Amoeblog

The Master Waits while the Servant Baits: The Servant (1963)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 29, 2009 10:04am | Post a Comment

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
-- W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

It was Harold Pinter weekend at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, so I had a chance to see one of the best Joseph Losey films, The Servant, on the big screen. Pinter contributed the screenplay, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. (Because I loathe writing plot summaries, here's one.) The presentation was co-sponsored by Outfest for good reason -- it's a classic of queer cinema. Not counting the fairly recent 300, the 60s produced my favorite gay films, The Victim and The Killing of Sister George, along with Losey's. The three form a trilogy to my mind: all are British; both The Victim and The Servant feature Dirk Bogarde, the finest of cerebral actors, making you feel every thought his characters have; Losey trained  and will always be closely aligned with Robert Aldrich, the director of Sister George. Although Aldrich was more of a bare-knuckles kind of director, his film shares with the more intellectual Losey's an approach to sexual identity and politics that I prefer: as a given, full of suggestion and with a good deal of nuance.

My good pal and fellow blogger, Job, said my preference was due to a film like Sister George not being really gay. That's sort of right. But, on the other hand, I find old Hollywood films to be a lot more sexually interesting due to their working under the Hays Code than the majority of the explicitly sexual variety we have today. Sex had to be coded, in other words, to get around the Code. A six-shooter was never just a six-shooter back then. Conversely, sexuality was never just sexuality, but indicative of whatever struggles were being depicted. That is, by embuing so much with libidinal allusion, sexuality became more matter-of-factly, another interpretive grid through which culture can be read. Sex is pretty well limited to its simulated practice in Last Tango in Paris or Midnight Cowboy, but it's everywhere in Sam Fuller's Forty Guns, while being nowhere explicit.

I think a parallel can be drawn to the matter-of-fact lesbianism in Sister George, where the indiginities heaped upon its protagonist, June 'George' Buckridge, are more common -- more universal -- than the more literal minded identity politics of, say, Philadelphia. In the latter case, oppression becomes a matter of sexual identity, whereas in the former, sexual identity is just another method those in power might use as a means for subjugation. Not that there's anything wrong with the more particularized morality of Philadelphia in principle (The Victim is doubtlessly a much better earlier version), but unless one already identifies with its gay protragonist, the story remains one about the Other. Sister George requires no such identification, but is instead a reflection of power itself, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender.

Likewise, the sexual desideratum in The Servant isn't as important as the way desire itself is used for control. The film overlays Hegel's master-slave dialectic onto the sexual dynamics of Gilda. Whereas Charles Vidor's film had Rita Hayworth coming between two men in love, making it impossible (along with the Code, of course) for them to ever conjugate their feelings in a more literal manner, The Servant features the corrosive effects a servant, Hugo (Bogarde), has on the relationship between an aristocrat, Tony, and his girlfriend, Susan. Befitting their class status, Tony and Susan have all the style privilege can buy without any personal involvement, or real taste. They are what they are because it's de rigueur for them to be so. Hugo, however, has had to hone his taste in order to survive. Tony doesn't have to think about aesthetics or much of anything, really, because he can just pay people like Hugo to do it for him. It's this lack of self-consciousness that Hugo uses to gain domination over Tony. This struggle is realized in Losey's triarchic mise en scène where Hugo goes from being a physical mediating presence between Tony and Susan to a psychological one, casting a shadow over every aspect of their relationship.

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"

The master-servant domination in social hierarchy won't work if the upper class becomes fully conscious of the lower class as an equally present, fully conscious agent. Morally equivalent agents require a parity of treatment, the same respect one would give to another of one's own class. Thus, as Susan becomes aware of the structuring influence Hugo is having on Tony, she resists by reasserting her dominant position over the former through a variety of petty means. She rearranges Hugo's placement of flowers and demands that he drop what he's doing in order to walk across the room to light her cigarette.

The pettiness of cultural management.
 

