Thinking? At last I have discovered it -- thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist -- that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking. For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist. -- René Descartes' res cogitans from "Second Meditation" of Meditations on First Philosophy
In hindsight, who could've been more perfect to play the bought face in John Frankenheimer's Seconds than the most infamous of closeted actors, Rock Hudson? Irrespective of his own intrinsic make-up, Rock's bread-and-butter came from being sold as the perfect masculine physiognomy to wannabe-Doris Day housewives everywhere. As such, this film might be considered the actor's ontological biography. Here he plays the new body bought by an aging businessman who's tired of his family and life. Along with the new body comes a new social identity, that of an artist. Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, Rock can't forget who he was/is, and when he discovers that the community he now lives in is a group of commodified identities like himself, the horror is manifested. He's the Cartesian cogito lost in a world of pure doubt, where everything is mere appearance and nothing is real, but (here's the clincher) he still has his memories. Not being able to forget the past keeps him from being able to commit to the manufactured fantasy. Consider the way such a realization can screw up sex:
This 'imagined part' becomes visible in an unpleasant experience known to most of us: in the middle of the most intense sexual act, it is possible for us all of a sudden to 'disconnect' -- all of a sudden, a question can emerge: 'What am I doing here, sweating and repeating these stupid gestures?'; pleasure can shift into disgust or into a strange feeling of distance. The key point is that, in this violent upheaval, nothing changed in reality: what caused the shift was merely the change in the other's position with regard to our phantasmic frame. -- Slavoj Žižek, "Love Thy Neighbor? No, Thanks!"
Hiroshi Teshigahara's Face of Another is even more explicit in the horror that comes when a grounding fantasy is realized as such. In a spin on Plato's invisible man fable, Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) is given a realistic mask after having his face melted in a chemical explosion. The mask is modeled on another man's face, behaves like a regular face, but can be removed. The doctor who invented the mask warns Okuyama that its continued use might distance him from his self, diminishing the sense of moral responsibility (just like invisibility). His "true" face remains hidden under bandages until he applies the new one. The real misery begins when Okuyama tests his wife's fidelity to that old adage of loving one for what's on the inside. As you might expect, grotesque disfigurement wasn't doing much for his sex life, particularly given his constant depressing whine. His wife tries to be supportive, but he's not having it. Instead, he puts on the mask and seduces her as "another man." When he confronts her, she claims to have known it was him all along. But even if she's telling the truth, does it make his realization any less horrific? It suggests (going with Žižek) that she's always been making love to a fantasy based on appearances (his old face was a mask, too), rather than the internal qualities he believes to constitute his core being. He feels (quite rightly, it seems) reduced to another's "phantasmic frame." Clearly, something needs to be violently repressed; what or who will it be? To misquote Sartre, hell is intersubjectivity.
Face of Another is available as part of Criterion's boxset for Teshigahara, along with 2 other uplifting tales from scenarist and novelist Kôbô Abe, Pitfall and Woman in The Dunes. Seconds is unfortunately out of print (in the U.S., at least), but it ain't too hard to find.
Next up, freedom versus conformity.