Monthly Archives: March 2021

What the man thinks

Had this weird thing as a kid when I watched movies, often with my dad, who only watched action or western movies then, less so today: I mixed up films and actors, would get halfway through a story thinking it was something it wasn’t, or that the lead actor wasn’t who I thought he was. Specifically, in the mid-seventies, I had a spell of thinking that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were the same person. I think it was because they were both in The Towering Inferno, acting in alternating scenes. They seemed like two versions of the same hero, so my latency aged mind conjoined them. My dad enthused about their filmographies, would reference films like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid or The Great Escape. I thought I was watching the latter when I came upon a film about a guy who keeps breaking out of prison and smirking at “bosses” every time he does so.

At some point I learned through my father that the film we were watching together wasn’t The Great Escape with Steve McQueen, but rather Cool Hand Luke, starring McQueen’s less blond doppelganger, Paul Newman. No, neither I nor my father used words like doppelganger back then (he still doesn’t), but here’s an example of temporal revision, which this essay, and not any of the films mentioned so far, were providing at the time I first viewed them. In some ways, CHL will have been an early and influential introduction to all things linked to the American South, which would become distinct in my mind from the American West. Set in I-don’t-know-exactly-where, the film is richly inflected with twangy, Appalachian accents, backgrounded with stretches of mountainless plains bathed in scorching humidity; an air of good-ole-boy jocularity underlined with the cruelty, racism, and misogyny of uneducated men. Into this mix, the story thrusts Lucas Jackson, an impish, youthful (though Newman will have been in his forties when filming) post-adolescent who has lost his way. Apparently a war hero (WWII?) and therefore a once-establishment lackey (or so we’re meant to infer), ole Lukey boy is caught one night performing the relatively inoffensive act of tearing the heads off parking meters while drinking whiskey (probably—another southern cliché I will have noted), and is then sentenced to a couple of years in a rural penitentiary for damaging municipal property. Listless, indifferent, yet clearly disdainful of rules and “the man”, he seems like the kind of figure who ought to have caught a greyhound and headed west, to somewhere like San Francisco to hang out with hippies; to “drop out” with the likes of Timothy Leary.

But it seems that Luke is less committed to freedom as he is to rebellion, and the difference is crucial, as one path leads individuals towards escapism and the open road while the other keeps someone ever in touch of authority, often with a thumb perched on the tip of one’s nose.  At first, Luke plays it cool in one sense, merely observing all the rules he will later break on both sides of the prison divide. The “bosses” or the “Cap’n” (the chief warden) aren’t his principal antagonists at the outset of his incarceration. Initially, his problem is his peer group, and most notably, a top-dog illiterate named “Drag” played by George Kennedy, who seemed like a poor man’s John Wayne in most of the films I saw him in. Anyway, Luke first pokes this bear with his attitude, incurring a predictable slap-down in the form of a mismatched round of boxing. However, Drag is impressed with Luke’s plucky never-say-die resilience, and later by his sneaking poise as Luke schools everyone at poker, hence earning his nickname. At some point, Luke comes to represent something other than crude thumb-on-the-nose impertinence, but instead something closer to inspired mischief. He embodies a new hope, a new way of beating the man, and before long, what we got here is not just a failure of communication (yes, I remembered the line), but an allegory of messianic purpose and dilemma in the fraught, disparate sixties, set in America’s most wounded underbelly.

As Luke slyly wins over his mates, he gets under the nose of authority by playing with rather than breaking its rules and hierarchical norms. Wicked smart, he observes that he can win his peers a 2-hour break from laying sand over tar by exhorting them to work harder. With his freakish, non-weighting gaining appetite, he can win for some a bounty of cash by consuming fifty eggs in an hour. In moments like this, he is a rock star, accepting all manful dares, bringing everyone together, aroused by the drama of the one pleasure prison allows them: gambling. Before long, Luke is the coolest kid in class/camp, but like countless other heroes (especially sixties anti-heroes), he soon gets bored with his followers and the false auspicious luster they bestow. At a mid-point of the film, during a scene wherein the heavens have opened, interrupting another prison work day, the ordinarily laconic Luke breaks into a soliloquy that rails against the injustice of God. He’s not complaining about the rain. Come and get me, Luke says, as if bored by life.

