THE BELIEVER, Henry Bean, 2001

I wish to argue that The Believer asks us to consider our ideas, inclinations, prejudices and thoughts in the light of historicity and multiplicity. Danny Balint (played by the masterly Ryan Gosling) begins his life as a promising Jewish yeshiva student who challenges teachers with his heterodox thoughts on sacred texts. The first scene of the film depicts a 20 year old Danny in his bedroom lifting weights sporting a triskele (or three sevens) tattoo. Over the scene plays an audible clip from Danny’s past where he challenges his teacher on the meaning of the Binding of Isaac story. Danny claims that the point of the scene at Mount Moriah was to show God’s power over Isaac and that God is conclusively a bully.

These initial pangs of theological curiosity that Danny exhibits in school ferment over time into a poisonous hatred of the faith he was raised in. His rage is manifested early in the film when Danny is shown intimidating and assaulting a young yeshiva student at a train station. In just under a decade the promising young pupil transforms into the very bully he himself decried as a youth.

The film’s opening wants us to hate Danny. It presents him unforgivingly as a rancorous monster that we should reflexively despise. We initially treat Danny not as an individual as we perhaps should, but rather, as a symbol loaded with all the connotations and meanings that the triskele on his arm possesses. We allow him the all the patience and understanding that a symbol can expect, namely, a sudden, knee-jerk moment of judgement. But as the film goes on to explore Danny’s inner conflicts and contradictions we are faced with a character that frustrates our own views, both of Danny and of our ideas of belief and identity.

What separates The Believer from other neo-Nazi films is that the main character’s hatred is directed inwards at his own Jewish roots. (1) Danny despises what he sees as the essence of the Jew: weakness. One poignant scene places Danny and his skinhead friends with a group of holocaust survivors. One man in particular tells of watching his own son die at the hands of a Nazi officer. Danny charges the man with cowardice and bolsters his own convictions on the weakness and cowardice of the Jew. However, throughout the film Danny dwells on this story and visualises himself as both the Nazi and the Jewish father in recurring visions.

There are two scenes in the film which best illustrate this inner conflict: the desecration of the Synagogue and Danny’s prayer scene. The former sees a group of neo-Nazis vandalising a Jewish temple: holy texts fly through the air, anti-Semitic graffiti is sprayed on the walls and one member is seen urinating off of mechitza or balcony. Amidst the chaos, Danny walks solemnly down an aisle, seemingly oblivious to everything but the temple, a place he undoubtedly associates with his childhood. Danny’s racism is challenged for the first time in the film and the scene comes to a tense conclusion at the altar with the skinheads inspecting the Torah. When Danny explains to them that the calligraphy is what is called the ‘Flame Alphabet’ he is asked by a fellow Nazi, ‘How come you know all this shit?’ to which he responds, ‘how come you don’t? How can you say you hate Jews if you don’t know anything about them?’ He goes on to utter a string of Aramaic terms and then cites Adolf Eichmann’s own study of Jewish texts as a defence for his knowledge.

This charged event at the altar is an almost external play of Danny’s internal conflict, of his faith and his racism. To read the scene superficially as Danny simply reverting back to his faith would misunderstand the extent of his confusion; after all, Danny may have defended the Torah from being completely destroyed, but he seems comfortable with planting a bomb intended to wipe out a sermon of over a hundred attendees. His referencing Eichmann as inspiration also confirms his allegiance to the cause.

I will go on to analyse the existence of two contradictory stances later but for now I wish to investigate further the eruption of faith or belief experienced in the synagogue. One explanation for this resurgence can perhaps be found in Nietzsche. ‘Thoughts’ says Nietzsche, ‘are the shadows of our sensations – always darker, emptier, simpler than these.’ (2)  Danny’s racist beliefs are a part of his thought – his cognitive faculties. They are beliefs arrived at through logic (3) (no matter how skewed), through reading and analysis of the Jewish texts. Like Nietzsche observes, Danny’s racism is simple and easy to understand. The fact that he is able to articulate his political ideas furthers this notion. Danny’s racism is fairly uninteresting, even if it is supported on an intellectual level rarely manifested in other famous cinema skinheads. The film’s richness lies in that eruption of faith seen in the Synagogue. Danny’s faith is contrasted against his racism on all levels. Danny cannot articulate his feelings of faith nor does he ever fully reconcile with his religious past. His faith is manifest through action. This can be subtle like when he rolls up the violated and abandoned Torah or explicit when he dons a tallit (a shawl worn over the head and shoulders by Jewish males) and acts out a Jewish prayer (more on this later). In this, his faith is not thought but felt. It is a sensation.

The fact that this feeling is one of faith is incidental to my main argument (there is perhaps something relevant about the power of liturgy and ritual that I will come to later) and I don’t wish to make a grand statement about the nature of religious belief. My point is more about parentage and heredity. Nietzsche argues that a child uses up ‘the best of his energy and time in the imitation of [the] feelings’ of those ‘relatives and acquaintances among whom he grew up’. (4) In other words, it isn’t explicit thoughts that are passed down from parents to children (for otherwise heredity would be wholly deterministic) but feelings. This isn’t just to say that certain emotional traits are inherited, but the subtle habits. The reason faith is such a fine example in this case is because habit is manifest in faith as ritual. For Danny, there are significant items that cause his unified racist shell to rupture such as the Torah, or more specifically, the words and the calligraphy in which they are written. It’s also Danny’s upbringing within a Jewish family and community that would have made sensation a large part of his childhood; it’s not just the Yeshiva teaching (which is what Danny rebels against most explicitly) but the atmosphere: the colours, the dress, the food, the songs, and all the bright intensities of a strong religious life.

Danny clearly abandons the Jewish thinking of his community and adopts a belief system that isn’t merely anti-Semitic or racist but is loaded with historical significance – a system of action as well as belief. The Third Reich represents a terrible episode in the history of Judaism, one that makes Danny’s allegiance all the more potent. This allegiance is a reactive decision, that is, a decision made in direct response to Danny’s history as opposed to one made independently. Following his previous argument, Nietzsche states that ‘under the pressure of this experience towards which he feels powerless, [the child] admires neutrality of sentiment, or ‘objectivity’… and refuses to believe that this too is only the child of habit and discipline.’ (5) Danny’s reaction against his Jewish upbringing leads him into a view which he believes is objective; an ontology based on a conception of identity that is fixed or essential. Danny goes beyond this essence of weakness by dominating it (usually by dominating that ‘weakness’ in other Jews) through power.

On a Kantian conception of a unified self, such internal conflict and contradiction would be in danger of being pathologised. A richer view can be found in an account of identity that is fragmented. There isn’t a singularly contained identity, but rather, shifting multiplicities that constitute a self that is always ‘becoming’. In §19 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states that the self is composed of a number of hierarchical forces competing for dominance. These forces exist as a complicated and shifting network of commanding and obeying drives. Nietzsche argues that philosophers and metaphysicians have ignored these divisions by appealing to the synthetic concept ‘I’. (6) This grammatical invention has its roots in primitive psychology but our habitual usage of the concept has worn away its origins giving the ’I’ an impression of being a given or default concept. (7) Such a fixed and stunted notion of identity complicates and does little to explain a self which exhibits numerous appearances and identities in different situations. (8) Nor does it allow for the conflictions and disharmony felt between certain feelings, thoughts, sensations and beliefs.

Danny is a character where this conflict is most clearly fought. The rage felt toward his heritage can perhaps be attributed to this conflict. In his essay On Moods, Nietzsche claims that a mood arises either from ‘inner conflicts’ (which we have already covered) ‘or else from external pressure on the inner world.’ (9) These thoughts and feelings are ‘wild factions’ inhabiting ‘two enemy camps’. (10) In other words, they are fighting for power and control. This doesn’t happen dualistically, with the mind having conflicting thoughts and the winning thought becoming acted out; this conflict is an embodied one, both felt and thought (thinking, dare I say, being merely an appendage to habit anyway). This embodiment of warring beliefs is manifested in the second key scene of the film in which Daniel is seen wearing a tallit and performing a combination of the Nazi salute and Jewish prayer – shown by extending his little finger which is traditionally done upon having read the Torah. Conflict, for Nietzsche, isn’t necessarily awful: ‘The soul destroys and thereby gives birth to new things, it fights energetically and yet gently draws the opponent over to its own side for an intimate union.’ (11) When Danny’s conflict is finally exposed in the physical act of prayer, something peculiar does indeed emerge from within him. Like I mentioned earlier, the two beliefs are never destroyed or reconciled fully, but they do eventually meet in a most perverse, yet intimate fashion.

