False Criticism: Cinema, Bourgeois Society, and the Conservative Complaint
By Christopher Sharrett.
As the most extraordinary art form of modernity, the cinema’s great accomplishment has been its subversion of various received truths, from conventional notions of sexuality to the workings of time and space, and the undermining of the very concept of being in the age of relativity. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, the cinema offers clear illustrations, often through the very nature of the medium, of the powerful impact of Marx, Freud, and Einstein on dogmas associated with western patriarchal capitalist civilization.[i] Perhaps the greatest, even obsessive, locus of subversion on the part of all cinemas—Hollywood, foreign, avant garde—is the debunking of bourgeois life embodied in the community, the family, the heterosexual monogamous couple, and the larger political-economic system they represent. Films with this concern present the couple and the family not as the social bedrock that dominant civilization has portrayed, but as the conditioning structures that regulate desire, delimit sexual roles (especially for the female), encourage competition and deceit among people, and in short form the basis of the capitalist state. This subversion has produced a distinguished tradition: Renoir’s Rules of the Game; Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Madame de..; the melodramas of Douglas Sirk; various films by Bunuel, especially The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire, and Belle de Jour; and Pasolini’s remarkable Teorema and Porcile, among many other films. Renoir, Bunuel, and Pasolini, as representative examples, helped create a major oppositional European cinema within a sometimes hostile cultural context (the hostility toward Pasolini may at this writing be seen as rather passive given that many of his films are either unavailable or available in shoddy video editions to the small audience aware of this fine work). We might count most or all of the major films of Hitchcock as sly—sometimes glaringly obvious in the instances of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie—social criticisms. Hitchcock may in fact be the representative figure of the classic Hollywood to critique bourgeois culture from a conservative position, the major concern of these remarks.
The criticism of the bourgeois social order is a steadily recurrent theme of the international cinema (regardless of the change of controls within the industry), not the consequence of a few marginal, courageous decisions of a few exceptional artists of yesterday. I say this given the prevalence of films about the failures of bourgeois life, especially that of America, in the cinema of the past twenty years, that is, the era of the neoconservative reaction that brought Reagan and his ideological heirs. It would seem that the ability to produce such work was not the luck of Ophuls, Sirk, and others who were privileged to work in the ideological interstices of the earlier Hollywood until one pays close attention to the inadequacies of the contemporary cinema of social criticism.
The postmodern moment saw a marked increase of “underside of suburbia” films that seem a response to the “morning in America” reassuring platitudes of Reagan in the wake of the Vietnam/Watergate years that brought a serious challenge to the dominant social-economic order. The number of commercial films on this topic, or issues of family or gender relations, produced in the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century is a bit overwhelming, and a comprehensive list would be difficult: The Ice Storm, Happiness, In the Bedroom, Before and After, The Good Girl, The Daytrippers, American Beauty, L.I.E., Capturing the Friedmans, Elephant, Fight Club, Far From Heaven, Laurel Canyon, In the Cut, Pleasantville, The Deep End, One Hour Photo, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Autofocus, The Virgin Suicides, The Sweet Hereafter, The Adjuster, Election, Storytelling, The Hours, Ghost World, Safe, Thirteen, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and Donnie Darko are a few representative films that come to mind. While some films above are exemplary, even devastating critiques of middle-class life (The Daytrippers, the Julianne Moore sequence of The Hours, Safe, Far from Heaven, Election), others are decidedly troublesome, many seriously overrated, their focus being almost exclusively the travails of the male, and tend to present desire, regardless of its ideological frame, as axiomatically perverse (American Beauty, Autofocus, The Secret Lives of Dentists), while others are repugnant demonizations of the sexually adventurous or overbearing female (Laurel Canyon, In the Cut, The Ice Storm, In the Bedroom). Given the extreme reaction of the last two decades prior to this writing (the Clinton era in the US and the rise of “new Labour” in Britain must be seen as contiguous within, rather than opposed to this reaction, as capitalism attempted a new set of variations on its democratic façade), a number of issues arise as to the meaning of this recurring preoccupation. A few of these films are representative of a struggling, tentative oppositional cinema more or less lost amid the “blockbuster” fare of the New Hollywood. The great majority of them, however, suggest a form of inoculation whereby the critical faculties of the audience are acknowledged in the general project of gaining new legitimacy for the social order.[ii] They offer rather calculated, obvious, clumsy observations of society, focusing (within a highly delimited debate) on, for example, sexual frustration from the viewpoint of male privilege, while pretending such issues can be addressed within the confines of accepted notions of political economy. It strikes me that these issues must be incorporated into an understanding of the new “social problem” cinema, some of which is produced by independents more or less at the margins, but sanctioned by the industry. One’s chief concern about many of the critical projects of these films is the disturbing vision offered, a familiar criticism of capitalist culture from the right, its goals ultimately aimed at consolation and restoration, through the destruction of some aberrant agent, rather than challenges to a bankrupt, irredeemable social order. At this date, the utter failure of bourgeois civilization, ranging from the devastating impact of transnational capitalism to the end of heterosexual “family values” so hysterically extolled by the right, is so manifest that the acknowledgement of this failure by culture must axiomatically focus on the cooptation or simple delegitimization of radical visions of society.
Certain strains of this cinema, most obviously the films affected by forms of apocalypticism (about which more herein), remind the informed spectator of Georg Lukacs’s cautions about large tendencies of artistic modernism.[iii] The arguments against Lukacs’s single-minded defense of realism are well known. There is no reason to recapitulate this debate beyond acknowledging that the champions of numerous forms of modern and postmodern radical expression are obviously important, as I suggested at the outset, in critiquing dominant culture through formal innovations that frequently assaulted not only bourgeois social relations but the notion of subjecthood under capitalist arrangements. Nevertheless, Lukacs has much instruction to offer as we note that at the heart of contemporary cinema’s critique of society is a despair that accepts alienation as an inevitable—and rather ineffable—state of being, in fact one that can be the subject of celebration as religiosity and nihilism become complementary ideologies of this civilization. The work of Bunuel, Godard, and Pasolini, or the horror film of the 70s, offered uncompromised accounts of the social catastrophe wrought by the basic assumptions of patriarchal capitalism and the culture flowing from it. These films suggested a specific apocalypticism (pointing to capitalist culture as the site of apocalypse), a diagnosis of a disease that could not be addressed by convenient palliatives, nor did they suggest that the human subject could somehow slip past the crisis and survive. Numerous contemporary films such as Se7en (and the endless serial killer films following it and The Silence of the Lambs), Fight Club, and the new suburban nightmare films, make Lukacs’s point repeatedly: These films posit a distorted “fallen” world (the locus of horror is often metaphysical and tied to a doom-laden fate) that can’t be helped, in which we are all somehow complicit (in what way is usually unclear), in which political-economic remedy is generally off the table, a new society based on an end to repression and social and economic justice unthinkable.[iv] In discussing the particular atheism affecting much artistic modernism, Lukacs makes remarks applicable to the culture that has produced and an entire cycle of films that view metaphysical forces as determining the downfall of bourgeois society. For Lukacs, modernist atheism is not an emblem of rebellion, but a “token of the ‘God-forsakenness’ of the world, its utter desolation and futility.” He states:
Modern religious atheism is characterized, on the one hand, by the fact that unbelief has lost its revolutionary élan—the empty heavens are the projection of a world beyond redemption. On the other hand, religious atheism shows that the desire for salvation lives on with undiminished force in a world without God, worshipping the void created by God’s absence.[v]
A culture that wallows in the despair of a Se7en or the nonsensical solipsistic fantasies of a Donnie Darko, or the vicious nihilism of Gummo or any of the films of David Lynch, would profit from Lukasc’s thinking.
