Ken Burn’s Country Music | Review

Country Music

Country Music (2019)


Director: Ken Burns

Main Cast: Peter Coyote

Kan Burns is an awful filmmaker.  Just  awful.  Jeffrey St. Clair long ago wrote (Serpents in the Garden) that “[Burns’] films all construct a pantheon of heroes and anti-heroes, little manufactured dramas of good and evil.” He added that a Burns film is “a fantasy meant for the white suburban audiences who watch his movies[,]” presenting “a feel-good narrative of white patronage and understanding.” (see also “History Blinded by Anti-Socialism”).
Country Music is a documentary mini-series based on the book Country Music U.S.A., and its author Bill Malone seems to be the only academic featured in the series.  There is plenty of good music of course, but it suffers from all the usual problems of a Ken Burns production.  It revisits Johnny Cash in just about every episode (which is fine, at one level, but like the “jazz” series this comes across as pandering and exploiting a popular figure at the expense of an evenhanded treatment with more space for later-arriving and less famous acts).  There is a lot of glowing praise for trite stuff, especially from the 80s, and criticisms (e.g., racism, sexism) are mentioned, if at all, only in a highly compartmentalized and apologetic way — certainly not as lingering and still deeply pervasive structural problems in the genre and society writ large.  In short, it presents the standard “progressive neoliberal” view that if a mere handful of people (Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, etc.) overcame racism and sexism then those problems no longer really exist except as individual failings.  There is also a clear predilection for commentary from celebrity performer talking heads over academics, etc.  But in case you are wondering, yes, Wynton Marsalis is indeed a featured commentator.  Can’t have a country music documentary without him, right?  It could have used some input from Peter Guralnick (author of Lost Highway), but does not feature any input from him.

The episode that dealt with the mid-80s really starkly reveals the limitations of the series.  You can really pinpoint that the acts featured in that episode (Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Roseanne Cash, etc.) constitute the tipping point when country music started to really suck.  The episode repeats over and over the claim that these artists were returning to their “roots” (the episode is titled “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ “).  But this proves to be false, or at least extremely misleading.  Featured commentators do accurately state that in this period mainstream country acts moved away from the strings and backing singers that characterized earlier “countrypolitan” music.  But the falsehood is that they did this to return to some mythical musical “roots”.  Countrypolitan (or the “Nashville Sound”) was mostly about middlebrow, southern, white, working class-focused music appropriating the trappings of urban pop music of the 40s (like Frank Sinatra’s work with Axel Stordahl) to lend an air of sophistication to match rising post-WWII socioeconomic expectations that extended down the socioeconomic hierarchy in an unprecedented way.   In a review of Willie Nelson‘s The Party’s Over (And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs) (1967) I  previously wrote that countrypolitan music

“epitomized the (still racist and sexist) ‘golden age”’of post-WWII American prosperity in which ordinary, uneducated workers saw rising living standards and could see themselves as part of a newly emerging middle class with its own self-styled sophistication — something that might be described as attempting to project an aura of sophistication beyond class boundaries via ideas about ‘proper’ diction and enunciation cribbed from upper classes and merged with lower-class folk/country musical forms.  Looked at another way, the temporary willingness of elite classes to permit rising working and middle classes was fostered by inculcating country music listeners with upper-class values as well as the speech patterns and more urban culture that went along with those values (when elites withdrew their permissive and benevolent attitude starting in the 1970s, the countrypolitan style faded almost in lockstep and is now commonly derided as low-class and unsophisticated).”

Johnny Cash’s The Baron (1981) is sort of a perfect example to illustrate the turn away from what countrypolitan music represented.  Drawing on the work of Historian Jefferson Cowie about the sorts of socioeconomic changes that took place in the 1970s, as evidenced through music and film (Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class [2010]), I wrote that “given a close examination, there is is something to be admired in Cash’s intransigent support of his old New Deal style social optimism against the great weight of the Carter-Thatcher-Reagan era’s neoliberal onslaught against it.”  Cowie has pointed to a dominant narrative of the lone individual failing or having a bittersweet ending trying to break away from the claustrophobic confines of social structures during the early neoliberal era, whereas on The Baron Cash took a kind of Spielbergian view of bringing a family back together, lamenting the loss of solidarity, family, community — that is, anomie.

When you actually listen to the music featured in the Burns episode about mid-80s acts, it is pretty apparent that what was happening was a modernizing effect as the most popular acts substituted sterile, highly compressed/gated, and synthetic 80s productions values from rock/pop music for the old countrypolitan strings and vocal choruses, and they were now utilizing a more highly affected country yodel/twang style of singing that had seemingly little precedent (it wasn’t at all a return to Jimmie Rodgers’ style of blue yodel singing).  They were mostly just appropriating more recent rock/pop fads, with a few entirely new vocal affectations meant to distinguish it from the music of “urban elites” (now constructed as an enemy).  And there is no explicit discussion of the (right-wing populist and reactionary and “Southern Strategy”) politics that go along with this.  Though there were some photos/videos of acts posing with the Reagans and Ed Koch.  What jumped to mind was Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) thesis, and maybe Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers’s Right Turn (1987) thesis as well.  Anyway, in the Burns series episode, what is not clearly explained is that the invocation of a return to “roots” is not a reference to musical qualities but is more a coded statement about constructing (through musical culture) an identity as a distinct social group opposed to certain (unstated) enemies.  The way that the Burns series takes these statements at face value and refuses to unpack the coded implications is irksome (as Georg Lukács wrote in 1938, “It is an old truth of Marxism that every human activity should be judged according to the objective meaning in the total context, and not according to what the agent believes the importance of his activity to be.”).  And, my my, most of the music in this episode is dreadful.  When they showed some old Ricky Skaggs music video clips my spouse (appropriately) made vomiting sounds.  Oh, and they talk to Roseanne Cash a lot through the series and in this episode she talks about her own career.  My spouse was guffawing at everything she said because it was so transparently false.  The series lets her get away with it (by airing the statements at all, as well as by omitting any critique of her statements).  She claims she was not riding her father’s coattails but this is just completely contradicted by her actions (“I even thought about changing my name” … but she didn’t; she claimed to come to Nashville from LA, but she grew up in the south and had Nashville music business ties; etc.).  As irksome as the episode is, some of the raw material in it at least allows a viewer to compare how earlier era country music was a more honest reflection of rural peasant/working class values (which is not to say all those values were admirable) whereas in the 80s it became more highly disingenuous and cynical and more prone to use coded language to obscure unappealing motivations.  I guess an appraisal of mainstream country music in the 80s calls for an analysis out of Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1983).