As a point of closure, I wonder how much control we have over our thoughts, beliefs and feelings and whether we have created an illusion of proprietorship over such things. I’m not talking about indoctrination or external psychological coercion, but rather, something elusive from within. Humans are full of vague and peculiar inclinations that we explain by imposing a causal picture or narrative on our lives (‘I like x because of such and such an event that occurred in my life’). Gilles Deleuze argues that our ‘concepts are exactly like sounds, colours or images, they are intensities which suit you or not, which are acceptable or aren’t acceptable.’ (12) In the same inarticulate way that we cannot adequately explain our predisposition for attraction to certain people, our concepts and beliefs may be grounded in the same abstract and intangible forces circulating within.

Simon Booth


[1] Danny is actually loosely based on Danny Burros, a Jewish American who was an active member of the American Nazi Party and a Kleagle [recruiter] for the United Klans of America.

[2] Thoughts, Gay Science

[3] A number of critics commented on the worry that the film is in danger of glorifying racism by having Danny act as a respectable, intelligent ambassador for the cause. Though as Roger Ebert rightly asserts: ‘And if the wrong people get the wrong message – well, there has never been a shortage of wrong messages. Or wrong people.

[4] Parentage, Daybreak

[5] Parentage pt. II, Daybreak

[6] §19 BGE

[7] Nietzsche Reader, p. xxxi

[8]The company of parents causes us to act in a different manner than we would around friends, yet we are hesitant to say that we are not being ourselves.

[9] On Moods

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Deleuze, dialogues.

ROBOT & FRANK, Jake Schreier, 2012

The Stories We Tell About Ourselves: Narrativity, Episodicity and Identity

Robot: The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not.
Frank: But how can you not care about something like that?
Robot: Think about it this way: you know that you are alive. You think therefore you are…In a similar way I know that I am not alive. I am a robot.

For John Locke, memory is the key to personal identity: it is, more than anything else, the fact that I carry within me a living awareness of my own history that makes me the person I am. In resting on memory, personal identity relies upon psychological continuity to identify a person. Locke gives the example of a prince taking over the body of a cobbler. For Locke, as long as the prince’s thoughts are transferred across to the cobbler’s body, he remains the same person – the prince – even though his physical appearance has changed. On this account what matters then is not the body or physicality but a consciousness bound by memory which over time creates a sense of who one is. But what happens when our memories become disrupted? Are our present and future so inextricably tied to our past?

In answer to this question Locke claims that, ‘in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and (our) losing sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing.’[i] This notion of not being able to hold on to our own personal histories; of not being the “same thinking thing” over time, may strike us with an existential dread and a fear that it marks the beginning of the end for us giving a meaningful account of who we are. A life where we cannot rely on memory seems too much to bear. Indeed, in one telling exchange between Robot and Frank, Robot declares, “The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not,” to which Frank replies, “But how can you not care about something like that?!” How else, we may ask, are we to constitute a sense of selfhood if the stories that we tell about ourselves are not grounded in psychological continuity? Do we even need a narrative as a clear foundation on which our sense of identity is established?

Some philosophers have addressed these questions by way of a distinction between two categories that act as rival claims in the construction of selfhood: Narrativity and Episodicity.

Narrativity has two main elements:[ii]

  • 1)     Psychological Narrativity: This is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it says; this is our nature. It is informed by the narratives that we create for ourselves; the identities under which we construct a sense of Self. This Self is, in the words of Jerry Bruner, ‘a perpetually rewritten story’[iii] and that, ‘in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’[iv]
  • 2)     Ethical Narrativity: This states that it does not matter whether we are storytellers by nature, but rather that we ought to live our lives narratively because a richly narrative outlook is essential to true or full personhood. As Charles Taylor argues, a ‘basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story.’[v] This understanding is vital because it allows one to fully develop as a person and in turn allows others to understand who we are.

Both these narrative views of the Self broadly align themselves to what Galen Strawson calls ‘diachronic self-experience.’[vi] This is a Self whose past, present, and future has indelible continuity, stretched out across time, and is prone to think of itself in narrative terms (let’s call defenders of this position, Diachronics).

This narrative viewpoint, however, is challenged by the concept of episodicity, or what Strawson calls ‘episodic self-experience.’[vii] Here, although the Self is perfectly aware of its continuity aspect, the narrative drive is dispensed with. One’s decisions are informed by the particular demands of a situation as it presents itself and cannot be processed into an objective filter determined by a narrative of “how one has always gone about these things.” This does not mean that defenders of episodicity (let’s call them Episodics) obliterate their connection to their past. On the contrary, as Strawson makes clear:

Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.[viii]

Thus, the memories themselves are not the most important thing, but rather the fact that we are creatures who are able to remember.

Strawson, himself a committed Episodic, argues that narrative structures limit the ethical possibilities available to human beings, ‘Many are likely to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling.’[ix] In a sense, then, one is freed up to be whatever one wants to be unencumbered by what they might have been in the past. Strawson continues, ‘I’m a product of my past, including my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does not follow that self-understanding, or the best kind of self-understanding, must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form.’[x] So, Episodics would want to claim that such a storyboard relationship with one’s past is unnecessary because it does not allow for the full flourishing of living in the present in which one is not fettered by the history narrated for it.

But can we reasonably argue this thesis to be the case for Frank? Can we really take the position that Frank is better off without some sort of systematic engagement with his past? Can we make the claim that the past need not have a bearing on the present, and even less so on the future? I would suggest no as an answer to all these questions and that there are strands in Robot & Frank which pose problems for Strawson’s theory.

Firstly, however much we may argue that the Self may be able to resist the construction of an ethical autobiography built to make sense of its ‘personality,’ it is still at some level in thrall to wider social objectification. Self-telling here is indelibly linked with Other-telling. In as much as all human beings are seen by others through whichever filter of assessment they may choose to use (including diachronic analysis, as well as psychological or ethical Narrativity), Narrativity appears to be a tool far more compelling in the way that we make sense of the world than an Episodic injunction to withhold from this kind of Self/Other-telling or Self/Other-assessing. This is brought home most tellingly in the film when Frank’s daughter Madison defends him against suspicion that he has burgled one of his neighbours, “Come on, that’s ridiculous. The police have been hassling him for his entire life about a few mistakes he made when he was a kid.” Of course, this does not wholly invalidate Strawson’s argument; it just makes his task of living in the moment so rigorous that it would seem difficult to say for certain that one could wholly resist some kind of Narrative evaluation of who any person is.

Furthermore, there is also a familial aspect in the film which would seem to override episodicity.  It is clear that Frank’s past has left an indelible mark on his relationships with his family, perhaps most fractiously with his son, Hunter, and most poignantly with his ex-wife, Jennifer. This suggests that not only is there the possibility of genetic pre-disposition to being a certain kind of Self, but there is also a clear Narrative strand which cannot be so easily dismissed by a call to Episodic priority. Again, this does not invalidate Strawson’s thesis. He accepts these linkages, but describes them as ‘piecemeal,’[xi] which is to say that they do not represent some definitive, objective writing on the wall about who one is.

However, perhaps our definitions of ourselves (and each other) lie somewhere between Narrativity and Episodicity. The visceral sense of belonging which one associates emphatically with one’s own history cannot just be explained away as “piecemeal,” or as something which should be so easily discarded. Nor should we fall lazily into the bad habits of continually constructing pulp fictions about ourselves. The attempt should be instead, as Strawson quotes from V.S. Pritchett, to ‘live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.’[xii]

There is a moving scene at the end of the film when Robot convinces Frank to wipe out his memory. Does Robot do this in an episodic manner to best meet the immediate requirements of the situation? After all, we learn earlier in the film that Robot’s primary function is to best serve Frank’s health, even if that means lying, or in this case, his own extermination.  Or is there something else going on? Is there a notion of a deeper story from a shared history which emerges here? Does Robot develop a narrative both for itself and for Frank based on that shared history?

Bash Khan


[i] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Book II, Chapter XXVII, Section 10.

[ii] The definitions entailed below are put forward by Galen Strawson. See, Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity. Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006. pp. 428-452. Also available on:

[iii] Jerry Bruner, Life as Narrative, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.435.

[iv] Jerry Bruner, The “Remembered” Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[v] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.436.

[vi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.430

[vii] Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[viii] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.432

[ix] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.437

[x] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.449

[xi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.448

[xii] V. S. Pritchett, The Myth Makers, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.450.

PI, Darren Aronofsky, 1998

Epiphany or Apophenia?

Apophenia has been defined as the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data; that the patterns themselves do not really exist. It is often attributed to high levels of dopamine in the brain and in some cases is seen as symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia. Yet pattern recognition is one, if not the, most critical of skills that a human possesses. As cognitive scientist Nick Chater states:

The cognitive system must cope with a world that is immensely complex but that is, nonetheless, highly patterned. The patterns are crucial. In a completely random world, prediction, explanation, and understanding would be impossible – there would be no patterns on which prediction could be based, to which explanations could refer, or the comprehension of which could amount to understanding. Even more fundamentally, without any patterns relating actions to consequences, there would be no basis to choose one action rather than another. The ability to find patterns in the world is therefore of central importance throughout cognition.[1]

So the idea that our minds subconsciously seek out patterns and connections is not contentious and neither is the idea that we all, to some degree, experience apophenia; we are all capable of making false connections. However, in the main, apophenia is attributed to people who have religious, paranormal and supernatural experiences. They believe in such things as God and UFOs, numerology, astrology, divination, and they see meaning in coincidences. But what makes certain experiences the areas of false connections and pattern recognition and others not? When does pattern recognition go from being a genuine understanding or insight into the nature of reality, to a delusion; from an epiphany to apophenia?