His blasphemy arouses the ire of the prison staff if not so much his fellow inmates, so the remainder of the film shifts the action to Luke’s battle with guards and the warden. Here is where his real gamble begins, though amidst the action, we learn about the source of his weak-spot: his mother. Revealed as a crusty, chain-smoking, dying figure, Luke’s mom visits him in prison, sat in the back of a truck, clearly disabled, informing her son that she’s not long for this world. At this point, amid allusions to a once absent, drunken and now-deceased father, plus an upbringing of abuse that now seems hackneyed in such stories, Luke is shruggingly offhand, steeped in the mischievous persona he is busy cultivating in the present. That all changes when he learns of her death and slumps off to play the banjo on his bunk, weeping. Thereafter, he stops being a mischievous rule-breaker and more the escape artist, though he retains his prankish talent. His best example is the “shake the tree” ruse he pulls over a guard’s eyes as he walks away to urinate, only to then abscond. Twice Luke is brought back to the camp, handcuffed and beaten, or sent to an isolation box to cool off what the Cap’n dubs his “rabbit” feet. He’s actually sent to this penalty box prior to his first escape, ostensibly to deter an escapist temptation following his mother’s death. Luke takes off anyway, not so must in protest of the Cap’n’s injustice but in his determination to always do the unexpected.

After the second escape and return, Luke is sternly warned that his next escape will be his last. Cementing their need to “make his mind right”, the Cap’n and guards turn the screws, forcing Luke to perform impossible chores, follow absurdist rules, looking to break him. Inevitably, this tactic succeeds, and as Luke lies in a ditch he’s been forced to dig, appealing to God to save him from his torment, the guards, themselves pious despite their repertoire of evil (God simply means authority here), mock Luke’s desperate longing, which culminates in his abasement. With his fellow inmates looking on, Luke clutches at the feet of the most bullying of guards, and as he sobs, his peers drop their heads, demoralized by the defeat and indignity of their hero. Jesus has fallen. When Luke is finally brought back to them and his relatively comfortable bunk, they abandon him, disgusted by his surrender. “Where are you now?” he cries and flails, as if calling for some lost object. This is his primal, unconscious appeal for an absent father or mother. But there’s nary a nurturing woman, or man, in sight. During the film’s waning scenes, Luke is seen to be servile with the guards, performing errands at their command; adhering to their rightful authority; being right in his mind. This, however, is his climactic ruse, as Luke then turns the tables once more, cleverly stealing a guard’s truck, as well as pilfering the keys to those that might chase him.

In this last escape, he is joined by Drag, who perceives the trick just as Luke is playing it, so he grabs onto the fleeing truck, happy to cede his once top-dog persona, now fully enamored of the true king of the prison camp. With a final flourish, Luke exhibits his mischievous air once more, though in its last bow this act of Luke seems weary and foreboding. He knows he’s in for it: he’s made his choice to recapture his “cool” persona; to enact the hypermasculine, I-don’t-need-anyone-way, so as to give his lonely, hero-worshiping peers something to hang onto and hope for. A sacrifice. Not wanting to drag Drag down with him, he orders the once top dog and now puppyship fellow to get lost, essentially. Thus, feeling doomed, Luke wanders away from his admirer towards a church, for a final soliloquy and conversation with the one authority towards whom he retains some curiosity, if not reverence. Now, with a tired smirk once again replacing former sobs of desperation, he somewhat humbly yet calmly asks for some guidance and love from the Lord. But none is forthcoming. Minutes later, the Cap’n and guards show up and surround the church, having just captured Drag, whom they send into the church so as to guide Luke out peacefully. However, Luke is not buying the cynical overture, the latest ruse of the man, so he steps towards a window, opens it and calls out into the wind and rain, “what we got here is a failure to communicate”.

