Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Me and My Shadow Figure

Yes, it's getting to be the tiredest image in my repertoire, but it works for me. Donnie Darko (with his ax) takes me to the Other Side, and I have my best dreams there. Last night:

There's a small gathering, something between a social-obligation dinner party and a bunch of people trapped in a wing of a building they can't find their way out of. Like No Exit but even more like The Exterminating Angel. It's mostly Corcoran faculty. There's one person widely and pretty openly disliked and disapproved of; he represents a bureaucratic, bullshitty attitude toward both art and education that focuses on marketing and positioning yourself, adopting fashionable positions and ingratiating yourself with administrators, and not, as we would think of it, asking any really interesting questions about either art or education. But I want to draw him into a conversation and perhaps find common ground, so I ask him a question about teaching. He answers, in a condescending tone that's very true to his real manner, "I don't think the contemporary instructor should be thinking about teaching. What I do in my classes is facade performatively." I am gobsmacked. After a moment I recover and say, "Who gave you the right to use facade as a verb?"
After a little further discussion he seems to reconsider and retreat from his position. (This is also extremely familiar from his behavior in waking life.) He begins casually taking his clothes off and strutting around naked, apparently to show that he's just one of the guys. He climbs in my lap and drags his genitals and ass across my face. He's really surprised that this does not seem to please me, and he's starting to look panicky. He takes off the wool cap he's wearing and I see that he's bald on top and his hair on the sides is sticking out in all directions and is cut very unevenly. He looks very weak and sick. He lies in my lap naked and reaches his arms up to wrap around my shoulders. "I love you," he says. "Don't you love me?"


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Man Killed by His Dream

The Zuo Zhuan (about fifth century BC) tells the story of Shushun Bao of Lu, who traveled to Qi to meet his bride. Along the way he stopped at Geng Zong, where he met a woman who offered to bring him food. He spent the night with her.
Sometime after the birth of his two sons by the woman from Qi, he dreamed that the heavens were falling on him and crushing him to death. He called for help and saw a small, deformed man. "Niu (cow-like)!" he cried, "Help me!" But Niu did not assist him; he stood aside and watched. Shushun Bao pushed hard against the heavens and escaped. When he awoke he described the man in his dream and told his councillors to beware of him.
Years later he determined to return home from Qi to Lu. Along the way he stopped at Geng Zong, where the woman he had met long ago presented him with his son. "Niu," Shushun Bao said, before introductions could be made. "Yes," said the boy.
Niu accompanied Shushun Bao to Lu, where under the guise of protecting his father, he arranged the execution of his older half-brother and the exile of the younger. Attending his father Shushun Bao in illness, he withheld his medicine and watched as he died.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

I Normally Don't Do This Kind of Thing . . .

but I do so enjoy the posts at TomCruiseIsNuts.com. Here's a sample:

November 7, 2005


Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The Cruiser hoping to convert Oprah to Scientology. Operation "Evil Celebrity World Domination" enters Phase 2 [insert evil laugh here].

From Bodog : "Tom Cruise plans to lay out $15 million to buy a place in Montecito, Calif., just two doors away from Oprah's $50 million estate! Are these two A-listers just really, really good friends -- or is something else going on? Is it chemistry -- or Scientology? According to a source, Tom, 43, wants to covert Oprah "I think he really thinks he can convert her. Tom seems really eager to lure Oprah into the church because he feels she would be a fantastic spokesperson and attract a whole new set of followers."

So it's finally here, the End of Days. Once they have Oprah, there will be no stopping them. We tried to warn you. So as there seems to be nothing we can do to stop this coming apocalypse, we've done the next best thing and found a way to profit from it! Check out the current odds at Bodog.com on Oprah's conversion. We plan to make some serious money on this... at least then we'll have enough funds to tithe to our future Scientology masters to avoid "re-education" at an "Oprah Camp".

November 3, 2005


"Eww! A girl is touching me! Get it off, get it off!"
Kidman "devastated" about the Cruiser's "baby"

From MSNBC : "Nicole Kidman is said to be “devastated” by the news that her ex-hubby, Tom Cruise, is about to have his first biological [cough, cough] child [spawn] with fiancée Holmes [CSCV] . And, although Cruise and Kidman are said to be in regular contact with one another, the buzz is that Kidman found out that he was an expecting dad from television. “Nic learned about Tom and Katie’s baby [spawn] the same way as everyone else — from the TV,” a friend of Kidman’s told Britain’s Grazia magazine. “She went shopping immediately after hearing the news to try and take her mind off it, but that just made things worse. She says people pointed at her, and everyone was whispering as soon as she turned her back. She’s taking it very hard.”

Of course, with the Cruiser's newly discovered "Remote Spawning" capability, she should be very careful what she wishes for, he could probably impregnate her cold, barren womb from Toledo. Oh, and Bewitched? Not funny.

November 2, 2005


Ex-Montreal Expos' mascot Youppi loses job. Vows bloody revenge on Martin Holmes.

"Grandpapa! Grandmama! I wuv you... NOW BOW DOWN BEFORE YOUR ALIEN CONQUEROR, HUMAN SCUM!"
The prenup saga continues. The Cruiser Spawn Carrying Vehicle (the CSCV) shakes up legal team. Youppi out, her father in. Youppi "devastated".

From MSNBC : "Holmes’s father, Martin, is a lawyer and is representing his daughter in the negotiations, reports the upcoming issue of The Star. Martin Holmes “is playing hardball with the prenup negotiations,” according to the tab, which quotes a source as saying that Holmes wants to make sure that his daughter will receive “a lump sum payment in the millions if the marriage should dissolve before the five-year mark.” Such terms are unusual for a prenup, which usually awards a spouse more money for a longer marriage, but, the source tells the mag: “The Holmes family would never tell Katie if they thought her marriage was doomed from the get-go, but they are pressuring her to hold out not only to protect her interests, but those of her child.”

Wow, have we just found the only sane people in this entire fiasco of a disaster of a train wreck of an Armageddon? Way to go Holmes family! Now if only you hadn't raised your daughter to be a complete moron who allowed herself to be impregnated by an alien space spawn, you guys would really be the best parents EVER! But, hey, 1 out of 2 ain't bad... at least you're getting a prenup! Mazel tov!

November 1, 2005

The Cruiser asks the Cruiser Spawn Carrying Vehicle (the CSCV) to sign a prenup. The CSCV displays brilliant legal mind and "Freaks out"


Katie's crack legal team, led by ex-Montreal Expos' mascot Youppi, comments on prenup. Thumbs up!
From upcoming Star: "Holmes was recently shocked when love-of-her-life Tom Cruise asked her to sign a prenup. "She's freaked out," the source says. "I think she thought it meant that he wasn't sure their relationship would last." [NO! well that thought certainly never crossed our minds] The source says that the idea of a prenup had never occurred to Katie. [but converting to his alien parasite religion was just fine] "She is head over heels in love with him and couldn't bear the thought that he might not be equally as in love," the source said. He told Katie that the prenup was for "her protection." [hey, wait a second... this sounds suspicious..] "He explained that at 43, he's more than 16 years older than she is," [okay...] said the source, "and although he's healthy, who knows what life has in store?" [uh-oh, we can see where this is going... here it comes, Katie...] Worried that he might die young like his dad, Tom told Katie, "he wanted to create a prenup so that she will always be taken care of, no matter what." [And, BINGO! Nice one Cruiser, very subtle. But, um, isn't that what the will is for? Not that we're lawyers or anything... Just wondering....]

