2001: A Space Odyssey – Exploring the Dark Side of the “Dawn of Man”

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey begins in a visual void, with a dissonant chorus ringing out from behind it. Due both to the lack of visual narrative and the unclear direction of the music, the audience is left stranded, inchoate between a world of distinct absence and a world of reprehensible presence. We essentially occupy the same position that Earth will in the next sequence, the first post-overture sequence of the film.

Here, we have a second visual absence, which is notably shaped by palpable musical direction. In fact, it could be said that this music (“Thus Spake Zarathustra”) wields as shapely of a narrative arc as possible: it projects into the impossibly distant future. And then we are delivered our first non-black image of the film: the dark side of the moon.

In a race of epic proportions, the Earth and the Sun both emerge from behind the moon within mere seconds. Here, we rush through darkness, across void and towards light, embodying what looks something like the beginning of existence itself. 

As alluded to earlier, Earth is stuck (as the audience was) between a dominant incomprehensibility and the faith in a comprehensible future here represented by utter pitch-black darkness and the glimmering cusp of light pealing across the Earth’s surface. Musically, we can say that the crescendo suggests building motion, and coupled with the music’s warm tonality, we are inclined to believe in the possibility of life, which we must take as essentially related to the sun. In other words, we believe in the strength of the sun, and in its capacity to propel the narrative (and mankind) forward into logic and into existence. If we can agree that the initial overture essentially represents interpretive incoherence, than this becomes also a comforting proposition for readers, given that it suggests the victory of the coherence over incoherence of the text.

As we push onward, the moon falls away. This resonates with our last impression of the music: namely, that there is more screen-space for light, for interpretive possibility. But then something interesting happens. The Sun, too, pulls away from the Earth, perhaps providing us with Earth’s true predicament: utter separation, isolation and confusion. In this moment, are we lost? Or have we outgrown something which we’ve previously believe necessary to our existence? Certainly, as a symbolic gesture, it can be interpreted any number of ways.

Next, we are delivered to Earth’s surface where we witness the true “dawn” in the dawn of man.

But, just as in the beginning of the film, we are introduced to death (codified through blackness, incoherence) before life. The skull of a dead boar greets us in the foreground before we acquaint ourselves with the silhouettes of man.

As photographers will note, silhouette is also known as “contre-jour” which is helpful simply insofar as it elaborates the metaphor that is being literalized here: man is in the domain of the shadow, the “anti-day” and, as we’ve maintained, incoherence.

With the arrival of the monolith, we see the “darkness” thrust into the light. But instead of curing us of our fears, it seems to catalyze them. Viewers of film noir will recognize this discursive move as similar to the one had by “neo-noir”: that is, the shadow is no longer necessary to preserving darkness. In fact, there remains something unspeakably powerful about the way in which darkness exists when devoid of shadow. All of this is present in the introduction to the monolith at the dawn of the second day.

Much can be said about this moment and about its transformational effects on the humanoids, but, for our purposes, there is one shot in particular that seems particularly important in the context of the cosmic forward. It is an inversion, of sorts, where the monolith takes the place of the darkened moon, the sun peals across it, and the crescent moon shines on the other side of the moon.

Whereas before it was plainly evident that the light was in the process of overcoming the darkness, here we see the darkness in the composition not only as dominant, but as sort of omnipresent. Further interesting is that is seems to have been split in two: the textured rock of the moon is now encoded in the drifting clouds whereas the “pure” black is now located in the monolith. What’s more, whereas the Earth glowed as a result of the former shot and the camera tracked up to see the sun’s brilliant dominance, here the camera is static and the sun seems to be the one stuck in-between, as though it were being crushed by the moon and the monolith. We remember, too, that we’re located on Earth, such that what we thought what was perhaps “able to be changed for the better” is in fact exerting an equal and opposite active resistance against the sun’s benevolent imposition.

