24 Nov 2014
Athos Magnani sees in his friends a kind of a naiveté. He betrays them. Why? I don’t know. Maybe, because he thinks it’s more important to have an anti-fascist hero than a not successful assassination. It’s more important to have a dead hero… It’s terrible when an idea needs a hero; to need a hero is terrible.
Bernardo Bertolucci, “Interviews”, 2000, p. 75 – 76
“Magritte was an inspiration for the lighting in ‘Spider’s Stratagem’, and in particular one painting, ‘The Empire of Lights’. I was interested by a nocturnal light full of azure reflections, the light of those nights in which you can see everything. All the blue moments were shot between light and dark at dusk.” (BB)… Not only its dusk is an archetypal moment of dreaming, but Magritte’s use of that moment (and consequently Bertolucci’s) represent a hyperbole of the dream state, surrealism which, for Andre Breton, was based on ‘the omnipotence of dream… a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.’
T.J. Kline, “Bertolucci’s Dream Loom (A psychoanalytic Study of Cinema)”, Univ. Of Massachusetts Press, 1987, p. 69
Displacement is certainly the central mechanism of Spider, for, if the dream is a veiled language that can be interpreted only by searching for what is hidden in the interstices of the manifest content, so too are the stories provided to Athos about his father. As Athos will discover, all of the stories are intended to hide the traces of his father’s betrayal and, in the same time, lead him to the discovery of that crime. If dreams are opaque web made of strands so translucent as to allow us a glimpse of the “light” behind them but so constructed as to hide the danger at the center, so too are the myths woven by Athos’s friends in Tara. The manifest content provided by Draifa, Costa, Gaibazzi and Razzori is itself artificial tissues of fictions carefully composed so as to simultaneously conceal and reveal: a spider’s stratagem.
T.J. Kline, Ibid, p. 71 – 72
Athos-the father is a real hero who had to pretend that he is a traitor to be recognized as a fake hero idolized as a real one, in order to leave a potent anti-fascist legacy after himself. He sacrificed his identity and life for the sake of this legacy.
This poster presents the events and the meaning of the film with a background (socio-political context) of the country life’s pop-culture (pranks, hoaxes, innocent sarcasms, fake and real simplemindedness and basement staleness of conservatism). It “warns” viewers that countryside is impregnated with suspiciousness, intolerance and hate.
Here we see bust of Athos Magnani Sr., the father of the film’s main character. Appreciate the expression of fierce determination on his face, fearless (because of being absent) eyes (heroes need not see – their business is to act), his toughness of an existential hero. But exaggeration of heroic features doesn’t emphasize heroism but rather debunks it in the very moment of proclaiming it. The heroism irradiating by the Athos’ bust is so impeccable, so fake that we cannot believe not only in its seriousness but in its fakeness either. So, we are left with the impression that if there is something genuine there, we cannot know what exactly. We become suspicious that the bust might have swallowed the real Athos Magnani if he really existed.
This is Athos Magnani Jr., the son of the anti-fascist hero. Up to now he is only the hero of the film, not an existential hero as was his father. But he found himself in a situation not less convoluted, tangled and confusing than did his father two and a half decades before. May be, his situation is even more ambiguous and controversial than that of his father. And, may be, as risky?
For Athos-the elder it was very difficult to find a solution – adequate way of realizing his noble cause of resisting fascism, not to transform this resistance into just a noble posture of his moral self-satisfaction without real consequences. The issue here is not people’s worldview but their position in life.
Draifa (his father’s mistress) struck by the physical resemblance between the father and son, has created for Athos-the-son a special – relaxing and confusing atmosphere. She wants him to completely slide into his father’s personality and by this to give her happiness of resurrecting her youth. Draifa is Bertolucci’s metaphor of the way majority of people (high on propagandist clichés), perceive the licensed historical heroes. She represents the emotional condition of the crowd (that gives the official heroes unconditional hurrah). In other words, regular men, despite their often machoistic façade and tough gestures, are, emotionally, Draifas – they create with the “heroes” (and with the super-stars) psychologically symbiotic unity, like traditional women with their husbands and beloveds.
Some not just anonymous but mysterious people in Tara want to discourage Athos from probing into his father’s destiny. They put him again and again in puzzling and frightening situations. For example, they like to lock him in unexpected places to see how he will react. They put him under tireless surveillance.
Draifa more and more surrenders to the impossible, “obscene” obsession to get into her possession rejuvenated Athos to beat time and her age. She, as if, became Eve intervening in relations between Adam and his Creator – she is trying to insert her charms between man and history. She is the symbol of sentimental appropriation of history as a symbiotic partner, like the Soviet Russians couldn’t resist the delirium that their interests are inseparable from a Communist future, or the Bushmericans – that their profits, wealth and dreams are identical with needs of “freedm-dmocracy” (to use Bush Jr.’s patter), like the wife who believes that her genuine place vis-a-vis her partner is being under his skin, and to keep him under hers.
Athos-the father (confronting Mussolini’s fascism) understands more and more that in history straight action is impossible – not only it’s futile but it can make things worse, that it is necessary to invent a strategy that will be able to undo the propaganda tricks historical ideologies are tied with while trying to translate lies into truth (to scapegoat truth). Athos Sr. started to understand that in order to be politically effective in a world that transforms lies into truth – truth must be delivered through lies, that there is no another way for truth, that only then truth can be competitive against the fascist lies, that the destiny of truth lies in its ability to imitate propagandist lies, that this is the only way to make the minds and hearts of common people to accept the truth because lies (mystification and imagination) are closer to human heart than truth. In other words, if fascism (propaganda on part of power keepers) fabricates truth – creates lies and represents them as truth, then truth, according to Athos Magnani Sr., must pretend that it is a lie pretending to be truth. Truth must look like lie – then and only then the masses will accept it. In other words, Athos Sr. is the inventor of (lying) propaganda of the truth, truth as lie – to successfully create on this lie the traditional (lying) ideology of angel-like heroes whom crowds will follow in self-sacrificial ecstasy.
Draifa (Alida Valli) inside the semantic organism of the film functions as an anti-muse; as a negative Eve intervening in Adam’s critical attempt to confront his Father. By emphasizing the impeccability of Athos-the father in front of his son she participates in sustaining the mythological nature of historical narrations distorting the truth – just by her desire that Athos-the son will continue the one-dimensionally heroic way of his father where there will always be an honorable place for her. Inside the semantic matrix of the film Draifa functions as mass culture and consumerism inside the historical process of democracy’s development.
