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

References:

[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.

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DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY, Michel Gondry, 2005


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).

Chappelle

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’.

Marcuse

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’.

Conclusion

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.

DR. STRANGELOVE or: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, Stanley Kubrick, 1963


Hans Jonas’ Ethics of Technology and Stanley Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove is quite possibly the blackest of black comedies. After all, what could possibly provide a less comic situation than the threat of nuclear war and the destruction of the planet? But somehow, Stanley Kubrick manages to wring hilarity from the absurdity of almost every scene in the film. This makes providing a philosophical commentary for such a comedy somewhat questionable, as nothing is more likely to kill laughter than a serious discussion of ethics. But then again, Kubrick’s film trades on the aforementioned absurd flippancy with which nuclear arms are treated – and it seems to me as though this black setting for the comedy in fact brings some interesting philosophical themes to the fore.

The philosopher who I wish to discuss in this regard is Hans Jonas, a hugely under-read German-Jewish thinker. Jonas lived an extraordinary life in extraordinary times – born in 1903 in Mönchengladbach, North-West Germany, Jonas studied at Marburg University under Martin Heidegger in the 1920s. However, Jonas soon found himself faced with a life of persecution, and worse, under Nazism following Hitler’s rise to the Chancellery in 1933. Sensibly Jonas fled Germany for Israel, reportedly vowing to himself ‘never to return except as a soldier in a conquering army’. (1) The chance to fulfil this pledge came when the Allies went to war against Nazi Germany. Jonas consequently left Israel for England in 1940, joining the Jewish Infantry Brigade – a division of the British Army set up specifically for Jewish soldiers – a real-life Inglorious Basterds. As a well-educated man he was offered a role in military intelligence, which he refused, preferring to play his part on the front line when the Nazi regime fell. By the end of the war Jonas had seen combat in Italy and Germany, and he subsequently attempted to get back in contact with his mother, only to tragically discover that she had been murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Jonas felt that he could not forgive Germany, and emigrated for good. He spent the rest of his long life firstly as a Zionist, fighting in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and then in New York, where he became a professor at the New School for Social Research and died in 1993, aged 89. (2)

Jonas’ work was deeply influenced by his dramatic biography – his philosophy owes equal debt to Heidegger (whom he publically denounced for Nazi complicity) and Jewish theology, but also to the warring ideologies of capitalism and Soviet-communism which had after the war torn Germany in two. The influence of the Cold War – the war of economic and technological competition depicted in Dr. Strangelove – is felt in Jonas’ great book The Imperative of Responsibility. In this work Jonas puts forth the hypothesis that no previous Western morality, secular or religious, could now provide a comprehensive guide for ethical action in the age of nuclear warfare and environmental crises. He says: ‘my contention [is] that with certain developments of our powers the nature of human action has changed, and, since ethics is concerned with action, it should follow that the changed nature of human action calls for a change in ethics as well’. (3) We can see here the combined influences of Germanic philosophical scope with analytic clarity which marks Jonas’ philosophy as distinctive. Certainly, the aim of his work is not a modest one, so the focus here will be on one or two points which may illuminate some of the situations and events portrayed in Dr. Strangelove.

Firstly is the issue of what Jonas means by the ‘changed nature of human action’. The new capacities which Jonas has in mind are, of course, technological. Modern humanity has a degree of unprecedented power which our forebears, even of one hundred years ago, could never have imagined. Following from this, Jonas argues that all previous ethical systems were based primarily on a more modest picture of relations between humans – the world-as-a-whole was something which figured into ethical considerations only as an afterthought, simply because it was so vast that humanity could scarcely affect it. However, the Second World War signified a fundamental shift – whereas World War I was still fought traditionally by men against men, World War II concluded with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ethical relation between humanity and the earth had by then essentially altered, as we acquired the power – and demonstrated the will – to destroy both it and ourselves en masse. In light of this, Jonas argues that the common basis of traditional ethical systems is too limited in scope, too anthropocentric, to deal with this new power, and the net of ethical consideration must therefore be cast far wider to cover this moral gap left by weapons of mass destruction. Jonas calls for the imperative of ethical responsibility – not just to humanity, but to all life on earth – which he delivers most powerfully in ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’. He says: ‘[i]t was once religion which threatened us with a last judgement at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day […]. The latest revelation […] is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation’. (4)

