posing the question of interiority

Given the extent to which Lost Highway can feel like an unnavigable enigma, it is especially fruitful to try to answer the seemingly basic (but remarkably complex) questions surrounding reality, fantasy and nightmare (if we can call this indeed mark this as distinct from fantasy).

If we begin by assuming that the scene in which Fred and Alice receive the detectives in their home is a kind of reality (whether that be an augmented one or not), we can work to understand how it shapes the next one: of Andy’s party, wherein Fred is introduced to the Mystery Man. Even if we can’t concede that it’s “reality”, we understand that their relation to one another is important through the filmic cut.

In the first, we witness a pretty discouraging encounter with some criminal justice officers, whom Fred and Alice have called to help investigate the mysterious videos. As Alice walks around the house with one, and the other stands on top of an eclectic skylight, we cut back to Fred.

We understand that he’s in some kind of discomfort, perhaps jealousy, but I don’t think his emotions here are plainly legible in isolation. Just as we approach his emotional interior without entering, we recognize that the detectives are only effective here as a cosmetic cure: their investigation is purely superficial. They aren’t uncovering anything. In fact, they’re hardly digging. We might ask ourselves: why look outside at all? Wouldn’t the real secret be hidden in that dark mirrored corridor? Is there ever anything that can be understood through reality, if this is reality?

At the end of the day, we learn that the detectives can do no more than walk about the premises and provide their cards. We draw away from the scene keenly aware of the persistence of the threat posed to Fred and Alice, even if we cannot name it.

Formally, the high-tracking camera slowly zooms in on Fred and Alice, placing the audience in the place of the assailant, the stalker. Just as we learn from this shot the futility of their attempts to protect themselves, we also learn of the insistence of the letter [‘s sender], and of our involvement. We are forced to read the cards of the officers as a new kind of package, delivering to their faces instead of to their doorstep. Fred feels its futility, as he fidgets with his card.

Thankfully, even if Fred is somewhat inaccessible here, we’ll be transported to the [dark] interior of his own mind. We can track this progression through slight “dream-works” where certain details have been compressed or expanded and grafted onto new subjects. Although we might not see the moustached man who steals away Fred’s woman as precisely Andy, or the man on the glass bathed in pale white lighting as a mirror image of the Mystery Man, we are given similar visual cues through Fred and can deduct the filmic metaphor.

Like most dreams, we don’t know how we arrive at Andy’s party, but, suddenly—we’re there. Whereas the investigation scene, took place in the daylight with dark interiors, emphasizing perhaps its external reality, we have moved into well-lit interiors. Here, to be sure, there is outside activity around the pool, but we are drawn inside, just as we were forced to reckon with our inability to really get “inside” Fred’s head before.

We also can’t help but note the rare presence of comforting background music. When else have we been given this pleasure? So far, never! Throughout the first half of this film, in stark contrast to the Pete section, we are forced to endure low groans, demonic growls and static—all of Lynch’s auditory tricks to catapult us into our psyches, and thereafter, into our nightmares.

The narrative of this scene is pretty basic, to the extent that it becomes almost allegorical (and therefore, dreamlike). We enter watching a girl flirt with Andy, who then swaggers over to Alice, to draw her away from Fred. We instantly remember Fred’s anxious fantasy about Alice leaving his jazz club with Andy, through the ‘Exit’ sign. She hands Fred her glass, again echoing with the detectives’ ID cards and the manila envelopes containing the videos.

Fred begrudgingly accepts his role (as he would only in a dream, we can imagine) and heads to the bar. After a long shot of Fred smoking and taking a few shots, he suddenly becomes the object of attention. And in this gesture, he moves from just another man in the crowd, a plebeian party-goer, to the scopic obsession of the Mystery Man. As the Mystery Man approaches, the musical drapery is peeled back: the scene is reduced to its essential terror.

INSERT MORE LATER PHONE DISCUSSION HERE

And, in the wake of this conversation, Alice approaches Fred for the first time. Something has evidently changed, such that Fred has become the object of attention. We can track how this quickly (and dangerously) escalates throughout the rest of the scene.

But instead of revel in this attention, Fred is concerned with and terrified by the Mystery Man. He consults Andy (who appears to almost be his friend here, a role which we never see repeated) for more information.

But the conversation quickly devolves into pain and confusion. Fred, hearing Dick Laurent’s name, chimes in with the information we’ve seen him receive (namely, that he’s dead), which summons up a volatile, aggressive response from Andy. Conversation bleeds into interrogation, as Alice comes to Fred’s rescue. But we also see this as a devastating nightmarish turn. We remember that Fred hates being recorded. And here, if nothing else, we see his anxiety about being the object of attention in this crowd on high display. As he hurries out of the party, we expect him to be followed. But, instead, we’re given an ambiguous cue from Lynch. The people behind them are indifferent to their presence/absence.

 

The Fantasy of the Image–and Its Corruption

For the analyst trying to make sense of Travis’ descent into psychosis in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the absence of a childhood, or indeed, any kind of past could certainly be jarring. But, as has been brought up in our class discussions, we can read this film as a kind of ‘alien memoir’: it presents us with an almost anthropological reading of a society from someone who is clearly not a part of it, but, importantly, who is trying to figure out how to fit in. In some sense, then, this opens the door for readings of national spirit, culture, identity, psychosis, etc. But, at the same time, from an angle which we haven’t pursued as rigorously in this class, it presents us with a contained reading of this ‘alien’’s psychic logics. By reading Travis’ perceived and expressed relationships to his world, perhaps we can understand what his alienation and subsequent rampage.