Draifa hopes to achieve even more than what history usually achieves in the noble business of fabricating reality. As we see in this shot, she plays the role not of one flower she was once but hundreds of flowers in one – for Athos-the son. Historical process is always lying because socio-political elites ruling over inequality usurp history as a propaganda tool. But Athos Sr. is the inventor of “progressive” (not conservative) lie, the lie instead of straight fighting against fascism which is not possible because of the inability of progressive antifascists-democrats for real antifascist actions (we in 21st century observe similar inability among many American democratic politicians who are publicly silent when it’s necessary to talk to people and to explain what conservatives are doing and why, and give their opponents verbal and semantic battle in front of the whole country).
Sometimes Draifa physically feels herself with Athos-the son like in her youth she did with his father. But if she will succeed, Athos-the younger will fail in his task of understanding history critically – as a spider’s stratagem. Draifa personifies exactly the feminine aspect of the stratagem of the spider of history. She promotes the myth of Athos-the elder as a self-perpetuating pseudo-truth. She wasn’t able to detect in her lover real torment and creative thinking challenging the standard historical narratives and desperately trying to outsmart them in his antifascist struggle.
While looking at Tara’s antifascist cell we remind ourselves that the appearance of a person can be deceptive, but compare Athos Magnani Sr. with his three left-liberal friends – Costa (in the center), Gaibazzi (to the right) and Razori. What does your intuition tell you? When we look at Athos Magnani and, on the other hand, at Costa, Razori and Gasibazzi, we sense that something is fishy with the idea that Athos is betrayer of his and his cell’s cause. Could, indeed, Athos betray Costa, Razori and Gaibazzi? Athos doesn’t look like the betraying type but Costa, Razori and Gaibazzi do. Sometimes appearance can contain a grain of truth. What is really going on here?
As Athos-the younger is looking at Costa – one of the previous antifascist cell members, suddenly he has exactly the same feeling that his father had years ago with his antifascist friends – that with them practically nothing against fascism can be achieved. Athos began to doubt the intensity of anti-fascist determination in his father’s friends and comrades in arms. Something here was deeply troubling. – But what is it exactly? Look at Costa’s dandy pose. Is he hiding something from Athos? Were these three friends of the father hiding something from him then as well, and if so, what it could be? Could it be their position, their style of fighting fascists, so different from Athos Sr.’?
Gaibazzi is explaining to Athos Magnani Jr. the headaches of making salamis. This returns Athos and us to a history that made not salami from pigs, but Athos-the polished antifascist from Athos-the traitor.
Historical myths are like a transparent air over the human settling in history. They are for human soul as air is for human life. But these peaceful walls and roofs hide a lot of hate for the world of otherness.
Athos-the hero of antifascism had to sacrifice his true identity – to hide his genuine passion of the fighter with fascism for the sake of being perceived by his comrades in arms as a “betrayer” and finally to become a cartoon hero of the people. He had to transform himself into a dark ghost we see in this shot, in order to give a chance to Costa, Razzori and Gaibazzi to feel themselves as real antifascists through hating Athos-the betrayer and transforming him into mythological Athos-the hero murdered by fascists, in order to transform people from what they are (spontaneously proto- and pro-fascists) into antifascists.
Here we see another metaphor for spider’s stratagem as a myth-creating strategy of historical process – washing the wine- and beer-bottles to refill them for further consumption. Every human generation faces resourceful renewal of previous historical myths to correspond to the new times.
The legend of Athos Magnani-the hero functions inside the organization of film’s images like cooked lion (who many years ago ran away from the circus and was killed by the police) whom we see in this still – one more metaphor of the ability of human history to cook the truth for the next generations’ consumption.
The task in front of Athos Magnani Sr. was not only fighting with fascism – but handling his friends who didn’t sympathize with fascism but who were not able to do anything against it except being “not for it”. His modified task (the result of his understanding that it’s impossible to fight fascism with friends unwilling to fight) became – how to make his comrades in arms Gaibazzi, Rassory and Costa more visceral antifascists capable to put masses of people who are psychologically much more prone to identify with fascist treatment of other people than with democratic behavior, against fascism. But the task of Athos Magnani Jr. is not less difficult. People today are psychologically the same as Athos’ father observed several decades earlier. While enjoying consumption of democracy they dream about fascist mistreatment of others, those “who are not like them”, who personify (suspicious) otherness. Will the magic power of Magritte’s painting that Bertolucci uses to characterize the contradictory context of Athos-the son’s thinking where vicious reason of civilization is balanced by the fresh reason of dawn, be able to help the young Athos and us in the 21st century?
The essence of the spider’s stratagem, according to the film, is, it seems, the fact that history cannot digest the truth about human life and human beings (including the truth about human heroism and human conformist adaptability), that to metabolize anything history (as a part of human nature) must transform truth into myths which hide the truth – represent it as a pleasant lies which appeals to people’s imaginary. The task of every generation (personified by Athos-the son) is to deconstruct the myths they inherited – to destroy the myths’ lies (here about Athos-the father’s stilted heroism) to get the truth out from the myths’ bottom – about real heroism of Athos who understood that with liberal friends-antifascists it is impossible to defeat fascism. The pop-myth of Athos Magnani with a bust face is created instead of this truth. We today, while observing the shameful collapse of our democratic politicians including Clinton and Obama before Wall Street, Military-Industrial Complex and entrepreneurs who demand monarchic monopoly over the free markets, have a historical chance (including the very existence of Bertolucci’s film) to understand this film much better than it was possible forty years ago. Translated into the terms of 21st century, the meaning of the film is that with the democrats like Costa, Razzori and Gaibazzi, like Clinton and Obama, or Richard Gephard, Tom Daschle and Chris Dodd (who after their Senate careers became prosperous corporate lobbyists), it is impossible to keep democracy, to save democracy from its deterioration into financial totalitarianism.
When today we are trying to understand why American democrats are losing even when they are winning – why they stopped to behave as democrats (elected to act on behalf of the people) and surrender to corporate powers and military-industrial complex as soon as they get elected to positions of political representation, it can be helpful to discover that the young Bernardo Bertolucci, director of “Spider’s Stratagem”, already decades ago tried to understand a very similar problem on the material of Italian pre- and post-WW2 history. Why progressive powers in post-WW2 period were and are so timid and simultaneously so corrupt that they are not capable of realizing in life their own political agenda, while conservatives so energetically, aggressively and successfully promote their authoritarian ideas and anti-democratic repressive deeds?