Bang. As Luke speaks his last mocking word he is shot in the neck, and is soon pictured smiling as he dies in the back seat of a police car. His shooter is a man known as “the man with no eyes”, because he always sports sunglasses—an element which contains an interestingly subliminal theme. This silent as in no-dialogue-but-always looming figure is the one who takes revenge upon the willful, mischievous Luke—perhaps at the behest of the virulent Cap’n—but just as likely because of his own hateful impulse, which itself disguises a guilt-ridden past, we may consider. I must research the source material of Cool Hand Luke, and perhaps give it a read, for what I imagine here is an Oedipal play transported to the white surface of the Jim Crow South. A silent, absent, blind, and abusive father figure gazes suspiciously, enviously at the desire of the other, at the freedom-seeking life of the young man; at the way that young man has become the favorite of others, and of the shared wife/mother in particular. He, the son, will get his someday, thinks the man.

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Discovery

There’s a case to be made that Stanley Kubrick was a psychoanalytic filmmaker. It was Werner Herzog who said that out of something still or boring something else eventually emerges. You slow something down, making it less and less stimulating, but something comes out of the other side, like a reward for evenly suspended attention. Until then we repeat before we remember and work through—another analytic notion. In 2001: A Space Odyssey we watch astronaut Frank Poole jog in a circle upon the spaceship Discovery, performing his daily routine. He is running within a centrifuge, looking like a rat in a cage. This entry to the second half of the film, its adult existence following a primal beginning, begins with this sense of boredom; of life slowed down and mired in tedium. Poole and his colleague, David Bowman, go about their maintenance tasks, overseen by the real leader of Discovery’s mission, the psychotic computer HAL, with numb efficiency. We watch Frank jogging in circles and wonder what is in his mind. The film in which he is in is saying something about man’s place in time while its individuals lack temporal sense, acting as if life is linear, but where is he going? Does Frank have a sense of history, of his own or that of man? Are we to glean something from one of 2001’s motifs: that he, as well as other characters in the film, seem to be moving in circles without knowing it?

You move forward and you move backwards, sometimes at once; remembering, re-remembering; editing that which seems incomplete; re-integrating the previously forgotten that is suddenly and shockingly recalled. Apres coup, Freud called this experience. A trauma. David Bowman has his shot at time and psychological travel in the film’s climactic scene. Having disconnected the paranoid, homicidal HAL from the ship’s control, Bowman arrives at journey’s end, informed by a taped message that the time has come to make contact with alien intelligence. Progress. It is time for man to move forward, and its emissary in this moment is a blank slate: a demur, cool and capable unit in the form of David Bowman—a man who has just been awakened from a complacent state by his bout with the formidable HAL. Having endured the trauma of being locked out of Discovery, of then cleverly finding his way back in and then infiltrating HAL’s interior so as to sever the machine’s command, Bowman is set for a real adventure. After a spell of mundane existence, if not an individual lifetime of bland conformity, his brush with death has enlivened him. Amid the dissonant soundtrack of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “atmospheres”, Bowman leaves the Discovery in a space-pod and steers towards the epochal slab that has beckoned man to this moon of Jupiter.

What follows next is one of the most famous sequences in film history: a cosmological journey through a tunnel of outer and inner space, fizzing with colorful imagery interspersed with black hole suggestion. There is no returning from where David Bowman is going, so his circular, repetitious life is over, to be replaced by something the filmmaker cannot describe, but he can show it with imagination. In moments, we observe the terror in Bowman’s eyes as he seems frozen in some manner of drop. The intensity of his flight through this stargate is such that he leaves consciousness at some point, and enters a dream. In it, he wades into a neo-classical or baroque scene as an old man, dressed in the uniform of an astronaut, but now glancing at the ages of art and invention. The space he is in blends past, present, and future as he regards his aged and then dying self in a scene of civilization and whitewashed time. The movement slows, dulling the film’s narrative in the conventional sense and bringing the “action” to a halt. The thrill of the ride is over, replaced by an inner sojourn amid a curated image of memory. The white spaces in between the artful décor loom over Bowman as he sits at a table, genteelly dining, only to drop a fork and glass and then stare at them, stilled and curious. Something has broken. Next, he is in bed and further aged, dying and looking up at the ubiquitous slab, which is now calling him to heaven like a cosmic god, the great psychoanalyst. A glowing fetus appears in a spectral bubble, resembling our serendipitous pilot/hero, and hovering above or aside the black slab, suggesting an imminent rebirth.