In considering the inadequacy of the new anti-bourgeois cinema, it is instructive to consider the achievements of Renoir, Ophuls, and Sirk, the unsparing yet complex nature of their social vision vis a vis a David Fincher or, far worse, a David Lynch, whose Blue Velvet seemed at the moment of its release a provocation to the “retro culture” of Reaganism, but under close examination is the embodiment not only of the bankruptcy but the extreme reaction underneath the cinema’s postmodern social criticism.[vi] Along with his other works, including especially his TV project Twin Peaks, ostensibly a send-up of the American self-image represented in the situation comedy, Lynch uses quirkiness as a substitute for critique. Indeed, the “oddities” of daily life, displayed particularly in characters representing sexual transgression, are the sum and substance of Lynch’s social vision. Among the more poisonous but decidedly influential elements of Lynch’s vision is a sense of moral superiority fused to nihilism. None of the characters of his narratives, certainly not the vacuous protagonists portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan, merits sympathetic interest, yet none are so authentically corrupt—including the cartoon monsters associated with Lynch’s obsession with adult versions of the schoolyard bully—to support a reasonable image of a disintegrating society rotting from within in the manner of Visconti or Pasolini, whose concepts of evil (not that they had much truck with the term) were tied to political-economic assumptions. Worse, Lynch’s films contain the notion that America has an “underbelly,” an across-the-tracks nightmare realm (again associated with notions of sexual deviation) unrepresentative of the general health and well-being of the nation. This idea, in one variation or other, becomes basic to a wide variety of films commenting on suburban or small town life. Lynch’s disgust for alternative sexuality is adopted and transformed by various filmmakers. Disgust for sexuality is conflated with a disgust for the working class in Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), a film whose apocalyptic presentation of destroyed rural life is analyzed no further than the condescending depiction of the human detritus of the rust belt, with little clear connection between economic calamity (a tornado’s destruction of a town is allowed to cover all bases in the film’s elliptical opening) and the malformation of human existence. Deformity and human freakishness, presented as givens for our delectation in images recalling—but showing no regard for—the work of Diane Arbus, have in this film little foundation in a long history of repression, as is the case in Michael Lesy’s masterful photo essay Wisconsin Death Trip.[vii] The films of Todd Solondz, for all their mordant wit, evidence a similar lack of compassion that quickly gives the lie to his satirical project. Happiness (1998) and Storytelling (2001) are films made from a position of snide superiority, a problem to which Solondz became a bit sensitized it seems, with Storytelling’s segment about a rebellious maid a not very forthcoming attempt to create disclaimers, its sense of its characters as loathsome suckers palpable. A slightly more erudite variation can be seen in Lars Van Trier’s Dogville (2003), a Brechtian condemnation of the U.S. via certain stage traditions associated with Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s idealization of American life. But this film, for all its appealing “anti-Americanism” (a very dirty notion harped on by journalistic reviewers in the era of the Iraq war), condemns a general meanness and small-mindedness dissociated from ideology (certainly an approach alien to Brecht). When set alongside Max Ophuls’ modest film noir/melodrama The Reckless Moment (1949), which offers an unsurpassed vision of the suffocation of American society by its own mores while retaining compassion for all characters as complicit in their ideological entrapment, Lynch and his kin seem alarmingly weak.[viii] But it would be an error to argue that late studio Hollywood, for all its resistances, was able to produce consistently more honest work on American postwar life than the plethora of relatively independent works dealing with social issues of the 80s, 90s, and the new century.
The Hollywood cinema of the 50s is notorious for its critiques of civilization from a rightist perspective, even as the ads for its films screamed out controversy, and in so being set a certain negative standard, a “bad example” for the disingenuous social criticism of postmodernity. This cinema, which must be distinguished from numerous radical challenges, such as the work of Sirk, provides a model of explanation for understanding both the ideological contradictions of the commercial cinema and its conscious attempts at revivifying the elements of bourgeois life increasingly a subject of doubt in the postwar years. It also points the way for the dissolution of oppositional cinema under the new corporate arrangements of the 80s and after. Representative are Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and, at a far lesser level of achievement, Mark Robson’s Peyton Place. Ray’s film is the most remarkable “teenpic” of its era, with all the disrespect for adolescent culture that the term has come to signify. The very title suggests that adolescents have no grounds for complaint, their rebellion (which is little indeed) based on emotional problems precipitated by parents not on proper duty. More particularly, the threats to society described by Rebel concern primarily the feminized, domesticated male, embodied in the henpacked father of Jim Stark (James Dean). The female and her culture is a source of woe. Jim Stark’s frustration with a father who won’t “knock mom cold” represents the film’s dominant statement, one that tends to overwhelm the more subversive sequences of the narrative, including the building of an alternative family by Jim, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), a triad with strong bisexual overtones, particularly as we see Plato’s hero worship of Jim evolve, and the obvious affection shared by the two men, both very feminine figures among the stars of the new postwar youth cinema. That the narrative must destroy Plato, and replace Jim’s bright red windbreaker with the father’s gray suit jacket is logical enough given the assumptions of the narrative. It is Dean’s iconic presence that transcends and saves the film, offering an image of bisexuality that reigns eternal in poster shops ever since the star’s early death.[ix] It must be said in fairness to Nicholas Ray, among the more gifted studio directors of his era, that he worked, however falteringly, at notions of social subversion for much of his career—the badly compromised but astonishing Bigger than Life appeared one year after Rebel Without a Cause.
The undermining of potentially radical material by an opportunistic late studio system is most flagrant in Robson’s Peyton Place (1957). The Grace Metalious source novel, for all its crudity, might be seen today as the legitimate outcry of an emotionally isolated woman of stifling postwar society thoroughly alienated from a dreadful New England small town culture, the alienation made all the more profound with the book’s publication, further propelling the writer’s mental illness, alcoholism, and early death. Peyton Place the novel is a scathing condemnation of the small town as degraded, hypocritical, bigoted, irredeemable. Aside from removing the more provocative sexual elements of the novel, the film, in exploiting its source, recuperates in the most intellectually dishonest way imaginable the material the book condemns. Amid a series of strained pontifications by the film’s boorish hero, the schoolteacher Mike Rossi (Lee Philips), Constance Mackenzie (Lana Turner) is freed from a pointlessly self-imposed repression just enough to make her ripe for a new round of it through marriage. The film’s conclusion is a wistful, unqualified valorization of small town life for all its vicissitudes.