Now, a lesser story would've set up Hugo as an anarchic outsider hero, demolishing cultural insitutions and declaring his independence. Certainly, Tony and Susan are real unlikable snots, but The Servant sets  up Hugo as just as dependent on social roles as the master class. When he can assert the power that comes from his position as an upper crust servant, he becomes just as petty as Susan. Rather than identifying with the carpenters working on Tony's home, Hugo micro-manages them, telling them to do things they already know to do.

Some are more equal than others.

Without a whit of self-reflection, Hugo becomes offended in the next scene when Tony orders him to bring the brandy while he's already in the process of doing so.

I was just doing that, sir.

Like the poor Mid-Westener voting for corporate interests on the always undelivered promise of future wealth ("everyone could be rich someday," cry dittoheads), there's no moral purpose to Hugo's machinations, only a desire to usurp or feed off Tony's privileged existence.

Burning desire.

Hugo is an exemplary protagonist for Auden's little poem with which I began. It's often quoted in reference to Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, I got it from Benny Morris' Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. As the question goes: how could a historically oppressed people turn around and support an apartheid system? Without diving into that mudpie, The Servant demonstrates how the powerless need to serve the dictates of the empowered, taking the practice of the dominant as its own, in order to achieve power. When Hugo says that he really loves his work, I believe him. He isn't a butler just to pay the bills, but has constructed himself to be the perfect servant as a means to access a lifestyle that would've otherwise been denied him by birth. He lives for those moments when Tony is away, so that he can sleep in his master's bedroom and bathe in his master's bathroom. For these brief pleasures, Hugo spends his days warming the much less refined Tony's feet in a foot tub, decorating his house, and supplying him with a bottomless glass.
 
I want to drink you up.

Tony's increasing addiction to alcohol is symbolic of how reliant he becomes on Hugo. When the repressive Susan demands that Hugo be fired for interfering with their relationship, Tony asks how could he ever find another like him. By this point, Hugo has won the battle against Susan, having become for Tony what semiotician C. S. Peirce called an interpretant. As the subject, Tony relates to all the objects in his life -- including Susan -- through the refractive lens of Hugo. Losey uses the distortion of a convex mirror as an objective correlative for Tony's emotional disintegration. By the end, he's reduced to a cultural place holder for Hugo's own desires.

"Don't you fucking look at me!"

The coup de grâce is in getting his fiance, Vera, hired on as the maid. Tony is led to believe that she's Hugo's sister. Having no firmer grasp on morality than the two men, the déclassé succubus tempts Tony (at the butler's devising) into giving up his last breath of potential resistance (he's too comfortable to ever offer any actual resistance).


When the cord gets pulled, and Tony discovers the truth about his servants, his cultural position no longer provides a place to hide. As an extension of Hugo, the sexual gratification offered by Vera proves to little more than Tony's sublimated dirty desire for his man-servant, homoeroticism by proxy. When he's depicted crying on Vera's bed, the posters above him say it all:


Although no sexual contact is ever made between Hugo and Tony, the latter now needs the former for  satisfying even that most basic human desire. After Hugo wiles his way back into Tony's home, the old master-servant arrangement is nothing but a game they play if it appears at all. No more buttoned up suits and slicked back hair. The house is in shambles just like Tony's mental state. The only things Hugo now supplies are women, food and booze. Otherwise, he openly mocks his erstwhile master. They waste their days throwing balls at each, bickering, and playing hide and seek.The irony here is that after realizing his desire, Hugo's life is emptier than his days as a butler. Not that he's complaining. He began as a specular entity, reflecting the desire of the wealthy and ends up pretty much the same. Any power that he's achieved is as its doorman. Only now he doesn't have to clean so much or keep his mouth shut. And his master no longer ignores him.

The odd couple.

