BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky, 2010


Dionysus’s dance with Apollo.

“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, v.

Upon seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and having particularly enjoyed the Nietzschean interpretations of There Will be Blood (Issue 74) and The Departed (Issue 65) in Philosophy Now film columns, I felt compelled to produce a Nietzsche-inspired piece myself.

Aronofsky’s haunting creation captivated me not only because of its spectacle as an aesthetically-powerful movie, but also for the resonance that it had with my own area of study – Nietzsche’s belief that language fails to render the cosmic symbolism of music. That said, I’m not so much interested here in Tchaikovsky’s powerful composition for the ballet Swan Lake (around which the story of Black Swan revolves), as in what I consider to be the clashing of two world-views. These are what Nietzsche coined the Dionysian and the Apollonian. ‘Dionysian’ is from Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god representative of intoxication and frenzy (known as ‘Bacchus’ to the Romans), while ‘Apollonian’ is from Apollo, the Greek god of a variety of things, including light, the sun, and medicine; but for the purpose of Nietzsche’s argument, he is mainly representative of reason. To Nietzsche, these two divine aspects form the distinct sides of artistic expression: the ‘Dionysian’ being the passionate, emotional element, and the ‘Apollonian’ being the visionary, intellectual element (see for example, his The Birth of Tragedy, 1872).

Nina: The Consummate ‘Apollonian’

Black Swan depicts the protagonist, Nina – played by Natalie Portman – on a frenzied journey in pursuit of the perfect performance in the lead double role in the ballet Swan Lake as both Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan. Overseen by her neurotic mother, Nina has become the consummate performer, and as the hottest prospect in her ballet company, is awarded the mantle of the lead role for the coming season’s shows. Through fastidious practice, complimented with intense discipline, she embodies the precise nature of the Apollonian White Swan. However, in the eyes of her domineering director Thomas – played by the excellent Vincent Cassel – she fails to capture the primordial essence of the Dionysian Black Swan for which he yearns. The visceral portrayal of Nina’s tumultuous journey in pursuit of embodying the Black Swan in order to deliver the perfect performance is provided not through a particularly complex script or dialogue, but predominantly through Aronofsky’s uniquely dark direction, which in turn is wonderfully accompanied by the cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the enthralling score by Clint Mansell (inspired in no small part of course by the work of Tchaikovsky). Through its highly stylised approach, the film builds relentlessly to an overture of epic proportions in its rendering of what embodying the Dionysian spirit of art entails.

The film culminates with Nina delivering a mesmerizing performance as the Black Swan. In the preceding hour and a half, viewers have witnessed her practice indefatigably in pursuit of perfection. However, we have also seen her go down a path of self-destruction due to her obsession: she has habitually scratched herself feverishly, to the point of bleeding; suffered torrid hallucinations; and, as a bulimic, also frequently induced herself to vomit. A final hallucination depicts her stabbing and killing a fellow dancer whom she perceives as a competitive threat. What is revealed, after she has delivered the performance of her life as the Black Swan, is that in the course of this hallucination she has actually stabbed herself. As the film nears its end, we see Nina bleeding, in all probability, to her death. Lying with tears in her eyes and an ever-so-slight smile, she appears a shattered figure, but at the same time enormously satisfied. She proceeds to utter a bittersweet reflection on all that she has suffered: “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” The film then fades to white as the roar of the crowd chanting her name echoes on.

The fellow dancer whom she perceives as a threat is her hedonistic, sensual understudy Lily, played by the aptly cast Mila Kunis. On the face of it, Lily is the Black Swan incarnate. She even has a large tattoo of the wings of a black swan adorning her back – alluring, but also menacing. However, while Lily can deliver a more than capable performance as the Black Swan, Nina is an outstanding White Swan, and would attain perfection if only she could display an unbridled frenzy and passion in the role of the Black Swan to the same degree that her steely dedication masters her portrayal of the White. This perfection is something Lily cannot attain, for she is not as exceptional as the Black as Nina is as the White. As we’ll see, for Nietzsche, it would not be possible for anybody to excel as the Black Swan without crushing the White Swan part of themselves.