With his “Spider’s Stratagem” Bertolucci answers these and similar questions, and his answers are deeply tied with his historical and psychological analysis challenging our imagination satisfied with pleasing clichés, and debunking our thinking about our past and future. The director delivers his analysis by making two epochs semantically collide – the times of post-war fight for farther democratization of Italy, and the antifascist fight during the 30s (represented in the film by the activities of Athos Magnani Sr., the father of main hero of the film, and his comrades in arms Costa (owner of outdoor movie theater), Rassori (a school teacher) and Gaibazzi (opera fan, a gourmet and a salami maker). What we today try to grasp better the difficulties of the fight for farther democratization of our own country (US) is very close to what Bertolucci tried to clear for himself about the fight for post-war democratization of Italy in “Spider’s Stratagem”. Athos Magnani-the father and Athos-his son, therefore, are trans-historical doubles of progressive movements, and the later Athos is not only heir of Italian and universal antifascism but our own contemporary in the 21st century. We are all heirs of Athos Magnani Sr, and for us to comprehend his enigma is a matter of survival for our conscience, our identity and our humanity. We not less than Athos Magnani Jr. must to know what really happened – who and why killed his father.
Bertolucci’s film makes it clear that what really happened with the Elder Athos Magnani and what his son is trying to investigate (when he arrived in Tara by the invitation of his father‘s mistress, Draifa) can be very important for him (and, for that matter, for us today). The psychological similarities between political conservatism and fascism are relatively easy to detect. But too many among democrats help neocons to keep their ideas and the very cruel style of their socio-political actions alive and well. What is exactly similar between Costa, Rasori and Gaibazzi on the one hand and today’s American Democrats on the other? – The inability of democrats to fight for farther democratization of democracy – a topic much less examined than that of conservative psychology. Tara’s antifascists Costa, Rasori and Gaibazzi, friends of Athos Magnani Sr., became the focus of Athos Jr. and Bertolucci’s investigation in “Stratagem…” after the young Athos discovered that the fascists in reality were not involved in the assassination of his father as it was formulated in the solemn myth of Athos Magnani.
The official version of Athos Magnani’s death more and more looked to Athos Jr. not only simplistic but as a twisted fabrication. And this “benign” – populist-propagandist misrepresentation of the truth became for Bertolucci an example of how human history in general tends to misrepresent truths to the future generations. Bertolucci analyzes the populist-propagandist orientation of the very historical process (not as a technical but as a humanistic progress). In reality Athos Magnani-the elder became a traitor in order to be named as… a hero. This point of the film is already inside the problematic of history’s “spider’s stratagem”. To transform somebody into a hero of a pop-belief, the one who by his martyrdom reinforces the progressive idea, somebody who personifies this idea and carries it directly to the hearts of the population demands special preparation in historical time. It needs a propagandist “cooking”, and this explains how many culinary images Bertolucci uses in the film including Gaibazzi’s endless monologues about cooking and technologies of preserving food. Ideological “cooking” of the hero for future generations of antifascists is like moves of a spider enveloping its victim into a web-sack for a future meal.
Athos Magnani Sr. was the leader of an antifascist cell, and one of his proposals was to assassinate a fascist leader who planned to visit their small town. It’s the reaction of his friends on Athos’ proposal the reason for all the bizarre events which brought to life Athos’ betrayal and later his “beautification” into the status of antifascist hero. Their reaction was so decorative and stagy, so childish and toy-like, so helpless and not serious and so abstract and cartoon-like (simultaneously, exaggerated and impotent) that Athos for the first time understood that these people not only don’t want to but they’re psychologically incapable of fighting for their cause, that Gaibazzi really prefers opera and salami to risking his life, that Costa likes his cinema-business too much to risk losing his outdoor movie theater, that Rasori likes his position as a school teacher teaching kids clichés approved by fascist administration, to be tortured and killed. What to be surprised? – We, democratically oriented people like to live with appetite and pleasure, we don’t like political fights and verbal clashes and taking stance against establishment, we like positivity and friendly atmosphere. Of course, fascist dictatorship is bad thing, but if you are not challenging power and don’t belong to a special category you can survive on the periphery of life. Athos Magnani understood that his friends are satisfied with belonging to their antifascist group like to a club, but they will not be able to do anything against fascism. While thinking about his democratic friends and searching for solutions Athos gradually develops the idea of personal martyrdom as the only way to fight fascism, but it is supposed to be an action from which people will learn how to hate the fascists – they have to be somehow overwhelmed with the desire for revenge – and Athos decided to sacrifice himself by making this myth of his heroism his personal memorial. It was all that was possible to do with antifascists like Rasori, Costa and Gaibazzi, Clinton, Obama and endless American democrats today who are not able to fight for democracy through organizing and participating in peaceful political actions like public demonstrations, through explaining to the people the truth about neocons’ anti-humanistic political agendas, etc.
But how could Athos persuade his antifascist friends to support his martyrdom? – Here to him comes the idea of his betrayal of antifascist cause. It is by turning on in his friends the hate towards him, feeling of contempt for him, Athos creates in them passion necessary for building a cult of him as… a true antifascist hero. That, as he understood, is the only way to advance the antifascist feelings in people of liberal sensibility who are incapable of fighting for their progressive cause. Athos is a true hero who had to pretend to be a traitor in order to be able to leave after himself a potent anti-fascist legacy. He decided to sacrifice himself for the sake of this legacy. By transforming Athos-the traitor into Athos-the hero, Rasory, Costa and Gaibazzi will satisfy their anti-fascist feelings through their hate and disdain for him as the one who committed the treason, and then they’ll get passion to persuade people to hate the fascists for killing their hero Athos Magnani.
We see today that while neo-conservatives are fighting tooth and nail for their financial and political advantage, democrats – people with democratic sensibility, are too positive to fight and risk, they prefer to live and enjoy their salaries. No question, they are psychologically more refined and morally more advanced over conservatives by sensibility, but history of human race is, probably, too young to go farther than creating a less violent and a more positive people – it doesn’t know yet how these positive people can defend their progressive (humanistic) agenda against conservative traditionalists. The fact that human nature already includes non-conservatives is, perhaps, such a giant step in moral development of humanity that to expect more from our human nature is utopian gesture. When conservatives growl – liberals put their tails between their legs. That’s how they are. Even Creator cannot change that. If they, as Hegelian beautiful souls, rush to achieve historical results, we have a situation of martyrdom. The presence among us delicate human beings is, probably, the maximum we, humans could achieve up to now. To be cannibals, murderers and torturers is much more congruent to our nature. But how to be able to fight a rude, aggressive and cruel people while staying noble and decent – we don’t know yet. Here come the martyrs of moral cause – martyrs of goodness and decency.