Max Cohen, the main protagonist in Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut film  (Pi: Faith in Chaos), believes that the patterns that exist within nature can be represented by numbers and conversely, the numbers of the stock market represent a pattern; the film centres on Max’s quest to discover this pattern. He is depicted as a brilliant and gifted mathematician and number theorist. Sol, Max’s mentor, considers him to be his greatest pupil, published by 16 and achieving a PhD at 20. However, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Max is also neurotic and paranoid. He displays phobic behaviour, shutting out most of the natural world – both physically and emotionally – and suffers crippling headaches, hallucinations and blackouts for which he heavily self medicates. Aronofsky adeptly sets up Max’s character so that Max can be seen as either a genius or as a psychotic. Clarification as to which he is, is never given and even at the end of the film, when Max perceives himself to be having an epiphany, it is very much left up to the audience to decide what it was that Max was actually experiencing and why. However, the decision is not an easy one to make. Max is a sought after expert in his field and if he says he has discovered the underlying order and structure of the universe then what grounds would we have in claiming that he is wrong?

Arguably one of the deciding factors on whether we perceive Max’s experience as an epiphany or apophenia is on how we view Max’s original assumptions and hypothesis. If we believe that Max’s position is a tenable one, that it is not only possible to discover a pattern in the stock market but that this pattern is also the underlying order and structure of reality, then his epiphany is entirely plausible. If we do not then the decision that he suffered a psychotic episode would become the most plausible. Yet if, as Chater states, pattern recognition is a universal behaviour then whose or which authority do we accept as a guide to help us make a decision? In other words which patterns offer insight on the nature of reality and which do not? It may be felt that only science and scientists have the authority and the wherewithal to offer us the best guidance, but it is not the case that science and scientists have a united voice on such issues. The prevalent scientific worldview is dominated by reductionism, viewing reality as particles in motion and considers that the deeper we go inside the atom the closer we will come to understanding the nature of reality. In part, it is the worldview of scientific materialism that has led to certain patterns that we discern within the world to be relegated to apophenia and under this worldview Max’s experience would be considered as such. As noted by Thomas Kuhn:

Normal science…whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory… seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that do not fit the box are often not seen at all.[2]

Max’s assumptions and hypothesis cannot be accounted for within the reductive scientific paradigm and does not fit the remit of what constitutes ‘normal science’ and, therefore, would be dismissed as untenable.

However, with the advent of chaos theory the scientific climate is changing. Chaos theory, contrary to its name, is about orderliness within dynamical systems; systems that are capable of changing over time. Chaotic dynamical systems are non-linear which means that unlike linear systems where the output is proportional to the input, in non-linear systems the output is disproportional; it can either be more or less. This means that slight changes to the system – its initial conditions – can have dramatic effects to its overall progression. This sensitivity to initial conditions ensures that their futures are unpredictable. One of the features of chaotic systems is that they appear disorderly and random. Nevertheless, the overall behaviour of the systems or the patterning that they follow can be known and it is because of this that chaos theory is also known as deterministic chaos. Chaos theory, therefore, concerns itself with understanding the universal behaviour, patterning and hidden order of these systems and chaos theorists examine the data that has hitherto been considered random and meaningless.

Under this scientific worldview Max’s hypothesis is a cogent one. Chaos theorists have already established that trends in the stock markets can be assessed so that the patterning, or overall behaviour of the stock market, is taken into account when attempting to predict fluctuations. The world is seemingly filled with chaotic dynamical systems, systems that follow patterns, and chaos theory has already established itself in disciplines such as biology, geology, economics, psychology, population dynamics, robotics, meteorology,  and politics, to name but a few. As more disciplines become aware of the validity of chaos theory the more widespread its use is becoming.

The patterns that chaotic dynamical systems form or make – by following strange attractors – are called fractals. Fractals are phenomena which are self similar. Their basic structure is formulated by a self repeating pattern which increases exponentially, dominated by a power law and displaying symmetry across scale. Whether you zoom in or out on a particular fractal the patterning is consistent. For example, if you zoomed in on a branch of a tree, you would not be able to distinguish if it was a branch, a tree or a twig. Only by including background information are you able to differentiate. In the same way, you can only appreciate that you are examining an atom and not a galaxy by taking into consideration the context of your investigatory process.

Just what pattern recognitions this new science validates remains to be seen and undoubtedly not all that is considered as being apophenia now will become justified. However, it is interesting to note that if an atom and a galaxy follow a similar pattern then how far-fetched is the notion that astrological charts can depict the pattern of an individual’s life? If the axiom held by many ancient traditions “as above so below” is shown to be a truism, as fractals would seem to suggest, then how many of our sacrosanct scientific and philosophical premises would need to be revised? How many theories, such as those of Heraclitus and Leibniz, will need to be taken back down off the shelves, brushed off and looked at again in a new light? We’ll see.

Maria Taylor


[1] Nick Chater, ‘The Search for Simplicity: A Fundamental Cognitive Principle?’ The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52 (A), (1999) pp. 273-302 (p.273)

[2] Kuhn, structure of scientific revolution p.24


Chater, N., ‘The Search for Simplicity: A Fundamental Cognitive Principle?’ The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52 (A), (1999) 273-302

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edn.,(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

GREMLINS, Joe Dante, 1984

The horror-comedy Gremlins was released in America in 1984 and, like the effect that the creatures bearing that name had on the inhabitants of its fictional town of Kingston Falls, it caused a bit of a stir. Not in the sense that people fainted in movie theatres but in that it seemed to draw attention to a deficit in the MPAA’s (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system. Up until that point films were given either the PG rating (Parental Guidance) – similar to the BBFC’s (British Board of Film Classification) PG rating – or R where under 17s needed to be accompanied by an adult. Gremlins, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom released the same year, encouraged the MPAA to create a new rating for films that seemed to creep between the two certifications. The film underwent a couple of considerably more violent scripts before the final draft was completed. Joe Dante was brought in to direct the film by Steven Spielberg who wanted something akin to what Dante had directed in his other films such as The Howling, which was acknowledged both for its horror themes and also its comedy. Dante’s influence of horror history can be clearly seen in the film. A number of actors in the movie were cast in horror films from the past such as Little Shop of Horrors and The Thing (From Another World).

The gremlins themselves possess the same features as Dracula (arguably Cinema’s most arch horror villain). They can be killed by sunlight. They don’t drink water, like Dracula, but they would presumably drink blood – one of Dracula’s hallmarks – if they stopped from having fun in causing mayhem all around town to devour the humans they take pleasure in terrorising (though there is a scene which has long baffled me where one of the Gremlins is drinking a pint of beer in Katy’s tavern). In addition, water has adverse and painful effects on both Gizmo and the gremlins which could be linked to Dracula’s aversion to holy water or to water being seen as something pure. Furthermore, food is also portrayed as harmful to gremlins and this has parallels to Dracula too, particularly when one considers his aversion to garlic.

The original scripts were much darker than the finished film, with scenes involving Lynn Peltzer being killed by the gremlins including one where her head is thrown down the stairs. In other cut scenes in the earlier scripts: Billy’s (the protagonist of the movie) dog gets killed; the gremlins invade a McDonald’s joint devouring the customers; and at the beginning we are told that the word Mogwai means devil or demon and consequently Gizmo (the adorable, cute Ewok-like animal) becomes the lead Gremlin (Spike, the leader of the Gremlins, was a later creation). The above elements were removed to stop the film from becoming too dark.

The film’s success (ranking fourth highest grossing film of that year) can be accredited to its careful balancing between horror and comedy, the theme of which is condensed into the scene where Kate Beringer tells of her father’s tragic death on Christmas day. Spielberg wanted to remove the scene, but Dante urged that it be kept in as it expressed the film’s play between the dark and humorous. The scene itself does leave the viewer feeling confused as to how they should respond to the story, but ultimately, Kate’s deadpan soliloquy makes the scene too obviously sentimental and forced so that it doesn’t work as anything solemn or deep but only works as something humorous (the merging of tragedy and comedy being as old as the Greeks).