If you compare the repression in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven or Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, what you get is a problem with a fairly easy solution written into it, namely an enlightened liberal attitude. isn't it awful how gays used to have to hide their sexual identity in the 50s, or how transvestites are treated in some podunk Nebraskan town? Well, yes. That's going to be glaringly apparent to anyone willing to see such movies. You come out with what you brought in. That's because these movies stop at presenting identity, without really critiquing what structures it. Their problematic is localized to a time and/or place. "Such repression isn't really like me," the target audience can safely say. The Servant doesn't provide its audience with that escape hatch. The homosexuality might be latent, but it's pervasive -- no sign in the film can be read without it. It's not borne out of the positive or romantic love seen in Peirce's film, but is a function of power, a hamster-in-a-plastic-ball struggle between the dominant and the submissive. So, in that sense, it's not really a gay film. But the depravity of the heterosexual relations is rendered even less ambiguously. The traumatic theme of The Servant is that subjugation of the will doesn't always occur from the outside (the rednecks, the past, the upper class), but it's consitutive of modern society, regardless of particular identifications. Idenitity politics couldn't exist without it. As the saying goes, "shit rolls down hills."

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Taste No Evil: Religulous (2008), Blindness (2008) & Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 22, 2008 08:01pm | Post a Comment
Power can essentially do what it wants, and what it wants is completely arbitrary. -- Pier Paolo Pasolini in the documentary "Salò": Yesterday and Today



~ Hard of Hearing ~
 
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods. -- Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro

In every internet debate I've ever had regarding religion (almost always with a Christian fundamentalist), I bring up the Euthyphro dilemma. Before Christianity even had its start, good ol' Plato cut it off at the knees with one sentential swipe. His reasoning goes something like this: if an action is moral only because a god says so, then morality is arbitrary; but if it's moral because it coincides with moral reality (what's objectively real), then morality is independent of a divine will (i.e., a god is good because it subscribes to the same reality that we mortals do). In either case, we don't need a god for morality. However, I've yet to meet a Christian who's convinced by this argument -- such is the function of faith -- but if he's intellectually inclined, he'll acknowledge that the argument is important enough to be dealt with. After all, what good is a religion that doesn't ground morality? Religions suck at doing science and are even worse at giving day-to-day practical advice. Thus, there has been a fine, honorable tradition of Christian rationalist attempts to explain away Plato's argument.

The logical tradition is interwoven with the history of Christianity. Indeed, my personal favorite argument for the capital-g God's existence (i.e., He who is omnipotent, -scient and -benevolent) -- the ontological proof -- was proposed by a Christian Platonist, St. Anselm (just check it out; it's got a real aesthetic beauty to it). And no sooner than Anselm's ink had dried on the parchment, there was a rebuttal from a Benedictine monk by the name of Gaunilo. All of this took place in the socalled "Dark Ages," around the time of the Crusades. My point in bringing all this up isn't that Christianity (or, by extension, any religion) is, in the final instance, as rational as any other belief system (it most certainly isn't), but that based on what it uses as an ontological ground (faith in God), it has a tradition of rational argumentation that's pretty fucking solid, even if you reject the ground.

Enter Bill Maher, skeptic, talkshow host, and humorless prick. Watching some of his early performance clips in his and director Larry Charles' documentary, Religulous, suggests divine intervention (or, at least, demiurgic interference) that such an individual could've ever had success as a comedian. His role in the film is as a bumptious court king, spewing out pieces of his leg of lamb while insisting that his dimwitted subjects entertain him ("orf wit' 'is 'ead"). As with the politicians he regularly lampoons, Maher's popularity rests on an audience even duller than he is. Likewise, his role as social critic is the result of the dependable outrage of people even more humorless. It's the sort of controversy that made both Rush Limbaugh and Madonna stars. Thus, there's no modern day Anselms in his film (no Alvin Plantinga), just a parade of faithful ignoramuses at whom we can point and laugh. True, Christiatnity has its fair share of such people, and I'm not unsympathetic to their being mocked. I just don't need Maher and Charles' subtitles to see the stupidity on display. And, yes, subtitles are actually used to point out what's supposed to be funny.  It reminds me of those bits on Leno where the audience is clued in by knowing comments and looks from Jay -- with the answers in front him -- on how ignorant the people on the street are about politics or grammar. Elitism for dummies.

