Posts tagged ‘Slavoj Zizek’

He, She, and it: Antichrist

Antichrist - Eden

Antichrist is not an enjoyable experience, but it does make a small and permanent place in your brain afterward.  Lars von Trier wrote the script in the middle of a profound depression, and I’d comfortably wager much of the audience response splits between those who’ve gone through depression or intense mourning and those who’ve yet to have the pleasure.

In the interpretation that makes sense to me, much of the film comes down to the struggle between the Lacanian/Zizekian Symbolic and the Real.  The Real in this definition (as least what I’ve grasped of it) is impenetrable, only perceived as chaos.  We experience it as traumatic kernels hiding within the symbolic order – think of a basic life definition, which this film plays with like a feral cat with a dead mouse: Man and Woman.  Individuals with male genitalia are Men, defined by a set of attributes and (more importantly) their lack of another set of attributes that have been assigned to those with female genitalia, who are Women because they lack the male-assigned attributes.

These gendered definitions usually work well enough, as most people don’t encounter many others who don’t make the effort to fit them.  But picture their discomfort and even disgust at meeting a male or female transvestite, or outright horror if they were to learn someone they were close to had been born of the opposite gender or hermaphroditic.  Hello, traumatic kernel.

The general response – the psychologically healthy one, you could argue – to one of these kernels is to either reject them out of hand as something perverse and thus unworthy of attention, or to examine the sense of disquiet and eventually incorporate the disturbing thing into a more complicated definition of life’s essential truths.  Neither approach gets a person closer to the Real, of course, but the Real is made of madness and should be avoided.  That space is left blank on purpose, as the form tells us.

The fact that the laws of physics we experience on Earth seem to be consistent across as much of the universe as we’ve been able to observe convinces me that there’s probably some overarching logic or meaning to the universe (thank you, Carl Sagan).  What that meaning might be, no human has any hope of grasping.  It’s too big, and too impersonal, and frankly as terrifying as it is comforting.  So, for my own sanity, I generally stop at ‘there’s some order out there.’

The film, like nearly all organised religions since a breed of sociopathic prehistoric apes lost some body hair, takes on reproduction and death, two forces in human existence that shred the boundaries between the relatively comfortable Symbolic order and the Real.  It seems that whoever can take those living nightmares and trap them in a logical order will win the big prize, but no one’s claimed it yet.  The Antichrist of the title, a couple’s very young son, escapes from his crib and falls to his death while his parents are distracted with passionate lovemaking, plunging the two of them into intolerable torment.  Sex and Death, Freud’s chocolate and peanut butter, in beautiful slow-motion.

He seeks to escape his grief by focusing on that of his wife.  He’s a medication-hating psychiatrist, the embodiment of order imposed upon the chaos of human experience.  She’s younger and an academic, already half driven mad by her own intense study of witch hunts.  Her grief is mostly insanity, directly staring into the Real, and her guilt doesn’t allow her to contextualise that ugliness back into the Symbolic’s order without some crushing punishment.  She’s probably wise to accept her doctor’s deadening medication, providing the only reprieve possible, but accepts her husband’s judgement that he can fix her with words, instead.

Her state of mind was familiar to me.  When I was a teenager, my only sibling committed suicide.  Already struggling with many of the same issues that drove him to it, I was simultaneously thrust into a terrifying adult world in which anyone can die at any time and suddenly expected to live up to every family expectation in order to make up for his death – my resounding success in every area (and production of grandchildren) would make his suicide, and the inherent rebuke to their parenting, symbolically nullified.

By which I’m saying, people respond to grief with varying levels of insanity, and I believe the way that Death is removed from ordinary life in the modern world, something to be shoved aside and spoken of in hushed, almost ashamed tones, has only made those responses crazier.

He looks for ways to bring her away from the terror of loss and the absence of any mental safety by imposing a Symbolic order, represented by a pyramid of words – at the top will be her true fear, which he will force her to confront, and then, badda bing, she’ll be back in the orderly land with him.  It’s quite likely he’s aware on some level that this is an impossible task, and hopes it’ll be a lifelong quest that keeps him safely in the role of carer, not grieving father.

She confesses her nightmares of their rustic cabin and the woods surrounding it, so he takes her there.  Even as he sees the harshness she justifiably fears (a beautiful deer which turns to reveal a malformed, stillborn fawn still half-trapped inside, a fox consuming itself which informs him that “chaos reigns”), he insists more stridently on his sense of order, seeing her as the chaos she confronts.

In a key moment, she tells him that the acorns constantly raining down on the tin roof make her unbearably sad, because an oak tree only needs one of these in a hundred years to germinate in order to propagate itself.  The abundance of acorns, except for that one in a billion, exist solely to be consumed by other life, by the other ones in a billion that were able to go from potential to actual.  It’s obvious she sees her son, and herself, as those extraneous acorns.  In my experience, the only way to get through this state of mind – which is not inaccurate, just impossible to sustain while retaining sanity – is to stay away from sharp things while looking at the chaos until it loses all meaning, until the inadequate descriptive words allow the Symbolic to mercifully creep up over it.