Welcome to The Well of Dionysus

For Nietzsche, the Dionysian spirit is more than just a way of thinking. Rather, it is a state of ecstasy and a ‘frenzy of becoming’, through which the Apollonian ‘veil of reason’ is torn asunder. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche exclaims that “what are wanted are blindness and intoxication, and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.” This dramatic proclamation summarises the purpose of his life’s work – and in particular, his endeavour to propagate the Dionysian way of thinking over that of the Apollonian. The outcome of this Dionysian outlook is displayed in all its intensity in Black Swan – that is to say, in the primal transformation of Nina into the Black Swan as she reaches her breaking point, having just, to her mind, stabbed and killed her understudy. She then enters the stage for the viewer to see her literally sprouting magnificent black wings, as we see her give herself over to the Dionysian frenzy which results in the primal, perfect performance of a lifetime: she has embodied Nietzsche’s cry for Dionysian passion.

The perfection for which Nina strives is analogous to what Nietzsche ascertains to be the supreme goal of art. This for Nietzsche can only be reached through immersing oneself in the unadulterated primordial passion of Dionysus. Accordingly, this passion is then able to unshackle one from the confines of the Apollonian realm of reason. But this paradigmatic shift in being, much like its messenger Nietzsche, is not for everyone. Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian is only for those strong enough, who have reached the limits of reason enmeshed in the Apollonian spirit. Hence, the Dionysian is only accessible by way of the Apollonian – the two are inextricably linked. Nina’s journey of suffering, and the manner in which she pushes Apollonian art to its limits, is a necessary pre-requisite for her to be able to enter Dionysus’s awe-inspiring well of the primordial. Furthermore, the Dionysian mentality is not something superficial, or something which can be dipped into on a whim. Rather, it requires unmediated passion – something of which Nina is actually capable, but Lily is not.

Not unlike the notion of Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’, in which (crudely put) one falsely believes a shadow of an object to be the actual thing itself, Nietzsche argues that those who believe that the Apollonian is the truth of human perfection invariably perpetuate the relegation of the truly liberating Dionysian spirit, exclusively favouring works of reason as the ultimate expression of artistic freedom. As a result, unlike many reviewers, I do not consider Nina’s suffering in the film to be about mental illness per se, nor about the supernatural. Rather, I read Nina’s experience as the pain associated with transcending the confines of Apollonian reason, i.e., the pain of reaching for the Dionysian light outside the Apollonian cave.

Perfection Beyond Reason

Black Swan vividly depicts the struggle to transcend the limits that one has established and reach perfection. This is a painful process, and it may crush one to death. But as the pioneering martial artist Bruce Lee once said: “There are no limits. There are plateaux; but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” Aronofsky increases the intensity continuously from the very first scene. This enables the viewers to immerse themselves in Nina’s surging to overcome her limits, and to feel the process of her embodiment of Dionysian frenzy. In a similar vein, Nietzsche’s provocative discourse in his books is emblematic of his Dionysian artistic purpose as a gadfly to provoke what he saw as a stagnated fin-de-siècle European society into striving onwards and upwards to greatness.

Nina’s striving towards, and ultimate attainment of, a form of perfection, illustrates the terrifying power of the Dionysian spirit in liberating its practitioners from the constraints of Apollonian ‘reasonableness’. In Black Swan, Aronofsky remarkably captures the clashing of two Nietzschean worldviews, and what results is an intense, dark and memorable audio-visual experience.

Dharmender Dhillon

GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI, Jim Jarmusch, 1999


Around four or so years ago, I was standing in my kitchen holding a copy of Hagakure, having a chat with my Mum. Having recently just bought the book from the wonderful, but now deceased book store Borders, I was stood by the fridge eagerly reading from a foreign, exciting and magical text. I’ve always been interested in Japan since I was a bambino, my fascination germinating from my interest in video games and then flourishing in my teens where I became a true Otaku. My interest was initially superficial, obsessed with Japanese comics (Manga), Anime and Japan’s answer to Disney, Studio Ghibli. However I soon became more interested in Japanese Culture and its history and I soaked up any insight into what was until very recently an isolated country.