The obvious moral force of this imperative for the technological age is precisely what the characters in Dr. Strangelove flagrantly disregard. In fact, Kubrick’s film highlights Jonas’ central point in comic style – humans are portrayed as simply too irresponsible to be allowed to wield such enormous power, and the technology supporting the chain of command as too unreliable to deliver such catastrophic orders. The only characters who seem to fully grasp the gravity of the situation are the repressed ex-Nazi and Presidential adviser Dr. Strangelove, née Merkwürdigliebe (played with relish by Peter Sellers), and the hapless Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers, again). By contrast, those who wield actual power are shown to be either gung-ho imbeciles like General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), paranoiacs such as Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), or simply the bickering married-couple of U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers, once more) and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov. Perhaps the best example of the film’s nightmarish situation heightened by black humour is the iconic climactic scene in which Major Kong jumps on the nuclear bomb to facilitate its drop from the plane – falling with it down to earth, Kong rides the shell rodeo-style to the earth’s imminent destruction. Little did Kubrick know, in forty years the scene would perfectly capture the worrying predicament of real-life cowboy George W. Bush sat in the White House with the nuclear codes in one hand, and in the other a foreign policy not entirely unlike that of Kubrick’s military buffoons.

Dr. Strangelove presents us with another a situation which flies in the face of one more of Jonas’ maxims: ‘[a]ct so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of genuine human life’. (5) In the film, once it becomes apparent that the nuclear holocaust is nigh – thanks to the real-life M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) deterrent – Strangelove, Muffley, and Turgidson gather in the War Room to discuss the possibility of the preservation of life. Strangelove muses that several hundred thousand Americans might be able to survive in an underground colony, subsisting quite happily on nuclear power. The great irony, of course, is that the nuclear power which would sustain this hypothetical quasi-civilisation would be the very same which had necessitated its creation. This is precisely the kind of human life which Jonas might have envisaged as the worst possible outcome of our current predicament – cut off from the natural world, cut off even from the surface of the earth, living a sub-human existence. However, the subterranean civilisation which presents the only chance for survival at the end of Dr. Strangelove is the simply the Cold War threat taken to its logical extreme. From nature we have created wonderful technologies able to give us an easier life, but we have also cultivated the potential to destroy both that nature and that life, hence Jonas’ call for a new ethic based on deliberation and consideration. The alternative, as depicted in Dr. Strangelove, is a degradation of what Jonas regarded as ‘genuine’ human life – people allotted food, water, and procreation according to quotas which would increase the possibility of humanity re-emerging from the underground bunkers when the nuclear radiation had diminished to safe levels. In short, a humanity degrading itself in the quantified-mechanistic manner in which we are – wrongly – used to regarding animals and nature.

Both Dr. Strangelove and Jonas’ thinking appear ever more prescient in light of the current ecological crisis – but how, for Jonas, do we avoid a fate similar to that which Kubrick’s film depicts? To begin with, we have to look again at natural things like forests or fish and learn to see them not simply as resources waiting for our consumption, or at best, as objects of aesthetic value. We have to fundamentally alter our understanding of the ethical remit to regard these entities as having an inherent moral value which is not simply relative to human needs – for Jonas, in striving to be at all, the natural world has a kind of primitive ethical existence which humanity ultimately makes explicit and must take responsibility for. In his other masterpiece, The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas writes: ‘through the continuity of mind with organism and of organism with nature, ethics becomes part of the philosophy of nature’. (6) The view Jonas advocates is that nature – the sum total of what-is – is not only in the sense of physically existing, but also inextricably is in an ethical form, as the ontological source of value. Again, he says: ‘ethics must be based on ontology, which is to say that the law of human behaviour must be derived from the nature of the whole’. (7) In this way, Jonas’ thought can be understood as taking up the ethical question which Heidegger was so temperamentally unsuited to tackle – as mentioned in my biographical introduction to Jonas, the two philosophers’ reactions to Nazism could not be more different. Thus what motivated Jonas’ philosophy was rising to the challenge of the relation between ‘Being and the ought’ which Heidegger notoriously failed to address. (8)