Lost Highway – The Fantasy of Unified Subjectivity

Although it may indeed be impossible to evaluate the true reality quotient of any given scene in Lost Highway, what could this sort of conclusion ever even tell us? The simple, perhaps reductive, truth is that we’re in Lynch’s universe and must play by his rules, which is this case mean that any kind of “reality” is extremely difficult to establish concretely. So, rather than try to establish a base reality and observe how this reality is warped, it becomes much more immediately productive to surrender the ontological question altogether. In this way, we can either observe the relations between scenes and observe their differences, or simply closely view any given isolated scene and try to understand the fantasies at play within it.

Keeping this in mind, we can turn to two scenes early scenes in the film with both Fred and Renee: the first, where they receive the detectives at home, and the second, where they attend Andy’s party.

The first scene isn’t especially memorable, largely because it seems to play into conventional notions of the inefficacy of criminal justice. The detectives come, they listen, they walk about the grounds and they leave, handing Fred and Renee their cards.

But while all of this is happening, the camera cuts repeatedly back to Fred, whose facial expressions register some kind of discomfort. But whereas we might anticipate him to be feeling helpless, he rather appears to be experiencing a kind of jealousy, especially when we cut back from seeing him look at Renee and the larger detective with a mustache.

Regardless, the common ground between what we might expect from this scenario and what Fred appears to be experiencing is a loss of control. We’d expect Fred to react with helpless abandon because of the realization of bureaucratic failure, and thus of the lack of control that the authorities can actually impose on those who are in danger.

Fred, meanwhile, is experiencing a brand of loss of control, but it’s channeled into romantic jealousy. He seems more preoccupied with the fact that his wife has been taken by him by one of the these detectives, and that is he under the thumb of this challenger, or under siege by these intruders. This is echoed visually when the other detective appears above him on skylight.

Further, the anxiety that we see Fred expressing here through his distrust of the authorities is justified at the end of the scene, when the audience occupies the perspective of a high-tracking camera which slowly zooms in on Fred and Alice. In this way, the audience is forced to assume the role of the stalker. This moment of realization, that perhaps the audience is to blame for Fred and Renee’s suffering, is made especially difficult when we see them handed a new sort of “package” by the detectives: their cards.

This self-reflexivity (of the audience) and vulnerability (of the protagonists) pave the way for the next scene, where the audience is transported to Andy’s party. Perhaps what’s first apparent is that the realist insistence on strictly diegetic sound from the last scene (and for the bulk of the movie so far) has been swapped out for the soundtrack of the party. The lighting has also changed dramatically. Instead of dark interiors and overexposed exteriors (sort of like a hermit’s aversion to light), the outside is now dark (and lit with blue lights) while the instead is totally basked in white light. One could say that we’ve moved into the dark interior of Fred’s mind, but that it bears the traces of this last scene. For instance, the primary subject of jealousy here is Andy, whose moustache somewhat parallels the detective who walked with Renee around the exterior of the house.

But, again, what should provoke Fred’s jealousy here (i.e. Renee overtly “leaving” with Andy) doesn’t, or goes mostly overlooked. Rather than confront Andy or Renee, he isolates himself at the bar, delighting in blending into the crowd as just another partygoer. But the Mystery Man refuses Fred this comfort when he isolates him as the object of the gaze. And as he approaches Fred, the music fades away. But here the silence isn’t realistic: it’s absence is jarring, isolating.

One thing we can say about their subsequent discussion is that the “Mystery Man” being both at Andy’s party and at Fred’s phone introduces the audience to the fragmented subject (by which we can later describe Fred and Andy, and currently perhaps describe the detective with Renee and Andy). We can say, too, that the Mystery Man’s representation of reality is more consistent with the overall narrative arc of the film in part simply because he’s literally present in both Fred and Andy’s stories.

Certainly, though, this encounter marks a turning point in the party. Not only does Fred become the object of the gaze of both Andy and Renee in a nightmarish turn of events, but his central obsession switches from Renee’s infidelity to the Mystery Man and his command over his world.

Fred and Renee exit the scene frantically, and the camera’s lingering helps us worry about their being followed. But interestingly, the people who follow them aren’t in pursuit: they’re simply in attendance at the party. This shot suggests that whatever Fred and Renee have to fear is strictly internal.