Our protagonist and now space-child has remembered something that he and his kind have lost, and will now discover just before passing over to the other side.

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The Greatest Death

Was giving a lesson on Narcissism this week. I think the context was my job, which splits the ethical angle: it was both good and bad, my reductionist, essayist answer to a query about…actually, I can’t remember what exactly, which tilts the memory towards the bad. How self-centered of me—how narcissistic—to not remember why I was talking about what I was talking about.

The piece that lingers is not the context, which for privacy’s sake is not so bad—perhaps that will be prompted when that audience—sorry, that person and I—speak again. The piece that lingers is my precious offer of a binary. “It’s either one of two things,” I began, speaking of Narcissism’s pedigree. I didn’t mean Greek mythology or the Copernican revolution—earth revolving around the sun, not the reverse, etc. I meant childhood development. In plain terms, I meant the competing theories of spoilt child versus deprived child. Analytically, I meant that we think Narcissism derives from an excess of gratification in youth, and according to theorists like Masterson, that youthful stage refers specifically to stages of toddlerhood, what Mahler called a period of separation-individuation, between ages 1 and ½ to 3, roughly. A narcissistic child is one who is indulged, lavished with praise, unfettered by limits or “boundaries”; rendered omnipotent in his mind, untroubled with words like “no”, “don’t”, or “stop”. I like that last line about the three significant words: it’s one of my chestnuts, my greatest hits, that bit. That reminds me of…nevermind. Well, we think the spoilt child gets used to indulgence, a life of few if any limits. He gets addicted, and that addiction lingers past forgotten toddlerhood, through stages of psychosexual life, past the fraught watershed of puberty, and into the dark space of adult life.

Theory two posits that narcissistic adolescents and later adults react unconsciously to an early development of an opposite nature: an early life of deprivation, of withdrawn love, or abuse. This person is sad, was once terribly sad, yet doesn’t remember this sadness so much as put it aside, burying pain in a psychic box that is barely retrievable. This person goes into therapy and talks about painful memories, or painful speculations, prompted by a facsimile event which triggers jigsaw-like fragments, bits and pieces that string the past together, forming a rough narrative. Apres-coup, Freud called this: a re-think and re-remember. In general, we—meaning therapists, plus the culture beyond our office walls—have some time for this forlorn, sympathetic figure. He talks more, laments and reflects more. He doesn’t shrug so much, saying that his early days were fine, and that everything was all good. That might have been a spoilt child. Why not sure? Well, we don’t know. The once spoilt kids tend not to draw attention to such luck. We don’t hear too many people declaring they were excessively gratified or indulged when they were kids. They don’t say things like, “I got everything I wanted, when I wanted it. Parents loved me. Everyone loved me. Everything was good until this gal called me out recently for sticking my hand in her…”

No, not so sympathetic. But then, most of the narcissistic types we (we? Who else am I speaking for?) meet don’t speak like this or present with sordid circumstances as a premise for a treatment episode—at least, not one that they’ve chosen. What’s more common is a detached, logical, even reasonable figure with a calm, if bland demeanor, speaking vaguely of a demise in something like, uh, intimacy. If we meet them it’s because they’re having difficulty sleeping, or they’re suffering from outbreaks of irritability, triggered by disputes with noisome loved ones. Their ordered, partly indulgent, but largely civilized, diligent lives have not been derailed so much as lightly bumped off course. There might be a catastrophe on their horizon, or they might just be ordinarily unhappy, and for some reason, the Wellbutrin they’re taking isn’t quite dissolving the malaise.