Jonas’ insightful philosophy raises several problems, however. Firstly is the issue that even if we accept his bold hypothesis – that both Western and Abrahamic ethics require a fundamental expansion in light of our current global predicaments – how do we put this new ethic into practice? In The Imperative of Responsibility Jonas considers the pros and cons of the two opposing systems depicted in Dr. Strangelove: capitalism and Soviet-communism. (9) In the film, Kubrick shows us that neither capitalism nor Soviet-communism is at all able to rise to the challenge of global responsibility – the conversations between President Muffley and his Russian counterpart show both sides to be petty, vain, and partisan. Again, the parallels between our own governments’ failure to deal with the present ecological crisis are only too obvious. Jonas likewise regards both capitalism and Soviet-communism as following from traditional Western ethics and thus incapable of dealing with the threat of nuclear warfare. He rejects capitalism out of hand as inherently incapable of realising our suppressed ethical relation to the earth, and the reasons for his doing so are only too obvious. Jonas then criticises Soviet-communism for similar reasons – that it is fundamentally anthropocentric and motivated by industrial and technological domination – but he notes that in aiming to improve the conditions of humanity at least Marxism actually has an ethical basis, unlike free-market capitalism. In the end, however, for Jonas neither mode of production is able to rise to contemporary ethical challenges without changing beyond recognition, and it seems that in this sense he might have appreciated Kubrick’s satirical take on the arms race.

The second major problem with Jonas’ project, following on from the first, is that it is so utterly pessimistic. Jonas’ constant doom-laden refrains about the impending destruction of the earth make Adorno and Heidegger look positively upbeat regarding the modern condition. For example, in response to Ernst Bloch’s unashamed advocacy of utopian Marxism in The Principle of Hope, Jonas cultivated his own typically uplifting alternative: ‘The Heuristics of Fear’. (10) The reason for this, I believe, harks back to Jonas’ own biography and the troubled times he lived in – after all, as a German-Jew born at the turn of the century he witnessed the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and finally the mounting ecological crisis. Given these experiences it is understandable that his thinking took on the fears of the age, but there is also the serious threat of a reactionary philosophical response. For example, in his theological work in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz, Jonas claims that in contrast to all previous anti-Semitic persecution which is justified as a part of God’s testing his chosen people, the Holocaust was so utterly incomprehensible that one can no longer seriously entertain the belief in an omnipotent deity. (11) While this seems reasonable, from the point of view of a previously practicing Jew it is a major decision to make, and such an absolutist response to events is characteristic of Jonas. As we have seen, the drastic nature of Jonas’ philosophy bears a similar hopelessness, and one cannot help but feel that when Jonas lost his faith in God he also abandoned faith in humanity. It seems to me that Jonas does not give humanity its due when, for example, he entertains the possibility of drastic measures to limit global population growth if all democratic incentives fail and the risk to the earth is too great to do nothing. (12) One still feels that to envisage such an extreme situation is premature, as the necessary work to halt population growth has hardly even begun.

We have seen that what motivated and troubled Jonas above all was the safeguarding of the possibility of a future for life and humankind – do we even have one, and if so, what does it look like? One certainly hopes that Dr. Strangelove – which offers similar warning, if in a different guise – will remain a great black comedy, rather than resemble that future. But what Jonas and Kubrick’s film both ultimately lack is precisely that: hope – not of the immature, delusional kind, but of the robust and principled. If Jonas is right about the serious predicament of the modern world – as I believe he is – then something more must be offered; we must prevent a firm diagnosis from becoming a cold prognosis. Perhaps then, there is as much to be said about Bloch’s principle of hope as there is about Jonas’ heuristic of fear.

Lewis Coyne

References:

(1) Hans Jonas, Erkenntnis und Verantwortung, quoted in: Vittorio Hösle, ‘Hans Jonas’ Position in the History of German Philosophy’, in The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008), pp.19-37 (p.23).