Her husband, instead, tells her that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard, and tries to make her accept nature by walking in the tall grass outside the cabin.  His desperate need to save his shattered wife and unacknowledged bruised ego (after all, as the older and more educated partner, he’s right, she should listen and accept his view) merge into a disastrous effort to force order onto grief, even as he loses his own grip.

Unfortunately, it soon comes out that she had started to lose her sanity several months before their son’s death, in that cabin, confronting the Real more distantly: the hysteria that drove entire communities to torture and murder their own neighbors.  She began with the assertion that it was “gynocide,” the killing of women, the attempt to destroy subversive femininity via the symbolic murder of these real women and leave behind only the cowed and controlled.  In isolation, with only her pre-verbal son and these images for company, her view began to shift – if these men were evil, because humanity is at its dark heart a nasty brutal thing, are not woman, as human beings, equally evil?  In that sense, didn’t those tortured women deserve death, as things equally evil to the men putting them to death?

Thus we get our second example of why it’s a Very Bad Thing to try to contextualise the harsh chaos of the Real into a neat philosophical context.  Logic is just as brutal, in its own way, as nature.

For instance, it might be logical to move from this discussion of the sad but sane-ish chapters to the brutal one Antichrist is infamous for by defining the maiming and murder as the abandonment of the Symbolic order for the immediate physical experience, a closer approximation of the Real.  I’d argue, however, that the torture and murder only go deeper into the Symbolic order, to the depths of the human soul that believe in sacrifice to appease forces beyond their control.

Destroying part, perhaps the best part, of what a person valued was a way to let destructive chaos into the small area of imposed order in the hopes that this would fill some cosmic chaos quota, and leave the rest of the life untouched.  When this impulse provokes more psychopathic impulses, like the torture or ritual murder of a chosen victim, the meaning behind it was more direct, simply an attempt to provoke a reaction from the indifferent beyond by violating the consciously and unconsciously held rules: look what we’ve done, respond to us, even if it’s to fry us all with lightening.  Don’t withhold meaning any longer.

This new level begins as she seems to have turned a corner, begun to reconstruct a sense of life and her place in it that keeps the terror of reality at bay.  He turns spiteful, from lack of control over this breakthrough and from the fear that he’ll now have to face his own grief, and viciously attacks her with words.  This escalates quickly, from forced sexual intercourse (her on him, as many of their sexual encounters have been throughout the grieving process) to torture, to attempted murder and actual murder.  They visit horrors on each other, and hers in particular spiral as each act, so terrible and transgressive it must force a response from the powers that be and end her torment, provokes nothing.  No punishment and thus no meaning falls from the sky or crawls up from the earth.

In the end, all reproductive possibilities brutally destroyed in both, there is only survival.  The final scene, his vision of a crowd of faceless women streaming past him to Eden, has been decried as misogyny, of admittance that she was right, that women are evil and will return to a primal horror that lives in their base souls if men push too close.  Putting aside the question of big-E Evil, I think it’s more interesting that this is his vision, women like his wife who he can not only not save but now not even comprehend simple facial expressions.

He’s a man who’s dedicated his life to penetrating the human psyche, a grief-stricken father who felt confident he could not only understand but fix his wife’s internal workings.  Here, he emerges as a broken person who has walked into and – barely – out of his own and his wife’s hearts of darkness.  The truly crushing realisation: he has gained no understanding of deeper truths, only new grief, and has lost the ordered structure that gave life any meaning at all.

sound and silence

Anny Ondra in Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929)



Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie picture (actually a brilliant make-do compromise between studio-mandated sound and previously filmed silent footage) hasn’t aged particularly well, but is an interesting portrait of both the time and the early development of his trademark style. Adapted from a talky stage play, Hitchcock shoehorns in some revolutionary staging of uneasy liminal spaces (particularly his favourites of stairs, family spaces in the public eye, and super-real landmarks). This staging hints at the complicated Freudian underpinnings of desire that push the four main characters through a predictable morality play of guilt and punishment, society’s law and karmic fate, against a backdrop of universal entrapment.

The film opens up with a raucous silent segment of dignified Keystone Kops careening about the streets in a Model T in pursuit of justice. Sound begins with the arrival of a policeman’s girlfriend, who seems like a bubbly goodtime girl, a flirtatious flapper all men are drawn to. Later on, we discover young Alice White is also a meek, dutiful, and conservatively dressed shopgirl amid the aspirational furnishings of the family’s combined home and business. Her social bubbles are the only expression possible of her desire for excitement and new experiences; she’s all to aware that this dull courtship is to be the brief highlight of her youth before settling into a staid domestic and business routine, and that only if she plays her cards well. Her carelessness with small but pricey garments turns her gloves, left behind first on a café table and then at the murder scene, in the object petit a Zizek identified as Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, the lack or loss of a thing that sets the plot in motion and stands in for desire – in Alice’s case, to step back from her life and be forced into a new one. Note that she immediately sends her man to reclaim it, however; she makes her loved ones into the jailors that keep her safely barred from her fantasies.