Reality and myths of the positive heroes sacrificing themselves in fight with fascism is an attempt to find ways to resist the fascist elements of human nature. But such myths create in people rather indiscriminate and scapegoating hate, not really rational and noble ways to fight. Highly talented people try to create through serious art, philosophy and humanistic sciences new ways to resist psychological fascism, but today we are still as far from solution as we were centuries ago. In the 21st century everything is again decided by calculation and manipulation, brutal force, intolerance and cruelty. In this sense Bertolucci’s film is too painful for our liberal guts dressed in silk and our tender souls lying on the mattress of multicolored clouds.
And here the post-WWII generations come into history, and amongst them Athos Magnani Jr. who tries to understand the eternal tragedy of his father and our forerunner with the help of the young Bernardo Bertolucci. Will we remain forever stuck in between Tara and the larger world with our peer Athos Jr.? Or, will we find ways to turn our understanding into new peaceful existential political actions that we cannot yet know? To use the terms of the film (Bertolucci’s elaborations on Magritte’s painting) – will we be able to transform the light of night into new visions and shattered dreams into clairvoyance?
With democratic friends like Rasory, Gaibazzi and Costa, Clinton and Obama, it is impossible to keep democracy alive. But to become propagandists against anti-democratic propaganda (resourceful invention of Athos Magnani Sr.) is too semantically tragic. Together with Bernardo Bertolucci and his Athos Magnani Jr. we have to create a new understanding.
12 Nov 2014
Come thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body’s fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee: the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.
My gentle and mild being through thy ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.
Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Is “unbearable pain throughout this body’s fabric” a phenomenon or a sign of its recognition? If “thou last one” whom the poet asks to come close and “recognizes” as “unbearable pain” is death – is this death not only signified but also a signifier? Is it then signifier of spiritual victory, not over the flesh, but achieved together with flesh which is “burning” as the ultimate spiritual challenge? The additional qualifications that Rilke provides in the first stanza, complicate the answer – he contrasts spiritual burning with burning of dying (“as I in my spirit burned” “I now burn in thee”/”I now am nourishing and burn in thee”). Rilke here is, of course, not talking about the physical pain of the illness he died from, but the one which announces the coming of death as coming of a spirit, not as a self-redeeming tragedy as a surgeon with his electronic equipment of medical salvation. But “to burn in my spirit” is not only to burn without physical pain but (with) something like moments of ecstatic bliss as a condition incompatible with raw physical death.
“To burn in my spirit” is the opposite of “burning in death” – it is the image of entering eternity without the agonizing loss of the physical bodily life (without death). “To burn in my spirit” is an image of sterilized, embellished, a non-frightening death, a magical re-appearance in eternity as a trick of avoiding pain in the flesh, pain of physical dying (which is not identical with somatic pain). It looks like Rilke concentrates on the difference between a not painful spiritual burning and a painful burning “in” physical dying. In this poem he doesn’t concentrate on this contradistinction farther, but the impression is that for Rilke “burning in death” is real – the ultimate spiritual experience in comparison with “burning in spirit”. Pain is the burning death. Advancing death is recognized and met as a “nourishing pain” (nourishment of pain/nourishment provided to pain) answers in mutuality to the nourishing pain/pain nourishing me).
In the second stanza Rilke introduces “being” (“my gentle and soft being”). What in the poem’s semantic matrix (through which Rilke’s mind tries to grasp his experiences of life, spirit, death and its harbinger pain), the difference between life in spirit (burning in spirit, burning of living and dying in pain (burning in death), on the one side, and being on the other (“my gentle and mild being”)? Is being an individual’s particular way of living and dying? Rilke characterizes his lyrical hero’s particular way of being in life as “gentle and mild”. But his depiction of his way of dying suggests associations with burning of the heretics by the inquisition (“funeral pyres built for my suffering”) – “My gentle and mild being through thy ruthless fury has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.” If life is a lexical container for the living, then being (my being, I as a being) is a mediatory term between my life and me as a personality. Being is simultaneously the one who is living and his way of living as it’s perceived by that individual, as it‘s meant by him when he pronounces or imagines the words “my being”. The term “being” is, as if, the lexical “empty” place for marking by the subject himself (or by others referring to him) his way of living. Transformation of being “into a raging hell” doesn’t refer to a type of punishment. It is accepted matter-of-factly and as a goal in itself. It is accepted as a spirit inside living. And it is accepted without detour of the truth of mortality. “The wood that long resisted the advancing flames/ which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing/ and burn in thee.” I am the wood, not a person burned on it. Rilke’s spiritual radicalism here is not easy to accept. Death as a spirit is a guide through the truth of human destiny. “Quite pure, quite free from future planning, I mounted the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering, so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs”. At this point Rilke allows himself a slightly condescending smile to religious or secular philistines – salvationists and survivalists, people of ontological fear and psychological defenses against it.
But spiritual transformation (in spirit of life or in spirit of death) makes the human being more individualistic, not only in the social sense, but intellectually – more contemplatively oriented. “Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?” In his final stage the poet becomes more existentially creative and less prone to pick and choose his own memories. “Memories I do not seize and bring inside.” Previous spiritual transformations (“I in my spirit burned”) are just the worming up to “I now burn in thee”. “A raging hell of dying (as spiritual burning of flesh/wood) is not from here”. It looks like Rilke’s intuition unites purgatory of everyday living with hell as the eternal everyday life, while the “not from here” is reserved for realm of the genuinely transcendent (O to be outside!”).
Mentioning hell in this context (“Quite pure, quite free of future planning”) Rilke (as a subject of annunciation) makes the “raging hell” a form a paradise can take in a world of spiritual mortality, a sacred, almost saintly experience, a revelation without mythological vignettes with aesthetic energies of consolation. In other words, Rilke’s “raging hell that is not from here” is a “painful paradise” for those who are not looking for redemptive consolation but are dedicated to the truth of the mystery of eternal sisterhood between life and death – between humankind and the limits of human individual life cycles, of the meaning individual human beings are able to receive, to nurture and co-create as definable only through existential limit.