(2) Further biographical information found in: Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston, ed. Christian Weise (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press, 2008).

(3) Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. David Herr and Hans Jonas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p.1.

(4) Hans Jonas, ‘The Outcry of Mute Things’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.198-202 (p.201-202).

(5) Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, p.11.

(6)] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), p.282.

(7) Jonas quoted in: Albrecht Wellmer, ‘The Myth of the God Who Suffers and Becomes: Questions Addressed to Hans Jonas’, in Endgames: The Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity (Massachusetts.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998), pp.263-268 (p.265).

(8) Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p.98.

(9) See pp.142-157. In the text Jonas fails to properly distinguish between ‘real-world’ Marxist-Leninism – the real target of his criticisms – and original philosophical Marxism, and thus does not do justice to the latter.

(10) In: Ethics in an Age of Pervasive Technology, ed. Melvin Kranzberg (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1980), pp.213-221

(11) See: ‘The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice’, in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good After Auschwitz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp.131-143.

(12) Harvey Scodel, ‘An Interview with Professor Hans Jonas’, Social Research, 70:2 (Summer 2003), 339-368.

 

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, Charlie Kaufman, 2008


In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, we follow theatre director Caden Cotard as he struggles his way through an existential crisis. As his relationships fail and his health begins to deteriorate, Caden becomes increasingly anxious about capturing the “brutal truth” of existence before his time is up. Death – or rather, the way the personal significance we attach to our own deaths, affects how we experience life – is therefore a central theme of the film, and it is this I want to explore. I want to consider two questions: Can philosophical analysis provide us with a meaningful interpretation of death? And is there, perhaps, a way of understanding death which can help us better relate to the basic nature of our mortality – to accept that to be is ultimately to die?

Such questions are prevalent throughout the whole of Western philosophy. Epicurus, for example, argued that to fear death is ultimately irrational, because whilst we are alive we cannot be dead, and then when we do die, we won’t exist to be bothered about it (1). After all, we are not bothered about the fact that we did not exist prior to our conception. Yet although this argument is undeniably persuasive in its logic, I think that Epicurus’s conclusion that death “is nothing to us” is somewhat hasty. His position is important in emphasising that for us to experience and understand our own deaths in the same way that we experience and understand any other sort of event is impossible. But even if we do not experience death as such, it is a fundamental and unavoidable fact of our mortal existence. It is hard to imagine Caden Cotard, for instance, finding consolation or satisfaction in these Epicurean insights. Perhaps it is the case that the significance of death can only be interpreted if subjected to a different form of analysis.

Unlike Epicurus, Martin Heidegger argues that an appropriate understanding and attitude towards death is fundamental to our own self-understanding, and essential if we are to work out the meaning of Being itself.  Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to work out the meaning of Being through a study of that sort of being for whom Being is an issue for it; in other words, he presents us with a concrete phenomenological analysis of our form of existence, which Heidegger terms Dasein (literally meaning ‘being-there’). To sum this up somewhat crudely, we could call this an attempt to analyse what the ‘being’ in being human consists of.  Essential to this analysis is the awareness that the possibilities of existence for Dasein are delineated by temporal boundaries: our Being begins in a state of “thrown-ness” at birth, and from then on we exist not only as a (thrown) Being-in-the-world, but also as a Being-towards-the-end. Crucially for Heidegger, death is constantly constitutive of our Being – it permeates our everyday existence as the possibility – the “not-yet” – which any Dasein will one day have to be, whether we acknowledge it or not.

If we are to live “authentically”, according to Heidegger, we must continually project our existence towards the horizon of our death. We need to acknowledge that we are essentially finite; that our death, as the complete loss of Being-in-the-world, is something we must face totally alone because it can never grasped by a Being-still-there. Even when we experience the deaths of others, we are brought no closer to an understanding of what death means for us. To be authentically we must recognise that death is our own unavoidable potentiality (2). We must confront the fact that we are always thrown towards possibilities which are ultimately our own because only we can be responsible for facing up to death and making sense of our existence as a Being-towards-death.  Heidegger argues that this entails cultivating a mood of “anxiety” – a mode of living founded upon an anticipation of death which fully recognises one’s finitude and individuality, and refuses to conform to the common attitudes – the idle talk of “the they” or the consolations of religion – which tranquilize us about these facts.