I would have us begin by thinking about Travis in familiar terms: as a taxi driver. And as a taxi driver, he always perceives of himself as separate from his world both through his windshield–which protects him from the grime of the streets (broken spewing fire hydrants and rambunctious children)–and through his rear-view mirror, which gives him the illusion of distinction from his passengers, a distinction that insists on fragmentation even within his cab.

Early in the film, after one of the first scenes we have of Travis driving his new cab, we are forced to reckon with the less savory aspects of interacting with humanity as a cab driver. Specifically, Travis tells us, “Each night when I return the car to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the backseat….Some nights, I clean out the blood.”

As most readers will recognize, what is here the revolting but necessary routine of cleaning “the cum off the seat” soon becomes a key piece of Travis’ political rhetoric in the form of cleaning “the scum off the streets”.

Recognizing that this cum and blood is certainly not Travis’, we are able to maintain a clear distinction here: it’s Travis’ passengers that are sick, not him. He does the same thing, internalizing a rigid divide in his being between the humane and the inhumane; the sacred and the profane.

But we see this system of perception ruptured when he takes Betsy to the pornography theater in Times Square, and she is revolted by his conduct, rejecting him. Interestingly, this rejection is cemented by her choice of another cab, which is to say, another driver who isn’t Travis.

We see him try to break back into her world, the idealized world, by apologizing, but his breach of conduct is too severe: he has been exiled.

What he is forced to understand, then, is that he belongs to the world of filth of which his backseat is the apotheosis. He can no longer maintain this distinction in the world, or, rather, if he is able to maintain the distinction, he can at least be certain where he lies: at the bottom, swimming with the scum.

Immediately after this sequence is, by most accounts, a radical turning point in Travis’ story, where he gives a ride to Martin Scorsese, who plays a jealous, viciously angry and unhinged husband. It’s here that Travis’ outsider status is introduced to the register of violence marked by the savage .44 magnum, wherein Scorsese essentially pays to use him as an alias in order to spy on his wife, as well as to tolerate and share a fantasy of sexual violence with him. It should also be mentioned, even if it isn’t thoroughly explicated here, that Scorsese’s violence is tinged racially: his wife is cheating on him with a black man. 

From this point onward, there’s an interesting schism in Travis’ psychology. He recognizes, perhaps unconsciously, his necessary affiliation with the scum of the world, but also has been mobilized as a vigilante to enact justice on his own terms. In psychoanalytic terms, we might describe him as disavowing his relationship to scum. As a result of this, he begins demonizing, gradually more aggressively, the objects of his vision, whether this be the pornography he regularly consumes in theatres, or the cinema he consumes within the confines of his own home. The violence, in turn, escalates from a mere play shooting to a very real destruction of his television, to the natural climax of the film: his rampage in the brothel. 

When, at the end of his rampage, he turns his “gun” on himself, it can be presumed that Travis is consciously recognizing the extent to which he composes a part of the scum of the world. Although he has directed his aggression outward, he clearly understands, at some level, that the object of his aggression is also located within himself.

But if we can describe the bulk of the movie as Travis’ disenchantment with his surroundings and his ultimate demonization of that society, the end of the film (post-rampage) operates almost exactly in opposition to this. Whereas before, Travis was positioned as occupying a moral low-ground with respect to Betsy, here, he exercises his ability to disengage with her, to willingly break their relationship, and thus projects himself into the realm of fantasy. The scar that he wears on his neck becomes emblematic of his heroism, and the ethereality of Betsy as his passenger allows his world to go unblemished: there is no cum and certainly no blood to clean up. But then, in a dizzying moment of hyper-saturation as the music plays backwards, Travis checks his rearview mirror in fear. We said in class that he perhaps sees himself in the backseat. Certainly, this would make interpretative sense: the fear, then, would derive from an internal fracture of subjectivity, where he realizes that he’s located (in truth) in the back seat, not in the front, and thus is not a hero but is really scum. However, to my eye, the figure in the mirror looks more like Martin Scorsese, which would have many of the same implications, except that it would be even more clear that he’s not in control of his cab. If it’s Scorsese, we could say that his position as a sheep of a wayward ideology, as a passenger and not as a driver, is on display. In this case, Travis might be a hero, but the context for that sublimation would be made evident, thus breaking the trance of the dream.

The double bind: blinded by the light?

In my last post, I took note of the seductive absence/omnipresence of Bill in Kill Bill, Vo. 1. We might also note in passing that Kill Bill, Vo. 1 is generally much more concerned with violence between women than towards men (who are relegated to a relatively tangential, or insignificant, part of the first film) and yet is typified as more masculine in a stereotypical gendered register, by virtue of its gratuitous gore.

By contrast, Kill Bill, Vo. 2 puts a face to Bill’s name, first in black-and-white, later in color. We are also given the Bride’s name (Beatrix Kiddo) and introduced to B.B., respectively. Interestingly, amidst the new presence of the father and the official announcement of the familial unit, castration is carried as a strong, nearly ubiquitous motif throughout the film. To be sure, most audiences will remember the scenes with Elle as the more obvious and scarring moments of castration, but formally, I would argue, the scene between Budd and the Bride is much more interesting. And this blog post will concern itself with precisely that.

We begin the scene with a full moon in the pitch black sky, a clever transition from a bright detailed shot of Budd standing over the Bride, her chest full of salt from his shotgun.

