No Frenzy to Womankind

“Women—they’re all the same.”

                                                                                    —the killer in Frenzy

Off-camera, Tippi Hedren has said, he became vindictive after she wouldn’t return his overtures, had her dressing-room connected by a secret door to his office, got a replica mask of her face made for himself, and sexually assaulted her. And what about on-screen? Hedren thinks a rape-scene in Marnie (1964) reflected his fantasizing about her. In other films, did one of the most famous directors of meaningful looks and (un)romantic obsessions—the man who orchestrated the darting, glancing kisses between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946), to skirt the Hayes Code—indulge in misogyny? Was Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film not so much a twilight-dim failure as a late-career disclosure of his id, an oblique admission of his toxic obsession with blondes (like Hedren) and curdled lust? And how does Frenzy (1972) not only echo an early film by the English director but have its flat notes, and its director’s flaws, sounded out by a then-emerging American master’s echoing of the Master of Suspense?

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Hitchcock’s third feature and first outright thriller, adapts Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger (1913), a fog-shrouded novel set close to Baker Street but based on the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 in the East End. Mrs. Bunting, a former maid (and the detective-figure), and Mr. Bunting, a former manservant, realize that their lodger, Mr. Sleuth, is the murdering, Bible-inspired lunatic whom the police (and press) are pursuing. Yet they remain in servile thrall to him largely because, with all his money and eccentric behaviour, Mrs. Bunting thinks, “he was such a nice, gentle gentleman, was Mr. Sleuth” (my emphasis).

In scenario-writer Eliot Stannard and Hitchcock’s adaptation, the victims are all blonde (“to-night[:] golden curls” is the enticement on a music-hall marquee, an image-motif, and the killer’s target), establishing the director’s fascination with the fair-haired sex and his sexualizing of the fair-haired. Before dwelling much, in often drawn-out, stagey ways, on the suspicious lodger (Ivor Novello)—who, amid the Buntings, becomes so interested in daughter (and blonde model) Daisy (June Tripp)—Hitchcock plays with city lights and sights. Intertitles mimic that lightbulb-lettered marquee and a running-ticker news report; Londoners, ’avin’ a laff, pretend to be the kerchief-covered “Avenger” killer as an eyewitness still trembles or a blonde showgirl removes her makeup; the churning newspaper rooms and presses disseminate the news, headlines still drying as papers are bundled up, trucked out, and then hawked on street corners. (Hitchcock has his first of many cameos here: he’s sitting, back to us, in a newsroom, talking urgently into a phone; later, he’s in a mob baying for the lodger’s blood.)

There’s a moment in the Bunting household, though, when Daisy’s paramour, Joe, a police officer, ’avin’ a lark, suddenly handcuffs her and she cries out, alarmed (the lodger looks on, ambiguously thrilled—he seems both appalled and excited), only to

smile afterwards and go off to flirt some more with the lodger . . . so was Joe right to want her shackled to him? Is Hitchcock suggesting that this blonde should be kept in, at home, and tied down to household duties, to keep her safe? The sly Daisy cannot be entirely trusted, it seems, even by her policing lover. (Daisy’s mother tries to assuage her prospective son-in-law’s concerns: “Don’t be silly, Joe, [the lodger]’s not that sort. Even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman.”) And so Hitchcock opens the door to the viewer’s suspicion of the fairer sex as too bold and wayward in The Lodger.

Knife-cut to a half-century later: by the mid-’60s, when Psycho had already killed at the box-office (while, in England, the more explicit, similarly-themed Peeping Tom sank Michael Powell’s career) and he’d just made his fiftieth movie, the tattered Torn Curtain, Hitchcock wanted to do a more experimental—in the vein of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which he admired—and explicitly sexual and violent film. Kaleidoscope would be about a killer turned on by water, with a woman sent undercover to catch him. Snippets of a nude bedroom scene are nearly all that survives of what little was shot. Hitchcock, as Nicholas Barber’s noted, even wrote a draft of the screenplay, with the script homophobically making its killer, Willie, a mama’s boy who “was to have bodybuilding magazines stashed around his room, so as to suggest that he was gay, and he was to be caught masturbating by his mother. . . . Even Truffaut [the French New Wave director and author of a book of interviews with Hitchcock] was concerned.” The lodger had been fascinatingly sensitive and fragile for Daisy, but here “deviance” would have been doubled down on. Hitchcock was jerking moments of murder into brutality, dilating voyeurism into obsession, and no longer distancing himself from anti-effeminacy.

Meanwhile, one of the most prominent American directors of the next generation, a man who’d be greatly influenced by and pay homage to Hitchcock, was emerging. By the mid-’60s, he was working on what would be his first feature and he’d already made some short films. Both directors had a close, important relationship with editors: Hitchcock with George Tomasini, while Martin Scorsese continues to work with Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell’s wife). Each had his preferred composers (Hitchcock’s most famous was Bernard Herrmann), certain cinematographers they worked with, and select screenwriters they often returned to. Their leading men were stand-outs—Farley Granger, Cary Grant, and James Stewart for Hitchcock; Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, and Leonardo DiCaprio for Scorsese—and both directors make sly cameos, with Hitchcock’s appearances often humorous glimpses of the balding, lip-drooping, portly man as bystander or passer-by in his own movie. They established his famous form as a literal signature, a body standing for a body of work, Hitchcock’s silhouette branding the enterprise.

But, four years after Frenzy, the New York-born and -raised Catholic son of garment-industry workers and actors was already outdoing and re-doing the East London-born and -raised Catholic son of a greengrocer and his wife (Hitchcock usually eschewed Catholic symbolism, but offers a silhouetted cross image and a pietà tableau in The Lodger). Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a masterful dissection of machismo, where America’s gun culture is seen as a pornographic and pathetic sexual overcompensation for male loner-ness, is a deeper drive off Route 99 into the lonely motel-room mind of an American psycho—a late ’70s study of a NYC Norman Bates. Its neo-noir portrait of a psycho as a young man begins in America’s largest city, but not quite in fog, as The Lodger does. A yellow cab looms up out of the street smoke, as, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s score—a sax-swoon interrupted by ominous, clattering percussion—mists along. Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (DeNiro), 26, can’t sleep well and starts driving cabs six, seven nights a week. But this study’s also something of a self-portrait—screenwriter Paul Schrader was channeling his own down-and-out-ness, alienation, and obsessions. And Scorsese’s self-exposing—his first Hitchcock-like cameo comes with the slo-mo introduction of Cybill Shepherd’s cool blonde, Bickle’s fixation, where Scorsese’s there, too, eagle-eyeing her from his perch on a building’s stoop. Later, in a scene echoing Rear Window and Psycho, Scorsese’s a passenger testily directing Bickle to stop, leave the meter running, and stare with him at the silhouette of a woman—his wife—in a window of another man’s—a black man’s—apartment; he talks of how he’ll kill her. The

voyeurism has darkened and deepened, yet still we, too, look on. We’re implicated. Racism, cars, guns, an apple pie in the Big Apple (on Travis’ first date with the Yankee-named Betsy [Shepherd], shortly before Memorial Day), a Presidential campaign, talk of the town as an “open sewer” that needs cleaning-up, a would-be assassin whom fate twists into a vigilante-hero . . . it doesn’t get more American Psycho.

Hitchcock’s near-pathological fascination with cool blondes in his films—Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Vivien Leigh, Hedren, etc.—was meant to mix ice and fire, and gentility and passion, though he explained it more disturbingly to Truffaut: he meant to show “real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” It’s impossible, now, not to think of Hedren’s accusations of Hitchcock’s all-too-real obsession about her “in the bedroom” with him (and the revelations of Marnie, disturbingly, are bound up with trauma, rape, and prostitution). And so it’s difficult not to read, for instance, critic David Denby’s sum-up of Scottie’s fixation on blonde Madeleine (Novak) in Vertigo (1958) without feeling a chill: “The entire fable suggests that men . . . need some sort of obsession to get aroused—that male sexual passion by its very nature is fetishistic in some way, and that ordinary love and deep disturbance are not so far apart.”

At times, Scorsese’s better employed blonde actresses to emphasize how, in his Roman Catholicism-tinged outlook, women are treated as madonnas or whores by obsessive men. Their whiteness and blondeness, especially when they first appear, makes them seem angelic or otherworldly figures of fascination to men who need them to reflect or reassert their power: Shepherd in Taxi Driver; white-bikinied Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull; white-minidressed Sharon Stone in Casino; spectral Michelle Williams in Shutter Island (2010).

(Three years before, Scorsese’s homage to the man who built the foundations for so many films about hidden lives, surveillance, and disturbed minds came in the wine company-promo and short film “The Key to Reserva” . . . its best part comes at the end, with Scorsese’s humorous dig at himself. The whole exercise, tainted as Scorsese seems to know by its blatant advertising, is lightened by Scorsese’s willingness to show himself as a slightly too geeky, too jokey director. He’s ready, this serial voyeur pretending to be an artist, to murder and re-create again—he greedily suggests a re-edit or re-making of at least some of the lost ten-hour final print of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed [1924]. In the final scene, and final allusion, the dark Birds of Hitchcock’s restless spirit wait, outside the window, to revenge themselves upon this impious imitator.)

In Shutter Island, both a locked-mind mystery and island-prison thriller, sickness, madness, and paranoia whip up from the start. It’s 1954 and Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Dicaprio) comes by boat to the titular place, a forbidding rock off the Massachusetts coast home only to Ashecliffe Hospital, an institution for those deemed criminally insane. Daniels first suffers seasickness, then migraines. As a hurricane moves in, he and his partner try to investigate the disappearance—from her locked cell—of a patient who murdered her children. But the authorities seem uncooperative and Daniels is still haunted by the death of his wife Dolores (Williams).

Scorsese, working from Laeta Kalogridis’ screen-adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, experiments with genres past, pulping up the noir and gothic to slowly flesh out psychological horror. He mixes not only moments of suspense with off-kilter conversations, but war veteran Teddy’s golden-edged dreams of his wife (one shot of him clinging to her eerily imitates Klimt’s The Kiss) with his nightmarish memories of

liberating Dachau. Other reunions with the dead are disturbingly ecstatic. This exercise in style’s so overheated that the controlled burn reignites the gothic’s tropes (madwoman, abandoned building, apparitions, stormy weather). Ash, fire, and snow—white flares up throughout, to be eclipsed by blood-red—mingle death, trauma, and grief. What’s the line between bereavement, even bereft-ment, and madness, or between denial and psychosis? We’re in a Stygian world shell-shocked by the Holocaust’s depravity, after a war from which boys came back broken men, losing some of what they went off to supposedly protect—humanity. Many of the story’s scars of violence are scratched at in Dicaprio’s performance as a lost saviour, while Williams vaults her character beyond the ’50s dutiful housewife. Where the film uncannily slips out of its genre shackles, though, is in its suggestion that we, the viewers, are patients eager to drug ourselves on the thriller formula, to willingly collude in its conventions and clichés. The easy answers are outside ourselves, we’d like to believe, in the solution to the locked-room mystery that the detective will solve or the web of machinations that the cop will unravel. But take a closer look within, Shutter Island whispers, because that’s where not just the hard answers but the easy lies are buried.

And that’s where Hitchcock’s Frenzy (the title taken from the script of Kaleidoscope) drops the knife, clattering, on the floor—it never even sticks it in. (The author, Arthur La Bern, disavowed the adaptation, declaring that he “endured . . . it at a press showing,” found it “a painful experience,” and the “result [of the adaptation] on the screen is appalling.”) Early on, we’re not implicated or urged to look within but made distastefully, pathetically, and scuzzily party to a public dismissal of rape-as-trauma and sexualized-murder-as-reprehensible. In The Lodger, the dangerous frenzy lies in the public-turned-mob—it chases down the lodger, wrongly thinking him the Avenger, and nearly kills him. (That all begins in a pub, where Daisy gives the lodger, escaped from the police, some brandy after secretly meeting him and putting a cloak around the handcuffed man; Joe and other police officers arrive soon after to call in about the fugitive and the other patrons realize the man, whose arms they never saw and seemed locked in place, is on the run, and pursue him. But, Joe learns over the phone, the actual Avenger has been caught; we’re now set against the mob, because it’s in error.) In Frenzy, though, where Hitchcock returns to London (specifically Covent Garden, as if out of nostalgia for his father’s greengrocer business; fruit-and-veg shops and a fruit-and-veg delivery depot take centre-stage early on) for another serial-killer thriller, the mob is the vox pop, cozily prurient. We’re led to feel ourselves at home among them but, worse, excited about and even allied with the murderer.

The opening aerial shot, gliding over the Thames and in towards Tower Bridge, its drawbridge opening up for us, is penetrative; the camera is phallic. Then, on the Embankment, as an official announces that the river will be pollution-free, we spot the director in the crowd, back among his people. Another man in the assembled audience exclaims, “Look!”—we witness the floating corpse of a naked woman, a necktie around her throat (Hitchcock makes sure to titillate us with an unnecessary flash of frontal nudity when the police look at the blonde’s body). Yet another man then begins to talk about the gruesome differences between this “necktie killer” and Jack the Ripper as Hitchcock, (next to him) and we listen on. Then we’re in an Englishman’s clichéd home-away-from-home, the pub, as Richard Blaney (who’ll be wrongly suspected) comes down from his apartment, indulges in an early-morning drink, and is promptly fired from his barman job (the back-and-forth between boss, Blaney [Jon Finch], and barmaid includes this crude and cruel exchange between boss and female employee: “And he’s usually pulling your tits instead of pulling pints” . . . “What about you? Always fingering me.”