Whilst some aspects of Heidegger’s position may not be entirely convincing – his rejection of the significance the death of others may have for our own self-understanding, for example – the idea that an acknowledgement of our finitude can profoundly affect our self-interpretation strongly resonates. In Synecdoche, New York, the character of Caden is painfully aware of his own mortality. His body seems to be turning against him and talk of or references to death abound in his world. This raises an important point – although the Epicurean imploration not to fear death is most probably sound advice, to cast death from our minds as “nothing to us” seems an even more difficult feat for the ill person who is acutely aware that the end may come sooner than hoped. Caden quite readily acknowledges that he is a Being-towards-death. However, this does not mean that he is leading what Heidegger would call an authentic existence. It seems that rather than cultivating a mood of “anxiety” and anticipating death in a way that leads him to an appreciation of life as transient, towards recognition of the temporality of Being, he desperately clings to the ‘reality’ of the everyday by representing and recreating it again and again as a piece of theatre. Caden even hires an actor, Sammy, to play himself in his life-drama, deferring the responsibility of honestly confronting death onto another person.

“We’re all hurtling towards death,” Caden says, “yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” It seems that although Caden is able to accept that death is the horizon towards which we all are thrown, he fails to appreciate that all our living moments are unique, irreversible and leading us closer to the end. In the film, months and years seem to pass Caden by without him noticing that life has moved on. In his attempt to capture a moment of absolute truth in art before it is too late, he neglects to project himself into a future which cannot be held back. The result is that as he nears his death, he is radically alienated from his mode of existence. He realises that in life, unlike in theatre, there are no rehearsals, there are no second chances, and there is no director or audience there to validate your performance.

Synecdoche, New Yorkhas quite a reputation for being divisive in the responses it provokes. Some find it depressingly bleak.  One film professor, Daniel Shaw (3) argues that as a film it is ‘profoundly deadening’. For Shaw, the character of Caden – desperate for meaning yet embittered by the world – represents the passive nihilism which Nietzsche so derided. Professor of philosophy and religion David Smith disagrees (4). He sees Kaufman’s mix of tragic insight and comic farce as a platform to inspire reflection upon strategies for a sort of ‘naturalistic transcendence’ in our ways of relating to the basic limits of human existence; namely, death and the impossibility of adequately representing our world linguistically. Personally, I would say that to experience the film as ‘profoundly deadening’ suggests that one has missed out on its invitation for us to think about our lives differently. Although Caden may fail to form what Heidegger would term an authentic existence, this need not be the fate of everyone. If we follow Heidegger on this point, death is something we must confront. But the way we interpret our existence as Being-towards-death is ultimately down to us.

Natasha Wynne

(1). Epicurus: ‘Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.’ (Quoted in Havi Carel, Illness, p.90)

(2). Heidegger: ‘Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world. Its death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there. If Dasein stands before itself as this possibility, it has been fully assigned to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. When it stands before itself in this way, all its relations to any other Dasein have been undone. This ownmost non-relational possibility is at the same time the uttermost one.’ (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 294)

(3). Daniel Shaw: ‘The impact of this film is like what Nietzsche condemns in artistic expressions of romantic pessimism: rather than invigorating us to act in the face of the deplorable superficiality of the world, Synecdoche, New York is profoundly deadening. Characters such as Cotard embody the deer-caught-in-headlights powerlessness that is symptomatic of what Nietzsche calls passive nihilism […].’ (‘Nietzschean Themes in the Films of Charlie Kaufman’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 265)

(4). David L. Smith: ‘The film is a study in self-defeat; it envisions no way out of this bind [i.e. the sense of falling short created by our reliance on language as expression] short of death, and death is hardly a solution […] There is no other world from which help can be expected, and ever “elsewhere” we build for ourselves out of words turns out to be fatally flawed – a fool’s paradise. Nevertheless, there is a way of seeing our current circumstances that may deserve the name transcendence, if only because this view allows us to live on terms surprisingly adequate to our desire […] Synecdoche, New York evokes transcendence by oblique means and inspires reflection on strategies by which transcendence is pursued.’ (‘Synecdoche, in Part’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 244-245)

