negates the very symbolic space common to A and its immediate negation... Here the gap that separates the system's 'real' death from its 'symbolic' death is crucial: the system has to die twice... The passage from In-itself to For-itself thus involves the logic of repetition: when a thing becomes 'for itself', nothing actually changes in it; it just repeatedly asserts ('re-marks') what it already was in itself. 'Negation of negation' is thus nothing but repetition at its purest: in the first move, a certain gesture is accomplished and fails; then, in the second move, this same gesture is simply repeated. (79-83)

Thus it is not simply that Wichita's act fails, her act is necessary for the complete elimination of the old symbolic network (of distrust). "The system has to die twice", and Wichita's 'failed' act simply bears witness to the first of the system's two deaths. In order for the new community/symbolic to become "For-itself" the old community/symbolic must die twice, the first time when Wichita betrays her rules of trusting no one for the sake of Columbus and Tallahassee, and the second time when Columbus betrays his rule to not be a hero for the sake of "family" (i.e. community).