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Since You Asked
I think the classic definitions of the uncanny differentiate it from horror (and terror) as these are defined by one's physical responses to the object (whatever theories people have about the psychological sources of those feelings). The uncanny is both supernatural and disturbing or eerie--that is, one the one hand, it's defined by being inexplicable according to the ordinary operations of nature (thus, a rotting corpse is not uncanny though it may be an object of horror); on the other, by not being very nice (therefore miracles and God are not uncanny).
Freud's way of looking at the uncanny is interesting and very influential: It makes the familiar strange through some transformation that is generally to be explained as a psychological mechanism of defense, denial, alienation, and thus undermines our sense of the reality of reality, or ability to discern the real from the imagined, illusory, or subjective. Thus, typical uncanny themes are ghosts (much better when they are the ghosts of someone known); vampires (ditto, as they generally are in classic folklore); zombies (which confuse the categories or life and death); doppelgaengers (isn't that me? But I'm me!! Aaaaaagh!!!!). That's why my list tends to things like The Turn of the Screw, which are very decidedly ghost stories without necessarily being in the horror genre. Bartleby is interesting because, like Kafka and Borges, it skirts the issue of the supernatural. I am especially interested in situations where the uncanny effect is created not primarily by the device of a ghost, etc., but by a literary technique such as multiple points of view (as in Dracula or Rashomon), nesting of stories (as in The Manuscript Found at Saragossa), or weird narrative puzzles (as in Ubik). Personally, I think Stephen King is a very good writer of horror novels but only occasionally really interested in the uncanny, and then the effect is forced; Phillip K. Dick and Peter Straub are just deeply attracted to the uncanny. The title of Emmanuel Carrere's biography of Dick is pretty uncanny itself; at least it's extremely eerie: I Am Alive and You are Dead.
Unlike the basic category of the horror novel or film, the category of the uncanny fits pretty well with other things I teach, try to read up on, and hope to write more about: the nature of dreams; the theme of cannibalism in psychodynamics, esp. of childhood; and the identity issues posed by artificial persons in novels and film. On the latter, I think there's a lot in genuine philosophy and cultural theory lately, but very little that's psychodynamically oriented, so recognizing the continuity between , say, Blade Runner and Edgar Allan Poe on the living dead, automata, and doubles could be kind of interesting.
Dreyer, Vampyr

The Uncanny

I've been considering proposing a course on The Uncanny in Film and Lit. Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to go into why I'm feeling "The Uncanny" helps me to get at something I couldn't do with a course on Horror or The Gothic, but it basically comes down to seeing The Uncanny as an issue in representation rather than underlying beliefs--that is, the supernatural premise or incident is treated as defining subject matter and context for conventions in an analysis of the Gothic novel or the horror film, but I want to get instead at the creation of the sensation of the uncanny (and the conventions and premises, etc.) through the limitations and possibilities of representation, in narrative fiction and film. (Admittedly, this what a lot of theory-heads would do anyway, but I would be happier starting things out rightside-up by turning the conventional assumptions about the relation between reality and representation in art upside-down to begin with--that is, to admit, that supernatural belief is a function of narrative rather than assuming that narrative conveys supernatural belief.)
One reason I know this would be interesting for me to do is that the list of texts comes so easily:

Fiction
E. T. A. Hoffman
Keats - the gothic poerms
Poe (M. Valdemar, The Black Cat, The Tale-Tale Heart, Ligeia, William Wilson, a lot of others, really)
Washington Irving - The Stranger with a Bag, maybe Sleepy Hollow
Hogg - Private Memoirs and Confessions
Eliot - The Lifted Veil
Potocki - The Manuscript Found at Saragossa
Dostoevsky - The Double
Melville - Bartleby?
James - The Turn of the Screw, The Friends of the Friends
Dracula (esp. the uncanniness created by multiple and partial views)
Stevenson - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
M. R. James, E. F. Benson
Six Characters in Search of an Author
Kafka - In the Penal Colony
Borges, Calvino
Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark
Dick - Ubik, The Man in the High Castle
Peter Straub - Ghost Story
This leaves out, among other things, excerpting Montaigne, Thomas Browne, Robert Burton on considering the uncanny; and probably some orientation to the influence of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet on the Romantics' sense of the Uncanny. It'd be nice to find something in Hazlitt and DeQuincey.

Film

The Golem
The Student of Prague
Vampyr
The Dybbuk
Cat People
The Uninvited
Ugetsu
Rashomon
Kwaidan
Vertigo
Psycho
The Innocents
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Les diaboliques
Rosemary's Baby
Total Recall
And in art generally, there'd be Goya, Fuseli, the Pre-Raphaelites, Surrealism, the Chapmans, Tony Oursler . . .

Key issues: This'd let me go into:
Anomalous psychological experience
Threats to identity
Dead/Alive
Real/Unreal
Doubles
Mulitiplicity of view, subjectivity, transcendentalism
Metaphysical paradox
Self-reference and Romantic irony
Gender and sexuality
I wouldn't base it on Freud, but a psychoanalytic view especially with a lot of Klein (reparation as haunting) would be good. Todorov. Mary Douglas probably has something relevant, too; structuralism is a very good approach for establishing the Uncanny.
I'd be very happy to have the chance to go into this while thinking about some of the films (I've never written up my talk on The Dybbuk for an article) and working on the Double novel.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I'm very glad that my work--maybe that should read "work"--gives me the opportunity to read Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System, by Peggy Reeves Sanday. Normally, I don't have any interest in getting started on polemics in the classroom. And normally, I don't want to push psychoanalytically-inflected theories of behavior too hard. But I'm hoping some of the students in my Humanities course, as we discuss the Friday sections of Robinson Crusoe, Heart of Darkness, and some excerpts from Reeves' book and the cannibalism section in Gustav Jahoda's Images of Savages, will notice the connections between the rationales for cannibalism in some of the societies that practice it, as well as the fury directed at purported cannibals, and the justifications offered by the government of the United States for reserving the right to practice torture.
You can feel like something of a nutcase taking an interest in cannibalism at all, even when anyone who's considered it is aware of the deep relation between cannibalism and the roots of aggression, sadism, and violence (as well as the imagery of the nightmare, which is an area I'm primarily interested in)--and still more so when you are noting a connection in the psychology of Jeffrey Dahmer and George W. Bush. But it's there--not a whole lot more than in the rest of us, but then most of us don't, whether intentionally or incidentally, kill a whole lot of people.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I had been telling him how the Devil was God's enemy in the Hearts of Men, and used all his Malice and Skill to defeat the good Designs of Providence, and to ruine the Kingdom of Christ in the World; and the like. Well, says Friday; but you say, God is so strong, so great, is he not much strong, much might as the Devil? Yes, yes, says I , Friday, God is stronger than the Devil, and therefore we pray to God to tread him down under our Feet, and enable us to resist his Temptations and quench his fiery Darts. But, he says again, if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him do no more wicked?
I was strangely surpriz'd at his Question, and after all, tho' I was now an old Man, yet I was but a young Doctor, and ill enough quallified for a Casuist, or a Solver of Difficulties: And at first I could not tell what to say, so I pretended not to hear him, and ask'd him what he said. But he was too earnest for an Answer to forget his Question; so that he repeated it in the very same broken Words, as above. By this time I had recovered my self a little, and I said, God will at last punish him severely; he is reserv'd for the Judgement, and is to be cast into the Bottomless-Pit, to dwell with everlasting Fire: This did not satisfie Friday, but he returns upon me, repeating my Words, RESERVE, AT LAST, me no understand; but, why not kill the Devil now, not kill great ago?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005