It’s a pub, that falsely comfy place of conjecture and gossip—flowing with drink and chit-chat and sexual nastiness—that sees, as Blaney is sitting behind them, two well-heeled gents, solicitors, speculate about how the criminal proceedings for the killer would go. (Here, the movie’s one-note in its he-done-it?-ness, concerned only with having us wonder if Blaney’s the culprit or not. Especially when we realize he isn’t, half-an-hour in, his peevishness, snappishness, and general irascibility make him an unsympathetic, uninteresting figure flopping about—an annoying, smelly red herring. And the movie leers and sneers at that half-hour point, when it indulges in the over-long revealing of the murderer, who talks and talks and draws out his rape and killing. It’s pointlessly explicit and sordid, individualizing and prioritizing the killer while the woman is reduced to a near-mute, near-helpless victim.) As the barmaid returns with their pints, one says, “We

were just talking about the tie murderer, Maisie. You better watch out.” She asks, a salacious gleam in her eye, “He rapes ’em first, doesn’t he?” “Yes, I believe he does,” he says, twinkling, and his friend, nearly licking his lips, adds, “I suppose it’s nice to know every cloud has a silver lining.” They both grin and Maisie says, “Ooh,” and smiles. Their sneering joke here, insensitivity to the victims, and passing-off-rape-“humour”-as-flirting are appalling, but, worse, we’re being solicited to smile with them, especially as a woman is doing so, too, even egging them on. The “ha-ha-this-rapist-murderer-will-have-his-fun-won’t-he?” attitude’s endorsed by the film. The pair’s “joke” isn’t undercut or meant to disturb us; indeed, the two go back to ruminating on the type of man who’d do this, and we’re expected to listen in on their supposedly educated opinions with interest. The scuzzy and squalid atmosphere—a socially-polluted London—just is.

Denby tries to make a case for Frenzy being about “a generalized sexual misery” and the “absence of sexual happiness in ‘normal’ life,” but that’s giving it too much depth. Even when it’s acting self-conscious about its homicidal subject-as-entertainment, it’s just an act, with a smirk; the one lawyer says to the other at the end of their conversation, “I rather hope he doesn’t [slip up soon]. Well, we haven’t had a good, juicy series of sex murders since [John] Christie [in the ’50s]. And they’re so good for the tourist trade. Foreigners expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs, and littered with ripped whores, don’t you think?” Gone are the disturbing psychological depths of Vertigo or Psycho; this is London reduced to a dilapidated Hitchcock Land, a cheap, run-down theme-park of empty kills and tawdry thrills.

Or, as Victoria Sullivan argued at the time, in what was in part a rebuttal of Vincent Canby’s approving review of Frenzy, the movie seems to show that “[w]oman [sic] are naturally victims,” “[p]sychopathic rapists are basically nice guys (Canby calls the one in “Frenzy” “a genial London fruit wholesaler”) screwed up by their mums,” and, worse, that “[t]here is a certain glamour and excitement in rape and murder (i.e. it’s a turn-on)” and “[w]omen better watch out if they’re independent, living alone, living without a man, because there are a lot of sick guys around.” When Sullivan left the cinema, she notes, her “most possessive and frequently jealous companion” made a jest not unlike, in its unfunniness, the one shared by the two lawyers at the pub in the movie:

‘Guess you’ll stay close to your apartment for the next week or so,’ a joke prompted by the fact that I wasn’t to see him again for a week, but also perhaps by a warning implicit in the film: you need a man to protect you. You’re too independent. Lock yourself in. Bolt the door. Stay out of sight. Be discreet. A woman alone is an invitation.

Or, as Jane Doe—who won a lawsuit against the Toronto Police, after she was raped at knifepoint in her home, for not warning women in her neighbourhood and so being used as bait—writes in The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape, “There are bad men among us. . . . But the places we put them, the manner in which we treat them, the degree to which we forget them, will determine our future well-being individually and as a society.” Jane Doe’s rapist, though, still has a Wikipedia page naming him. And the name of Jack the Ripper remains better known than the names of the women he killed. Male frenzy continues to be heard and echoed, loud and clear, drowning out the voices of those who’ve suffered from it and know its awful, unthrilling truth best.

(Thanks to Peter Mansour for bringing the Frenzy pub scene to my attention.)

Works Cited

Barber, Nicholas. “Why Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope [sic] was too shocking to be made.” BBC, 21 June 2018,

Denby, David. “In A Frenzy”. The New Yorker, vol. 90, no. 6, 31 March 2014, p. 10,

Doe, Jane. The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape. Vintage, 2003.

Evans, Alan. “Tippi Hedren: Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted me.” The Guardian, 31 Oct. 2016,

Frenzy. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal, 1972.

La Bern, Arthur. “Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’, from Mr Arthur La Bern”. Letter, The Times, 29 May 1972. Reprinted at

The Lodger: A Story of London Fog. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Gainsborough, 1927.

Shutter Island. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Paramount, 2010.

Sullivan, Victoria. “Does ‘Frenzy’ Degrade Women?” The New York Times, 30 July 1972, p. D9,

Taxi Driver. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Columbia, 1976.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

The Gleaner’s Eye

Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000) is one of those rare films that slides, so smoothly into place, a new filter through which to see and think about cinema. Her documentary-essay doesn’t just explore and investigate the act of gleaning—she offers up gleaning as a metaphor for filming itself . . . and for reconsidering how we watch film.

Film is a recycling art-form. It reuses and remixes; the mainstream’s reworking and rebooting of genres, subgenres, franchises, and individual films is constant. (Take the regular franchise reboots in the current comic-book movie-adaptation craze. Long, long ago and far, far away, in a pre-MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] Hollywood, Phase 3 [1998-2007, from Blade to Spider-Man 3] of superhero-blockbusters couldn’t have ka-pow!ed and whooshed its way on screen so successfully without CGI, starting in the ’70s [Phase 1: 1978-86, or Superman to Howard the Duck] and continuing in the ’90s, when it went from Gotham neo-noir to the DC’s campy crusader [Phase 2: 1989-97, or Batman to Batman & Robin].)

And in going beyond genre-remixing, making reworking, recycling, and reusing its main motifs and concerns, Varda’s documentary suggests that film, when it filters and projects our memories, can be a gleaner itself. Taking inspiration from such works as Jean-François Millet’s painting Des glaneuses—which reminds us that, for centuries in Europe, women did the gleaning—Varda sifts through memories and picks through

archives, art, and life like a glaneuse—a picker of leftover produce or discarded objects—gathering little images in the basket of her film. Varda shows art made from found objects as the film itself becomes an arrangement of found moments and recollected, reworked memories and ideas. Through the glass-eye of the camera lens—usually a handy digital video-camera—she picks out images. As she riffles through dictionary, artistic, social, cultural, and legal definitions of “gleaning”, Varda picks out gypsies gleaning potatoes for their dinner in their caravan park, or an artist poking through curbside waste for material for his works, or a lawyer (whom she places in a cabbage field) outlining France’s law about gleaning.

It’s the video-essay as a restless foraging for and sifting through ideas, where manual, agricultural traditions are recovered and renewed by artists in an industrial, technological age. Its digital-video medium, too, as critic Jake Wilson notes, “seem[s] like a democratic gesture in itself, a way of reducing the distance between Varda and the people she films – not only because video technology is less cumbersome and intimidating, but because the drabness of video tends to demystify the relationship between the filmmaker and his or her raw material.” It is, as critic Owen Gleiberman puts it, “thrift-shop” cinema.

The film’s humility is in keeping with the first written mentions of gleaning, in the Bible, where Leviticus preaches that the leftover fruits of field labour should be left for the poor and for strangers, while Deuteronomy says they should be left for strangers, orphans, and widows. “Documentaries are a discipline that teaches modesty,” Varda remarks in her production notes, and the images of stooping in many paintings of gleaning connote, with people crouched so close to earth and nature’s dregs, a sense of humility and basic dignity. But there’s also, in Varda’s hands, a sense of play. She plays with language (“gleaners have a field day”) and visual language (superimposition, slowing time, close-ups), her whimsy leading her to wonder, “Where does play end and art start?” In a car on the highway, she forms a round, eye-like frame with her hand, as if extending her camera-like eye, and so captures trucks passing by; when the lens cap on her DV camera swings along in an impromptu shot, she leaves that moment in the film

and sets music to it, calling the sequence “The Dance of the Lens Cap.” And the digital-video form seems to emphasize the local and immediate all the more, allowing for more free-and-easy conversational interviews but more personal reflection, too—a diary-like feel. There’s a jaunty, relaxed mood, with Varda seeming quite open to coincidence, serendipity, and the luck of the draw.

This mix of candour with intimacy, of controlled play with a restless, searching spirit of inquiry, has seeped through the work of two fiction-feature directors whose careers took off around the same time as Varda’s documentary appeared. Both, in their cheeky, outsider-ish ways, boisterously remix and recycle, offering quaint settings, artist-bohemian characters and plenty of odds and ends in their salvage-culture pictures.

In the oeuvre of Wes Anderson, salvage-culture nestles cozily into nooks and crannies of the director’s playhouse as he toys with the pieces of a retro-cool past. Looking back, his third film, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), seems like the boho-brownstone bedrock of his work. (The Criterion Collection edition of the film includes a thick booklet with floor plans and drawings of the rooms in the Tenenbaum house.) Anderson’s films always seem to be looking back, at a past or past-like present—in this case, at a Salinger-esque New York City replete with dictaphones, tattered ’80s dustjackets, two-dial TV sets, beaten-up Gypsy Co. cabs, a packed closet of board games, push-button intercoms, pup tents, and secretaries, advisors, elevator-operators, and manservants. And they’re looking back at mirrors (how the cast is introduced) or staring at painting frames or voiceover-narrating storybook pages to us, as every shot seems to take us into another little dollhouse-room—even the cemetery sequence in The Royal Tenenbaums is divvied up into discrete plots.

That tension between the meticulousness of his films’ look, so maturely sectioned-off and storyboarded, and his stories’ raucous sense of near-absurd child’s play (heists, a war of reprisal, a submarine mission, a wilderness trek, a battle between farmers and foxes, grandiose drama-productions, children running away together amid a hurricane and flood, the quest to prove a bellhop’s innocence during wartime) animates Anderson’s work. His fastidious framing and set-design pair up primly with his interest in cloistered, comically self-serious, faintly-British eccentrics; sober, Kubrick-like visual compositions vie with wry, Wodehouse-like literary larks. The 2013 volume The Wes Anderson Collection is as much a compendium of scenes from Anderson’s films as a collection of his influences: he’s reworked and remixed moments, moods, and storylines from films by Hal Ashby, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Loach, Mike Nichols, François Truffaut, and more. Unsurprisingly, Citizen Kane, collecting memories and mementos of its title-character, is a major influence (that cast introduction at the start of The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, mirrors the postage stamp-framed roll-call of dramatis personae in Welles’ film). The part-diorama, part-dollhouse look of Anderson’s multi-film universe seems to echo the prismatic snowglobe-world of Welles’ magnum opus. (Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, too, echoes Citizen Kane in its shot of Cléo — like Kane, reflected in a hall of mirrors in his vast mansion just after his wife has left him — reflected endlessly in a mirror just after she has left a dire tarot-card reading.)

The writer-director’s work, ever aware of itself as a carefully constructed, multi-storied film, can occasionally come off as too hermetically sealed, too navel-gazing (that’s why The Life Aquatic sinks). And that may be why Gene Hackman’s patriarch Royal—a stuck-in-the-’70s, edging-on-racist, insensitive, gruff wise guy, who says “Let’s shag ass” or “I’m lovin’ every minute with this damn crew”—so saltily spikes the punch in The Royal Tenenbaums. Of course, he’s still an Anderson character—what other type would declare, “You’re taking my encyclopædias.* This is humiliating.” (*Indubitably, Anderson’s preferred spelling.) But he’s also a conniving, cantankerous, bit-of-a-bastard thrill amid a slumping throng of post-precocious kidults and stunted middle-agers, lugging around their emotional hang-ups, baggage, and dysfunctions.

The near-fantastic, offbeat, play-room sensibility of Anderson’s work is much of his appeal—we feel as if we’ve moved in with this family for a time and the rest of the world melts away. That cozy-roominess slots in snugly with the various cornered resentments, stacked secrets, and crammed cubbyholes of bad memories. The Royal Tenenbaums, holding up a mirror from the start, is a strangely comforting, only-slightly-

distorted reflection of the quirky little messes that so many of our own families are. And Anderson’s play with form culminates over a decade later, in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), where three different aspect ratios are used for three different periods—in that quintessentially Anderson-esque move, film-space and story-time are joyously married.

Although his filmography’s spottier than Anderson’s, French director Michael Gondry has been more eclectic and wildly inventive in his retro-stylized films, which often seem like a combination of contraption and confection—tricksy and trap-like or charming and sweet by turns. Remixing romance, sci-fi, comedy, and drama, the wondrously wistful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), directed by Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman, sees Joel (Jim Carrey) undergo memory-erasure to forget his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet). Amid this mélangeof French ennui, American quirk, and brittle, quasi-English humour—and especially with our entries into the alcoves and recesses of Joel’s mind, shot with a grainy, gritty, DV-like realism—there’s the machine itself: a large metal dome around Joel’s head, a tangle of wires connecting it to a keyboard and a cathode ray tube, TV-like screen. Gondry would

go on, as YouTube was taking off in an increasingly cut-and-paste, portable-PC world, to make Be Kind Rewind (2008), where a scrapyard owner and his buddy—in a move reminiscent of Varda’s use of DV for an on-the-spot, local, block-party feel—start “sweding” Hollywood flicks by remaking shorter versions of them on the cheap. They move on by rewinding: the neighbourhood comes together to shoot a film about Fats Waller, a great figure in the world of jazz, that musical form known for its recombining and improvisations. Even in Gondry’s coming-of-age buddy-picture Microbe & Gasoline (2015), two French boys rev their trippy little motorized way down the road in a little mobile home they cobble together out of lumber and scrapped parts.

But it may be Gondry’s first writer-director feature all his own, a phantasmagoria of dream and surrealism, The Science of Sleep (2006)—like watching Lewis Carroll and Luis Buñuel duke it out in a somnambulist boxing-match in Paris—that’s his prototypical work. A collage of jilted romance, Freudian slaps, and that jerky, so-close-to-real feel of night-time reveries, the story teeter-totters between inspired fantasy sequence and the needy, messy moments of real life, with illustrator Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal) a tangle of creativity, insecurity, childishness, and stifled grief. Trash-compacting animation, magic-realism, realism, and oddity into a near-cubist portrait of this artist’s roiling psyche, it tinkers and toys more than any of the director’s other patchworks (Gondry got his start in music videos) with whispery special effects, recycled objects, and surreal backdrops. (It also criss-crosses tongues: Stéphane, returned from Mexico to Paris, speaks Spanish, French, and English.) As it threads us along the darker seam in its pillowy plot, Stéphane’s revealed as a boy-man who can never quite grow up; he’s mercurial, even volatile, and his desire for neighbour Stéphanie—the name suggesting she’s a shadow-self—seems as much a desire for a mother-figure as for a lover. In the opening scene, before cardboard-box cameras, he puts paint and pasta in a pot, producing a puff of pink smoke, and then we’re whisked into a credit-sequence where the backdrops

are canvases on which globs and gobs of paints swirl around or slowly shatter out. (In Gondry’s teeming bric-a-brac bricolage: Paris becomes papier-mâché as Stéphane flies over it in a dream; home-video memories unspool on a back-wall frame in his cardboard TV studio; water flows like crinkly cellophane from a tap; Stéphane dictates to a giant, self-operating typewriter; embroidered creatures dance on a quilt as Stéphane packs up felt objects. There are also gizmos, gadgets, models, dioramas, and mini-movie sets.)