“To be outside of life” while living (“O life! O living! O to be outside!”) – can mean not only to live by challenging life, but by challenging death by accepting our mortality. At first, according to the poem, the poet challenges his life by spirituality (“as I in my spirit burned”). But gradually the poet gets the ability not to succumb to the need for bliss (hiding the truth of the wisdom of our mortality). Spirituality of truth (“a raging hell that is not from here”) is the ultimate – painfully revelatory form of spirituality (corresponding to the psychological maturity of poet). Mortality radically blocks symbiosis of the poet with the horizontal others (“I, who past all recognition burn” and “no one here who knows me”). It seems, Rilke defines spirituality as a pre-being, as an authoritarian position towards existence, while “being” is then the existing/existential spiritually in embrace with your dying/burning flesh.
In this poem Rilke was able to overcome prejudicial/superstitious elimination of death from the meaning of human life. When we think about life we either banish the phenomenon of death or mention death only nominally, without analyzing its role in our very existential sensitivity and our very emotional organization. We create endless psychological defenses against mortality, the defenses, like our pathological need for extra-money and power which cripples our lives and endanger the life of our species. We transform ourselves into sado-masochists of our own mortality, posed to destroy our world to get illusory chance to outlive it by mythology of resurrection-metaphors and its high-tech technological blends (transforming living into a bad science fiction). Rilke’s poem should be analyzed in every classroom.
10 Nov 2014
A grotesque male nude dominates Dubuffet’s “Will to Power”, his gritty roughness, burly proportions, inlaid stone teeth, and glass fragments for eyes giving him a fierce and threating air. But the figure’s aggressive machismo is itself threatened by the very stance he assumes…
Dubuffet represents the protagonist of his painting as if with two thirds of his body he lives inside the earth (justified characterization of the psychology of extreme conservatives living, as if, in soil and caves). Only his shoulders and head are above the topsoil, and he looks at the world with a predatory alertness that has something of the sadness of conservative inertia. His eyes pierce the space with fear and preventive intimidation. What’s coming out of his mouth? – Growling: “Austerity! Privatizing/ Dismantling Social Security! Elimination of Medicare and Medicate! Death to food stamps! Long live new wars!”
But where are his arms? They can be behind his back, and then his posture is that of a policeman observing the world. But his hands can be functionally absent – this creature can use hands-arms of others – like general – hands of the soldiers, like billionaire – hands of taxpayers on whose money he makes his profits, like leader of torturers – hands of torturers. His legs are animalistic. His mustache and hair on his torso makes his flesh heavy as an anchor – he is an intra-soil organism – lower than the bottom of human world.
His face is a mechanical continuation of his flesh. And his opened mouth is like the bottom of his foot because his speech of neocon politician is crushing people with pauperization. His eyes are of the color of hate excited by predatory intentionality. There is a permanent hunger in his eyes, and a depression of being imprisoned in what he is.
The world of Dix’s “The God of Barbers” is the opposite of the world of brutes/louts’ with “will to power” who have only their own predatory interests to care about. Neo-conservatives, be they profit-makers or politicians do only one thing in the world – fighting for their profits and advantages. In this sense they are living tautology – their world is they themselves, they radiate into space like sun’s beams. There is no place for otherness in their world. But look how complicated and “pluralistic” the interior of the hairdresser’s world is. While neo-cons fight for themselves liberally minded politicians are, first of all, proud professionals – people who want to grow in their area of expertise. Those among democrats, who psychologically are not capable to fight for the interests of the wide masses of population and who are too “gentle” with their conservative opponents, can be metaphorized by the image of Dix’s barber with his delicate gestures/words. The fact that Dix shows his softly pale protagonist, polite with his surrounding and suspended over the floor on the stage of his interior in front of the mirror, helps us to understand more about those of the politicians-democrats for whom participation in the political process is a kind of office job, armchair experience of keeping clean from being soiled. Dix’ god of barbers is suspended over the floor because his work is to dance the everyday ritual of pleasing customers, like barber-democrats are ready to produce and vote for good progressive laws (which “aborted” anyway by conservative’s negative votes or filibuster). Hairdressers-democrats think about democratic politics as a post-political, post-historical affair, a kind of an administering the life of society – they underestimate the “dark energies” of their neo-conservative opponents and colleagues, with terrifying results for American people. There are not too many real – courageous democrats who are able for civil but tough political fight, and in many situations we, Americans, are locked between Dubuffet’s monster and Dix’s “god of barbers”, until we will not elect more courageous and tough democrats into government.
While the protagonist of Dubuffet’s painting imposes himself on the viewers, like the neocons do with their cutting slogans and freedom of hate speech – on American people, the character in Dix’s painting is inside his own closed world, like post-fight democrats are sitting in their offices and dancing between them, instead of permanently and articulately talking to the American people and tirelessly publicly arguing with their neocon opponents.
Pay attention to Otto Dix’s eyes with their stubborn curiosity about the monstrosity of the human world. His gaze at the world is confrontational yet positively, even cheerfully so.
09 Nov 2014
“The Night of Iguana” is describing what today, in a time of growing joblessness, pauperization and desperate need for any kind of work, can be seen less and less – when a person searching for meaning of life is able, for the sake of internal truth, to lose his job, career and a stable future as soon as all this contradicts his moral ideals and essential understanding. Reverend Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) found himself in this very situation and was punished for “deviating” from the prescribed “faith” when he tried to explain to his parishioners that their egoistic belief of philistines dreaming of personal salvation regardless of what is going on around them, is not the proper way to believe.
Losing his job and a stable future opened for Shannon a whole new perspective of following his spiritual transformation not in the traditional sense, like changing one religious affiliation or religion, but changing organized religion for spirituality of living. In spite of the dangerous moments appearing when a person having thrown away the old identity and values is trying to find a new meaning of living, Larry, with the spiritual help of two people he met by chance, is able to go through his ordeals.
We, the viewers, follow Shannon shifting his life from the pomposity of the churches and cathedrals, domes and steeples to a barely bearable existence on a miserable salary – to a world of beauty and tranquility of nature and, finally, to a world where a subjectively designed meaning is based on the uniqueness of human personality.
Debra Kerr, Ava Gardner and Richard Burton are at their best considering the not easy conditions of acting in Hollywood films (today the situation is even more difficult) when actors need to act “charismatically”, irradiate perfume of appeal to the public, worry about not being understood by the viewers with passive/lazy perception, and try in a talented/original way to imitate the clichés of emotional self-expression.
The film is based on Tennessee Williams’ play and carries his humorous classification of the types of women (in relation to the psychologically Adam-like figure, the most widespread type of man) – spouse, “bitch”, saint and harlot. The female saint in the film – Hannah Jelkes, is played by Deborah Kerr, and the “spouse” – Maxine Faulk – by Ava Gardner.