The series does mention media consolidation in the 1990s.  It is discussed for approximately 2 minutes (in a series with eight roughly 2-hour episodes!).  Although some excellent points are raised in those two minutes, the problem is that they are given short shrift when the bulk of the series promotes winner-take-all frameworks, through incessant invocation of rags-to-riches motifs and an unrelenting focus on best-selling artists that presumes sales/profitability is the exclusive yardstick for merit.  As part of those two minutes, the film makes a bizarre claim that the (Billboard?) “Americana” chart was created to capture alternative country in the face of media consolidation.  The way it is discussed in the narrative conflates the “Americana” chart with “alt country” in a misleading way.  They also briefly show a still photograph of the Dixie Chicks in a closing montage, but nothing after 1996 is discussed.  Johnny Cash gets extensive time (yet again) in the final episode.  It wouldn’t surprise me if 1-2 hours of the entire series is devoted to Johnny Cash (at the high end of that range if screen time by Roseanne Cash counts too).  Hugely popular acts from the period like kd lang and Lyle Lovett are not mentioned at all.  Garth Brooks gets a lot of time and much of the commentary by or about him is highly suspect (untenable assertions are taken at face value with no critique or contrasting perspective; my spouse once again guffawed when someone in the film says Garth Brooks refused to let his record label promote him outside the “country” market, as if a musician is willing and able to do that [whatever that really means anyway — does a highway billboard qualify as promotion outside the country market?]).

I guess in the end this makes me wonder if someone has written a good book-length treatment of country music from an interesting critical perspective–the sort of book that does not take self-serving statements at face value and that is willing to question industry motives and apply a kind of “objective” sociological or political science type of analysis (i.e., along the lines of Bourdieu’s Distinction).

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler | Review

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler [Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler]

1. Teil: Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit [Part I: The Great Gambler: A Picture of the Time] (April 1922)

2. Teil: Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit [Part II: Inferno: A Game for the People of our Age] (May 1922)

Universum Film AG

Director: Fritz Lang

Main Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernhard Goetzke

In the spring of 1922, the first two films in the “Dr. Mabuse” series were released.  Based on the novel Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1921) by Norbert Jacques (initially serialized in Berliner Illustrietren), with a screenplay adaptation by Thea von Harbou, the initial two films were released a month apart.  In later releases, the two films tended to be presented together (and even confusingly identified as a single film).  Over many decades, there were a dozen films and five novels made based on the Dr. Mabuse character — summarized and assessed in detail by David Kalat in his book The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse: A Study of the Twelve Films and Five Novels (2001).  Although not particularly well known in the USA, the character was iconic in German popular culture.  Jacques’ novel is said to have benefited from uncharacteristically large amounts of publicity, which contributed to it becoming an instant bestseller.

There has been an enduring misconception that the first film originally had a prologue with a montage of historical events of the Weimar Republic (in what is now Germany).  However, Sara Hall has explained how this is erroneous because it attributes a prologue from a later Fritz Lang film, Spione (1926), to the first Dr. Mabuse film.  Still, the Dr. Mabuse films did reflect many circumstances and general feelings of the Weimar era, if only allegorically or symbolically.  Indeed, as Hall put it, the film “must be read as an allegory for the attempt to determine responsibility in the socio-political context . . . .”  (“Trading Places: Dr. Mabuse and the Pleasure of Role Play,” German Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Autumn 2003)).  The subtitle of the first film/part was “A Picture of the Time” after all.  A press flyer for the original theatrical release even claimed it depicted “the world in which we all live . . . , hovering between crisis and convalescence, leading somnambulistically just over the brink, in the search for a bridge that will lead [us] over the abyss . . . .” (as quoted by Stanford M. Lyman, “Cinematic Ideologies and Societal Dystopias in the United States, Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union: 1900-1996,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Spring,1997)).

Dr. Mabuse is a kind of supervillain.  David Kalat described the character as “a criminal Führer who exploits social decay to his private advantage. Under a variety of disguises and assumed names, he has broken free of the traditional class divisions and invaded the previously insulated enclaves of the decadent upper class.”  Norbert Jacques’ inspirations for Dr. Mabuse — or at least tacit precedents — were villains such as Svengali, Dr. Fu Manchu, Doctor Nikola, Fantômas, and even Dr. Caligari.  Dr. Mabuse is — simultaneously —  a practicing psychoanalyst with powers of telepathic hypnotism, a leader of a large criminal organization (that engages in stock market destabilization, counterfeiting, and also dupes wealthy gamblers in clandestine casinos), and a master of disguise. In many ways, the character of Dr. Mabuse is a kind of stand-in for all the perceived social evils of the Weimar era that led to generalized feelings of anxiety and fear.  On close inspection, he is a pastiche of frequently contradictory elements that suggest a politically populist conception.  Strangely, many of the academic studies on the films do not make an explicit populist reading of the character or film as a whole (or do so without articulating the term “populism”), and some also casually rely on a number of all too familiar ahistorical tropes.

An online encyclopedia summarizes a few views on the Mabuse character this way:

“[Director Fritz] Lang stated that he viewed Mabuse as a Nietzschean Übermensch.[6] Lang also saw Mabuse’s character as emblematic of a certain kind of money-accumulator in Weimar Germany referred to as a ‘Raffke’.[3] The producer of Dr. Mabuse, Erich Pommer, saw the film as a depiction of the contemporary conflict between the liberal conservatives and the Marxist Spartacists in which the Mabuse character represented the Spartacists.[3]

Perhaps the most dominant view of the Dr. Mabuse character comes from Frankfurt School theorist Seigfried Kracauer‘s influential book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), which contended that Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler reflects society under a tyrannical regime and that the character Dr. Mabuse fit in a procession of tyrants.  Kracauer and others have seen Dr. Mabuse as a sort of precursor to the rise of Hitler.  But, at the same time, Dr. Mabuse is not simply synonymous with Hitler, who rose to power only years later.

By portraying Dr. Mabuse as a psychoanalyst, the film associates him with a (then still rather new and emerging) discipline that connoted Jewish practitioners as well as communists.  His Couéian hypnotic powers are an exaggeration and unrealistic portrayal of psychoanalysis, even in its early (pre-Lacan) days.  Mabuse’s tendency to attack the rich, whether by hypnotizing them to lose or cheat in illicit card games, sometimes with no monetary benefit to himself, or by causing stock market runs, is also a curious character trait.  These traits all seem to potentially associate Dr. Mabuse with some political leftish position, however vague and inchoate.  The producer of the film, Erich Pommer, even explicitly associated him with the communist Spartacist League, which is a somewhat obscene misrepresentation of the Spartacists’ aims and methods.

On the other hand, the tyrannical “will to power” that Dr. Mabuse puts forward, quite explicitly at the end of the first film, is very much a part of the Nietzschean “Übermensch” mentality that was adopted by the Nazis (Nationalsozialismus [National Socialists]) in the coming years.  Peter Sloterdijk has also commented on how the Weimar Era had a Napoleonic tendency — Emil Ludwig‘s biography Napoleon (1925) was another of the most widely read books in the Weimar Republic.  Mabuse’s criminal kidnappings and destabilizations of society also mirror proto-fascist actions of the era, such as the Kapp Putsch, the murder of centrist liberal Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau a mere month after the premier of the second film (historians say “Germany’s anti-semitic nationalists . . . saw in Rathenau, not a great patriot brilliantly managing scarcity, but a rich Jew cornering markets”), the later Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and generalized financial and business opportunism by a host of individuals seeking to enrich themselves in predatory ways.  All these elements associate the character with the political right, and fascists in particular.  The benefit of hindsight reinforces these perspectives somewhat, especially in view of Lang’s (excellent) follow-up film Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [The Testament of Dr. Mabuse] (1933), which aligns the Dr. Mabuse character’s overall story arc with that of Hitler more closely — to the point that the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels banned it.