So anyway, that’s why I was reading Hagakure, or The Book of the Samurai, a 17th Century text written by Yamamoto Tsunemoto. It’s presumed that Tsunemoto wrote (or rather, dictated) the text following the death of his Master. He was refused the privilege of Junshi, (a ritual suicide performed by a Samurai following his master’s death) partly due to the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate that forbade such rituals and also because Tsunemoto’s master didn’t want him to take his own life. Tsunemoto was writing in a period of relative peace and the text comes across as almost nostalgic for the days of war and battle. Tsunemoto relieves his eagerness to perform seppuku by writing about death..a lot. This book is about death.

So anyway, back to the story, I was in my kitchen, reading out the passage that’s probably most well-known, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.” It then goes on to say, “To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.” My Mum didn’t seem best pleased by this and quickly declared such thinking as morbid, “one should focus on life”, she responded.

I’d like to argue that such meditation and contemplation on one’s inevitable demise, doom, and destruction grants one an intense awareness of one’s current existence. Not to say that this is always a comfortable thing. Constant thought on death has, at times, caused anxiety and sadness when faced with the intensity of my existence and its inevitable end. But this intense awareness allows a perspective in which we can hold a deep appreciation for existence and for living things. The character of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, is my prime candidate for such an upbeat view. The irony in Jim Jarmusch’s film is that Ghost Dog is an assassin, a killer who has the highest and deepest respect for life. In Ghost Dog, we see an individual who has fashioned himself into something that destroys and ends life, yet to call him a murderer or even a killer feels intuitively wrong. Ghost Dog presents something we can aspire to. His valuing of life is exhibited throughout the film like at the beginning where he makes a thoughtful and respectful gesture to a cemetery and in the scene with the bear hunters (my favourite scene in the entire film). (1)

Ghost Dog’s respect for the living is juxtaposed with his enemy, the mafia. New Jersey’s local mob brings to mind the comical and domestic representation of the mafia as seen in The Sopranos. In one sense, the mob kills, just like Ghost Dog does, but with an attitude that has no respect for life – the term ‘waste management’ comes to mind. Indeed, the film seems to be making a broader point regarding the Caucasian’s role in history, that of a destroyer of life. One of the mobsters is called a ‘stupid white man’ by a Native American following the brutal shooting of a carrier pigeon. The kind of respect for life shown by the Native American and Ghost Dog has a broader significance in that it seems to be drawing attention to a history of colonization and violence carried out predominantly by imperial white men. (It’s worth noting that a respect for life, as Ghost Dog shows, does not necessitate passivity or refusal to kill living creatures. There is simply a level of respect and compassion for the life that’s come to an end).

So why would constant focus on death create such a respect for life? One of Heidegger’s claims is that we are beings-toward-death.  Although we cannot experience our own deaths or the deaths of others, we are nevertheless going to die and we are constantly faced by the possibility of our own death. The intense and constant awareness that all of our relations with the world disappear upon dying is an uncomfortable thought, but it is one of the defining characteristics of Dasein. The opposite of Dasein (which can be translated as ‘being there’) is not being there anymore. Reflection on one’s own ‘not-Being’ brings one’s own ‘being-able-to-Be’ into view and ‘there is a sense in which the possibility of my not existing encompasses the whole of my existence (Hinman 1978, 201), and my awareness of that possibility illuminates me, qua Dasein, in my totality.’ (2)

Ghost Dog’s existence is consciously structured by such an awareness and it’s the affirmation of his not-Being that allows him to actively forge an intense mindfulness of life. Ghost Dog is a typical Übermensch in that he creates his own code. Even though he frequently looks to the Hagakure for guidance, the text stands outside of the conventional American oeuvre of self-help literature. The Hagakure is, in part, an existential text that offers guidance on how to deal with suffering and the burdens that accompany existence. Ghost Dog’s code or Way is his own. The Hagakure itself talks much about the Way and Ghost Dog lives in accordance with the Daoist conception of the Way-farer who is ‘always unseen’ and abstruse, leaving no trace of their passing. Ghost Dog is untouched by his modern day surroundings and in this sense is like ‘a wooden lump’ or ‘muddy pool’, obscure and mysterious to those around him. (3)