Stéphane’s subconscious is a jumble of contradictions, conflicting emotions, and hang-ups. (His creativity’s both cathartic and ruinous, releasing his frustrations and keeping him too inward-looking.) If such inventiveness seems to be a reflection, too, of the film-space as an auteur’s cluttered mental-attic, a vast canvas on which his dreams and visions are being splatter-painted, then The Science of Sleep suggests that it can be a shadowy, formidable head-space, too, especially if an artist gets carried away, snarled up in his own neuroses and obsessions. But there’s also, hidden away in Gondry’s film about one man’s psychic debris—as when Stéphane’s boss dumps his television in a river,

saying, “TV’s garbage anyways”—and Varda’s documentary about gathering—where we see TVs broken up for their copper, prompting us to recall that out-moded cameras, too, are consigned to the scrap-heap—a warning about what we leave behind and what lies beneath our culture’s ever-growing, teetering pile of films.

The lowliness of Varda’s technique and subject seems at odds with the high-tech ways we watch films these days. Yet is there real waste in that? Yep. The immaterial, it turns out, is still pretty reliant on the material. Just because we stream films on our laptops or watch video on our phones, that doesn’t mean we’re not leaving an eco- footprint. Until recently, your film-screening device was pretty much guaranteed to contain coltan (columbite-tantalite), a mineral extracted in the Congo, often by children; the coltan-mining industry’s helped finance a civil war that’s left seven million dead, hundreds of thousands wounded or maimed, and thousands raped. And after we’re done with our electronics—whither goest those curved-screen TVs, bulky desktop computers, or first-generation iPods? Many are bound for India or China, to be dismantled, smelted, dumped, and otherwise turned into effluent, fumes, and rusting, non-biodegradable parts which can only mar those people’s health and scar their environment.

So what can we glean from all this, beyond the insanity of, say, watching on our gadgets and gizmos an eco-parable like Avatar ushering in another wave of 3D or flat-screen or computer-generated technology, and more and more coltan and other non-renewable resources, into the circuit-boards and battery packs of our electronic lives? (And what of film-productions’ eco-footprints? Shoots and sets never seem to get environmental audits.) The medium’s the message, it seems—we have to reconsider, as Varda has us reconsider what’s scrapped and what’s gleaned, how we watch film and what we watch it on, not to mention what our films are about. If we have to do that on the very machines that are part of the problem in order to figure out a solution, so be it for now. Someone else’s play-on-film doesn’t mean our work, as critical viewers and consumers, ends. If we can start rethinking and reworking our own ideas about how we consume film, maybe more and more of us will move beyond hypocrisy and into re-action.

Works Cited

Be Kind Rewind. Directed by Michel Gondry, New Line, 2008.

Cléo de 5 à 7. Directed by Agnès Varda, Ciné Tamaris, 1962.  

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Directed by Michel Gondry, Focus, 2004.

The Gleaners and I [Les glaneurs et la glaneuse]. Directed by Agnès Varda, Ciné Tamaris, 2000.

Gleiberman, Owen. “Film Review: ‘Faces Places’ (Visages Villages).” Variety, 26 May 2017,

The Grand Budapest Hotel. Directed by Wes Anderson, Fox Searchlight, 2014.

Microbe & Gasoline [Microbe & Gasoil]. Directed by Michel Gondry, StudioCanal, 2015.

The Royal Tenenbaums. Directed by Wes Anderson, Touchstone, 2001.

The Science of Sleep [La science des rêves]. Directed by Michel Gondry, Warner Independent, 2006.

Seitz, Matt Zoller. The Wes Anderson Collection. Abrams, 2013.

Wilson, Jake. “Trash and Treasure: The Gleaners and I.” Senses of Cinema, issue 23, December 2002,

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Heathcliff & Catherine and Pascal & Moll

Moll: “I haven’t got it in me.”

Pascal: “Yeah, you do.”


From England to Mexico and India to the Philippines, and from the big screen and the stage to television and webseries, there have been more than three-dozen adaptations of Emily Brontë’s one and only novel. But the best of them all may be the film hiding its allusions to Wuthering Heights beneath the tangle of a murder-investigation on an island: Beast (2017).

The title, along with a few dream-turned-nightmare moments, seems to imply a fairy tale, but Moll (Jessie Buckley) is not exactly a beauty and the ending is a long way from happily-ever-after. Michael Pearce’s debut — where passions explode, fights break out, and the restraints of propriety are chafed at — is much more fantastically indebted to, and radically reworking, the rural, gothic, Romance-era leftover, published in 1847, which storms across the heath and moors of a remote, wild Yorkshire.

The film begins with the sound of wind, then water, as we see the ocean and then a line of hikers going up a hill. (The “wuthering” in “Wuthering Heights,” the name of the stone dwelling where Catherine and Heathcliff grow up, refers to “the atmospheric tumult to which [the house] is exposed in stormy weather.”) On heath-like ground, there is a memorial for the recent victim of a serial killer on Jersey (one of England’s Channel Islands and just 14 miles from the coast of France). But the singing of a church choir creeps in, rising to flow over the images of a field and another outdoor memorial for another victim, then is abruptly ended by the choirmaster, Hilary Huntington (Geraldine James), who picks out her red-haired daughter and says, “Moll, I need more from you.” And so the central

tension, as in Brontë’s novel, is decidedly English: wild nature vs. cultivated civility. Seething with emotional tumult, can one tamp it down to rise above (wuthering + heights) the storm within? (A precise précis of Pearce’s film would sound decidedly English, too: “It’s a story by Saki crossed with a season of Prime Suspect.”)

Moll’s life feels chokingly oppressed, as if she is trapped in Thrushcross Grange, the home of the upstanding, oh-so-proper Lintons in Wuthering Heights. In Beast, the oppression is pungent, there in the primly buttoned-up white outfits of the choir (where song meets worship: thrush + cross), in the trimmed high hedges around the Huntingtons’ suburban house, and in her strict mother’s terse remarks. But, in Moll’s case, is all this oppression being done for her sake, not for her own good but to make her good, to repress that “unruly nature” that Catherine has? (In Thrushcross Grange, we are told, “In the place where she heard Heathcliff termed a ‘vulgar young ruffian,’ and ‘worse than a brute,’ she took care not to act like him.”) Does she have a natural badness — we learn that, when she was 13, she stabbed a girl in school with scissors; she was then home-schooled and watched over by her mother — that her mother is trying to teach and discipline and routinize out of her, so she will change her primal ways for good? (“Moll, I need more from you.”) Or did her family’s oppressive bourgeois-ness, rigidness, and severity cloud Moll’s childhood from the start, spurring her to rebel, to become beastly?

The apparent Heathcliff of Beast, who draws Moll to him and draws her beastly darkness out of her, is Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn). After Moll escapes her birthday party to let herself go in a nightclub, Pascal, out hunting illegally, rescues Ms. Huntington from a man becoming sexually aggressive with her at an abandoned war-bunker near the beach. He even

gives her an old book, Wild Animals and Birds: Their Haunts and Habits (1882), for her birthday. Pascal, like Heathcliff when he is brought home, is sneeringly looked down at by Moll’s family, especially when she invites him in for dinner to rebel against her mother’s authority. But, contrarily to Heathcliff, the wild outsider brought to Wuthering Heights, it emerges — in a conversation at the Huntingtons’ dinner table reminiscent of the concerns in Brontë’s novel with inheritance, rightful ownership, and descent — that Pascal is essentially a native to the island and it is Moll and her family who are the interlopers: “I’m about as local as they come. My ancestors were Norman noblemen. . . . Where are you from? You’re on my land.”

Roaming his land, Pascal does not so much free Moll from her restrictive confines — when she isn’t a stay-at-home carer for her dementia-stricken father, she’s a guide, stuck on a bus, doling out factoids about the island to tourists  —  as offer her a way out. They climb a rock-face (reminiscent of the closer-to-heaven place of Penistone Crags in Wuthering Heights) to look out over the ocean, wind whipping through their hair, and kiss; they swim

naked in the sea; after moving out to live with him, she learns to chop firewood and hunt rabbits. But as suspicion swirls around Pascal that he is the killer, it is Moll’s own anger and violence that the camera lures us back to. In one scene, for instance, storming out through the French windows at a reception at a country club, Moll smashes up a manicured putting-green, with the sound-bridge of crashing waves leading us to a shot of her and Pascal embracing as the surf crashes around them. The anti-heroine’s name only irony-twists and torques this push-and-pull: Moll suggests Moll Flanders, the titular character of Defoe’s novel, who is born to a convict mother and turns to deception and thievery to get by in life, but it also suggests, ironically, a “moll” or gangster’s female companion, as if she is just a sidekick to Pascal, the true criminal. The truth of what Pascal did or didn’t do, though, is never quite settled.

What soon becomes clear, though, is that the counterpart in Beast of Heathcliff, that dark-haired, stormy Byronic hero taken to brutish, brutal extremes (he kills a dog, abuses and likely rapes his wife, forcibly confines women, is obsessed with Catherine, who is essentially his sister [though the tormenting love is mutual], and more), is not the rough-looking, brooding, blond Pascal. It is the red-haired, even more introspective and haunted Moll, fusing Catherine and Heathcliff — “‘I am Heathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but as my own being’” — who is both beastly and civilized, predator and prey, and perpetrator and victim. The scruffiness, dirtiness, and wildness of Pascal is not passed on to Moll (both are lank-haired and slightly unkempt) but re-releases those aspects of her; soon, she threatens to best him in beastliness. At first, it is true, Pascal helps Moll to mess up her too-ordered and too-managed life, a messing-up associated with dirt. Pascal enters the living-room, leaving dirt on the pristine shag carpet, and after Moll has sex with him in the woods, she comes home to sit on the couch, filthy, head lolled back and legs splayed, as if a creature

glorying in her feral-ness; these moments seem a reframing of Catherine’s declaration to Heathcliff,  “‘But you are so dirty!’” after she has returned from the Lintons. Heathcliff replies, “‘I shall be as dirty as I please, and I like to be dirty, and I will be dirty.’” But Moll’s sense of dirtiness is largely internal. For her violence to that girl in school and because she worries, deep down, that Pascal may be the killer, she feels guilt. That is what she feels dirtied and tainted by. She is wracked with fear that she is beastly but also with guilt about having acted so violently and perhaps being complicit in violence still. Catherine is caught between Heathcliff and Edgar Linton, but the romance in Beast serves mostly to further tear Moll apart from within. How can her turmoil be laid to rest?

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff wants to be buried next to Catherine so that, necrophile-like, their ashes can mingle. In Beast, Moll trudges to a dirt-field and the crime-scene there, processed by the police days before, to climb into the shallow grave where a victim was so recently found, so that she can try to feel what it was like to be buried (processing her guilt) and nearly kill herself, stuffing her mouth with dirt in imitation of how the girl was killed (processing her own capacity for violence, but trying to turn it on herself). The victim was suffocated to death and Moll knows, emotionally, what that is like, entombed for so long at home; Moll, distraught, even attends the funeral for the victim and hugs the victim’s horrified mother, only to be confronted in the parking lot by two men, screaming at them, loosing a primal anguish, so that they back off. Torn by empathy and

self-blame, and caught in the snaring loop of victimizer and victim, Moll decides to unleash her badness in a righteous redressing of serial wrongs. But, much as the ghost of Catherine returns to the moors to haunt Heathcliff (and the reader), the film’s final shot, of Moll rising up, haunts us with the sense that this is a beast reborn. Thrillingly and horribly, unlike the final words of Wuthering Heights, at the end of Beast, there is no possible imagining that turbulent emotions can be put to rest or the past can be buried in a “quiet earth.”

Works Cited

Beast. Directed by Michael Pearce, 30 West, 2017.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Edited by Beth Newman, Broadview, 2007.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Citizen Dude

The centrepiece in the Coens’ crime-filled gallery of Midwest/Western-comic-noir- Americana features a White Russian-sipping ex-hippie bowler who enjoys a nice joint now and again (and again) in the presumed privacy of his own bathtub. Throughout The Big Lebowski (1998), the Dude (Jeff Bridges) more or less abides . . . as does his film, living on and on in cult-classic status, from quote-along midnight screenings and fan-filled conventions to re-releases on disc and being subjected to academic study. But this ever-cool slacker movie is (whisper it) actually quite political, with our Hamlet-esque, well, “I won’t say a hee-ro . . . a man” realizing something’s rotten in the state of California and surrounded by models of not-so-good-citizen behaviour.

Before we go too deep—or, as the Dude says to pornographer-mogul Jackie Treehorn, “Yeah, well, right man, there are many facets to this, uh, you know”—let’s point out The Big Lebowski is more anarchic and pluralistic than it may seem. A ’60s acid-flashback on ’90s melting-pot America, its story stews up a succulent mix of genres, outlandish characters, and verbal and visual jokes (including misidentifications, misunderstandings, mis-trickery, and mis-posturing). A Western-style framework voiceover-narration by a mustachioed Stranger (Sam Elliott) and two Freudian dream-like, Busby Berkeley-style musical sequences tumbleweed through a slacker-mystery meets L.A. neon-noir. Parodying and paying homage to The Big Sleep (1946)—a noir with a plot so complicated that the director, screenwriters (one of whom was William Faulkner), and novelist Raymond Chandler himself didn’t know who killed one of the characters (the Sternwoods’ chauffeur)—the anti-establishment Dude’s byzantine investigation for the rich man whose surname he shares proves to be a hoax. It’s a hoax meant to cover up the only (political) crime committed—by the seemingly wealthy Lebowski—which is self-absorbingly capitalist: embezzlement.