Which reminds me of Hal, the most sympathetic character in cinema history, and whose death is its most poignant. I know. An abrupt transition. A bold pronouncement. But bear with me. I’m about to indulge, take a blog essay with a dark title and give it some lights, camera, action. Take it into space.

If you’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey then you won’t know that Hal is not a person, detached, indulged or not, but rather a machine. He’s a computer—a servant, one would think, of man’s variable needs; of his exploratory needs in the relatively thin narrative of the film. A spaceship, the “Discovery”, is sent out into deep space to investigate the source of a radio emission directed from an otherwise inert black monolith to a moon in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Hal, the ship’s main computer, indeterminately sized in physical terms (but not a laptop—the film was made in 1968) is in charge of a sparse crew, three of which are in hibernation until arriving at the destination. The other two—bland, if diligent astronauts, both—perform mundane tasks and bide their time on the long journey. At some point, a glitch occurs that alerts Hal to a mechanical problem with the ship, but upon investigation, the astronauts decide that Hal is “in error” in his claim. Now, this is unthinkable, according to Hal. Accustomed to perfection, to a version of indulgence, Hal is not accustomed to being told that he is wrong about anything. The astronauts aren’t used to this either, and rather ill-advisedly think aloud that Hal’s unprecedented “error” bodes ill for the mission. Secretly, they plot to disconnect Hal, but fail to conceal their whispering, conspiratorial chatter from the all-seeing, lip-reading, and apparently sensitive computer.

Sensitive? Well, that’s one word to describe the anti-social/psychotically paranoid/narcissistic impulse to punish, even murder your adversaries. Yet this is what Hal does: firstly, he cuts off the life support of the three sleeping astronauts, killing them stone dead in seconds. Next, he severs the life-line of astronaut Frank, who was performing a space-walk, not repairing the device that Hal claimed had malfunctioned but rather simply putting it back in its place. Hal’s attack is sudden and brutal, expelling Frank from the ship and sending him adrift into the cosmos. How…cold, we might think. Half-witness to the action, sole survivor Dave—in some ways, the coolest character of all in this film—ventures out to collect Frank’s drifting body, only to realize Hal’s malevolent intent upon his return. His appeal to re-enter the ship from outer space is one of the great understated lines in movie history: “open the pod bay doors, Hal”, to which the computer smoothly replies, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Talk about being locked out of the house.

Yes, on the surface, Hal is a sci-fi Frankenstein: a product of man’s cool and ruthless evolution from the primal horde to the nation state; from the primeval ooze to the sterile rationality of a modern age. Should we blame him for the way he is? Is it shocking or strangely endearing that beneath the surface of an efficient, smoothly-running machine is a paranoid and savage killer? Is it further shocking that the creation/monster turns out to be more human than the scientists who created him? In mustering his own atavism, astronaut Dave manages to re-enter Discovery, infiltrate the memory banks of Hal’s system and—with Hal looking on with beseeching fear—disconnect the computer’s executive functions. Dave carries out this task slowly, methodically, floating from one disk/file item to the next, turning them off, thus killing Hal one piece at a time. The scene has the look of someone’s nervous system being unplugged. As this occurs, Hal’s plaintive voice regresses from its ordinarily precise timbre to a baritone muddy sound, and as his brain deteriorates, he recalls a song taught him by his creator in the—get this—early nineteen nineties. The song is a lullaby written exactly a hundred years earlier (likely not a coincidence if you know Kubrick), and likely chosen because it is childlike and sweet, reminding us that villains, narcissists, and so on were once vulnerable, if psychically omnipotent, and more importantly, that human longing is timeless. The lyrics are Hal’s final words, plus our lament for a lost collective soul:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you look sweet upon a seat

Of a bicycle built for two

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