One More Masterpiece from Resnais: This Time a Tough Comedy Difficult to Swallow

To end up hiding under the bed seems to be the destiny of those with narcissistic (perceived as arrogant) innocence. By their naively self-centered behavior they unintentionally provoke resistance and even hate in others.

Picture is not available: Joey visits his daughter’s place in Paris. Conflict between a father and daughter that is going on for years, intensifies Joey’s inferiority complex and that in turn makes his self-aggrandizement even grander. After all the time they have been apart Joey talks to Elsie not like a father (with empathy for her and some objectivity about their relationships). He sounds rather like an unjustly abandoned lover: he is mainly pre-occupied with trying to prove to her that he is smarter than she, that he is and has always been right in everything and, to top it all, he is better as person than everybody else.

Professor Christian Gauthier, a famous specialist in French literature, tries out his new scholarly subject – American cartoon, to perfect his understanding of its emotional code and psychological context, and in the process to have a bit of fun and some relief.

Amorous Triangle
Trying to be a hospitable host of the size of Paris, Gauthier meticulously attends his culturally Third-Worldly American guests. The composition of this shot is “prophetic” – it explains in advance what will happen later on in terms of an amorous triangle: Lena in the back seat is located, as if, in transition between two men, she is as if joined to Gauthier’s body; she is not just sleeping (surface semantic structure), she doesn’t want to look at her boy-friend Joey (deep semantic structure); Joey’s face expresses frustration about being neglected and ignored by his daughter (surface structure), but on the level of deep structure it is a face (angry, bitter and resigned) of an abandoned lover. This still expresses at least two different things simultaneously (here the present and the future) – the director is able to expresses the larger reality at the same time. The difference between denotation (the obvious) and connotation (viewer’s interpretation guided by the directorial hints) is a necessity for art to be able to create a space of guided semantic freedom between an artist and those who perceive the work of art.

Mass Culture
Joey and Lena entering the Parisian exposition of American comic strip, themselves look like comic strip characters. They have dissolved in the monotonous pluralism of mass culture.

Cartoon Characters as interlocutors
Elsie Wellman habitually exchanges opinions with cartoon characters. She tries to run to France from the pop-culture of her father, but the cartoon personages that having been internalized by her from childhood are already a part of her as her internal objects. By their presence inside her the cartoon figures influence her behavior, even how she imagines her liberation from the cartoon entertainment environment.

Cartoon culture of superheroes
Smiling or fierce animals (both beyond mortality) and glorious superheroes (eternal and occupied with great projects) are two poles of cartoon culture personifying the two imperatives of American life: achievement and entertainment, great deeds and great fun.

Father-cat and daughter-birdy
Father-Joey and daughter-Elsie’s rare moment of an unclouded togetherness is helped by his new creation – unconditionally kind cat (drawn on Joey’s face). When Elsie was a child Joey, instead of gently awakening her to the world and adulthood, invented Sally-the cat for her, an animated toy figure to tame her curiosity and distract her from noticing any spots of emotional problems in human relationships. In this shot we see Elsie dressed up as a chick and Joey with smiling cat-face. The connotation is that a jovial cat-father will not hurt the fragile little bird-daughter. Years ago Joey had set aside his pedagogical tasks and was instead trying to persuade Elsie in his goodness and talent, but even a well meant comic strip cannot help kids to learn how to see life as it is and to understand it better. If not the omnipresence of “cartoon pedagogy” the American youth could be better equipped to meet the challenges they face today instead of being tied down and locked by slogans and dogmas – a cartoon version of thinking.

Establishing international solidarity
Joey tries to establish rapport with the French peasants by impersonating the patriotic plain that is supposed to take him back “home” – to America. He is sure that the primordial (cartoon) language is common to all people of different nations and races – so, he, probably, perceives himself as the creator of a (magic) musical tool that will be able to overcome the human misunderstandings and animosity. What he misses to consider is that the animosity is overcame only on a childish (cartoon) level, but reality and the adult problems will return and bring back all the animosities with a new intensified force.