But Dr. Mabuse is, strangely, all of these things at the same time in the first two films.  Indeed, Erik Butler has noted that the character is a paradox, though without convincingly explaining why.  (“Dr. Mabuse: Terror and Deception of the Image,” The German Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 4 2005).  What unites these seeming opposed and mutually exclusive traits is the notion that a single individual is somehow capable of it all and that ordinary German people of the day were subject to all of those various threats posed by Dr. Mabuse.  This is precisely the populist foundation of the films.

Slavoj Žižek wrote about populism in his book In Defense of Lost Causes (2008):

“Populism is ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!’ — an impatient outburst, a refusal to understand, exasperation at complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.  Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism.” (p. 282)


“for a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not necessarily capitalists [as a class], and so on); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary (as for a Freudian), the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with ‘pathological’ outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism; for Freud, the pathological phenomena such as hysterical outbursts provide the key to the constitution (and hidden antagonisms that sustain the functioning) of a ‘normal’ subject.” (p. 279)

Žižek has discussed this conception of populism elsewhere too, in ways that draw out other aspects relevant to the Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler films and the subsequent rise of fascism in Germany — all sharing a glorification of persecution narratives that have long been referred to as scapegoating.  These analyses critique the theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the most well-known latter-day proponents of populist political theory.  Žižek specifically identifies fascism as a form of populism.

“This is also why Fascism definitely is a populism: its figure of the Jew is the equivalential point of the series of (heterogeneous, inconsistent even) threats experienced by individuals: Jew is simultaneously too intellectual, dirty, sexually voracious, too hard-working, financial exploiter…


“In populism proper, this ‘abstract’ character is furthermore always supplemented by the pseudo-concreteness of the figure that is selected as THE enemy, the singular agent behind all the threats to the people.”

“Against the Populist Temptation” Critical Inquiry 32 (Spring 2006).

“Fascism itself is immanently fetishist: it needs a figure like that of a Jew, elevated into the external cause of our troubles – such a figure enables us to obfuscate the real antagonisms which cut across our societies.

“Exactly the same holds for the figure of ‘fascist’ in today’s liberal imagination: it enables people to obfuscate deadlocks which lie at the root of our crisis.”

“Today’s Anti-fascist Movement Will Do Nothing to Get Rid of Right-wing Populism – It’s Just Panicky Posturing”, The Independent, December 2017; see also  and “Big Capital Will Use Every Tool at Its Disposal to Crush Socialists Like Corbyn”, RT, December 2019 (“anti-Semitism is a displaced anti-capitalism: it projects the cause of social antagonisms engendered by capitalism onto an external intruder (the ‘Jews’).”).

“As with fascism, . . . populism is simply a new way to imagine capitalism without its harder edges; a capitalism without its socially disruptive effects.”

“Are Liberals and Populists Just Searching for a New Master?” The Economist: Open Future (Oct. 8, 2018).

These comments are similar to things that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about just after WWII:

I would call anti-Semitism a poor man’s snobbery. And in fact it would appear that the rich for the most part exploit this passion for their own uses . . . . *** Incapable of understanding modern social organization, [the anti-semite] has a nostalgia for periods of crisis in which the primitive community will suddenly reappear and attain its temperature of fusion. He wants his personality to melt suddenly into the group and be carried away by the collective torrent.  *** [Anti-semitism] represents, therefore, a safety valve for the owning classes, who encourage it and thus substitute for a dangerous hate against their regime a beneficent hate against particular people.

Réflexions sur la question juive [The Anti-Semite and the Jew] (1947).

Of course, there are variations on populism.  Fascism obviously sits at the extreme political right wing of that spectrum.  Though variations reside elsewhere too.  Even Dr. Mabuse’s description in the film’s subtitle, as “the gambler” (albeit a cheating one), prefigures use of the term “casino capitalism” in a classically populist if centrist/”progressive” way to denote a deviation from properly functioning capitalism without looking at the internal contradictions of capitalism as a whole (though the term “der Spieler” can also be translated as player, actor, or performer [Cassell’s German Dictionary 1978]).  Sloterdijk (in a book chapter entitled “On the German Republic of Imposters”) has characterized the Weimar Republic as having a will to be deceived, and a fascination with a certain con man’s element of Napoleonism (“the factors of seduction and drama, of diplomacy and cynical flight into false candidness”) and a reliance on the “ironic gambler’s nature of Napoleonic realism” (“that capacity of hard egos to withstand the failure of their plans and hopes”), saying, “[f]raud and expectations of fraud became epidemic in it” and that “the imposter became an indispensable figure in the sense of collective self-reassurance, a model of the times and a mythical template.”  But as Éric Fassin has explained, the crux of populism, of any flavor, is what the French have long identified as ressentiment — “the idea that there are others enjoying what is mine, [and that] if I am not enjoying it, this is because of them” — and he further claims that there is really no such thing as good left populism.  (Populisme: le grand ressentiment (2017)).  That is, any populism contains the expression of “impotent rage” against undeserving others that constitutes its own form of “enjoyment.”  This is precisely what Žižek identified as the fetishistic dimension of populism, because “the true opposite of egotist self-love is not altruism, concern for common Good, but envy, resentment, which makes me act AGAINST my own interests.”