But it’s the welcome-back, chummy, apparently non-political vibe—we’re happy to be idling away, just hanging out with the Dude and even his pals, high-strung Walter (John Goodman) and out-of-it Donny (Steve Buscemi)—that’s the big heart of The Big Lebowski’s irresistible charm. Rarely has such a smartly written film (Shakespeare, Herzl, the Talmud, and Lennoin—Vladimir Ilyich, not John—are quoted or misquoted) cared less to please. The Coens’ coarse (one of its famous lines: “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!”; “fuck” and its variations are apparently uttered 260 times) but erudite script (a thug says, “Ever thus to deadbeats, Lebowski,” then pees on his rug) wears its intellect like the Dude samples a carton of half-and-half off the dairy rack before paying for it with a $0.69 check—without an ounce of pretense or self-regard.

That opening scene shows the Dude’s no consumer. This past-his-expiry-date radical’s not buying in but shrugging off: drinking a supermarket item before purchasing it, which he only does by writing a post-dated cheque for

a measly amount (he’s also behind on his rent). After being mistaken for that other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) by thugs who wreak havoc with the Dude’s minimalist interior-decorating (after all, “that rug really tied the room together”), the Dude only gets on the case after he’s cajoled and harangued by his bowling buddy, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak, the most florid petri-sample of a kooky, antagonistic political culture.

Walter’s the right-wing, loudmouthed, oppositional American citizen, talking about “drawing a line in the sand” and spouting xenophobia, from “that camel-fucker in Iraq,” Saddam Hussein, to a “Kraut”. Ever on-edge, he goes off about Jeffrey’s trophy-wife Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), tapping a vein of misogyny likely popped in response to his ex-wife, whose show dog he takes care of and whose Judaism he still follows—or, as the Dude puts it, “your sick Cynthia thing”. (Both the hulking, right-wing veterans here, Walter and the “Big Lebowski”, try to stridently mask, often with vitriol and misogyny, their deep male insecurities and remaining in thrall to their ex-wives—the rich Lebowski’s money is all from his late first wife’s estate, from which his daughter Maude doles out “a reasonable allowance” to him.) Walter’s near-hysterical military-imperial attitudes—he’s eager to enforce

his “rules” by pulling a gun in the lanes—and distorted nostalgia for Vietnam only reveal late 1990 to be a moment when Uncle Sam’s acting the overgrown bully-boy, trying to regain some of his tough-guy self by steamrolling Hussein’s Iraq in the First Gulf War. Might-is-right Walter’s gun-brandishing epitomizes that conflict, with the U.S. suddenly turning its weapons on Iraq to ostensibly enforce the “rules” of international law. But neither Lebowski (Jewish) nor Sobchak (Polish) are “all-American” WASPs. And while one’s checking out or tripping out, the other’s trying too (blow)hard to defend and declare his red-white-and-blue-ness. (Super-patriot Walter was largely based on John Milius, a right-wing aficionado of guns and the military who co-wrote Apocalypse Now, coining “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” and Clear and Present Danger; he also co-wrote and directed the small-town-kids-fight-Commies ’80s movie Red Dawn.) Exasperated by Walter’s half-cocked rants, the Dude rejects Walter’s headstrong, bullying approach: “You fuckin’ asshole! Everything’s a fuckin’ travesty with you, man.” But, along the way, Walter’s inciting of his peacenik friend can addle the Dude’s politics—the left-ish beach bum even parrots President Bush (from an August 5 press conference on TV in the supermarket) when he tells the big-shot Lebowski, “This aggression will not stand, man.”

That other Lebowski (based on Welles’ Charles Foster Kane) is the more respectable right-wing citizen of the era—the Reaganite/Bush Republican;

this white man’s house is so large it has a “west wing”. He hates “bums” as much as Walter hates “amateurs”; obsessed with achievement, this self-important big-guy has his aptly-named lackey Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) show off his trophies (and a picture of him with Nancy Reagan) to the visiting Dude, but he ends up exposed by his left-wing “bum” alter ego—whose mere same-name existence and laidback attitude irritate him—as a hollow, not-so-grand ol’ boy of the GOP. He’s no Big Lebowski but a Big Lie, having married a child-bride out of vanity, hoped for her death, stolen from charity, and tried to dupe a Dude whom he hopes is a dope. The ex-hippie calls this buzzkill a “human paraquat”—the pesticide the U.S. got Mexico to spray on its marijuana in the late ’70s.

Back in that otherworld of the lanes, bowling on, between the Dude on the left and Walter on the right, is Donny (family name Kerabatsos), not so much middle-of-the-road as a few steps behind, lagging but still tagging along. (The Dude can be a Donny-like P.I., stumbling in the dark even as he declares that “new shit has come to light”). Amid all these caricatures and extremes, Donny’s an everyday Johnny ignored, a Citizen Nobody. This usually neglected or told-to-“shut up!” guy gets his own moment when his ball hits nine pins but the tenth wobbles, staying up. Donny looks at it,

disconcerted. Soon after, he, unlike the pin, falls, dying of a heart attack in the trio’s fight with nihilists.

Both those nihilists and the film’s creative-types—feminist installation-artist Maude Lebowski; her video-artist pal Knox Harrington; the Dude’s landlord, Marty, who does interpretive dance—reflect the post-Nixon decades of political disillusionment and disengagement, in America and beyond, where political citizenship or activism becomes confused with and/or replaced by membership in or allegiance to niche-subcultures. And so there’s Maude and Knox’s fake European art-world intellectualism, the Playboy-ish Bunny’s sex-doll act, and even the German techno-music avant-garde (Uli and his nihilist buddies were in the Kraftwerk-like band Autobahn—one of their albums, Nagelbett [Nail Bed], is in Knox’s record

collection). All are selfish in their pursuits: Maude dupes the Dude into inseminating her, Knox is schmoozing up the art-world ladder, the Minnesota-raised Bunny seems to want the SoCal high life, and the nihilists are bent on their fake-kidnap scheme to get the ransom from Bunny’s husband.

While the Dude’s unconcerned with money—he only seems nudged by Walter’s fervour, and perhaps his own mild bemusement, to look into Bunny’s husband—this portrait of mad-manhood, from the Dude as “private dick” to his worries about Uli and his gang cutting off his “Johnson”, sees citizenship’s cost come with sexual transgression. The antichrist-like Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a cocky, pantsuit-wearing arch-nemesis on the lanes, is—so Walter says—“a sex offender” who exposed himself to a child and then, post-release, had to go door-to-door in his neighbourhood to tell people of his conviction. (Yet Walter parrots Jesus’ all-the-more disturbing phrase, “I’m gonna fuck you in the ass,” when trying to scare a boy into confessing he stole the Dude’s car.) At large in his community, Jesus is a social pariah . . . but on the narrow lanes of his fetishized subculture (he lasciviously flicks his tongue at his ball’s holes before throwing), he can still swagger and strut.

The steepest price—albeit accidental—that’s paid for the Dude’s sleuthing is Donny’s life, lost in the parking lot of the alley, beneath its neon stars. On a bluff overlooking the Pacific, Walter’s rambling eulogy includes references to soldiers lost in ’Nam and melodramatically closes with Horatio’s tribute to the fallen Hamlet: “Good night, sweet prince” (Act 5, Scene 2, l. 312). Yet

it’s the Dude who’s the mostly at-ease Hamlet here, a non-anxious, happily indecisive, much less active riff on the Great Dane, not self-questioning or questing much but remaining, ultimately, true to his own droll stroll against the mainstream tide.

With his counter-culture claims—penning the first draft of the Port Huron Statement; being one of the Seattle Seven—the Dude’s politics seem faded, consigned to the photo-album pages of a rebellious past, two musty decades old. (Calling the Malibu police chief a “fuckin’ fascist” after he hit him with his coffee mug seems more of a throwback than a conscientious stand.) But in the present of this film—even though, in a marginalized L.A. (Venice Beach, the Valley, Pasadena), the Dude’s repeatedly used, attacked (including by ferret), pissed on (vicariously, via his rug and increasingly damaged car), and is never the typical “big man” of the title—he abides . . . as the one man, in a polarized America full of poseurs, who’s most comfortable with who he is. This slacker-sleuth takes the piss out of not just Hollywood’s noir detective but its action hero, using humour itself to be anti-establishment. Again and again, he lights up his sarcasm (to the thug beholding his bowling ball: “Obviously, you’re not a golfer”), his irony (a poster of Nixon bowling), and his quick retorts (to the thug dunking him in his toilet as he demands the money: “It’s down there somewhere—let me take another look”). Over and over, this chilled-out dude won’t take anything too seriously or let the man get him down. With its toking, strike-rolling, ambling P.I. closing the case his own easygoing way, The Big Lebowski is casually rebellious in its deflation of the myth of the movie hero, that ego-dick-tical, block-busting, big-screen substitute for the real-world citizen.

Works Cited

Apocalypse Now. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola. United Artists, 1979.

The Big Lebowski. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Ethan and Joel Coen. Gramercy, 1998.

The Big Sleep. Directed by Howard Hawks, Warner Bros., 1946.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. c. 1600. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford UP, 1995, pp. 653-690.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Errol Morris’s Milkshake

When did objects—its and bits, odds and ends—begin to take on reel lives of their own? Not long after film took lives of its own.

After the 1800s—Bainbridge’s setting up shop for the department store, Dickensian Christmases’ good family cheer overtaken by store-bought items waiting under the heavily-decorated tree for eager wrapping-rippers, Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous consumption”, the rise of store-displays and mail-order catalogues—more leisure-time meant not only more shopping-time but more viewing-time. In Dziga Vertov’s city-symphony documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a movie theatre’s seats seem to come alive, perhaps warming up before patrons file in to sit on them; later, thanks to more stop-motion magic, the tripedal camera assembles itself, then

gives a merry little dance, tripping the shutter-light fantastic. But the trip could turn deadly—film was a dangerous object. The image-strips whirring through projectors then were made of nitrate, so inflammable that it could even burn underwater. There were theatre infernos, as on January 1927, in Montreal’s Laurier Palace, when a blaze erupted during a children’s movie and 77 people between the ages of 4 and 18 perished in the smoke and flames. (Bill Morrison’s 2002 found-footage film Decasia is comprised entirely of moldering, blistering nitrate reels whose spectral images often seem to bubble and melt into each other in a delirium of decay.)

After cinema was already turning humans into objects on-screen and early film-strips could, on tragic occasion, turn cinema-goers into inferno victims, objects truly began to take on eerie film-lives of their own after the hellfire and ashes of World War II. That raging cataclysm, its horrors beggaring belief and staggering the imagination, saw the Nazis not only treat Holocaust victims as less-than-human but render Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled down into objects (from Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: “my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine Jew linen”). And perhaps the greatest reason of all for such possession-obsession came with the mind-blowing power of one object to annihilate so many of us all. The atom bomb’s horrific might heralded homo sapiens’ scientific bending of nature to our murderous will. If the “disappointed shells” in Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” have more life than the weary soldiers they just fail to hit, by 1945 only one large, nuclear-energized shell needed to hit the ground to erase life (and raze the earth) for miles around, and on into future generations.

There was a shift in art, then, to an entirely new sensitivity to objects, along with the ironic celebration and reimagining of materialism—Postmodernism. Take this passage from Thomas Pynchon’s paragon of postmodernism, noir mystery-quest The Crying of Lot 49 (1965):

The can [of hair spray] hit the floor, something broke, and with a great outsurge of pressure the stuff commenced atomizing, propelling the can swiftly about the bathroom. . . . The can, hissing malignantly, bounced off the toilet and whizzed by Metzger’s right ear . . . the can continued its high-speed caroming; from the other room came a slow, deep crescendo of naval bombardment, machine-gun, howitzer and small-arms fire, screams and chopped-off prayers of dying infantry. . . . The can knew where it was going, [Oedipa] sensed . . . The can collided with a mirror and bounced away, leaving a silvery, reticulated bloom of glass to hang a second before it all fell jingling into the sink; zoomed over to the enclosed shower, where it crashed into and totally destroyed a panel of frosted glass; thence around the three tile walls, up to the ceiling, past the light, over the two prostrate bodies, amid its own whoosh and the buzzing, distorted uproar from the TV set. She could imagine no end to it; yet presently the can did give up in mid-flight and fall to the floor, about a foot from Oedipa’s nose. She lay watching it.

This zany Exhibit A of the Pynchonesque presages the birth of so many movies where far-too-lively objects become the killers, imbued with sinister self-awareness, “hissing malignantly” towards us . . . and we’re helpless before this suddenly murderous “stuff” in our lives. It’s a mad, bad reminder of just how much objects have taken over, so much so that these things often have more life than the people supposedly in possession of them. And it’s as if we’re projecting our own, often Freudian, fears on the many not-always-so-good goods we buy and own and use—our things biting the hands which purchase them with that ultimate object, money. And so Killdozer! (1974) trundles into terror-town three years after Steven Spielberg’s first feature Duel—amid America’s curious ’70s craze for “good buddy” CB-chatting trucker-culture—has a trailer-truck (driver unseen) targeting a hapless highway driver. There’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), dissolving unsuspecting victims in its acid-goo waterbed-mattress before remaking itself and even snoring. A vacuum cleaner roars suckingly to life in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The TV screen proves evil in Poltergeist (1982). The Lift (1983) drops us into a killer elevator. A killer car’s the star of Stephen King’s Christine (1983). The Stuff (1985) is whipped cream which consumes the consumer, eating away their insides and zombie-fying them. And King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive (1986), featured consumerist pleasures of the land of the free turned into one long buyers’ beware: an insulting ATM, a murderous vending-machine, a child-flattening steamroller,

lawnmowers running amok, chainsaws turned lumberjack-rippers, arcade machines gone berserk, and trucks making humans roadkill.

These days, the newfound power of the computer—turning on us in Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—to connect or disconnect us may have much to do with cinema’s recent object-lessons in inanimate malevolence. Because when objects take on such destructive power, they can reduce humans to mere things; in an object-filled world, we may be stiffly packaging, vacuum-packing, and compartmentalizing our primal emotions more and more (of course, movies especially have been charged with desensitizing assailants and killers to violence). In 2011, a convicted murderer, at his parole hearing in Hamilton, recalled fatally shooting the woman who rejected him seventeen years ago: “I could see what I was doing, but I couldn’t stop. I was so upset. It was like an inanimate object.”