Few films of the 1950s contain as much incoherence on the subject of bourgeois life as Joshua Logan’s Picnic (1955), based on the play by William Inge. The film is marked by a typical inability to envision liberation that doesn’t accommodate the needs of the disempowered male; it is nevertheless among the most poignant narratives of its type. Like the best melodramas of the era, Picnic shows the utter fragility of small town life, its economic foundations resting on the benevolent caprice of a wheat tycoon and his spoiled son. By filming on location in a Kansas town, with its citizens filling out the supporting cast of the film’s picnic centerpiece, Logan show authentic interest in the lives of people of Middle America while simultaneously showing their emotional and intellectual bankruptcy. Dissatisfaction is evident in every expression on the face of Flo (Betty Field) whose concern for the social acceptance of her two daughters, especially the sexually alluring Madge (Kim Novak), makes her the enforcer of the patriarchal law that eventually furthers her isolation and despair. The tumult into which the town is thrown is centered on William Holden’s Hal Carter, a drifter whose close association with the tycoon’s son Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) signals a questioning of every feature of daily life. As such, the film bears similarities to certain plays by Tennessee Williams, in particular Orpheus Descending, for its notion of the sexual interloper whose very presence is a challenge to the repression imposed on both sexes, but especially the women, from the elderly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton), confined to a lifetime of caring for a sick parent (we might compare the premise here to Robert Wise’s The Haunting, a film which examines thoughtfully the suffocation of the female as caregiver) to the middle-aged “old maid” schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell in a performance brilliant for its sense of a restrained eroticism that can only explode into cruelty, precipitating the ultimate crisis), to the mother and her daughters Madge and the tomboy Millie (Susan Strasberg). Hal’s winning of Madge from Benson seems a subversion twice over, since Madge’s love of Hal becomes a dismissal of the dream of upward mobility represented by Benson, as well as the more staid (to say the least) sexual life figured in that relationship. Hal’s ultimate fight with Benson, and his escape on a freight train (lionizing his image as “bum” eschewing middle-class acceptance for all his attempts to gain it) followed by Madge, suggests within the logic of the narrative the more or less total destruction of the town’s ideology, an end to innocence. Yet this destruction depends on the catalyst of the male’s sexual charisma, the rescuing of the male libido from 50s domesticity embodied in the singularly hysterical (because apparently impotent) Benson. The narrative’s subsidiary position of Millie, relegating her to a forlorn intellectual life, is a form of containment for the female marked by her bookworm characterization. The intellectual female is newly noted by postwar American culture, and noted as sexually suspect (surely they are lesbians!) while permitting this figure to be the conscience of the narrative since her potential threat is so easily erased. Although she is obviously a grown woman, she is infantilized. Millie acts as conscience for Madge, encouraging her escape, while she remains behind threatening to one day shock the world with books that will probably not be produced given the limits placed on Millie as an effectual character. The containment of Millie’s potential sexual transgression (she is the most angry, the most aware of the dynamics around her) allows the more accepted female (Madge) to flourish, even if the only reasonable afterstory one could envision is Madge’s degradation by Hal (the mother’s warnings seem sensible). Picnic is extraordinary in its time for its acknowledgment of the extreme extent of repression, but cannot fully posit a truly liberated future precisely because the only freedom it can envision is based on the sexual authority of the male.
The difficult contradictions of a 50s melodrama such as Picnic don’t unduly undercut the sophistication of the film when one sets it against the social criticism of films made in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) might be considered alongside Picnic, particularly for the issues it and similar contemporary melodramas find no longer worthy of examination. The Ice Storm takes place in 70s suburban Connecticut, not the rural Midwest. The suburban locale might be compared to that of Sirk’s melodramas, noting here the failure to attend to the entrapment by the suburban domicile (compare with the image of television—and all commodities and accoutrements—of All That Heaven Allows). The location and timeframe are instructive, the script by James Schamus telling us much about the current perspective toward both class and the perceived self-indulgence of 60s and 70s culture, especially the consequences of the feminist and sexual liberation movements. The film is a frequently compelling portrayal of the bankruptcy of family life as two families implode during the Watergate years—the Nixon scandals are mirrored in the duplicity and denial that are the fabric of daily life. The overcast dreariness of the film complements well the sense of isolation and emotional petrifaction encompassing all characters of the film. But The Ice Storm seems representative of a tendency of the new Hollywood cinema to focus on the travails facing the upper middle class, with the assumption that the working classes no longer exist except as a subject for romantic nostalgia or demonization. The homes of the new melodramas are comfortably appointed, often extravagant, the point being not so much an exposition of the decadence flowing from the emptiness of bourgeois creature comforts (the point was made by Sirk), but the assumption that the new, upwardly-mobile America has indeed made it even if the price is a bit high. Picnic is a useful point of comparison in several regards. It would be very difficult to make such a film today simply because, with all of its repression, the modest working class small town no longer exists. What exists in its place is the devastated world of Gummo, a world whose representation is the subject of caricature and obloquy. At a far more important level of significance, with more sympathetic interest for its subject, is the portrayal of the destroyed heartland of Michael Moore’s documentaries Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002), which evidence the consequences of neoconservative economics on the idealized concept of the rural community. The extreme class polarization of post-60s society is vaguely in the background of The Ice Storm, whose view of class travails as a factor in suburban alienation hardly outdistances The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), made a half-century earlier. Of greater concern are the sexual politics of the film, particularly since the focus is largely on sexually adventurous housewives (Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen) whose provocative behavior, portrayed as depraved, dissolute, and ultimately destructive, is consequent to the muddle-headed behavior of weak males who, it would seem, are unable to provide cohesion to the family or community. A positive appraisal of the film might suggest that it speaks to the impossibility of the old image of male-as-provider and enabler of the continuation of bourgeois life, but the image of the sexualized female (Weaver’s Janie Carver in particular) as a figure central to the community’s doom, however related her malaise may be to general social disquiet, is typical of Hollywood’s continued skepticism toward female sexuality. The portrayal of suburban “swinging” is at least as troubling, both because sexual transgression is ultimately associated with the death of a neglected child, but more importantly because the pathological culture of infidelity and “cheating” is seen not merely as an extension of the lies of patriarchal civilization, with its insistence on monogamy, but a terrible effect of the 60s sexual revolution “polluting” bourgeois life. It has been argued that the characters of The Ice Storm represent a distorted appropriation of 60s culture, insofar as they have any authentic connection with the moment, but this is undercut by the film’s failure to make distinctions, to present a vision of alternative sexuality counterposed to the terrible entrapments of the suburban swingers (see, for example, Arthur Penn’s The Chase , which knows how to contrast the swinging suburbanites’ monstrous form of “sexual revolution” with the alternative—and therefore assaulted and destroyed—family of Jake, Anna, and Bubber). The failure of The Ice Storm is not its sense of the dead-end of bourgeois life but the inevitability of its social vision, with the implicit assumption that the ultimate recuperation of society, with everyone accepting the minor flaws of their community, is a necessity.
The issue of alternative sexuality provides, it would seem, daunting challenges to the new cinema. Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl (2002) suggests that the female has no options, her dream of a world “out there” rendered as a wasteland on the edge of the dreary Bible-belt town in which she wastes her life in a mind-deadening retail business. All the choices of Jennifer Aniston’s Justine are portrayed as misjudgments, her only hope an attempt to find solace as the incubator for the unwanted child her husband demands; she opts to preserve a marriage that is, typically, both her security and enslavement. Of course the world of The Good Girl is with us, especially as born-again Christianity gains ever-increasing political and social clout. The difficulty is the film’s positing (in an affirmative fashion?) a culture of disaster, American society at a difficult fork in the road (we might again note that the world of The Good Girl focuses on working class people not so much as economically beleaguered as simply risible), an idea that extends back to images of the U.S. in the 70s horror film. That the cinema has gone no further is indicative, it seems, of the utter eschewing of progressive political/social visions, opting instead for a typical apocalypticism that proposes hopelessness, or personal and collective destruction since no solution can be envisioned.
Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2002), a film that depends for its sexual-political vision on Klute and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, reminds the spectator yet again how little has been accomplished within the commercial cinema since the 70s relative to a vision of alternative sexuality for the female, and how challenging was a film such as Goodbar for all its inconsistencies. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) is a young college professor haunted by her father’s desertion of her mother, even as she dreams of their early romance in sepia-toned fantasies. She becomes embroiled in the pursuit of a serial killer of women, the investigation of which is led by a sexually seductive and sexually adept detective named Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), who is able to satisfy Frannie’s needs even as he grows in her suspicions as the probable killer. Her sexual awakening by Malloy is linked to her need to accept the notion of Malloy as possible murderer and, more important, the destruction of a potentially feminist culture by a male sexuality which Frannie internalizes—she illustrates her lecture on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with an enormous red, phallic building (the film’s denouement occurs at a red lighthouse where Frannie confronts and triumphs over the killer—but not, it seems, the ideology the killer represents). With the ending we learn that the killer isn’t Malloy but his sidekick, a doppelganger in the police force who shares all of Malloy’s traits down to identical tattoos. But of course the killer isn’t Malloy, to whom she submissively, forlornly returns after a hellish, bloody struggle with the murderer. The suggestion is that she has been liberated from one version of romantic love (the dream of her parent’s early life) to submit to another, the brutal reality of contemporary patriarchy that replaces bogus gentility with a coarse genital sexuality offering the promise of pleasure to the female, provided that she can come to terms with its associations with the most gruesome oppression and violence—the scenes of Frannie’s new, orgasmic sex life courtesy of Malloy are interspersed with the gory death images over which Malloy and his fellow cops preside. At the heart of the film is Frannie’s coming to terms with her fantasies of family life, and her recognition that romance “comes with a price.” That she will give life a new chance in the clear light of day seems very unsatisfactory, since Malloy replicates every feature of the casual brutality of postmodern patriarchal civilization that Frannie is supposed ultimately to recognize—and the film does nothing with Malloy’s affiliation with the notorious NYPD, whose savage disregard for human life in contemporary New York is stuff not of legend, but dark recent urban history.