The most comforting thing about Ghost Dog is his attitude to death. It’s not a passive acceptance but an active affirmation, and it is perhaps due to this affirmation that he makes such a good assassin. One commentator puts it that ‘”By considering himself already dead” [Ghost Dog]… maintains his composure.’ (4) This can be seen in a number of scenes where Ghost Dog shows no fear or hesitation when under fire or in danger.

The Hagakure, too, presents us with a view that positively affirms death and the failure to achieve one’s goals; a view far removed from Western liberal society. Today, we are encouraged to generate goals, to acquire things and, perhaps more philosophically, to create a neat and complete narrative in which we see the generic unfolding of some kind of ‘good life’. When we mourn, we mourn what could have been achieved and realised by that person. The loss of life in itself is not the problem, it is the loss of our relations and future potential. The Hagakure criticises such a desire for achievement: ‘The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time.’ Applying this melodramatic maxim to ordinary western life helps draw attention to our zealous praise of success, victory and achievement. It may be obvious but people can die before achieving their goals. Even less drastically people sometimes don’t get what they desire because they’re not particularly competent, or because they are just plain unlucky. A climate that sells success stories of meteoric rises to fame and then bullshits us into believing that anyone can achieve this, leads to disappointment when our desires aren’t realised. Conversely, the Hagakure says, when facing an army of thousands, it’s enough just to be determined to cut them down, even though loss is inevitable. It never says you’ll win. Nietzsche says that ‘Buddhism makes no promises but keeps them, Christianity” or in this case Western ideas like the American dream ‘makes a thousand promises but keeps none.(5) In this sense Ghost Dog and the Hagakure offers a view that I personally find comforting.

The film, coupled with the text encourages us to disperse with any kind of ultimate, metaphysical meaning in our existence. The general Eastern view offered in the film embraces Daoist and Buddhist thinking whereby existence is fashioned through a discipline and commanding of the drives and passions. The intense awareness of one’s own life and the lives of others, including non-human animals, is improved by contemplation of death and one’s own eventual non-being.

I’d like to end with a quote from the Hagakure that I hope stays with you, ‘A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly toward an irrational death.’

Simon Booth

References:

1) This second scene could however be seen as a flagrant disregard for life. One commentator sees Ghost Dog’s actions as barbaric and ruthless yet I cannot help but feel Ghost Dog’s intense feeling and thought for life.

2) Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

3) Daodejing, 15

4) http://facultyfiles.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/GhostDog.htm

5) The Anti-Christ, Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. H.L.Mencken, p.42)

BIGGER THAN LIFE, Nicholas Ray, 1956


Nicholas Ray was the son of a lumber magnate and grew up in rural Wisconsin. He enjoyed a middle-class upbringing, coming from a wealthy and ostentatiously, at least, strictly religious family. However Ray’s father was excommunicated from the local diocese for his many affairs and his heavy drinking. Despite performing well at school, Ray had an unconventional childhood: he began drinking at the age of ten, becoming involved in the seedy underworld of a seemingly idyllic village and even tried to seduce one of his father’s lovers at the age of thirteen. Ray was arrested at seventeen for allegedly trying to run over Doc Rhodes, the physician who had attended his dying father, and the person he blamed for administering medication which caused his death. Ray’s main biographer Bernard Eisenschitz claims that this event sowed the seeds for his later scepticism towards medicine and the medical establishment as whole, which is expressed in Bigger Than Life. Also, this chaotic family upbringing can be interpreted as being the reason behind Ray’s scathing attacks on middle-class American lifestyle and morality, something which is also present in Bigger Than Life.

