Philosophical Screens: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1971)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I gave about A Clockwork Orange at the British Film Institute on Tuesday 16 April 2019. The talk was the latest in the Philosophical Screens series.

On this occasion my fellow speakers were Lucy Bolton of Queen Mary, University of London, and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Where my thoughts as written here were shaped by the thoughts offered by my co-speakers at the BFI, I shall try to offer up credit.

In short, I suggested that A Clockwork Orange is a film about control, and as such it remains relevant to our world today.

For, at the centre of Kubrick’s film is the so-called Ludovico technique that chief protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) undergoes after being arrested for murder. The Ludovico technique consists of Alex’s eyes being forced open and then kept moist by the administration of eye-drops as he is shown a prolonged series of films featuring what Alex would refer to as ultraviolence, including what in the film are supposed to be documentary images of groups of ‘droogs’ committing rape and murder, as well as genuine documentary images – both of Nazi gatherings during World War 2 (which we see – including footage from Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935), and of concentration camp atrocities (which we do not see, but which Alex describes).

I shall return to the role played by these documentary images in what is otherwise a fiction film at a later point in time. But for the time being, the important thing to explain is that these images are so horrific to Alex that they, in conjunction with a drug that is injected into him, induce a disgust response, such that he begins to gag whenever he sees or even thinks about doing some of the violent and/or sexual acts that otherwise give him so much pleasure.

It is not that we are forced to watch horrific deeds on cinema screens in the contemporary age. Nonetheless, the idea that we cannot but watch moving images is relevant when we begin to consider the proliferation of screens in the contemporary world, and from which moving images and sounds emanate – perhaps especially ones that are advertisements specifically or advertisarial more generally.

(What I mean by ‘advertisarial’ is that these images may not sell specific products to us, but they sell to us lifestyles, as well as being designed for us to stare at them, i.e. they sell themselves.)

This advertisarial logic of contemporary screen culture is of course capitalist in nature, while its would-be permanence also relates to the development of what has been termed 24:7 culture, or the ends of sleep. That is, permanent illumination and screen culture lead to us always being awake, always being online, always being connected… such that metaphorically our eyes are always open as buzzes and flashes wake us up in the night and stop us from sleeping, our eyes always forced open by the machines of cinema.

We might think that there is a key difference between the world that I am describing (24:7 connection and the ends of sleep) and that of A Clockwork Orange. For, in the latter, Alex watches these images in order not to commit violent acts, while in our world, we are encouraged always to look at these images – in order to undergo our own Ludovico technique.

Except that as the Ludovico technique is introduced in order to control the behaviour of an otherwise unruly Alex, so is 24:7 culture and the ends of sleep designed to control the behaviour of citizens in today’s world. For, it interpellates them permanently into capitalist culture.

More than this, while Alex watches images of violence, what the contemporary ‘Ludovico technique’ of permanent screen culture involves is violence done to us, those who experience it.

Furthermore, what we ultimately learn is not that Alex is violent in spite of the world of control that the Ludovico technique reveals, but that his violence is the logical extension of that world. And that violence is the logic of our world of permanent illumination – violence to the world, violence to us, violence to each other. The cinematic ethos of our times reveals not just violence in cinema (torture porn, etc, to which we shall return later). But violence as cinema/cinema as violence.

If this notion of control in A Clockwork Orange needed further evidence, then the film’s very title offers us a clue. For, Anthony Burgess, upon whose novel the film is based, gave his book the title A Clockwork Orange for a couple of interlinked reasons. The first is his interest in the phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange,’ which suggests the way in which humans often do not fit into the roles that society tries to impose upon them. And the second is his sense of intrigue at how orang in Malaya (where Burgess was based for a time) means ‘human’ (as per orang-utan, which means ‘human of the forest’).

In other words, ‘a clockwork orang’ is a clockwork human – a human rendered predictable and controlled, as their eyes are glued wide shut by the permanent onslaught of lights, images and sounds that prevent them from seeing their own subjugation to systems of control.

In the term ‘clockwork’ we also have an initial sense of how violence is the logical consequence of, rather than the exception to, a society of control. For by reducing the human to set actions and reactions, time is rendered not a measure of change and becoming, but a measure of repetition, with repetition being a measure of controlled bodies doing repetitive actions (‘work’) for the purposes of capital. Clock-work humans are humans that work; humans that are subject to the time of capital rather than their own time.

Let us further this argument about violence taking place not in spite of the control society, but rather as its logical extension.

‘I would not be controlled,’ sing Alex and various other inmates in a chapel service at HMP Wandsworth before the former undergoes the Ludovico – suggesting that prison and religion both are ways of bringing ‘sheep back into the fold.’

But more specifically, once he does undergo the Ludovico, Alex complains about how he ‘began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glazzies,’ he continues, ‘and even if I tried to move my glazballs about I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture.’

In using the Russian term glaz to refer to his eyes, Alex also brings to mind how Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov referred to his cinematic project as a kino-glaz, or a cine-eye, in which cinema would create a new media-determined perception of reality.

That is, cinema is part of (a tool for) a system of discipline and indoctrination, or what I am here terming (in reference to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze) a society of control.

But cinema is already controlling Alex even before he undergoes the Ludovico technique. As much is made clear when we understand that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is Alex’s own ultraviolence theme tune (with that song also taking place in the 1952 American film of the same name at a moment when Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, is a bit unruly towards a police officer).

In addition, we are offered flashes into Alex’s fantasies as he dreams of ultraviolence at home – and during these moments Alex sees himself as a cinematic Nosferatu figure.

In other words, cinema has inspired Alex’s violent fantasies. Cinema will not cure him of violence. Violence is the logic of cinema.

What is key, however, is that Stanley Kubrick seems to be aware of this – as is made clear by various of the formal choices that he makes in the film.

As successively we hear Gioachino Rossini’s ‘La gazza ladra/Thieving Magpie’ and the overture from William Tell during scenes of violence, A Clockwork Orange takes on dimensions of not being about realism but rather being about choreography. The film becomes balletic as bodies fly through the air, as bodies move in slow motion, or as bodies (during a ménage-à-trois that Alex has with two women he picks up at a record store) move in fast motion.

Furthermore, the colour scheme of A Clockwork Orange also shifts the film away from realism and into a highly stylised realm that equally suggests self-consciousness/falsity. Indeed, the film opens with a red and then a blue colour card, while upon being beaten in police custody, Alex seems not to bleed blood so much as red.

Indeed, the very whiteness of A Clockwork Orange (various interiors, walls, props, milk, characters) would seem to fit its vision of a society of control. For, in presenting a primarily white world, the film would suggest a world without diversity and difference, but one of homogeneity/sameness.

(There are five black bodies in A Clockwork Orange; one in the Korova Moloko bar that Alex and his ‘droog’ friends attend, and four in Wandsworth prison. It is a white world that we see; violence is necessary to remove colour from the world and to make it and its values primarily white.)

Finally, when we see Alex and his droogs driving at speed down a country lane after stealing a Durango-95, A Clockwork Orange so clearly involves rear projection that again the film wants to highlight its own falsity.

This is not to mention the regularly stylised performances, which take on comic book dimensions through their grotesqueness and exaggerated nature.

So the question becomes: why does Kubrick adopt such a ‘comic book’ aesthetic – especially when he is dealing with such difficult topics as violence and sexual violence?

My suggestion would be that Kubrick adopts a deliberately false aesthetic in order to implicate his viewer into the film, to create a sense of self-consciousness about our act of film viewing (rather than the film viewer hiding unobserved in a darkened room). This implication is deliberately revealed to us on numerous occasions.

When Alex is being held in custody prior to his conviction, his parole officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) leans forward to speak to Alex, who is on the floor after taking a beating: ‘You are now a murderer, little Alex. A murderer, yes.’

These words are accompanied by a point of view shot, whereby Deltoid talks directly to us, just as Alex regularly addresses the audience, referring to them (in deliberately gendered terms?) as his ‘brothers.’

What is more, Kubrick regularly uses a 9.8mm lens on his camera, which creates a kind of fish-eye perspective that in turn seems stylised/false. This was a technique developed in conjunction with cinematographer John Alcott – and notably when Alex is first checked into hospital where he will undergo the Ludovico treatment, he is greeted by a Dr Alcott (Barrie Cookson).

In other words, it is as if Kubrick and Alcott were consciously suggesting that their film is a kind of Ludovico treatment.

However, theirs is not a Ludovico treatment achieved through the realism of the images, as per what Alex experiences within the film. Theirs is, rather, an anti-Ludovico treatment that is achieved through revealing the falsity of its images.

‘It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,’ says Alex in voiceover when undergoing the Ludovico. And because this is the case, so Kubrick does not show us ‘the colours of the real world’ – so that we do not mistake what we see as reality.

And yet, this creates another seeming contradiction. For if in the film it is documentary images that stop Alex from becoming violent, it seems to be Kubrick’s hope that fiction images will have that effect – that his self-consciously false images might highlight to us the violence of our world. In other words, unlike Alex’s view of the documentary images, Kubrick’s images are not supposed to be taken as real at all.

Here we can return to the use of documentary footage that I mentioned earlier. For, where Alex initially enjoys what he sees, it is the documentary footage of Nazi Germany that begins to change his mind about violence.

And yet, in our real world (as opposed to in the fictional world of A Clockwork Orange), it is the work of people like Riefenstahl, i.e. it is documentary images, together with fiction films that try to pass themselves off as realistic, that help to mobilise nations into committing atrocities as per the Holocaust.

Oddly, when we do see the documentary images interpolated into A Clockwork Orange, their status as images of the real world (as opposed to images of the diegetic fictional world) does help them to bring home (at least for me) the true horror of the Second World War.

Furthermore, Kubrick does not show us the concentration camp footage that Alex describes – not least because it would be unethical to do so (using the suffering of others for political purposes, which is exactly what Nazi propaganda was doing itself).

But what is important here is that it is in its very invisibility – the fact that it cannot be seen – that the Holocaust becomes unbearably real.

That is, it is in not seeing the footage of it that we are sickened by the violence of history.

We might say that Kubrick does not believe in the Ludovico technique, therefore, or else he might show us that footage in order to prevent humans from ever committing such atrocities again.

However, Kubrick specifically uses fake images in order, I shall suggest, to disgust his viewers, rather than using images of the real world. Kubrick uses the comic book style that I have described not in order to show us the real world, but to show us a nightmare version of it.

Put differently, if the Ludovico technique, and cinema more generally, breeds violence, then Kubrick must try to expose this process. He does not use the Ludovico technique so much as try to suggest that it is at work on all of us.

But how can one expose this process without repeating this process?

Just as Alex was really already just carrying out the violent deeds inspired by cinema, so is he co-opted by the film’s end into the seemingly totalitatarian state that is being created in the film’s dystopian UK. Furthermore, Alex’s two droogs, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), end up being cops. Violence is not only encouraged but also useful for the state in order to control its population.

As Ludovico inventor Dr Brodsky (Carl Duering) explains:

the drug will cause the subject to experience a death-like paralysis together with deep feelings of terror and helplessness. One of our earlier test subjects described it as being like death, a sense of stifling and drowning, and it is during this period we have found the subject will make his most rewarding associations between his catastrophic experience and environment and the violence he sees.

Perhaps the drug is cinema itself. And Kubrick wants to wake us from our deathly eyes-open slumber (including by making reference to his own films as Alex passes a copy of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK/USA, 1968, in the afore-mentioned record store) rather than have us continue somnambulating through the world .

And yet, while Kubrick seems deliberately to adopt comic book techniques in order to shake us out of our deathly slumber, Clockwork Orange arguably fails in this attempt.

For, perhaps A Clockwork Orange historically achieved (and continues to achieve?) the opposite – namely the creation of a new generation of state-endorsed violence.

Burgess’ story was inspired by the rape of his wife by four American deserters in 1944. Meanwhile, Kubrick famously withdrew his film from cinemas after real-world crimes were reported as being influenced by the film.

In this way, the film did the opposite of what it seemed to set out to achieve.

Furthermore, Kubrick perhaps was already aware of this possibility, even before he had it withdrawn from British cinemas in 1973 – as also signalled at various points in the film.

For example, when Alex and his droogs attack writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri), Alex at first cuts holes in the latter’s costume such that her breasts are exposed.

In 1964, performance artist Yoko Ono created Cut Piece, in which visitors to her exhibition were invited to interact with her as she sat on stage dressed in a suit and with a pair of scissors before her. Some visitors eventually removed her clothes in a fashion similar to Alex here.

The moment in A Clockwork Orange is not just a reference to Cut Piece, which functions as an attempt, perhaps, to critique men’s treatment of women in the patriarchal system of discipline and control.

Rather, it is a comment on how work that is designed to be critical of the values of white, patriarchal society becomes co-opted perversely by the very society that it critiques: Alex re-enacts Cut Piece precisely to rape Mrs Alexander, just as Ono tried to get visitors to reflect upon their own propensity for (sexual and gendered) violence.