Maher knows he's taking easy shots as demonstrated by the two exceptions in the film where he evinces any sort of respect for his interview subjects: Francis Collins, the former head of the human genome project, who is a devout Christian (although he feels misled), and some old middle management type in the Latin division of the Vatican, who seems to have lost his faith long ago and is now just collecting a paycheck. Knowing these guys aren't idiots, Maher doesn't even try to be funny around them (albeit the Latin expert is a real hoot). He's clearly only comfortable mocking the easily mocked (confer this).

So, back to Christianity, morality and rationality: the largest majority of morons in America didn't get that way because of their mistaken faith in a mythical foundation. Rather, the majority of morons are Christians simply because most people are Christians. If you were to draw some Venn-like diagrams with one big circle being labeled 'morons,' another big one 'Christians,' and a much smaller one 'non-believers,' you'd find that even if the non-believer circle was completely contained within the moron one, you'd still have more Christians coming out morons due to the sheer quantity of people stuffed within the overlap. I'll leave it to another day as to which group is actually proportionally more likely to be moronic, though. Suffice it to say that knuckleheads abound in any social affiliation.

Therefore, the nonreligious shouldn't make the same fallacious assumption about the religious that they often do about the nonreligious. One's belief in the foundation of morality or truth shouldn't play a part in determining whether one is behaving morally or rationally. The absolutist and relativist, for example, can agree that the indiscriminate killing of 10 year old boys is wrong while being in disagreement over the metaphysical why. For the calculus of brutality, it doesn't much matter whether people are getting slaughtered for God's Will or the good of the collective. Conversely, who cares if the leaders of Civil Rights Movement were acting in accordance with religiously inspired principles? What matters, as Plato demonstrated, is whether the actions coincided with correct moral thinking. Consequently, when Maher ends his film with a lengthy, humorless, tin-eared rant about the evils of religion and how much more peaceful the world would've been without it, he violates his own flippant disregard for faith, ironically giving the religious foundation too much credit in a film that had until then given it none. Religion is just an ideological muzzle used to cover up man's evil inclinations or to accept the credit when he does good. Man would still behave in the same way without it in his conceptual toolbag, only with a different set of rationalizations for doing so.
 
~ Seeing is Believing ~
 
Just like a blind man I wandered along
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the lord I saw the light. -- Hank Williams, "I Saw The Light"

A friend's mother used to have one of those tacky plates expressing homilies hanging up on her kitchen wall. Hers read, "Lord, if you can't make me thin, please make all my friends fat." There's a sort of religious fanatic's wish fulfillment fantasy expressed in that message, namely "I don't want to be happy, I want others to be more miserable." Only, it doesn't quite get the desire for power correct. More accurately, it should've read, "make my friends fatter than me." Peter Parker would've hardly captured the dork imagination had he only been given the strength of his high school archnemesis, Flash Thompson. No, he needed to become vastly superior. A thought experiment regarding this fantasied superiority complex comes by way of Fernando Meirelles' film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay On Blindness). I haven't read the book (but this plot summary sounds pretty close to the film's), so I'm just going to be talking about the film.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed city where an epidemic of "white blindness" breaks out. The afflicted characters describe the blindness as swimming through milk, and the grey shapes fading into a white fog created for the camera eye reinforce this description. A more allegorically rich name for the film might've been The Ganzfeld ("whole field"), since the affliction bears a close resemblance to the old gestalt effect of creating a sort of snowblindness with a homogeneous distribution of light across the eyes. The ganzfeld parallels the redistribution of power relations among the blind and seeing within the story. As it were, "seeing the light" no longer has any beneficial effects for the sighted (just as belief in God has no real moral benefits for the religious).
 