And Then There's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
which has a weird sort of hidden relationship to The Threepenny Opera, which, when you think of it, is kind of inevitable--how many models are there for a really interesting 20th-century opera, self-consciously aware of its relation to the past? The relationship is coded into the musical score by Michel Legrand, which, I've always thought, has several moments that are precise transformations of The Threepenny Opera (which is also true of the American film version of Pennies from Heaven and of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd). But in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the irony swings the other way. The Threepenny Opera seems like a black-and-white film even when it's performed live on stage; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is more "about" color than maybe any film outside of Paradjanov. The Threepenny Opera is one of the few entirely successful examples of political art in the twentieth century; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a self-consuming artifact of the growth of cinematic connoisseurship. It goes to the other extreme, but it works. I never quite understand people who say they don't get it. Maybe they expect it to be something other than it is. I wouldn't trade a good Douglas Sirk movie for it, but it's still great in the same way.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Is It Me, or Is There Something Just the Tiniest Bit Familiar About
the Route of the 30th Marine Corps Marathon?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Now Look What You Made Me Do
Yesterday morning I spent a bit more than an hour revising my list of favorite movies. I'm still dizzy; I have papers to grade; I'm really into this idea for a new course; I've got three meetings coming up to plan; I have course descriptions to write for the department; and I actually have a short story sitting here for revision. But I worked on my favorite movies list for over an hour. Why? Because you, my public, all two of you, heckled me about it.
This officially makes me a blog nerd. Without any possibility whatever of getting rich off of it.
Cat People, Of Course, Cat People. But No David Fucking Lynch.

When I looked at my list, I was shoked--shocked--to discover I'd left a ton of my personal favorites off. I quickly revised my list to include: Cat People, La regle du jeu, Days of Heaven, If . . ., Man with a Movie Camera, Rashomon, The Searchers, A Matter of Life and Death, L'Atalante . . . I revised the order, too, but I'm not going to post the whole list now because:
I Don't Want to Get Started on This with You, Dude
But I have to say that I have an auxiliary list of movies I have to see again sometime before I decide whether they're among my absolute favories, or movies I've never seen but imagine will be among my absolute favorites once I get around to them, including:

A One and A Two . . .
Andrei Roublev
Belle de jour
Celine and Julie Go Boating
Close-Up
Daisies
Day of Wrath
Fanny and Alexander
Gertrud
La Belle Noiseuse
Les dames du Bois du Boulogne
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Mirror
Notorious
Oharu
Ordet
Pierrot le fou
Sansho Dayu
Silence of the Palace
The Curse of the Cat People
The Home and the World
The Innocents
The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums
Z
There is probably nothing so interesting as a list of someone's favorite movies. I went through the Sight and Sound 2002 survey of directors' and critics' Top Tens yesterday, too, and they were often interesting, often irritating. (Irritating: People who put Schindler's List, Gone With the Wind, Jaws, Blade Runner or The Piano on their Top Ten lists; people who leave off Citizen Kane because it's "the definitive white male movie"; and really, is there anything as pretentious as pretending that Rope is your favorite Hitchcock movie?) There's just this very clear line between people who like movies because they're good movies, and people who like movies because they approve of what they're saying, or want to be perceived as approving of what they're saying, whether they actually do or not, or want to be associated with some specious glamor, aura, or depth they imagine the film represents. I could just spit.
But nobody, including me, really much wants a list of actually, really, seriously good movies. It's more interesting to do a list of movies you know not everyone likes or even sees but that are somehow to your taste. And this is the thing about criticism in the recently morbid age of theory: the totally dumb smart-guy pose of supposedly avoiding the vicissitudes of personal taste while at the same time establishing an if-you-have-to-ask-why-you'll-never-understand Canon of Cool. (There's not a thing wrong with jazz, for example; it's academic talk about jazz that kills all the joy in life.) And that is why people like Dave Hickey: He elaborates on his taste, like Baudelaire, or Frank O'Hara. Oh, but you knew that.
Oh Crap, I Left Off Rosemary's Baby
My short list of movies not everyone loves that I can watch over and over again--the personal sensibility list:

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
Bride of Frankenstein
Imitation of Life
The Gang’s All Here
Hiroshima mon amour
The Celebration
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
RoboCop
Shadow of a Doubt
Week End
Providence
Ohayo
If . . .
A Slave of Love
Love Me Tonight
Law of Desire
Mon oncle d’Amerique
Targets
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism
All That Heaven Allows
Topsy-Turvy
Cat People
The Devil, Probably
Thundercrack
A Matter of Life and Death
Trash
The Idiots
The Long Day Closes
Double Suicide
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
The Terminator
The Dybbuk
Theatre of Blood
Boggy Depot
Talk to Her
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills
God Told Me To
The Uninvited
The Crime of M. Lange
Last Summer in the Hamptons
Black Moon
The Haunting
Die, Mommie, Die
Devi
Scotland, PA
Sex and Zen
Dracula’s Daughter
And now I'm going back to work.

Friday, October 28, 2005

History for Snot-Nosed Leftist Bastards
I've been thinking this would be a very good time to know more about the role of the sinking of the Lusitania in bringing the United States into World War I. It could make a very good premise for a play. (The sinking of the Maine is the same kind of thing but is a better-known story, and has less ambiguity, I think.) No one says it wasn't a catastrophe--but how did it happen? Did anyone argue it was being used as a pretext? There might be an opportunity for some nice arguing.
File Under "Good Advice"
When you start a blog--and you will--never post a list of your favorite movies.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

My Brain Hurts
I'm trying to do notes for my cinema class tomorrow--summarizing Ernest Hartmann on dream as metaphor, Mark Blechner on dream as extralinguistic thinking, Medard Boss, Fritz Perls, and a lot of what is obviously too much stuff to cover in one session--and for some reason my mind keeps wandering back to De Qunicey's essay, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." Maybe it's because when I am actually taking up an intellectual subject and making some pretense of treating it analytically, I slip into self-parody--and there isn't a better satire of the academic dilettante holding forth than De Quincey's essay.
It is a dry kind of humor:
My infirmity being notoriously too much milkiness of the heart, I find it difficult to maintain that steady equatorial line between the two poles of too much murder on the one hand, and too little on the other. . . . I believe, if I had the management of things, there would hardly be a murder from year's end to year's end.
My great discovery a few weeks back was that I'd really like to do a class on Sex and Sexuality in Cinema, so ideas about it pop into my head from time to time. My great discovery this week has been that I'd really like to do a class on The Uncanny in Film and Lit--not the Fantastic, as I've sometimes thought, but the Uncanny precisely because, to put it crudely, when theorists make the Fantastic their subject of study they begin with an idea of some class of things represented in lit or film--whereas I am interested in looking at the Uncanny, the sense of the uncanny, as a product of representation itself, not something represented. That is, the seeing the ghost, say, comes first, as a product of the problems in how we see, then the belief about ghosts. The perception of the fact of mortality necessarily creates the idea of immortality, as an idea one can play with in literature, art, belief systems. The problem, as in medieval proofs of the existence of God, is in a representational theory of thought and language--in assuming that the fact that something can be thought of is somehow an argument for even the possibility of its existence, rather than a feature of how representation works.
This would be much more interesting if one were applying it to Poe, or The Uninvited, or that very hit-or-miss TV show, Medium.
Shuffle function
Mahler's Sixth Symphony