This process of critique going wrong is even made clear within the film when in the house of a fitness instructor referred to as the Catlady (Miriam Karlin), we see on her wall a painting of a woman with her own breast revealed by a hole in her dress: the painting echoes Alex’s crime but suggests that art becomes violence when in the hands of someone like him.

Indeed, Alex murders the Catlady with a white ceramic penis sculpture – literally turning art into tools for white, male violence.

And perhaps most tellingly, Burgess wrote his novel using ‘Nadsat,’ the language that Alex uses and which basically involves a liberal sprinkling of Russian words (like the afore-mentioned ‘glazzies’) into the English that people otherwise speak here.

In other words, Burgess was perhaps aware about how the language of revolution and the creation of a new world that would live outside of the strictures of capital (the USSR) inevitably becomes co-opted itself into yet more, and more strict, systems of control.

Not only do we see this logic of co-option going on within the film, but perhaps it has also taken place through and around the film.

Not only do we live in a world where Nadsat sounds uncannily like the faux Dickensian patter of someone like celebrity shagger Russell Brand, but we also live in a world of the afore-mentioned torture porn and cruel violence appearing regularly on our screens, which is not to mention the circulation of atrocity videos online (even if taken down soon after being put up).

Notably, in the lobby of Alex’s run-down apartment block, the phrase ‘suck it and see’ has also been graffitied on to a faux classical mural, on to which numerous cocks have also been drawn. Of course, and to evoke the title of another film currently in theatres, ‘suck ’em and see’ was soon co-opted into the language of advertising for Fishermen’s Friends (as John Ó Maoilearca reminded us during the BFI event), as well as being the title of an album by the Arctic Monkeys. Capital takes all oppositional protests and turns then into new markets.

At the BFI event, Lucy Bolton contended that A Clockwork Orange is still shocking, in particular in terms of the treatment that women receive in the film. I agree with her, and think that Kubrick also struggles with replicating violence towards women rather than offering a comment on or critique of it in this film.

But if I also suggested during our discussion of the film that shocking images have become normal within the context of our contemporary sleepless society, it is not that they do not shock us anymore – but that shock itself becomes normal, as we experience shock after shock after shock, such that shock becomes the norm and we accept right-wing politics because we have no energy left to fight against it.

Is cinema not also part, therefore, of the ‘shock doctrine‘? (This reminds me of a very old blog post I once wrote.) In this way, cinema plays its role in establishing the logic of violence in contemporary society.

We are never entirely certain as to why the Ludovico technique fails and Alex retrieves his excitement in relation to sex and violence.

In part this may be a result of the shock experienced after a failed suicide attempt (he jumps from the window of Frank Alexander’s house after a second chance encounter with him).

But it may also be because of Ludwig Van Beethoven. For, during his Ludovico sessions, Alex complains bitterly that Beethoven is used as the score for the films that he sees. (‘He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music.’)

Brodsky speculates that this might help with the treatment, but it also reveals that a certain amount of contingency is at work here; Alex is not controlled by the Ludovico technique, which wears off – and perhaps it does so because of Beethoven, whose music ultimately prevents it from working rather than helping it, thanks to its previous pleasurable association with ultraviolence.

Sound is thus key to A Clockwork Orange, which features some amazing use of Foleyed footsteps and the violent sound in Alexander’s house of a glass bottle clanking on a glass table.

But one sound that features regularly in the film and which I should like to highlight is the sound of belching. It is with an analysis of belching that I should like to draw this blog post to a close.

Eugenie Brinkema has written about eructions in philosophy and cinema, charting in particular how the hiccups and belches of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium perhaps chart how the body always rebels against attempts to control it, and that such gurgles and belches are meaningless in the face of philosophy’s attempts to chart and/or to create meaning.

More than this, the belch also functions as a challenge to the perceived hierarchy that knowledge is primarily a visual phenemenon (Brinkema establishes this hierarchy through an analysis of the work of Sigmund Freud). There are other, ‘lower’ ways of engaging with the world – and cinema uses them, even though we tend to think of it as a visual medium.

Not only does A Clockwork Orange sound, then, but perhaps it also tastes and smells, and what it tastes and smells might be a bit disgusting (dis-gust = ‘bad taste’) – and deliberately so, as made clear by the emphasis on belching, eating, open mouths and porous bodies that seep, and Alex who revels in ooze.

Indeed, when Alex is beaten while in custody, he positively smiles when spat upon by Detective Constable Tom (Steven Berkoff), while it is also here that he burps in the latter’s face.

In addition to this belch, the inmates also burp and fart during the afore-mentioned service in the prison.

Finally, Alex also belches and retches when exposed to the desire to commit acts of violence, including sex, after the Ludovico treatment.

Where belching was oppositional to power (belching at Tom, belching at the prison chaplain, played by Godfrey Quigley), now it has become an expression of subjugation to power. This in turn suggests again that perhaps the belch always was part of the society of consumerism and consumption. That it, like violence, is the logical expression of the contemporary world, and not really oppositional at all.

Nonetheless, Kubrick does, as mentioned, seem once again to be determined to show us this world in all of its disgustingness – even as his film is highly stylised and comic-like.

‘Shut your filthy hole, you scum!’ screams the Chief Guard (Michael Bates) while Alex is in Wandsworth.

And yet, this is precisely what Alex does not do, with his mouth remaining agape at the film’s end as he is fed hospital food by a government minister (Anthony Sharp).

Note that Alex gets fed a lot during the film, while his anger is most carefully aroused – and conveyed – after returning home from prison, by the sound of toast munching by Joe, played by Clive Francis, who has moved into his room.

In that same scene, Alex’s father (Philip Stone) gawps at Alex with his mouth almost permanently open, while the Chief Guard’s own ‘filthy hole’ also often remains wide open, especially when staring at a woman (Virginia Wetherell) trying to tempt Alex into arousal during a demonstration of the success of the Ludovico technique.

That is, humans belch, drop their jaws, and generally are imperfect. We eat and consume, including consuming cinema (we ‘binge’ on movies, with edit also being the third person singular for eating in Latin)… perhaps to the point of being sated, or beyond such a point, to the extent that we feel nauseous and vomit. Perhaps that is the point of satire: over-consumption to the point of gaseous and/or liquid eruction.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is defined as a character who celebrates ‘contagious breath,’ while also being interested in food and wine (‘With drinking healths to my niece: I’ll drink to / her as long as there is a passage in my throat’).

A bawd, then, Belch is the opposite of the relatively effete Orsino, who famously pines that ‘if music be the food of love, play on.’

Rather than being the food of romantic love, though, music in A Clockwork Orange is for Alex – and for us viewers – the food of violence. Furthermore, food provokes belching, and so belching is almost certainly the music of food, and perhaps even the true music of love (a love that is, like an open mouth, agape?).

If belching be the music of ultraviolence and the ‘old in out,’ then Alex will play on. And the ‘in out’ extends beyond sex and sexual violence, and into the language of the institutions that the film portrays: ‘What’s it going to be then? Is it going to be in and out of institutions like this?’ asks the prison chaplain (emphasis added).

Not only are institutions thus ways to discipline the body to be violent, and to desire violence especially towards women, but so might cinema – as Kubrick, with Alcott, tries potentially to establish by having his camera so regularly itself zoom and/or track in and out (the three opening scenes all start with an outward zoom, with the camera thus performing the ‘in and out,’ as if the film, too, were in some senses violating us).

‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it,’ declares Brodsky’s colleague, Dr Branom (Madge Ryan).

Perhaps Kubrick wants us to feel in our bodies a sense of disgust, a bad taste, as we are reminded that the control of our bodies is perhaps a denial of our bodies, and that we must celebrate our body’s unruliness, we must feel our bodies rebel against us and feel unpleasant, rather than be programmed via taking pleasure in cinematic violence into the ways of violent society.

If A Clockwork Orange tries to show the mechanisms at work in the establishment of a white, patriarchal and violent society, then perhaps the film’s black humour, twinned quite deliberately with disgusting violence, can be or become a belch, making it a belch of a film that through its own imperfections reminds us of our own imperfections, suggesting directly that we are Alex’s brothers and that we are the murderers as we are interpellated into its male-dominated society.

Conceivably this message is lost, not least as audiences often recall only the first half of the film with its ultraviolence – as one audience member also pointed out at the BFI. Or perhaps we simply now live in an era of shamelessness as opposed to being ashamed at sensing our own propensity for violence.

But I think that there is evidence that Kubrick is trying (and perhaps inevitably failing) to do something more critical than replicating a society of ultraviolence – perhaps even implicating Burgess himself in this failure as the director changes Alex’s name from Alexander DeLarge (which he announces upon arrival in prison) to Alexander Burgess (as the press call him when he becomes a political pawn as a result of the suffering he has undergone during the Ludovico treatment).

If not a glorious, maybe A Clockwork Orange is nonetheless an ignominious failure. But in failing, it reminds us all too much that humans burp, and that the orang perhaps cannot be clockwork.

Maybe the film’s shocks are dated and outmoded since they have become doctrine.

But Kubrick tries to get us to think about this world – to get us not just to gawp unthinkingly at violence ourselves, but to consume it to the point of belching, choking, perhaps even vomiting.

As a testament to this positive spin on the film, I wagered at the BFI event that c100 people attended the Philosophical Screens discussion in the BFI’s Green Room, which sits directly under Waterloo Bridge. Such strong attendance would suggest that plenty of cinema goers want not just unthinkingly to consume cinema, but also to turn it into a philosophical experience – and one that includes not just abstracted thought, but thinking through the body.

And where the Green Room normally hums with the vibrations of traffic passing overhead, on 16 April 2019 it was virtually silent as traffic was suspended thanks to the Extinction Rebellion protests and protestors not 10 feet above us.

In a world of shocks and violence, peaceful and thoughtful protest, much like thoughtfulness itself (a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love), might yet prove to be transformative forces.

Philosophical Screens: Professione: Reporter/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France, 1975)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Italian Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Spanish film, Uncategorized

This is a written version of sorts of the analysis that I gave on 17 January 2019 after a screening of The Passenger, a film featuring as part of the British Film Institute‘s Michelangelo Antonioni season, and which analysis was part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series.

The discussion involved contributions from John Ó Maoilearca from Kingston University, and Lucy Bolton from Queen Mary, University of London, as well as from many audience members.

I shall try to stick only to what I said, even if this means foregoing some of the wonderful comments and ideas expressed by those other participants, including a brief if fruitful discussion of the relationship between the philosopher John Locke and the film’s lead character, David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

For, if the former represents something like a dualistic world view, then the latter comes to represent something of a progression away from that, not least as Locke leaves behind his identity as Locke and assumes the identity of David Robertson.

For, The Passenger tells the story of a journalist, Locke, who encounters Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) at a tiny hotel in a small town in an anonymous African country, where they get drunk – in spite of the doctor’s advice for the latter not to.

After a relatively fruitless day of looking for rebels whom he can include in his documentary, and after getting his Land Rover stuck in the desert, Locke returns home to find Robertson dead – apparently from a heart attack.

Seizing his opportunity (not least because he looks a bit like Robertson and the locals will not be able to tell them apart), Locke assumes Robertson’s identity and says that it is Locke who has died.

Former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) and estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) mourn Locke back in London, where the latter goes to pick up some stuff from his home and to check out Robertson’s world.

Indeed, before going to his Notting Hill home, Locke visits the Brunswick Centre, where he passes a girl (Maria Schneider) whom he will again encounter in Barcelona.

But Locke will not get to Barcelona before using Robertson’s ticket to head to Munich, where he discovers that Robertson was/is an arms dealer, and who was/is involved in supplying arms to the rebels in the nameless African country where the opening sequences of The Passenger took place (and which generally are thought to be based on Chad, about which more later).

As implied above, this is the first of several scheduled encounters between Robertson and the rebels, who are led by a man called Achebe (Ambroise Bia). However, after Achebe is abducted by presidential agents in Barcelona, that meeting does not take place.

Nor do the subsequent meetings that Robertson was supposed to have – at least according to the schedule in Robertson’s diary – in a (fictional) place called San Ferdinando and then at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna.

For, and here are some SPOILERS, after discovering that Robertson was with Locke the night before the latter supposedly died, Knight and Rachel both decide to try to track Robertson down.

As a result, when Knight nearly discovers in Barcelona that Robertson is in fact Locke, Locke has to go on the run – and where better to go than to the meetings that Robertson had scheduled, not least because they have led to him receiving a substantial sum of money from the African rebels?

What is more, Locke does this with the girl from the Brunswick Centre, who by seeming coincidence also happens to be in Barcelona when he is – supposedly looking at architecture as part of her studies.

Indeed, it is at what appears to be Antoni Gaudí’s Palau Guëll that Locke encounters the girl for the first time in Barcelona, before then catching up with her again at La Pedrera after spotting Knight on the Ramblas near his hotel.