Of course, this is ultimately supported by the film when we learn that Fred has killed Renee and that the Mystery Man is supposed to be something within Fred, or something working in tandem with Fred, perhaps to help him to do what he cannot muster up to do on his own, like murdering his wife. This last suggestion (that the Mystery Man is part of Fred) is supported by one of the final scenes, when we see the Mystery Man shoot Dick Laurent, and then disappear, before the gun appears tucked into Fred’s belt.

 

Taxi Driver – 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 pose a certain obstacle. 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 who is importantly 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 better understand 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.”

Most readers will recognize the transformation of what is here the revolting but necessary routine of cleaning “the cum off the seat” into one of the central refrains of Travis’ political rhetoric, or 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 departure in another cab, which is to say, she’s driven away by someone who isn’t Travis.

We see him try to break back into her world (which is, for him, 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 mentally-unhinged husband. Scorsese indoctrinates Travis, taking him from ‘rebel without a cause’ to ‘rebel with a means’ by paying him to tolerate and participate in a fantasy of sexual violence against his wife with a .44 magnum. Interestingly, he never displays the weapon, only invokes it in speech, such that it is inflated with an ideological weight. It should also be mentioned that Scorsese’s violence is racialized: his wife is cheating on him with a black man, and he’s not afraid to say that he’ll kill him, too. 

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 the 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.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 – Double binds : the Castratory Logic of the Sequel

In my last post, I took note of Bill’s simultaneous seductive absence and omnipresence in Kill Bill, Vo. 1, and sought to push on the limits of his omnipresence. But if Bill was even momentarily omnipresent in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, he is entirely pigeonholed in Kill Bill, Vol. 2: he is given a face, constrained to a body, located in time and space, and becomes, therefore, conquerable. Expanding on this, given that we’re also told the Bride’s name (Beatrix Kiddo) and introduced to B.B., the general trend seems to be something related to revelation, localization, and desublimation. Logically, then, if gods are being turned into men and myths into lies, it makes sense that we also see the strength of the motif of castration increasing from Vol. 1 to Vol. 2. Keep this in mind throughout the following scene wherein Budd buries the Bride alive, as we track the ways in which castration (or disempowerment) is bound up in duplicity.

We begin the scene with a full moon in the pitch-black sky. 

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 viewer of the early-mid 2000s will be able to attest to–namely, 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.

We see our visual double-bind mirrored in the Bride’s own ankle and wrist restraints, as well as the two locks that we see undone on either side of the truck bed.

This duplicity continues to 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 by 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 to Elle Driver. 

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 we’ve seen, the motif of the double is essentially omnipresent throughout this scene, always appearing as a modifier (and a magnification) of castration or disappointment. And, just as Todd Berliner points out in his essay on the “Pleasures of Disappointment” that the Godfather, Part II understands the disappointment inherent in sequelization and indeed courts this disappointment by incorporating this loss into its subject matter, it would appear that Tarantino manages to do something similar with Kill Bill, Vol. 2., as encoded here. Even if Tarantino didn’t know that his four-hour masterpiece would need to be parsed into two digestible pieces for general release, he tracks the general trend in this second volume of desublimation and castration and perhaps most prominently here links it intentionally to the motif of the double.

 

Kill Bill – Through the Signifying Chain: Is there a Bill in Buck?

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 to the DiVAS. 

But for being such a remarkable man, he manages to remain awfully visually absent from the film. Of course, we’re meant to read this as a kind of reverential haze: he’s invisible in the same way as a God is. Thus, our glimpses of his gun, hands, and feet occasionally depicted on-screen are riveting. We long for more. This is perhaps ushered along by is his aural omnipresence. His voice permeates the film, as when he interrupts Elle Driver’s attempted dishonorable assassination of the Bride in her sleep.