Sarah Hall reached a different conclusion when looking for a similar basis for audience enjoyment of Dr. Mabuse, suggesting that enjoyment of “role play” was the explanation.  She concluded that the film “allow[s] its spectator to understand and experience identity and subjectivity as multiplicity, layering, and performance.”  Hall posited that the audience’s inquisitiveness and willingness to confidently guess at Dr. Mabuse’s identity as the film obscures it are a source of pleasure that drives interest in the film.  While Hall’s analysis also looks at an audience’s desire or source of pleasure as an important topic for critical analysis, implicitly drawing from psychoanalysis, it essentially reaches the opposite conclusion from the present “populist” analysis.  In the “populist” view the audience derives pleasure from sharing in the film’s refusal to know (or at least its complicity in maintaining a state of not knowing), whereas Hall see the audience as instead deriving pleasure from its attempts to know through experience.  But Hall’s approach is ultimately unconvincing due to its emphasis on conscious identity and identification (especially gender) that is grafted on to an analysis of pleasure and desire in an ill-fitting way.  She looks for signifiers but ultimately bases her analysis on the assumption that audiences want (and can obtain) satisfaction of their desires by matching symbolic norms to historical contingencies, rather than having a reflexive desire to desire (that is, mediated desire based on what they believe an “other” lacks or desires without conclusively knowing the other’s desire) that strives for recognition as part of a constant process of questioning (per Lacan).  She also assumes that audiences identify with characters in the film, driven to personally assume the identities of the characters in the film rather than simply wishing to see the characters resolve the tensions presented in the film amongst themselves or between their inner desire and outward events as a matter of innately shared (rather than view-adopted) audience-character desire.  There is a kind of hollowness to her analysis  — this reviewer did, or at least was tempted to, fast forward through a few scenes that seemed trite that Hall describes as key examples of her theory (this is anecdotal, sure, but how can the basis for the fundamental appeal of the film be something that this viewer had no interest in, even though this viewer was indeed very interested in the film?).  In a nutshell, Hall tries to take a psychoanalytic analysis through the historicism of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Laura Mulvey, etc. (Hall cites Butler explicitly) and anyone familiar with Lacanian psychoanalysis will wince, or at least disagree at some levelThe Lacanian critique isyes, psychic sexual identity is a choice, not a biological fact, but it is not a conscious choice that the subject can playfully repeat and transform.  It is an unconscious choice which precedes subjective constitution . . . .”  Alenka Zupančič has detailed how really there is a fundamental negativity, that is, a gap or lack, that structures the very space of this (and all) performative (identity) activity, and that is constitutive of the discourses and surplus enjoyment that appear in that gap that are really ways of dealing with antagonism and the impossibility of rationalizing or eliminating that fundamental, constitutive negativity.  Hall proceeds from an opposite premise.  Despite quite rightly naming gender as a performative choice (that is, a symbolic social construct), she first presupposes the positive existence of various performative “roles” (that is, assuming their immanence) and then essentially trivializes the role of the unconscious as a factor reflexively limiting and biasing conscious choice (that is, Hall renders such roles exclusively as stable, preexisting symbolic social constructs).  In other words, contrary to Hall’s presuppositions, this is really a forced choice, and that forced choice is a way of dealing with a negativity or antagonism that structures and biases the very choices available, with these things being fundamental to establishing a person’s subjectivity and not a secondary matter that follows after the establishment of subjectivity.  Hall’s approach is in a way a maneuver quite akin to the voluntarist neoliberal ideology that emphasizes individual entrepreneurship and market success as a cure to poverty (or as a key to success) by ignoring inhibitors like core/periphery geography, racism, contested labor relations, and the like by focusing only on symptoms of class relations without addressing the core of class relations that establishes the entire social field that generates those symptoms.  That is to say, as Zupančič put it, it relies on the ideology of the free market to cover up and perpetuate underlying antagonisms and is a very dubious line.  Joan Copjec’s work is one place to start for a rebuttal of the Foucault/Bulter framework that Hall relies upon, though the work of others like Daniel Zamora also helpfully elaborates the politically neoliberal character of Foucault/Bulter’s theories and Todd McGowan‘s work is also useful particularly in the context of film studies by explaining how an audience’s desire is already taken into account by the very visual field of a film.

If we instead look at the Lacanian subject as being conceived as a lack, gap, or void (with the subject realized by links forged between signifiers in a chain that is excluded from consciousness, reflexively caused by the “other’s” desire), the “playing with identity” inquiry that Hall posits leads somewhere else.  What if instead the Dr. Mabuse film exposes that the constructed identities of Dr. Mabuse are all performative and that there is nothing to him underneath that precedes those constructed identities, and that all his attempts to present another appearance, despite his seeming superpowers, fail?  That is to say, what if all his disguises are performances that are unable to construct or maintain a “true” underlying identity (subject) such that when he is finally cornered by the police and military he goes “insane” (hystericized?) because of the trauma of confronting his own subjective constitution, with an unconscious structured as a void that lacks any positive content?  This would make his pursuer, Prosecutor (Staatsanwalt) von Wenk, somewhat like an analyst trying to intervene in the real of Dr. Mabuse’s unconscious, beyond his symbolic identities (disguises).  This would also make the film about a very tentative discourse of the hysteric, which stops once Dr. Mabuse’s disguises are breached and he is identified by the prosecutor (who does nothing to really draw out the cause of Mabuse’s actions as a thoroughgoing discourse of the analyst would but instead demands that Mabuse reveal his identify and give up his claims to being a master outside the law).  For instance, when he is trapped, Mabuse is confronted with specters of dead gang members calling him a cheater as von Wenk closes in.  The audience might interpret the scene as Mabuse’s own discourse of the master crumbling when the ghosts of his deceased henchmen no longer recognize him as a master and his criminal syndicate no longer functions.  Once Mabuse’s master discourse falls apart, the dynamics of the film return to a dominant populist discourse of the university for which the master-signifier is the Weimar Republic’s structural economic conditions — with von Wenk representing a rationalization of those reigning (liberal capitalist) economic conditions as the master-signifier, positing the (false) symmetry that everything would be fine — and the junkers free to continue their decadent lifestyles of the idle rich — if merely “law and order” prevails over Mabuse’s deceptive and intrusive criminality.  That is to say, the discourse of the hysteric is compartmentalized between von Wenk and Mabuse, and is never directed at von Wenk too.  That very compartmentalization is peculiar in that Dr. Mabuse’s use of multiple disguises is, from a certain perspective, an effort at constructing liberal pluralism at a most basic level in the form of the very notion of a society as a grouping of disparate but equal individual identities held together and mediated by a neutral and reasonable state, and thus also an effort constitutive of the putative liberal-pluralistic basis for the Weimar Republic that the film reveals, instead, to be a fundamental (political) contradiction or antagonism that the likes of von Wenk disavow or rationalize through the application of technocratic legal means that single out Mabuse as a deviation rather than a symptom.  The primacy of populist university discourse might also explain why, toward the end of the second film, Dr. Mabuse seems more interested in defeating or outwitting Prosecutor von Wenk than in any other goal, thus avoiding any further discourse of the hysteric or resolution of the failure of his own discourse of the master.  Though if you watch Lang’s next film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [The Testament of Dr. Mabuse], you see Dr. Mabuse reconstitute a Hitler-like discourse of the master after the trauma of the original films’ conclusion.  In short, there are competing discourses battling for supremacy, with the films’ audience pushed or drawn toward a populist university discourse when all is said and done.  The audience’s (presupposed) drive is to repeat the loss of an explanation, so that that the easing of tension produced by the many bogus explanations for miserable real-life conditions in the Weimar era posited by Dr. Mabuse’s many disguises can be repeated over and over.  It is the trauma of the Weimar era that set all this in motion — and the trauma of the miserable real-life conditions of the neoliberal era nearly a century later might be analogous.

But what about alternative political frameworks to the present populist frame?  Many commentaries that merely cast the character of Dr. Mabuse as a “totalitarian” risk the sort of reductionist blackmail that Ernst Nolte‘s conservative historical revisionism promoted, similar to so-called “horseshoe theory” that posits two and only two political options: western (conservative) liberalism or totalitarianism (both left and right).