Because of the black background of the scene, it becomes impossible for the audience to understand the boundaries of the shot, which we imagine to simply be the normal framing. But when we cut to the Bride in the bed of Budd’s truck, the sides of the frame have been clipped off. And, as any film consumer of the early-mid 2000s will be able to agree–that wide-screen is preferable to full-screen because full-screen denies the viewer part of the experience–the viewer can’t help but feel somewhat handicapped here, understanding the b(l)ind(ness) that we’ve been subjected to.

This double-bind is mirrored in the Bride’s own binds around her ankles and wrists, and the two locks that we see undone from the truck bed.

But Tarantino’s clever symbolism refuses to be forgotten; instead, we hear it echo throughout the rest of the scene.

First, we see Budd and his buddy standing over the Bride, a visual parallel to Buck and his buddy from the first volume. This is reinforced by the dialogue, wherein Budd asks his buddy, “Is she the cutest little blond pussy you ever saw, or is she the cutest little blond pussy you ever saw?” What’s interesting about this line is that it produces a double-bind itself, and that Budd’s buddy escapes it in saying “I’ve seen better.”

What can this tell us about the Bride’s double-bind(s)? It seems to imply that there’s a way out, by virtue of Budd’s playful mode of torture. Although he tells us that he’s enacting revenge (and we might believe him, after all, how could he know about the Bride’s training with Pai Mei?), he’s either so incompetent at constructing traps that it fails, or he’s intentionally leaving room for deliverance from his evil. We see a trace of this in his lie about the Hattori Hanzo sword.

Regardless, it shows in his decision to offer the Bride two options in her burial. He has ‘benevolently’ decided to bury her alive with a flashlight, but is prepared to ‘burn her eyes out’ and make her ‘blind’, by administering a can of mace to her eye.

Interestingly, when he shows her the option of the flashlight, he shines it in her eye, making it into a kind of weapon itself. Although he surely sees it as a vestige of hope for the Bridge, he seems to also wield it as a kind of threat. This characterization persists in the burial itself, where we are given an entirely black frame before being reintroduced to light in the coffin, despite the flashlight being turned off.

As the song we hear playing at the beginning of the scene tells us (Can’t Hardly Stand It by Charlie Feathers), “You’re through with me / You’re setting me free”.

Although Budd (and Bill through him) are ‘sealing’ her fate, they are also simultaneously endowing her with the fiery freeing spirit of revenge.

The Name-of-the-Father: where’s Bill in Kill Bill?

The title of the film foregrounds the intent of the Bride’s quest: she is on a mission to kill Bill. But who is Bill? Where does he appear in the film? How is he represented?

Firstly, we can note that the film is bookended with signifiers of his masculinity. Between the firing shot of “Bill, it’s your baby” (0:2:26) and the blander, cooler “I’m the man” (1:23:06) at the film’s close, we know Bill to be a man, a father, and a father-figure (through what would seem to be his patronizing nickname for the Bride: ‘kiddo’) if not to the Bride, then certainly to the other DiVAS. But how he’s earned this reverential status is told quite cryptically, if at all in Volume One.

Of course, what we know intuitively after having seen the movie is that Bill’s face can’t be seen. While we see his gun, hands, and feet occasionally depicted on-screen, he is more marked by his visual absence. Undercutting this, however, is his aural omnipresence. His voice permeates the film, most notably when we calls Elle Driver to stop her from dishonorably assassinating the Bride in her sleep.

If we look for other signifiers of Bill, we can note that Bill also appears in the constellation of 4-letter American male names starting with ‘B’, alongside Buck and Budd (whose importance is discovered in the second volume). By reading the Bride’s relation to Buck, then, we can perhaps discern something of her relation to Bill.

We can first say that Bill and Buck are linked through their essential (i.e. characteristic) assaults on the Bride. Where Buck fucks her, Bill “kills” her. We can say, too, that their names gravitate around these actions; that essentially their characters are bound up and defined by this conduct. In other words, their “names” are simply placeholders, or metonymic substitutions for what they do. And what they do, in both cases, provides the Bride with ammunition for revenge.

So, too, do they share a conflation with Texan Christianity. But therein lies a difference, too: whereas Buck claims the crucifix as his own, and tries to ‘play god’ with the Bride’s comatose body, Bill asserts an irreverence for Texan Christianity through his interruption of the Bride’s marriage in a church in El Paso. In this way, so, too does Bill ‘play god’.

But whereas we never believe for a second that Buck will successfully assume this role, Bill is portrayed strictly in terms that lend themselves to exactly such a portrayal (i.e. his simultaneous absence and omnipresence; his benevolence and his begrudging hatred; essentially, his wide-reaching power which refuses to settle into a recognizable type, class or even assume a face). Certainly one could object by drawing on the second installment pointing to his eventual death (as alluded to in the title) as evidence of his ungodliness. But to that, one can only reply, “Then what did Barthes teach us?”

If we allow for this assertion to stand for a moment, Christian symbols in the film suddenly spring up all over the place. Who impregnated the Bride? Bill did. But we never get any sense of Bill’s sexuality, nor do we see that on display from the Bride herself. In other words, nothing stops this from simply being an Immaculate Conception, where the Bride assumes the role of the Virgin Mary.