If Bill is something of a God here, can his influence be found throughout? How far does his omnipresence extend? After all, if we can’t pin down Bill directly in Tarantino’s first volume, we might be able to produce a rough impression of his character by association with Buck, who seems tangentially related in a number of ways (not least of which is his 4-letter American male names starting with ‘B’). By reading the Bride’s relation to Buck, perhaps we can 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, might they be said to share a conflation with Texan Christianity. Where 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). And, yet, as we know, Bill is eventually killed in the second Volume of Kill Bill. Can we say, then, that Buck’s death foreshadows this?

Perhaps! And it could even be said that the visual allusion in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 of a trunk shot with Budd supports this theory. (For a thorough discussion of this scene, look to my post on Kill Bill, Vol. 2)

However, the fact is that when Tarantino has the opportunity to cement the signifying chain at the end of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, he instead questions our assumption that this revenge would be the same in any capacity through his use of high-angle and level (instead of low-angle) shots. If Bill killed her before, he certainly isn’t doing so now.

In conclusion, then, we might say that our attempt to desublimate Bill from his mythical status in the first volume is in vain. His case, as we’re told much later, cannot really be compared in any meaningful way with Buck or Budd’s, despite some cursory connections. Thus, while Buck might fuel the fire of the Bride’s rage, it’s something very different that catalyzes the Bride’s killing of Bill.

The Lady From Shanghai – The Hall (and Wall) of Justice and the Inversion of the Bannisters

When we 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 here Michael instead digresses to his “shark” anecdote, denying us access to what certainly would have been a deliciously generic story of blackmail (after all, how else could Arthur Bannister get with Rita Hayworth?). In some sense, the whole of the movie is designed to subvert our attention from this relationship, and we’ll never have another such opportunity to access it in truth 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. 

Thematically, we’ll see this portrait of their relationship borrow from the film’s construction of the law as Kafkaesque, or overwhelmingly and unnecessarily bureaucratic, tedious, broken, and the like. As one might expect, one of the principal modes for portraying the Kafkaesque is by magnifying the role that the law plays despite there being very few matters which should really merit legal intervention. This is precisely what the film does. Although practically every scene involves discussion of some legal matter, the law is only justified in entering the plot when Broome is murdered (and for what?). Again, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, this is naturally where the law, completely bungles its responsibilities, and incriminates the wrong man, with whom, by no accident, our sympathies are aligned.

Keep this portrait of the law in mind as we enter the scene with Elsa, having followed her up and down San Francisco’s incredible hills. 

She enters the Hall of Justice from behind the camera walking towards a seated Arthur. Amidst the grandiose openness of the architecture and the shadow-play on the back wall, a sign leaps out at us. “NO SMOKING”, it insists. There’s a policeman walking towards us from the left. Already, the presence of the law is very overblown. But because it’s relatively tame thus far, it doesn’t seem to have infringed on the action in any particularly meaningful way. We cut in.

The camera angle moves from roughly level with Bannister to above him, making Arthur look small, and from behind to just above Elsa. The characters are beginning to be dwarfed by something greater. All of a sudden, our view of the Bannisters is broken by a policeman (we can tell by the hat) who’s now walking in the opposite direction. This is a gradually more flagrant imposition of the law, and the most direct one we’ll get from a human being for the rest of this scene. But given that the policeman is defined by his silhouette, we should understand the domain of the law to be moving into the very lighting of the scene. Sure enough, although the light persists as normal for the rest of this shot, visually mirroring the the earlier aquarium, when Mr. Sealy leaves, and Elsa takes a seat on the bench next to Arthur, the shadows suddenly change. 

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 the bannister, behind them. The symbolic significance of this transformation cannot be ignored. Much in the same way that the Bannisters themselves have been turned “inside-out” over the course of the film, mostly because of unnecessary legal interventions (like that of Grisby and Broome), we now see that metaphor literalized on the wall behind them.

Of course, it also must be said that these “bannisters” are just as much visual reminders of the barred prison cell Elsa is about to enter in the next scene when she visits Michael. 

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. We can’t help but remember 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. Now, we see Mrs. Bannister warped by this case and incriminated by association for sympathizing with the proverbial enemy (who, one must not forget, has done nothing wrong). 