Alice does desire the handsome stranger who flirts with her behind her boyfriend’s back. She wants to be an exotic muse, have a passionate affair, but it is never a real possibility. Inside the moralistic threat and anxiety of her gradual assenting to the artist’s manoeuvrings is one constant stance: I want this, but I won’t have it.

Here, her veneer of sophistication first begins to crack – if she was really a liberated flapper, Alice would not expect the kind of man who picks up strange women in bars to respect her boundary while she revelled like a child in the atmosphere of sensuality and erotic potential. In another Zizekian construct, she tries to live her fantasy courtship only for it to be nightmarish brutality when realised.

Women in Hitchcock films are usually the most interesting characters. They are already tormented beings underneath a coy or brittle façade, by their own unfulfilled desires and the conflicting demands of the era – be both virginal mother figure and inflamer of male passions. The cool Hitchcock blonde has responded by disavowing all passion, maintaining visual beauty, but impenetrable. The plots dovetail with the breakdown of her repression and struggle with these forces, the outcomes defined as happy or melancholy with her resulting autonomy or destruction.

Blackmail ends with Alice escaping the electric chair only by enforced silence. She would confess to expiate her guilt (and escape the now intolerable confines of a dreamless middle-class life), in some sense bringing together her two lives: the everyday bland obedience and dangerous bohemian wildchild. Even after she has escaped from her own actions back into her safe life, that life has lost the fantasy underpinnings that made it bearable.

Not that the three men fare much better. The artist – a trust-fund dilettante, judging by his opulent loft studio – has simple animal desires and a spoiled heir’s expectation that whatever he wants is already his. He’s punished directly and immediately for his assault, killed by his victim as the only means of escape. It’s easy to forget in the action that follows that the artist was himself being blackmailed by a man who made a living witnessing crimes; most likely, he made a habit out of breaking the law, and the karmic punishment covers more sins than we see on screen.

The blackmailer desires money, obviously, but even more he desires the humiliation of his “betters.” Beyond the potential for financial stability, which he could achieve in any number of legal or illicit ways, he desires payback from the world that has shown him no respect, from those who are respected. His punishment is obvious, and somewhat appropriate given his chosen profession of wrongly punishing others – he is hounded to death in the centre of British imperialist wealth by the policeman who has wrongly accused him of the murder. He is in an immediate sense both guilty and innocent – literally living off others’ guilt and innocent of this particular murder – but his punishment is appropriate according to the natural selection of the criminal sphere.

The blackmailer chose to enmesh himself in the crimes of others, and in this case was not quick enough to escape his own trap. He wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, and his victims weren’t as wholesomely naïve as he thought they were. The white knight he looked forward to degrading was willing to leap into the mud with him first, use his own methods to entrap him, and to take the same satisfaction in the blackmailer’s grovelling ruination. Like Hulda in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, he was done in not by his own immorality but by his expectation of integrity in the upstanding citizen he’d use.

Frank Webber, the boyfriend and, coincidentally, the detective assigned to investigate the artist’s murder, staidly desires advancement: promotion in work and marriage to the well-to-do shopkeeper’s daughter. Unfortunately, he lacks the maturity to earn either. The fates of himself, his girlfriend, and the blackmailer turn entirely on Frank’s connections and quick thinking, twisting the blackmailer’s evidence to implicate him instead of Alice. Frank is directly implicated in the blackmailer’s death, pushing the chase to reckless extremes; after all, isn’t it easier to tie up the loose end of the blackmailer and his tales of the real murderess than arrest him? He ruthlessly pushes back the other possible loose end, his girlfriend’s guilty conscience and the confession that would end his career, by bullying her into silence and preserving his future – both career and unincarcerated future spouse.

Nevertheless, Frank is punished by getting exactly what he wants, after destroying the fantasies about himself and Alice that made his dreams desirable.

The justice system is absent from this morality tale except as a tool. Instead, fate dispenses with a hard-boiled but right-wing conservatively just hand. Of the four criminals (rapist, murderer, blackmailer, and corrupt cop), two receive the death penalty and two get life in prison. Intentions cannot affect fate’s judgement, but impulsive actions can twist it to reflect one’s secret true character.

Class is the only other factor that can move fate’s hand in Blackmail: the dissolute rich man and the lower-class criminal are both punished by death. Although Frank uses the blackmailer’s methods and Alice revels in the artist’s sensual lifestyle, both are solidly middle-class but remain silent, disavowing their desires and crimes. They embrace and are rewarded with respectable middle-class futures.

The big! twist! of that, however, is the ‘true’ tragedy: while a successful match as the universal signifier for a happy ending was a cliché in Shakespeare’s time, these two will be punished for the rest of their shared lives by it; not a love match but partners in a perfect crime trapped in a mockery of marriage, only together to ensure the other keeps the secret that would destroy them.