But if the Bride in the Virgin Mary, as reinforced by her mourning of her lost child (à la Pieta), she must also be Jesus Christ. For, after all, she is resurrected against nearly impossible odds, having borne her trials upon the cross. Such a characterization is reinforced by Bill’s term for her, which we saw earlier: the gender-neutral “kiddo”. While this can certainly be simply patronizing, it also lends a degree of reality to the suggestion that she is both Bill’s wife and his child, resurrected. We can further say that this reading helps make sense of Bill’s claim to masochism in lieu of sadism: if the Bride is his progeny (as his faithful apprentice, or the embodiment of his ethos), then certainly killing her (which God must be said to do in some part to Christ) is harming himself, as well.  

The Hall (and Wall) of Justice : Shadow Puppets, Smoke and Mirrors

When we try to consider the role of the Bannisters in Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, we quickly realize that it’s a difficult task. Certainly, in some sense, they are catalysts for the story by virtue of their colorful involvement with the world (Arthur’s legal feats and travel ambitions; Elsa’s relationship to China). In some other sense, they echo familiar tropes of the noir genre, most notably the insurance scheme and the disabled husband from Double Indemnity (1944). But for all that they bring to the dialogue of the film, their individual stories remain thinly fleshed out: we’re denied the privilege to understand what’s going on between them outside the scope of Michael O’Hara.

Consider, for instance, one of their picnics on their cruise around the Canal. Elsa, Arthur and George are all sitting in hammocks, watching the ocean, before Michael is brought over on Arthur’s request. After some banter, Arthur says to him, “…if you think George’s story is interesting, you ought to hear the one about how Elsa got to be my wife.” We cut to Elsa, who says, “Do you want me to tell him what you’ve got on me, Arthur?” But it’s here that Michael starts his anecdote about the sharks, which is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and overtly symbolic moments of the whole film. Although we are prepared to consume a deliciously generic story of blackmail (after all, how else could Arthur Bannister get with Rita Hayworth?), our attention from this relationship narrative is entirely subverted. We’ll never have another such opportunity for the rest of the film.

But we are given a remarkably long scene between Elsa and Arthur in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, prior to Michael’s trial, which gives us a wealth of visual (if not narrative) insight into their relationship.

Having followed Elsa up and down San Francisco’s incredible hills, we enter the scene with her.

She comes from behind the camera walking towards a seated Arthur, with his colleague standing next to him. Amidst the visual complexity of the architecture and the shadowplay on the back wall, a sign leaps out at us: “NO SMOKING” it reads. There’s a policeman walking towards us from the left. We cut in.

The camera angle moves from roughly level with Bannister to above him, from behind and just above Elsa. Arthur looks small in this shot. Our eye contact with the Bannisters is broken by a policeman (we can tell by the hat) who’s now walking in the opposite direction. For the rest of this shot, there’s tremendous shadowplay about the room, visually mirroring the light dancing around the aquarium from earlier. As Mr. Sealy leaves, Elsa takes a seat on the bench next to Arthur.

And, here, for the first time, the shadow that’s been moving progressively down the great wall behind them takes a comprehensible form. We can recognize it as the inverted image of bannister, behind them. In this way, the frame is horizontally bifurcated, with a large shadow occupying the space between the Bannister’s faces. The signs that we’ve been seeing also come into clearer shapes.

Within ten seconds of Mr. Bannister putting his crutches(s) down, Mrs. Bannister pulls hers out, lighting up a cigarette directly beneath the “NO SMOKING” sign. The Elsa from the beginning of the film who didn’t smoke, and the Rosalie from shortly thereafter who was still picking up smoking as a habit has developed into a full-fledged rebel. (Sidenote: What does this signify? Perhaps her gradual evolution into a proper femme fatale, but on a narrative track that won’t ultimately threaten our hero (the fall man). As we know, Elsa will end by killing her husband (not our man), in what could be a kind of revenge against him for the outright hypocrisy he exhibits in successfully defending a clear murderer at the beginning of the film and unjustly incriminating our innocent Mike, as we’re about to see here.)

The rest of the scene will gradually close in on the two, framing them tighter, and tighter and tighter. The painstakingly slow zoom-in will ultimately take around 3 minutes. In that time, numerous people walk up the stairs, and in front of the off-camera lighting, creating rich shadowplay against the back wall (not unlike the sharks and eels in the aquarium).

This long zoom gives us time to consider another bifurcation in the film that we’re so often denied from considering: that is to say, how do we read the coupling of the Arthur and Elsa Bannister? In visual terms, they’re represented as polar opposites here:

Arthur wears a black tie / Elsa wears white pearls;

“” white undershirt / “” black top;

“” dark suit jacket / “” light blazer

“” large round nose / “” small, straight nose

“” brown hair / “” blonde hair (controversial!)

(More could be said about this, but he is conventionally ugly, while she is conventionally gorgeous.)

And in the last moments of the scene, when we’re zoomed as close as can be, Arthur tries to break the barrier between them, by touching Elsa’s lapel.

But he clearly recognizes something of the impossibly large gap that he’s tried to breach—which mirrors the shadow on the wall between the bannister (physical) and its shadow (inverted above). He pulls away, eyes flitting about, and proceeds to essentially lie for the short rest of the scene, albeit heroically.

 

Karen and the Bird’s Eye : Death From Above

If the penultimate chapter of Goodfellas is notorious for it’s coked-up freneticism and paranoia,  the last chapter of Goodfellas, “The Aftermath” is the come down from the short-lived high. We’re given one of the most devastating images of the film (Henry and Karen clinging to one another in the corner of their room) as a kind of preface to our descent into experiencing the other side of the mafia’s ruthless rage.