Elephant and the Twilight of America
I had the occasion just before beginning this piece of viewing Gus Van Sant’s Elephant more or less back-to-back with Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). One’s first impression is how these two films, both about the temperament of Middle America, seem utterly impossible outside of the respective periods of their production. One could hardly imagine Minnelli’s film in 2004, and certainly not Van Sant’s in the 40s, Van Sant suggesting the endgame of American civilization, the total absurdity of restoring confidence in its so-called values and aspirations. Elephant, which attempts to respond in part to the 1995 Columbine High School shootings, depicts autumnal, overcast suburban America at the end of its road. Yet the apparently separate enterprises of the two films need consideration.
Although Judy Garland felt that Minnelli’s quintessential tribute to small town life (St. Louis very much figured as small town to be preferred to the strange urban world of New York that threatens the Smith family) so sugary it had to be played tongue-in-cheek, which of course wasn’t to be the case, the idealized provincialism of Meet Me in St. Louis shows its cracks without resorting to camp.[x] The film’s humor depends on gentle sarcasm rather than camp, understanding that this approach to humor is the necessary tonic to dissolve somewhat a vision about which the work had some doubt for all the energy of its enterprise. The Halloween and snowpeople scenes are well known and viewed as moments of the cinema prefiguring modern horror, especially as we see Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) the locus of instability and family discord even as she is the cute symbol of family cohesion.[xi] Her little paean to drunkenness at the family singalong, her fantasy of derailed trolley cars, and her gleeful mention of drowned bodies at an exhibit of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition complement Mr. Smith’s (Leon Ames) discontent, especially his exasperated return from work to be confronted by a demanding (largely female—the film reminds one that male disempowerment and hysteria don’t begin with the Angry White Male) family that deprives him even of a moment’s peace. His statement at the penultimate scene that he will surrender career advancement and remain with his family in St. Louis “until we rot” emphasizes the current of morbidity running through the film as it attempts its comforting affirmations. Similar in this regard are the smiling faces of the bourgeois couple (Garland and Tom Drake), too mannered to be entirely believable in their enjoyment of the garish spectacle of the fair, the moment underlining the permanence of the empty pleasure of the fair and the world around it (“Right here where we live, right here in St. Louis!”), especially with Tom’s remark “I liked it better when it was a swamp, and there was just the two of us!”
It seems to me that these points, far better developed by other critics, make the distance between Minnelli’s film and Van Sant’s not all that great, the implicit criticism within Minnelli’s film more satisfying than the empty gestures of Van Sant in his attempted understanding of a society in an obviously more decayed condition than that portrayed in Meet Me in St. Louis. Elephant’s long Kubrickian tracking shots (from behind, making the tired existential assertion that people are unknowable) following students down the long corridors of their high school mark too easily the emptiness of daily life—of the indoctrinating school system in particular—without any attempt at essaying the reasons for this bankruptcy (and one can hardly imagine a high school without congested corridors, students herded back and forth to regimented classrooms). The shots of the overcast sky with its encroaching storm clouds, again offering impending, apocalyptic doom as the only response to social crisis, are completely representative of the deficiencies of this form of social critique.
John’s trip to school with his alcoholic father, the car careening down the leaf-strewn street, repeats the admonitions of Rebel Without a Cause: if children had better care, such things wouldn’t happen, a notion made all the more puerile by the devil icon on the rearview mirror of Alex and Eric’s car, with Satan again carrying the bag for all the ills of the world, Van Sant not dissenting at all against the bromides of politicians suggesting that an end will come to the American propensity for violence, deeply entrenched in national history, if we all return to God. The role of patriarchal civilization in causing the crisis goes no further than John’s trouble with his drunken dad, except for a minor berating by the principal, and a brief, nasty exchange in Alex’s household as the mother serves breakfast. The film’s “cosmic doom” theme is especially troublesome since Alex and Eric are gay, or at least experimenting sexually, presumably the reason for the bullying at school, or at least their designation as “different.” Alex’s mastery of two difficult Beethoven sonatas, especially Fur Elise (virtually the theme of the film, chosen perhaps because of its melancholy aspect), is another puzzling, underdeveloped idea, made more troublesome when we see the boys watching a Nazi documentary on TV. Does Van Sant, quite stupidly, want to associate fascism with the classics? Is he suggesting that the refined sensibility doesn’t preclude violence? Does he suggest that the best sensibilities are driven crazy by the current culture? Is he responding to the “culture wars,” arguing that knowledge of the classics doesn’t make one a better person as per the William Bennetts and their ilk? Whatever may be the rationale, the rendering seems both underdeveloped and banal. It might be noted that Elephant is no more satisfying on the topic of race than Meet Me in St. Louis. Benny, the black student introduced (like other characters merely through a title card) and then murdered by one of the killers, may be seen as a minority witness to archetypal white violence, but he is no more so than the black footman statue, for many years a subject of disingenuous debate (painting these statues white seemed a substitution for public policy against racism), that stands in front of the Smith household. On the surface, Elephant seems a telling tone poem about the dissolution of American life and the fate awaiting the young, but its understanding of a social situation may be less thoughtful than Minnelli’s film, a work not nearly so conscious or ambitious in approaching society.
Minnelli’s social criticism relative to that of the current cinema needs vastly more consideration. Accomplished in many genres, especially the musical, Minnelli made some extraordinary remarks about bourgeois civilization in films such as The Long, Long Trailer (1954), in which the marital honeymoon becomes a nightmare burden, and Tea and Sympathy (1956), one of the courageous discussions of homosexuality of its day, in which the topic is framed by this civilization’s conditioning of boys and rejection of feminine qualities in favor of “toughness” and competition, of the need for men to kill—rather than love—other men. Most extraordinary in this investigation is Home from the Hill (1959), with its monstrous patriarch (Robert Mitchum), ensconced in a den surrounded by guns, alienated from his wife, determined that his wife not feminize their son, all the while refusing to acknowledge his other, illegitimate son, the creation of male sexual privilege. Two years later, Minnelli’s remake of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), a very flawed but unjustly maligned film, anticipates Visconti’s (far superior) The Damned in its suggestion of the wealthy, indolent international haut bourgeoisie as the seedbed of fascism, even if its debauched hero Julio (Glenn Ford) suffers pangs of conscience that make him help the struggle against the Nazis. Julio’s eventual self-sacrifice can be read as motivated less by the prodding of his similarly guilt-ridden, indulgent father (Charles Boyer) as by his frustrated affair with Marguerite (Ingrid Thulin). The point appears to be the shallowness of the bourgeois conscience, its need for prodding even as it is partially destroyed by its own enforcement apparatus. That Julio’s family is responsible for fascism is made explicit when the aged patriarch Madariaga (Lee J. Cobb), whose self-indulgence and denial are replicated in his favored grandson Julio, announces at the overwrought opening dinner “I have begat assassins!” upon learning that Heinrich (Karl Boehm) has joined the Nazis. Madariaga’s claims that he built “a place of peace,” one in which gilt statues of the biblical Four Horsemen have a prominent place as they do in his warped imagination, are undercut by the old man’s morbid fixations for all his forced joie de vivre (rendered ridiculous by Cobb’s typical overacting). The final apocalyptic war images of the film suggest, despite a montage of Allied triumphalism, that the too-late decision of the bourgeoisie is self-destructive and holocaustal for all its apparent good intentions, an idea emphasized by Andre Previn’s plangent score.