Both that sense of lives as things—or nothing—and the sense of a mere few things—pieces of evidence—determining one man’s death-row fate haunt what may be the only film to free a man from a life-sentence. In Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), David Harris talks of his crime, for which Randall Adams has been wrongly convicted, with that conscience-less sense of impersonality and detachment: “I never really concerned myself with it.” But Morris, in his restrained, artfully classical film—seeming as much a chilly drama, especially with its Philip Glass score, as a documentary—is greatly concerned, and deeply concerns us, with the case. While largely removing himself from the picture—there’s no mention of: Morris as a private investigator; the murder for which David Harris is in prison is a killing he committed on the day he was supposed to meet Morris for an interview; Adams’ release (almost certainly thanks in large part to Morris’ film)—he draws us in more and more. We’re investigating, watching the crime-scene re-creations (based on often conflicting eyewitness testimony), following police-procedure (or lack thereof), and examining not just suspects but tell-tale objects. These significant, perhaps even innocence- or guilt-determining objects are shown in close-up: a map of Dallas, a diagram of Officer Robert

Wood’s bullet-entry wounds, a drawing of the murder weapon, November and December 1976 newspaper articles about the case, a TV guide (related to Adams’ alibi), a police car’s flashing red light, a clock, crushed-out cigarettes in an ashtray, even a spilled milkshake. Because the little details of life suddenly matter: adding up to clues, suggesting ways to track down the killer, comprising evidence which, pieced together, make up a case . . . but are they also red herrings? A license plate turns out to be a false lead after it was wrongly recalled by the murdered officer’s partner, Teresa Turko, the woman who dropped that milkshake; it’s also never resolved, at least in Morris’ film, where she was—in the patrol car or out of it.

In a 2008 essay by Morris in The New York Times, online, elaborating on his film’s construction, he notes:

A crime-scene diagram prepared by investigating officers suggests that Turko was not being entirely truthful. The telling detail was the location of where the milkshake landed: 14 feet from the door of the police cruiser. [Its location suggests that Turko was sitting in the patrol car when her partner was shot, not positioned at the rear of the stopped vehicle, according to procedure.]

Why care about the milkshake? Why does the milkshake matter? Because we assemble our picture of reality from details. We don’t take in reality whole. Our ideas about reality come from bits and pieces of experience. We try to assemble them into something that has a consistent narrative.

. . . I also talked at length to Teresa Turko herself, but was never able to interview her on film. She had been consigned to a desk job, filing documents, and was not particularly anxious to revisit the past. The murder of her partner and the Internal Affairs investigation that followed had destroyed her career.

Turko—never explicitly named in the film—is first seen drinking “the malt” in the second re-creation of the crime-scene; in the third re-creation, when we’re told by a policeman the “speculation was” that she was in the car, not outside, backing up her partner, she’s sitting there and, when the shots are fired, she throws her milkshake out the window. It flies through a black void. Then the Burger King drink hits the ground, the lid

on the paper cup coming off, the liquid oozing and pooling out onto the roadside.  Now the milkshake takes on a weight, an existential force—the thing becomes something more than a thing, standing in for where its drinker was or wasn’t. It also, emotionally, stands in for Turko herself—her guilt, her responsibility, her perspective (otherwise missing from the film). It’s a crucial fact, and factor, and force, in a narrative in flux—shifting a little, re-forming itself in our rearview mirror with each new witness testimony.

In Morris’ masterpiece, which sifts through pieces for a master-narrative—the truth—re-enactments gain weight and importance with every new detail and interview. Real-life documentation—maps, diagrams, Adam’s signed confession, newspaper reports, film listings (Adams and Harris went to a drive-in together), that TV guide—is much more serious and important than the reel-life documentary, for the words taken from Adams “can be used against you in a court of law”. As Morris has said:

I believe there is an objective truth. The Thin Blue Line is the perfect example of that. Someone shot the cop, it’s not up for grabs . . . Now, people may give varying accounts of [that murder] which are self-serving, are self-deceiving, are wrong. That’s part of who we are, and how narratives are constructed, and how people relay events and lie about events, but none of that means that there is no underlying truth or reality to be uncovered. . . . Pursuing the truth is trying to provide answers to difficult questions using evidence through interviews, forensic evidence, etc., etc. It’s a quest, it’s a pursuit, it’s an investigation, a mystery. . . . you should use any tool available to you to try to ferret it out, to try to get at it, to try to uncover it. . . . [Despite not qualifying for the Academy Awards because it was not classified as a non-fiction film,] it was a documentary, and indeed it was concerned with the truth. . . . It was a result of two and a half years of investigating, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without a camera, but investigating. Trying to answer questions. Trying to interview witnesses. Trying to get at the truth, which to me is what this is all about.

But can a truth-seeking film become possessive itself? Once freed, Adams objected to his life being objectified as a story, one of those constructed narratives. He got into a legal battle with Morris over the rights to his story; the director, for his part, remembers that “he became very angry at the fact that he had signed a release giving me rights to his life story. And he felt as though I had stolen something from him. Maybe I had, maybe I just don’t understand what it’s like to be in prison that long, for a crime you hadn’t committed. In a certain sense, the whole crazy deal with the release was fueled by my relationship with his attorney. And it’s a long, complicated story, but I guess when people are involved, there’s always a mess somewhere.” A mess of things; a mess of competing claims; a mess of details.

Documentaries, interviewing or investigating human subjects and no more objective than fiction-films (the only difference is documentaries’ closer relation to real-life events, i.e., things which actually happened), offer us the illusion of navigating, with the guide of a constructed narration tying together objects and evidence and interviews and arguments, mess (often called “life”). A mess of information and data and things and objects. And navigating all those objects so that we can rediscover simple human truths, or even just one—not who did it, but who did it.

Works Cited

Christine. Directed by John Carpenter, Columbia, 1983.

Clairmont, Susan. “‘I just kept on firing . . . It was pure rage.’” The Hamilton Spectator, 21 January 2011,–i-just-kept-on-firing-it-was-pure-rage-/.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Columbia, 1977.

Decasia. Directed by Bill Morrison, Icarus, 2002.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. 1977. Directed by George Barry, Cult Epics, 2003.

Duel. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Universal, 1971.

Killdozer!. Directed by Jerry London, Universal, 1974.

The Lift. Directed by Dick Maas, Sigma, 1973.

Man with a Movie Camera. Directed by Dziga Vertov, VUFKU, 1929.

Maximum Overdrive. Directed by Stephen King, De Laurentiis, 1986.

Morris, Errol. “Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One).” Opinionator (New York Times Blog), 3 April 2008, play-it-again-sam-re-enactments-part-one.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum est.” 1917-18. Poems, Chatto & Windus, 1920.

Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” 1962. Ariel, Faber and Faber, 1965.

Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hooper, MGM, 1982.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. J. B. Lippincott, 1966.

The Stuff. Directed by Larry Cohen, New World, 1985.

The Thin Blue Line. Directed by Errol Morris, Miramax, 1988.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Prisms of Pain

. . . the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

                                         — William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The first twist in Citizen Kane (1941) is also its plot-trigger and greatest inside-joke. It comes with “THE END”—the end of a 9-minute newsreel (“news on the march”), covering the life and times of the titular newspaper magnate, revealed now to have been playing for not only us but others on a screen, the projector’s beams slashing through the darkness. We’re ushered out of this film-within-a-film and into a small screening-room

where a clutch of newsmen talk about what we’ve all just seen: “How about it, Mr. Rawlston?” “How do you like it, boys?” Mr. Rawlston, looking for more of an “angle,” directs reporter Jerry Thompson to “find out about ‘Rosebud’”—to decipher the meaning of Kane’s last word. This sudden inclusion of us, the audience, on the launching-notepad of the film’s investigative-quest and in this film-space within the film—a theatre within our theatre—both seems to expand Citizen Kane’s world and to shrink it, as if enlarging its cinema-scope to include us in our seats while collapsing its structure on itself, calling attention to its own fiction film-ness. But the world of Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane had already collapsed ten minutes earlier.

That was when he died, the snowglobe in his hand falling out to break on the

floor. It’s a stage-scene which seems to reflect the shift of Welles himself from the boards (as co-founder and leader of the Mercury Theatre) to the screen, moving us from a more operatic and theatrical opening amid the Xanadu set to a visually striking, modernist cinema of fragments and layers. In a deep-focus close-up of the snowglobe—this sudden memento mori—its miniature snow-covered log cabin is exposed in the foreground, while in the curved, broken glass are reflected (middle-ground) a nurse, opening the door, and, above her, in the background, the distorted, still form of Kane in his deathbed, an ornate,

latticed window above him. And with that, not just the film’s pane-filled world and its framing device shatter open—drawing us into its inner workings—but Citizen Kane’s ever-shifting, glittering, refracting metaphor is exposed before being laid out for us, again and again, in kaleidoscopic new ways.

Over and over, meta-theatrical stage-effects—as in The Tempest, where Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre metamorphoses, through metaphor, into an all-containing miniature “globe” of a world—are replicated in Welles’ film as little meta-cinematic glass-worlds. It’s as if, with close-ups and zoom-ins and deep-focus, the camera’s crystal-clear lens can lead us back in to scuffed and cracking or buffed and glistening mini-capsules of memory, magnifying them for our contemplation. That intriguing sense of enclosed, secret spaces—petalled layers within layers, like a rosebud—envelops us from the start. A forbidding “NO TRESPASSING” sign is shown outside Kane’s palatial estate, but we gain privileged access, the panning-up camera dissolving from the fence into wire into a gate and then a cage before we’re led into the castle—that keep of a rich recluse’s mind and memory—and that house within a snowglobe held by a dying man, what critic Laura Mulvey calls “[t]he womb . . . within the tomb”. The (in)questing Thompson, trying to raise Kane, leads us back into the past when he enters pane-filled rooms for his interviews. In one enclosed, glass-windowed, exclusive or semi-private

space after another—after-hours nightclub, private library archives, Mr. Bernstein’s high-rise office, retirement-home atrium, Xanadu—we’re caught up in prisms of memory.

Yet Welles’ film is also a Trojan horse—an imperial epic, posing as bio-pic and projected through the ghost-like figure of Kane, about the grandeur, ambition, and poison of the American Dream. But if that Dream isn’t only an objective but an object to be sought out, grasped for . . . well, Welles’ film is about, too, those objects which have an intensely personal association for us and no one else. (Little wonder that, when his second wife Susan—an Oedipal echo of his long-lost mother—leaves him, Kane reacts like a lumbering, overgrown boy, smashing and trashing objects in her room.) In trying to regain his childhood in that log cabin where he lived with his mother in Colorado—his

sled “Rosebud” outside in the snow, waiting to be ridden—Kane’s striving (running newspapers, collecting objets d’art, treating people like pawns) is a constant effort, through his handling of enterprises and things, to regain a paradise sold (the boy was handed over to a banker to be educated in the deal for his mother’s deed to a mine). His American Dream, from before li’l Charlie Kane could realize it, offers an illusion of recapturing the past. If only, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby looking back to Daisy, “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” he could recover his simpler child-self by recovering such dear possessions as his Rosebud (there among the miniature, film set-like city of prop-like objects and collectibles sprawled through Kane’s mansion in the final shot). And, with it, one could, just maybe (but of course not really), hold on tighter to one’s near-tangible memories of a better time; it’s the comforting, insulating illusion of nostalgia. That’s why the most pathetic yet prized possession in Kane’s life, and the film’s world, is the microcosm of his childhood—the snowglobe.

But that snowglobe’s the microcosm of this film-world, too, the world of Citizen Kane. It’s a story of flashbacks, set off by an object—when that snowglobe falls and breaks, it’s as if the globe of the film’s world breaks open, too. (There’s so much shattering: Kane killed his Abel-like younger self, destroying—his first marriage, his friendship with Jedediah, Susan’s psyche—even as he tries to re-create.) And the flakes drifting across the screen as Kane intones, “Rosebud,” presage the cold, distant memories which will soon blizzard the screen as Thompson, trying to wade through the snow of

headlines, pictures, and clips about the tycoon’s death to some revelation about Kane the man, interviews acquaintance after acquaintance, hoping to explain “Rosebud”. The snowglobe’s first shown to us as broken, suggesting that Kane, too, became a broken man, unable to stitch himself back together after being torn away from his mother and his family homestead; those jagged pieces of snowglobe also set up the puzzle structure of the film. We trail Thompson as he travels around the country to try to put shards of the mogul’s friends’ and ex-wife’s and acquaintances’ memories together, to reassemble the whole . . . or at least to explain that final word which bloomed and faded like a flower on Kane’s lips: “Rosebud.”

Again and again, Thompson’s investigation is framed by glass within glass, offering the illusion that he’s delving deeper and deeper, breaking one layer after layer another as he descends into Kane’s unconscious. When he visits a sotted Susan (Dorothy Comingore) in a nightclub-space, “El Rancho,” that’s a pathetic parody of Kane’s childhood ranch, we descend through the glass skylight and soon, in a deep-focus shot, Thompson’s calling in to work, with the waiter standing outside the folding glass door of

the phone booth and Susan just beyond him, yet another glass of memory-blurring, pain-dulling alcohol in her hand.

Curiosity moves us to track Thompson, but, as Welles well knew, the curio of the snowglobe reduces Kane’s life, in a media-saturated world, to a fleeting curiosity, a piquant mystery to be quickly resolved or left behind, tossed aside like a passing fancy (or fanciful past). Kane is reduced by the spotlight to a glinting, kaleidoscopic curio—“what we need is an angle,” says Rawlston. Curiosity about Kane’s past, and curios from his past, also connect him to his soon-to-be-second wife Susan. He’s on his way to a warehouse to look at items gathered from his mother’s home when he runs into her. In a mirror-inversion of Thompson’s unsentimental sail through Kane’s rippling social circles, Kane tells Susan, “Tonight I was going to look at [my mother’s things], you know, a sort of sentimental journey.” And in Susan’s room, by the looking-glass reflection of Susan

talking to Kane (as he, ironically, says, “See that?”), the snowglobe sits on her dressing-table. So, the snowglobe is substitute-mother Susan’s, but refracts such personal moments of his lost childhood and distant home that Kane will clutch it to himself in his final moments, in his last, lonely, grotesque imitation of home—Xanadu, itself a hollow re-creation of the “pleasure-palace” in Coleridge’s poem of wondrous worlds-within-worlds, “Kubla Khan” (1816).