Ray became interested in theatre at an early age, and moved to Chicago to study it there. Here he met the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the writer Thornton Wilder. The former invited him to his artistic and intellectual project the Taliesin Fellowship.  Named after the Welsh bard (Lloyd-Wright identified himself as Welsh-American, and aimed to forge this into a stable ethnic and cultural identity), its aim was to propose a new way of thinking about the world and a new approach to learning, one which (in the words he used in a self published circular) would ‘develop a well-correlated human being: since correlation between hand and the mind’s eye in action is most lacking in modern education.’

The fellowship was based on an isolated farm in the same Wisconsin countryside Ray knew well from his childhood. Spending nearly a year there, he was asked to leave thanks to his heavy drinking and drug taking. According to his ex partner Jean Evans, a ‘vindictive and moralistic’ Wright also took issue with Ray’s bisexuality and they severed contact when Ray left for Mexico in 1934. Thorton Wilder’s existentialism was something which attracted Ray, who himself kept books by writers like Dostyevski, Camus, and Satre, alongside works by modernist writers like Joyce and Thomas Mann, and the theatre of Brecht. However, the confines of university education also proved too much for the rebellious young director, and he lasted six months at the University of Chicago before moving to New York to work in radio and begin his professional involvement with drama.

In the ‘Big Apple’ Ray made the acquaintance of Turkish director Elia Kazan, who at this point was striking success with his own theatre company, and ‘Gadge, as he was known to friends, introduced Ray to the NY theatre scene. This period of his life, spent in the heart of Greenwich Village, was a raucous one. Through his work in broadcasting and his involvement with theatre groups inspired by the works of Marxist writers like Brecht and Shaw, Ray met figures like the folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie, the self styled founder of jazz Jelly Roll Morton, as well as the musician Duke Ellington with whom he worked on what was to be Ray’s only Broadway production.

The cosmopolitan New York, with theatres and nightclubs which were beginning to defy segregation norms and allow entry to non white people, saw the emergence of African-American voices in popular culture and also the establishment of a working-class identity in the mainstream. This captured Ray’s imagination, and led to a social consciousness and political awareness which was to determine his next career move: Ray became involved with government art projects ushered in by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ray was placed in charge of an unprecedented and never repeated move by the federal government: to support and fund theatre, painting, independent film, and even the plastic arts. This task led him to travel the country and experience firsthand the effects of the depression, and the anger felt by many towards the government’s failure to deal with the problems incurred by the economic slump seen in the wake of the 1929 crash.

This also led to a brief spell as a member of the communist party, something that would later threaten his career as a filmmaker during the ‘Red Scare’ of the fifties. Ray himself claims that it was only thanks to the efforts of the eccentric millionaire media mogul and celebrated aviator Howard Hughes, who was at that time owner of RKO Pictures, the production house that Ray was contracted to during the fifties, that he was able to avoid being called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities and risk being blacklisted as a Hollywood director. Even so, a brutal decade of producing nearly a film a year took its toll on Ray and he collapsed on set of the Charlton Heston vehicle 55 Days in Peking, and this ended his career as a commercial filmmaker.

Nicholas Ray’s life was full of paradoxes, like the America in which he lived. A brawler, heavy drinker and playboy, he seemed to epitomise on the one hand a certain ideal of American masculinity. However, on the other hand, his drug taking and bisexuality defied his becoming an all American caricature. And his socialist ideals, held even whilst he worked in an aggressively conservative and rampantly capitalist film industry led to these paradoxes being weaved and spun into the films he made. Ray was able, alongside filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, to adhere to the rules of the conservative motion picture production code, otherwise known as the Breen or Hayes Office, yet at the same time subtly subvert these same rules which sought to promote a Christian and conservative view of the nuclear family and of an American society strongly committed to consumerism. Bigger Than Life is a great example of how a director is able to, with clever use of the medium, tell two stories at once, and is able to celebrate and criticise his subject matter simultaneously.