As we pull away from this devastation, we see Henry and Karen sleeping in bed.

But we’re not allowed to rest with them. Karen’s screaming is carried over from the last shot, and is cut with the sound of a car’s engine, presumably accelerating through her, as her scream dies away. We are told aurally that Karen has been murdered—but it’s evident that she hasn’t. When Henry’s eyes open, we’re clued in to the fact that this is his nightmare (or at least a source of his anxiety). However, he’s not prepared to merely accept it. We pan down to see that he’s holding a gun.

This shot serves to tell us that we’re being denied the sentimentalism of melodrama—we’re still very much endangered in the world of the mafia.

[Although I’m going to gloss over the intermediary sequence where Henry goes to Paulie to ask for forgiveness and to ask for money (because he’s still too terrified of Jimmy), a properly thorough analysis would treat it here. ]

I want to look today primarily at the sequence where Karen runs for her life from Jimmy, a scene tinged with paranoia (albeit oxymoronically “justified” paranoia) and soaked in fear.

We cut into this sequence immediately after we see Karen admonish Henry for being too paranoid.

The irony of this shot isn’t lost on the viewer in retrospect: Karen is allowed, from this next scene, to witness the seriousness of the shit they’re stuck in, or, in other words, allowed to experience the reason Henry isn’t actually experiencing paranoia, and yet escape alive. The camera isn’t afraid to show us, however, that she ought to be—according to the conventions established by the formal elements of the shot—dead.

As a reminder, the (arguably) most stunning image of death in the film thus far has been Tommy’s murder, where we watched him from a bird’s eye view—perhaps a visual quotation of or allusion to Vito’s attempted assassination in The Godfather.

We enter the scene nervous, as Henry has explicitly mentioned his own fear of Jimmy, and it narratively seems that he would be better attuned to Jimmy’s emotional state than Karen would be. But their conversation is fairly typical: we glance to Karen and to Jimmy sequentially without much stylistic flair. It’s clear Karen is asking for money, and is putting on a bit of a performance to act guilty about it, but Jimmy’s granting her request glosses over that potential site of conflict. As we’ve seen in the rest of the film, there is no shyness here about handing out money. However, at the end of their conversation, we see a silhouette in the background of a man holding what looks like a gun. Given the length of time that he spends on screen, it seems clear that Scorsese wants his audience to pick up on this (not so subtle) hint.

And the scene quickly devolves from here. Karen is intrigued by Jimmy’s offer to pick up some Dior dresses he has, but is quickly spooked as she walks down the street in an exceptionally tense, drawn-out sequence where we cut from Karen’s expressions of regret (i.e. looking back at Jimmy) to Jimmy waving her farther down the street.

The camera anticipates her as she walks down the street, a technique Scorsese seems to often use in denying his audiences the pleasure of what they know to be important (by virtue of the characters’ interest in them off-screen). When she finally arrives, she sees the hint laid for us by Scorsese during their earlier embrace: the shop (?) is linked to the earlier silhouette in its visual darkness and obscurity. The cross-hatched metal covering the right-hand window is another fairly flagrant visual cue to Karen that she’s entered into a zone of danger.

Karen’s fear stops her from moving forward. As she bolts for her car, the camera pans up, anticipating the familiar bird’s eye view of death. A sign reading clearly “DON’T WALK” appears in red at the bottom right of the screen, shortly followed by a one-way sign pointing into the land of no return.

Within the logic of the scene, she seems to have escaped as soon as she enters her car. Perhaps this is due to the sonic cue as earlier discussed when Karen and Henry are lying in bed. I don’t think it’s an accident, though, as the logic of the overall film would have us believe that she’s in greater danger if she’s in a car (as most of the murders occur in cars, the descendents of Clemenza’s famous “cannoli” scene in The Godfather).

Karen appears to have defies the camera’s wishes in obviating her own destruction. We cut back to Jimmy, who appears somewhat stymied, and we know that Karen has escaped her certain death.
We’ll later see this site of pitch-black darkness during the Witness Protection speech given to Henry and Karen, as Jimmy is escorted out and into a police car.

Lady Liberty Looks On: Take the Cannoli & Clemenza

Because the Godfather is such a revered film and has been so thoroughly integrated into the traditional American cinematic education, it’s difficult for the contemporary viewer to watch the film without hearing echoes of dialogue overlay dialogue itself. This can make interpretation, or serious attendance to the particulars of the film, rather difficult. I would say this resonance is most distracting for those select few very heavily quoted lines.

Perhaps the most quoted line from the Godfather comes when Rocco executes Paulie Gotta while Clemenza is taking a leak outside. Clemenza instructs Rocco to, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” To be sure, this line is appealing in its simple summary of the film’s culture: the Italian-American mob.

But what more can be said about this scene?

Many viewers will point out the Statue of Liberty in the background, just as many more will understand that Clemenza’s insistence on taking the cannoli is directly tied to his wife’s former instruction. Understandably, many viewers might also misremember his wife’s insistence as happening on the porch where we see her. But this isn’t quite right. We hear “Don’t forget the cannoli,” while Clemenza is getting into the front seat. We also see two women walking together in the background, passing behind the car.

We also see Paulie looking towards Clemenza, which becomes a staple of the scene of his demise. Post-execution, Paulie is similarly turned towards Clemenza’s side of the car, after presumably having watched his back while Clemenza was taking a leak.