Since blindness can occur just as much from a lack of contrasts within light as it can from the simple lack of light, it makes for an interesting allegory of societal relations centering on faith (even if the film as a whole fails to follow through with the full promise of its conceit). As Maher or some of the currently popular atheist ideologues (such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) would have it, ridding the world of religion would reduce evil (a dream that isn't that far removed from the totalizing desire of the religious fanatic). What Blindness shows (badumpbump) is that any such homogeneous effect would, at best, provide for a temporary state of equilibrium in the social structure. As faith qua sight begins to disappear, the blind willingly lead the blind through the building in which they've been quarantined. But is this charity -- good will towards fellow man -- or an act of desperation resulting from what was lost? It doesn't take too long for a rebellious group to form around a charismatic leader (Gael Garcia Bernal as "the bartender") who decides to take control of the food supply. Blindness becomes the new source for the same ideological struggles now denuded, with seeing as an otiose mask, or useless filter. As such, the one person who retains her sight (Julianne Moore as "the doctor's wife") hides her (now super-) ability, pretending to be blind in order to belong to what remains of her society. Moore is Superman to Bernal's Lex Luthor.

I can't help but think of Bill's disquisition on Clark Kent in Kill Bill 2, where he gives a Nietzschean spin to  Superman's secret identity. Therein, Tarantino suggests that Superman is the true identity and the bumbling Clark reveals his contempt for Earthlings as a mocking imitation. Another possible interpretation, more consistent with Superman's own thought balloons, is that Clark represents the smalltown values with which he was raised and can never completely escape, regardless of how much power he might possess. Superman is no übermensch, but a being who uses his power to reinforce his (and others') place in the flock. It's the all-too-human Luthor with the Zarathustran dreams. Like Superman, Moore's character eventually uses her extra-ability for some violent superego retribution to the unbridled id impulses of Bernal and his group. It was the arrival of the adults in Lord of the Flies that stopped the children's savagery. It wasn't that the shipwrecked kids became wholly alien to civil society, but that they were cut off from the filtering mechanisms which normally regulates our inclinations. As an inverse of the standard monster film where the monster is the repressed, the appearance of the adults represents a thankful return of the oppression. Similarly, the white blindness doesn't so much create a new totalizing desire for power as it breaks down the repressive mechanisms that were in place during the occularist order. As the last vestige of occular control, the wife's struggle with the bartender points to another prominent Nietzshean idea: with the failure of faith in a previous order, the desire or need to control doesn't disappear; it just gets restructured. 
 
~ Melts in the Mouth ~
 
[W]ho will not be relieved to say in front of the libertines of Salò: "I am really not like them, I am not a fascist, since I do not like shit." -- Roland Barthes, Sade-Pasolini

Another filmic thought experiment is Pasolini's Salò, a modern retelling of Marquis de Sade's The 120 Nights of Sodom. (You can read a plot summary here.) It might not be science fiction proper, but it fits within the umbrella category of speculative fiction, into which more respectable authors like J. G. Ballard are often put to escape the critical taint of the science fiction genre that snobs like Susan Sontag have expressed. In fact, Salò isn't all that far removed from the dystopic disaster subgenre of Blindness -- the main difference being the willful ingestion of feces versus blindly stepping in it. Pasolini takes the dystopic idea to the extreme by removing any figure of the old restraining order, letting desire follow undeterred its own logical course of objectification. For all the posturing Kulturkampf (dim-)witticisisms of a film like Religulous, Pasolini's cropophagic masterpiece provides a cleansing of the palate. Where Blindness offers a glimmer of hope at the end that sight will return, Pasolini is consistently pessimistic. Hope, he said, is manufactured by those in power to maintain their control of others.