Set against the richness of work such as Minnelli’s, for all the resistances and failures of these films and the impediments of the late studio system, one cannot help but view the apparently scathing Elephant with great skepticism. Like Elephant, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2002), which has become something of a youth cult film, is similarly involved in abandoning the obvious subject of its narrative—adolescent alienation and its foundations within middle-class assumptions—in favor of more cosmic malarkey, on the notion that any answer to social disorder under patriarchal capitalism must be absolutely personal. The imperviousness of the social system to radical change is a given even when confronted by a highly perceptive protagonist. Thus, the core elements of what could be a fine satire, including the portrayal of mind-deadening high school life, a humorously dysfunctional family, predatory supervisors of the young, the bankrupt culture offered adolescents, are all abandoned in favor of a science fiction story that is, according to the director, the real concern of the film.[xii] And yet the film cynically waffles on this, asking us to ponder whether or not Donnie is crazy or if “strange things do happen in the universe,” and as we ponder these profundities the awful family is sentimentalized and restored, the crude father a bearer of common sense wisdom.
Similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (2000) could have been a brilliant summation of contemporary patriarchy in its various manifestations, especially the perniciousness of its appearance in media culture, but this enterprise is jettisoned in favor of a piece of apocalypticism (the rain of frogs) that resolves all problems and introduces the very familiar notion that “anything is possible” in the indeterminate wackiness and plentitude of postmodern consumer society. (Wackiness appears with unfortunate regularity as a way of addressing issues in postmodern cinema—one small example is About Schmidt, a meandering, pointless star vehicle director by Alexander Payne that almost buries his remarkable Election, a portrait in miniature of a ruthless, repressed contemporary capitalist society.) The idea is taken to yet another extreme in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), largely an exercise in graphic design that takes an Antonionian lonely protagonist in an urban landscape, turns him into a vaguely comical schmuck played by Adam Sandler, and gives him a love interest with neither rhyme nor reason, turning Antonioni’s notion that “eros is sick” into something of its opposite, making this pointless, directionless relationship as much an apparent subject of comic approval as the ugly Los Angeles streets the film prettifies with its kitschy color palette.
Renoir and Kubrick
An understanding of the relationship of an authentic cinema of transgression to what is now accepted as contentious art adversarial to dominant culture might profit from a comparison of Renoir’s Rules of the Games to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It seems to me that such a comparison isn’t meretricious but useful as a model of explanation in examining, if very tentatively, the essential trajectory of the postmodern cinema, that is in this instance a cinema that has dispensed with modernist aspirations during a time of reaction and retrenchment. The two films share a number of elements in common: both films, in their respective periods, are concerned with an examination of the sexual mores of the upper classes, pre-war France in Rules of the Games, contemporary America in Eyes Wide Shut; both films are centered on the sexual and romantic fantasies of a relatively isolated wife, the fantasies more romantic than sexual for Christine in Rules of the Game, more sexual for Alice Harford in Eyes Wide Shut; both films deal with the disempowerment of the male as a sexually charismatic, socially influential figure; both films share a few devices, including especially a costumed ball that functions as a highly theatrical, rather unnerving set piece on which the rest of the drama turns; and both films are derived from literary sources that seem on first glance rather out of place within the sensibilities of the films containing them, certainly the case with Eyes Wide Shut. Finally, both films were made by canonized master filmmakers concerned for much of their careers with substantial social issues sometimes offered sleight-of-hand in works marketed as idle entertainments. This brief discussion precludes any substantial examination of the relative value of Renoir as opposed to Kubrick. Suffice it to say that by comparing Kubrick to Renoir I am not concerned with diminishing Kubrick (although I think him an almost marginal figure when set against the monumental Renoir), but rather to indicate the failure—or dismissal—of an oppositional vision by a very competent director who demanded total control over his ostensibly critical works, so much so that his output became limited, without caving in to the occasional generic potboiler (although it has been argued that The Shining was precisely this, made to reclaim an audience lost in the wake of the failure of what may be his greatest achievement, Barry Lyndon). In other words, Kubrick represents among the most highly regarded, ostensibly challenging work. While he is representative in some respects of Hollywood’s ideological drift in the last thirty years, he isn’t merely representative. Kubrick’s ideology was fully developed going into his final film, long before Blue Velvet and Fight Club caught audience attention with their apparent challenges to the order of things. This ideology might be regarded as an extremely reductive naturalism, viewing humanity as monstrously bestial, a notion evidenced as least from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The point of view jibes well with Hollywood’s false criticism, then and now, preferring to place blame on a dubious concept of human nature rather than political-economic frameworks, in fact on anything but what is relevant to effectuate social change. Aside from Paths of Glory and, to a degree, Barry Lyndon and The Shining, which gesture in the direction of class criticism, all of Kubrick, including especially what should be his most political film (Full Metal Jacket), trades in an outlook that prefers an extreme cynicism toward humanity rather than interrogate the political systems that contain human action. In this sense, Kubrick’s vision compares well with the Fight Clubs and their like in preferring nihilism to a comprehensive (however tentative) social critique as a response to our civilization’s various repressions. One might argue that Kubrick wasn’t attempting in Eyes Wide Shut the devastating class critique of Rules of the Games.[xiii] Yet the source material of the Arthur Schnitzler novella, and the content of the film, suggests that the upper class is at least the central subject; the difficulty is the shallowness of Kubrick’s approach to an understanding of class, his indifference to ideological foundations not rooted in some form of determinism. Certainly Kubrick’s film is inadequate as such a critique precisely because his focus is never on social systems, but on the cruel appetites of the sexes, especially that of the female. A few basic issues present themselves:
Female Sexuality and the Persecution of the Male. In Eyes Wide Shut, sexuality is wholly associated with a sexual paranoia that becomes a nightmare realm to such an explicit extent that it seems not unreasonable to call this a horror film, particularly since Kubrick draws heavily from Expressionism for most of his atmospherics. The eerie recurring music of Gyorgy Ligeti, and certain themes by the avant-garde composer Jocelyn Pook, makes the horror mise-en-scene fairly explicit. The horror is associated with Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise) descent into the after-hours New York sexual demimonde, precipitated by his wife’s rather pointless revelation to him of her sexual fantasies (that women have a fantasy life and unrequited sexual desires seems to shock Kubrick, who in turn thinks it shocks us). The film’s horror flows from the notion, far more pronounced in the film than in Schnitzler, that sexual transgression is horrific, associated with madness, disease, death, and certainly paralyzing guilt, all notions Kubrick leaves uninterrogated. While both Bill and Alice enjoy brief flirtations at Ziegler’s (Sydney Pollack) party in the film’s opening, Alice’s verbal accusations and subsequent revelations, with Nicole Kidman rendering them at the most over-the-top hysterical register, seem totally unwarranted. Even during Bill’s examination of the nude, overdosed hooker in Ziegler’s bathroom (one of the film’s most awkwardly strained moments) Bill comes across as a well-scrubbed, straight-laced boy, a doctor as sexually incurious as he tells Alice during her accusatory tirade. It is Alice who opens a potentially deadly Pandora’s Box, igniting a jealous resentment in Bill that nearly drives him into the arms of a young hooker (who happens to have HIV), into sexual self-doubt (his bullying by the gay-bashers), into an awareness of sexual profligacy as purely repugnant, even crazed (the costume dealer and his daughter), and finally into the inferno of the masked ball, culminating in a castration threat as Bill is told to undress by the sinister, red-robed master of ceremonies. His rescue by a young nude woman, who may or may not be the hooker whose life he saved at Ziegler’s, only propels him deeper into guilt for the nightmare consequences of sexual exploration. Bill’s later discovery that the hooker was found dead of a drug overdose, in a scene accompanied by Mozart’s Requiem, further compounds the general sense of sex equated unproblematically and absolutely with the death wish, a fusion of eros and thanatos fairly unprecedented. The discovery in the penultimate scene by Alice of Bill’s costume mask, a discovery that is an unexplained device to underscore the revelation (for Kubrick it seems) that “we all wear masks” just before the final scene wherein the archetypal bourgeois couple is reconstituted, sets the moment for their acknowledgment that “a dream is never just a dream” (so we need to be careful of wish fantasies?). In all of this, the situation of the male as figure of a class system is never a topic of concern for the narrative. Robert in Rules of the Game is presented as aware of his own social position, yet unaware of his entrapment by it (the audience is made fully aware). Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut, while obviously not a figure of the same class stature as the Marquis (keeping in mind in any event the perpetual attempt to pretend class doesn’t exist in the U.S.) is a figure whose social position, with ability to buy virtually anything with his inexhaustible wallet, is not victimized because of this class arrogance, but merely by a sexual curiosity gone haywire. And in the haywire behavior Bill is always reacting to the female, whether his own wife, the hookers at Ziegler’s, the young street prostitute, or the nude woman at the masked orgy.