It could also be said that Elsa, simply by virtue of being a woman and asserting her sexual agency both with Michael on her own terms and here, in the form of the cigarette, is being cast as a deviant in the eyes of the law. When we later learn of her fluency in Mandarin, and her ability to seamlessly navigate the “underworld” that is San Francisco’s Chinatown, we see this also predisposes her to being a criminal by virtue of her illegibility from the gaze of a patriarchal logic.

In some sense, the only way to counter-act this anxiety about her independence (and her very real physical prowess over her husband) is to encroach upon her privacy, which the rest of the scene accomplishes by way of a painstakingly slow zoom-in lasting around 3 minutes. But at the same time, this long zoom highlights the extent to which this tactic is entirely ineffective. Elsa, at the end of the day, remains able to resist the strange impositions of Mr. Bannister, as when he reaches out to touch her lapel. 

But he clearly recognizes something of the impossibly large gap that he’s tried to breach. He pulls away, and he tells us about the imposition of the law before it’s visualized plainly for us, “I haven’t any choice….and neither have you.”

In this universe, we are all contained to our own respective cells, without any meaningful access to anyone else. Humanity is null, coherence is off-limits, and certainly love is prohibited. With those rather fatalistic words, we cut to this sign of yet another emblem meant to evoke the sensation of being watched, or of being policed. 

It also could be said, in keeping with an earlier point made, that the shadow present in this sign (which we learn is being cast by Elsa when she walks by) is some kind of material incarnation of the law itself.

 

Goodfellas – 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, as we remain in the world of the mafia. And just as we see danger unexpectedly introduced here into an environment typically known for its support, something very similar will happen when Karen goes to Jimmy, hoping for support, but leaves running for her life.

As a brief reminder, one of the most stunning images of death in the film thus far has been Tommy’s murder, where we watched him from a bird’s eye view. We’ll see this replicated at the end of this scene. And although Karen manages to escape alive, the camera isn’t afraid to show us that she ought to be—according to the formal conventions of the film—dead.

We enter the scene nervous, having heard Henry express his own fear of Jimmy, and not knowing precisely what to expect. But, at least initially, their conversation is fairly typical, and is shot fairly typically in shot/reverse shot. It’s clear Karen is asking for money, but this has yet to be a problem in the film, and so Jimmy’s granting of that request is fairly anticlimactic, and even, dare we say, predictable. However, at the end of their conversation, the silhouette of a man holding what looks like a gun emerges in the background. Was Karen wrong to have asked for money? Or did this not have any bearing whatsoever on Jimmy’s feelings towards here; in other words, did he play to have her whacked? 

All of a sudden, the conversation takes a turn for the strange. Jimmy offers Karen some Dior dresses, she begins to walk upstairs, but is caught off-guard when he tells her that they’re located down the street. As she begins walking, Scorsese cuts from Karen’s nervous expressions of regret (i.e. looking back at Jimmy) to his eerily repetitive instruction to keep walking farther down the street. 

Simultaneously, in having our attention drawn backwards to this strangely tense interaction, we are denied the pleasure of knowing what is to come. Suspense continues to build however, as Karen continues walking, almost without looking to see what’s ahead. When she finally arrives, she sees a visual parallel to the hint laid for us earlier by Scorsese during her conversation and embrace with Jimmy. Each space is tinged with darkness and obscurity, rife with silhouettes. The agents here, however, are substantially more active than was the lone man before: there’s an element of irreducible incomprehensible difference here, such that the audience, while suspicious can’t help but be confused.

Side-note: We might remember, too, that in Raging Bull, the dark portrait on the wall represented something like Jake’s subjective understanding of what looked flagrantly like Joey’s hidden secret. Meanwhile, it was evident to Joey that he’d given something away, but it’s importance wasn’t visually evident.

Here, Karen’s nervous fear becomes crippling. As she bolts for her car, the camera pans up, anticipating what was formerly for Tommy the 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 to this “land of no return”.

