......• A Pervert's Guide to Family •
When Sophie Fiennes approached me with the idea to do a "pervert's guide" to cinema, our shared goal was to demonstrate how psychoanalytic cinema-criticism is still the best we have, how it can generate insights which compel us to change our entire perspective. The "pervert" from the title is thus not a narrow clinical category; it rather refers to perverting - turning around - our spontaneous perceptions.
The usual reproach to psychoanalytic criticism is that it reduces everything to family complexes: whatever the story, it is "really about" Oedipus, incest, etc. Instead of trying to prove that this is not true, one should accept the challenge. The films which are furthest from family dramas are catastrophe films, which cannot but fascinate the viewer with a spectacular depiction of a terrifying event of immense proportions. This brings us to the first psychoanalytic rule of how to read catastrophe movies: we should avoid the lure of the "big event" and re-focus on the "small event" (familial relations), reading the spectacular catastrophe as an indication of the family trouble. Take Steven Spielberg: the secret motif than runs through all his key films - ET, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List - is the recovery of the father, of his authority. One should remember that the family to whose small boy ET appears was deserted by the father (as we learn in the very beginning), so that ET is ultimately a kind of "vanishing mediator" who provides a new father (the good scientist who, in the film's last shot, is already seen embracing the mother) - when the new father is here, ET can leave and "go home."
And the same story goes on and on. Empire of the Sun focuses on a boy deserted by his family in the war-torn China and surviving through the help of an ersatz-father (played by John Malkovich). In the very first scene of Jurassic Park, we see the paternal figure (played by Sam Neill) jokingly threatening the two kids with a dinosaur bone - this bone is clearly the tiny object-stain which, later, explodes into gigantic dinosaurs, so that one can risk the hypothesis that, within the film's fantasmatic universe, the dinosaurs' destructive fury merely materializes the rage of the paternal superego. A barely perceptible detail that occurs later, in the middle of the film, confirm this reading. The pursued group of Neill with two kids take refugee from the murderous carnivorous dinosaurs in a gigantic tree, where, dead tired, they fall asleep; on the three, Neill loses the dinosaur bone that was stuck in his belt, and it is as if this accidental loss has a magic effect - before they fall asleep, Neill is reconciled with the children, displaying warm affection and care for them. Significantly, the dinosaurs which approach the three next morning and awaken the sleeping party, turn out to be of the benevolent herbivorous kind... Schindler's List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park (and, if anything, worse than the original), with the Nazis as the dinosaur monsters, Schindler as (at the film's beginning) the cynical-profiteering and opportunistic parental figure, and the ghetto Jews as threatened children (their infantilization in the film is eye-striking) - the story the film tells is about Schindler's gradual rediscovery of his paternal duty towards the Jews, and his transformation into a caring and responsible father.
And is The War of the Worlds not the last installment of this saga? Tom Cruise plays a divorced working class father who neglects his two children; the invasion of the aliens reawakens in him the proper paternal instincts, and he rediscovers himself as a caring father - no wonder that, in last scene, he finally gets the recognition from his son who, throughout the film, despised him. In the mode of the 18th century stories, the film could thus also have been subtitled "A story on how a working father finally gets reconciled with his son"... One can effectively imagine the film WITHOUT the blood-thirsty aliens: what remains is in a way "what the film really is about," the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children. Therein resides the film's ideology: with regard to the two levels of the story (the Oedipal level of the lost and regained paternal authority; the spectacular level of the conflict with the invading aliens), there is a clear dissymmetry, since the Oedipal level is what the story is "really about," while the external spectacular is merely its metaphoric extension.
And the same goes for the most successful film of all times: is Cameron's Titanic really about the catastrophe of the ship hitting the ice-berg? One should be attentive to the precise moment of the catastrophe: it takes place when the two young lovers (Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett), immediately after consummating their amorous link in the sexual act, return to the ship's deck. This, however, is not all: if this were all, then the catastrophe would have been simply the punishment of Fate for the double transgression (illegitimate sexual act; crossing the class divisions). What is more crucial is that, on the deck, Kate passionately says to her lover that, when the ship will reach New York the next morning, she will leave with him, preferring poor life with her true love to the false corrupted life among the rich; at THIS moment the ship hits the ice-berg, in order to PREVENT what would undoubtedly have been the TRUE catastrophe, namely the couple's life in New York - one can safely guess that soon, the misery of everyday life would destroy their love. The catastrophe thus occurs in order to safe their love, in order to sustain the illusion that, if it were not to happen, they would have lived "happily forever after"...