Locke has chased the girl down to ask her to get his stuff from the hotel. This she does, and after the girl has evaded Knight, the pair travel on south towards Osuna via San Ferdinando.

Hearing that Robertson is being evasive, a curious Rachel also goes to Spain – but not after visiting the embassy of the African country in which Locke and Robertson were both working.

Knowing that Robertson is a gun runner for the rebels, the ambassador has his men follow Rachel, which ultimately results in the government forces finding Locke at the Hotel de la Gloria, where they assassinate him before Rachel can arrive with the local police.

Faced with Locke’s body, Rachel says that she does not know this man, while the girl identifies him as Robertson – and the film closes.

But beyond this synopsis of the film, what is also crucial is the film’s style, which I hope to explore in more detail in what follows – not least by picking up on numerous details that Antonioni features in his mise-en-scène.

My basic suggestion is that – however problematically – Locke has a primordial encounter in Africa, and this means that he can no longer remain who he was, in particular a dispassionate image-maker and reporter who is not directly with, but who rather observes the world. As Knight says of him in a televised discussion of Locke’s work: he had ‘a kind of detachment.’

The reason why this encounter is problematic is because it runs the risk of mythologising Africa, a mythologisation that might be as much my invention as I read it as being Antonioni’s.

That said, I hope that the evidence I present will suggest that this is at least as much Antonioni’s as it is my invention, while at the same time not necessarily being wholly unjust from a political perspective.

Twice in the film, Locke is asked whether he finds the landscape beautiful – once towards the start of the movie when Robertson asks him about the desert landscape by the small-town hotel, and once towards the end of the movie when Locke’s hire car has broken down and he looks at the desert landscape with the girl.

Notably, Locke’s answer changes in the interim between these two questions. For, the first time that he is asked, Locke shows little interest, suggesting that he prefers men to landscapes, to which Robertson replies: ‘There are men who live in the desert.’

The second time, meanwhile, the girl asks Locke whether he finds the landscape beautiful, to which Locke responds: ‘Yes, it’s very beautiful.’

In other words, Locke’s attitude towards the landscape has changed. What has happened?

Well, for one thing, anyone who has lived in, or even visited, a desert knows that sand gets everywhere (indeed, as I suggested at the BFI, Locke’s stuff is remarkably clean when it is returned to Rachel by the ambassador).

That is, the sand of the desert demonstrates that humans are incapable of controlling the space in which they live. For, try as they might to keep things like sand and dirt out, it always creeps in.

Now, architecture plays a prominent part in The Passenger, as the prominence of spaces like the Brunswick Centre and the Gaudí buildings makes clear.

Architecture is thus in some senses an attempt by humans to control space – to create a space that is free from the ravages of the desert, and of nature more generally.

Certainly, the London architecture of the Brunswick Centre would suggest this… while in Africa and in Spain, The Passenger is full of what I would call ‘porous’ architecture.

I call it porous architecture because repeatedly we see open windows and doors, and/or we see through open windows and doors, which themselves suggest not a shutting off of the outside, but a continuity between inside and outside (or, thinking of the reference to the philosopher Locke above, not a duality but a singularity of space).

Furthermore, in Africa in particular we see people wander into and out of frame from strange angles – appearing where we thought there might previously be nothing, as if the frame of the film is itself porous, and open to unexpected intrusions. Such unexpected intrusions might be called chaos.

And chaos can interrupt anywhere: for example, a pink rose extends largely into frame as Locke stands outside his own London home – as if nature cannot help but extend into the supposedly controlled world of men.

Furthermore, when Locke discover Robertson’s body, the fans in the room causes his hair to move, just as the towels that hang from pegs on the wall also twitch under the power of the breeze.

This is a universe of constant movement – one that is beyond our control as even humans move about after death.

And yet, men try to control the world – as can be seen by the inclusion in one shot of a speed limit sign in the desert. What is the point of a speed limit sign in a place where there are no roads? The asphalt may not have been laid down yet, but in order to stop the desert constantly from shifting shape and eluding control, the speed limit sign suggests that it will be coming.

It seems that Locke has, or at one point certainly had, a propensity for chaos, or for breaking down barriers and losing control, as is suggested during a flashback when we see him burning tree branches in his Notting Hill garden, an action that prompts Rachel to call him crazy – a moment to which I shall also return.

But somewhere along the line, Locke also lost this propensity for chaos – with Rachel subsequently suggesting to Knight that ‘David really wasn’t so different’ to other people, and that ‘he accepted too much’ – in particular referring to an interview with the African president, in which Locke did not challenge him about his policies, especially his treatment of the rebels.

Indeed, while an adventurer of sorts Locke seems to have become a human who has bought into the world of control – and yet who may still come back to accepting and understanding the world of chaos.

(This transition from control to chaos is the Jack Nicholson persona par excellence, from Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper, USA, 1969, to Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, USA, 1970, to Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA, 1974, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman, USA, 1975, to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1980, to Batman, Tim Burton, USA/UK, 1989, to A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner, USA, 1992, to As Good as It Gets, James L Brooks, USA, 1997, to About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, USA, 2002.)

As the Land Rover gets stuck in the desert, Locke starts to whack it with a shovel, breaking down in tears as he can no longer cross space in the way that he wants to.

In other words, he has lost control – and this infuriates him. Locke cannot cope with entropy; he cannot, if you will, cope with the idea of his own death. To quote another famous Achebe, he hates it when and cannot stand the fact that things fall apart.

And yet, Locke changes, or at the very least reconnects with his propensity for chaos, and after finding Robertson he decides to embrace chaos and to become someone else.

For, even to have a name (David Locke) is in some senses to seek to control one’s identity, and/or to be controlled. By becoming someone else, Locke enters into a world of becoming rather than a world of being, a world that goes with the flow, allows things to fall apart, is okay with entropy, allows in a little death (perhaps this is even an orgasmic existence, as petite mort, or little death, comes to mean orgasm in French).

But it is not just finding Robertson’s body that produces this change.

There are two sequences interpolated into The Passenger that bear discussion. The first is an interview that Locke shot with a man referred to typically as the Witch Doctor (played by an uncredited James Campbell).

Since the Witch Doctor has been educated in France and Yugoslavia, Locke is surprised that he has not abandoned his superstitious beliefs and instead adopted a more ‘western’ or ‘rational’ perspective on the world: ‘Has that changed your attitude toward certain tribal customs? Don’t they strike you as false now and wrong, perhaps, for the tribe?’

The response: ‘Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions. But I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.’

That is, Locke here demonstrates that he projects on to the world a western perspective that is closed-minded, much as westerns try to close the outside world off from their architecture, and much as many filmmakers try to close their frame off from any unexpected intrusions.

Notably, though, the Witch Doctor soon takes the camera from Locke and starts to film him.

In other words, there is a transition from Locke as ‘detached’ (as per Knight’s reckoning) to Locke as implicated – not someone beyond the frame, but someone as part of the frame.

What is more, at a later point in time we see footage, supposedly real, of a man being shot by a firing squad.

Knight, who is looking at this footage, responds in a blasé fashion – as if he had seen such images a hundred times before, while Rachel is appalled.

This suggests – perhaps again problematically – that a ‘female’ perspective is more implicated than a ‘male’ perspective, even if the latter is the one that is associated with image production and power, as per Knight’s job as a television producer.

But more than this, one can imagine that Locke, who recorded this footage, was himself so shocked by it that it ended his ability to be detached.

For, in presenting to us footage that supposedly is real – rather than being staged for the film – Antonioni provides us with an encounter with something real, much as Locke, too, encountered real death.

There are a couple of issues to pick apart here. For, we are still seeing a recording of death and not death itself when we watch The Passenger, and within the fiction of The Passenger, we are led to assume that Locke still recorded this moment in addition simply to observing it.

To say that the moment involves an encounter with what psychoanalysts might refer to as the Real, then, is problematic; the real life taken here is still reduced to an image.

And yet the documentary nature of this footage does in some senses mean that the fiction of The Passenger comes face-to-face with reality.

But is this not still then to render aesthetic something that is supposed to elude the aesthetic and to be instead real – a real encounter that leads Locke to give up on a life of detachment and to embrace chaos, such that ultimately he embraces death?

So the question now becomes: can film picture the real, or will it always only render or reduce the real to an image?

Perhaps film cannot, but the documentary image at least points to the real – to a beyond the frame that is in accord with Antonioni’s desire for his frame also to be ‘open’ to outside encounters via his filmmaking style as discussed above and as I shall explore in more detail below.

In this way, we might charge Antonioni with being unethical by interpolating into The Passenger a seeming snuff movie the provenance of which remains unknown, its participants anonymous?

For, by not telling us where this sequence comes from, Antonioni runs the risk of simply saying something problematic like ‘violence like this happens in Africa’ – a generalised Africa that is essentially violent and not riddled with violence as a result of specific histories and concrete circumstances?

And yet one might also contend that Antonioni, knowing that this footage exists, cannot not show it, since that might be more ‘unethical’ yet (to know that such things happen and not to acknowledge as much).

More than this, to ‘reduce’ issues such as African contemporaneity (corruption, postcolonialism, violence) to specific concrete histories would potentially be to make them manageable. Indeed, they might as a result lose their power as the Real – because like Locke himself, it would give an anthropocentric identity to a reality that has no name and is entirely chaotic.

And even if Antonioni cannot name or explain the footage, since it is, like reality itself, inexplicable (to explain it would be to conquer it, to control the uncontrollable), there are nonetheless hints as to the political reality to which Antonioni alludes.

For, we see that Robertson is reading, for example, a book about or by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, while the film was shot in a Chad undergoing political turmoil in the mid-1970s as well.

What is more, the film takes us beyond Africa when we read in Robertson’s diary that he has a meeting with ‘Daisy’ (presumed by Locke to be a codename for Achebe or other rebels/guerrillas) at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna on 11 September 1973.

This is of course the date on which General Augusto Pinochet bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, in the process killing president Salvador Allende.

In other words, The Passenger potentially links to not just an African but to a global repression of independence movements that are not in thrall to the colonial powers from which they were trying to liberate themselves.

Indeed, Locke/Robertson dies on this day, with The Passenger thus potentially suggesting on the one level a pessimism with regard to liberation movements, while at the same time Locke learns to embrace chaos and to let himself die.

Is there any other way out of this labyrinth? Or are humans condemned to fail in their bid to work with rather than against chaos, in that this always leads to death – perhaps especially at the hands of those who seek only to control?

Perhaps this is Locke’s tragedy. He can escape Locke; but he is still restrained by/as Robertson. Or, as Locke himself puts it, ‘it stays so difficult to get away from your own habits.’ And: ‘I’ve run out of everything. My wife. The house. An adopted child. A successful job. Everything except a few bad habits I couldn’t get rid of.’

Those habits might include the need for an identity, even if not ‘his own.’ This is his tragedy, perhaps the tragedy of western man… but perhaps western man must understand that a future is coming in which he does not play the starring role – even if Antonioni cannot make that film since that is not who he is. He, also, is the dying western man and not the (post)human of the future.

Perhaps the best that such a man can hope for is an angel who turns up in the form of Maria Schneider (who may well be Daisy?), who will guide him towards death.

Or perhaps the best that humanity can hope for is that they will be replaced by a new intelligence, one that may indeed be a human who is a bit more like cinema.

This is a curious assertion, so let me work it through. By this, I do not mean cinema as it most commonly manifests itself, with its strict demarcations between characters and actions, but a cinema that is itself far more like, or in tune with, or even a manifestation of the chaotic flow of the universe.

Instead, this is a cinema that refuses to recognise boundaries and which does not necessarily prioritise human action over anything else, instead locating the human as simply another part of space and time.

In Barcelona, we see Locke walk past a cinema called Cine Eden as he flees from Knight. Cinema might indeed present to us a new Eden. And we can see how this is so in Antonioni’s film in various ways.

Gaudí’s curving, chaotic and African-inspired architecture seems to announce Locke’s transition, a shift away from the rigid and into the flow, much as the journey south that is the film’s road trip also signals a motion towards a different reality beyond the hard lines of the global north.

The camera drifts away from Locke and focuses on a fan. It wanders up some electric wires and looks at some insects. Some cars drive past Locke and the girl, and the camera pans right, then left, and then right again – dancing with the passing cars rather than focusing on the film’s protagonists.

Famously, the camera pans around Locke’s hotel room and suddenly we see Robertson alive again, talking to Locke at an earlier point in time, even though there has not been a cut.

So not only do we see insects, cars and other machines take on a life of their own, as even the hair on a dead body can dance in Antonioni’s film, but time itself dances around, with the past co-existing alongside the present, and perhaps with an imagined future if in fact Locke is the one who died, but it takes him until 11 September 1973 and with the help of angel to realise as much.