Karen, managing to escape, seems to have defied the camera’s wishes. This is confirmed through a cut back to Jimmy who appears somewhat stymied. 

This encounter helps Karen to understand the legitimate danger involved in their enterprise and narratively paves the way for their conversations with Witness Protection, during which we’ll see this suspicious site of darkness once again, from which Jimmy will be taken in being arrested.

The Godather – The Warped Glass of the American Dream : “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 on the 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 frequently quoted line from the Godfather comes when Rocco executes Paulie Gotta. When Clemenza finishes peeing and returns to the car, he instructs Rocco to, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Not only is this line jarring for its economy, but it also recalls Clemenza’s attention to his wife’s earlier instruction, thus cluing the audience in to just how detached he is from this murder of one of his comrades. It’s also undeniably funny, probably for its portrayal of food as more important than life, quite literally-speaking. 

But what more can be said about this scene?

Many viewers will point out the Statue of Liberty in the background. Certainly, this is the iconic image of American freedom, particularly for immigrants coming to North American from the Atlantic Ocean and passing through Ellis Island. But in this scene it takes on a particular irony. We see, after all, the freedom to kill-another-man-and-get-away-with-it being exhibited here, not the freedom to live freely. Simultaneously, the scenery richly evokes the opening lyrics of “America, the Beautiful” both through its “amber waves of grain” and beautiful “spacious skies”. Again, however, there is a turn of irony in these quotations of classical American patriotism, given that this is not a portrait of American “beauty”, but rather one of American death and murder. We could perhaps call this scene a darkly satirical take on American patriotism.

But this isn’t the end of Lady Liberty, which, as a symbol continues to be used in the Godfather, Part Two. But, whereas here we are left to infer the thematic shadow being cast on American ideal, that discursive move is literalized in Part II, as when Vito attends his friend’s daughter’s play and when he is on Ellis Island, looking up through his prison-like cell at the Statue. In each of these instances, we are given only its reflection, something like its diluted self:

But there is a bit more to be said about this original scene. We also see Paulie’s suspicion constantly on high-alert. From the beginning of the scene, he watches Clemenza very keenly, as in the frame below.

But as we know, this won’t save him. Because he insists on looking ahead, he never once anticipates being killed from behind, and thus, his gaze is always misdirected. Of course, Clemenza is the higher-up in this constellation of gangsters, too, such that Paulie’s insistent gaze towards Clemenza is an aspirational one, not unlike the proverbial American Dream. Had Paulie for a moment considered the possibility of being killed by Rocco, he might have lived. Indeed, he might have caught Clemenza with his dick in his hand and usurped him. But alas, such was not the case.

Just as the image of Lady Liberty is warped and distorted in the Godfather, Part II, we similarly see the glass through which Paulie watches Clemenza, his respective American idol shattered at the end of this scene. But that doesn’t stop him from looking in Clemenza’s direction, as we see even in death he looks where he did before.

We learn from Paulie and Clemenza that no matter how hard you watch the higher-ups in American society, looking for clues to ascend into their high class ranks, the fact remains that you are nothing to them and that they will sacrifice you to clear their conscience and even simply to get home on time. This is the harsh, cold, cruel portrait of America forwarded by this scene and the inescapable reality of life for the soldiers in the Godfather.

 

 

The Godfather: Part II – 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 his visual association of Don Fannuci holding a knife to the throat of Vito’s friend’s fiancée with Don Cicci’s guard holding a knife to the throat of Vito’s mother in Sicily. But there is much to be noticed in 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 because of the elaborate set design for this particular scene there are many things that can be said about the juxtaposition of these two spaces. There is, first of all, the pronounced contrast in lighting between the two shots: the street is bright and warm, filled with American and Italian flags, while the airspace above it is filled with hanging lights. By contrast, the inner corridor is primarily colored with browns, blacks and whites. It is dusty, with shadows lurking in the corners. Where the noise of the festival overflows the space of the street, the corridors are contained, perhaps even claustrophobic.