The film is close to the ideology of St. Paul in its suggestion that even the dream of transgression is a fatal sin (Bill actually acts on nothing). In the mind of the female, such dreams, especially if articulated, can derail all. It isn’t Kubrick’s point to suggest, for all his emphasis on the icy artificially of his constructed settings, that bourgeois life as a whole is a façade as in Rules of the Game, since Bill Harford, prior to his wife’s tale, shows little or no sexual curiosity outside his marriage—at his office he is indeed the dutiful physician caring for his patients. This Dr. Jekyll becomes a self-destructive Mr. Hyde only as his (apparently justified) jealousy is ignited. It may be said that Harford’s pathological jealousy and blindness to the female’s needs sets his dark night of the soul in motion, but the film’s authentic interest in the female is indiscernible. The interest in such seems solely at the voyeuristic level, since we are treated at the opening scene to a nude Alice/Nicole Kidman, closely followed by an image of Alice urinating on the toilet. That there is no similar display of the male, while the female is relegated to the margins of the narrative, indicates where the scales are balanced in terms of sympathies for the sexual torment of one sex versus the other. The situation may be contrasted with Rules of the Game, where the woman, the fixation of the narrative flowing from the men’s utter misunderstanding and deception of her, is always at the center of the film. She is the Other on at least two counts (gender and nationality), but in fact far from the cause of the debacle that slowly occurs—this is clearly portrayed as the product of the gender and class prejudices, and the self-deceptions of an entire civilization. The masks worn by people in Renoir’s film are no surprise for its director who in turn assumes they are no surprise to his audience; the opposite must be said of Kubrick, for whom misconduct, as the very term suggests is a departure from an otherwise wholesome norm of behavior.
The Masked Ball. The costumed ball that is the site of Bill’s last episode of sexual investigation is an important moment to set against the comparable scene in Rules of the Game. The similar moment in Renoir’s film offers a complete description of social breakdown as well as of the social configuration of the story, with each foible of each character revealed during the unraveling of the rules, with its Dance of Death moment signifying the oncoming (temporary) collapse of this system and the advent of war. The danse macabre sequence, as unnerving as it is, becomes one element in the final delineation of this class. The horror of the ghosts’ dance and the Saint-Saen music gain their unnerving aspect from the association of the macabre with the ordinary features of life at the chateau. The false front of bourgeois life, with sexual jealousy its key emblem, finds its culmination in Schumacher’s murder of Andre, which may be read as the state enforcement apparatus (Schumacher as fascism, the embarrassing but useful instrument of the ruling class) attempting to restore the façade that the class itself had partially demolished by its antics. Never in the scene of the costumed ball is there an association of sex itself with doom, very much the center of Kubrick’s masked orgy. Sex is portrayed in Kubrick’s ball as dreadful, always mechanical and full of menace, always devoid of joy—the DVD chapter title for the sequence is “The Abyss,” a reasonable enough portrayal of the film’s sense of sex as catastrophe. It has been noted that Kubrick’s is one of the most unerotic sex orgies ever rendered, the assumption in part being that group sex is axiomatically unpleasureable precisely because sex needs the secrecy of the bourgeois couple, the cause of the disaster in the first place. Rule of the Game turns such a notion upside down, suggesting that each private moment produces new duplicity. The social world of La Colinere leads to the partial cracking-open of the class’s contradictions, even if it is so beyond redemption its only recourse is to ignore contradiction and continue business as usual. Renoir’s masked ball contains numerous unmaskings, as the pretensions and deadliness of class power, as well as the compulsive drives to conquer people sexually, come to the forefront. In Kubrick, there is little or no suggestion of the inner life of the ruling class, which remains a masked array of horrid gargoyles. That they are driven solely by sexual predation itself seems undercut but his cast’s typical somnambulism, the sense that the ruling class are walking corpses, an idea that would have some value were it not overridden by moments with pretenses toward drama, such as Harford’s final confrontation with Ziegler.
The Ruling Class. In a concluding scene of Eyes Wide Shut, Ziegler tells Bill that he “wouldn’t want to know” the identities of the people at the masked orgy, the suggestion being that they represent formidable elements of power. We are presented therefore with a notion of the ruling class as a faceless cabal somewhat on the order of Specter in the James Bond films. Assuming, against the advice of some critics who argue vehemently in the opposite direction, that the film is not “just a dream” and a projection solely of bill Harford’s anxieties, the ruling class is separate from Bill himself, whose seemingly inexhaustible wallet and social clout have taken him through the evening’s adventures. Bill’s wealth and the assorted consumer goods of the Harford household (we see Alice dutifully wrapping pricey Christmas presents) have an almost studied non-relationship to the crisis of the Harford household. Andrew Britton has noted in a comment on The Reckless Moment that Christmas, the quintessential celebration of the bourgeois family, has had within the melodrama the function of underscoring family oppressiveness.[xiv] In Eyes Wide Shut one gets the sense of Christmas, with its gaudy trappings, rather omnipresent yet in the background, is simply neglected by Bill, as if he had overlooked Christmas’s “true meaning.” On the other hand, one might read Christmas as an emblem of profligacy associated rather thoughtlessly with Bill’s sexual profligacy, a form of excess that leads him, and perhaps the more “innocent” members of his class for whom he seems representative, to the edge of the abyss. To help sort through the confusion, Bill’s relationship to the material world should be compared to that of Robert in Rules of the Game. While Robert’s class status is higher than that of Bill in their respective periods, the comparison is instructive. Robert’s toys and various avocations, including his affair with Genevieve, provide convenient means of avoiding anything close to confrontation with a self and his connections to class rule, although the narrative takes his authority as a given. Bill Harford seems to have no such connections to a larger ideology, his appurtenances not connected to greater compulsions related to the effectuation of power—although he too dons a cloak and mask at the orgy, he is unrelated to those whose identities he “wouldn’t want to know.” While one can argue that Bill Harford is taken aback to learn the extent of his entrapment by the whims of his class, the film goes out of its way to distance Harford’s sexual curiosity from the rapaciousness of those who have (one must guess) Harford’s very same motivations, unless we see the world of sex, one obviously horribly evil and debased in the film’s vision, as owned by a ruling class in which the essentially good-hearted Bill Harford doesn’t really belong. Such a reading would have Harford, the doctor, merely the servant of this class, running about to assist friends like Ziegler, a major player with inside knowledge of the nefarious orgy. But the very notion therefore offers Harford as key supporter and enabler of a class which the film wants to distance from its hero. It seems to me that such a reading takes us no further in understanding Kubrick’s class analysis. On the contrary, it merely furthers a sense of Eyes Wide Shut as a ludicrously irresponsible and reactionary film.