From Flaubert to cartoon
No! No! No! – The drawing of her father is not what Elsie expects her intellectual idol Christian Gauthier to show her. For Elsie the path toward an alternative (more adult) culture is closed off by an insurmountable: objective – intercultural, reasons.

Madame Isabelle and Joey Wellman
We can better understand the psychological condition of Madame Isabelle, Christian Gauthier’s mother, by taking into consideration the fact that when she unexpectedly sees Joey Wellman in her bathroom it becomes a 50/50 situation.

Little Lena tries to please the "authorities"
Like a shy little girl Lena at first refused Christian’s request to make a cartoon drawing for the noble hosts, but eventually she surrenders and, again, like a little girl, with her tongue sticking out, follows Gauthier’s desire. Or, may be, she – her (unconscious) intuition (Resnais’?), uses this situation to stick her tongue out at Joey who, while occupied with his cartoon glory (enjoying being in the center of admiring attention) and with persuading his daughter that he is the best father and person in the world, doesn’t notice that Lena is meticulously flirting with the French chief of American cartoon. The composition of the shot suggests a situation where parental figures encourage the child to achieve while secretly identifying with the childishness of this achievement (as many American fathers enjoying playing videogames with their children under the pretext of building rapport with them).

What kind of a psychological condition must a person be in to talk regularly with cartoon characters? When the Americans in “I Want…” are small and young, this exchange with the cartoon interlocutors is conscious. When they get to be older it becomes unconscious. And finally in their old age, they themselves transform into comic strip creatures. Through the behavior of Joey Wellman from Cleveland and his daughter Elsie we see how Americans of different ages are psychologically formed and sustained by permanent psychological ties with the cartoon personages.

What kind of a psychological condition must a French big lit specialist be in to stop his dedication to sophisticated art – to change his “high brow” cultural interests and “high horse” cultural stance, to become the best specialist in American comic strip? In the case of Christian Gauthier we see how a French intellectuality melts in today’s anti-cultural climate and tries to survive by deflating its artistic object. By the very skiing down from the heights of literary sensitivity into the valleys of cartoon crudeness the French culture reinvents its colonial identity – it puts the American cultural third-worldliness under its intellectual patronage.

Hinting at the confluent history of the two countries, Resnais represents two families – American and French, as though they are metaphorically one. Christian Gauthier (French) occupies a middle age position between old Joey Wellman and his young daughter (Americans). It is as if in US after 2WW there were not enough middle-aged American liberals who could be able to do the necessary work of mediation between the conservatives and the bourgeoning young liberals to solidify the American liberal tradition. The fact that a person like Gauthier sacrifices his liberal arts scholarly ambitions to the American cartoon conservatism (signified by Joey) tells the viewers about the historical weakness of the American liberalism in the second half of the 20th century – it didn’t have enough time and guts to root itself deeply enough in American history and sensibility. Elsie’s over-determined search for Gauthier as a cultural alternative to the American mass-cultural taste (as for an alternative father) signifies the existence of a serious problem in the recent American liberal tradition – the young liberals (Elsie) are culturally fathered by the old conservatives (Joey) because the first (post-war) liberal generation was weak-muscled in its liberalism. A lack of historical time for building a liberal socio-political and cultural reflexes made the recent American liberalism (signified by Gauthier) stilted, and the young liberals (symbolized by Elsie Wellman) empty inside and therefore obsessed with superficial rebelliousness.

The problem between Elsie Wellman and her father is not only psychological and cultural – it has political overtones and it is also a matter of existential taste. Christian Gauthier is not able to mend the father-daughter conflicts because his Frenchness (on the one hand signifying the American post-war liberalism and on the other – French liberalism of the fin de siècle) has been crushed by regressive politico-cultural trends – France is slowly sinking, like Venice into the water, into an ocean of cartoon culture. Elsie Wellman’s dream about intellectual subtlety and elegant feelings itself already belongs to a cartoon as much as Gauthier’s academic project of presiding over the American comic strip.