But in the midst of Paulie’s paranoia, Clemenza is always cool-headed, focused on his kids and on his family. He has his eye on the future, hence his ability to move past the death of his brother/son in the Family (capital F to emphasize the Corleone family), even successfully peeing while he’s cooly murdered.

In many ways, Clemenza’s story is that of success. Especially as we see this scene sandwiched between the realization of Luca’s murder and Michael’s kitchen lesson (which is a clear predecessor to his killing lesson), we are meant to understand this as the ideal, to which Michael will need to aspire.
But this is the ideal in more than one way. Not only does the image evoke “America, the Beautiful”’s opening lyrics (O beautiful, for spacious skies / for amber waves of grain) complete with seagulls cawing, indicating the off-screen presence of the ocean, it also crystallizes the American Dream in Lady Liberty. This symbol in particular is thoroughly cashed in in the Godfather, Part Two, but it caught in the thorny dialectic between original and sequel. Instead of ever seeing the statue unobstructed, and, indeed, beautiful in the same context ever again, we see dark contortions and warped reflections of the American Dream (the ideal I), as when Vito sees his friend’s daughter’s play (notably just before he witnesses the visual parallel to his mother’s holding Don Cicci at knifepoint), or when he is on Ellis Island, looking up through his prison-like cell at the Statue. We are only given its reflection, something like its diluted self:

The Black Death of the Black Hand

We mentioned in class that Vito’s murder of Don Fanucci elevates him to a position of power in his neighborhood and among his friends in crime, Clemenza and Tessio. We also mentioned that Vito’s motivation for killing Don Fanucci is linked to the visual similarity of Don Fannuci’s threat against Vito’s friend’s daughter backstage at the theater to Vito’s mother’s threat against Don Cicci in Sicily. But there is much to be said for the narrative sequence of the murder itself. Coppola asks his audience to read the murder, which takes place on Vito’s terms in the entryway to Fanucci’s apartment (24), in conjunction with the festival (Feast of San Rocco) taking place outside in Little Italy.

Perhaps in part because of the elaborate set design for this particular scene (and the vastness of the world that we’re allowed to traverse) there are many things that can be said about this juxtaposition. There is, of course the vast gulf in color composition: the street is bright and warm, filled with American and Italian flags, while the airspace above it is filled with hanging lights. Everything is abundant, gusto fills the air. By contrast, the inner corridor is primarily colored with browns, blacks and whites. It is dusty, with shadows lurking in the corners. Whereas the festival booms and breaches its own barriers, the corridors are contained, perhaps even claustrophobic.

As we’re drawn with Vito into the liminal space of rooftops, hallways and stairwells, we’re asked to read Fanucci as already perfectly at-home amongst the crowd in his performance of neighborly charm. This is emphasized with his visible discomfort in arriving at his apartment when he steps in gum on his doorstep, and looks nervously back over the crowd from whence he’s come.

One can hear Fanucci asking himself, “Did anyone see that?” And although nobody did, we know that someone else is watching him from above. Because Vito has already entered, this heightens the tension: will Don Fanucci find him? This small gesture makes Fanucci’s later fiddling with the lightbulb significantly tenser. As he walks in, he is swallowed in black between the darkness of the entryway and the blackness of his coat, foreshadowing, in some sense, what is to come.

Here, the camera cuts to Vito, descending the staircase to Fannuci’s apartment. The window behind him is noticeably overexposed, as was the shot of his breaking into the rooftop door. He pauses for a moment, as the audience is allowed to see his perspective. The camera cuts to a staircase, illuminated partially (on the landing) but dark around the edges, whose depths are darkest. This is where Vito goes.

Cutting back to Fanucci, we are first introduced to a window, with a curtain half-drawn. This should already serve as a sign of the oncoming obscurity in the scene. As Fanucci eclipses the window, the camera cuts back to Vito unscrewing a lightbulb.

Here, the music crescendos into a coda as we cut to outside. This is the first time that we’ve left the men’s company, and it leaves the audience in suspense as we’re forced to put the tension of the corridor on hold. We see the statue of a saint covered in paper bills which has been paraded about. Below him is the chatter of the crowd. We’ve entered another movement. As the statue is brought to face us, we cut back to Vito, wrapping his gun in a makeshift towel silencer. Fanucci’s footsteps impose on us, as we cut back and see him eclipsing another window. The camera pulls us back again to the outside, this time to the religious officials leading a prayer. We linger here until we hear “Amen”, when the camera cuts back to show us the whole of the crowd. A drumroll begins. We cut back to Vito, leveling his gun, and again to Fanucci, whose feet we see ascending ever more stairs. This time we see Vito’s gun tracking across the room before cutting back to the festival below.

Whereas before when we saw the outdoors, we saw two disparate shots: one for the officiates and one for the crowd. One for the pomp and one for the people. One for the white-clad, money-pawing institution and one for the city, the darkness, the everyday man. This shot, along the heavy suggestions from inside the building, tell us we’re about to finally witness their encounter.

We cut again to Fanucci, but where we saw a partially-closed curtain before, we now see a completely drawn one.

As we’ve seen Vito’s fondness for shadows thus far, we know that their meeting is imminent. We cut back to Vito, while we hear Fanucci’s fondling his keys. We hear him, perhaps breathless, take a deep breathe, before unlocking his door. He then conspicuously turns his head, but stops before looking back at Vito (and the camera, who are now one). He is looking off-screen.

The camera is forced to pan as he walks and uncovers the light-bulb, which we saw Vito unscrew. As he taps it, we hear percussion outside drumming militantly away.