The film is about the ability of an exceptional human being to overcome the artificial life of spiritual pretentions which trapped him in exchange for social status, and to find existence in the immanent spirituality of a simple life with a simple but emotionally rich woman.
Here we see three of the four female characters who influenced the defrocked reverend Lawrence Shannon’s spiritual transformation. On the left is Judith Fellows, a type of women widespread among today’s Republican women (who transformed the world into violator of Laws and play tireless detectives vis-a-vis the reality of other people’s lives. In the center is Hannah Jelkes, a person who is ready to help (and capable of doing so) those who are spiritually lost. And on the right is Maxine Faulk – Eva-like woman who, as if, waiting for her Adam to nurture him into living.
When Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), a person prone to be too reactive to feminine beauty, found himself under Charlotte Goodal‘s heavy seductive attention it triggered in him, an ex-reverend, complex of a pernicious sinner.
Posted on 13 Apr 2012 – Focus on American Intellectual Film-Classics. John Huston’s “The Night of Iguana” (1964) – Overcoming the Conformist and Belligerent Ego: Birth of a Human Internal World by Acting-Out Politics
08 Nov 2014
When we think about “fascists” we usually imagine an authoritarian person who crudely believes in extremist political doctrine. – But what about the polite, delicate, tolerant and the rational fascists? Do they exist? Is it for them “logically” possible to exist? Bertolucci’s “Conformist” shows a person with a liberal sensibility, intellectual sophistication and existential taste as a collaborator with a despotic and ruthless political power and analyzes the reasons for this spiritual surrender (including not so much the sexual traumas from his childhood, although represented in the film quite elaborately, but a dream of social recognition as the ultimate proof of personal value). According to Bertolucci, inferiority complex feeds conformism, careerism and the compulsive need to grow in social status.
The hero of the film Marcello Clerici’s (Jean-louis Trintignant) mother was from an aristocratic family, his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) – from a bourgeois background, and his “romantic” (sublimely obsessive) love – Anna, wife of professor-antifascist, is an eccentric female character – a “whore” in male jargon (Dominique Sanda). Here is the psychological vector of development of Marcello’s heterosexual sensitivity. Yes, there are some complications – in his childhood, at a pre-puberty age, Marcello was exposed to the episode of what can be called “incomplete seduction” when a strange man combining feminine sensuality and masculine bravado, tried to fascinate Marcello with his enigmatic appearance, his loaded gun and his eau-de-cologne. The scene has ended with what Marcello always thought – tragically, when he, without particular intention, shot the exotic seducer dead. In Marcello’s memory the eau-de-cologne became connected with the mysterious name “Madame Butterfly” mysteriously pronounced by his unsuccessful kidnapper, and much later became the ingredient of Marcello’s fascination with Anna, the emancipated/libertine woman who was her husband’s comrade in arms in their noble fight against Italian fascism.
Is Marcello’s conformist position towards Fascism during his adulthood result of his experience of being “incompletely seduced”? As a cause-effect connection or hard determination – not, but as a psychological correlation through time – probably, yes. His father, according to the film, was also a political conformist participating in repressing people, who went mad because of involvement in torture of the prisoners. Bertolucci made sure that the viewers have got it that for Marcello to learn about his father‘s reactionary activities and seeing him unable to live with the truth of what he had done (his psychotic, based on subdued conscience, regrets) was very important “orientation” for his choice of his future.
Marcello is an educated and intelligent person. He was never really exposed to fully traumatic situations which “breed” victims or violators, sufferers or brutes, but he was socially subdued many times and learned how to handle the repressive situations with a calculating cowardice that was egoistically oriented and a smart (non-impulsive) form of self-protection. Marcello never learned openness to the world and to other people. He became smoothly manipulative and covertly calculative. Bertolucci traces how Marcello’s adulthood assimilates the semi-traumas of his childhood in his organically self-centered posture. Anna, for whom Marcello felt a sincere erotic fixation was occupied with noble political fight and had, again, a very noble desire to convert Marcello into an antifascist. She tried with him seductiveness, “bitchiness” and helplessness in order to influence him. He wanted to be loved, but she wanted him to be a developed personality. May be, for this reason she wasn’t able to convert him – to save him from his conformist emotional entrenchment – into unity of personal love and noble political fight. The ability for psychological development cannot be grafted on the hurt and not healed plant.
Exceptional composer of the film music George Delerue wrote the musical themes of Marcello (the musicalized essence of his character), of Anna and of Manganiello (Marcello’s fascist assistant and in the same time secret informant about his behavior), based on a common harmonic “tree trunk”, as if, giving three branches – three various destinies.
Bertolucci’s virtuoso elaboration of Marcello’s psychological wanderings and how they are intertwined with the socio-political realities of fascism is a unique achievement of the intellectual cinema. The director is emphasizing the multi-sidedness of how totalitarian style of perception of life is uniting with people’s personal psychological predicaments. In our times when many educated people are, in essence, “betraying” democracy, not “ideologically” – not by changing their beliefs, but for the sake of careers, social success and, ultimately, “survival” (understood in a conformist way), Bertolucci’s understanding of the multiple forms of anti-democratic behavior in “Conformist” is very helpful for us to know.
American mass culture was very popular in Fascist italy and Nazi Germany. In this shot we see how Marcello’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) future wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) performs in front of him a new dance from “America”, that can be called “dance of human bird”.
Fascist systems don’t repress mass-cultural sensibility – a combination of traditionalism and family-centered “fun”. Institution of marriage with its sensual and sentimental pleasures and symbiotic unity can thrive under fascism as much as…
…married people’s mutual desire to enjoy marital mutuality, responsibilities and obligations including the basic one – to defend marital institution and castles and enjoy respectable social status of being successfully married.
In his childhood Marcello went through the experience of incomplete sexual seduction by the adult man of enigmatic and exotic appearance. This episode that opened Marcello’s sexual curiosity and simultaneously made him “abstractly, generically” afraid defined his future predilection towards conformist position as an adult.
Being impressed by his molester’s Parabellum pistol the boy Marcello starts to shoot randomly. He didn’t mean to kill. For him it was psychologically the way to unconsciously defile the world in order to self-assert, when shooting became a metaphor of his general (including sexual component) agitation. The air of transgression and self-defense against it mixed in the child-Marcello’s unconscious. He became not a fascist or anti-fascist, but a conformist, the possible pervert and the possible straight, the obedient servant of his superiors without identification with them, a creature with formal obedience, a loyal employee without simpleminded belief in his employer and without volunteering for heroic deeds, a family man and simultaneously romantic womanizer and circumstantial homosexual. His careerism is not passionate – it’s calculative, not hot, it’s a cool, without risky jumps ahead, but with exactitude of small steps.