Throughout this scene, as elsewhere, Vito will principally occupy the shadows and the liminal spaces of his environment. His movement throughout the scene is cold, calculating and always furtive. He controls by proxy, and seems to only exist in the shadows. By contrast, Don Fanucci revels in the spotlight, or at the very least understands the necessity of paying his dues through facetime with his neighborhood constituents. He illustrates, in some sense, the obligations of a politician. And, just as with a politician, he seems anxious to please in order to retain his position of power. This is what we might call weakness or vulnerability, and it’s something which Vito unquestionably detects and acts to exploit.

Without getting too caught up in the details of the scene, we gradually see Vito descend a staircase before settling at the platform for Don Fanucci’s apartment, while we see Don Fanucci gradually make his way up. Evidently, though, having planned out the murder to some degree, Vito retains the element of surprise. In other words, he holds the upper hand: he’s in control.

And Coppola communicates this fact of their power dynamic (despite what their social statuses might suggest) by cross-cutting to the outdoor festival being held for San Rocco. As we might expect, there, there is a clear hierarchy of authority established between the church authorities, who are situated at the front of the crowd, and the members of their church. Embodying this truth, the powerful church elite quite literally descend to their underlings, the plebes of the crowd. Importantly, this is something that Don Fanucci fails to do so with respect to Vito, particularly in this scene, but also elsewhere.

Of course, knowing that the Corleones eventually become a major American crime syndicate, we have to believe preemptively in Vito’s success. But this isn’t to say that if we watched the scene in isolation we wouldn’t also come away believing in his potential for successful usurpation: it’s also made formally evident in the scene. After all, where does Vito meet Don Fanucci? Exactly in those places in which he appears to be most comfortable: i.e. the shadows. And those places he most enjoys also seem to work in his favor. This isn’t to say that he’s not in control over this whole scenario, because I think that he largely is (as with his unscrewing of the lightbulb) but there also seems to be some other factor benefiting Vito which he couldn’t possibly control (as with the curtains which gradually draw shut the higher in the stairwell that Don Fanucci goes). After all, is there any logical way he could exert his influence over the sound of the scene? Absolutely not. But it works so well to his advantage that we want to believe him to be a conductor, his towel-draped arm representing a kind of makeshift baton for the invisible orchestra, first cuing the drumroll and subsequently the explosion of fireworks in perfect time with his gunshots. 

We also might say that this “covering” of the gun with the towel rhymes in part with the covering done below in the streets: that is, the covering of Christ with money from the crowd. In this way, we see Vito’s murder extended to a salvational/social register. Is Vito not saving his neighbors from unquantifiable distress as well as the hefty monthly payments to this gangster?

 

Blue Velvet – Che Vuoi? the Desire of the (m)Other

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, and the lover of Jeffrey Beaumont. And if we admit this much, there can be no denying that the reason for our interest in her is bound up in her complex portrait of maternity and feminine desire. 

Just as Lynch pushes back against normative modes of interpretation in Lost Highway when the question of “Wouldn’t you like to know why?” is posed to our then-protagonist Pete, Blue Velvet reframes this question in the context of desire. Here, Lynch pushes back against normative understandings of sexuality and desire as being sanitary, safe and, in many ways, sterile. But whereas Lost Highway delights in denying the audience a point of entry, Blue Velvet is more tolerant of naivete, generously entertaining simple questions as opportunities for instruction rather than mocking them. In particular, the film is interested in exploring the central question that Jeffrey asks Dorothy while in bed, “What do you want?

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As a mother, its clear that Dorothy wants her kidnapped son back. Nowhere is this more evident than in her two meetings with her son. The first of these reunions takes place at Ben’s apartment, also called (THIS IS) IT, and the second takes place at what looks like a public park at the end of the film. But where we’re driven to Ben’s apartment and thus understand it as situated in space and time, this second meeting comes as part of a montage and is unquestionably more dream-like. 