As Mulvey notes, though, the Kubla-like Kane’s collection of objects reveals his fetishized obsession for women especially, a distortion of his thwarted wish to return to his mother. In trying to preserve and monumentalize his past, Kane also tries to make himself larger than life in the present, first through press ownership, then through political ambition. As Mulvey points out, that log cabin in the glass ball is a crystallized image of the country boy breaking through to become President—recalling young Abe Lincoln’s rise to power—although Kane’s political hopes are thwarted, ironically because of his affair with Susan, kindled in that room by shared memories of their mothers. The snowglobe becomes, for a time, a hothouse—the window-filled conservatory where

Kane, during his first marriage to Emily, the niece of a President, breakfasts and seems, in his debonair style and witty talk, a candidate-in-the-making.

Both the political stage, on which we see Kane announcing himself to the throng

even as he denounces his opponent, and the Chicago opera-house stage, where Susan makes her debut, backed and pushed by Kane (looking down on her as, at one point, she trills in French, “Oh, gods, rescue me”), are like containing globes, too, stages-within-stages that magnify Kane’s ego and ambition. These are shifts in scale, mirroring Kane’s shifts: from smiling bachelor to bitter divorcé; from big-idea man to aloof hermit; from gregarious media-magnate to petty, wife-managing recluse; from little boy playing outside a simple Colorado log cabin to old man tottering around a massive, overwrought Florida estate; from a rising parvenu eager to make his mark on the world of newspapers to an aged eccentric retreating into his memories and dwelling on his pain. It’s these telescoping shifts, where a “great man” fails, in so many ways large and small, to recover what he lost as a little boy, which make the pane-filled worlds-within-worlds of Citizen Kane such a profoundly reflective psychological epic in an art-form where light, shining through the glass of that projectionist’s booth and streaming overhead to the screen, offers the grand illusion of casting out the darkness all around us.

Works Cited

Citizen Kane. Directed by Orson Welles, RKO, 1941.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.” 1797. Christabel, Kubla Khan[:] A Vision, and The Pains of Sleep, John Murray, 1816.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.

Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. BFI, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. c. 1610. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford UP, 1995, pp. 1167-89.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Full Metal Freud

No film better shows the programmatic breaking-down and re-assembling of men into weapons—state-sanctioned serial killers—than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). It’s about schizoid masculinity and thus a film of two halves—or, as Joker cracks in one of the script’s self-referential jokes, “the duality of man . . . the Jungian thing”. The first half: marines at boot camp in 1967 build themselves up into a hard corps, all at the expense of one—Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), who can’t take the nagging persecution of him by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and his comrades-in-training. He loses it in the “head” (the toilets), assembling and loading his rifle even as he breaks down, killing Hartman and then himself. The second half: some of these green recruits, in Vietnam in 1968, build what’s left of themselves, after some comrades were picked off by a sniper, into a war-zone’s “fuckin’ hard core” club (they chant the “Mickey Mouse March” at film’s end), one by one at the expense of them all. In the final rite of passage, Private James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) loses it (he’s devirginated as a killer) by shooting in the head the wounded sniper, whom they stand over as if gang-raping her—this fucking hard corps now hard-core fucking.

Becoming one with a hard body of Marines means forging a hard, cruel core, all to leave corpses in this gung-ho gun-gang’s onward-marching wake.

Kubrick had attacked militant American masculinity before, in the midst of the Cold War, soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the zanily and darkly comic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), tough-soldier-ness is fissured with tragi-farcical sexual neuroses on the verge of meltdown and personified by xenophobic, teenageishly sex-obsessed, gung-ho ol’ boys bursting with John Wayne-ish jingoism. The opening-credits sequence sexualizes a military refuelling plane and a bomber, the coupling machines joining the mile-high club to the tune of an airy arrangement of “Try A Little Tenderness”. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), when he’s summoned to the War Room—where President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his advisors await—is interrupted in flagrante delicto with his Playmate-like mistress; she’s “Miss Foreign Affairs,” according to her centrefold, studied hard by Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) in a bomber. From its bay is soon launched the masturbatingly patriotic Kong, whooping and hollering and riding the bronco-like bomb to an orgasmic D-Day. Back in the War Room, crazed and wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), musing on life underground and the need to “breed prodigiously” in a survivors’ colony where the ratio will be “ten females to each male,” stiffly rises, brought to excitedly upright life by this epic explosion’s coital prospects.

And there’s Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who triggered the entire crisis, certain of his tapping-and-sapping theory—struck upon when he found himself feeling post-sex fatigue—that the Commies, tainting American water with this new-fangled fluoridation process (an actual anti-Communist theory in the ’50s), have been slyly emasculating all-American boys for years, causing their “loss of essence.” (He further remarks, with fatuous grandiloquence: “A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual.”) In a Freudian riposte to all this pseudo-sexual tension, Ripper’s shooting a missile the Soviets’ way. As he explains all this to us and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers)—looking at the sex-maniac Ripper as if he’s as mad as a mandrake flower’s said to make one—Ripper’s shot from below, at a sharply low angle, his long, phallic cigar jutting out of his mouth as he fumes away.

In his Vietnam film, though, Kubrick erects a symbol of militarized masculinity far more subtle and devastating. As the latest Lusthog Squad leader—nicknamed, in an echo of John Wayne, “Cowboy”—lies dying, shot by the sniper, and just before his buddies pledge to avenge him by storming the building and killing his killer, a phallic tower can be seen in the distance behind Cowboy; it’s in flames. As they burn up with

anger in this crucible of urban combat, these men’s spiritual cores are being hollowed out, left to crumble away, reduced to rubble and ash. Their masculinity, like that tall, blockish structure in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is monolithic and slowly self-consuming. But is it also anti-filmic?

As if anticipating Lawrence Weschler’s argument in Harper’s, during the (Second) Gulf War, that anti-war cinema may be impossible, since some soldiers and gung-ho viewers will avidly turn war-films into celebrations or even endorsements of war for their own enjoyment, Kubrick’s searing dissection of the Vietnam debacle is deeply skeptical about not just war-films but the camera itself. In his Cold War comedy, he made sure the set-design of the War Room emphasized its mad, and madcap, moments there as a satire of big boys’ perversion of movies into fantasy-projections of warfare and pseudo-sexual conquest. There are projectors and a big scrim-like board on the wall which Turgidson refers to as a great authority: “I mean, he’ll see everything . . . he’ll see the big board!”; “Look at the big board!”. In Full Metal Jacket, Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) extols the Marine training of Charles Whitman, recognized by only one trainee as the UT-Austin tower shooter, and Lee Harvey Oswald, recognized by all present as President Kennedy’s assassin, likely in part because so many frames from the Zapruder film had been published in Life. Joker’s colleague, photographer “Rafterman,” is exhorted by one squad member to shoot him posing happily with the corpse of a North Vietnamese Army enemy soldier—the Lusthogger smiles at the camera and us as he waxes rhapsodic about

“[t]hese . . . great days we’re living!”. And it’s Rafterman who first shoots, in a much different way, the sniper. That’s when gun and camera—tool of war and tool of pornography—are sickeningly linked in a leering, sneering, cocky male gaze. It’s also a self-satisfied, even masturbatory triumph. Earlier, this bunch had been standing around paying one-liner tributes to two slain comrades, one of them “Hand Job” (the camera, looking up from the men’s posthumous viewpoints, emphasizes Rafterman’s phallic-like

camera lens, eyeing it from nearly the same low-angle at which cigar-loving Ripper was shot). In the climax, this ring of killers, shot again at a low-angle, as if looking up from the dying sniper’s viewpoint, exhorts Joker to give a deathly hand(gun)-job to a woman even as they whoop it up, offering jokey, self-congratulatory comments. In this brutally gyno-centric reduction of Darwinian survival, it’s a fuck-or-be-fucked man’s world.

As Kubrick and his crew film this all for us, though, how different, Kubrick makes us wonder, are they from the film-crew we see interviewing the Lusthog Squad individually in Hué City or crouched down near the front lines and recording the squad hunkered down and ready for action? Joker declares, “Is that you, John Wayne?” Cowboy cries, “This is ‘Vietnam: The Movie’!” Others, playing themselves up for the lens, joke about role-playing. (In a blackly ironic in-joke about what’s passed down to the next generation, Kubrick cast his own daughter, Vivian, as the news-camera operator

filming a mass grave.) And this is two decades before soldiers’ souvenir-style photos of Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse reminded us, yet again, that soldiers can use not only guns but cameras to distance themselves from and even excuse their action-adventures when they go well beyond training and break with Geneva Conventions.

But what happens when a real-life and real-death showdown blurs into action-entertainment? José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s documentary Bus 174 (2002) looks back on the life of Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, climaxing in his fatal hostage-taking of a bus in Rio de Janeiro in June 2000. (He was asphyxiated to death in police custody, in a car speeding away from the scene; the hostage he’d had with him as he left the bus was fatally shot by an officer.) Reporters rushed to cover the incident and it was soon broadcast on most of Brazil’s TV channels—a standoff turned into a reality-show. Of this street kid, in and out of jails, long near-invisible yet a survivor of the infamous Candelária massacre (eight street children were killed one night by a group of men, including police officers), one interviewee remarks, “I think that seeing all those cameras made him feel powerful.” Yet the cameras are shooting Sandro and the police—snipers all around—are waiting to; when there’s talk of a “clear shot,” we see it in a clear camera shot. The cameras take precedence, for the police, we learn, were told not to do anything to embarrass the city—an estimated 35-million Brazilians were watching. And in this show of a showdown, Sandro tries to be the director, encouraging hostages to scream and look desperate—perhaps wanting them to look and feel as desperate as he did—even while insisting on unmediated reality at times, declaring, “This is no fuckin’ action movie!”

For Kubrick, too, war films were no mere action movies, the gunning-down of bad guys to be enjoyed vicariously as it’s projected up there as epic entertainment. But, to paraphrase an earlier auteur, the camera’s the thing that tempers the conscience of the king-like viewer. Many soldiers, war aficionados, and others, irony-proof, still cheer on the Lusthog Squad’s exploits and quote their fighting words, as if these anti-heroes are objects of emulation, even celebration; many live-TV viewers of the Bus 174 hostage-taking, according to a poll, wanted Sandro dead. The very awareness of a conflict’s movie-ness, it seems, makes some shrug off morality more easily . . . and it’s much the same desensitization to violent death that many real-life soldiers must assume, masking their empathetic natures—what art, like cinema, is supposedly so good at developing. Yet when it mattered most, in those villages denoted on maps of Vietnam as “My Lai” and “My Khe” on March 16, 1968, or outside the Candelária church on July 23, 1993, or in a street in the Jardim Botânico neighbourhood on June 12, 2000, any compassion burnt up and smoked away, like ignited celluloid . . . or as if from the barrel of a gun.

Works Cited

Bus 174. Directed by José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, New Yorker/Zazen, 2002.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Columbia, 1964.

Full Metal Jacket. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros., 1987.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968.

Weschler, Lawrence. “Valkyries Over Iraq: The Trouble with War Movies.” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 311, no. 1866, November 2005, pp. 65-77.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Of Bambini and Dogmen

It is Italy’s duty to battle for change, not to descend into the most boorish nativism.

                  — journalist Roberto Saviano

You see, the truth is that Italians naturally go for the strongman.

                                                           — novelist Andrea Camilleri

One of the most recent times that I was in Italy—visiting my uncle-in-law in a small town in the Dolomites—my partner and I came across a man, his grandson sitting on his lap. The kid, just a ragazzino, was laughing away as he steered a giant tractor—a diesel-powered, big-wheeled farm-machine, not a toy—up and down a road. He was just three or four years old.

From tractorboy to Dogman, then. The creature of the title of Matteo Garrone’s 2018 film is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a lanky, sunken-eyed, Roman-nosed, seemingly dopey dog-groomer in Castel Volturno, north of Naples, who doles out coke on the sly, including to one thug rabid for it, bruising thief Simone (Edoardo Pesce). (The film is loosely based on a late-1980s true-crime story, which was far more brutal.)

A small-scale sibling to Garrone’s adaptation of the true-crime epic Gomorrah (based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s book) released a decade before, Dogman rules by triumvirate. First (as the area’s disused one-track kids’ coaster and gone-to-seed playground suggest), Dogman utterly deglamourizes the crime-drama, as if that genre is nothing but a pathetic, broken-down thrill-ride. Second, with its crumbling waterside-neighbourhood slipping into a muddled, Stygian darkness, the film scathingly anti-tourguides us through a tawdry, failed nation-state. Third, in what Marcello’s concerns with loyalty, camaraderie, and respect lead him to do, it searingly vivisects Italian male culture. And it’s this last, most social and inter-personal, element of Garrone’s work that’s perhaps least understood, or most underappreciated, by an audience abroad.

Anthony Lane, in his review for The New Yorker, notes that Marcello and Simone “make an odd couple. In any litter, Marcello would be the runt: long-snouted and toothy, he grins nervously upward at Simone, who is three times his size and, I’d guess, built from reinforced concrete. (During a fracas in a workshop, full of molded plaster casts, Simone slams someone into Oliver Hardy—a painted statue, with blood now dripping over its mustachioed face. It’s O.K., we get the message.) Does the little man simply fear the larger one, or is there a twitch of love between them, all the more fraught for being unexpressed?”

Certainly, there’s an odd-couple tragicomedy to many scenes with Marcello and Simone, but Marcello looks less like Stan Laurel and most like a near-hangdog mix of Buster Keaton, Rowan Atkinson, and Al Pacino, his face working awful wonders. And so the jaws of this fateful crime-opera clamp down and hold fast . . . until there’s just a dog, and a man, lost even to himself.

Considering the title, the comic, canine odd-couple that Marcello and Simone most closely resemble is Chester the Terrier and Spike the Bulldog. In the two Warner Bros. cartoons—“Tree for Two” (1952) and “Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide” (1954)—featuring the small-and-big dog-duo, the pair are looking for a cat (Sylvester) to beat up. (In both, after eager, tagalong Chester encourages the scowling Spike to beat up their common enemy, switcheroos, hi-jinks, or Hyde-like transformations ensue, Spike’s whupped instead, and li’l Chester ends up feeling smugly superior).