A gorgeous shot shows Vito standing with his toweled arm outstretched, with the light glowing over him and fading away. When Fanucci finally screws the bulb in, we hear applause from outside. At first, we imagine this to mean that the audience’s expectations have finally been realized. Fanucci walks back to his door as fireworks explode. Vito’s shadow moves quickly behind him, briefly eclipsing him before moving in for the kill.

This is one of the darkest shots of the series, and emphasizes Vito’s fondness for the shadowy dealings of the Old World.

As we know, Vito proceeds to shoot Fanucci three times and flees the scene of the crime. It’s important to note though, precisely how this sequence develops to fully grasp the extent to which we can read the outdoor festival as a reflection of the indoor crime. After Vito has shot Don Fanucci twice, Fanucci collapses. We cut outside, first to a bird’s eye view from above the crowd, looking at the prominently displayed “SAN ROCCO”, the inspiration for the festival. A second cut brings us back to Earth, in the midst of the people.

But Fanucci is not yet dead. When Vito puts his gun into his mouth, Fanucci’s eyes are still open and moving. This last shot ends his life. And when we cut away from the murder, the sequence of the festival is reversed. We are still given a bird’s eye view, but this time it’s of the crowd. Only after cutting are we again given the “SAN ROCCO” sign.

Why is this festival the means for the execution of Don Fanucci? It’s hard to say precisely. But one could argue that “San Rocco”, who enjoyed his heydey in the aftermath of the Black Death in Europe, has something to do with the death of the Black Hand in Little Italy.

Che Vuoi? in Blue Velvet

One of the most interesting characters in Lynch’s Blue Velvet must certainly be Dorothy Valens, the mother/wife of Donnie/Donald, the sexual slave of Frank Booth, the lover of Jeffrey Beaumont, and the resident of room 710.

We initially learn about her as the “strange” neighbor subject often discussed in Sandy’s father’s friends’ cases: she comes to us as evidence that the most seemingly innocent small-town has its perversions. But we are quickly stupefied by her conduct when she holds Jeffrey at knifepoint: does she mean to castrate our hero or to give him fellatio?

To my eye, Jeffrey asks the essential question of the film while in bed with her: What do you want?

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Of course, narratively, and as a mother, Dorothy wants her son back. We see this in two particular places in the film, once at “(THIS IS) IT”, or Ben’s apartment, where she is allowed to visit Donnie, and then again at the end of the film, where she is reunited with Donnie, who wears his propeller hat and mimics a flying plane.

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While this might seem to be an innocent, even unspeakably pitiable (and essentially humane) desire, the film tells us otherwise. Firstly, we are barred from entering the room with her when she visits Donnie, who proceeds to upset his mother quite audibly. We don’t hear him speak; we’re not given any indication of his existence other than the overt agreement between her and Frank, which functions as the evident excuse for her perverse sexuality. Secondly, we’re denied the privilege of seeing his face at the end of the film. If the film were looking to generate pity on our behalf, we might be shown his mistreatment in captivity, or scenes of his visible discomfort, and therefore his unsettled state as a result of his forced separation from his mother. But such is never the case. Readers of this strangely hidden relationship must ask why?

On the other hand, we are shown those perverse desires which might normally remain behind closed doors, and we’re asked to always be asking “what is left to hide behind closed doors?” In this sense, the film operates on an inversion of the familial structure, strongly paralleling Donnie & Jeffrey’s respective Oedipal usurpations of their fathers. We are asked to read her relationship to her family, in fact, through her sexual maladies, namely, her longing for sexual masochism.

This is particularly difficult for most observers. While on the one hand we see her brutally raped by Frank, we also see her demanding to be sexually punished by Jeffrey in that scene’s immediate aftermath. And part of the danger in addressing this side of her desire is that as we take notice of her enjoyment of (and indeed demand for) sexual violence, we can’t help but feel its repercussions bleed into her sexual victimhood at Frank’s hands: we feel guilty for even beginning to suggest that she desires her rape and we feel simultaneously irremediably stained for our misunderstanding. Hence, the question of what Dorothy wants in the film is a delicate one. As we approach it, we are repulsed by ourselves.

I think that Slavoj Zizek can help us in understanding the dilemma of Dorothy’s desire, through his writing on rape in “From Che Vuoi? To Fantasy: Lacan With Eyes Wide Shut”. The essential point is this one:

the problem with rape, in Freud’s view, is that it has such a traumatic impact not simply because it is a case of brutal external violence, but because it also touches on something disavowed in the victim herself. So, when Freud writes, ‘If what /subjects/ long for most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee from it,’[7] his point is not merely that this occurs because of censorship, but, rather, because the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us.

If we understand Dorothy to long for both a reunion with her trapped son, Donnie, and for punishment at the hands of sexual partners who take on childish sexual personas (“Baby” for Frank and the childlike innocence of Jeffrey), then we can say with confidence that Dorothy’s essential fantasy is one of incest. This is fairly evident from their names: Donnie overtly mirrors Donald, his father.

We might think, then, that the closer she could be to realizing this fantasy the more sexually appealing it would be. After all, if she is interested in removing barriers, this would be the logical extension of this fact.

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But such is not the case, as we see when Jeffrey plays with Donnie’s propeller hat after their primal union. Dorothy, instead of being pleased or even sexually stimulated, is shocked and unsettled. Although she longs for reunion with her son, there is a violation of a sacred contract here for Dorothy. The hat—which we see featured in one of Jeffrey’s dreams and is indeed, one of the last shots in isolation before he witnesses the trauma of the primal scene between Frank and Dorothy, thus perhaps constructing a fetish for Jeffrey—is that unbearable, inviolable core of Dorothy’s fantasy.