Thanks to the fetish film night over at the Egyptian Theater, I finally got to see it on the big screen. No matter how good the print (and the Egyptian had a recent 35mm one), there's a crude pornographic quality to Pasolini's stilted, wide-angled mise-en-scene. Like in the days of cheap VHS porn, the characters tend to look lost within the frame. I doubt the film ever looked new or crisp. This degraded aesthetic only adds to the degradation of the teenaged victims. The Kubrick-styled design of, say, Salon Kitty, would've made the film kitsch. Too much high-minded visual style can turn the transgressive into mere silliness -- just look at Cronenberg's adaptation of Ballard's Crash. Pasolini knew he had to get ugly for the film to work. Thus, there is something to be said for experiencing Salò in the washed out images on a well-worn tape and at home. Nevertheless, Egyptian's sound system gave me a newfound appreciation for the film's sound design, most notably the low level rumble of planes flying overhead while one of the lady storytellers began to relate her first experience with the Dirty Sanchez. The rumble continues through the "Circle of Shit" segment until the victims are finally released from their mandated constipation, providing the main course for the infamous dinner scene.

It might no longer be censored in as many countries as it once was and it has a lot more fellow travelers these days in narrative cinema (from Takashi Miike to Catherine Breillat), but it hasn't lost its transgressive potency. Transgression depends on shock, an ability to rattle one's preset concepts (moral or otherwise), and the film can still activate the flight or fright mechanism in even the most ironically detached of modern viewers (I counted 3 walkouts by the middle of the film). We won't be seeing any digitized appropriations of the characters for the purpose of selling things any time soon. For good or ill, the film remains defiantly authentic to itself, much like its literary source. That's real art to my mind.

Barthes takes Pasolini to task for mixing the obscenely erotic with a critique of fascism (or, really, totalitarianism in general). The gross-out factor resulting from the depths that the libertines go (Barthes seems to be saying) keeps the audience at a distance from the lure of fascism, thereby preventing a real critique (e.g., "those fascists aren't like me"). As I understand it, the difference between the erotic and the pornographic is a matter of gratification, the former being more conceptual and the latter being more physical. Salò contains many parallels to totalitarian subjugation: making the victims eat whatever shit is put before them, the Stockholm Syndrome of having a victim smilingly take on the desire of his bearded oppressor, guards justifying their abhorrent behavior with a "just following orders," and the tendency to save oneself by ratting out one's fellow captives. Contrary to Barthes' objection and unlike Cronenberg's Crash, Salò manages to keep the audience tethered to that liminal chain between disgust and desire. If, that is, the audience stays with it. Although the particular fetish objects aren't everyone's, the fetishistic desire for control is a central human trait we should all recognize.

Of course, this ain't wank material, rather it draws in vivid detail a conceptual link between the obscenities of totalitarian desire and those of an unconstrained eroticism. As Sontag has argued, this conceptual use of obscenity is what justifies its appearance in art (but not pornography), what makes it aesthetic. She suggested the obscene is ultimately a drive towards death. And I can't think of a better example of humanity's death drive than when it succumbs to the totalitarian desire for absolute control. Maybe Salò's moral is that of the old plate-worthy adage "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but even allowing such a pithy summation, the film's virtue lies in making you feel the truth of that expression, viscerally spelling it out (to the letter, as Barthes said). That virtue is also what led to the film being oft-labeled obscene, and unworthy of legal protection. Obscenity rulings never address the truth value of the artistic statement being judged; rather, they address whether that statement meets the supposed community standards. The more self-denying those standards are, the more likely truth itself will be deemed obscene, or degenerate.