But even this is not all; a further clue is provided by the final moments of di Caprio. He is freezing in the cold water, dying, while Winslet is safely floating on a large piece of wood; aware that she is losing him, she cries: "I'll never let you go!", and, while saying this, she pushes him away with her hands - why? Beneath the story of a love couple, Titanic tells another story, the story of a spoiled high-society girl in an identity-crisis: she is confused, doesn't know what to do with herself, and, much more than her love partner, di Caprio is a kind of "vanishing mediator" whose function is to restore her sense of identity and purpose in life, her self-image (quite literally, also: he draws her image); once his job is done, he can disappear. This is why his last words, before he disappears in freezing North Atlantic, are not the words of a departing lover's, but, rather, the last message of a preacher, telling her how to lead her life, to be honest and faithful to herself, etc. What this means is that Cameron's superficial Hollywood-Marxism (his all too obvious privileging of the lower classes and caricatural depiction of the cruel egotism and opportunism of the rich) should not deceive us: beneath this sympathy for the poor, there is another narrative, the profoundly reactionary myth, first fully deployed by Kipling's Captain Courageous, of a young rich person in crisis who gets his (or her) vitality restored by a brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor. What lurks behind the compassion for the poor is their vampiric exploitation.
The ridiculous climax of this Hollywood-procedure of staging great historical events as the background of the formation of a couple is Warren Beatty's Reds, in which Hollywood found a way to rehabilitate the October Revolution itself, arguably the most traumatic historical event of the XXth century. That is to say, how, exactly, is the October Revolution depicted in the film? The couple of John Reed and Louise Bryant are in a deep emotional crisis; their love is re-ignited when Louise watches John who, on a platform, delivers an impassionate revolutionary speech. What then follows is their love-making, intersected with archetypal scenes from the revolution, some of which reverberate in an all too obvious way with the love-making; say, when John penetrates Louise, there is a cut onto a street where a dark crowd of demonstrating people envelops and stops a penetrating "phallic" tramway... all this against the background of a singing of the International. When, at the orgasmic climax, Lenin himself appears, addressing a packed hall of delegates, he is more a wise teacher over-seeing leading the couple's love-initiation than a cold revolutionary leader. Even the October Revolution is OK, if it serves the re-constitution of a couple...
When the catastrophe is more spectacular, threatening the life on earth itself, one can safely presume that the familial deadlock is also more unsettling, going beyond ordinary love troubles. In Mimi Leder's Deep Impact (1998), a gigantic comet is threatening to hit the Earth and to extinguish all life for 2 years; at the film's end, the Earth is saved due to the heroic suicidal action of a group of astronauts with atomic weapons; only a small fragment of the comet falls into the ocean east of New York and causes a colossal, hundreds of yards high wave that flushes the entire north-east coast of the USA. This comet-Thing also creates a couple, but an unexpected one: the incestuous couple of the young, obviously neurotic, sexually inactive TV-reporter (Tea Leoni) and her promiscuous father, who has divorced her mother and just married a young woman of the same age as his daughter (Maximilian Schell). It is clear that the film is effectively a drama about this unresolved proto-incestuous father-daughter relationship: the threatening comet obviously gives body to the self-destructive rage of the heroine.
The entire machinery of the global catastrophe is thus set in motion so that the father's young wife will abandon him, and the father will return (not to his wife, the heroine's mother, but) to her daughter: the culmination of the film is the scene in which the heroine rejoins her father who, alone in his luxurious seaside house, awaits the impending wave. She finds him walking along the shoreline; they make peace with each other and embrace, silently awaiting the wave; when the wave approaches and is already casting its large shadow over them, she draws herself closer to her father, gently crying "Daddy!", as if to search for protection in him, reconstituting the childhood scene of a small girl safeguarded by the father's loving embrace, and a second later they are both swept away by the gigantic wave. The heroine's helplessness and vulnerability in this scene should not deceive us: she is the evil spirit who, in the underlying libidinal machinery of the film's narrative, pulls the strings, and this scene of finding death in the protective father's embrace is the realization of her ultimate wish... This scene is to be read against the background of the standard Hollywood motif (rendered famous in Fred Zinneman's From Here to Eternity) of the couple making love on the beach, brushed by waves (Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr): here, the couple is the truly deadly incestuous one, not the straight one, so the wave is the gigantic killing wave, not the modest shake of small beach waves...