In his representation of Joey Wellman’s personality, Resnais resourcefully mixes the American megalomaniacal self-centeredness (which we have observed with disbelief for last eight years and Resnais saw much earlier) with Judaist megalomania of chosenness. Something is tragically similar in the two phenomena (today Americans perceive themselves as the chosen leaders of the Planet Earth).

The Costume party in Joey’s honor becomes a farcical version of the Jewish assimilation. The scandal with a number of irrational outbursts, and Joey’s traumatic experiences become a metaphor of anti-Semitic reaction on the “omnipresence of Jewish presence”. Joey’s running away signifies the apocalyptic collapse of the world as a Biblical motif. His ecstatic efforts to create rapport with the French villagers become a representation of desperate Jewish attempts to survive in the host countries. And Joey’s affair with Christian Gauthier’s mother becomes an eternal Jewish dream of getting to the Promise Land.

Miraculously, the same events are simultaneously given as the figural images of the American history as well. The costume party also symbolizes a new American Utopia about being not just a country among the others but about becoming a universal model for the world. The scandal enriched by the eruption of physical fight becomes the image of how expansionist policies provoke the resistance of the world. Joey’s rapturous attempts to find rapport with the French villagers become the representation of American messianic posture in the world. And Joey’s awful-waffle affair with Gauthier’s mother becomes the American frontiersman dream about “settling in wilderness”.

Elsie Wellman’s dream about an alternative culture will not be realized, like the liberal dream about human liberation didn’t in U.S. The film suggests that the cartoonish political, economic and militaristic behavior is the future of U.S., of a Europe following U.S., and the rest of the world. The ultimate reason for this, according to the film, is the stimulation of cultural illiteracy and animation cartoon taste, and the surrender of liberals (Gauthiers) to radical reduction of humanistic education in preference for eternal entertainment as a cartoon version of well being.

But life continues in spite of everything, even though what is continuing is no longer life.

The costume party and crystallizing into collective rituals mysteries of the French countryside are a psychological transitional space that structures the arrival of a spiritual transformation. People cannot find those whom they are looking for and instead discover others as their new relationships. They suddenly change their attitudes, find out their new identities. The setting for spiritual transformation is there, and so are the rituals for promoting it, but its existential meaning has somehow gone. It is like a written music piece that changes into something unexpected when somebody tries to play it. Instead of reaching the altered state of consciousness we are left with a cardboard cartoon utopia where comic strip characters settle among humans, then enter the human souls and transform humans into themselves.

The film can be perceived as a parody on the idea of transformation in personal relationships as a result of encounter with otherness. It includes the following phases: a psychodrama of a preparing for the encounter with otherness (Elsie, Joey and Lena coming to Paris, and Christian’s involvement with American comic strip), experiencing this encounter (ecstatic expectation of narcissistic self-enrichment by both sides), psychological fiasco and pseudo-transformation as a result of frustration (Joey-Lena split, Joey-Elsie closeness, Lena-Christian Gauthier misalliance, Joey-Isabella amour a mort, Lena-Elsie sentiments), and the spilling frustration from the castle of dukes into the valley of everyday life (Joey’s cartoon messianism with French country-side inhabitants).

In Elsie Wellman’s desperate search for a cultural fatherhood we, Americans, recognize ourselves – the voracious Derridians, fierce Deluzians, ferocious Lacanians and hashish-Zizekians, although what we really get upon transplanting European philosophy to the land of comic strip is cultural crumbs magnified by the specialized campus competence. Existential parameters of humanistic knowledge are going out of focus into pink-punk clouds. The face of unconditionally kind and caring: global cat – a Joey Wellman’s creation no doubt highly appreciated by Christian Gauthier, is drawn on its corpus.

Posted on Oct 28 2009-   “I Want To Go Home” (1989) by Alain Resnais by Acting-Out Politics