The blurring of themes and genre in Gremlins caused the film to be criticised by some. Advertising focused on Gizmo giving the impression of Gremlins as being something for the family. But due to its violent content, parents left screenings with the children dragging behind, undoubtedly having a great time. Leonard Maltin described the film as ‘icky’ and ‘gross’, complaining that its idealistic It’s a Wonderful Life-setting was ‘negated by too-vivid violence and mayhem’. Such reactions today seem overblown. We are the generation that watched Gremlins aired at half five in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. The film’s playing with themes and delivery is carried out excellently and I think it justifies itself as almost a family/children’s film because the violence is almost slapstick and rarely (perhaps never) are we confronted with a scene that is purely horrific or without humour.

One way in which we are distanced from the violence is that it is mediated by technology. Violence isn’t merely an act of brutality and is more physical and embodied. Indeed, technology undercuts the brutality of pure violence in the film (with the exception of a couple of scenes, i.e. where Lynn Peltzer stabs one of the gremlins to death with a kitchen knife, or when Billy Peltzer uses an ornamental sword – however even here both characters are using primitive technology to distance themselves from what would ultimately be brutal, bear-fisted pummelling). In Gremlins, technology is weaponry, the kitchen: an armoury of domestic goods that can be used to kill and destroy. Food blenders, microwave ovens, automobiles and stair lifts are all adopted as means of inflicting harm or violence. ‘Universal history’ according to Adorno, leads ‘from the slingshot to the megaton bomb’ [1]. Technology or science in this sense is a tool whereby humanity has sought to dominate nature, to subordinate and reduce it to an object of instrumentality. In a similar vein, domestic technology in Gremlins constructs the notion that even when we produce something that cooks jacket potatoes and re-heats lukewarm curry at lightning speeds, we still manage to appropriate it in a way to inflict violence [2].

Instrumentality in western thought is personified in Randy Peltzer who is Billy’s Dad and an inventor. Randy’s slogan is that he ‘makes[s] the illogical logical’. As an inventor it is his job to take nature (the illogical, the alien) and subsume it under rationalised and instrumental social needs brought about by a work-oriented society i.e. his ‘Bathroom Buddy’ is an invention made necessary because of the busy and stressed conditions of the modern work place. At the beginning of the film Randy is seen haggling with Mr Wing over the Mogwai in a small Chinatown curiosity shop. Like the Spanish colonizers in South America giving jewellery to the Aztecs, Randy is seen paying off Mr Wing’s grandson for the Mogwai, which he decides to name Gizmo. The word Gizmo connotes something novel, a gadget, tool, machine or toy. In western hands, a mysterious foreign creature becomes a tool, a play thing, that, when viewed through the rationalised eyes of a western business man, becomes an object. In the hands of Mr Wing, Gizmo appears to have intrinsic value, in the hands of Randy he becomes a product of exchange-value when Randy sees him as something that can be traded for money, a mere marketable object transformed into a commodity and a stocking filler for Randy’s son (it’s interesting that Gizmo dolls and merchandise were also produced after the film’s release, not to mention the Tiger Electronics blatant Gizmo rip-off, Furby).

The film’s exploration of technology is also mixed with themes of the foreign, alien and xenophobic in a small all-American community. Randy Peltzer deals with the foreign by rationalising it and subordinating it to the western norms of value. However some of the small town inhabitants seem more conservative in that the foreign is so alien to the point of being a danger. This level of xenophobia is most clearly shown in World War II veteran Murray Futterman who persistently complains about foreign technology: ‘You gotta watch out for them foreigners cuz they plant gremlins in their machinery’. The Gremlins aren’t a domestic or national problem; they are a foreign invasive force which is further made clear by Futterman’s jingoistic loyalty to American made technology: ‘Goddamn foreign TV. I told ya we should’ve got a Zenith’. Many of the domestic products used to commit violence in the film are presumably foreign made too and in this sense it’s the sphere of the home where the foreign and the domestic clash. Technology can be used as a tool by humans, yet it can also turn against them as Randy Peltzer’s inventions tend to; try as he might to place order on the world, the chaos rises up and covers him in toothpaste.

Both the technology and the gremlins become sort of unmanageable and when they are released out of the hands of their guardians and creators and they take on a new definition or mode of existence. So the gremlins – upon multiplying out of control and abandoning their home with Billy – turn against the residents of Kingston Falls, in a manner reminiscent of previous Hollywood horror movies such as The Blob. The gremlins also capture that autonomy of technology that science fiction writers are often concerned with: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in which the computer’s AI fashions itself in a manner humans didn’t predict causing them to rise against their creators, is one example; the wilful computer Hal 9000 which controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft and puts the lives of its crew in danger in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is another.

The film may not be completely innocent in its depiction of the foreign in that the film itself is arguably embroiled in a sort of xenophobia. The community is predominantly white and the one black character it does have (Roy Hanson, the science teacher) is the first to be killed off which by itself could be arbitrary but when taken alongside the representation of black people in cinema this could have some relevance. At the very least there is a decision made on how much film time Roy gets in relation to say Murray Futterman. Also, in her book Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, Patricia A. Turner claims that the gremlins ‘reflect negative African-American stereotypes’ [3] throughout the film. ‘They are shown “devouring fried chicken with their hands” [4], listening to black music, breakdancing, and wearing sunglasses after dark and newsboy caps, a style common among African American males in the 1980s’ [5]. This takes the theme of xenophobia implicit in the film and makes it potentially explicit: white youth saves his almost-all white community from a mob of violent, destructive creatures that are depicted as representing an ethnic group that regularly gets pinned negatively by a society and media that is already entrenched in such stereotyping.

One possibility is that the film isn’t playing on a zeitgeist of racial stereotyping in a negative way but is rather playing up to what was seen as cool at the time – it is 1984 and Hip Hop is starting to become commercial with groups like Run-DMC, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and The Sugarhill Gang hitting the charts etc. and perhaps there is a mistake in assuming the viewer is rooting for Billy and not the gremlins who are the focal point of the film’s entertainment. Again this view could be flawed when I think it’s safe to assume that the audience is sided with Gizmo which is why he is the one to end Stripe’s life, not Billy as was originally penned.

The joy of Gremlins is that it has always been a favourite of mine and the challenge to try and take what superficially appears to be a philosophically vacant film and say something that hopefully gives the impression of being substantial was a real joy. What makes Gremlins an excellent film is that it plays with the audience’s pleasure in experiencing the tragic and comic, the violent and slapstick in a way that blurs the distinction between the two. And in the way that good art is aware of its discipline’s historical development, Gremlins is also a comment on the trajectory that made it possible in the first place.

Simon Booth


[1] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, pg. 320; also cf. Theodor W. Adorno, “Fortschritt” in Stichworte (Frankfurt, 1978)

[2] ‘Zombie’ films come to mind as involving characters using whatever domestic or mundane objects are available i.e. frying pans, baseball bats etc.

[3] Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture. (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), pp. 151–52

[4] Ibid.

DRIVE, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011

No Good Sharks: Humanity and(/or) Heroism in Drive

Drive is really a film about the Driver, a character who appears in one shot as a male ingénue and in another as a merciless killer, driving from one murder to the next like a Wild West gunman. It is a paradox of the film that we understand exactly what he does and precisely why he does it, yet he remains profoundly mysterious. The Driver, and the film itself, represents in a sense a set of competing identities, bound together by a tenuous denial of their contradiction, an unlikely balance that works itself out in the narrative of a fairy-tale. Within the logic of the film, the Driver is, by definition, a hero. What, then, does it mean to be a hero? What, then does it mean to be a man?

We are given very little concrete information about the Driver: he has lived in Los Angeles for some time, he has recently moved to his current apartment, he works as a mechanic but moonlights as a stuntman and, previously, as a getaway driver. He has preternatural talents: we are never given reason to doubt his total mastery of driving or, eventually, of violence. He is pervasive and archaically noble; he is modest, kind, loyal, respectful, and self-sacrificing. He is, in short, the chivalric ideal of the romantic knight, the scion of a tradition of relatively chaste “courtly love” that has been largely eroded, for better or for worse, by the passing centuries.

Of course, the archetypal cavalier is not prone to beating people to death in an elevator. The tension the film introduces – between the apparent nobility of the Driver’s motives and the brutality of his actions – is at the core of his character, and it is also emblematic of a more fundamental disjunction in the film; the dyadic relationship that confounds the expectations of the viewer and that makes problematic the character and his environment. The dichotomy can be phrased in different ways – as nobility versus brutality, passivity versus activity, action versus reaction – or, as I will argue, modern masculinity (in the sense of the 1980s action hero, as phrased by Susan Faludi) versus, for lack of a better word, romance. The exact features of the first half of the film are best understood negatively, being thrown in sharp relief by the second.

Consider the opening chase scene, which is, in a sense, expected; the film is, after all, called Drive. This teaches us two things about Gosling’s character – that he is calm and that he is very good at driving. The characters, despite some difficulty, succeed in their heist and escape without problem. The corresponding scene from the second half of the movie is sparked by a total, shocking failure of the professionalism that corresponded to the first, and directly leads to the death of, at fewest, four people. The logic of the situation has changed – the impersonal, unnamed characters from the first are replaced by characters whom we have come to know (if briefly), and the staging has changed from an enclosed, urban area at night to an open, sparse desert illuminated by sunlight. Furthermore, the police, the symbols of authority and order who chase the Driver in the first scene, disappear from the film completely, replaced by their underworld equivalent.