Salò addresses the central problematic constitutive of culture that Blindness doesn't have the balls to follow through with and that Religulous is too simple-minded to even understand: "Man has always been a conformist. Man's principle trait is to conform to whatever power or type of life he's born into" (Pasolini, ibid.). As opposed to its appearance in a "fetish film" series -- implying risque entertainment for the bourgeois S&M crowd who spend their leisure time in latex at bondage parties --  Pasolini's film actually condemns the very notion of "free love." Freeing desire from social constraints is what connects the fascist to the libertine. Pure subjectivity can exist only if everything else becomes its mere objects, where otherness is reified and made easily consumable. From the top down, a system of repressive mechanisms (e.g., culture) is needed to stave off the obscene end product of pure desire, namely total control resulting in death (consider Descartes' experiments in vivisection, where he denied any subjectivity to the animals he treated as mere objects). From the bottom up, the way to achieve power is to conform to the mechanisms in place, filtering the individual's totalizing desire by shaping it into the repressive forms of his or her milieu. Ridding ourselves from a particular repressive mechanism like religion or old-fashioned sexual mores won't free us from this problematic. The godless communism of the Soviets was little more than a theocracy with the name 'God' erased (unsurprisingly, distinctions become blurry under totalitarianism, where one size fits all). Either God would be replaced with another form of repression, or we would take a step towards the world of Salò. Being an atheist and an optimist, I have hope that the theocrats will eventually find a new form of repression through which they can channel their desires.


Thomas More's map of Utopia.

Don't You Forget About Me, Part 1: The Teen Flicks of John Hughes

Posted by Charles Reece, September 14, 2008 10:24am | Post a Comment
I wish to bring back to mind my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul. This is not because I love them, but that I may love you, my God. [..] In the bitterness of my remembrance, I tread again my most evil ways, so that you may grow sweet to me, O sweetness that never fails, O sweetness happy and enduring, which gathers me together again from that disordered state in which I lay in shattered pieces, wherein, turned away from you, the one, I spent myself upon the many. For in my youth, I burned to get my fill of hellish things. I dared to run wild in different darksome ways of love. My comeliness wasted away. I stank in your eyes, but I was pleasing to myself and I desired to be pleasing to the eyes of men. -- The Depths of Vice from The Sixteenth Year of The Confessions of St. Augustine


I've always been something of a closet Augustinian, believing sin the default human condition. If he would've just left out all that God stuff I'd be more willing to come out of the closet. Nevertheless, his notion that being good is an act of will against wordly temptation seems right to me. In a capitalist democracy, giving in has always been an easier route to material success than acts of resistance.  Obama wouldn't be America's first ("serious") post-racial candidate if the majority thought he'd tackle racial injustice in any substantive manner. One doesn't rise through the business ranks by being an agent of moral change, making the business work better for the employees. The only change that's allowed is that of efficiency, streamlining the workers' output in accordance to the demands of the employer. You don't achieve power by disposing of the cultural rules, but by learning them, incorporating them and making them work for you while you actually work for them.  As Foucault pointed out -- and the Frankfurt School before him -- power is everywhere and nowhere in particular.
 

Since power is theoretically dispersed to the masses in a democratic system where the have-nots will always outnumber the haves, it becomes necessary for mass desire to be manufactured such that the status quo is believed by the people to be their will, and not something being forced upon them from the outside. This keeps things from changing, or not changing, too fast, so that the small ratio of dominant to the dominated can remain fairly static over time. That's why 1984 has never been a wholly convincing metaphor for the modern Western democracy. People would vote out Big Brother if he were seen to symbolically conflict with their democratic and other structuring beliefs ("don't need no outsider telling me what to do"). However, his ideas of control might work if the people can be convinced that those ideas are their own. In fact, Orwellian totalitarianism began when democracy ended, but a more pressing concern for modern democracy is its own despotic fault-line. 