Earlier I mentioned Bunuel, Pasolini, Renoir, Ophuls, Sirk, Godard and others as among the great filmmakers of the last century whose vision of bourgeois life was unsparing and uncompromised. While I hesitate in certain respect to distinguish him from among this extraordinary group, chiefly because I don’t in the slightest want to undercut others, at this writing Luchino Visconti, especially in his later films, seems an artist whose supple understanding of western patriarchal capitalist civilization has importance for our present moment, especially in regard to the director’s understanding of the various manifestations of this civilization and its attempts to restore itself, so a comment on what he offers seems a suitable way to conclude these remarks. Visconti’s personal history as a semi-closeted gay man, an aristocrat who embraced Marxism, and a believer in many laudable (certainly not unproblematical) features of western culture as important toward the salvation of humanity probably guarantee a status within our present twenty-first century film culture even more marginal than the above-named European and American colleagues of his time.
Visconti’s work, especially several of his later films, centers on the disintegration of society due to the social engine of the family and the construction of the bourgeois subject therein. Strongly influenced by Lukacs and Gramsci later in his career, Visconti’s films are a correlate to the nineteenth-century novel of which Lukasc was a passionate advocate, although Visconti’s films had an in-built critical project, their mode of realism not merely a reflection of a historical moment but a self-conscious interrogation of the realist mode and its tradition of interaction with history as described by Lukasc. The Leopard (1963), until very recently almost totally unavailable in the U.S., has been celebrated in some quarters for its lavish representation of the era of the Risorgimento, especially its attention to the details of the Italian cultural identity figured in the home of the Prince. This view fixates, of course, solely on Visconti’s attention to the period details used to underscore his essential point: the degree to which the ruling class engages in co-optation and preemption to preserve privilege (“For things to remain the same, everything must change”). The view that the Prince is the sympathetic figure who slowly fades into oblivion is offset by his close association with his nephew, the cunning Tancredi, who is shown to be his mirror image, reflecting and finally displacing him as Tancredi aligns himself with revolutionary change, then tries to destroy it by aligning with a bourgeois order that preserves class privilege. Visconti’s intricate dissection of the world of class and the relationship of class to sexual privilege and the social instruments assuring repression are interwoven throughout, beginning with the opening scene showing the Prince and family praying the rosary with the resident priest (the church as instrument of the ruling elite), the scene soon followed by the Prince’s rendezvous with a prostitute in which the priest is complicit, and the various scenes of the Prince’s utterly miserable marriage (covered over by a public façade) that flows naturally from the powerless, marginal place of the female—one alternately and typically aggrandized and dismissed—in the society of the narrative.
If The Leopard is an examination of the ruling class family as emblem of the ruling order’s transformations to preserve power, The Damned/La Caduta degli Dei (1969), about the complicity of a family of German industrialists in the rise of Nazism, details the murderous rampage of patriarchal capitalist civilization in its most venomous manifestation. By centering the film on the Essenbecks, Visconti is able to offer not only a political-economic thesis on the origins of the Nazi state, but one that demands attention to family dynamics, sexual politics, and the uses thereof by state and private power. Visconti was frequently criticized upon this film’s release—and for years after—for his fixation on sexual “decadence” and his apparent assumption that Nazism arose principally from the sexual excess and amorality of pre-war German society. One critic argues that Visconti’s Lukascian Marxism is in The Damned “an overlay” only in “the most perfunctory way,” preferring a vague European humanism in place of political criticism, a view that the entirety of the film in any close reading repudiates.[xv] His critics further argue that the S.A. gay orgy and subsequent bloodbath during the recreation of the Night of the Long Knives display Visconti’s self-hating homophobia. The drag act by Martin, the film’s signature scene in which he impersonates Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (itself one of the most critical films of the Weimar cinema) during his grandfather Joachim’s birthday party, is staged by Sophie, Martin’s angry, cunning mother, to humiliate both her son and the hypocritical patriarch. The sequence, wrenched utterly from context, is also used to demonstrate Visconti’s “decadent” proclivities. It seems to me that such views pay almost no attention, perhaps deliberately, to the film and tell us more about the critics authoring such remarks than Visconti’s work.
In defending certain provocative statues of idealized Aryan male nudes, Goebbels reportedly once remarked “We are not prudes,” an idea more or less replicated in Ashenbach’s (Helmut Griem) remark to Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), citing Hitler, “personal morals are dead.” A common reading of the Nazi state from a psychoanalytic perspective regards it as representing the “id unchained,” a far too facile notion that The Damned demolishes. Certainly The Damned is about anything but Nazism’s assault on repression; rather, it is about the transmutation of every sexual impulse into predation (figured most obviously in Martin’s pedophilia), the drive for power, and finally the death wish (the fully Nazified Martin [Helmut Berger], in SS regalia, presiding over the marriage and subsequent forced suicide of Bruckmann and his mother Sophie [Ingrid Thulin], all within a nearly empty and rather gothic Essenbeck estate, in its first scene a site of stilted activity, but activity nevertheless). The destruction of Konstantin (Rene Koldehoff) and the S.A. at the Night of the Long Knives represents thoughtfully not just Hitler’s consolidation of power in 1934, but the sexual politics at the heart of the horrendous coup. Ernst Rohm, the street-brawling leading of the S.A. who brought Hitler to power during the bleak days of the Weimar economic calamity, was indeed gay; his S.A. cadres consisting of disaffected working-class men whose frustration took a rightist turn with the brutal suppression of the post-WWI leftist rebellion. Visconti’s rendering of the prolonged gay orgy at Bad Wiesse, the key site of the Long Knives massacre, emphasizes in its hyperbole the sexual vitality of the S.A. brawlers for all their ludicrous, destructive camaraderie. Their dilemma is contained in the close shots of their drunken faces at the evening drag ball, as they suddenly stop their sexual antics and drinking songs to launch into patriotic hymns, the libido circumscribed by obligations to state. The dream of a classless state which Nazism promised is answered in the S.A. annihilation by the SS. The sexual self, at a seemingly totally unfettered moment, is always contained—and then destroyed by—the demands of state power (Hitler annihilates one faction to please others: the SS, the military, the Prussian ruling class). Visconti’s delineation of all this is within his basic project of the study of family, its deformation of the human subject, and its role in furthering oppressive political structures. As stated by the liberal Herbert (Umberto Orsini), “Nazism is our creation; it was born in our factories, nourished with our money.” The bullying Konstantin, the family’s S.A. representative, who mercilessly torments his sensitive, Bach-loving son Gunther (Renaud Verley), is a representative abusive father, but no more than representative (“I’ll decide for you!”). Gunther’s brutalization, coupled with the revelation by Martin that his father was murdered by the SS-supported Bruckmann, who wants to become the family patriarch and industry boss, engenders a ferocious hatred in Gunther that makes him, the gentlest soul of the narrative, an instrument of state terror. The calculating Sophie feminizes and humiliates her son Martin not merely because she is the phallic mother continuing the best “tradition” of the Essenbecks of degradation and subjugation, but because she rebels (within a society that knows nothing of rebellion), even with her malevolence, against the role of grieving widow imposed on her by the seemingly kindly patriarch Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals). There is the suggestion that Sophie’s marriage to the Essenbeck heir was a total sham.