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

So I was in New York at a conference Thursday and Friday, everything went fine, I was smart and funny and met interesting people, and Saturday morning I woke up with Vertigo--like, seriously, the room spinning round and round. Poor Grady had to get me to the emergency room as I kept throwing up; doctors looked at me, said, "Yeah, you've got vertigo, all right, isn't it the darnedest thing?" and I spent the night in the hospital. Now I'm back and walking a little bit like a drunk, otherwise OK but not quite ready to stare at a screen for any length of time.


So this may be as good a time as any to insert the list of my 97 (so far) favorite movies, which I made to kill time and clear my head, playing around at http://www.imdb.com. This kind of list is an awful lot of fun to do, especially the minute differences in favor one accords various entries--Do I really love All About Eve more than North by Northwest--and almost all my choices will seem incredibly pedestrian, except, of course, for the ones that are bizarre and inexplicable. I'm putting the list here because it's such a Live-Journal, What-kind-of-tree-would-you-be kind of thing to put on your blog but also as a reminder that even if Vertigo is my number 10 here, I would:
1) Happily watch it more often than most of 1-9, for what that's worth
2) Gladly avoid actual vertigo for the rest of my life because it really sucks.


Citizen Kane
City Lights
Dr. Strangelove
Wild Strawberries
Earth
Double Indemnity
Bride of Frankenstein
The Grapes of Wrath
Pinocchio
Vertigo
Children of Paradise
Imitation of Life
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Bicycle Thieves
La Jetee
Persona
Sunset Blvd.
M
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
The Wizard of Oz
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
RoboCop
Orphee
Rome, Open City
Modern Times
His Girl Friday
The General
Hiroshima mon amour
Metropolis
All About Eve
North by Northwest
Rear Window
Sherlock, Jr.
Nashville
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Zero de conduite
Closely Watched Trains
Duck Amuck
Law of Desire
The Celebration
Week End
A Zed and Two Noughts
Topsy-Turvy
Mon oncle d’Amerique
A Slave of Love
Ohayo
Stagecoach
Grand Illusion
Wings of Desire
The Idiots
Ugetsu
The Terminator
Targets
Fantasia
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Waking Life
W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism
Trash
Terminator II
Sullivan’s Travels
Double Suicide
Shadow of a Doubt
Providence
Pennies from Heaven
The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Lady Eve
Pickpocket
Kameradschaft
The Gang’s All Here
Cecil B. Demented
Y tu mama tambien
Kagemusha
The Maltese Falcon
Boggy Depot
Forbidden Planet
The Conformist
Breathless
Velvet Goldmine
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Hamlet (2000)
Scotland, PA
Death in Venice
Gattaca
The Devil, Probably
Apocalypse Now
Thundercrack
Before Night Falls
Die, Mommie, Die
The Women
Theatre of Blood
Black Moon
Prospero’s Books
Peeping Tom
Dark Eyes
Ninotchka
God Told Me To

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I Work My Ass Off
Today I can't say anything at all because I'm working on a conference presentation. I have to focus all my energies on remaining human and sticking with what I actually find interesting about the subject so that it doesn't generate into exactly what you think of when you hear the phrase "a conference presentation. I mean, the energies I'm not using in fretting, catastrophizing, and self-flagellating. I'll be back on the weekend.

Monday, October 17, 2005

More About Dionysos
For Vernant, Dionysos was the god who crosses the boundaries and confuses reality and illusion, who makes us lose in his collective our self-
consciousness and identity of self. Tragedy is appropriately Dionysiac when we suspend our disbelief in watching the drama and enter a world of
mimesis, a world presided over by the mask behind which individual identity is hidden.

-Storey and Allan, Guide to Ancient Greek Drama (Blackwell)

That's fine, but "lose" should be in quotation marks, because self-consciousness and identity aren't "lost," they're simply relegated to another part of awareness. The "confusion" of reality and illusion in drama is itself an illusion, responsible for a lot of the enjoyment of illusion in art. This seems to be the easiest thing in the world to get confused about, but it does remind us that the inadequacy of our ways of describing "illusion" is due to the inadequacy of our ways of describing "reality."
Really, someone ought to do something about it.



Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

The entire comedy of art is neither performed for our betterment or education nor are we the true authors of this art world. On the contrary, we may assume that we are merely images and artistic projections for the true author, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art--for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified--while of course our consciousness of our own significance hardly differs from that which the soliders painted on canvas have of the battle represented on it. Thus all our knowledge of art is basically quite illusory . . .
--Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A work of genius seems impeccable: Although you can enjoy thinking about how human minds put it together, you experience it as you do a work of nature. There's no reason for analysis to consider how it might be done differently, because all its parts are understood as existing only in relation to the whole. That is how a work of genius transcends conventions, rules, codes, and why it's an error to try to reduce it to its place in the systems that give rise to it and through which it operates--not because it is "universal" or embodies some timeless message but because it works very, very well, as an art-machine.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Too Much God
The exercise in my Humanities course this week was to propose a production concept for The Bacchae, then meet in small groups to choose one for a theater company to go with and offer a pitch for. Three of four groups chose to put it in a contemporary setting, with a show-down between religious and secular forces, although, interestingly, some groups saw the play as about religious hysteria infecting the populace and others saw it as bureaucratic culture unable to deal with the inevitable irrational forces represented by religion. Practically everyone says they have a huge problem with organized religion; practically no one knows anything about it. (The previous week, no one was familiar with even the idea of the proscriptions of Leviticus or their cultural context, since almost everyone imagines, as you would if you got your ideas about the Bible from television, that there's some undisputed short list of laws you're either for or against that come packaged with their own obvious interpretations.)
Which is only to confirm what you know already: People are experiencing the stand-off between religious and secular views as the dominating polarizing issue of the times, although this isn't saying anything about how they characterize that polarization. For example, almost everyone who says they have problems with organized religion is careful to pay respect to "faith" and "everyone's right to believe what they wish" (as if your beliefs were a matter of choice rather than unconscious forces you'd do well to consider carefully)--to the point that they take offense when I mention that Freud found the survival of supernaturalist beliefs into the 20th century embarrassing and demoralizing, or to the point where they insist that "skepticism" is "a belief system" just as religion is (or intelligent design--I cannot accord it the dignity of capitalization--a "theory" just like evolution). Nor do they particularly want to take on the resemblances between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism (or recently, constitutional fundamentalism).
A Still, Small Voice
As always happens with these rants, I eventually lose it--there's nothing out there, no social or cultural phenomenon, that I can find irritating enough to completely overcome my natural tendency to sink into embarrassed silence as I observe myself opinionating. What I'm ranting about becomes less interesting to me than the fact that I'm ranting.
I was going to get around to saying something about Dionysus and Nietzsche, but that'll have to wait.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Dreams
I was working with a whole writing staff on the script for a new Scooby-Doo feature film, only it was going to be done in claymation, like Wallace and Grommit. I was excited about this and thought of it as a genuine aesthetic advance; somehow this was going to help make the script urbane, multi-layered, relevant. I was unsure about whether to reveal that I've never seen a Scooby-Doo cartoon but it turned out that wasn't really expected. What I was supposed to contribute was based on my background in classic film and theater conventions, especially Shakespeare. It was going to be hilarious and brilliant.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