Interestingly enough, the other big 1998 blockbuster-variation on the theme of a gigantic comet threatening Earth, Armageddon, also focuses on the incestuous father-daughter relation. Here, however, it is the father (Bruce Willis) who is excessively attached to his daughter: the comet's destructive force gives body to his fury at her daughter's love affairs with other men of her age. Significantly, the denouement is also more "positive," not self-destructive: the father sacrifices himself in order to save Earth, i.e. effectively - at the level of the underlying libidinal economy - erasing himself out of the picture in order to bless the marriage of his daughter with her young lover.
And this brings us to the two Hollywood productions released to mark the 5th anniversary of the 9/11: Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. The first thing that strikes the eye is that both try to be as anti-Hollywood as possible: both focus on the courage of ordinary people, with no glamorous stars, no special effects, no grandiloquent heroic gestures, just a terse realistic depiction of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. There is undoubtedly a touch of authenticity in the films - recall how the large majority of critics unanimously praised the film's avoiding of sensationalism, its sober and restrained style. It is, however, this very touch of authenticity which raises some disturbing questions.
The first thing one cannot but note is how both films tell the story of an exception: United 93 is about the only one of the four kidnapped planes in which the terrorists failed, which did not hit its destination; WTC tells the story of the two of those twenty who were saved from the ruins. The disaster is thus turned into a kind of triumph, most notably in United 93, where the dilemma the passengers confront is: what can they do in a situation in which they know for sure they will die? Their heroic decision is: if we cannot save ourselves, let us at least try to save others' lives - so they storm the pilot's cabin to bring the plane down before it will hit the target intended by the kidnappers (the passengers already knew about the two planes hitting the Twin Towers). How does this telling the story of an exception function? A comparison with Spielberg's Schindler's List is instructive here: although the film is undoubtedly an artistic and political failure, the idea to choose Schindler as a hero was a correct one - it is precisely by presenting a German who DID something to help Jews that one demonstrates how it was possible to do something, and thus to effectively condemn those who did nothing claiming that it was not possible to do anything. In United 93, on the contrary, the focus on the rebellion serves the purpose of preventing us to ask the truly pertinent questions. That is to say, let us indulge in a simple mental experiment and imagine both films with the same change: American 11 (or another flight which did hit its target) instead of United 93, the story of its passengers; WTC remade as the story of two of the firefighters or policemen who did die in the rubbles of the Twin Towers after a prolonged suffering... Without in any way justifying or showing an "understanding" for the terrible crime, such a version would confront us with the true horror of the situation and thus compel us to think, to start asking serious questions about how such a thing could have happened and what does it mean.
The second feature: both films restrain not only from taking a political stance about the events, but even from depicting their larger political context. Neither the passenger on United 93 flight nor the policemen in WTC have a grasp on the full picture - all of a sudden, they find themselves thrown into a terrifying situation and have to make the best out of it. This lack of "cognitive mapping" is crucial: both films depict ordinary people affected by the sudden brutal intrusion of History as the absent Cause, the invisible Real that hurts. All we see are the disastrous effects, with their cause so abstract that, in the case of WTC, one can easily imagine exactly the same film in which the Twin Towers would have collapsed due to a strong earthquake. Or, even more problematically, we can imagine the same film taking place in a big German city in 1944, after the devastating Allied bombing...
Or what about the same film taking place in a bombed high-rise building in southern Beirut? That's the point: it CANNOT take place there. Such a film would have been dismissed as a "subtle pro-Hezbollah terrorist propaganda" (and the same would have been the case with the imagined German film). What this means is that the two films' ideological-political message resides in their very abstention from delivering a political message: this abstention is sustained by an implicit TRUST into one's government - "when the enemy attacks, one just has to do one's duty..." In it because of this implicit trust that United 93 and WTC differ radically from the pacifist films like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which also depict ordinary people (soldiers) exposed to suffering and death - here, their suffering is clearly presented as a meaningless sacrifice for an obscure and manipulated Cause.
This brings us back to our starting point, to the "concrete" character of the two films, depicting ordinary people in a terse realistic mode. Any philosopher knows Hegel's counter-intuitive use of the opposition between "abstract" and "concrete": in ordinary language, "abstract" are general notions, as opposed to "concrete" really existing singular objects and events; for Hegel, on the contrary, it is such immediate reality which is "abstract," and to render it "concrete" means to deploy the complex universal context that gives meaning to it. Therein resides the problem of the two films: both are ABSTRACT in their very "concreteness." The function of their down-to-earth depiction of concrete individuals struggling for life is not just to avoid cheap commercial spectacle, but to obliterate the historical context.