The Chester and Spike ’toons are about a recognizably general male relationship—little pal looking up to and aspiring to be like the big fella (a kind of reversal of the George-and-Lennie friendship in Of Mice and Men, played with in many Warner Bros. cartoons, starting with “Of Fox and Hounds” [1940])—and, more obliquely, about a boy-man relationship forged by urged-on, whipped-up violence as a spectacle to be admired and emulated. Such Chester-and-Spike-ness means reasserting top-dog status through physical conquest or intimidation of another male, as happens over and over in Garrone’s film with the glowering, looming, growling Simone, dogging and hounding Marcello to do his bidding. And Dogman is most of all a grotesque re-telling—even more incongruous than letting a pre-kindergarten child steer a super-sized tractor—of the patrilineal learning of machismo in a crime-and-graft-ridden, Berlusconi-era Italy. The relatively diminutive, son-like Marcello is forced to work for the boss-like, father-like Simone. Marcello is forced to be maschio—a word that can mean not just a “boy dog” or “the male of the species” but also “macho, virile, manly”. Dogman is, above all else, a film about the horrible cartoonishness, or cartoon-horror, of the unbearable pressure to be the tough alpha male of the species, the salariato (bread-winner) and the one with the coglioni (balls) and the one who won’t incasina (balls-up) things . . .

And so Lane’s reading of the film’s finale, and its setting, is only halfway there. “The skin of Castel Volturno has been peeled and scraped,” he writes, “as if the very buildings were diseased, and the final shot—of a playground in the broad square, facing the sea—is a bleak rejoinder to the beach scene that closes ‘8 ½’ (1963). Fellini lightens the mood with strolling players and circus tunes, but the slide and the swings, in ‘Dogman,’ are noiseless and bereft of kids.” But the playground doesn’t end there—the whole derelict area, often shot in the bruise-like colour of a greyish blue-green, is a space

for these seemingly dominant males of the species to play-act and ride out a self-destructive, fateful, brutish, and short-lived toughness. And it’s not bereft of kids—Marcello, this pathetic-tragic child, forced to follow Simone and in the end only able to wreak his revenge in a way that’s so imitative of Simone’s infantile sadism, is left there, standing, trying to reckon with himself and what he has done and what he has become . . . so far from manhood, there in this fallen paradise. What is most diseased is the machismo culture of an Italy that’s been, for far too long, ruled over by fascist-like child-men. It’s a patriarchal self-destruction that the country hasn’t tried hard enough to reckon with. And so Garrone’s Dogman is, ultimately, not just devastatingly feminist. It is also viciously, snarlingly critical of, well, not what Italy—its long-ago Roman Empire mythically founded by twins raised by a wolf—has become but what it has, for too long, been: a place going to the dogs.

Works Cited

Dogman. Directed by Matteo Garrone, Rai, 2018.

“Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide.” Directed by Friz Freleng, Warner Bros., 1954.

Lane, Anthony. “Ties That Bind.” The New Yorker, vol. 95, no. 9, 22 April 2019, pp. 76-77. Online at

Saviano, Roberto. “Italy’s war on migrants makes me fear for my country’s future.” The Guardian, 19 June 2018,

Tondo, Lorenzo. “‘Italians go for the strongman’: Montalbano author on fascism and the future.’” The Guardian, 5 April 2019,

“Tree for Two.” Directed by Friz Freleng, Warner Bros., 1952.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

Tramping The Light Fantastic

[The Tramp:] “You can see now?”

[The Flower Girl:] “Yes, I can see now.”

— the end of City Lights (1931)

Genius filmmakers—and Chaplin’s the sprite-like spirit presiding over all—rarely, if ever, let the stitching show on their film-finery. The “Chip” and “Street Crossing” outtakes from the Great Director’s City Lights and Modern Times—uncovered by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow and first shown in their documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983)—are so alluring because these scrap pieces left on the floor of the maestro comedy-designer’s workshop seem to promise a glimpse of an opus-in-progress, the feel of a scuffed Chaplin. Only the excised scenes aren’t toss-away gags but mini-masterpieces, offering existential contemplations of one’s (in)significance in a teeming city, posing questions of social conformity, and building microcosms of narrative-film’s power—its alertness to human relations and observation of reserved emotions. They’re scintillating mini-object lessons in Chaplin’s vision for cinema itself, and they’re still so startlingly modern, even 21st-century, in their signs and screen-sense.

The seven-minute City Lights outtake—a June 1929 page of story notes calls it the “Chip” scene—begins with a hustling, bustling city intersection, aswarm with people and cars. Then a corner of sidewalk, fronted by a shop-window on both sides. Through these two panes of glass, we espy the Tramp, shuffling along amid much more spiffily-garbed pedestrians who have places to go, places to be, homes to live in. The Tramp comes into view—comes to life, really—from behind a mannequin. There are three in the window, all better dressed (echoing the finished film’s scene where the Tramp attempts an appreciation of the statue of a female nude in a store-window). He rounds the corner and, dawdling there on a grate, attempts to look the semi-respectable aspiring gentleman, not out of place, but he’s a

little too self-conscious, too alert to being the outsider. And he can’t stay still, reminding us that homelessness isn’t laziness and indigence isn’t indolence. He’s always in motion, always up to something, always working away.

A single shoe in the display-window emphasizes the Tramp’s sole-ness, but it seems to (subliminal advertising?) subconsciously prompt him, now, to try to casually examine his own shoes. His footwear’s a bit ragged, as usual, his waistcoat’s slightly unkempt, as always, his pants too baggy, as ever . . . and then he spots a long chip of wood stuck in the grate. (The Tramp sees more of what’s below him than above—he’s a social climber yet fated, it seems, to gaze down at the gutter rather than up at the stars.) The piece of wood is, like him, stuck in the city, jammed in, yet standing out. The Tramp prods it with his cane, popping it up, then he steps on it, but it flips back down. The Tramp comes to again, suddenly aware that he may be stared at by members of the madding crowd—though we, as ever, look on, expectant—and briefly whistles, as if he’s up to nothing of note. (This “nothing to see here” attitude only prods us to look on, intrigued, in-the-know voyeurs of comedy-in-motion.)

The Tramp, though, slyly reflecting our own growing interest in this scene, becomes fixated on the piece of wood. Much like our relation to that big screen up there from our little seats down here, it’s a strangely private preoccupation in a semi-public place. He can’t let it go; he forgets how he may look. The Tramp, unlike Chaplin (or perhaps just like him when the director’s caught up in a long, arduous film-shoot), loses sight of his public. He slams his cane into the wood, sometimes missing it, stomps his foot on it, but still the piece won’t be dislodged (its stubbornness, steadfastness, and stuck-in-the-cracks-ness are most Tramp-like). A man stops to look on—he’s come across not just one urban curiosity but two: the piece of wood and its aspiring dislodger. (In trying to remove it, the Tramp’s acting like those many cops and other authority-figures booting him out or moving him on—eager to get this nuisance out of their way.)

A crowd quickly gathers ’round; this mannequin-like figure of genteel-

looking poverty that everyone had been walking past is now the one on display. He notices them, gives a casual whistle, doffs his cap as if they’ve pried into his private street affairs, and they all, a little abashed, return to their daily rounds. (It’s tempting to see this push-pull with a throng of admirers as a metaphor for Chaplin’s feelings, at times, about fame; he was the second global celebrity after fellow showman Harry Houdini.) Then a delivery-boy (anticipating the paper-boy at the corner who shoots peas at the Tramp in the final scene), verging on manhood but slack-jawed, dazed (comically contradicting the “express” on his cap), unobservant of social

niceties, happens by and just stands there, staring at the Tramp, spitting seeds from his munched orange in his general direction. The Tramp, miffed, tries to rise above and ignore this invader of his patch of sidewalk, but a big-bite squirt of citrus in his eye proves too much to bear. With all the dignity muster-able, he goes a few paces around the window-corner. But when the boy stamps a little on the piece of wood, the Tramp, feeling proprietary, returns, shooing this interloper away. (And, again, there’s his hapless, tic-like return to the wanna-be respectable—doffing his hat with his ragged gloves and brushing off his lapels as the delivery-boy departs.)

When two women arrive to look at the store display, things get really risqué. The older, stouter one’s standing over the piece of wood, now sticking straight up, phallic-like. This seems, well, unseemly to the Tramp; guttersnipe-gentleman that he is, he leans in behind her, moves his leg between her skirt, blowing slightly above the grate (23 years later, Marilyn Monroe’s skirt would billow up oh-so-sexily in The Seven-Year Itch, though Chaplin may have been riffing on that scene’s inspiration, the 1901 short “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City”). He pushes the prominent piece down with his foot but she felt his presence; she’s appalled. She walks off in a huff. The Tramp continues to work on the wood—not deigning to wrest it out by hand, of course, as that would be beneath him, especially in public—but now a window-dresser, attending to the mannequins (treating them better than the flesh-and-blood Tramp is treated in the world beyond the window), stares from in there at this creature out here. He advises him to just push the wood-piece down, sending it into the sewers, out of sight (as some would like the Tramp and his ilk to be done with?). But the Tramp can’t hear him through the thick pane (their social-spheres are so tantalizingly separate, so close yet so far apart). Yelling at him through the glass now, the window-dresser condescendingly explains the physics of the dilemma to the uneducated Tramp, telling him to hit the piece of wood dead-centre, so it falls. Passersby, drawn to the sound-show (though the scene’s silent; that reel-life world and our real-life world are so close yet so far apart), gather ’round again, becoming onlookers, allied with us, the audience, once more. And it’s the window-dresser who gets most poked-fun-of by the crowd, as he becomes so incensed at the Tramp that, turning back to his work, he mistakes a shop assistant for the mannequin and sticks a pin in her by accident. The throng of onlookers, now so large and spilling-off-the-sidewalks that it’s a problem for traffic, draws a policeman. Yet again, the law comes down on the Tramp. Under the impatient, watchful eye of the state, that ultimate power, he finally manages to send the piece of wood

plummeting into obscurity; the cop tells him to move along now; he does, still as basically cheerful as ever. Then the cop tells everyone gathered—us included—that the show’s over. But the beauty of this cutting-room sample lingers. It resplendently clothes its concerns about special-ness, outsider-ness, fitting-in, and purposefulness in a film-like fascination with looking on as this figure of fun contends with an urban oddity.

The Modern Times snippet’s another exhibit of Chaplin’s full-fashioned genius; it comically confronts us, too, its eyebrows quizzically raised, with questions about social-obedience even as it plays archly self-aware games with comic-language. It’s another city corner, people milling about everywhere, but crosswalk-signs (are meant to) establish an order, their railway arm-like signals popping out and up to direct pedestrians to stop or go. But the Tramp can’t read this urban-language (he’s illiterate, as were around 5% of Americans over the age of 14 in 1936; nearly a quarter of black Americans couldn’t read or write). Besides, this sidewalk-trotting black sheep’s never been good at taking direction (the demanding director Chaplin must have been aware of this irony). So he crosses against the

current, stepping blithely across the intersection, nearly hit by two cars before reaching the other side, where he finds himself told by a cop to go back and do it all again, properly. (The store sign on the other side, echoing the “Chip” outtake and reminding us of this oft-solitary man’s tramping-about, reads “solo shoes”).

The most important (mis)reading here isn’t the Tramp’s misreading of signs and their timing but our reading of the comic signs and timing of Chaplin’s scene. We read, in short but clockwork-like order, the body-language of: the cop’s thumbing-it thatta way, buddy, to which the Tramp thumbs but I’m

going this way; the cop’s seizing of the Tramp by the collar, turning him around, with the Tramp dutifully trotting out into traffic, only to get yanked back by the officer, pointing at the sign that’s only now about to change to go; the Tramp’s proper crossing-over and then attempted crossing-back, stymied by rude, shoving urbanites out-passing-by him; the Tramp’s now successful crossing-back, because he’s gone during the stop sign; the exasperated cop’s overruling of the signs when he steps out into traffic himself, halting it by hand, then forces this hapless fellow back onto the far curb; the cop’s calling-over from the other side now and the Tramp’s

befuddled, unsure stepping-out and stepping-back (like a child dipping his toe into water, unsure if he wants to go in), ’til he doffs his cap ever-so politely and says I’ll just go down along the sidewalk this way, thanks very much. And so the Tramp, after another walk-in with the law, trusts it that little bit less. The city’s social order isn’t quite restored, to our delight (in comedy as anarchy).

Both outtakes are strikingly modern and self-aware in their sense of urban man on display, with signs and screens and cameras not only guiding or watching us but able, perhaps, to channel and direct our emotions. And Chaplin’s comedy-masterpieces are such works of genius precisely because they’re self-aware and yet so humble. The outtakes from Chaplin’s two greatest works are even of a piece with the short film that birthed cinema’s single greatest character.

Chaplin’s third film, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914), was the Tramp’s debut. He actually came up with the wandering, jobless, hungry but wanna-be-gentleman persona—the narrow mustache beneath that small bowler hat; the too-tight coat and baggy trousers; the scuffed, oversized shoes; the thin whangee cane—for his second Keystone picture with director Henry Lehrman and Irish-Canadian producer Mack Sennett. (It was shot first but released two days after “Kid Auto Races”.)

Now, we can watch the six-minute short—shot January 10, then edited, its negative sent from LA on January 17 and received in NYC on January 26—via YouTube on just a phone, almost anywhere. But the Tramp’s public debut is all about that strange, amazing, even befuddling newness of watching on-the-fly and off-the-cuff, of pointing a camera at real life and recording it for all to see.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice” is a docu-comedy, essentially about the ideal-of-cinema itself—turning life into art. It was an “event” film, shot on location and quickly—45 minutes one Saturday afternoon at a boys’ soapbox-cart race, the Junior Vanderbilt Cup. The basics of the child-like Tramp are sketched out before our eyes, from his hat-tipping, back-kick, and tumbles to his obtuseness and meddling. Only here he’s disrupting a film shoot, a process he sneers at, even grimaces at in the final shot. He’s a reel-life rebel against the very art form that would make the man in costume a superstar.

As a spectator, when the Tramp first emerges from the crowd, he seems intrigued by the camera. The camera, meanwhile, seems intrigued by people and its own power to document them, taking in the crowd, filming the cars, and trying to avoid this increasingly annoying fellow who keeps finding his way into the shot. The Tramp variously poses or shows off for, mocks, or sticks his nose up at this powerful new medium . . . which, 91 years later, would help usher in not merely YouTube but a new way of mediating the world and “connecting,” i.e., screen culture.

The director, Lehrman himself, as if trying to deal with an unruly actor, gets into the frame to get into the farcical fray, interrupting his film to get the Tramp out of it—but Chaplin/the Tramp’s already stolen the show, and will for a generation. (Frank D. Williams plays the cameraman; it’s thought everyone else isn’t acting but is truly caught up in Chaplin’s act.) A second camera’s even used, showing the Tramp just standing around before the film crew. Amid all the playfulness, “Kid Auto Races at Venice” is one of the first films to really show a camera and a cameraman at work, simultaneously demystifying and remystifying the act of capturing play-acting on reels of celluloid.