The disjunction is not, diachronically, a completely clean one. The cool perfection of the opening scene is later compromised by the revelation that one of the Driver’s previous accomplices was jailed, and the man’s brother killed: the Driver’s professionalism and unflappability is challenged by his uncharacteristically terse and confrontational response. Of course, the Driver’s rejection of his criminal past is part of the narrative of the film, or appears to be. Like Standard, he wants a second chance, and like Bernie he wants to become “legitimate.” Ultimately, though his desires for this sort of thing are incidental, serving only as tools to his relationship with Irene; he is willing without deliberation or hesitation to abandon these aspirations when her life appears to be in danger. This decision could have warranted a film in itself, yet here it is almost non-existent, a red herring; the convention of the hero with the chequered past is for the past to catch up to him, but it is not the Driver’s past that catches up to him, but Standard’s. There was never any question that the film would involve conflict, of course, but the conflict that the viewer is drawn toward by the film is of a different kind than the one that ultimately consumes it.

Because of the “false omens” of the film, particularly the antagonism of Standard, the actual turn – which occurs in the vicinity of Standard’s and particularly Blanche’s deaths – is subversive without being arbitrary. What was tense in the film is not stretched further but is snapped completely, and in the remains of this rupture a new character emerges, or, at least, a new role is assumed. The Driver transitions from a wheel-man – the accomplice – into a killer. What exactly this transformation constitutes, and the degree to which it is a change or an unmasking, is the central question of the film. There is a song heard twice in the film, once on either side of the diachronic gulf. The memorable refrain identifies the song’s object as “A real human being/and a real hero.” Is that what the Driver represents and, if so, what constitutes the concepts?

With regards to heroism, or more precisely the role that the concept of the “hero” plays in cinema (and elsewhere in art), it is hard to avoid Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “monomyth.” Campbell posits an archetypal journey through a variety of stages, beginning with a call to “adventure” (defined somewhat loosely) and ending with the attainment of a degree of self-knowledge. If we suppose that the Driver is, in this sense a Campbellian hero, the journey would have to end with the achievement of this goal; the climax and sacrifice of the Driver would have to represent a change in his personality. But does the Driver attain self-knowledge? The transparency of his motives, which appear fixed and untarnished, belies the opacity of his thoughts. That is, it is clear what the Driver wants; he is driven completely by a desire to protect Irene and Benicio. What is not clear is, for example, why he wants it, or how he feels about the actions he takes or the circumstances that force him to take them. There certainly seems to be a sense in which the Driver is a mythic character who transcends development, who remains essentially unchanged throughout his ordeal. What does it mean, then, to call him a hero?

The sort of hero who forces men to swallow bullets or impales them with curtain rods is one that is conventionally bound up with the masculine. That is, it is bound up with a sense of masculinity infused with the cultural mores of particular periods and particular times, namely with the 1980s cinema from which Drive draws so much inspiration. Faludi’s book Stiffed provides a particularly fertile ground for this sort of analysis. It offers (among other things) a conception of 1980s masculine film that maps closely to the narrative of Drive by way of the 1982 film First BloodFirst Blood concerns John Rambo, a world-weary Vietnam veteran who is forced to re-enact his struggles in competition against a bloodthirsty World War II veteran sheriff, ultimately leading a one-man war against the police department before surrendering to a sympathetic army captain.

The identically named novel on which First Blood was based, however, does not have Rambo “forced” to stage this war; in fact it is his fractured psyche that causes the tragedy to be enacted. As Faludi details, the transition from novel to film, which included no fewer than four different re-writers, deprecates this change – Rambo becomes a passive recipient of society’s ill-feeling, a lone victim who seeks solace in the “good father,” who will validate his feelings and who seeks to defeat the “bad father” who forces him into conflict. Throughout Stiffed, notions of the paternal play a central role in Faludi’s analysis, for it is (conventionally) from fathers that the image of masculinity is constructed and elucidated. Thus the validation of Rambo by his “good father” is seen as the apotheosis of the masculine role. Rambo’s survival – the fiction that reinforces the mythology of the “series” – happened only because the audience despised his death, which was present in every script before the last one. Yet it also opened the gate for First Blood’s much more popular sequels, which abandoned the Freudian ambivalence, the “crisis of paternity” for an unambiguous and unapologetic celebration of the killing of human beings. If the production of First Blood was the crucible on which the masculine paradigm – which is a working out of a mythology at least as old as pro-World War II propaganda films – was forged, Rambo: First Blood Part II is the product, at once blood-drenched and morally pristine. The Rambo series, says Faludi, “reclaimed the virtue of the solitary American male.” (364)

Is this how the Driver sees himself? When Al Pacino was attached to First Blood during development, he asked David Rabe to write the screenplay. Rabe writes, “Pacino described to me that the guy should be like the shark – a mindless, driven, single-minded thing that is not available to any plea once it got loose.” (Faludi, 385) This recalls a memorable scene from Drive where the Driver and Benicio are watching a children’s program. Benicio identifies the shark as a “bad guy,” to which the Driver responds, “There’s no good sharks?” Of course, Benicio’s conception of morality is different from that of the action film, in which the shark is the very ideal of a hero, and of course the Driver wishes to reconcile the two domains.

Is such a reconciliation possible? Within the purview of the post-war masculine heroics that Faludi identifies, certainly – so the story goes. After all, what Faludi explicitly describes as the “cartoon mythology” of the latter Rambo films vindicates the “virtual sainthood” of the “supervictimized hero” against his “supervicious enemy” (365-367.)” This appears to be the fiction that the Driver entertains; we see the Driver not a as a character who is haunted by his past or his capacity for violence and brutality but as one who simply does not acknowledge them, or who segregates them from his personality. When asked about his “dangerous” work, he replies simply that “It’s just part time.” This partitioning of his life, this wearing of the mask is precisely the mythology of American masculinity that fails, in actuality, to be borne out. The Rambo of the novel First Blood – the one who eventually transmuted into the film’s “superhero – is a brutal, violent sociopath, a Frankenstein’s monster who was wronged but who reacts to his plight by lashing out against the innocent as well as the culpable.

And yet for all of his mastery of violence, the Driver is not incapable of emotion and certainly not incapable of virtue. He is without mercy perhaps but does show emotion upon, for example, the death of Shannon. Audie Murphy, decorated World War II veteran-cum-action star whose service served as a template for the contemporary notion of masculinity but whose life was essentially a psychotic wreck, wrote that he “feels no qualms; no pride; no remorse. There is only a weary indifference.” (Faludi, 376) It is with this indifference that the Driver approached his war. His motivations, however, are purer in a sense and more authentic. His dissonant serenity is the result of a childlike innocence that allows him to maintain the gap between an authentic romantic motivation and a culturally imparted and validated violent impulse that he picks up and wields; the latter is a tool, and like a tool it is not considered or meditated upon, it is simply used and (to employ Heideggerian terminology) ready-to-hand. There is, as Faludi says, “no need for a reckoning; there was no crisis.” (367) It is with a childlike naivety that the Driver moves forward, expecting no reckoning, feeling no remorse.

This quality which belies a general emotional immaturity in the Driver – evidenced particularly through his sometimes bizarre dialogue, empathy with Benicio, and his relationship with Shannon – reflects another premise of the general ideology of the action film, not only as a reflection of American ideals of masculinity but as a source of them. Speaking of the former president and actor, who lived vicariously through war films, Faludi writes, “Reagan had found the missing half of his manhood in celluloid images he conjured in the mirror. But what would other men find there?” (362) It is from the set of the stunt shot early in the film that the driver finds the mask he dons before he executes Nino; it is from the film itself, and its ilk, that he summons the narrative for the destruction of his enemies. Drive is set in Los Angeles, a city notorious for its violence but more notorious for Hollywood. In an earlier script, Irene tells the Driver that he should inform Benicio that he (the Driver) is a stunt man for the movies. He responds, “He’s interested in that stuff?” She says, “Aren’t all little boys?” (IMSDB) The Driver offering Benicio a “toothpick” also seems idiosyncratic until one considers the trope to which this appeals, of the macho westerner or the “tough guy;” these archetypes appeal to Benicio and also to the Driver. By contrast, the “arch-villain” of the film (although he is not really one of Faludi’s “supervillains,” he is seen as such by the Driver) deprecates his earlier film efforts, saying, “I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit.” Bernie’s repudiation of the logic of such films – and consequently of the logic of the Driver and perhaps Drive itself, underscores his aloofness and establishes himself as an enemy of the foundation on which the Driver has built at least part of his psyche.