Many years later, Marcello (on the left of this shot), when Italian fascism has already fell, and he with his old fascist buddy went out to the streets free from farther career-making, he met his old “incomplete” sexual seducer Pascualino (Pierre Clementi) and completed the circle of conformist behavior in an amusingly delirious way. Still, post-fascist regime in Italy got its own assortment of conformist behavior.
Anna – the wife of the professor Quadri (in the center, on one knee, Dominique Sanda) and Giulia (Marcello’s wife, Stefania Sandrelli) are dancing amidst shocked and admiring public. In reality, Anna is trying to recruit Giulia into antifascist resistance.
Professor Quadri and his wife as comrades in arms have decided to meet fascist menace face to face. They are prepared to realize their plan – professor is ready to sacrifice himself, and Anna – to be a witness of his murder to give the story of her husband heroism and martyrdom to the whole world (in order to mobilize more people to fight the totalitarian twins – Nazism and Fascism). In their courageous plan professor and Anna assigned some role for Marcello – he was supposed to help Anna after the assassination of her husband. It was a resourceful idea because Marcello obviously was in love with Anna and even offered her to leave everything behind and run together to South America. Quadri and Anna wanted to use Marcello‘s amorous sentiments to make him an antifascist and be rewarded by her reciprocal love. Our antifascist strategists overestimated Marcello’s humanity and underestimated his conformism. They assumed that his love for Anna is genuine, and it indeed, was sincere but sincerity of a conformist is of a very peculiar kind – it’s full of longings and dreams but simultaneously it’s full of irrational fears. Marcello is not a man of action but he is not a victim either. He is not this, nor that – he is a conformist. His seduction was not completed – in his case it was a sexual one, but it could be religious, ideological, into power games, into identification with authorities or into any passionate interests. He wasn’t seduced, and he became neither feeling oppressed, nor mutinous, and prone to what people call “betray”. In his perspective it is not a moral problem, but a psychological peculiarity.
Already in the beginning of his career Marcello easily betrayed his mother’s lover (it means – his mother). And when the guy “disappeared” he never told her why. What is the importance of an ephemeral foreigner in comparison with his, Marcello’s, life?
Marcello betrayed Anna whom he sincerely loved. Her love included the wider world with its inevitable conflicts, but Marcello grew up as a person fixated on private relationships. In this still we see the despair with which Anna appeals to Marcello’s help. But Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), special agent (with responsibility to help Marcello and to watch him at the same time), is furious why Marcello is not killing this “red whore”. For Marcello it was a choice – whom to kill, Manganiello or Anna, the woman he loves or the fascist with drastically reduced brains. Conformist’s choice is inept – sitting in the car Marcello shoots two times, not at Anna and not at Manganiello, but to nowhere. By this he still was able to keep his position but lost promotion. Anna was killed by others – there is no historical period in which there is a shortage of hired murderers. But not a conformist could do much worse than Marcello.
On their honeymoon Giulia confessed to Marcello about being molested as a girl by her uncle and elaborately described what and how he did with her. It’s not that she invented unpleasantness that her uncle’s actions created in her then and now when she was narrating them. But for her it was fun to remember her confusion and fear. And for fun Marcello was repeating Giulia’s uncle’s gestures.
But it was a time when Anna and Marcello thought that their future is possible (of course, each of them imagined it in his/her perspective). In this still we see them visiting luxury boutiques in the occupied Paris.
07 Nov 2014
When people are unwilling to rebel against a flawed social system either because they are afraid of political repression or because they are afraid to lose their material comfort – they are prone to rebel inside the area of private relationships (to challenge the society’s norms and values only in private life). “Berlin affair” shows such a domesticated, “privatized” rebellion (that takes place in Nazi Germany in 1938) by husband and wife who look and sound like any successful American couple today – with a curious albeit horrifying results we all can learn from.
Totalitarian systems of human relations have the ability to create tremendous enthusiasm which outweighs the deprivations and sacrifices they put on the masses of population. The basic reason for this enthusiasm is the ideology of megalomania people enjoy (it is so pleasant to feel that you are better than people of other countries, especially if you are on the bottom of the social hierarchy), and the right to hate, kill and rob those “who are not like we are”. Totalitarian system is strong by this people’s euphoria, and non-totalitarian ideologies cannot match the power of this ideological permission allowing criminal behavior because it justifies it by patriotic reasons. Only alternative ways of life can sometimes distract people from totalitarian “pleasures” because they detour collective ideology and directly address what in the human soul exist not recognized, completely unconscious and unknown to the human being. This doesn’t happen too often that a person can “betray” totalitarian ideology by choosing alternative way of being, but when it happens it opens a new perspective on the human soul.
Cavani’s film addresses exactly this situation when wife of a Nazi functionary (man enjoying a promising career), and later he himself, without understanding why, became ready to forget their loyalty to the Nazi ideology and feeling of belonging to the elite of their country – for the sake of a scandalous affair with a woman of a different race and culture.
May be, they unconsciously use this “mad” love affair to cut once and forever their ties with their way of life – anomic, crazy, extremist, but, may be, some other powers in the human soul were awakened by their new experience which Louise and Heinz von Hollendorff discovered as a salvation from the “totalitarian criminality” of their everyday life when “benign” elimination of the not proper categories of people was normal and necessary.
Obsession with the daughter of the Japanese Ambassador opened for Louise and Heinz’s souls some mysterious doors, and this transformed their megalomania, indifference and hate towards life and dissimilar people (which is immanent in totalitarian ideologies) into their humility, even though it was impregnated with masochistic accents as the opposite to the fascist – sadistic posture, inseparable from Nazism.
Nazi operation “Cleaning High Ranks” according to the Fuhrer’s order is in action
The idea of Nazi leadership was to get rid of the Wehrmacht generals suspected in having homosexual proclivities (if checking the truth will prove that suspicion is justified). Wolf, Heinz’s cousin and chief of Berlin police and a high ranking Gestapo officer, asks Louise and Heinz to entrap general von Heiden by inviting him to private party at their home for dinner where it will be surprise for him – his alleged young lover. In this shot we see Heinz, a Nazi official with promising career (far left, standing), his wife Louise von Hollendorff (standing in front of him near the piano), Wolf (sitting, on the left in the background), general von Heiden (sitting in the center in the background), and his supposedly secret lover (playing piano).