This Just In
George Bush's right-wing base is now complaining that the Harriet Miers appointment shows he isn't conservative enough. They added that hell is too cold, the Pope isn't actually Catholic, and Hitler wasn't enough of an asshole.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Stop Me if You've Heard This One
George Bush is getting his morning report from his staff. Someone says,
"Mr. President, I'm sorry to tell you that three Brazilian soliders were killed in Iraq yesterday."
Bush stares in shock, the color drains from his face. "Th-that's awful," he cries, and sinks his head into his hands on the table.
The staff is stunned. He's never reacted so emotionally to any war news before.
After a moment, the president raises his head and says,
"Exactly how many is a bazillion, anyway?"

This is an actual joke now circulating on the internet, which means not only that you've probably heard it already, but that 80 million Chinese will be totally confused by it by the end of the week.

Prolonged Hilarity Ensues
Oh yes, I think a lot about humor. Last night we saw Urinetown, great show, great production at Signature Theater in Arlington. In any artform, there's a kind of funny you can get at only by exploiting the contract between artists and audience to accept certain conventions. To expose the conventions is funny in itself (but can be wearing, as it sometimes is in the self-conscious narration in Urinetown, which is meta-funny: It not only is a Brechtian alienation effect but refers to its being a Brechtian alienation effect, and though this doesn't make it any funnier, it certainly argues for its being "postmodern." Oh God, shoot me now, someone, and put me out of my misery.)

But the more fun kind of funny in this production of Urinetown comes from direct parody, wry allusions to basic conceits of musical comedy over the years, exposing not only their conventions but their incongruities (like ending a Les Miz-style number about poverty and woe with . . . jazz hands!!). Why have so many people who have tried to understand humor insisted that it's "fundamentally" one thing or another?--for Bergson, perception of the incongruity of humans behaving mechanistically, for Freud defusing an anxiety reaction, for so many modern humortists, just pain, pain, pain. For example, the next subhead works on many levels.

He Gave Good Subhead
The problem is, I just don't know which of those levels is the most annoying.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Dreams
Terrible dreams last night. I woke up at 4 am from a dream in which I was abducted by this Satanist cult led by Christopher Lee. We were in an upper room of a church or cathedral and he was torturing people, slashing them with knives. I had to look on without doing anything or it'd happen to me.
Whenever I have a dream like this, I assume immediately that it has something to do with work and authority conflicts.
After I fell asleep again, I dreamed I was in class and no one was doing the work; this flipped around, and I was a student in a class who hadn't done the work. This in itself is pretty interesting. I always assume it's a universal that hasn't been given much emphasis but maybe it's just a prominent feature in my own dreams: the ability of dreams to vary your point of view and erase the subject-object distinction seems an absolutely central feature. It's the reason I've made such a big deal about Whitman's The Sleepers; it seems like he's on to something about dreaming that doesn't really enter into the big twentieth-century psychological theories, at least until recently. Perhaps the fundamental characteristic in imagination of being able to construct different viewpoints from which to observe the world--as in, for example, even being able to imagine outer space enough to conjecture or develop theories about it--is always active and simply most noticeable during sleep or trance states because of the relaxation of the ego's hold over processing of perceptions. This is undoubtedly a very well-known idea I just don't happen to be familiar so I imagine it's obscure.


Tobias Schneebaum, Chronicler and Dining Partner of Cannibals, Dies
by Margalit Fox (NYT) September 25, 2005
Tobias Schneebaum, a New York writer, artist and explorer who in the 1950's lived among cannibals in the remote Amazon jungle and, by his own account, sampled their traditional cuisine, died on Tuesday in Great Neck, N.Y. He was in his mid-80's and a longtime resident of Greenwich Village.
The cause was complications of Parkinson's disease, his nephew Jeff Schneebaum said. The elder Mr. Schneebaum, who had several nieces and nephews, leaves no immediate survivors.
In 2000, Mr. Schneebaum was the subject of a well-received documentary film, ''Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale,'' which follows his return to the Amazon, and to Indonesian New Guinea, where he also lived.
Mr. Schneebaum came to prominence in 1969 with the publication of his memoir, also titled ''Keep the River on Your Right'' (Grove Press). The book, which became a cult classic, described how a mild-mannered gay New York artist wound up living, and ardently loving, for several months among the Arakmbut, an indigenous cannibalistic people in the rainforest of Peru.
Publishers Weekly called the memoir ''authentic, deeply moving, sensuously written and incredibly haunting.'' Other critics dismissed it as romantic, solipsistic and undoubtedly exaggerated.
In either case, Mr. Schneebaum's work raises tantalizing questions about the role of the anthropologist, the responsibilities of the memoirist, and cultural attitudes toward sexuality and taboo. It also offers a look at the persistence of an 18th-century idea -- the Western fantasy of the noble savage -- well into the 20th century.
In 1955, Mr. Schneebaum, then a painter, won a Fulbright fellowship to study art in Peru. There, he vanished into the jungle and was presumed dead. Seven months later, he emerged, naked and covered in body paint. The experience had transformed him, he would later say, but in a way he could scarcely have imagined.
Theodore Schneebaum was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, most likely on March 25, 1922 (some sources say 1921), and reared in Brooklyn. Visiting Coney Island as a boy, he was captivated by the Wild Man of Borneo, a sideshow attraction famed for its brute exoticism.
Mr. Schneebaum, who disliked the name Theodore and eventually changed it to Tobias, attended the City College of New York. In 1977, he received a master's in cultural anthropology from Goddard College in Vermont.
As a young man, Mr. Schneebaum was part of New York's flourishing bohemian scene. He studied at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art with the renowned Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo and was gaining recognition for his abstract paintings, shown in New York galleries.
But as a gay man and a Jew in 1950's America, Mr. Schneebaum felt, he often wrote afterward, that there was nowhere he truly belonged. Craving community, he began to travel, and lived for several years in an artists' colony in Mexico.
In 1955, Mr. Schneebaum accepted the fellowship to Peru, hitchhiking there from New York. At a Roman Catholic mission on the edge of the rain forest, he heard about the Arakmbut. (The tribe, whose name is also spelled Harakumbut, was previously known as the Amarakaire. In his memoir, Mr. Schneebaum calls it by a pseudonym, the Akaramas.)
The Arakmbut, whose home was several days' journey into the jungle, hunted with bows, arrows and stone axes. No outsider, it was said, had ever returned from a trip there.
Mr. Schneebaum was not inclined to boldness. In New York, he had once called a neighbor to dispatch a mouse from his apartment. (The neighbor, Norman Mailer, bravely obliged.) But when he heard about the Arakmbut, he set out on foot, alone, without a compass.
''I knew that out there in the forest were other peoples more primitive, other jungles wilder, other worlds that existed that needed my eyes to look at them,'' he wrote in ''Keep the River on Your Right.'' ''My first thought was: I'm going; the second thought: I'll stay there.''
To his relief, the Arakmbut welcomed him congenially. To his delight, homosexuality was not stigmatized there: Arakmbut men routinely had lovers of both sexes. Mr. Schneebaum spent the next several months living with the tribe in a state of unalloyed happiness.
One day, he accompanied a group of Arakmbut men on what he thought was an ordinary hunting trip. The walked until they reached another village. As Mr. Schneebaum watched, his friends massacred all the men there. In the ensuing victory celebration, parts of the victims were roasted and eaten. Offered a bit of flesh, Mr. Schneebaum partook; later that evening, he wrote, he ate part of a heart. It was an experience, he later said, that would haunt him for years. He left the Arakmbut shortly afterward.
''Keep the River on Your Right'' caused a sensation when it was published. Anthropologists were aghast: ethnographers were not supposed to sleep with their subjects, much less eat them. Interviewers were titillated. (''How did it taste?'' a fellow guest asked Mr. Schneebaum on ''The Mike Douglas Show.'' ''A little bit like pork,'' he replied.)
Some critics doubted Mr. Schneebaum's story, though he maintained it till the end of his life. From the documentary film, it is clear that he did live among the Arakmbut. The filmmakers travel with Mr. Schneebaum to Peru and to New Guinea, where he lived for years with the Asmat, a tribe of headhunters and occasional cannibals.
In both places, tribal elders, some of them his former lovers, recognize Mr. Schneebaum and greet him warmly. Neither community is willing to talk about cannibalism. The filmmakers, the brother-and-sister team of David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, leave the issue deliberately unresolved.
Mr. Schneebaum's other memoirs include ''Wild Man'' (Viking, 1979) and ''Where the Spirits Dwell'' (Grove, 1988). His most recent, ''Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea'' (University of Wisconsin, 2000) moves between the communities he loved: Asmat, now ravaged by globalization, and his friends in Greenwich Village, ravaged by AIDS.
An authority on Asmat art and culture, Mr. Schneebaum was formerly assistant to the curator of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. He was also the author of ''Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat.''