Maria Schneider may (problematically) herself come also to signify such a cinema. She can turn up in Barcelona having been in London – as if by magic. She can anticipate Locke’s arrival at the Hotel de la Gloria by signing in ahead of him as Mrs Robertson. She can be a Daisy, a flow-er that many disregard as a weed, a force for chaotic revolution, as Věra Chytilová knew.

Indeed, as is made clear in Torremolinos 73 (Pablo Berger, Spain/Denmark, 2003), Spaniards would flee the repressive, controlling regime of Francisco Franco and head to France in order to see Schneider in Ultimo tango a Parigi/Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/Spain, 1972), surely a problematic film, but one that nonetheless signalled a desire to flow with cinematic desire rather than repress it.

As mentioned, Rachel calls Locke crazy for starting a fire in his Notting Hill garden. What is also worth pointing out here is that this is not Locke’s memory, as per the earlier sequence shots that see involving Robertson, but Rachel’s memory.

That is, the film has transitioned without signalling it from Locke’s memory to Rachel’s, out of his brain/mind and into hers as if cinema knew no identity, no boundaries, but is only a force for chaotic flow and becoming.

And then of course we have the film’s famous final shot, a seven-minute sequence in which we see Locke lying on his bed before we see various cars arrive through the open window beyond.

The camera tracks slowly, slowly forward before then passing through the grille that otherwise blocks the window, circling around the dusty yard outside.

Locke is killed – notably offscreen – during this sequence, before the camera slowly, slowly returns to show us, now through the grille, Rachel, the girl, the hotel owner and some police officers standing over Locke’s body.

In other words, the camera – and by extension cinema – can pass through borders. It is a porous medium that embraces chaos and which flows; it is a flow-er, which takes us out of this world and into Eden, or a world without, beyond, and after humanity.

(At a push, I might provocatively add that the recent documentary, Nae pasarán, Felipe Bustos Sierra, UK, 2018, which tells the story of Scottish Rolls Royce workers who refused to do repairs on the engines of Pinochet’s Hawker Harrier jets in 1970s, also suggests that humans are at their best when they, too, defy borders and control. That is, cinema and socialism alike point to the flowers that humans can become, and as which we might bloom.)

It is perhaps only a series of chaotic coincidences that sets in motion the plot of The Passenger: Robertson dies in Locke’s hotel, the girl is in London and Barcelona, Rachel leads the government agents to Locke.

‘You work with words, images, fragile things,’ says Robertson to Locke back in the hotel. Images are fragile things, and they are not the concrete things that Robertson claims ‘people understand’ (and what he sells).

The world of hardness and borders is a world of war. Perhaps cinema is a world of love, even if it is a world of death,  a world of loving death, which loving is to deprive death of its fear-inducing power.

Westerners may condescendingly characterise Africa as being a continent stuck in the past. But Antonioni’s film perhaps also shows us that, in knowing that all things fall apart, it inevitably is also an image of our future. Cinema may show us images of the past (by definition, since what we see when we watch a film must be something that has already happened). But in what lies beyond the human, and what lies beyond the frame, perhaps this is where we find once again a future without humans, our future, cinema itself. Death itself. Flowering.

Philosophical Screens: This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA, 1984)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is basically a written version of a talk that I gave at the British Film Institute last night (Thursday 22 November 2018), as part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series, and where This is Spinal Tap played as part of their Comedy Genius season.

Other speakers at the event were Lucy Bolton of QMUL and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Some of the below feeds a bit on what they said, and I hope here to acknowledge as much.

Now, to offer up an analysis of a comedy naturally lends itself to immediate charges of spoiling the humour and not allowing audiences simply to enjoy the film. But there we go. Hopefully what follows is a fairly cogent reading of the movie.

And this reading relates to the film’s treatment of hardness and softness, as well as to the relationship between 1 and 0, or the line and the hole, the phallic and the vaginal, the solid and the void – with my argument being that comedy can put us in touch with the void, making it a transformative experience.

For, transformative human experiences all necessarily involve an openness to the outside. Without such an openness, we would be closed off and we would not change. When we are open to the outside, we change, we learn, we become.

We can think of this quite easily in relation to our mouths. Not just in the sense of opening our mouths to live by eating, drinking and breathing. But we also open our mouths when we experience orgasm, when we die, and when we experience something new. Along the lines of the jaw dropping open and we say to ourselves ‘oh yeah,’ as we realise something for the first time.

Each of these experiences involves contact with the outside, with the new, and each involves us learning, developing, changing, becoming.

The same applies, then, to laughter: when we laugh, we experience an openness to the outside. And as much can be understood by the word comedy itself – since the term implies withness (co-) and contact (media), or commedia as they say in Italian. Contact with otherness, with the outside, it tickles us, our mouths open, and we develop as human beings.

And yet we live in a world in which we try to close ourselves off from and to avoid contact with the outside: erecting walls, creating borders and boundaries, hiding in cars, behind screens, not talking to strangers, putting concrete over nature, living indoors and so on. Individualism, too, would suggest the desire to close oneself off from others.

And to build walls, etc, is to create a hard world with hard edges and clear definitions, rather than a soft world of overlaps, contact, vagueness (as per the waves/vagues of the sea) and more. Comedy is a soft form, while seriousness is hard.

Music, meanwhile, can a bit of both of these things. Music can bring people together, but it can also be a hard, aggressive and scary medium. Think of how drums have been used by many peoples to demarcate their territory, and think of how loud music is often defined as a ‘wall of sound.’ Indeed, rock and metal music both suggest hardness.

And this hardness is typically male and phallic.

And so it is that This is Spinal Tap charts a tension between the hard and the soft. This is not simply a question of hard rock music. But it also can be seen in how the band plays around with hardness, aspiring to hardness and to a solid masculinity.

Examples abound in the film, but several include the cricket bat that band manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) carries around with him, the band’s famous Stone Henge set, the album cover of Intravenus de Milo, the proposed Smell the Glove cover, and the tin foil-covered vegetable that bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) keeps down his trousers.

Repeatedly, the band strives for hardness – as also is made clear by the band’s name: Spinal Tap. For, the spine is itself a hard, vertical series of bones that keep the human upright.

And yet, every attempt that the band has at becoming hard/male/phallic/vertical is somehow thwarted. Ian doesn’t really use the cricket bat; the Stone Henge set is comically small; Intravenus de Milo is derided (as is Shark Sandwich, which in being described as ‘shit sandwich’ conveys a softness that the band otherwise tries to escape); Smell the Glove is temporarily shelved as a result of the proposed cover; Derek is humiliated by an airport security staff member when he tries to pass through a metal detector with his would-be massive cock. As Alice Pember also pointed out after the film, when they first arrive in New York, the band is greeted by their driver (Bruno Kirby) with a sign saying ‘Spinal Pap.’

Perhaps an exemplary image of this desire for solidity comes early in the film at the band’s tour launch party, where a mime (Dana Carvey) offers food to guests. Berated later by Billy Crystal (‘mime is money’), the mime signals the round 0 of his mouth and feigns the gesture of eating.

Where the mime tries to pretend that there is something solid where in fact there is only empty space, so does this mime gesture to the hole, to the 0 while seeming to signal a 1. This Crystal image, then, is a crystallisation in some senses of This is Spinal Tap itself: mime, like the band, wants to be money/capital/solid, but in fact it is an empty hole.

We can even return to the name of the band itself: while the spine might keep the human upright and hard, a tap is a vent hole. In other words, while tap also makes us think of drums (the tapping of the drum), it equally is an open hole, an orifice that makes the spine porous rather than solid and upright.

Perhaps the exploding drummers in the band also suggest a porous humanity, with drumming itself punching holes in a wall of sound that otherwise aspires to be solid.

That solidity is to do with modernity and in particular the sound that is afforded by electricity and the electric guitar – even as that sound is also punctured by the radio signals that are picked up by the wireless set on the lead guitar of Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest).

It perhaps also is to do with a nascent digital age, as we see keys player Viv Savage (David Kaff) playing a computer game on the band’s tour bus.

And yet, what is the digital? The digital is defined by binary code – that is, by 1s and 0s. By a combination of the phallic (1) and the vaginal (0).

And yet, as the band aspires towards being hard, it aspires only towards being phallic – and so instead of playing at 10, the band instead wants to replace the 0 and, as Nigel so famously explains, play at 11. In other words, the band wants to play only the phallic (11) and not the phallic and the vaginal (10).

The two-fingered horn gesture so beloved of rock fans (🤟) also suggests an exclusive masculinity: men only (1–1) – as is made clear by the band and their rejection of women (or at least Nigel’s rejection of Jeanine, played by June Chadwick, who is the partner of lead singer David St Hubbins, played by Michael McKean).

This all-male phallic club is also suggested as somehow demonic, perhaps even satanic when we link the horn gesture to the devil, whose horned head also functions as a backdrop to many of the band’s gigs.

It is not that rock music is literally the work of the devil. More, in its desire to be hard, all male, phallic and solid, it excludes the soft and so is a perversion of nature. It is patriarchal. It is patriarchy.

If modernity is the era of 1 (individuality, walls, exclusivity, masculinity, patriarchy), then the digital era involves something different – the advent of a 0, the advent of death, the advent of enlightenment, the becoming that is part of the 0 of the open mouth as it comes into contact with the outside.

(Perhaps it is for this reason that musicians like Lars Ulrich of Metallica were so against digital-era technologies like Napster: their patriarchal masculinity was threatened by the advent of the 0, the desire to make money over the desire to share.)

And This is Spinal Tap may be a film that comes out ahead of the digital era in its fullest manifestation (although as mentioned, the presence of the computer game, notably played by Viv, the weirdest and perhaps softest of the band members), but it is a film that itself is in touch with 0, hence functioning as a comedy.

(Notably, the film is not a nasty comedy, either. It is not phallic and mean towards its would-be phallic characters. Instead we have a lot of time for David, Nigel, Derek and the others – because the film in fact shows their softness even as they aspire to be hard. They want to be phallic spines, but we see also their invertebrate, fearful side – much as Derek at one point gets trapped inside a vaginal pod on stage that otherwise he wishes to escape.)

It was the philosopher Duns Scotus who first wrote of haecceity as a form of ‘thisness.’  That is, haecceity refers to uniqueness and the individuality of things. In some senses, then, haecceity relates to defining things and separating them off from the rest of the world. Or giving to things the form of a 1.

To announce ‘this is Spinal Tap,’ then, is to announce the ‘thisness’ of the band, or their aspirations towards being a 1. And yet what really is ‘this’ when we look at Spinal Tap?

The band may aspire to create a wall of sound as they take us on a jazz odyssey, but really they made their name with their flower power hits from the 1960s (when the band was known as the Thamesmen).

That is, their softer numbers were what made them famous… and as the band tries to cling to fame, so they become harder and harder, undergoing a sclerosis that does not go with the flow (as all flow-ers otherwise do). Or rather, they seek not to go with the flow and instead to be in control… but like all human lives, theirs, too, is a catalogue of errors, a series of failures to escape time, change, becoming, 0 and flow. And in recognising their failed attempts to escape time, we can perhaps recognise our own hubristic desire not to die – and so we laugh, since in the comic moment we do indeed come into contact with a little bit of death.

The clown is a twisted clone. That is, in the pursuit of cloning, humans attempt to live forever and to defeat time, since we will be able to repeat our lives over and over and never die. This is the phallic, patriarchal and planet-destroying quest to become what Noah Yuval Harari might term homo deus.

The clown, meanwhile, is a bit like the clone – but also different, in the sense that the clown like the mime mimics/clones reality, but in such a way that reality is presented to us as if new. That is, reality itself becomes new, soft and a force of becoming/change/time (0), rather than something hardened and never-changing and which, petrified, escapes the ravages of time (1).

The clown – who always speaks truth to power (itself a system of 1) – thus presents us not with reality as we want it to be (under control) but as it is (out of our control, changing us). The clown gives us comedy and a little bit of death (which is why people can also often be afraid of clowns, and why the clown has indeed become something to fear in our era of never wanting to die and seeking permanent life).

Cinema itself might be a tool for presenting idealised versions of ourselves back to us – a tool for escaping the ravages of time as we become permanent in images, or, to take Roy Scranton‘s twist on Harari’s homo deus, to become light, or homo lux.

But if much cinema wants to do this – to show us as permanent and never-changing, halting change – cinema can also show to us change itself, as well as being a force of change. Cinema, then, can be a clone of reality, a virtual world in which we hide from time, death and becoming (1). Or it can be a clown that reminds us that we are all going to die (0) and that our efforts to escape death (1) indeed constitute the human comedy.

Indeed, in the language of Henri Bergson, comedy is essentially the exposition of le mécanique plaqué sur du vivant, or the mechanical mask that we aspire to put on living flesh, the hardness that we use to cover our softness, which, in being exposed as precisely a mask shows us our inner softness.

With This is Spinal Tap, cinema is thus a indeed clown – and this is part of the film’s power.