‘The ordinary confusion of life itself becomes a scene of transcendence, as when fate is transformed through amor fati. Nothing changes, and yet everything changes its aspect, as when tragedy modulates into farce. Some significant mystery is revealed, and one is left with the sense, if not that all manner of things shall be well, then at least that life deserves our grudging but genuine fondness.’ (Ibid., p. 249)

And some quotes from the film…

Caden:
‘Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willie Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair. But the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor will end up in this very place of desolation.’

Caden:
‘I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.’

Caden:
‘I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day I’ll hand you a paper, it’ll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, et cetera. […] I’m not excusing myself from this either. I will have someone play me, to delve into the murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being. And he’ll get notes too, and those notes will correspond to the notes I truly receive every day from my god!

Sammy:
‘I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.’

Minister:
‘Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.’

Millicent:
‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this. As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are…Gone.’

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972

Time is a healer. Age and experience help one to become wiser and more mature. So the cliché’s go. Are these notions not the flagship for the hope of Reason itself? That is to say, do not the lessons learnt through trial and error heuristically enable one to reach greater heights of understanding?

The Apollonian notion of order dictates that one comes to judge soberly the relationships in one’s life. Or as Habermas might say, the “unforced force of the better argument” is impelled to hold sway, and that it is this communicative rationality which once again reinforces the foundations of Reason and raises it to a linear, progressive, normative standard.

But what happens when communication serves no progressive rationality? When supposed linearity dissolves into fragments? When customs and norms are transvaluated? When Dionysus kicks out at Apollo?

Possible answers to these questions lie within The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.

The film dissects the various relationships of a successful clothes designer, Petra Von Kant – with her former husbands, her ‘friend’ Sidonie, her daughter, and her mother – but with particularly chilling emphasis on her involvement with her live-in secretary/maid/slave Marlene, and a young girl named Karin with whom Petra falls in love.

In a Foucaldian sense, Fassbinder weaves these relationships into an exploration of how power is manipulated through a series of discursive filters: history, class, art, age, psychosis, and gender.

Just as potently, the film is also a vivid rumination on the nature of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, and Nietzschean master-slave morality. This is brought to bear in the tension within the film between art and love on the one hand and servitude and labour on the other, and the paradoxes contained within each. The freedom of expression within the former is offset immanently by the amour fou which paralyses Petra and makes her a prisoner to her love. At the same time, the alienation and submission of the latter in the form of Marlene’s slavery to Petra is offset by the inherent freedom which marks out Marlene’s choice to leave Petra at the end of the film.

Time does not always heal like the cliché would have us believe. It sometimes pushes us further into desperation or moral degradation. The interdependence of Petra and Karin, and Petra and Marlene is the ostensible interdependence of the master and the slave. On the surface it may appear at the end of the film that Marlene finds a way out of her alienation; that she acts freely and recognizes that she has more authority than she may have dreamed. Similarly, it may appear at first glance that Petra also realizes that her success is built on the foundations of Marlene’s labour, and together this allows for a certain dialectical uplift in consciousness on the parts of both women, helping to outline the epiphanal aspects of the Absolute in Hegel’s thought. However, Marlene leaves with a gun in her suitcase, suggesting all the while that there may be trouble ahead, and once again undercutting the notion of any linear resolution of all present difficulties. Furthermore, this highlights that despite the fact that Petra makes peace with her master Karin, and with her slave Marlene, amour fou is always only just around the corner.

The paradox in Petra’s treatment of Karin and Marlene is the tension between Reason and its limits. Petra rails about how much Karin is hurting her, how she doesn’t understand why someone she loves so much would hurt her in such a fashion. Yet she does the same thing to Marlene on a regular basis, hurting someone who loves her, and doing so unapologetically. She misses the truth that is right in front of her.

Bash Khan