Drive itself is a film, of course, and its structure and plot, which resemble a fairy-tale in construction, abet the Driver’s actions, although not uncritically. He is not hounded by the police, after the first scene; reality does not intrude on the fable that he crafts for himself. He does not “get the girl,” so to speak, and the chastity of his relationship with Irene undercuts an assumption about hyper-masculine virility that is otherwise pervasive in works dealing with masculinity. Thus the archetype that the movies, in a sense, plays into, is not portrayed as glamorous, nor indeed desirable. The Driver explicitly says that his relationship with Irene was the best part of his life; it is this relationship that underpins and, in a sense, causes the film. If the Driver is noble he is so because of what he fights for, not that he fights nor how he fights. So does the fact that Drive permits the disjunction to exist undisturbed, in a sense, enforce it? Is Drive a paean to the 80s action archetype, suggesting only that it needs to be buttressed by a fairytale morality, or is the implication that it is only with the logic of a fairytale that the archetype can have reason? These questions are posed by the film, I think, but not answered by it. The answers depend on the extent to which the audience understands the Driver, and indeed the sense in which he can really be understood.

The best encapsulation of the character of the Driver in this sense I can give is in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, in which the Driver shares a long kiss with Irene before beating the man standing next to him, an assassin sent by Nino, to death. In this scene all of the themes of the film are incorporated; the Driver’s kiss, which is at once the apex and the closing to his relationship with Irene and, correspondingly, his “chivalric life” is contrasted with the true beginning of his active violence. He makes the move easily, without hesitation or regard for Irene’ presence. He is not embarrassed by the leap; perhaps he is not even cognizant of it. His escape from the film, in the final scene, marks his egress from both worlds – he leaves Los Angeles, the city of film and narrative, which no longer holds any enemies for him to conquer, and he leaves Irene, which leaves him nothing left to fight for in any case. This sacrifice is decidedly romantic, but it strikes one at the same time as profoundly masculine. This is who the Driver is, and aspires to be, both “a real human being” and “a real hero.”

Michael Bruner


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed:The Betrayal of Modern Man. Vintage, 2000.

First Blood. Dir. Ted Kotcheff. Perf. Sylvester Stallone. Orion Pictures, 1982. Film.


This paper discusses The Cabinet Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and analyses how it conveys Foucault’s theory of madness. The protagonist in this film, Francis, appears in the prologue and then narrates us the story. As such, the bulk of the film is seen through his eyes, he is both a character in the tale and its narrator. However, in the epilogue we realise we have not been experiencing a memory, but a delusion. As such, the main bulk of the film, between the framing mechanism, can be seen as an exploration of Francis’s madness from inside his phenomenological experiences (Gutting, 1989, p. 57). This paper will examine how the film illustrates Foucault’s notion of madness, as found in ‘Madness and Civilisation’, through our experience of Francis, paying special attention to the four keys areas of the mise-en-scene (Foucault, 1967).

The first aspect of Foucault’s philosophy, that this film exemplifies, is his emphasis on madness as a construct of an individual. Rather than using the person as an object of medical diagnosis, Foucault believed that we must analyse madness on its own terms, by determining the ‘concrete forms it takes in the psychological life of an individual’ (Gutting, 1989, p. 56). This is what Foucault calls ‘phenomenological psychology’ (Foucault, 1987, p. 45). In the film, the mise-en-scene encourages us to experience Francis’s world from his subjective view. The set, painted by Expressionist artists, is particularly apt to show Francis’s state of mind. Foucault would claim that Francis has made a projection of himself into a world that he has constituted and which expresses his existence(Gutting, 1989, p. 61). As such we are made highly aware of the man-made features of the set. Although, as we will see, humanity is ill-fit in this world; Francis’s world made concrete through set design. The establishing shot of the film shows Holstonwall, an abstract amalgamation of pointed roofs and triangular mountains in strange perspective (Fig.1). Diagonals replace the vertical, and horizontal and acute angles replace curves, even in the everyday shapes such as doorways and windows (Powell, 2005, p. 27).

The second aspect of the mise-en-scene, the staging and direction of the actors, compounds the experience of madness. We are kept in a state of suspense throughout the film through hints that the fantasy we are experiencing with Francis is incomplete. The slow iris in and out, which is used throughout the film, isolates parts of a picture, blocking our orientation in the frame, before expanding (Fig.2). Our orientation is further effaced by the actors. Their wide-eyed gazes off scene perturb our expectations of eye-line match and point of view shots. The characters frequently occupy themselves with things we cannot see, whether through these visual distractions off-scene or, as in the asylum, by physically handling non-existent things (Powell, 2005, p. 26); we see a pianist playing without any visible keys and a demagogue addressing no one (Powell, 2005, p. 31). They each occupy their own fantasy and for us to understand their individual madness we must ‘attempt to capture the world as lived by the patient’, as Foucault urged us to do in his early work (May, 2003, p. 289). The disorientation is key to entering the psychological experience of madness with Francis, in which we experience his isolation and unease. The staging of the actors is at all times unnatural and broken, in part because of the constraining set design. The flat background throws the actors into relief, making them strange and inhuman. In some cases the deranged set has the effect of blurring the line between the man-made and the actors. The animate actors lose their humanity; they are made inorganic, whilst the inanimate gains life (Powell, 2005, p. 28). This dissolution of the difference in the mechanical and the animate is consistent with Expressionist aims, in which material objects are transformed into emotional ornaments (Kracauer, 1974, p. 69), furnishing what Foucault would call the ‘interior dimensions’ of the mad (Foucault, 1954, p. 69). In Francis’s room, for example, the rounded padded chaise lounge represents his relative comfort, whilst the high back chair dominating Alan’s room indicates Francis’s apprehension at this part in the story (Fig.3).

The lighting throughout this film also adds to our experience of Francis’s phenomenology. ‘Light’ is painted directly onto the set and often in discord to the actual lighting, which serves to efface our rules of perception (Kracauer, 1974, p. 69). The low key lighting is harsh and unforgiving, creating high contrast, and is entirely produced by on set lights which allowed more control of the effects. Tints are used to indicate the time of day or draw attention to Francis’s emotional response to certain points in the narrative. For example Jane’s lounge is tinted with purple, representing Francis’s romantic feelings for her, whilst blue and yellow tints indicate night and daylight (Fig.4). Alan’s murder is depicted entirely through the interplay of Cesare and Alan’s shadows, allowing this psychologically damaging event to be communicated through Francis’s psyche. Francis cannot recreate this event in stark light, and so instead confines it to the shadows, and this is how we see it. Perhaps for the same reason, the murdered bodies are represented by lit bundles of white sheet, often tumbling off the bed. The inanimate dead bodies, so conveyed, bear striking similarity to Jane asleep on her bed, all white sheets, lit brightly and still. This indicates Francis’s inability to conceive of Jane in a fulsome way, reducing her to a stock character, a maiden-in-distress, a body.

The costume of the characters signifies how Francis is conceiving other people in his mind. What is most striking about Francis’s costume is its ordinary nature, particularly in contrast to Caligari’s stylised hair and absurd cloak, or Cesare’s skin tight leotard (Coates, 1991, p. 36). This serves to highlight his different-ness from Caligari and Cesare, whose costumes make the actors inhuman. The still of Dr. Caligari in the town hall looks like a painting, made absurd with the high seat for the clerk and the black lines on Caligari’s gloves and hair (Fig.5). His eyebrows are painted flat to his face and when he moves he becomes a mess of abstract forms. Contra to Cesare’s skin-tight leotard, which shows he has no autonomy from his costume, no individuality to express through clothing. The close-up of Cesare also looks like a painting (Fig.6), with heavy eyeliner, horizontal mouth and brows, a straight hair line and striped polo-neck (Powell, 2005, p. 28). Francis is not stylised in his costume or make up. His hair is naturalised and his make-up is discreet and minimal, serving only to outline his features against the strong lighting on set. Foucault may suggest this is because Francis sees himself as alien to this world, one of murder and insanity. The schematized clothing of Caligari and Cesare create simple personas – ‘bad guys’. Francis’s self-perception is normal in relation to them, he is the hero, and perceives himself as so dressed.

The mise-en-scene is not merely an exploration of phenomenological psychology. It also displays the nuanced nature of this psychology. Foucault suggests that the psychological world of the mad is not isolated from their experience of reality ‘but occurring all the time’ (Gutting, 1989, p. 61). To think of the mad as removed from common experiences, is to classify them as something non-human. The recurrence of the asylum in the epilogue demonstrates how closely related the psychological world of the mad is to their ordinary experiences. The set design is identical with the same sunburst on the floor, serving as the placement for Francis in and outside the fantasy. The asylum, we discover, is Francis’s usual environment so it is unsurprising that is portrayed exactly in his fantasy, as the setting of Caligari’s descent into madness and Francis’s final heroic act. When Dr. Caligari is confronted with the dead Cesare he explodes in a manic rage and is wrestled into a strait-jacket. This desperate frenzy mimics exactly the movements Francis makes in the same circumstance in the epilogue. This mirrored staging demonstrates Foucault’s point that the important experiences of the mad will appear in their constructed world. At its core phenomenological psychology is a description of actual experience, made up of both the imagined and the shared (Foucault, 1970, p. 326).