All this metacinematic comedy comes second, of course, to the basic antics and physical comedy of slapstick, that choreography of disruption which Chaplin perfected, turning layered, subtextual gags into bittersweet projections of the class struggle, hunger pains, and labour woes of his tramping American Dreamer. Chaplin himself toiled for the art of it—for instance, he spent more than 21 months on City Lights, demanding 300 takes for its famous last shot, climaxing the greatest ending in cinema. That shot caps a sequence that begins, yes, with a shop window. The Flower Girl, her sight restored, has moved up in the world and is on the inside now, in a flower shop—her very own. In a twist of fate, she recognizes the Tramp, her benefactor, just released from jail, by touch. The look, the feel; from eye-contact to heart-wrench. It’s as if Chaplin, celluloid’s Shakespeare, is turning the world not into a stage but a film; the left-wing filmmaker, who—like the Dickens, another Charles, before him—never forget his poor, hungry childhood in London, distills the art down to its ideal essence. Through not merely looking but truly seeing can come, just maybe, emotion, compassion, an abiding love and respect for others. From seeing what’s on the screen to feeling beyond it; from director’s vision to the viewer’s understanding. “You can see now?” “Yes, I can see now.”

Works Cited

City Lights. Directed by Charlie Chaplin, United Artists, 1931.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice.” Directed by Henry Lehrman, Keystone, 1914.

Modern Times. Directed by Charlie Chaplin, United Artists, 1936.

Unknown Chaplin. Directed by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, FremantleMedia, 1983.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.

The Importance of Being Awful

“‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked.”

— John 18:38

The silent era’s most commercially-successful release pioneered the American epic film and crucially developed the establishing shot, the close-up, the panoramic view, the flashback, and intercutting. It also featured blackface, championed the Ku Klux Klan, and had a white Southern maiden leap from a cliff to her death to escape the Negro Union soldier relentlessly pursuing her. In D. W. Griffith’s 195-minute The Birth of a Nation (1915)—adapting Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman (1905)—black Americans rig an election and black politicians are shown in the state legislature plopping their bare feet up onto the desks as they drink whisky and eat fried chicken; the movie’s hero founds the KKK after his Eureka!-moment of seeing white

children don white sheets to scare black children.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People strenuously fought the movie’s release, to no avail. In Indiana, a white man came out of a showing and shot dead a Negro teenager; the re-launched KKK made its first public appearance outside the movie’s Atlanta premiere (the group would have around 3 million members at its peak, a decade later); the Klan was still using The Birth of a Nation as a recruitment-tool in the 1970s. As critic Xan Brooks notes, “the movie is rancid . . . [it] is cinema’s toxic tide-pool, its corrupted semen. It is the original sin that sired a century of dreams.”

Twenty years after Griffith’s infamous work came another that would be studied in university classrooms and outside them, by such directors as George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson. It would influence the Rockefeller-for-President TV ads and the medal ceremony capping Star Wars. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) celebrates the 1934 Congress of the National Socialist Workers’ Party, held in early September in Nuremberg. After an astounding aerial opening, tracking the plane of party-leader Adolf Hitler, this supposed documentary (actually financed to the hilt by the party, with many scenes staged for the cameras) touches down and tank-trundles along, relentless and remorseless. From Nazi flags to Nazi torchlight-ceremonies, from Nazi officials’ bombastic speeches to Hitler’s bombastic speechifying, from the adoring faithful lining Nuremberg’s streets and greeting Hitler to stadiums and churches filled with Nazi acolytes . . . it is a constant bombardment, an onward jackboot-march, an incessant pulpit-pounding, meant to awe or cow us into submission as it proclaims, over and over, that glorious Hitler and Germany are one and the same, and that the party’s will shall triumph. (A year later, at the 1935 Congress, the anti-Jewish “Nuremberg laws” were introduced.) 

Cinema has more than its share of stinkers, even those that should sink overrated directors (She Hate Me in the case of Spike Lee, Savages in the case of Oliver Stone, and the discredit-list rolls on). But what about cinematic creatures both great and small—movies that are important and vile? What does it mean that two—two too many—seriously important, influential, popular, and populace-rousing movies are so odious? Can The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will and their ilk be both (bad) art, in technique, and (obvious) propaganda, in content? Brooks argues, from the safe distance of a socially-progressive century later, that, if “we accept that art can also challenge and provoke us, does it not follow that it can disturb and outrage us – and possibly even repel us?” But NAACP co-founder and author W. E. B. Du Bois argued at the time, as Dorian Lynskey writes, that Griffith’s work was “a public menace . . . not art, but vicious propaganda”. Surely, at least, in our more edified times, nothing the like of Griffith’s and Riefenstahl’s offences has been released to any acclaim or success, nothing to cast a dark light on the unbearable awfulness of certain movies’ being?

In 2004, though it was rife with subtitles for the Aramaic and Latin dialogue, one longtime A-list actor’s production became the all-time top-grossing independent movie—financed by the co-writer and director himself—and was the third-most commercially successful release that year, raking in $612-million worldwide. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stays closest to the Book of John in tone and content—from Judas’ kiss and Jesus’ healing of Malchus the soldier to King Herod and Jesus’ dialogue—and it’s John (Hristo Jirkov) who follows Christ (James Caviezel) in his final hours, accompanying his mother and Mary Magdalene as they watch the prophet’s torture and death. (The movie spans a time that takes up not even two chapters in any of the gospels.)

John’s is the only account to state that “Jewish officials” arrested Jesus. It pins the crux of the blame on those Jews crowing for Christ’s death: “The Jews insisted, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God’” (19:7); “Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be king opposes Caesar’” (19:12). In his movie, Gibson (also the co-writer of the screenplay) has the crowd cry, “We have no King except Caesar,” then snicker. And while there’s no explicit mention of those agitating for Christ’s death as “Jews”, an early slo-mo shot focusses on a sneering high priest throwing a bag of money to Judas in return for his betrayal of Christ, while the priests and other elders, though seemingly disturbed by Christ’s whipping and beating, persist in calls for his crucifixion and exhort their unthinking followers to demand the same. Crucially, Gibson’s movie

associates the Jewish priests with money (only disparagingly; they do not take the money that Judas throws back at them but, in Mark, the priests do and say, “‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners” (27:6-7)). It shows Jews demanding Christ’s death—one of the Jewish leaders mocks Christ while he’s on the cross. And Gibson includes Christ’s words to Pilate (John 19:11), implicating the Jewish high priest Caiaphas—the rendering here is “‘it is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin.’” After the first hour of showing the Jews’ blood libel, the only mention of “Jew”, when Simon of Cyrene—helping Christ bear his cross only after telling lookers-on that he isn’t a condemned criminal himself—is derisively called one by a Roman soldier, seems a clear sop to politically-sensitive critics.

As propaganda—a channeled, controlled, myopic interpretation of events meant to sway an audience into believing a certain “truth”—The Passion of the Christ runs counter to the Bible, which subjectifies and complicates truth by offering four versions of Christ’s life and death in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Gibson’s version of Christ’s betrayal and suffering is explicit, unthoughtful, and bloodily declaiming one fixed “truth”: Jews feared, reviled, and condemned Jesus, who then suffered horrifically. Two years after the movie’s release, when pulled over for speeding in Malibu, Gibson declared to one of the police officers, “Fucking Jews . . . The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world . . . Are you a Jew?”.

While The Passion of the Christ was controversial on its release, with some groups and academics criticizing its anti-Semitism (and the movie depicts Herod as a roly-poly, mincing, wigged orgiast), it was such a colossal money-maker by Easter, even in some of the Middle East countries where it wasn’t banned, that Hollywood moguls were talking about “faith-based” films as the next great wave. For those roadside comments in July 2006, though, Gibson was exiled to Tinseltown’s wilderness. And yet his directorial comeback, a decade later, was stamped by the same propaganda-template as his religious screed, generated no controversy, received some critical praise, and even garnered six Academy Award nominations (winning two), including one for Best Picture.

In Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Gibson again follows a braveheart-warrior passion-play formula. Again, guts and gore glorify a saintly, self-sacrificing hero, only this time “Japs” are vilified. The nailing of Christ, dislocated arm and all, to his cross was shown in all its frieze-frame, nauseating, gory glory; the World War II movie’s first half is rife with tableaux and slo-mo, meant to engrave in our visual cortexes Desmond Doss’ (Andrew Garfield) seriousness of moral purpose and latent heroism. He has a quasi-revelation about pacifism; he glimpses his higher purpose as a medic and first beholds his true love, a nurse, at the same time; this Seventh-Day Adventist endures Christ-like trials and tribulations at boot camp, climaxing in a court-martial (where he’s saved by his father, arriving deus ex machina).

The Biblical epic offered slo-mo shots of Christ flagellated 32 times by switches and then his flesh ripped by barbed whips; the camera lingers over the criss-crosses seared onto his body and the crimson spray and pools of scarlet ribboned on the ground around the post which Jesus has gripped while brutalized; Gibson recreates

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John’s bloody version of the post-crucifixion Christ, with a fearful Roman soldier piercing the dead man’s side with a spear to release a pseudo-baptismal fount of blood and water. It’s martyr-porn, where Christ’s so exsanguinated that even his eyes are bloodshot. The war epic offers a hellish assault, during the Battle of Okinawa, riddled with brutality—shot-through faces, intestines hanging out, body parts flying—and intended

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to shock and awe and ultimately consecrate Doss’ bravery. The Japanese swarm up from underground like rats or advance like a demonic horde. Some later wave the white flag, but it’s a ruse (those “Nips” don’t fight fair, boys!); one’s shown strangely committing harakiri and getting decapitated by a subordinate (they won’t

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even die like us, boys!). Meanwhile,Doss has saved dozens of wounded (and one Japanese) on his own, lowering them to safety—it’s “a miracle” and all those heretical recruits who spurned him become comrades beholding him now with reverence. A sunlit baptized-by-battle image is soon followed by a shot of Doss on a stretcher that makes it seem as if he’s ascending to Heaven. Thus, beatified and blessed by the camera, Doss is another holier-than-thou hero in another of Gibson’s violence-as-a-means-to-salvation big-screen sermons.

But each and every one of these four vile movies is wedded to a narrative of suffering and salvation (“20 years after the war, 16 years after the German suffering, 19 months after the rebirth . . .”). In Griffith’s and Riefenstahl’s films, too, the (Klan and Nazi) warrior-hero’s righteousness is consecrated by fire, blood, and embattled toughness. All are preoccupied with descent and ascent: the South’s humiliation and the rise of uppity Negroes vs. the triumphant resurgence of the South thanks to the KKK; the descent of God-like Hitler on Nuremberg to make the annunciation of Germany’s glorious rise; Christ’s betrayal and suffering for all of us fallen sinners before he ascends to his father’s kingdom; Doss’ rise from distrusted soldier to hallowed comrade and battlefield-hero.

Yet these four entries in the Movie Hall of Infamy don’t stand alone. The sheer bigotry of these works can be seen in other barnstorming blockbusters, albeit to a lesser degree: James Cameron’s True Lies, with its cartoon-villain Arabs and dismal sexism; the class-fantasy, epic mush of Titanic; jingoistic Uncle Sam ads like Top Gun or Pearl Harbor. So why don’t these marquee movies’ laziness, offensiveness, even hatefulness, condemn them to Never-Never-Watch Land?

Perhaps there’s something about the visual-concreteness of film images that makes it easier to set stereotypes in stone, as if etching commanding figures into a tablet. “It’s like writing history with lightning,” said President Woodrow Wilson of Griffith’s epic after a special White House screening in February 1915. Riefenstahl’s fascism-glorification offers many a recurring, graven image, from standards and swastikas to a sun-lit eagle and its own title in steel-like letters. Gibson’s dogmatic duology offers pre-formed archetypes, each character epitomizing an emotion or reaction (the Jewish high priests embody anger, Judas personifies guilt, Barabbas is a Manson-like psycho, Mary exudes maternal grief, Christ is beatific, Doss remains quietly persistent, the Japanese are villainous Others, etc.).

Griffith’s movie set the template for big-screen mythic propaganda propelled by stock storylines and cardboard-cutout heroes; that easy appeal abides, apparently. But it may also be that the self-conscious importance—read: grandeur and epic-ness—of many of these movies is itself a big part of the problem. It’s as if the graveness and greatness of the movie’s subject-turned-mission should be respected, stamping what’s on screen with respectability. (Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations and the recent spate of comic-book movies have only made for even more self-serious mythologizing in cineplexes in these days of epic blockbustering and blustering.)

There’s also a common misunderstanding about what makes a film offensive or disgusting. Horror flicks or scenes of extreme violence, for instance, are often seen as offensive, disgusting, even controversial. But a movie’s ideology isn’t considered as violent or offensive or even, usually, worthy of much post-viewing discussion or debate. Despite auteur-theory and film studies trying to re-view subtext and much cinema as art, Hollywood’s longstanding showtime-promotion of movies as mere entertainment persists, making it easier for studio-products to mask their messages and for audiences to take images at face-value (even expressing more concerns about casting than content), not dig the depths for meaning. The greater illusion of personalized choice, nowadays via Netflix and other streaming services, only adds to a sense of what-I-want rather than a concern with what-they’re-saying.

And, of course, the monolithic ideology looming over all mainstream-moviemaking is capitalism—no industry tracks its profits more quickly, with the opening weekend now all-important for major studio releases. With all the film-trade markets, trailers, tie-ins, on-screen product placements, spin-offs, brand-building, or franchise-extensions bombarding our viewer-demographic eyes and pounding our consumer ears, the bottom-line between craft and crafty propaganda (aka advertising) has been blurred so much, it sometimes seems like a strange, secular miracle that we can even see through to the art of it anymore.

Works Cited

The Birth of a Nation. Directed by D. W. Griffith, Epoch, 1915.

Brooks, Xan. “The Birth of a Nation: A Gripping Masterpiece … and a Stain on History.” The Guardian, 29 July 2013,

Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel Gibson, Summit, 2016.

Lynskey, Dorian. “‘A Public Menace’: How the Fight to Ban The Birth of a Nation Shaped the Nascent Civil Rights Movement.” Slate, 31 Mar. 2015,

The Passion of the Christ. Directed by Mel Gibson, Icon, 2004.

Triumph of the Will. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Universum Film AG, 1935.

The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.