The Polygraph Scene: What (or whom) lies between Jake and Joey?

We spoke in class about the ways in which the championship fight in Raging Bull largely consists of the anticipation of glory and hinges crucially upon a nostalgia rooted in the introductory scene of the film (with Jake shadow-boxing alone in the ring). And although we mentioned that Jake’s fight is largely against himself, we were unable to produce a meaningful theory of his fraternity with Joey. The scene immediately following the championship might help us to do so.

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The flashes of the camera bulbs sonically dissolve (1:22:07) into the rustling of the TV antennae in the LaMotta’s living room. Joey’s seated on the couch, chastising Jake for his rash adjustment of the bunny-ears. Jake shoots him a sour look, while chewing a sandwich. Before we know it, Vickie has arrived home, giving Joey a kiss (on the lips) before doing the same for Jake. Jake interrogates her briefly on her whereabouts, to which she gives a vague (and suspicious in Jake’s eyes aligned with his response to questions about his first wife Irma) response. We watch her walk up the stairs, her shadow completely disappearing from view, before we return to the brothers.

Then it’s Jake’s turn: he badgers Joey about kissing Vickie on the mouth, before getting up to check the TV picture (still just as irresolute) when Joey delivers a sucker-punch in calling him fat, accusing him of having “lost it”. Of course, it’s undeniably true. Jake has put on weight, a fact emphasized by his open button-up and the sandwich always in his hand and his mouth at once. And while Jake’s physical state might have deteriorated, he’s still just as much of a fighter at heart. He takes a swig of his brew and comes after Joey, chasing him down.

Digressing, Jake asks Joey what happened with Salvy at the club. “It didn’t have anything to do with you” Joey replies. When we cut back to Jake at the TV, Jake’s “dirty look” has evolved into something more disengaged, more scientific and more dissatisfied. The right TV antennae has also dramatically shifted downwards, which we can notice quite clearly against the venetian blind background.

Unconvinced, Jake persists, “It had nothing to do with me….? Who’d it have something to do with? Vickie?” And here, if it wasn’t clear before, we can recognize this as a visual analog to a polygraph examination: Joey is being subjected to Jake’s lie-detector.

They continue sparring finishing out the round before Jake clobbers Joey with another wild hook. “Did Salvy fuck Vickie?” / “What?” / “Did Salvy fuck Vickie?” And as Joey tries to come up with a response, we cut back to him, significantly zoomed in (1:25:15). The predator is closing in on his prey. When we cut back to Jake at the TV (1:25:20), not only are we zoomed in (heightening the intensity of the sequence) but the right antennae has shifted again.

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Although the conservation gravitates around Vickie, the beginning of the sequence makes it clear that Jake isn’t especially fond of her: she functions for him as an object of possession. She is his trophy (wife) and an object-indicator of his masculinity: little more. And with the zoom-cut to Joey, we see the small blond figurine perched over Joey’s shoulder is decapitated. Vickie’s role here is no longer the woman as wife, but the woman as body, as object.

As we’ve been scrupulously tracking the antennae’s movement in this sequence, it would be prudent to note the formal symmetry between the antennae and the figurine. The antennae roughly correspond to a stick-figure drawing of a person. Thus, if the figurine is decapitated, and the head present on Joey’s side of the skirmish is cut away, there’s an imbalance: an asymmetry.

We’re given some room to breathe at 1:25:57 with a zoom(out)-cut back to Jake. But Joey isn’t relieved of the pressure (the camera doesn’t zoom out) as Jake responds. When we cut back to Jake (1:26:07) and he discloses that he’s going to kill somebody, the camera tilts downwards.

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Is this to mark the strangeness of his unusually calm composure? We’re given a heavier hint as Joey stands up to yell at Jake.
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Here, Joey lets slip an unfortunate list: “Kill Vickie. Kill Salvy. Kill Tommy Como. Kill me while you’re at it, what do I care?”

We see the information register on Jake’s face. He stands up to interrupt, and as he does he obscures the other antennae and covers one of the small hangings on the wall behind the TV.  

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“Excuse me, what do you mean by ‘you’ though? …. You don’t even know what you meant by ‘you’… Joey that meant something! You mentioned Tommy, you mentioned Salvy, you mentioned you! You included you with them.”

As Jake delivers the end of this line, we cut back to Joey. But in addition to the portrait on his left, the lamp on his right and the figurine beneath the lamp, there’s a new portrait on the wall and it is tonally black, aligned with the stairwell and with Vickie (who was dressed in a dark-colored dress at the beginning of the scene, and who departed her shortly after). This framed portrait is his secret, exposed. Despite the radical jealousy and anxiety which are evident in Jake’s character, formally, this portrait leads us to believe that we have uncovered Joey’s dark little secret.

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With this, we realize what the figurine was pointing to all along. What, then, is the importance of the mirroring antennae? In the final few cuts of the scene, Jake gradually eclipses more and more the small framed photos behind the television, finally aligning with the left antennae. In fact, he stands in for the antennae as he scrupulously interrogates his brother to uncover his (and his wife’s) infidelity. We might also note that in these final shots the right antennae points to the hole in the venetian blinds, another signal that we were to expect a secret to be uncovered.Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 6.31.46 PM