I met Tobias Schneebaum when I interviewed him for the Blade when his book Where the Spirit Dwells, about his experiences in Asmat. I'd been very, very influenced by him when I was in college. I read Keep the River on Your Right when I was still anthropology major. I never imagined myself doing field work; I only wished I imagined myself someone who could do that sort of thing. Oddly enough, I think Tobias was the same way until he had experiences that threw him into the arms of head-hunters and cannibals, where, on the whole, he seems to have been comfortable.

Tobias had a very romantic, Whitmanesque vision of gay sex as comradeship that, in practical terms, had much more the feel of a pile of puppies frolicking than of two grooms standing on top of a wedding cake. That vision was around more in the '70s and '80s than recently and Tobias communicated it well because he conveyed it without a lot of complaints about the resistance of Western societies to open eroticism; he made toleration of variation in all kinds of customs seem like obvious common sense. He always said he was terribly uncomfortable about participating in ritual cannibalism but he was very disinclined to characterize that discmfort as grounds for some kind of universal moral code.

When we met we had instant rapport, fed primarily by the exchange of stories on sexual practices around the world--I think I had just finished reviewing a round-up of histories of sex--and I was totally delighted to be tittering in at a cafe table with a guy I thought of as my hero. I wanted him to like me and I was thrilled that he did. Eventually I realized he was one of those people who affected almost everyone the same way; everyone he knew seems to have thought they had a special, intimate bond with him. I only saw him a couple more times in New York. He wrote me once from a cruise ship where he was lecturing on South Pacific flora and fauna. On this voyage, they'd warned him away from lecturing on Fijian sexual practices, which seems a shame, since he knew so many fascinating details about them. I still remember the look on his face as he discussed how Fijian women applied ants to their labia to make them more alluring; it was the look of a grandparent describing something absolutely adorable a grandchild had done.

The week I met Tobias he was on Charlie Rose, who seemed to be trying to get him to express misgivings about sleeping with Asmat men in New Guinea. Tobias' attitude was essentially, for heaven's sake, these people are adults. Uninformed commentators--Melanesian homosexuality is as well-known among anthropologists as ancient Greek homosexuality--focused on the profoundly misguided idea that somehow westerners were introducing western-style decadent practices into the area; but the more insidious idea was that in all encounters between people from industrialized nations and indigenous peoples, the latter are to be regarded as children.

We spent an evening together once at Mary Truitt's; Tobias was a close friend of Mary's mother, Anne Truitt. Mary told me that in her childhood, she was fascinated by the way Tobias would come back from his travels and still seem to carry traces of the wild in his behavior. She hadn't seen him in the years she went from child to adolescent--I think when he was in Borneo--and she said that when he saw her again, he slapped her across the face and said, "You grew up!"

I liked the sound of his voice. I'm glad to have the documentary Keep the River on Your Right because of the footage of him speaking, but I think I'll go back and look at the books now.


What is wrong with me? Why don't I know more about Max Ernst?












Photo by Frederick Sommer

Saturday, October 01, 2005


I recently bought a print of this strip. At this point, with three prints of Zippy strips, I may have spent more money buying work by Bill Griffith than any other living artist--which should pretty seriously embarrass me in front of my incredibly talented friends whose work I don't seem to get around to actually spending money on.
But how can you not fall on your knees at the altar of Zippy? Bill Griffith and Raymond Pettibon are the kind of artists I admire, am inspired by, and furiously envy. An artist whose work seems perfectly right for you, whose work seems to you to incarnate your own sensibility and resonates with all the ideas you insist that you've thought yourself but simply happen never to have expressed, both redeems the world of that depressing feeling you have to get sometimes that nothing smart or interesting or exciting is going on these days (in whatever field), and inspires in you the probably entirely false feeling that at least someone "gets it" the way you "get it"--when in all likelihood, you don't get it at all. Like the mingling of pity and fear in tragedy, the mingling of feelings of closeness and distance to the work of any artist who's actually mature, developed, articulate and occupies the territory you always thought was eccentric in yourself gives rise to rich and complex feelings that agitate as well as satisfy--in this case, something that mixes the response of "Sheer genius" with "Hey, I could do that."
I know I've always felt that everyone has a personal canon, not of artists they admire so much as artists that feel like their gang. In the most embarrassing possible way, you come to feel that some people you know only through reading or looking at their work are actually your friends--even worse, you imagine that were you to meet, they would like you. (I wonder if Walt Whitman would have wanted to, you know, hang out with me.) It's embarrassing, as I say, but gee, I'm not sure I've ever met an artist or writer who wasn't powerfully or even primarily motivated by this feeling. (And yes, I do know about The Anxiety of Influence.)
I've always said that it's interesting that the smartest people I know or read always seem to agree with me. The ones that disagree--well, I know they must have their points, but secretly I suspect them of just being kind of slow.