Another way in which this closeness is portrayed is by the recurrence of characters who have provided the model for Francis’s fantasy, but who are essentially different in the epilogue. Although the set remains the same, the characters act differently towards Francis. His enemy, Cesare, is the picture of innocence, cradling a flower, and we note out of his leotard (Fig.7). Jane, his fantasy lover, is aloof and icy, passively staring off screen. Caligari is now the one in power and Francis is the mad one. The film therefore exemplifies Foucault’s notions of the phenomenology of the mad, as, essentially, constructed with reference to their genuine lived experiences.

The third key element of Foucault’s philosophy exemplified by this film is our modern consciousness of madness. Foucault outlines the shifts in our conceptions of the mad through time, and each era is represented in this film. The character of Cesare illustrates the Classical era of the mad as inhuman, irresponsible and therefore confined both physically and ontologically. Dr. Caligari can be seen as exemplifying the Renaissance era perception of madness as a form of entertainment, holding some magical or mystical knowledge. The interplay between Dr. Caligari/The Director and Francis reveals our modern conception of madness, and this is what I focus on below.

During the fantasy Dr. Caligari is communicated to us as he appears to Francis – a terrifying example of authority deranged with power (Kracauer, 1974, p. 65). Indeed fear is ‘an essential presence in the asylum’ (Foucault, 1967, p. 245). A key visual indicator of this relationship is when Francis is forced into a straitjacket. For Foucault the straitjacket is the perfect manifestation of our modern madness; constrained and controlled through a scientific, objective and supposedly humane mode of consciousness. The deep seated nature of this notion of madness is obvious within the film, permeating into Francis’s fantasy. At one point we see Francis’s notion of what it is to be a prisoner – disempowered by severe downward vertical lines and trapped by the patch of ‘light’ on the floor (Powell, 2005, p. 30) (Fig 8). Foucault criticised modern psychiatry for inspiring moral shame and fear as a ‘treatment’ for the mad and the basis of the doctor-patient relationship (Foucault, 1967, p. 247). This is echoed when the Director announces that he can ‘cure’ Francis, a distinctly modern notion. Contemporary psychiatry conceives madness as mental illness, by definition, curable. The asylum is converted into a medical space, justified by a scientific objectivity. The modern psychiatric doctor is seen by his patients as a thaumaturge, possessing a miraculous cure (Foucault, 1967, p. 273). This relationship infuses Francis’s psyche. Dr. Caligari is able to perform a magical act of communication with Cesare; but in doing so the doctor turns his patient into an object, as seen through the way Dr Caligari sits Cesare up and how, in the epilogue, Francis is similarly handled, manually made to sit before the Director, stiff with terror (Fig.9). ‘This new relation between insanity and medical thought …ultimately command[s] the whole modern experience of madness’ (Foucault, 1967, p. 269)

This paper has explored three key elements of Foucault’s vast philosophy of madness. The film’s mise-en-scene effectively communicates what Foucault would call the phenomenological experience of Francis’s madness. Through analysis of particular parts of the film we can illustrate the nuanced relationship the world of the mad has with their actual experiences. The final part of Foucault’s philosophy discussed here, was the way in which this film portrays our modern conception of madness as exemplified by the relationship between Francis and the Director/Dr. Caligari. When watching this film, I felt I was the character of the man to whom Francis tells his story. During the epilogue we discover Francis is mad, we withdraw from him, much like the unnamed man. But even at the last we don’t trust the Director, especially when he dons his spectacles and for a moment looks like Dr Caligari. However, if we are the man at the beginning, to whom Francis tells his story, a character who is clearly mad as well, we have to ask ourselves – are we all mad here?

Claire Travers


  • Coates, P. 1991. Gorgon’s Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism and the Image of Horror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. 1919. [Film] Directed by Robert Wiene. Germany: Eureka Videos [DVD]
  • Foucault, M. 1954. Malade Mentale et Personalitie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Foucault, M. 1967. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
  • Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things. New York: Random House.
  • Foucault, M. 1987. Mental Illness and Psychology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gutting, G. 1989. Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Scientific Reason. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Kracauer, S. 1974. Caligari. In: From Caligari to Hitler : a Psychological History of the German Film. Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 61-76.
  • May, T. 2003. Foucualt’s Relation to Phenomenology . In: G. Gutting, ed. The Cambirdge Companion to Foucault (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press, pp. 284-311.
  • Powell, A. 2005. Deluze and Horror Film. Edinburugh: Edinburugh University Press.

Further Reading

  • Foucault, M, Biswanger, L, ed. Hoeller, K. 1986. Dream and Existence. Seattle :The Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry.
  • Toombs, S. 1987. ‘The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Approach to the Patient-Physician Relationship’ in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 12. pp. 219-24


Figure 1. The establishing shot of the film and the background to the fair is an Expressionist drawing of Holstonwall. The pointed roofs bow inward and blend with one another and the trees. The shot is immediately disconcerting as the triangle focuses the audiences eye but with no apparent meaningful focal point. It also gives us a juxtaposition from the natural three-dimensional set of the prologue.

Figure 2. The iris is used to focus the audiences attention on certain parts of the frame, and serve to disorientate us. In the left image the round iris mimics an eye shutting or opening, and the last or first thing we see is Caligari. In the left image the diamond iris frames Cesare outside the window, expanding to show him at the back of Jane’s bedroom. The angular iris puts the audience on edge.

Figure 3. Tints are used to communicate subliminal emotions, in this case purple is used exclusively for Jane’s lounge, which is also the only set entirely without a straight line. The round orb lights the room, throwing circular patterns of light on the floor and up the walls. The white cloth and round table gives the room a cosy and welcoming feel. Francis feels most safe here.

Figure 4. In the left image the round padded chaise lounge represents Francis’s comfort in his room. Once Francis leaves this room for the last time his obsession with Dr. Caligari does not allow him to return. In the same position in the right image the straight backed chair dominates the frame. Alan’s room is overshadowed by it; perhaps a symbol of Alan’s impending death.

Figure 5. Dr. Caligari looks like a painting, with stylised black and white streaks in his hair and on his gloves.

Figure 6. The still of the close up of Cesare is reminiscent of Man Ray’s ‘Marquise Casati (1922)

Figure 7. Cesare is seen in the epilogue as the picture of innocence. His blunt fringe and austere make up is gone, and he is wearing trousers and a black top. He cradles a flower, peaceful and a still sad. The flowers remind the audience of our last experience of him, dead under the funeral pall.

Figure 8. The prisoner is surrounded with blunt shapes; even the ‘ball and chain’ is angular. Weighty downward columns make the prisoner look oppressed and the patch of light painted on the floor seems to contain him.

Figure 9. In the left figure Dr. Caligari dotes on the sleeping Cesare, with almost parental gestures. In the right image the Director approaches Francis with the same air of natural paternalistic authority. In both cases Cesare and Francis are manually manipulated for the whim of the Dr.


This paper examines Michel Gondry’s 2005 documentary: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, in relation to the work of the Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse (1888 – 1979).


At the time of filming, Chappelle was the most lucrative comedian in the USA. Enlisting the services of the innovative music video director Gondry, Chappelle sought to document his efforts of putting together a secret low-budget block party in the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto in Brooklyn, New York. Coming from a middle class background in Washington D.C., having been raised by his African-American mother (who has a PhD in linguistics), Chappelle is not – like his hero; the comedian Richard Pryor, who grew up in a brothel – a child of the ghetto. Chappelle’s sketch show: The Chappelle Show, shot him into the limelight in the early 2000’s, and he became renowned for his biting social satire. The show’s probably most famous sketch involved Chappelle’s humorous and controversial depiction of an elderly black male who is a blind white supremacist.

Inspired by Mel Stuart’s 1973 Wattstax, Block Party depicts Chappelle at the height of his powers bringing together artists and members of the public to attend a block party funded entirely by him. The aim of this appeared to be to create a carnival atmosphere in an area of deprivation in the manner of the ghetto parties of the 1970’s – 1980’s. By bringing the party to the block, as opposed to a popular, safe tourist spot like Central Park, sponsored by a multitude of profit-driven companies, Chappelle sought to create a more authentic event. It is apparent from the roster of artists that Chappelle recruited – who all performed for free – that his aim was not only to entertain, but also to educate. In the words of pioneering Hip Hop artist KRS-One, this party is what could be labeled as ‘Edutainment’.