General von Heiden immediately understood, of course, that he is trapped as soon as he stepped into the living room and saw the young piano player, but he had to helplessly wait for the end of the masquerade.
The finale scene ends with opening a bottle of Champaign – the artist was introduced to the general, and when they shook hands superficially pretending to enjoy meeting each other, Wolf congratulated the general for having helped his young protégé make an impressive career, fame and in his artistic achievements. The young man still tried to mumble “proofs” of not knowing the general until that moment, but von Heiden explained to him that it is meaningless and resumed whole scene by a maxim that “you cannot defend yourself against vulgarity” and by the final remark that he insists on the court of honor.
Mitzuko and Louise amidst war and international economic robbery
Louise, the wife of a Nazi official, and Mitzuko, the daughter of Japanese ambassador to Germany, found themselves very far from the mass cannibalistic orgy of war swallowing human lives and robbing properties of other people and countries.
Relationship with Mitzuko wasn’t a complete alternative to the chaotic and predatory times. She personified not only disinterestedness and beauty, but for Louise and Heinz she also personified the authoritarian side of Nazism. May be, she felt that it is necessary in order to make them follow her to be able to save them from the madness of Nazi ideology of war and domination. She died from overdose of sleeping pills together with Heinz and let Louise live and understand life better. Cavani’s film is based on Louise’s story.
Posted May 14, 2010 – Liliana Cavani’s “Berlin Affair” (1985): How to Beat the Unbearable Social Anomy? – To internalize it, Shift it into the Area of Private Relations and to intensify it there by Acting-Out Politics
06 Nov 2014
The film depicts the clash between the liberating energies of intellectual art and the controlling power of the authoritarian system (reinforced by legalistic logic) which is personified by Justice Abramson (Erik Hell), an old functionary who (under the sincere mask of a disinterested servant of law and order) enjoys intimidating and humiliating people including artists (who, according to his judgment, “are full of arrogance”) with his interrogating/investigating and censoring initiatives, enthusiasm and righteousness.
Intellectual art’s revolutionary potentials are personified by a trio of actors, each of them incarnating a special aspect of artistic creativity (the viewers are challenged by Bergman to grasp which aspect is represented by which character). The clash of art with repressive legalism and moralism defines the plot and orients the semantic overtones and the stylistic complications of the film.
Bergman’s criticism of authoritarian legal system is based politically on his democratic stance of expecting a permanent democratization and humanization of the existing power relations in society, and psychologically on his knowledge of how detrimental for the human emotional health is obsessive search for power and advantage as tools for manipulating/controlling other human beings, nature and life in general.
The acting is not situational (and not extroversive and socio-morphic) like in today’s Hollywood movies, but is oriented on sculpting the emotional personalities of the characters as a background of their worldviews. Bergman’s films and “The Rite” particularly try to return us to life through authentic aesthetic contemplation. “The Rite” is also about the artist as a revolutionary via artistic transcendence of rigid reality of everyday life of “survival” and entertainment, conformism and consumerism.
Ultimately Bergman’s film is about human orientation on existential genuineness – about spontaneous human desire to live our humanity in full according to our potentials. To learn about ourselves through Bergman’s art helps us to be more in tune with the best – less corrupted side of ourselves.
Bergman depicts the main characters-actors – Hans Winkelmann (Gunnar Bjornstrand), Sebastian Fisher (Anders Ek) and Thea (Ingrid Thulin) as people trained by their profession not to impress audience but to feel genuinely, and as fighters (each in his/her own way) with the established powers, but they are outside of narrowly understood political dedications because their fight is much more radical – existential and spiritual. They deploy their revolutionary energies against the repressive/conformist establishment installed by different political systems based on inequality of their hierarchical nature.
Sebastian’s pyromaniac-suicidal complex is that of a person whose sensibility was formed under a punitive moral code and carries an overwhelming rebellious intensity. He lives in such a way as if he had survived an apocalypse which for him continues as the everyday conventional reality.
Thea’s emotional appeal to the Judge is an appeal to power on part of a person who since childhood was abused by parental authorities, later by the males’ power of gonads deployed as a psychological weapon, and by situations which demanded violence and submission in order to survive.
05 Nov 2014
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is about a very rare capability of a person in a position of a spouse to help his/her beloved to overcome internal psychological problem that permanently disrupts the emotional balance of their relationship inside marriage and makes their love unproductive, wasteful and vain. The film is also about a disturbance many marriages are afflicted by – when intimacy between a husband and wife is in the process of being undermined by their unconscious ontological rivalry. Thirdly, the film addresses the issue of the essence of American dream. Is it mainly about our social, professional and financial achievements, about success, or is it rather about our psychological and moral growth, about the very development of human humanistic intelligence? In other words, is the American dream in the area of the unique bonds between a husband and wife consists in the ability to feed personal relationship with material prosperity and money successes or is it about the meaning of human relations?
The central focus of “Who is afraid…” is the conflict between George (Associate Professor of History) and his wife Martha (Albee’s analogy here with George Washington and his wife Martha – makes a personal story historically and culturally meaningful and of interest not only to any married couple but for every American). The conflict between the spouses is inflated by Martha’s dream of having a perfect (not less than perfect) son (a dream made even more morbid by her infertility). This dream is tied to Martha’s disappointment in her husband’s failure to make an exceptional career (first, to become the head of history department and later take over her father’s position as the president of the university) and become financially much more successful. Albee analyzes the psychological and the social aspects of Martha’s dream based on what can be called her “perfect progeny complex” – the expectation from a child to boost his mother‘s self-image.
Through several rhetorical devices Albee masterfully creates a psychodrama with the viewers who while observing George and Martha‘s psychological maneuvers experience a catharsis of their own emotional complexes resonating with Martha’s psychological predicament. The film culminates in a unique in American film history scene, when George uses a sophisticated psychotherapeutic tactics of pseudo-exorcism to banish the idolatrous energies of his wife’s complex of a perfect progeny.
Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor triumphantly outstrip themselves as George and Martha in an exceptionally intense and intellectually articulate performance. Albee’s text is sharp, witty and full of versatile cultural allusions.
For Martha her “American dream” realized in having a perfect son (“with blue hair and blond eyes”, according to George’s ironic remark), puts her proudly above not only her husband but any man desiring her company.
At the end of the film, after George’s ritual of pseudo-exorcism, Martha is psychotherapeutically transformed and became a normal human being (without megalomaniacal complex). But, please, don’t try to repeat George’s ritual at home – it can be dangerous.