Monday, September 26, 2005


I don't really know much about Confucius; I think I only finally read The Analects (though I completely forget what that's supposed to mean) when it occurred to me I might use him in a Humanities section on The Good Society. I didn't. So I can't even claim, because I don't know the context, that he's a model for the aphoristic writer. I know Walter Benjamin remarked somewhere that the literature of the future would consist of aphorisms; I'm sure he had reasons for saying so. I'm simply reporting my taste, a personal inclination for pithy statements that open up to contemplation, that are more likely to be sublime than beautiful, that are true without pretending to proclaim a truth.
As I got older, I started to really enjoy writers I avoided when I was young; in fact, generically I still prefer fiction and plays to the pretensions of of the cntemporary market for editorials, opinions and theories. (But who doesn't like biography? It ought to count as a genre of fiction.) I like Wilde, Thoreau, Epictetus, Diogenes, Montaigne, Thomas Browne, Samuel Johnson--of course Gertrude Stein, who herself said, "Remarks are not literature," but was awfully good at producing memorable ones. I never would have thought even in grad school, when I was only starting to get over my resentment of canons enough to enjoy reading even books that seemed like monuments in "the tradition," that I would get so much pleasure out of reading Samuel Johnson (well, you have to start with Boswell's Life, because that's where most of the endearing funny remarks are).

Anyway, Confucius said several things that have remained on my list of best pithy remarks ever:

Some are the kind of axioms we put on posters to encourage the right attitude in teachers and administrators:

The gentleman helps others to realize what is good in them; he does not help them realize what is bad in them. The small man does the opposite.

If a man is correct in his own person, then there will be obedience without orders being given; but if he is not correct in his own person, there will not be obedience even though orders are given.

What the gentleman seeks, he seeks within himself; what the small man seeks, he seeks in others.

Some are just wise:

In his errors a man is true to type. Observe his errors and you will know the man.

In his dealings with the world the gentleman is not invariably for or against anything. He is on the side of what is moral.


To be fond of something is better than merely to know it, and to find joy in it is better than merely to be fond of it.

It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue; failure to go more deeply into what I have learned; inability, when I am told what is right, to move where it is; and inability to reform myself when I have defects.

Confucian irony is hilarious:

A man from a village in Ta Hsiang said, "Great indeed is Confucius! He has wide learning but has not made a name for himself in any field." The Master on hearing this said to his disciples, "What should I make myself proficient in? In driving? Or in archery? I think I would prefer driving."

And at least one thing he said is sort of my watchword:

The way out is through the door. Why then does no one use this way?

Confucius. He was righteous. Nice hat, by the way.





Friday, September 23, 2005

I can't help feeling I'm being awfully pedantic here. I was thinking about this last night: I'm keeping a writer's journal because that's what matters to me, but I'm talking about what I do as a teacher--and whatever else is involved in "professional" activities. Since I do spend a lot of my time preparing for classes, and even researching stuff, it's . . . well, my life. But confronting that rather makes me feel that I'm conducting my life as a set of activities I have to get through in order find time to get around to some completely other life. (Is there where the idea of an afterlife comes from? A general recognition that everything one thinks gives life meaning is going to be infinitely deferred? I think it's Yeats' autobiography that ends with a line like, "Life seems a preparation for something that never happens."

So in the spirit of pedantry, I present something I actually wrote: a piece on Secrets of a Soul I wrote as the first of a series on classic cinema and dreaming for DreamTime, the IASD membership magazine. It's relevant for me because we screened the film in my class yesterday.



Secrets of a Soul – G. W. Pabst, 1926, silent, b&w, Germany.
Early in his career, the great German director G. W. Pabst conceived the project of presenting the new science of psychoanalysis to the masses through cinematic narrative, in a film demonstrating how the Freudian "talking cure" miraculously dispelled neurotic symptoms. The pseudo-documentary form of the film would thus be a case study—a form that had surprisingly secured Freud himself a place on best-seller lists—and the plot would be the process and progress of therapy. "Health films"—didactic treatments of marital counseling and family planning, even the importance of diet and exercise—were all the rage among a public embracing modern and forward-looking ways of life in the post-war Germany of the 1920s. It was in this context that two of Freud’s inner circle, Karl Abraham and Hans Sachs, agreed in to act as advisors in the production of the 1926 silent film Secrets of a Soul. Pabst was a director of the highest artistic reputation, and the project offered him tempting opportunities to fuse two contrasting idioms at which he excelled: an almost unrivalled naturalism in his frank films of urban life, along with his mastery of pioneering expressionist techniques, which proved so powerful in the cinematic depiction of dream, memory, and troubled states of mind.
Freud himself, however, was not impressed. (It is one of the many fascinating paradoxes of the history of psychoanalysis that it succeeded largely through public-relations work while its originator consistently disdained popular culture.) Despite the master’s disavowal, however, Secrets of a Soul has great historical importance: Its appearance in the United States was instrumental in spreading psychoanalysis in Hollywood and thus throughout the world, and it set the tone and conventions for almost all subsequent cinematic depictions of both psychoanalysis and dreams. If the dream of Irma’s Injection in Chapter Two of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is the "specimen dream of psychoanalysis," Martin Fellman’s dream in Secrets of a Soul is the specimen dream of cinematic psychoanalysis—or of psychoanalytic cinema. It’s still one of the most complex and fascinating depictions of a dream available on film, but what remains most interesting about it is its means of fulfilling its original intention as a kind of advertisement for the psychoanalytic method.

The plot itself is daring, and one of the great virtues of the film is that it conveys so much through hints, indirection, and symbolism. (Through the ages, countless artworks have benefited from repression, prudishness, and censorship to the extent that they encourage ingenuity in getting across a prohibited insight.) It is, for example, largely through images of planted seedlings and empty rooms that we realize that the precipitating problem of the story is the protagonist’s failure to father a child. And in a real masterstroke, the psychoanalyst who happens upon the hero in a tavern follows him because he has left behind his housekey—which even the non-initiated can instantly recognize as the "key" to his relations with his wife, the key to his sexual complexes and neurotic behavior, and thus the key to the mysteries of his soul. But it is the extended dream sequence, of course, that is the most celebrated aspect of the production. Replete with trains approaching tunnels, babies floating upon water, and what is now widely recognized as phallic symbolism (in the form of cupolas, church bells, and yes, even a pith helmet), it served as a virtual compendium of imagery and techniques for later filmmakers—most importantly, Alfred Hitchcock, who always acknowledged the profound influence of Pabst and the German expressionists on his psychologically-inflected cinematic practice, including his own, better-known psychoanalytic mystery, Spellbound (1941).

The course of psychoanalytic therapy creates an engrossing and multi-leveled plot: in Secrets of a Soul, as the doctor encourages the patient to free-associate, fantasies and memories arise, leading to still more extravagant scenes. This bravura performance, however, grinds to a screeching halt when the neurosis is resolved: in a silent film, the only way for the doctor to reveal the hidden origin of the patient’s symptoms in—of course—childhood trauma is through the painfully slow crawl of text from the bottom to the top of the screen. Fears, hopes, dreams and memories are brilliantly communicated solely through the uniquely cinematic language of the moving image, but psychoanalytic explanation requires the sudden, jarring, and distinctly non-cinematic incursion of theories and pronouncements, abstract formulations rendered in confident, well-formed declarations. It may be satisfying within the realm of theory, but in the realm of cinema, it feels like an attempt to force a triumph of pedantry over art.