As a German Jewish intellectual during the Third Reich, Marcuse settled in exile in Berkeley, California. His radical brand of social philosophy led him to become the father of the ‘New Left’ in the 1960’s and 1970’s USA counter-culture. Quite notably in relation to this paper, Marcuse served as the doctoral supervisor to Angela Davis: The Black Panther Party feminist and radical social activist.1 Marcuse is important in this reading of Block Party because of the great emphasis in his work on the power of the margins of society to affect revolutionary change. For Marcuse, such sections have the least to lose from the given state of affairs, and are thus able to literally see, feel and hear in a unique way. Marcuse thus repeatedly places great emphasis on black ghetto movements, as well as many different women’s movements. He also places an explicit emphasis on the power of art to affect real revolutionary rupture from within what he coins – alluding to Freud – ‘a repressive reality principle’.

Ghetto Hip Hop

Davis argues in a Marcusian vein that ‘‘[music] is a form of social consciousness – a special form of social consciousness that can potentially awaken an urge in those affected by it to creatively transform their oppressive environments… Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation’’ (1998: 236). Marcuse substantiates such a claim in his later works including Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) and The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1979). All of the music featured in Block Party can be bracketed within the genre of Hip Hop. Born in the 1970’s in the ghettos of New York, pioneering artists with names such as ‘Afrika Bambaataa’, and the ‘Zulu Nation’, demonstrated a clear awareness of their African ancestry before enslavement in the USA, They also demonstrated an understanding of the Griot tradition among West Africafrom which they adapted modern Hip Hop; namely, that of an oratory tradition stretching back many hundreds of years. The noun ‘Hip Hop’ in the argot of the ghettos in which it was created refers to ‘intelligent (Hip) movement (Hop)’. For Marcuse, ‘black music’ – here he was talking in 1972 about blues and jazz, but his comments can be equally applied to Hip Hop – ‘’is the cry and song of the slaves and the ghettos which, born in an exasperated tension announces a violent rupture with the established white order’’ (1972: 114). Marcuse asserts that:

In this music, the very lives and deaths of black men and women are lived again: the music is body; the aesthetic form is the ‘gesture’ of pain, sorrow, indictment. However, with the takeover by the whites, a significant change occurs: white ‘rock’ is what its black paradigm is not, namely, performance. It is as if the crying and shouting, the jumping and playing, now takes place in an artificial, organized space; that they are directed toward a (sympathetic) audience.(1972: 114-5)

What Marcuse is alluding to is the watering down of a powerful aesthetic form once, for example, the Rolling Stones cover Otis Redding, thus transmuting pain into performance by way of unabashed plagiarism. The problem with this for Marcuse is that carnival performance – in the tradition running from Woodstock to Glastonbury – functions as a ‘‘safety valve to upturn order such that order may be maintained’’ (McKay 1996: 42). Whilst it may create a temporarily positive atmosphere, the performance ultimately merely reinforces the status quo.

For Marcuse, another language is necessary to break the all-pervasive discourse which engulfs any resistance by means of what he terms ‘‘incestuous reasoning’’ (1972: 133). He thus identifies black literature, music, argot and slang as a potentially revolutionary language of the ‘other’ (1972: 80), contra the hegemonic, incestuous discourse of the establishment. This language of the ‘other’ meets all of the criteria of Marcuse’s definition of the genuinely revolutionary, which can most powerfully reside in the margins, in what Marcuse asserts as:

The substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours; the unemployed and unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game. (1964: 260)

To add to the revolutionary potential of Hip Hop described by way of Marcuse’s criteria above, he also interprets the ghetto as the site par excellence of meaningful resistance. Referring to the faubourgs of Paris during the eighteenth century, he observes that ‘‘confined to small areas of living and dying, [the ghetto] can be more easily organized and directed. Moreover, located in the core cities of the country, the ghettos form natural geographical centres from which the struggle can be mounted against targets of vital economic and political importance… and their location makes for spreading and ‘contagious’ upheavals’’’ (1969: 62). Hence in Block Party, we have many ‘outsiders’ using and performing black language, literature and music in the ghetto, thus encompassing all of the ingredients of Marcuse’s potentially revolutionary dynamite.

Contra Marcuse’s Revolutionary Block Party

Nonetheless, there is much to be said against the apparent revolutionary potential demonstrated in Block Party. For example, Chappelle’s humour is perpetually infused with misogyny, and his use of the noun ‘nigger’ – given that his self-proclaimed hero Richard Pryor eschewed it thirty years earlier – is unsettling and demonstrates a lack of genuine cultural and political awareness. Additionally, many of the artists that he enlists regularly demonstrate a level of misogyny in their works. As black female author and social activist bell hooks argues, Hip Hop music is often a site of black male expression of feelings of powerlessness in the system at large taken out on the ‘fairer sex’. She adds that ‘‘the openness of black males about rage and hatred towards females’’, results ‘‘at times worryingly [in] bragging in misogynistic rap about how they see sexuality as a war zone where they must assert their dominance’’ (2004: 68). Whilst the male artists in the film do not perform overtly misogynistic works, notably all three of the high-profile female performers featured in the film sing love songs eulogizing men.

Furthermore, following the contemporary Marxist theorist Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of contemporary dynamic capitalism, there appears to be what journalist Mark Fishers asserts in 2009’s Capitalist Realism,a ‘‘hard-headed embracing of a brutally reductive version of reality’’ (2009: 10), which has displaced any naive Marcusian hope that marginal culture could revolutionarily change anything.  This is depicted in the film by the wearing of t-shirts promoting symbols of anti-power, that have been most likely purchased through the capitalist mode of production. Reflecting the capitalistic Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara phenomenon, whereby pictures of the revolutionary communist Guevara are sold for corporate profit on everything ranging from pens to posters, the film depicts many members of both the audience, as well as the performers wearing a de facto uniform of the safe-zone ‘one-day warrior’; namely, a t-shirt with a picture of Guevara/Angela Davis/Marcus Garvey/Marvin Gaye/Muhammad Ali, and even Chappelle’s wearing of a Richard Pryor t-shirt.

Additionally, there is no doubt that Hip Hop since the early 1990’s has been heavily corporatized, with a lot of its early dynamism and revolutionary zeal replaced with hyper-masculinity, extreme misogyny and crude materialism. A lot of the artists in the film, Chappelle included, are guilty of this to some degree. The corporate appropriation of Hip Hop involved a re-branding and marketing which involved, more often than not, a crude glorification of the most negative aspects of marginal ghetto culture. Hip Hop’s contemporary position in the mainstream, with a dross lyrical content, and formulaic beat structures renders the majority of what is released as defunct in terms of revolutionary potential as the voice of the ‘other’.


In the words of Marcuse’s peer, Theodor Adorno, ‘’what slips through the net is filtered through the net’’ (1966: 85). Thus, any revolutionary zeal from black ghetto music from the margins must necessarily be through the power of the margins of the margins. This is where there is scope in the film for evidence of Marcuse’s hope being kept alive. There are enough moments provided by artists such as the independent-label pair ‘Dead Prez’, as well as ‘Mos Def’ – who is a ghetto-native of Bedford-Stuyvesant – and ‘Talib Kweli’ in particular, which, by way of explicit references to genuinely revolutionary figures such as Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers, Harriet Tubman and Asata Shakur, demonstrate a clear understanding of their ancestry, and do not seek to glorify the harsh realities of ghetto life, but rather seek to ‘edu-tain’ through the aesthetic medium of Hip Hop.

History has not necessarily vindicated Marcuse’s claims, but it is clear that the margins are definitely able to see things afresh – no matter how little – and to create ruptures which the mainstream, by definition, cannot. Even whilst some of the performers, including Chappelle, grew up relatively comfortably, they still possess a very novel – if not revolutionary – way of seeing the world. This is exemplified by a humorous, but noteworthy scene in which discussion centres on how Chappelle correctly predicted that the Beltway sniper in 2002 was black simply because he was ‘taking weekends off’. This apparently trivial observation demonstrates a way of seeing unlike the establishment, and substantiates Marcuse’s claims. All things considered, the worth of the film resides in the depiction of the power of the ghetto carnival, and music of the ‘other’ to challenge, uplift and have positive – leading on to perhaps revolutionary – ramifications in the spirit of KRS-One’s ‘Edutainment’.

Dharmender Dhillon

Notes and Works Cited

  1. Angela Davis (1944 – ) was during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s on a most wanted list produced by the C.I.A as one of the most dangerous people in the USA. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Kant and Political Violence – some of which she wrote during a period of incarceration – and is now Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. (See Olsson’s 2011 Black Power Mix-Tape 1967-1975).
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1966: Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Davis, Angela Y. 1998: The Angela Y. Davis Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
  • Marcuse, Herbert:
    ———1969: An Essay on Liberation. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    ——— 1972: Counterrevolution and Revolt. London: Allen Lane.
    ——— 1964: One Dimensional Man. London: Abacus.
  • hooks, bell 2004: We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. London: Routledge.
  • Fisher, Mark 2009: Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Ropley, Hants.: Zer0 Books.
  • McKay, George 1960: Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London; New York: Verso.