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Normally, the story of a mother trying to reconnect with her kidnapped son elicits sympathy and sorrow from its audience. And most audiences, cry as they might, expect the storyteller to toy with their emotions as soon as they recognize that the story they’re being told fits into this genre, even as they might simultaneously protest against this emotional manipulation as “cheap”. What makes Blue Velvet’s engagement with this “genre” fascinating is that it completely subverts this identification and instead forces the audience to recognize their complete unfamiliarity with this kind of mother-son relation. 

Consider, for instance, the fact that we are barred from entering the room with Dorothy when she visits Donnie. If the film were looking to generate pity here, we might get a shot (like in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) of the child in captivity. Or perhaps we’d be given a flashback to a particularly fond memory of Dorothy’s when Donnie wasn’t yet being held captive. But such is never the case. We’re never allowed to see Donnie’s face, or to hear him speak; in fact, the only indication we have of his existence comes to us through conversations between Frank and Dorothy, who are some of our least reliable characters in terms of establishing narrative fact and fiction. As readers of the film, we must ask what this conscious denial of access to this relationship accomplishes: why is the mother-son relationship one that can only take place behind closed doors? 

At the same time, we are always present for encounters with “perverse” desires which society usually requests take place (if at all) behind closed doors. In this sense, the film completely inverts a social hierarchy of acceptable desire, placing us in a world where the most universal “desire” (if we can call it that) of a mother for her son is considered too much to behold, while the most normally reprehensible or “perverse” is regularly on-display.

The film also exhibits a keen interest in the inversion of familial hierarchies, not simply here with the inacessible desire of the mother for her son, but also between fathers and their sons. Recall that Blue Velvet only begins because Jeffrey’s father suffers a stroke prompting his return home, filling in, as it were, for him as the father in the family. We might also say that Donnie does something similar to his father, Donald, through his mother Dorothy: he, too, inherits the empty throne of his father. We can say, then, that the film is firmly invested in exploring the son’s (Oedipal) replacement of the father, and that this is bound up triply in Dorothy through her son Donnie, her lover Jeffrey and her rapist Frank. 

To properly read Dorothy’s desire in relation to her construction of family there is one more key component we must touch upon; namely, her longing for sexual masochism.

This is particularly difficult to stomach for most viewers. 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 from Jeffrey, we can’t help but wonder how this relates to 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.

While it may not be the rape itself, there is undeniably some core of her fantasy that is realized when Dorothy is raped by Frank. Dissecting this further, when Frank rapes Dorothy, he physically dominates her, assumes the name “Baby” and bars her from looking at him. When Dorothy has sex with Jeffrey, parts of this are recreated: his childlike innocence mirrors what is embodied by Frank as a “Baby”, and the physical violence mirrors Frank’s sadism. We can say clearly, then, that Dorothy consciously understands that she wants to have sex with and to be be punished by Donnie, her son. We might even be able to assert that she understands that this desire is motivated by her loss of her husband Donald, and her desire to replicate their sexual union. But the piece that’s missing in this formulation is perhaps the unbearable core of the fantasy: namely, that Dorothy wants to not be able to see Donnie, just as Frank doesn’t let her look at him

For proof of this, we can look to the moment when Jeffrey plays with Donnie’s propeller hat. We might think, errantly, that the closer he comes to embodying Donnie (and thus making him accessible to Dorothy), the more the fantasy would be realized and the more sexually appealing he would become. After all, if she is interested in removing barriers, this would be the logical extension of this fact. But such is not the case.

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Dorothy, instead of being pleased or even sexually stimulated, is shocked and unsettled. Although she longs for reunion with her son, this represents a clear violation of a sacred contract. The hat—which we see featured in one of Jeffrey’s dreams and is one of the last shots in isolation before Jeffrey is forced to watch the primal scene between Frank and Dorothy, thus embodying Donnie, in some sense—is that unbearable, inviolable core of Dorothy’s fantasy.

Although this analysis will end here, having drawn up a rough portrait of Dorothy’s desire, further analysis would look the points of intersection between Dorothy and Jeffrey, specifically how Jeffrey’s fetishization of the propeller hat illustrates his desire to assume the role of Dorothy’s son and betrays his unconscious understanding of Dorothy’s desire for her son.