Freud would have approved, to the extent that he could approve of popular film at all: Irrational imagery is finally supplanted, even dispelled, by the cool reasoning available in an orderly text. But the fact that the explanation is by far the least interesting part of the film—in fact, that it interrupts the film in a way that seems bizarrely forced—points to some interesting questions about the use of cinema as propaganda for the psychoanalytic approach to the psyche in general and dreams in particular. Like the dream of Irma’s injection and the other dreams that follow in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Martin Fellman’s dream in Secrets of a Soul is not actually offered as a case study, but is produced and presented rhetorically—as a pseudo-argument to show the incontestable validity of psychoanalytic technique. And like those dreams, it doesn’t in fact bear out the psychoanalytic theory of dreams at all. For one thing, just as in the Interpretation, the dream is not traced to the unfulfilled infantile erotic wish that, in Freud’s scheme, is the only psychic content capable of generating a dream. I leave the further details for you to work out on your own viewing, but the film is much richer than its own internal interpretation admits: for example, the imagery strongly suggests that the hero harbors womb envy and birth fantasies, made evident through distinctly mythic motifs that are better understood through a Jungian exploration of archetypal themes than a Freudian reduction of the dream to repressed wishes.
Yet Secrets of a Soul proved to be very effective propaganda for the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, despite Freud’s fears that it would dilute its message. What ultimately convinced the film’s original audience of the efficacy of psychoanalytic therapy is not the dream interpretation itself but the placement of the interpretation (presented through sophisticated narrative technique) within the plot of the film, as an appealing myth of self-discovery that psychoanalysis ultimately derives from Oedipus: the laborious struggle to discover who we are by searching fearlessly in the depths of the soul. It succeeds as popular cinema by presenting the viewer with a mystery whose solution elicits a satisfying "Aha!" response—not a cogent argument but a flashy piece of artistic legerdemain. Within scientific study of the mind, not only Freudians may be charged with this error; most theories of dream interpretation have always counted upon aesthetic response to a tidy, well-spun dream interpretation to provide conviction without presenting real evidence for the theory. But the cinema is a different matter: As an art form, it’s supposed to try out ideas through invoking universal concerns and establishing complex emotional resonance. So many of our best films are built upon highly questionable ideas that it seems almost a prerequisite for doing really interesting work.
In a series of columns for DreamTime, I hope to explore this issue in more detail, through examples derived from screen classics featuring great dream sequences and dream-centered plots, and to offer some suggestions for your own home viewing. We’re all accustomed to noting that dreams and movies seem to operate in similar ways, yield to similar tactics of analysis and interpretation, and "feel" the same in obscure ways. We’ve observed that often, both dreams and film ultimately appear more meaningful—at least more urgently convincing—than actual experience as a foundation for our basic beliefs about the world. But I believe that by examining examples in detail, we may go much farther, and perhaps come to understand why so much of our culture’s creativity, imagination, and even economy are invested in the collective dream factory of international cinema.
Secrets of a Soul (VHS only) is not currently available but can be found in many libraries, and may be available for rental from
www.facets.org. Good sources for hard to find titles are: www.tlavideo.com, www.robertsvideos.com, www.hollywoodsattic.com, and of course, www.ebay.com. Basic information you may want about any film, actor, director, etc., along with useful lists of dream-based films, can always be found at www.imdb.com.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I wrote this for my notes on introducing Freud to my class on Dreams and Cinema tomorrow:


If we really learned from Freud, we would pursue the unconscious motivations of our most counter-productive and destructive impulses. We would look for the real roots of personal and political violence instead of following hackneyed, hopeless, and archaic models of right and wrong, good and evil, the conquest of a bad ideology by a good one. We would attempt to understand our own drives and desires and perhaps inoculate ourselves against the manipulations that prompt us to destroy each other in pursuit of entirely illusory symbolic gratifications, that hold up the laughable fantasy of eradicating evil. We would try to understand our own sexuality instead of projecting it as an apocalyptic battleground.


There's nothing there I wouldn't endorse. But I've always been suspicious of my own tendency to create an oracular (more often than academic) voice in my writing for publication (or public consumption). It bothers me, but I'm not sure how to write more spontaneously, with less rhetorical flashiness, fewer tricks (less parallelism? clunkier rhythms?).
Then there's just the whole business of offering an opinion. That's why I favor poetry, stories, plays. It's not that I don't want to get caught actually holding an opinion (though it is a little bit that I don't want to have to argue in defense of one). I just mistrust the role of opinions in contemporary life, from the tendency to take people seriously according to how violently they believe things to all the trappings of the whole horrible opinion industry.
Including blogging.
I should really try to say something more interesting here soon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Same deal today, and likely for most days to come. I'd like to tell you about this story I have in mind about two 14-year-old boys who jack off together and the insane things that happen in their community more or less as a consequence, but I've had too much to do to think about it. Instead, I have been proposing a strategy to get Washington-area theaters to "create partnerships" to get their productions digitally archived; I've been preparing to teach sections from the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh; I'm putting my notes on Freud together for my film class; I've been working on the proposal for a new course we could suddenly propose for next semester. I can't believe I'm doing this, or talking this way. If I continue to feel fraudulent and out of place in my daily work when I've been at it this long, does that suggest that I am somehow "staying young" (just because I'm staying insecure)? Or am I just treating my actual life as not quite real while clinging to a fantasy life? These really do seem like a much younger person's questions.

Shuffle Function
"Silence is the Question," The Bad Plus
"Lithium," Nirvana

"Daun Pulus Keser Bojong," the sublime Idjah Hadidjah (best entertainer name in universe)
"Cactus Tree," Joni Mitchell (That's the weird one.)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

I thought--I'd like very much to think--that the rhythms of my life as a writer would derive from whatever project I was devoting myself to. There'd be times I'd be doing research and notes, other times I'd be immersed in the imaginative world of a play or novel (working at my country retreat, of course, or an artist's colony), still others when I'd be obsessing for weeks about the fine points of revision. It's never really turned out that way. As I will probably be saying again and again, I don't write that much, I don't finish that much, I don't publish that much. Yet I know that a lot of people who get done a lot more than I do are, like me, spending relatively little of their time on writing and a whole lot more on jobs, on committees, on business. I like teaching very much (although I do not exactly like having a job; I think it might be nice to be an itinerant, free-lance kind of a teacher, if anyone could make a living that way), but I seem to spend all of my time on it; I like working with the organizations I work with, but I seem to spend all of my time on them; and I am spending no time at all writing a very interesting story I have rolling around in my head a lot lately--I'll just have to tell you about it another time--and all the writing I am doing seems to be instructions for assignments, reviews of curricular development proposals, reports to boards. (I am, very improbably, on the board of two organizations, both of which are in rapid change, and, like everybody else these days, looking to "get to the next level.")
What an appallingly boring thing to complain about, as an obstacle to writing. It makes alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, obsessive love affairs, religious mania all seem so refreshing, so practically wholesome in comparison.