Shortly before his death on 15th June 1978, Nicholas Ray was quoted, after a screening of his last film, a collaborative project with the German New Wave director Wim Wenders, as saying that he had ‘dreams of being able to tell all of Dickens in one film, all of Dostoevsky in one film. I wondered if it was possible for one film to contain all of the aspects of human personality: needs, desires, expressions, wants…’ Does Ray achieve this ambitious project in his in his films? Perhaps one can think about this as one watches Bigger Than Life. Like his contemporaries Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, and Howard Hawks, Ray, working in the Hollywood studio system’s Indian summer, was able to exercise an incredible amount of control over the content of his films. Also, given his background in theatre, Ray is clearly aware of the potential that cinematic techniques hold in producing meaning.

What is interesting about Nicholas Ray, and in particular this film is how it attracted the attention of a school of French critics writing for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Founded in 1951 by theatre critics André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, the journal wanted the relatively new medium of film to be recognized as an art, rather than simply filmed theatre. This became Cahiers du Cinema’s mission. Those who wrote for it tried to define new ways to discuss, criticize, and write about film, often analyzing films from big directors like Hitchcock, Capra, Welles, and Huston in terms of their technical qualities. Famously, this led to many of the Cahiers critics becoming filmmakers themselves, utilizing the concepts which they had created in their critical endeavours, and famously spearheading the 60s film movement the French New Wave: Francios Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol all wrote for Cahiers and are only three names amongst many who successfully made the transition from film criticism to film production. Indeed, after the war, the embargo on Anglo-American culture in Paris was lifted, often leading to whole evenings showing works by one director. This perhaps can serve as an explanation for the rise of theorists who successfully identified signature touches by certain director’s, like Welles’ deep focus, or Max Ophul’s distinctive use of lighting.

Two things are important to note here. One, that in trying to gain respect for the new medium of film, these early film theorists gave the director the bulk of the credit for the production of meaning in a motion picture. Two, the director was viewed, rightly or wrongly, as having complete control over the set, the casting, the cinematography and all the other factors within the text which help to produce meaning. As earlier mentioned, this is perhaps not an incorrect assumption, because the studio system was created and structured in such a manner that allowed the director to have a large amount of creative control over the content of the film. Whether we can make the simple comparison between a director and the writer of a novel or a philosophic treatise is not easy to answer, but I have followed the lead of these auteur theorists in assuming that the director is responsible of the lion’s share of meaning within a film, especially within a film produced in the controlled environment of a Hollywood studio.

Furthermore, the Hollywood melodramas of Nicholas Ray attracted the attention of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. His work on film is split into two volumes: one dealing with the movement image and one which deals with the time image. For our purposes, we are concerned with the movement image and with two specific types of movement image: ones which express thoughts and feelings, and ones which are mimetic, that is to say, ones which attempt to be objectively, or purely representational. It is easiest to understand Deleuze’s distinction as the difference between the close-up and the mid shot: the close-up is deployed by a film maker to stir up feeling in an audience, whilst the mid shot depicts action, distances the audience from the image and enables a viewer to take in action with more of God’s eye view. They are no longer immersed in the feelings of the characters they perceive, but are more concerned with the distances between bodies which enables actions like those seen in fight scenes or shootouts to be understood in spatial terms.

According to Deleuze, Ray’s development as a filmmaker can be understood as a progression from the representational to the expressive, from a form of cinema which attempts to be mimetic to one which is lyrical. This is why he claims that Ray’s films shift from the naturalist tradition seen in theatre, which is constantly viewed by an audience in a static mid shot, and utilised by directors like Sirk and Kazan who began treading the boards before becoming directors, towards lyrical abstraction which comes with Ray’s later work, of which Bigger Than Life is a prime example. Thus, Bigger Than Life can be viewed as a film which attempts to break from naturalist representationalism towards a more complex use of the visual image, one which is aware of itself as medium and furthermore, one which is able to, like the lyric, express extremely complex meaning.