Here, then, is where we are five years later: still unable to locate 9/11 into a large narrative, to provide its "cognitive mapping." Of course, there is the official story according to which, the permanent virtual threat of the invisible Enemy legitimizes preemptive strikes: precisely because the threat is virtual, it is too late to wait for its actualization, one has to strike in advance, before it will be too late. In other words, the omni-present invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense. The difference of the War on Terror with previous XXth century world-wide struggles like the Cold War is that while, in the preceding cases, the enemy was clearly identified as the positively-existing Communist empire, the terrorist threat is inherently spectral, without a visible center. It is a little bit like the characterization of the figure of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction: "Most people have a dark side... she had nothing else." Most regimes have a dark oppressive spectral side ... the terrorist threat has nothing else.
The power which presents itself as being all the time under threat and thus merely defending itself against an invisible enemy, exposes itself to the danger of manipulation: can we really trust them, or are they just evoking the threat to discipline and control us? The paradoxical result of this spectralization of the Enemy can thus be a reversal of role: in this world without a clearly identified Enemy, it is the US themselves, the protector against the threat, which is emerging as the main enemy... as in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient-Express in which, since the entire group of the suspects is the murderer, the victim itself (an evil millionaire) should turn out to be the criminal.
The lesson is thus that, in combating terror, it is more crucial than ever for the state politics to be democratically transparent. Unfortunately, we are now paying the price for the cobweb of lies and manipulations by the US and UK governments in the last decade, reaching their climax in the tragicomedy with the Iraqi weapons of mass destructions. Recall the August 2006 alert apropos the thwarted terrorist attempt to blow a dozen planes on their flight from London to the US: no doubt the alert was not a fake, to claim this would be too paranoiac - but, nonetheless, a suspicion remains that all of it was a self-serving spectacle to accustom us to a permanent state of emergency, to the state of exception as a way of life. What space for manipulation open up such events where all that is publicly visible are the anti-terrorist measures themselves? Is it not that they simply demand from us, ordinary citizens, too much - a degree of trust that those in power had long ago forsaken? THIS is the sin for which Bush, Blair, and their consorts should never be forgiven.
Third feature: in both films, there is a key moment which violates this terse realistic style. United 93 starts with kidnappers in a motel room, praying, getting ready; they look austere, like some kind of angels of death - and the first shot after the title-credits confirms this impression: it is a panoramic shot from high above of Manhattan in the night, accompanied by the sound of the kidnappers' prayers, as if the kidnappers stroll above the city, getting ready to descend on earth to ripe their harvest... Similarly, there are no direct shots of the planes hitting the towers in WTC; all that we see, seconds before the catastrophe, when one of the policemen is on a busy street in a crowd of people, is an ominous shadow quickly passing over them - the shadow of the first plane. These shots confer on both films a strange theological reverberation - as if the attacks were a kind of divine intervention.
Recall the first reaction of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the 9/11 bombings, perceiving them as a sign that God lifted up its protection of the US because of the sinful lives of the Americans, putting the blame on hedonist materialism, liberalism, and rampant sexuality, and claiming that America got what it deserved... In a hidden way, United 93 and WTC tend to do the opposite: to read the 9/11 catastrophe as a blessing in disguise, as a divine intervention from above to awaken us from moral slumber and to bring out the best in us. WTC ends with the off-screen words which spell out this message: terrible events like the Twin Towers destruction bring out in people the worst AND the best - courage, solidarity, sacrifice for community. People are shown to be able to do things they would never imagine of being able. It is as if our societies need a major catastrophe in order to resuscitate the spirit of communal solidarity. This is why, again, United 93 and WTC are not really about the War on Terror, but about the lack of solidarity and courage in our permissive late-capitalist societies...
...and about the redemptive power of family love - United 93 cannot restrain from repeatedly showing a passenger who, close to death, calls a spouse or a closest relative with the message "I love you." Does, however, this really mean that "love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black," as Martin Amis put it in his celebration of the film? A suspicion remains here: is this desperate confession of love also not a fake, the same kind of fake as the sudden turn to God of someone who faces the proximity of death - a hypocritical opportunistic move made out of fear, not out of true conviction? Amis himself, the author of a scathing book about Stalin, should know how many of the condemned at Stalinist show trials faced the firing squad professing their innocence and their love for Stalin, a pathetic gesture which aimed at redeeming their image in the eyes of the big Other. Why should there be more truth in what we do in such desperate moments? Is it not rather that, in such moments, the survival-instinct makes us betray our desire?
This brings us to what would have been a true ethical act: imagine a wife phoning her husband in the last seconds of her life, telling him: "Just to let you know that our marriage was a fake, that I cannot stand the sight of you..."
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