[Ernst] Nolte’s idea is that Communism and Nazism share the same totalitarian form, and the difference between them consists only in the difference between the empirical agents which fill their respective structural roles (‘Jews’ instead of ‘class enemy’). The usual liberal reaction to Nolte is that he relativises Nazism, reducing it to a secondary echo of the Communist evil. However, even if we leave aside the unhelpful comparison between Communism – a thwarted attempt at liberation – and the radical evil of Nazism, we should still concede Nolte’s central point. Nazism was effectively a reaction to the Communist threat; it did effectively replace class struggle with the struggle between Aryans and Jews. What we are dealing with here is displacement in the Freudian sense of the term (Verschiebung): Nazism displaces class struggle onto racial struggle and in doing so obfuscates its true nature. What changes in the passage from Communism to Nazism is a matter of form, and it is in this that the Nazi ideological mystification resides: the political struggle is naturalised as racial conflict, the class antagonism inherent in the social structure reduced to the invasion of a foreign (Jewish) body which disturbs the harmony of the Aryan community. It is not, as Nolte claims, that there is in both cases the same formal antagonistic structure, but that the place of the enemy is filled by a different element (class, race). Class antagonism, unlike racial difference and conflict, is absolutely inherent to and constitutive of the social field; Fascism displaces this essential antagonism.

“The Two Totalitarianisms” London Review of Books, Vol. 27, No. 6 (March 17, 2005).  Here we can see that such a reductionist move ends up in a troubling pro-fascist position (or engages in fascist apologetics), turning Dr. Mabuse from a villain into a hero.  Any such views must be called out on this basis, even if it is possible to say that Dr. Mabuse attacks a social order that denies its own depravity and self-destructive tendencies.

David Kalat’s The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse draws parallels between Dr. Mabuse and the French fictional character of Fantômas, who was launched in 1911 and was popular in surrealist circles with anarchist sympathies as a kind of anti-hero who waged war against bourgeois culture.  There are important common elements between these characters, including both being a master of disguise, inflicting terror, and having a nemesis in the police.  Even the publicity poster for Dr. Mabuse (reproduced above) showed the title character in a tuxedo and top hat towering over a city much like the iconic attire of Fantômas.  The key difference is perhaps that Mabuse and his gang engaged in criminal actions that ordinary German viewers would have seen as having effects on themselves and their entire society, such as through inflation and price fluctuations, whereas Fantômas engaged in more individualized escapades that focused more narrowly on the rich.  An anarchist reading of Dr. Mabuse is not really satisfactory, though, and the anti-rich sentiments based on “vertical” opposition between the powerful and the lowly masses that seemed to drive some readers’ interest in Fantômas might be equally said to be populist.  Anyway, an anarchist reading is not really developed by Kalat, though others like Kracauer, Bernd Widdig, and Norbert Grob have made more substantive assertions.  But Martin Blumenthal-Barby has questioned such a reading on the grounds that Dr. Mabuse is quite consciously and purposefully at the top of the hierarchy of his criminal organization that he relies upon to carry out most of his plots on his behalf, which is contrary to basic anarchist principles.  (“Faces of Evil: Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Sept. 2013)).  Indeed, when Dr. Mabuse declares in the film, “I want to become a giant . . . churning up laws and gods like withered leaves!!” this aspiration to be a “giant” is simply not an anarchistic goal.  It is more a Napoleonic if slightly nihilistic claim to power, merely displacing others who currently hold it.  Likewise, when Dr. Mabuse declares that he is like a “state within a state” this also runs against prevailing anti-statist strains of anarchism.  It isn’t even Blanquism or an explosion of pure negativity/negation.

All this suggests that “populism” in its precise theoretical sense is the most informative frame in which to view these films.  Such a populist lens allows viewers to grasp the contradictory aspects of the Mabuse character, which also elucidates the appeal of the (overly) simplistic explanations of social antagonisms it offers viewers.  Mabuse was, in this sense, the result of the structural contradictions of Weimar society, though as a supervillain he is cast as the cause rather an effect.  But is there any empirical support in the historical record for the notion that the Mabuse character was a simplification that transposed cause and effect?  Actually, yes.  This can be seen by looking at the particular case of hyperinflation and currency exchange issues that are quite explicit in the plot of the initial Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler films — for instance, Mabuse’s gang has a counterfeiting facility and throughout the movies characters pause to inspect paper money.

The economist Michael Hudson wrote his landmark book Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (1972) in the early 1970s.  It included an in-depth discussion, drawn from the earlier work of John Maynard Keynes, Salomon Flink’s The Reichsbank and Economic Germany (1930), and other sources, that showed how Weimar Germany’s economic conditions were intimately tied to the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (David Kalat’s The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse mentions these conditions in a section on the historical backdrop for the Mabuse films).  Peter Sloterdijk, too, has written that “[t]he Weimar peace became a continuation of war through other means[,]” further noting that the Treaty of Versailles “represents the earth-shattering diplomatic mistake of the century.”  Hudson later summarized these conditions in a 2012 presentation:

What is remarkable is that awareness of the empirically valid side of the 1920s German reparations debate has disappeared from today’s discussion. The losers in that debate – the austerity advocates – have swamped the popular media, government and even the universities  . . . . The German public has been given a false memory of its traumatic hyperinflation. The pretense is that this resulted from the Reichsbank financing domestic currency spending. The true explanation is to be found in the foreign currency collapse – trying to pay foreign debts far beyond the ability to do so.


In 1919 the Allies imposed unpayably high reparations on Germany – largely to pay the Inter-Ally arms debts that the U.S. Government insisted on collecting from Britain and France for supplies and weapons sold before the United States entered the war. Such debts traditionally were forgiven among allies upon achieving victory. But the U.S. Government refused to do this, so its wartime customers turned to Germany to pay.

Its liability was unlimited under the Treaty of Versailles. For starters, Germany was stripped of its coal reserves, steel mills and other valuable assets. This left little alternative but for the Reichsbank to create German marks to throw onto the currency markets to obtain the foreign exchange to pay reparations. This raised the price of imports, and hence the domestic price level. More money was needed to transact purchases and sales at the higher price level. So the line of causation went from the balance of payments and currency depreciation to rising import prices. More expensive imported goods raised domestic prices as well. It was this that created a need for a higher money supply, not domestic money that forced higher prices.

Without denying that currency speculators — Raffke — were active at the time, this shows how attributing economic ills to a single supervillain, even as a composite stand-in for a group of currency manipulators, etc., obfuscates the empirically-supported historical causes that were tied to international geopolitics — especially American intransigence and greed and the acceptance of that posture at the very foundations of the Weimar Republic.  More generally, historians note that “most Germans were furious about the Treaty of Versailles, calling it a Diktat (dictated peace) and condemning the German representatives who signed it as ‘November criminals’ who had stabbed them in the back . . . .”  Ordinary Germans lacked any ability to meaningfully intervene in such global machinations to maintain their standard of living, fostering resentment.  There were faced with a systemic deadlock.  And there is of course a transposition in that the “Übermensch” of Dr. Mabuse is portrayed as a bad guy not a savior (master) like Hitler later presented himself.  This is not to fault Fritz Lang and the writers for failing to predict the future and accurately foresee the exact contours of the later rise of Hitler — and failing to convey that rather literally in the film.  Rather, this film’s strength is its more general depiction of the populist temptation (later seized upon by the Nazis) to envy, demonize, and scapegoat an “other” rather than understand the contradictions inherent in the (capitalist) Weimar Republic and engage those contradictions in a meaningful resolution.