If the statuesque and petrified Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims in his movies that he’ll ‘be back,’ what he suggests is a desire to become rock solid, hard bodied, permanent and never-changing. To seek always to be back – i.e. to have a spine – is to seek always to return, to control time, not to die.

This is Spinal Tap, though, taps/puts a hole (0) in that spine (1) and takes us into a less vertebrate realm. The film passingly references The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978), thus situating itself knowingly in the genre of the concert film, the music documentary, or what director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) calls the rockumentary. By extension, the film is also a backstage musical, i.e. showing us behind the scenes of the spectacles that we otherwise see on stage.

One of the great music documentaries is D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (USA, 1967), a film that takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s controversial tour to the UK in 1965 (and during which he also tried to solidify his music style by playing electric guitar).

Backness – or the spine – is key to music and films about it. In asking us not to look back, Pennebaker suggests how it is perhaps best not to peer too hard into the life of Dylan, or else we might discover that the legend is just a man – and one who quite deliberately seeks to erect his phallic identity (the would-be 1 of Bob Dylan as opposed to Robert Allen Zimmerman, the musician’s birth name).

Pennebaker’s film opens with a tracking shot of Dylan walking from his dressing room and on to the stage, thus announcing that his film has access to Dylan backstage, as well as access to how he constructs his onstage front. This is Spinal Tap, meanwhile, follows the band around backstage – only for them never to find the stage and thus not to get to the front.

While the film does allow Nigel and the band a final Japanese comeback (Spinal Tap are back!), in showing that they are only back (only backstage?), This is Spinal Tap deconstructs their spinal/solid/phallic aspirations, their thisness, their haecceity, their addiction to the spine – as expressed in David’s lyric in the typically puerile ‘Big Bottom’: ‘how can I leave this behind?’

Although there were numerous mockumentaries prior to Spinal Tap, with Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (Spain, 1933) being perhaps one of the earliest and best known, This is Spinal Tap nonetheless remains perhaps the landmark mockumentary, the film that defines the genre.

In this way, the film is an event, perhaps unique, and in this it is arguably itself a 1. However, in being a film that softens the distinctions between fiction and documentary, it is also a soft film, a film that has a 0 in addition to its 1, and which thus constitutes an openness to the outside.

It is this openness to the outside, its own open-mouthed 0, that makes the film new, and thus a landmark film, even if it is not the first of its kind. As all 1s must be born from 0s (vaginas), then so do we see that 0 is (without wishing to be too heteronormative) the defining feature of human life. The film is a 0, or a cipher, that allows us to deconstruct the 1 of phallic, patriarchal society.

What is more, the film would seem to allow Nigel to come to understand this, as he progresses from wearing his skeleton t-shirt that depicts his hard, vertebrate self to professing that he likes tinned tuna because it has no bones.

No bones about it: This is Spinal Tap is a great film, and it is so because of its softness, including both the softness of and the film’s softness towards its character, as well as the softness of the film’s structure as we do not phallically/linearly progress along a solid line, but instead meander about, get lost, find new things, have chance encounters, and in the process open our mouths, laugh, let the outside in, die a little (oh/0 to die laughing!), and become new, wiser people as a result of our encounter with the clown.

The digital era may yet be the era of comedy, where we learn to live with our planet rather than destroy it, and to live with each other rather than to humiliate and exploit each other (Nigel and David deny but cannot but subtly express their latent misogyny and racism as the film progresses).

It is an era in which we learn to let in and to remember that we come from (and may well return to) the 0. The spine will be tapped and the phallus will fall – and we will move from a hard ‘boner’/boney culture to one of flaccidity, softness, touch and kindness. An era of comedy, where we laugh and in the process love. Let This is Spinal Tap be remembered for tapping early on into the societal changes that are taking place.

 

Philosophical Screens: Chinesisches Roulette/Chinese Roulette (West Germany/France, 1976)

Blogpost, German Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This blog is a written version of some of the things that I shall be discussing tonight (Wednesday 10 May 2017) at the British Film Institute in London, where there is a screening and panel commentary on Chinese Roulette as part of the BFI’s Philosophical Screens series, organised in association with the London Graduate School.

The film tells the story of the Christ family, which consists of Gerhard (Alexander Allerson), Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and their crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schobel). Both Gerhard and Angela are having affairs and one weekend Gerhard claims to be going to Oslo and Ariane claims to be going to Milan on business, but instead both go with their lovers to the Christ mansion in the countryside.

As a result, when Gerhard comes back from a roll in the woods with his French lover Irene (Anna Karina), he walks in on Ariane in the arms of his colleague, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). But they are not alone, for Angela then turns up with her mute Polish nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril), implying that their daughter has engineered this confluence of partners and has come to observe the fallout.

What is more, events are also observed by the mansion’s housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who has a mysterious connection with the family, and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), who fancies himself as something of a philosopher-poet.

What is set in action, then, is a lean eight-header, in which various tensions are unravelled and revealed in the mansion, which, together with the objects that fill it, plays a key role in the film, which culminates in a  game of the eponymous Chinese Roulette. This is a guessing game in which one group asks questions to another group in order to discover which person from the first group the members of the second group are describing.

***Spoilers***

The game culminates in an act of violence – as Angela, Gerhard, Traunitz and Gabriel describes Ariane in various ways, including as a worm-eaten apple (if this person were a painting, what would feature in it?), a gilded mirror (what object would this person take to a desert island?), a whore (is this person a saint, a mother or a whore?), already dead (what might be an appropriate death for this person?), and the commandant of Bergen-Belsen (what role would this person have played in the Third Reich?).

Although Kast believes that they must be describing her, as do Irene, Kolbe and Ariane, when it is revealed by Angela that they are in fact describing her own mother, she flies into a fit of rage, takes out a gun from beneath a transparent chess set and aims it at her daughter… before shooting Traunitz.

All good melodramatic stuff!

But what makes Fassbinder’s film all the more interesting is not just what happens in it (which ultimately is not that much given the minimal settings and the restricted cast), but how it is put together.

For although Chinese Roulette only merits a few brief mentions in Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, and while Christian Braad Thomsen seems positively to dislike the film, it is nonetheless a remarkable masterclass in mise-en-scène and cinematography, with the film being shot by Michael Ballhaus, also the director of photophraphy for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (USA, 1990), which was discussed at Philosophical Screens earlier in the year.

(This is not to mention the strength of the acting in Chinese Roulette, which is superb.)

For, although somewhat spartan, the Christ mansion is filled with relatively elegant objects, including a prominent transparent drinks cabinet, which is matched by a second transparent cabinet that contains a high fidelity music system. These accompany the afore-mentioned transparent chessboard in which sits the gun used to shoot Traunitz.

Time and again, these objects take up space in the frame, the camera placing them prominently before us, together with a birdcage in which budgies tweet and flutter. While we are supposed to and in some senses can see through these objects (they are transparent), in some senses they also get in the way, mirroring, distorting, fragmenting the bodies that we see and the actions they perform.

That is, while transparent, they in fact also change our perspective on things, suggesting that any perspective, therefore, is skewed, inaccurate and not necessarily correct. That this takes place in a film lends to Chinese Roulette a self-consciousness that elevates it out of the realm of a typical fiction film, in which events are presented to us as if in an accurate, objective and reliable fashion, but instead a film in which it becomes hard to read what exactly is going on.

There are several things for us to pick apart, since these dimensions of the film relate to larger ideas concerning family, class, history, fascism and cinema itself.

For, if in Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène we get a sense of how all views are potentially distorted, then we also get a sense of how quite possibly we can never therefore access the truth. And yet, in a country that is going through the kind of self-analysis that Germany was doing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the need to get to the truth, the need for transparency is it were, is tantamount – such that is becomes a guiding myth for an entire nation.

The myth might be that in confronting its fascist past, Germany can perhaps move beyond it, becoming so open in its dealings that fascism will never be allowed to rear its ugly head. In some senses, this explains the Christs’ compulsion to ask about the role of the chosen person in the Third Reich: they must acknowledge that they, too, are capable of fascism.

And yet, when confronted by this fascism, Ariane (in this instance) cannot tolerate it, and  she is compelled to let out her violent tendencies somewhere – in this instance on Traunitz.

For all of the desire to remove fascism via transparency, it creeps into everyday life in invisible ways. ‘Fascist,’ says Kast as another road user cuts her up as she drives home to the mansion near the start of the film.

Even in our cars, then, we have a sense of the human who separates themselves from the rest of the world, and thus begins to treat others not as fellow humans with whom one makes contact, but rather as people to use and abuse. That is, the seeds are sewn of seeing other humans as disposable, of the sort that we might thrown into a gas chamber.

If fascism is thus invisible, we might say that fascism is beyond the purview of cinema, that cinema cannot gain access to the inner recesses and the darkness that lurks within all human hearts. And yet, I am not sure that this is quite right – and we can explore this by returning to the transparent cabinets.

For, if the transparent cabinets in some senses get in the way and obscure the reality or truth of what it is that we see in Chinese Roulette, in order senses, those cabinets do not get in the way, but they are the way, with the distortions and reflections that they create not taking us away from a true vision of things, but being the true vision of things.

That is, distortion is the truth (that there is no truth). But more than this, a cinema that claims to offer us an undistorted or transparent image of the world such that we can begin to understand something like the Holocaust does not so much get beyond or allow us to recognise fascism, but it is fascism. In its supposedly objective presentation of the world, cinema is fascist as it reinforces the necessary separation of humans from the world and from each other that objectivity would by necessity require (to be objective, we have to be detached from the world).

If a would-be objective cinema is thus fascistic, then how do we get around this? Fassbinder does this precisely through his distortions, which thus become not so much distortions as a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt that makes us aware that we are seeing not an objective truth, but precisely a constructed fiction.

I shall return to Fassbinder’s cinematography imminently. But here I want to discuss how it is not just cinema that typically separates humans from each other, but perhaps even the concept of family itself – even if family is of course supposed to unite people. For, while families are units, that they are units who seclude themselves off in larger or smaller domestic spaces – i.e. houses – shows how they separate themselves off from the world and then from each other.

On numerous occasions in Fassbinder’s film do we see chandeliers and various other objects (including the feet of a doll whom Angela seems at one point to have hung) jut down into the bottom of the frame. Not only do these render strange the images that we see, in that rather than being rectangular, the frame can take on different, indescribable shapes as these objects are visible only as darkness, but they also suggest the oppression that hems the Christs and their guests in.

This we can compare to Gerhard’s brief moment of happiness in the woods with Irene: he has escaped from the family hearth, but it will be back in the home and with is family that the fascism will recommence.

In other words, the characters of Chinese Roulette clearly want connection – otherwise they would not have lovers and so on. But they find such connection almost impossible to achieve, and the house bears in on them, constricting them to the point where they lash out in violence. Family, then, provides connection of a kind, but it is not enough, so constrained, for the characters to feel free.

Take the opening shots: we see Ariane in one window before we see Angela in another. The two seem to be in the same room as Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Eidenrest plays on Angela’s record player. And yet it is revealed that in fact they are in separate rooms. Both clearly seek the freedom of the outside – hence being at the window; but they in fact are separate both from the outside and from each other – perhaps even wilfully.

But there is more than just a family in Chinese Roulette; there is also Kast and her son and Irene and Kolbe, after all. And yet there seems little connection even between these extended cast members. Separated by objects, seeing each other in reflections, rarely looking each other in the eye: the characters are together, but they cannot connect either, as is made clear when Kolbe, fully clothed, begins to strangle a topless Ariane in bed (although she curiously wears a hairnet), and by the class division that seems to separate Kast and son from the Christs and daughter. Various forms of separation, then, are all at play, suggesting an impossibility of freedom.

With its depictions of bodies, especially heads, in space, gazing off in different directions, Fassbinder’s film is very painterly, with the stasis of the characters here also suggesting in some senses their failure to connect (since they cannot move in order subsequently to connect).

Here Ballhaus’ roaming camera comes into its own. For, if the characters do not move so much, then Ballhaus’ camera roams freely. And if an objective cinema is fascistic, then the remarkable camera movements that Ballhaus has the camera perform may depict a world where people do not connect, but which endeavours and perhaps succeeds in creating a film with which we do connect.

It is important here, then, that these camera movements seem unmotivated – in order to remind us that we are seeing a film, rather than watching but not noticing these camera movements because they are integrated into a clear and objectively presented narrative.

In this way, we understand that if cinema is fascist, then this is because capital is also fascist. For the cinema of supposed objectivity, in which we should not be reminded that we are watching a film, but in which we should instead simply forget about the real world for a couple of hours, is also the cinema of making money, a cinema for profit rather than a cinema of art. If profit and thus capital are achieved through supposed objectivity and separation from the world, and if fascism is also predicated upon a perceived separation of self from world and others (such that one can treat those others as objects rather than as people), then capital is also fascistic, and the capitalist cinema a key tool in promoting this fascistic ideology.