Deleuze’s two volumes on the ontology of cinema are heavily influenced by auteur theory, and thus on the assumption that the director, in this case Nicholas Ray, is the locus for the production of meaning in a film. We can draw a conclusion from this: film is a controlled world, like that an author creates in a novel, and reading it as simply being mimetic is a perhaps a naïve mistake.  Rather, the film, like the written text of a fiction writer, addresses certain concerns that the director has, and even though the director may be constricted by a production environment, a screenplay which he hasn’t written, and even a hostile political landscape, he is, through the clever use of the medium, able to work these concerns into the work he is in charge of producing – even if those concerns are unpalatable to the audience it addresses. I think Bigger Than Life is an excellent example of this.

I’d like to say a few things about the iconography ­and one major issue which seems to have divided critics about the film, and couch this in terms of the existential philosophy that Nicholas Ray was aware of and which remained a major influence upon him throughout his career. A synopsis of the film will help us here: Ed Avery is a schoolteacher who moonlights in the evenings as an operator at a taxi firm in order to support the suburban lifestyle that his family enjoys. His life seems to be the realisation of the fifties American dream. One evening he collapses, is whisked to hospital and quickly diagnosed with a terminal condition whose only cure is a new drug which is still in its experimental stage, the painkiller cortisone. Avery and his family are warned that this drug has side-effects, one being a risk that it could lead to erratic behaviour. Faced with the choice between certain death and cortisone, Avery takes the drug and so begins his change.

The film’s script is based on an article by New Yorker staff writer Berton Roueche, warning about the dangers of cortisone. His story was adapted into a script, and Bigger Than Life was released almost a year to the day after the story’s publication.

So to begin with, if we look at Fig. 1 from the film, we see a broken mirror, a favourite icon deployed by directors of this era to depict derangement, a fractured personality, and mental instability.

Fig.1

Another famous example of this can be seen in Orson Welles’s The Lady of Shanghai (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

In Bigger Than Life, this is given an extra twist when we consider that it is the mirror to the medicine cabinet which is shattered by his wife, exasperated by the demands of her husband. The cortisone is affecting him, bending his personality and he has changed from the aloof, yet cheerful and seemingly content figure we see at the beginning of the film, to something much more sinister. Indeed, Bigger Than Life was released in France, Italy, and Spain as Behind the Mirror, which is in direct reference to this scene. The implication here is that it is the cortisone which is behind the mirror, and it is this which is shifting his personality, a la Jekyll and Hyde.

The aloof figure who is presented at the beginning of the film, before he has taken the cortisone, as being dissatisfied with suburban life, socializing with bourgeois middle-class colleagues and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, to quote the film, is unleashed as a menacing tyrant who terrorizes his family and local community with paranoid hectoring and eventually a blood-lust which sees him come close to committing filicide. The question which divides critics then is this: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, or has it unleashed some part of his personality, a drive perhaps, which has lain dormant, suppressed by the social glare and the pressures of the American culture in which he lives?

Discussion of another pair of images can also help answer this question.

Fig. 3

In Fig. 3 we see Ed with his son Richie and his wife Lou in a gloomy scene in Ed’s study. After missing lunch as a punishment for not catching an American football pass, Avery’s son Richie struggles to complete a maths problem. His father tells him not to get flummoxed, and implores him to ‘use his reason’ to work out the calculations. He will not allow the child to eat his evening meal until he has completed the work set for him. We see Barbara Rush, as Ed’s already beleaguered wife Lou, pleading with her husband to let the child go. What is interesting here is Ray’s use of the low key light which creates the long and menacing shadow behind the actor playing Ed, James Mason. It casts a long shadow on the door behind. Ed’s shadow is big and looming, dwarfing that of his wife. We see the child, Richie, right at the front of the screen, making him seem disproportionately small.

Indeed, size is often used during the film, both in terms of image and text: note the scenes in the garden in which the father and son play American football, and in particular the shot in which Avery, in what the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch describes as being a ‘disgusting’ shot, towers over the school, taking up the whole of the screen. In the lead up to this shot, Avery tells Lou, who drives him to work on his first day back at school after being hospitalised, that the first sight of her and his son after he regained consciousness at the hospital made him feel ‘ten feet tall’. Apart from the obvious name drop of the Berton Roueche article that the script to this film is based on, this scene is significant because it seems to suggest that the sense of superiority which comes to manifest itself later on in the film is already a deeply rooted feature of Avery’s personality. It also seems to come with his status as the male patriarch in the nuclear family. In the poster in Fig. 4 below we see the corny tagline by the face of the medical practitioner saying “I prescribed it…He misused it!’ This could easily lend anyone to think that they were watching a moral panic tale like Reefer Madness (see Fig 5), however Ray’s clever insertion of this shot before Avery starts to overdose on the cortisone poses the question: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, and if not, why does he become what he does become as the film progresses?