Tacitly fitting with this populist reading are Anton Kaes‘ observations about the film, which echo comments about the fetishistic need for collective, mythical self-reassurance:

Dr. Mabuse commented on the social and cultural turmoil of the immediate postwar years. *** [H]ypnotism and the occult are used to convey a pervasive sense of manipulation and powerlessness.  *** [P]redator fantasies articulate . . . vague fears . . . . *** Dr. Mabuse propose[s] that ruthless but invisible forces are at work, thus obscuring the concrete causes and effects of the lost war. *** Dr. Mabuse reveal[ed] a . . . society in search of an enemy who can be blamed for the defeat.”

Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (2009).

Martin Blumenthal-Barby noted something similar when he questioned “accounts for the evil threat ‘Mabuse’ as an extraneous force that appears to attack and corrupt humankind from the outside and, as such, one might assume, can also be overcome as a result of a modification of these extraneous conditions.”  (“Faces of Evil,” supra).  (Though Blumenthal-Barby seems wrong in taking the position that Kaes’ seemingly populist reading is at odds with Kracauer’s fascist reading, if we consider fascism a type of populism).  In other words, the details of this fictional story should not be judged for how they do or do not match up against specific historical events stretching into the future.  It is more useful to look at the possible larger, theoretical meaning it presents to viewers.  This appropriately echoes the scene in the first film when the character Count Told asks Dr. Mabuse what his thoughts are on expressionism — a debate taken up by Ernst Bloch and others in the 1930s.

An interesting approach here is to apply the common paraphrase of a concept explored by Walter Benjamin (and others): behind every fascism lies a failed revolution.  The Spartacist League attempted an unsuccessful revolution in Weimar Germany in January of 1919 aimed at resolving the underlying internal contradictions of its socioeconomic structure (as a part of the western capitalist world system), and, in their failure, the fascists of the Nazi party deployed a type of populism that blamed Jewish people (and communists, etc.) as the external cause of all socioeconomic problems.  The essential feature here is that the liberal centrists of the Weimar Republic were not addressing or resolving socioeconomic problems that affected ordinary citizens who desired a stable economy, and the liberal centrists were perhaps in denial about them, leaving a choice between the political left or the political right.  When the leftist Spartacists were defeated (and two of its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, murdered), and the Bavarian Soviet Republic overthrown (after Kurt Eisner was assassinated), there was seemingly no option remaining but the rise of the Nazis to provide the “bridge that will lead [us] over the abyss” that the Dr. Mabuse press release suggested audiences were looking for.  Despicable and repugnant as they were, the Nazis did speak to the desires of ordinary Germans, much like Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s United States. Drawing from Fredric Jameson, Žižek noted:

“To take the worst imaginable case, was Nazi anti-Semitism not grounded in the utopian longing for an authentic community life, in the fully justified rejection of the irrationality of capitalist exploitation? Our point, again, is that it is theoretically and politically wrong to denounce this longing as a ‘totalitarian fantasy’, that is, to search in it for the ‘roots’ of fascism—the standard mistake of the liberal-individualist critique of fascism: what makes it ‘ideological’ is its articulation, the way this longing is made to function as the legitimization of a very specific notion of what capitalist exploitation is (the result of Jewish influence, of the predominance of financial over ‘productive’ capital—only the latter tends towards a harmonious ‘partnership’ with workers) and of how we are to overcome it (by getting rid of the Jews).”

“Multiculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” New Left Review 225 (Sept./Oct. 1997).

It was the absence of an alternative to Nazi responses to the desires of ordinary people that is the key to Benjamin’s great insight.  Here, something Žižek wrote nearly a century after the film’s debut equally applies, in the way that Prosecutor von Wenk’s character refuses to admit (or even contemplate) that the society he sees as disappearing in the face of Mabuse’s crimes was already irretrievably lost: “the only way to really defeat populists and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to perform a sectarian split from liberal democracy’s main corpse.” Žižek instead suggests a need to “radicalise one’s position.”  In some ways, Alfred Döblin‘s later novel, Berlin-Alexanderplatz (1929), is a more astute and nuanced fictional depiction of this dynamic from the films regarding a lack of an alternative to fascism — though it was written with the benefit of a few more years of experience of rising fascism in the Weimar Republic.  But Berlin Alexanderplatz has a more subdued, intimate tone than the frequently fast-paced and intensely confrontational scenes in the Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler films.  

Fritz Lang was definitely a modernist.  But Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is an early work of modernism — a poster for a Russian release in the supremacist style was even designed by Kazimir Malevich!  Looking back on it a hundred years later, critics and audiences are right to point out that the pacing sometimes feels a bit odd and disjointed and the camera framing is a bit theatrical and old fashioned.  But even if modernism later evolved and developed new and more effective techniques, this Lang film was in a large part responsible for spurring such continued efforts.  Lang’s more concrete innovations here are found in broader editing and montage techniques and the integration of special effects, action, and art deco interior and expressionist exterior sets into a story to highlight political aspects of the script.  All this is to say that the film subtly offers exaggerated depictions in order to probe realistic concepts.  Take the thrilling standoff between the police/military and Dr. Mabuse gang.  Rather unrealistically, a mere handful of gang members manage to hold off the advance of the police later augmented by a troop of soldiers, inflicting heavy casualties.  Because of the deferred confrontation between Dr. Mabuse and Prosecutor von Wenk, the shootout is exciting even as its staging and plot contours are mostly ridiculous — though, from the Lacanian perspective, perhaps it is even a bit like the absurd fight scene in John Carpenter‘s They Live (1988) as one character seeks to avoid putting on sunglasses that allow people to see the world as it really is (free of alien influence).  On the other hand, the stylized, fabulist depictions of Dr. Mabuse’s hypnotic powers often rely on special effects like text overlays that create a sense of how characters are influenced but also divert attention from the improbably unrealistic portrayals of the very existence of these mystical powers in the first place.  Audiences are apparently meant to just accept that these powers of telepathic hypnotism are indeed supernatural.  Though the use of superimposed images that portray a person as an apparition or superimposed spirit are highly effective in conveying eerie influences on characters, without having to rely on the conceit of supernatural hypnotism.

For a good online review summarizing events in mostly the first film, see “Organised crimes… Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), BFI Weimar Cinema Season.”  Otherwise, David Kalat’s book The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse is the single best resource on the film, as well as the entire “Dr. Mabuse” book and film series.