Elsaesser describes how Chinese Roulette can best be understood by the title of an essay that Fassbinder wrote on Claude Chabrol. In ‘Insects in a Glass Case,’ the director criticises Chabrol for simply looking at but not really getting involved with his characters, with the result being that his work is superficial (much as Fassbinder otherwise likes the work). Compared to an objective view, then, Fassbinder shows how the case (the transparent cabinets, the house, the cars) shape the behaviour of the insects/his characters, while also not being afraid to have his camera move freely inside the case rather than simply observe from beyond.

And yet, if the characters pose as if in paintings, static and separate, perhaps it is because they want this. They want separation and they perhaps even want the humiliation of knowing that they want separation and can do little to overcome the tendency towards it. This is why the Christs laugh upon discovering each other’s affairs, as well perhaps as in how they supposedly started those affairs when it was revealed that Angela was a cripple: faced with an imperfection, they simply adopt an illusion in order to turn away from that imperfection.

And yet this imperfection only marks the imperfections, the fascisms, that lie within and which are embedded via a history of war and exploitation that extends far further back in time that World War Two.

The Christs are clearly wealthy and international jet setters: they travel for work, have a house in Munich, the mansion in the countryside and a place in the mountains (that Gerhard mentions at one point). As much is also made clear by the names of their business acquaintances, whom we also hear about as the film progresses. Gressmann, Farucci, Petrovich, Ali Ben Basset: this is an international lifestyle that they have.

But how did the Christs get here? For it is never quite clear how they make their money, although at one point Gerhard speaks with Kast about the murder of Ben Basset – seemingly a reference to Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan freedom fighter who disappeared in Paris in 1965. ‘We are the only two left,’ he says to Kast, as if they were now the only dissidents remaining.

But what kind of dissident owns at least three houses, one of them a mansion? What would the Christs’ interest be in something like Moroccan independence?

Conceivably the answer might come in the form of Traunitz. Towards the end of the film, when Ariane has shot her daughter, Kast calls for an ambulance, telling it to come not to the Christ mansion but to the Traunitz mansion.

At the start of the film, Angela turns to Traunitz and says ‘your great-grandfather should have won the Battle of Katowice.’ It is unclear to which battle Angela is referring, while it is also unclear where exactly the mansion is – but one gets a sense that the Christs have acquired the mansion from the Traunitzes, much as Katowice historically was occupied by the Germans and then liberated by the Polish.

What is more, Macha Méril, who plays Traunitz, was born and died in Morocco, meaning that her mute subservience as Traunitz to the Christs obliquely speaks also of a history of North African colonialism and exploitation, which in turn suggests a world of capital in which the rich are empowered through exploitation, an act of separation from the exploited that the capitalist does consciously and for which they must therefore atone through occasional bouts of self-humiliation and abjection – the search for connection when they know that this will be fruitless because they cannot let go of their sense of superiority towards others as a result of their capitalist separation from them that is the necessary precondition for hierarchies.

It is fittingly cruel, then, that it is Traunitz who should pay for Angela’s insult to Ariane – since it reaffirms Traunitz’s role as a voiceless victim to this history of exploitation – even if the film’s closing gunshot over a frozen image of the exterior of the mansion suggests another act of violence, perhaps Ariane now shooting Angela or shooting herself.

Fassbinder opens the essay on Chabrol with a quotation from Theodor Fontane, whose novel Effi Briest Fassbinder later famously adapted (West Germany, 1974).

‘Every debt must be paid on this earth, even that of showing shadows or half-shadows as human beings,’ the quotation reads (although I do not know its source).

Fassbinder would seem to suggest, then, that the debt owed by exploiters to the exploited may one day have to be repaid – perhaps here with the blood of Ariane, who cannot in the end tolerate the prison that she has made for herself in separating herself from the world.

More than this, in discussing the presentation of shadows as human beings, Fontane also predicts cinema as a debt – the fascistic tendencies of cinema that must also at some point be paid back. In his self-conscious cinema, Fassbinder would seem to foretell a cinema that does pay back this debt, or which at the very least shows us not shadows as human beings, but shadows as shadows. More: it is not that the shadow is separate from the human being such that one can be presented as and taken for the other. Rather, the shadow is perhaps always with the human, entangled and touching each other, much as the human is not separate from the world and from other humans, but inevitably also entangled and touching, even if we deny it and even if we deny denying it in such a way that our separation becomes unbearable, leading from repression to abject release and self-humiliation.

 

Philosophical Screens: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I shall be giving/gave about Goodfellas on Monday 23 January 2017 as part of the London Graduate School‘s Philosophical Screens series, and part of the ongoing Martin Scorsese retrospective being run by the British Film Institute.

Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who has always dreamt of being a gangster. As he rises up through the ranks of New York’s Italian mafia, however, his life begins to unravel in two ways. Firstly, as a half-Irish/half-Italian, he is not 100 per cent Italian and so cannot Get Made to a full fledged mafia boss. Secondly, against the advice of his boss, Paulie (Paul Sorvino), Henry goes into the drug business.

When Henry’s operations thus come unstuck with the law, it would appear that he cannot turn to his mafia family in order to rescue him; more likely is that they will kill him. And so he breaks both golden rules of being in the mafia, and he rats on and betrays people that might otherwise be his friends.

Henry’s situation is not helped by the fact that he is in cahoots with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), both of whom are loose canons, with the latter being particularly psychotic – taking pleasure in murdering various minor hoods with whom he happens to cross paths, and one major hood, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), whose murder will eventually bring about Tommy’s own undoing also.

The film is famous for various lines, scenes and sequences, including when Henry takes his wife-to-be, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date to the Copacabana club, entering via the delivery basement entrance and touring her around the kitchen before entering the club where a table and drinks are laid on as the owners and other clients seek to impress the unassumingly powerful Henry with gifts and gimmes.

Other examples include Tommy grilling Henry about how he is funny (‘Funny like I’m a clown?  I amuse you?’), and a confrontation between Henry and Jimmy in a diner involving a celebrated dolly zoom (whereby the camera tracks backwards and zooms in at the same time, thus giving a vertigo effect) as Henry realises that Jimmy is setting him up for death.

However, a detail in the film upon which I’d like to focus and which will form the starting point of my analysis of the film is Morrie’s wig.

Morrie (Chuck Low) is a small-time hood who runs a wig shop. When we first meet him, we see a television advert of Morrie explaining how good his wigs are as he jumps into a swimming pool and as he is surrounded by women who kiss him on the cheek.

The advert is deliberately cheesy, and after seeing it, the camera pulls back to reveal that we have been watching the image of Morrie on a television screen that loops his advert. The camera turns to Jimmy, who watches the advert, and then back through Morrie’s shop to Henry, who talks to Morrie in person out back.

Morrie is refusing to pay Jimmy the interest on some money that he owes – which leads Jimmy to start to strangle Morrie with rope as Henry receives a phone call from Karen. As Jimmy strangles Morrie, his wig comes off – demonstrating that he is a small-time hood who clearly lies, since his advert declares that his wigs can withstand hurricanes (or words to that effect).

The moment is – like much of Goodfellas – amusing, even if violent. (Jimmy lets Morrie go – on this occasion.)

The aim here is not to discuss the comedy of Goodfellas, and perhaps of Scorsese’s work more generally, not least because this is something that John Ó Maoilearca will discuss/did discuss in greater detail at the Philosophical Screens event. That said, I shall end by making reference to the comedy of his work.

Rather, Morrie’s wig allows us to think about the ethos of Goodfellas as being one based upon excess. For, not only is a wig that is obviously a wig funny (especially when it falls off), but it also demonstrates the way in which humans use things that exceed their natural abilities/possessions in order to demonstrate (in Morrie’s case) a kind of youth, strength, virility – and thus power.

In this particular instance, Morrie’s pretensions to power are ironic given that he is about the most camp character in Goodfellas (although he is married) and also deeply insecure (hence his constant talking whenever he is onscreen).

The fact that we see Morrie’s wig at first on a television screen also plays into this. Jimmy himself says that Morrie should not have wasted money on the advert given that he could have used the money to pay him back. That is, the advert is excessive. Furthermore, the advert itself functions as a kind of ‘bad wig’ – in the sense that it is intended to show mastery of the image, but in fact comes across as cheap.

With both the wig and the advert, then, we get a sense of Morrie aspiring to power, but not being able to attain it – in part because the workmanship of both is too poor. Morrie aspires to excess – just as his fellow hoods do – but in some respects he is not excessive enough to be a successful gangster.

However, while Morrie might be a figure of fun (who ultimately gets killed by Tommy for being a probable liability after the crew steals US$6 million from a Lufthansa flight), Morrie in some senses unlocks the whole of Scorsese’s film and the philosophy of excess that it sees as key to the (attractions of) gangster life – even if at times this excess is disavowed.

For, while the film equally shows Jimmy criticising Johnny Roastbeef (Johnny Williams) and Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) for spending the Lufthansa money on pink cadillacs and mink coats – i.e. for being excessive – it is precisely this excess that Henry desires and which Karen, too, also finds seductive. Indeed, just after Jimmy has bust Frankie and Johnny’s balls for their profligate spending, we see Henry arrive home at Christmas saying that he bought the most expensive tree they had: Henry likes extravagance.

As we see the Hill family Christmas, Scorsese’s camera tracks in towards a bauble that hangs from Henry’s all-white Christmas tree. Why is this shot here? What does the bauble signify? The fact of the matter is that it is hard to tell. But the bauble is shiny and comes to fill the screen. That is, the shot itself is ‘excessive’ in the sense that it is unnecessary. In this way, Scorsese with his film does not simply show us excess, but he also takes us via his camera movements into the mindset of finding excess attractive. His film itself is excessive, full of ‘unnecessary’ shots and moments, which themselves come to be a chief pleasure of the film beyond simply the telling of a story.

(What is a bauble if not an excessive feature that is part of the festival of excess that Christmas under consumerism has become? These fragile balls that hang from trees for no reason, and yet which we pack away carefully each year, scared that they might break, too thin to hold in hand for fear of crushing them… The bauble perhaps is total excess.*)

With excess in mind, the Copacabana shot comes into its own. As Henry leads Karen around the kitchen, we can – if we pay close attention – see that Henry basically does a lap of the kitchen by ignoring the fact that he can go straight through into the restaurant. The lap of the kitchen is pure excess: he is showing off to Karen.

But more than this. In having a single, unbroken tracking shot that also takes us around the kitchen and into the restaurant, Scorsese is also showboating, showing off to us, showing us a film that also is excessive, and which certainly exceeds the perceived necessity of ‘economic storytelling’ considered to be so dear to the American film industry (the ethos of getting rid of everything superfluous, not least because time is money and it costs a lot of money to put it in there; Scorsese’s film, like the gangsters themselves, dishes out in spades ‘fuck you money’ in terms of superfluous shots).

What emerges from this showboating/showing off, though, is that Scorsese does not show us something that exceeds cinema. Rather, through the excess of Goodfellas, we come to realise that cinema is perhaps excess itself – especially when it lampoons the smaller television screen for aspiring to excess but failing miserably à la Morrie’s wig.

In other words, what Henry aspires to be or to become is cinematic, to lead a life of excess. And this becomes clear as we see how Scorsese’s film is rammed full of never-ending camera movements, which are punctuated not so much by static images as more specifically freeze frames, of which there are numerous throughout the film. In other words, even when Scorsese stops his frenetic camera, it also is done in the ‘excessive’ fashion of halting the narrative entirely for Henry to announce some insight, thereby also showing his mastery since it is as if he can control the film.

Soon after Karen has joined the mafia family, we see her at a wives’ gathering, where the women are described in her voice over as wearing too much make-up. However, when we look closely at the gathered women, it becomes clear (if not over-stated) that at least two of the wives are wearing make-up in order to cover up bruises and cuts that likely have been caused by beatings from their spouses.

In other words, we might consider make-up to be a form of excess, but really that ‘excess’ is here used as a way of masking damage in the form of bruising. What this in turn suggests to us is that the other excesses of the film – from the bling to the bravado camera movements – are also trying to hide over some form of damage or bruising, as Morrie tries to cover his otherwise bald pate.

But what is this damage/bruising?

In Tommy’s case, his excessive violence seems to be a standard little-man syndrome, as even he seems to suggest at one point during the story that leads to the ‘funny’ sequence (with Tommy’s storytelling and ‘funniness’ itself being a way of covering over his psychosis – and the film’s comedy as a whole being a way of covering over the psychosis of mafia life more generally). But Tommy’s little-man syndrome here also explains to us something that all of the other characters tend to carry, too: a refusal to be a ‘nobody’ but instead the desire to be a ‘somebody.’

In other words, it is the fact of having been born as a nobody that is the bruise that these gangsters wish to cover over.

There is more to it than this. When Henry betrays his ‘friends’ at the film’s end, he explains that only a Birth Certificate and a record of his previous imprisonment are what the government has on record about his existence. Earlier, when Henry begins to ditch school as a young hood, he says that he does not want to pledge allegiance to the flag or profess any ‘good government bullshit.’