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

This has split critics, and which way one goes will affect how one sees the film: if one thinks that Bigger Than Life presents us with a melodrama, one which tries to warn us that even the most honourable pillars of society can be warped into hideous monsters thanks to taking drugs, then so be it, I will not disagree with this, on one level at least. On the other hand, the change in Avery’s behaviour can be seen as something which is always there, the sickness he feels is a malaise brought on by a culture which celebrates mediocrity and is paranoid of the other, one which does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the sort of consumerism which characterized this decade. The cortisone has simply served to amplify this frustration and unfettered it from his emotional ties to his family and to the economic ties to his profession.

Finally if we look at Fig. 6 we see Ed Avery in a state of delirious happiness after cheating death thanks to the ‘miracle drug’ cortisone. He takes the family shopping, and splashes out more than the family can afford, spoiling his wife and child in a frenzy of consumer spending.

Fig. 6

We have previously seen Ed worry about the family’s finances to such an extent that he has taken up a second job moonlighting as a telephone operator, yet here we see him spending money on expensive clothes by Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. This is after he has forced Lou to parade up and down in dresses he has selected. Visibly uneasy with this false display of wealth and expressing reservations about the purchases, Ed exercises economic power over her by asking her to ‘remember who is paying for all this’, and we see a blatant exertion of his economic and social power as the patriarchal figure in the family. However, in this instance, and in much the same way as in the scene described in Fig. 3 above, we see Lou challenge Ed. I think that this is interesting because it shows that the previous power which Ed inevitably had as the patriarch in the family is only challenged when it is exerted to despotic measure. In the daily life of the family this power goes unchecked and unchallenged, allowing Ed to be the dominant economic force out of him and Lou. It also allows him to make the major decisions for the family. It is only with the taking of cortisone, and the emergence of a socially unacceptable form of power that this is flagged up.  Therefore the drug acts as a catalyst which warps his behaviour beyond socially accepted norms of power.

The results of the drug upon Avery’s behaviour are interesting to think about, and perhaps can serve to show us, as viewers, how we are trapped, or to be more optimistic, kept sane, kept from performing monstrous actions on the ones we love, our contemporaries and our colleagues, by our ties to the community in which we live, be they emotional and/or economic ones. Perhaps  the jargon of authenticity that blights some existential works can lead to a belief in a chimerical realm of genuine existence which in fact merely brings suffering and wreaks a path of destruction, a rejection of all that fails to shape to a, by necessity, nebulous and ill-defined realm of the authentic, genuine, or true way to live.

However, here’s the sting in the tail: is the drugged Avery completely wrong? Are his criticisms of the church, the education system, and his society the ravings of a cortisone addled mind? I’m not sure. While his character becomes an arrogant tyrant, he is at the same time charming and even charismatic, an anti-hero whose ridicule of the church is comparable to Marlowe’s Faustus. He is an ambitious intellect, dissatisfied with those around him who seem to be content bumbling through life with no aim other than to work and gain pleasure in their spare time. Should we vilify him for taking a drug which enables him to think he is a king amongst men, and gives him escape from his dreary existence as an underpaid schoolteacher? This is one of the many questions that this film poses, questions which have no simple answer and questions which make Bigger Than Life a rewarding film, a film which stands up to repeat viewing more so than much of the cinema produced in the sunset of the Golden era.

Kevin Jones

References

Andrew, Geoff. The Films of Nicholas Ray, Charles Letts and Co, London: 1991

Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, The Athlone Press, London: 1997

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber and Faber, New York: 1992