Anyone fascinated by Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler might want to also view Charlie Chaplin‘s overlooked Brechtian “talkie” Monsieur Verdoux (1947).  This later Chaplin film is also set in the 1920s, and features an imposter involved in stock market activities who is pursued by the police.  Chaplin’s film, in contrast though, lacks a populist element and instead invokes a class-based analysis that depicts what happens when someone from the working class attempts to live as one of the bourgeoisie — emphasizing how different sets of rules are created and applied to different social classes.

Black Panther

Black Panther

Black Panther (2018)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Ryan Coogler

Main Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. JordanDanai Gurira, Andy Serkis

This film is repugnant.  That is perhaps not too surprising for a contemporary superhero movie.  But Black Panther dons a particularly reprehensible mantle when it makes the “bad guy” (Erik “Killmonger” Stevens) someone pursuing basically Frantz Fanon‘s program — which inspired the real-life Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which in turn inspired the “Black Panther” comics — and makes the “good guys” a bunch of aristocrats (led by T’Challa) who resemble Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  What is the significance of these parallels?  Well, Fanon was an anti-capitalist while Solzhenitsyn was a shameless opportunist who ingratiated himself with rabid anti-communists to promote a restoration of tsarist autocracy.  What is the plot of Black Panther?  [spoilers] A reactionary, isolationist autocracy in the land of Wakanda is displaced by a (rightful) challenger who seeks to use Wakanda’s accumulated wealth in a quasi-communist way to benefit the oppressed around the world, but then a palace coup occurs in order to violently restore the autocracy (led by basically a Donald Trump-like neo-Bonapartist figure), prevent a radical equitable distribution of wealth and maintain a slightly modified, reformist strain of selfish, isolationist hoarding — now with a few inconsequential, token welfare programs still totally in line with the global status quo of massive inequality.  So, the best way to view this film is as a tragedy revolving around an unreliable protagonist.  The “bad guy” is really the good guy, and he loses.



Faces (1968)

Walter Reade Organization

Director: John Cassavetes

Main Cast: John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel

Johan Cassavetes’ Faces was his second independent production as a director.  It is widely regarded as one of the most important American independent films.  The film is a drama.  Significantly, though, it is drama rather than melodrama.  Theodor Adorno advanced a theory of the “Culture Industry”, which posited that standardized cultural goods — like formulaic Hollywood melodramas — encourage passivity and docility among the masses.  It is immediately apparent that Faces is no mass produced, formulaic Hollywood melodrama!  As one review succinctly put it, “Cassavetes’ gritty black and white drama analyzes the inevitable harshness of relationships (routine, jealousy, infidelity) through a rigid attention to complex emotions rarely seen in movies.” (Though one could question that review’s categorization of infidelity as “inevitable”).

The film centers around the marriage of Richard “Dickie” Forst (Marley) and Maria Forst (Carlin).  Richard is an upper middle class corporate film executive — whose job seems to relate to financing in some way — entering late middle age, who has a posh suburban home, a predilection for boozing, and a womanizing “old boys club” male chauvinist attitude.  The film opens with him at work, briefly, before he visits the home of a prostitute Jeannie Rapp (Rowlands) with his old friend Freddie (Fred Draper), where they carouse and make crudely cynical jokes.  Maria Forst is introduced later in the film.  She does not work, and the couple has no children.  Her husband callously announces he wants to divorce after she refuses sex — with intended cruelty he immediately calls up the prostitute Jeannie in front of Maria.  She goes out with friends to a nightclub and picks up a sort of hippie drifter Chet (Cassel).  Much of the film consists of long, intense dialog-driven scenes that construct character portraits less through demonstrative action and sequential scenes that build on each other than through a series of emotive, confessional yet somewhat isolated dialogues (though of course there is more than just dialogue).

The film is often interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction with the “American Dream”.  And certainly there is something to that view.  Faces draws a bit on the same sort of bohemian critique of bourgeois society as, say, Allen Ginsberg‘s beat poem Howl from a little more than a decade prior.

Richard and Maria each want something more than they seem to have, even as, materially, they have all the possessions they could want, and Richard at least commands corporate power and prestige at his job.  In the film, though, the characters reach out to someone else, as if another person will provide a guarantee of meaning in their lives.  And yet the film is somewhat cramped in its ambitions, in that the characters seem to at most jump from one misguided set of desires to another — if they really make any jumps at all.

The overarching narrative of individuals breaking free of social bounds and constraints that is reflected by the dissolution of the protagonists’ marriage in some ways anticipates the demise of the American New Deal coalition, which gave way to the so-called neoliberal era.  Historian Jefferson Cowie‘s book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class explored aspects of the phenomenon of individualism reflected in mass culture, drawing from the thesis of Christopher Lasch‘s famous book The Culture of Narcissism.  Are the Forsts really striving for no more than hedonistic narcissism?  As captured in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s splendid commercial flop Zabriskie Point, was this hedonistic narcissism also the basic problem in what the so-called “New Left” of the late 1960s aimed for?

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has explained how the post-modern ethical injunction (of the superego) is to “enjoy!”  The message that people in American society are constantly bombarded with is the command to enjoy themselves, and those same people are thereby induced to feel a loss if they do not experience enjoyment.  Žižek elaborates that the role of psychoanalysis is “to open up a space in which you are allowed not to enjoy.”  In this precise sense, the obstacle is to get rid of the injunction to enjoy rather than to merely shed inhibitions to more fully enjoy whatever consumptive, sexual, spiritual, or other activities people engage in.

The Forsts are kind of like heralds of the post-modern society.  In being affluent, they aren’t barred from enjoying themselves by material lack, because they can afford any amusement or living arrangement they wish.  In being white and having high social status, they also experience an almost complete social/legal permissiveness to do as they wish.  So, they are in this sense able to be considered true post-modern subjects.  When Richard Forst seeks a divorce, it is not that his character has any sort of awakening, really.  Rather, it is that his character experiences guilt by his failure to enjoy his lifestyle of power and consumption.  His impulsive demand for divorce is merely a way to double-down on his existing desires, and to try to remove what he sees (in the moment) as obstacles to those desires.  He simply wants to consume more — and his recourse to a prostitute is a classic example of sex-as-commodity consumerism.  Actually, the scenario in which Richard wishes to leave Maria (he seems to deem it an unserious request later in the film) is close to a classic one for psychoanalysts in which a married (chauvinist) man wishes to leave his wife for a mistress, only to then have his relationship with his mistress also fall apart because he misunderstood that his true desire to have a distant and obscure object (mistress as mistress) about whom to dream.