Joachim sets the film’s narrative in motion at his opening birthday party by his announcement that the family will recognize the Nazis out of the economic prerogatives of the Essenbeck industries, although Joachim’s purported sympathies are with the liberal Herbert. The so-called humanism of Joachim (and by the logic of the film that of the German ruling class) is taken to task plainly enough by Herbert, who with his family will be soon offered to the Nazi murder apparatus. Herbert remarks that the Essenbecks have always offered “cannons and children” for the good of state power. The undergirding of fascism is shown in the opening scene, the stately preparations for Joachim’s party in an opulent dining hall, the silent servants (each knowing their place) mechanically setting the table place cards. Gunther tells his impressed young niece Thilda, “It’s the same as last year, Thilda, no more, no less.” Although this party will in fact be different—it occurs on the night of the pivotal Reichstag fire that helped consolidate Nazi power, an event accompanied in the film by Bruckmann’s murder of Joachim—the normalcy of the aristocracy’s attempt to retain its position, even to the point of sidling up to Nazism, makes Gunther’s observation ring true.
Martin’s eventual rage-driven rape of his mother is an act of incest drawn from classical sources (the use of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Götterdämmerung strike me as supple and ingenious rather than heavy-handed as Visconti’s critics have often charged) that seems logical and lawful, a destruction of a poisoned sexuality constructed as explicitly so from the early moments of the film. Sophie’s rape by her demented son—a creature, like herself, fully a product of patriarchy and its expectations—is the son’s attempted destruction of the family in its essence, except that this act is itself transmutated by SS man Aschenbach into more of Martin’s negative political education, a strike at the aristocracy from the right that ensures a new formation of power. The family unit represented by the Essenbecks, especially Sophie, her son Martin, and her fiancé Bruckmann, seems in many respects archetypal, a family that conforms to the norm, that is, the expectations of a monstrous social order. The charge that the film is enamored of “decadence” assumes that the image of the Essenbecks, that is of the family, offered by Visconti is some bizarre aberration outside of a healthy standard, a notion repudiated by Sophie in her cruel exchange with Herbert’s wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling), remarking that her plans for herself and Bruckmann (to take over the steelworks), are perfectly contiguous within and will not be challenged by the order of German society. Elizabeth’s yearning for and faith in the “old” Germany is shown to be representative of a naïveté culpable in the creation of the new society. This society as defined by the ferociously authoritarian Nazi state is itself not aberrant, made clear by the willing collaboration of Joachim, seemingly the representative of noblesse oblige and the values of an older European culture. Near the film’s opening, the amoral Aschenbach notes that not even Joachim, with his “tens of thousands of slaves in factories and mines” can counter the new order of Hitlerism. Of course, as we learn, Joachim has no intention of challenging Nazism, even as he is targeted as part of the old order. The relevance of Aschenbach’s remarks resides in their description of a form of tyranny—that of the industrial state—that lends itself easily to the usurpation of state power by the enforcement arm of fascism. The Damned is about one manifestation of the capitalist state, a brutal one to be sure, but one that follows from all other assumptions, personal and political, of this civilization. The film’s Italian title, La Caduta degli Dei, or The Fall of the Gods, can be read as an ironic take on Wagner. As in Gotterdammerung, the gods are destroyed by their own devices, only in Visconti’s film the gods are in a degraded condition that suggests the bankruptcy of such mythologies.
Visconti’s next film, Death in Venice (1971), is a work so deplorably disparaged that a much fuller discussion is warranted than I can offer in these final remarks. Criticized as a camp, disrespectful reading of a classic (as if Visconti had no knowledge of nor regard for Thomas Mann, a writer much admired by his influence Lukasc), this film is extraordinary for its focus not on the family, the Visconti preoccupation, but on the disintegration of the bourgeois self at the cusp of the murderous twentieth century. The trip by Aschenbach to Venice, the archetypal Italian journey of the bourgeois artist to a wellspring of western culture that previously revivified, in this narrative becomes its inverse, the site of the artist’s—and the bourgeois subject’s—destruction. The pursuit of Tadzio is not about the obsession with chicken trade (although it is clear that Ashenbach’s sexuality has been sublimated to death in service not just of an aesthetic sublime but of the rigid demands of civilization itself), but the failure of a projected ego ideal that, far from representing Ashenbach’s epiphany, suggests the failure of idealist thought, the collapse of dramatic notions of being as the pursuit of a distorted self becomes a form of repetition compulsion—the film is an exemplary illustration of the death wish. The repeated use of the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony is itself a compelling representation of the contradictions at the heart of the narrative’s portrayal of disaster. Written as a paean to love, the adagietto has over the past half-century been performed extremely slowly, producing a melancholy, funereal quality not the (apparent) intent of Mahler but absolutely appropriate to Visconti, who almost certainly knew his Mahler and the arguments surrounding the adagietto. The music, which recurs repeatedly, suggests the contradictions at the heart of idealism and one of its principal conceits, romanticism. The strained arguments between Aschenbach and his colleague (Mark Burns) make sense against the frame of this music, as the music frames also the decayed panorama of plague-stricken Venice, the plague an exteriorization of Aschenbach’s self-deceptions, including those of his early marriage (the most poignant image of which, in flashback, is the funeral of the daughter, the dominant notion being not just the tragedy but the waste and self-deception of family life). Aschenbach’s inability to reconcile the material with the ideal, to come to a reasonable understanding of human interchange, creates a self-generated crisis, an internal apocalypse leading to his demise. If one sees him as an emblem of his class and his epoch, as seems reasonable given the scope of the work, its many allusions to classical culture and the history of the west, this death in Venice is that of western bourgeois civilization.
The work of Visconti and others will continue to provide progressive people with authentic consolation, that of hope for a progressive future in the knowledge that there exists in film art committed consciences which the civilization of the early twenty-first century seems bent on erasing from our collective memory. We might take heart that these consolations, infinitely preferable to that of the false criticism offered by Hollywood past and especially present, are for the moment still available to us.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.
This article was originally published in Film International 12, vol. 2, no. 6, 2004.
Read also Sharrett’s ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy: Sexual Paranoia in Fifties America’ and ‘Drive, or the Hero in Eclipse’.
[i] The most compelling survey of this topic is still Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: Random House, 1974).
[ii] The concept of inoculation must be credited of course to Roland Barthes’ famous essay “Operation Margarine,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 41-43.
[iii] The relevant works by Lukacs are The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (also published as Realism in our Time) and The Historical Novel.
[iv] I survey briefly this tendency in “End of Story: The Collapse of Myth in Postmodern Narrative Film,” in The End of Cinema as We Know It, Jon Lewis, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
[v] Georg Lukasc, Realism in Our Time: Literature and Class Struggle (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 44
[vi] The definitive criticism of Lynch, to which my remarks are obviously indebted, is Robin Wood’s introduction to his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 43-49.
[vii] Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip (New York, Pantheon, 1973).
[viii] An important reading of The Reckless Moment with relevance to these remarks is Robin Wood, “Plunging Off The Deep End and into The Reckless Moment,” Cineaction 59: 14-20.
[ix] My reading of Rebel Without a Cause owes a great deal to Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon,1983), 200-217.
[x] Judy Garland’s comments about the film are contained in the supplemental documentary to the 2-disk DVD re-release of Meet Me in St. Louis, Warner Home Video, 2004.
[xi] Remarks about the film’s relevance to the modern horror film are contained in, among other sources, Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 76, 158, 172.
[xii] See Richard Kelly’s DVD commentary on Donnie Darko.
[xiii] I have yet to find a piece of writing on the film that confronts seriously both its sexual politics and view of class. The most extensive work to date on Eyes Wide Shut is Michel Chion’s BFI monograph (2003), a book that strikes me as highly eccentric, especially in regard to its view of Eyes Wide Shut in relation to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
[xiv] Andrew Britton, Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 79.
[xv] Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti (London: BFI, 2003), 155.