In other words, it would seem that the damage that Henry wants to cover over is not simply being born a nobody, but being born a subject in America, which in turn is to be born a subject under capitalism, with the nation functioning as the structuring principle of the system.

A paradox: governments give to their subjects a name. Indeed, they give you a subjectivity. However, far from turning you into somebody, this assigned name confirms you as a nobody, since really the name functions as a form of what Louis Althusser would call ‘interpellation.’ That is, when the government calls your name, you respond, thereby affirming not your power, but the power of the government as you answer its call and respect its rules. Those with real power have no name (as Paulie perhaps understands in the film – always carrying out his business in secret). To be somebody, then, is paradoxically to have no name.

In this sense, excess – and the desire to show one’s wealth – is always the gangster’s undoing and why gangster films are always films about social climbers, or those who defy the power of the state and/or those in power – while power is really consolidated in hidden areas (even if Paulie does in the end die in jail). We do not know the names of the powerful.

(Read in this sense, Donald Trump is a gangster upstart – and we might even admire him for taking on the invisible corridors of power [represented by the Clintons?], were it not for the fact that Trump clearly does not seem invested in doing anything for anyone other than himself and his cronies. But like all gangsters, he is likely to come undone.)

Bearing in mind Henry’s avoidance of taxes and refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag, we can understand that the mafia (any mafia) functions as an alternative form of government. As Henry says, the mafia was simply protection – at least prior to its entry into the narcotics racket.

More than this, though, we can understand that the protection offered by a government, with taxes functioning as protection money, and with the government giving to its subjects a name (a birth certificate) and keeping tabs on them (police records) is really nothing other than a mafia. Governments are mafias; governments are the institutionalisation of gangsterism – as the Trump election perhaps clarifies.

Viewed in this light – that any national subject is really just a nobody paying protection money to a government that has convinced its subjects via interpellation that it is ‘good’ – it seems obvious that in order to become somebody, Henry will paradoxically go against his government, not pay his taxes, and in effect form his own republic.

More than this: as someone who will never quite be accepted into the mafia family on account of not being 100 per cent Italian, Henry will inevitably betray that family, too, since ultimately he works out that he is not really anything to them, either (they will kill him the minute he begins to get in their way).

It is a further paradox in the film that Henry must lose his identity as Henry Hill by entering into the witness protection programme. Ultimately, the government does get him – and his anonymous identity under witness protection confirms that the government does not care about its subjects, but it definitely wants to bury the competition by having the mafia bosses put away – as happens to Paulie and Jimmy.

And so Goodfellas shows us a world in which one is born a ‘nobody’ via being given a regular name. It then shows how to become somebody, one must rival government. In this process, though, one typically enters a world of excess – the need to show one’s power off and/or to cover over the bruises of being nobody. This allure of excess is one’s undoing, since it identifies one as a threat to all and every other person aspiring to power. Violence and comedy both ensue (as does violence as comedy), since rival powers will feel compelled to fight as long as power is perceived as unevenly distributed (the system of power is the institutionalisation of uneven distribution), and comedy will function as a way of covering over the bruises that cause the hunt for power and which also are caused by the lack of power.

Scorsese’s film does not just tell this story; it also embodies it with its own excesses – specifically trying to demonstrate that cinema is superior to/more powerful than television, with cinema thus being revealed as itself a key tool in the institutionalisation of power via consumerism (advertising and those who profit from it), the power of the media/cinema industry itself, and the sense that if you are not in a movie, then you are nobody.

(Even if the really powerful in the film industry are not the people whom we see – the stars – although these stars make bids for power on many occasions, but rather the unnamed people whom we never see. No wonder that at least one oppositional force has worked out that a potential way to rival governmental power is to be Anonymous. No wonder that show-offs with money in the UK are looked down upon by the quietly powerful as nouveau and gauche. No wonder that the storing of all data by government takes place as a means of precisely identifying who you are as a subject, in order that you continue to respect the power of government – cybernetics as, precisely, a form not of liberation but of government [both government and cybernetics have the same etymological roots])

There are many more things to discuss about Goodfellas, including its specifically masculine world – where women are in some senses part and parcel of the cinematic and excessive existence that these men desire (they want women, but not a woman who talks back/who tries to assert her power – with Henry’s demise being mapped from the start by his attraction to Karen when she upbraids him for standing her up, i.e. Henry is ‘weak’, a demise also signalled regularly by Henry’s lack of appetite for violence and so on).

There is also a racial dimension to the film, with the music equally playing an important role (perhaps it is telling that it is the second, piano-driven ‘movement’ of Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ that forms the film’s final theme – for this section of the song is also ‘excessive’ after the otherwise famous Eric Clapton guitar riff and singing that forms its first ‘movement’; notably the music also plays as we see Johnny Roastbeef and his girlfriend excessively murdered in the afore-mentioned pink cadillac, with the repetition of the song itself constituting some sort of ‘excessive’ use).

While a more complete reading of the film would look closely at these topics, however, I should like to end with two observations.

The first is that the name Goodfellas in some senses implies capitalist relationships, since the term ‘fellow’ means “one who puts down money with another in a joint venture.” That is, good fellows are ones who work with each other for money, and not for friendship.

(The film’s title differs from that of Nicholas Pileggi’s book from which the film is adapted, Wiseguys. The word ‘guy’ is derived from the same word as ‘guide’ – and by extension the Spanish term for a film script, guión. Wiseguys ‘see’ – whereas goodfellas invest. Perhaps the cinematic excess/cinema as excess of Scorsese’s film suggests how it, too, is trying to carve out an existence under the capitalist regime of filmmaking – getting away from the written form/script/guide/guión and into something different, a cinema of pure excess. Scorsese as gangster upstart filmmaker – with the arts clearly tolerating upstarts as a controlled form of excess, i.e. Scorsese is not really a threat to anyone, being much like a clown, the person who can speak truth to power and not get killed for it – obviously Tommy does not want to be a clown, since he does not want to speak truth to power; he wants power…)

Secondly, watching Goodfellas today, it is clear how closely Scorsese’s subsequent Wolf of Wall Street (USA, 2013) follows it as a guide – including various flourishes such as the lead character turning to camera and discussing what is going on. Indeed, it is almost as if The Wolf of Wall Street is a remake of Goodfellas transposed from the mafia and into the world of banking.

Two subsequent things can be observed from this parallel between Goodfellas and The Wolf…. Firstly, the rise of the mafia is more or less concurrent with the rise of investment banks in the 1970s and into the 1980s, a parallel that potentially alludes to the mafia-esque nature of banks (to which governments are beholden and not the other way around, as post-crisis bailouts would seem to suggest).

More than this: both the rise of the mafia and the rise of the banks are linked to the rise of the drug trade – as well as to media and the excesses of gambling. Gangsterism, banking, cinema, drugs, media: all are excesses, suggesting that the rise of neoliberal capital is precisely the rise of a world of excess in which to be a nobody is a humiliating failure and all will humiliate themselves in order to be a somebody. This striving for excess is ultimately a control mechanism to keep everyone consuming, thereby maintaining the power of those ‘invisible people’ who already hold it.

Goodfellas uses comedy to critique this world, with Scorsese emerging perhaps as the ‘King of Comedy’ through his ability to laugh at even the most sick violence. The comedy is done through Scorsese using excess against itself.

An ambivalence arises between critiquing and indulging cinema’s tendency towards excess, and this ambivalence is a rich vein that Scorsese has long since mined. May he continue to do so – even if this means that he is perhaps more complicit with capital than critical of it… Unless like Henry, Scorsese, too, is getting to the heart of capital in order ultimately to betray it and to put it behind bars.

* Note added 17 January 2019: it strikes me that when the camera tracks in on the Christmas tree and the bauble, the shot is in fact a reference by Scorsese to Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (Italy/France/West Germany, 1973), which thanks to MUBI I saw early in 2019. Visconti’s film, which tells the tale of the excessive life of ‘mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria (Helmut Berger), is equally excessive in style (lavish décors) and duration (just shy of four hours). And it also features a shot that cranes in on a Christmas tree that is decorated also by baubles, etc. In Visconti’s film, excess is equated with madness. Perhaps Scorsese also is suggesting that the propensity for excess is a sort of American madness. (Liotta as Henry seems to deliver a performance that at times, in its effeteness, seems not too far from that of Berger as Ludwig.)

Philosophical Screens: Le Corbeau/The Raven (Henri Georges Clouzot, France, 1943) and the abortion film today

Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

I am writing this post ahead of/as a companion to a discussion of Le Corbeau that will (have) take(n) place on Tuesday 22 November 2016 at the British Film Institute in London as part of the Philosophical Screens series organised by Kingston University and the London Graduate School. It contains my thoughts only, and not those of my co-panellists Lucy Bolton and Catherine Wheatley (except where credited).

The post will explore how Le Corbeau is in part a critique not uniquely of the fascist era in which it was made (France under occupation), but of a more lingering everyday fascism, perhaps even the fascism of the everyday, the everyday fascisms that are part and parcel of the human project – and which when they become dominant lead to death. I shall also relate this to the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau today.

Le Corbeau focuses on Dr Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a surgeon recently arrived in a small town called Saint Robin in France. In a series of anonymous letters, he is accused of having an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the younger wife of psychiatrist and work colleague, Dr Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). He is also accused of carrying out abortions and, latterly, of sleeping with Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the coxalgic sister of one-armed school master Fernand Saillens (Noël Roquevert).

Germain is not alone in receiving these anonymous letters; in fact, everyone in town seemingly receives them, since we are told at one point by Vorzet that the person sending the letters, who signs off as Le Corbeau/The Raven, has sent some 850 such accusatory epistles. Each letter either lays bare or accuses its recipient of a scandal that has taken place – with Germain also being accused of sleeping with Denise’s younger, 14-and-a-half year old niece, Rolande (Liliane Maigné).

SPOILERS

While the town at first suspects (and drives away) Laura’s nurse sister, Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), after the suicide of a hospital inmate, François (Roger Blin), who is dying of cancer, Germain begins to suspect Denise, especially after she breaks down during a handwriting test set up by Vorzet, who happens to be an expert in detecting supposedly anonymous handwriting. Indeed, Germain discovers in Denise’s digs a letter from Le Corbeau to Germain announcing that Denise is pregnant, thereby seeming to confirm his suspicions.

However, when Denise tells Germain to look her in the eye, she explains that this is the first and only letter that she has sent. Germain becomes confused – and goes to see Laura, on whose hands he finds some ink, leading him to suspect her.

Vorzet intervenes and says that his wife did indeed begin the letters, hoping to lure Germain into an affair as a result of his old age and his inability sexually to satisfy her. However, he explains,  when Germain did not reciprocate, she went insane and started to send out many such letters to everyone in Saint Robin.

Laura denies that this is so – and says that Vorzet himself has been sending (most of) the letters. Germain goes back to Denise, who has fallen (deliberately) down some stairs – affirming that he wants (‘needs’) her to keep his child, a decision that lays to rest the ghost of his former wife who, along with his first child, died during a botched delivery (Germain’s real name is Germain Menatte, a well-known brain surgeon).

Denise then says that Laura could not have sent the letters because she was too scared about violence that might be done to her if she revealed the true identity of Le Corbeau. Germain realises, therefore, that it must have been Vorzet – but arrives too late to prevent Laura from being carted off to a mental institution, the details of which he gave to Vorzet.

However, Germain steps into Vorzet’s office only to find him killed at his desk – his throat cut with the same razor blade that François used to take his own life. We see the mother of François (Sylvie) leave the premises and walk away down the street. How she found out about Vorzet’s guilt we do not know, but she has made good on her promise to use the François’ razor in order to avenge the premature death of her son.

Having got this synopsis out of the way, I can now turn to my analysis of the film.

In the first anonymous letter that we see/hear, Le Corbeau announces that (s)he has an œil américain, or an American eye. The term supposedly comes from novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who in The Heidenmauer, or The Benedictines (1832), which is set in sixteenth century Europe, writes to his American readers about how ‘an American eye would not have been slow to detect its [the landscape’s] distinguishing features from those which mark the wilds of this country [the USA].’

Interestingly, the differences that the American eye would spot are the small signs that would announce Europe to be occupied by humans; the trees in Europe ‘wanted the moss of ages,’ Cooper explains, before suggesting that the landscape offered ‘certain evidence that man had long before extended his sway over these sombre hills, and that, retired as they seemed, they were actually subject to all the divisions, and restraints, and vexations, which, in peopled regions, accompany the rights of property.’

I shall return to how Cooper’s American eye would spot how the sculpted landscape of Europe might seem natural but that it does not contain the truly natural ‘mouldering trunk’ or ‘branch [that] had been twisted by the gale and forgotten’ or ‘any upturned root [which might] betray the indifference of man to the decay of this important part of vegetation’ (all Cooper quotations are from page 2 of this edition).