Maria’s situation is more complex than Richard’s.  She lives a life at home, spending time talking with other affluent housewife friends.  She resents her husband seeing her as merely there to serve (or service) him.  When she goes out with her friends and brings home Chet, she is, in a sense, making her own choices, perhaps for the first time, and we might pardon the way those actions appear hedonistic at first glance.  There is, though, a great scene with Chet at Maria’s house in which one of Maria’s older friends becomes indignant that Chet considers them dancing to be ridiculous, offended at the insinuation that she is too old for him.  Then perhaps the oldest of Maria’s friends takes this further, trying to make herself the object of Chet’s desire by dancing with him then tentatively asking if he will kiss her, before she breaks down crying and asks him to drive her home.  It is a moment of loneliness, the manifestation of social constraints of age and appearance, and an almost humiliating projection of desire.  Chet soon returns to Maria’s for the night.  This sort of undermines the aspect of Maria making her own choices — is the youthful Chet with her simply because she is the youngest of the women?  She eventually attempts suicide, which emphasizes the difficulty in her conceiving a new way of life.

Jeannie and Chet are the characters with the most emotional honesty.  Jeannie’s behavior, for her job, is self-evidently an act.  The depiction of a prostitute as the most authentic individual in a capitalist society fits quite squarely with many French films of the era.  Chet is a character without much depth, deployed often as merely a prompt for Maria’s character, but Cassel is wonderful in the otherwise flimsy role.

Although Faces is a groundbreaking film, it is also in some ways a less satisfying Cassavetes feature.  The two main characters for the most part begin and end the film as unsympathetic fools.  There are only dead ends and endless misery in their lives.  Cassavetes’ later films explored in greater detail interpersonal dynamics without the hedonistic baggage that Faces carries.  Those later films frequently explore with sympathy emotional bonds that are forged without regard for “happiness” as such.  A possible explanation for this is a sort of “sour grapes” autobiographical one: Cassavates vindictively made a film about the shitty, miserable life of a film executive (and his wife) after he was run through the Hollywood meat grinder by such film executives when trying to work there as a director in the early 60s.  And yet, such a view overlooks how this might have just been a coping mechanism for Cassavetes, whose real-life personal aspirations, and sometimes his behavior, bore resemblances to features of his Richard Forst character.  So the ultimate limit of the film is that it gets caught in cynicism and ressentiment that hates what is all around it without quite taking responsibility for its own position within its society and how its desires are conceived as part of that very society.  Though these limitations are minor in what is still an impressive cinematic achievement.

It would be good to pair a viewing of Faces with a self-consciously psychoanalytic film by Fellini or Jodorowsky like 8 1/2 or El Topo, or, perhaps more pointedly, Frankenheimer‘s Seconds, which metaphorically (and with a sci-fi twist) depicts the difficulty in trying to change one’s desire.  Another good juxtaposition is Aldrich‘s The Big Knife, which is tied directly to the Hollywood film industry milieu albeit with more conventionally theatrical storytelling and presentation.

A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Faces International Films

Director: John Cassavetes

Main Cast: Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands

John Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands asked him to write a play with an interesting female character for her to perform.  That play ended up being unsuitable for live theatrical performance and was instead re-purposed as the film A Woman Under the Influence.  Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a stay-at-home mother of three children.  Her mental disposition is one that is inconvenient to modern society (there being no objective definition of a “normal” mental state).  Her husband Nick (Falk) is a working class construction worker.  Nick is a rather angry and occasionally violent doofus who genuinely cares for Mabel.  The film examines the reactions of ordinary people to Mabel’s unconventional behavior, and Nick’s attempts to cope with it — and to try to control it (and her).  Mabel’s eccentricities eventually lead to her being committed to a mental hospital for six months — of note, Nick’s violent outbursts at home and work do not lead to him being committed or imprisoned.  Nick proves inept but well-meaning as a sole parent during Mabel’s absence.  The film concludes with an extended portrait of Mabel’s return home from the hospital.  Nick planned a welcome home party, though the presence of a crowd is questioned by his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) as being too stressful for Mabel.  As the guests eventually are thrown out by Nick’s mother and then Nick, Mabel clumsily attempts suicide, and her children become distraught.  In a fitting conclusion echoing the ancient myth of Sisyphus, Nick carries his children upstairs to their bedroom only to have them run back downstairs to their mother and the process repeats.  Such a “punishment” is fitting for Nick, as a self-aggrandizing jerk whose children seem more genuinely connected to their mother as a person with her own free will than he does.

A Woman Under the Influence is one of the “mature” Cassavetes films, in which his style that blends intense scripted and improvised acting expands upon what he had done in earlier films like Faces and Husbands, notably improving upon the overall pacing, while also deploying a much less conventional narrative structure than Minnie and Moskowitz.  Rowlands and Falk give tremendous performances.  Cassavetes’ narrative examines the characters’ personal situations from a sympathetic perspective, with his iconoclastic film techniques offering a much deeper palette of complex emotions than is typical in movies.  What sets A Woman Under the Influence apart from Faces is that, here, a couple is struggling to keep their family together, whereas Faces saw characters striving to break free of social constraints (while ironically and cynically doing so to seek social validation).  The two main characters are each unusual for feature length films, in that middle aged, working class protagonists are usually portrayed only at the margins of Hollywood cinema and the industrial nature of film production prices out most would-be independent ventures that might otherwise show interest.

These characters are all flawed, but worthy of human dignity nonetheless.  Nick’s struggle to control the people and situations around him — and his frequent inability to do so — is his most pronounced character flaw.  Mabel is less a “flawed” character as much as one with a combination of inability and unwillingness to conform to social expectations.  Cassavetes’ movies often featured a free-spirit “hippie” character (often played by Seymour Cassel).  The Mabel character is sort of a twist on that theme.  This prompts frequently draconian reactions.  Mabel’s commitment might be compared to the real-life story of the feminist scholar Kate Millett.  This is the “hysterical woman” motif:

“Remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, society confers on you a certain identity. You are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. The basic hysterical gesture is to raise a question and doubt your identity. ‘You’re saying I’m this, but why am I this? What makes me this?’ Feminism begins with this hysterical question. Male patriarchal ideology constrains women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, ‘But am I really that?’ Or to use the old Juliet question from Romeo and Juliet, ‘Am I that name?’ Like, ‘Why am I that?’ So hysteria is this basic doubting of your identity.”

The sympathy that Cassavetes shows his flawed characters is unique.  Unlike, say, Pier Paolo Passolini‘s underclass protagonists, like the titular character in Accatone, Cassavetes’s films often deal with characters situated away from class conflicts.  The Longhetti family is working class, but we see them with a comfortable home and steadily employed without obvious want.  This allows for a unique focus on the characters’ inner psychology, in which viewers can witness the characters questioning their own actions and pursuing changes in their lives while at the same time struggling to make the right changes and repeatedly failing to actually change their desires as reflected in their actions.  While certainly many other filmmakers relied on psychology to inform their work, Cassavetes was unique in the raw, harsh and almost bleak realism with which he depicted these things.  His films are largely free of simplistic symbolism.  Surprisingly, it is an approach that shared some similarities with some films of the Socialist Realism genre, such as Béla Tarr‘s early short Hotel Magnezit, albeit with the freedom to explore subjects other than a critique of bureaucracy.

In the end, A Woman Under the Influence remains a “difficult” film filled with enough heart to remain engaging from beginning to end.  This is another landmark of American cinema from one of its greatest writer/directors.