For the time being, though, I should like to stress how Cooper’s term soon made it into French literature, where it came to take on the sense of an all-seeing eye. As soon as 1835, Honoré de Balzac’s arch-villain Vautrin accuses Eugène de Rastignac of scrutinising him with ‘the American eye’ in Le père Goriot, while Gustave Flaubert also uses the phrase in Madame Bovary (1856), where Lheureux, the pernicious merchant who causes Charles and Emma to go into debt (and Emma, ultimately, to kill herself) also claims to have an ‘American eye.’

Reworked within French literature to convey a sense of omniscience and a sense of evil, the term is an apt one to reappear in a film about secrets and affairs like Le Corbeau.

However, for most viewers of the film, to hear about an ‘American eye’ cannot but also bring to mind that most American of eyes on to the world – the cinema. That is, the cinema is an American eye.

Let’s be clear: the French have as strong a claim to the invention of cinema (the Lumière brothers) as the Americans (Thomas Edison), but by 1943 it is the American cinema that dominates globally. For Le Corbeau to claim that it has the ‘American eye’ might also imply, then, that the film is an attempt to rival American film productions – as might also be suggested by Judith Mayne‘s assertion that the absence of American films in Occupied France during the Second World War led to filmmakers trying to make more ‘American’ movies. This is not to mention how the famously troubled history of the film, in that it was produced by Continental, a German-backed and German-led production house, also suggests a German desire to rival American cinema. Which is not to mention still how the noir style that Le Corbeau more or less adopts is not unique to the USA, but that it has strong roots in both Germany and France. In other words: cinema as a whole, and the film noir style of Le Corbeau more particularly, are not necessarily American.

However, at least for the purposes of discussion, I should like to propose that in Le Corbeau the ‘American eye’ does speak of cinema – and perhaps especially of the kind of cinema-eye that Cooper describes. That is, an eye that can see a world without divisions, without property, and in some respects without man, as opposed to the European eye that only sees divisions, property and the human.

While Le Corbeau (the anonymous letter writer) claims to have an American eye, then, Le Corbeau (the film) also adopts an American eye, the American eye of cinema – not simply for the purposes of mimicking a Hollywood style, but in order to lay bare the very European way in which space is divided up into segments of property, with the human at the centre of this exploitation of space.

We can see how this is so in the film’s treatment of space.

Le Corbeau contains a very fluid camera, with the second shot of the film seeing the camera moving along a cloister that lines a cemetery, before then moving through a gate that seems to open of its own accord. In other words, from its beginning, Clouzot suggests that his camera moves and is alive, even as humans die. Furthermore, his camera can pass through gates – something that we also see humans do regularly in the film.

Indeed, I counted 419 shots in Le Corbeau (giving to the film an average shot length of 12.24 seconds given a running time – excluding opening credits – of 85 minutes and 28 seconds). Over the course of the film, we see people walking through doors or gates 64 times, with people opening but then not passing through doors twice. We hear doors opening and closing offscreen a further 7 times, with characters also passing through car doors twice. We see people walk through curtain partitions three times, while characters open cupboards, postboxes, bureaux, drawers, and/or a trunk a further 9 times. Furthermore, we have 2 POV shots of characters looking through keyholes and/or windows, and we see characters (generally Germain) open or close windows 4 times.

In other words, Le Corbeau features c93 instances of thresholds being crossed and/or reaffirmed. Since many of the moments featuring characters passing through thresholds are shown over the course of two shots (with a cut as the character or characters pass from one room to the next), then we can see how there are 100+ instances in the film of threshold crossing and/or container opening, meaning that likely one quarter of the shots in the whole film features the crossing of boundaries.

However, where Le Corbeau opens with the camera passing through a gate, and while we see humans pass through gates and door themselves, Clouzot’s otherwise mobile camera does not pass itself through gates or doors after this initial transgression.

In other words, a tension is set up between the mobile camera that can go anywhere irrespective of boundaries, and humans who also travel, but who are very much restricted by boundaries. If the second shot of the film tells us that the camera is mobile and alive while humans are immobile and dead, then the enclosed rooms and containers that humans inhabit and use in some senses move humans towards immobility. The creation of divisions, the creation of property, the creation of those things that Cooper’s and Clouzot’s American eyes can see as arbitrary, and yet which to the European are real, these are moving humans towards death.

(This is not to mention the walls of the town, or the grilles and other objects that seem strongly to delimit space in the film.)

This tendency to create divisions can also be understood through the importance of letters in the film, the postal service, and the way in which all letters are sent to an address. The term address originally in the early 14th century meant

“to guide, aim, or direct,” from Old French adrecier “go straight toward; straighten, set right; point, direct” (13c.), from Vulgar Latin *addirectiare “make straight” (source also of Spanish aderezar, Italian addirizzare), from ad “to” (see ad-) + *directiare “make straight,” from Latin directus “straight, direct” (see direct (v.), and compare dress (v.)).

As philosopher Alan Watts can be heard explaining on the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ ident, wherever people go, they want to straighten things out – to ‘set right’ rather than to let wiggle, with nature itself being full of wiggly things.

In other words, the notion of the address is an attempt to ‘straighten’ humans, with the idea of addressing someone being the idea also of straightening out their identity. This is also linked to the idea of dress – as reflected in the stiff costumes that nearly every character wears, from Marie and Laura to the men who claim to run Saint Robin.

One’s address, forms of address, dress: all in effect ‘straighten’ humans. But as the division of space is in some respects unnatural, so, too, are these linked concepts of dress and address unnatural – and Le Corbeau tells us so.

For, while Marie and Laura and the men are all buttoned up and repressed (or unable to repress desires that perhaps otherwise might be celebrated), it is Denise who from her initial appearance takes her clothes off/gets undressed and who, most notably as a result of her coxalgia, cannot walk straight (as well as being horizontal a lot of the time while other characters, but in particular by contrast Laura, are vertical – as Mayne also points out).

Germain is attracted to Denise – but he cannot bring himself to admit to loving her for reasons of decorum and social pressure; she is too lower class for him, and he (in Denise’s words) is bourgeois. He closes her window when they first meet, and he addresses her as vous (instead of tu, much to Denise’s displeasure) after they have slept together.

And yet, those who address Germain as Germain are not addressing him quite correctly, for his name is not Rémy Germain, but really Germain Manotte. That is, Germain has a repressed, or rather a fluid, identity. It is only through loving Denise that he can let go of the memory of his first wife and his lost child and learn to be himself again. It is only through accepting his own lack of straightness that Germain can move forward, or be alive. This is signalled most clearly in his impending fatherhood: to be alive is to create life in the universe of Le Corbeau, as we shall discuss in more detail shortly.

There is another side to the division of space that the film creates through its insistent depiction of doors, walls, gates, barriers and other containers. This is seen in the regular shots of characters speaking, but not looking at each other. Sometimes (such as when Laura and Germain meet one evening by the walls to Saint Robin) they positively look away from each other.

It is as though the characters in Le Corbeau do not look at each other, preferring instead to read about each other and/or to address each other formally – but not to address each other properly. We see each other not as people, then, but as symbols – as what we are supposed to mean as opposed to who we are. This is also made clear by the gendered spaces of the film: the all-male club in which most of the men hang out in the evening, and the all-female shop from which Germain is excluded at one point.

If Denise is honest in her lack of straightness (her limp and her desire to get undressed), then she also is honest in her interactions with Germain. For it is only with Germain that we specifically see prolonged exchanges of gaze, with Denise proving her innocence to Germain not through anything other than a remarkable exchange of looks into each other’s eyes.

(Addendum: Germain and François’s mother also look in each other in the eye in an important scene where she announces that she will take her revenge; the old lady also is hunched and thus not ‘straight.’ My thanks to Catherine Wheatley for pointing this out.)

In some senses, then, this is also the ‘American eye’ of cinema: it takes us into a world beyond language and consisting of direct connection via looking into the eyes of another human being. Language itself, then, is part of the ‘straightening’ process of the human world – with the tension between the written text and the visual ‘language’ of cinema also making this clear.

Perhaps it is also important that at one key moment in the film we see Denise from an impossible angle as she lies in bed with Rolande putting cups on her back. In other words, this impossible, ‘American eye’ angle suggests that Denise is a key to a world beyond division and a world beyond conventional notions of property.

It is not that Denise or Germain are heroes in the film. Indeed, Germain causes Laura to go to the asylum (although hopefully he will be able to recall her once Vorzet’s guilt is discovered), while he also literally has blood on his hands from the start of the film: he literally cannot save the life of a baby (and this, we are told, is the third such instance of a miscarriage with which he has been involved). Clouzot is, indeed, too smart a director to make a film that can read in such a straightforward way; for the film to be straightforward would be to contradict the film’s critique of straightness.

Nonetheless, Germain is, ultimately, a figure who respects the crooked and un-straight path that is life, and which irrevocably involves death as a part of life. This can be contrasted with the character whom we assume to be the main culprit, the ‘real’ Corbeau, Vorzet.

As Mayne has pointed out, Vorzet does not sound too dissimilar to the verb avorter, meaning to abort. And while he claims that Laura at first aroused him as a partner, nonetheless his relationship with her is sexless, straight-laced (as per Laura’s costume, but not necessarily as per her desire) and sterile. Furthermore, before marrying Laura, Vorzet was also engaged to Marie – who herself has become sexless, perhaps as a result of her rejection by Vorzet.

(If this play with Vorzet’s name sounds unlikely, we can again see how such wordplay with names is used by Balzac: as Christopher Prendergast points out in The Order of Mimesis, Vautrin’s name could mean vaut rien, or ‘worth nothing,’ which Prendergast associates with Vautrin’s role as a deceptive cipher in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine/Human Comedy. There is possibly also an oblique reference to Balzac when the post office workers discusses la splendeur et décadence postale, possibly a reference to the latter’s 1847 novel, Splendeurs et misères des courtesans.)

And so, Le Corbeau seems to suggest a world in which straightness (walls, fences), the division of space, and the idea of property all are related to the antithesis of life, all are a kind of death. Fascism, as the manifestation of straightness and control, is thus a kind of death that the film critiques in its depiction of space. Human desire, meanwhile, cannot – and perhaps should not – be controlled. It is not that the fascism of German National Socialism is specifically the target of Clouzot’s critique, then, but the fascisms that involved in everyday human life as we button ourselves up, straighten each other out and address each other with fixed names (Denise at one point calls Germain Joseph – as if identity did not matter to her).

This straightness can, finally, be related to the roundness of balls in the film: Rolande, on the cusp of womanhood, regularly is seen bouncing a ball, signalling both her childishness but also her discomfort at being socialised into the straight world (and this ‘neurotic’ behaviour – as Vorzet describes it – is acted out by her regular theft from the till of the post office where she works). At one point, a ball arrives suddenly from off screen, with Germain having to deflect it; the round has a habit of destroying the straight (the ball has of course been thrown by a child – a human not as yet socialised into straightness).

Not only might we think of the round chaos that is Melancholia swallowing up Earth in Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, but the insistent presence of a globe in Fernand Saillens’ classroom also reminds us that the world itself is not straight – as Cooper observes in The Heidenmauer thanks to her American eye.

An aside of sorts: being about the Benedictines, Cooper’s American eye is perhaps also reflected in Le Corbeau, which potentially also offers an oblique critique of the Benedictines. Not that the denomination is anyway made clear, but the town name of Saint Robin recalls the origin of the name Robin, St Robert of Molesme, a Benedictine who founded a series of small communities in the 11th century.

In The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967), Lewis Mumford writes about how

The Benedictine Order, instituted by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, distinguished itself from many similar monastic organisations by imposing a special obligation beyond the usual one of constant prayer, obedience to their superiors, the acceptance of poverty, and the daily scrutiny of each other’s conduct. To all these duties they added a new one: the performance of daily work as a Christian duty… the Benedictine monastery laid down a basis of order as strict as that which held together the earliest megamachines: the difference lay in its modest size, its voluntary constitution, and in the fact that its sternest discipline was self-imposed. (264)

In other words, the Benedictines constitute (for Mumford) a society of control and scrutiny, an early instantiation of the ‘megamachine’ that is modernity, especially as brought into being through the globalisation of capitalism.

And so, finally, if Le Corbeau offers us a critique of the death that is (everyday) fascism, proffering in its place a celebration of life – even if not straightforward and even if including physical death as an inevitable part of its imperfect, everyday existence – then what does this tell us about today?

It is notable that in the past few weeks various films have come out that involve childbirth, child death and abortion. A short list would include Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, USA, 2016), The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, UK/New Zealand/USA, 2016),  Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, USA, 2016) and, in its own way, Bridget Jones’ Baby (Sharon Maguire, Ireland/UK/France/USA, 2016).

It would seem that abortion becomes a key theme in relation to fascism – and that the rise of films dealing with the issue of life and birth bespeak both the way in which fascism certainly has not left us in contemporary times, and thus also of the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau nearly 75 years after it was made.