The fault-line in the heart of democrats was pointed out by Tocqueville in the 19th century: "they want to be led, and they wish to remain free."  He referred to this danger as soft despotism, where people willingly (vote to) release their liberty, their control, to the state in exchange for some stopgap measure promised by the political representatives. The promise might be for some pork bill, or for some legislation limiting the rights of others who aren't felt to be acting in accordance with common sense or decency.  As Thomas Franks has argued, the politician doesn't even need to deliver the goods, so long as he's perceived to be working in the voters' interests, i.e., delivering the symbolic goods ("next year, we'll get prayer back in the schools"). Meanwhile, the politician can continue to serve the interests of the corporate status quo, which has zero interest in making things better for those doing the voting. Thus, the voters feel in control by voting for someone else to symbolically take care of things while the politician feels empowered by being the symbolic powerbroker in the capitalist order. The temptations of the silver-tongued devil have been replaced by the pervasive control of the culture industry.  And some of the most fitting allegories for this dispersed systemic power are in the teen oeuvre of John Hughes.

Beginning, appropriately enough, in 1984 with Sixteen Candles and ending in 1987 with Some Kind of Wonderful, Hughes explored the dynamics in which people are brought into the symbolic order. Four of these films he wrote, produced and directed (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), and the other two he wrote and produced with Howard Deutch directing (Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful). Although largely dismissed for its establishment politics (Tout va bien these films ain't), his teen cycle is more profitably seen as depictions of the way an individual's desire interacts with and is ultimately shaped by social control. Central to this cycle is the master-slave dialectic, which he predominately addresses according to class distinctions (e.g., the envious attitude Molly Ringwald's character expresses towards her high school's wealthy ruling elite in Pretty in Pink), but also breaks it down along relative positions of prestige, or character types -- the popular versus unpopular (such as the adoration Emilio Estevez's working class jock receives in The Breakfast Club). The political criticism isn't without merit, as there's always a trace of the satanic in these films, the celebration of selling one's soul to fit in. The most evil example is undoubtedly Ally Sheedy's finding happiness in The Breakfast Club once she's made over into the jock's ideal. She complains about being ignored, but is only noticed once she ignores who she is. Consider here the paradox of Obama's candidacy: he became the first black candidate by becoming post-racial, downplaying that which makes his candidacy historically significant, his race in the cultural context of America's racism (he only alluded to Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention). 

However, Hughes doesn't just leave popularity or the haute bourgeoisie as unquestioned truths. Instead, he regularly demonstrates how the popular class has to go through the same process of commodification (selling oneself as an object for others) as the outré class does in order or to stand a chance of entering the former's social circle. Estevez's jock tearfully explains how he lives his life to satisfy the expectations of his dad and the school while having little time (until his detention) for deciding what he might want (which, as it turns out, is to do nothing in particular). Similarly, Lea Thompson's popular girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Some Kind of Wonderful has to constantly struggle with suppressing her moral conscience lest she be cast out of the popular clique. Hughes' twist on Horatio Alger's dream is that success comes more from learning to walk in another's shoes than pulling oneself up by one's own boot straps. That these films are nostalgically remembered for their happy resolutions despite their pervasive miserabilism has a lot to do with the conventions of the teenage romantic comedy genre in which they work (or are made to work).

Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo, and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film's absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves, so we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace -- hence their popularity. -- from "Genre Films and the Status Quo" (1974) by Judith Hess Wright


While it's not exactly statistically sound, consider the difference between the critics and general viewers' opinions of Hughes' films over at Metacritic: For the 4 films given both a critics and users rating (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful), the critics gave the films an average of 5.6 out of 10 versus the users' 8.7, with The Breakfast Club scoring the highest for both at 6.2 and 9.3, respectively. I suspect that both the general taste and critical distaste for these films is rooted in the same cause: their nostalgia-mongering generic structure. Setting all six of the films in the imaginary suburb of Chicago, Shermer, Hughes addresses very real issues with becoming an adult in a capitalist society, but always through a rose-colored lens of how we'd like to remember those years, rather than how they actually were. The difference in the reactions based on entertainment and criticism can be seen surrounding Schindler's List. Sure you might get choked up towards the end when all those saved are celebrating Schindler, but that's just the result of all the emotional levers and pulleys that Spielberg is so adroit at operating. With a bit of distance, it's hard not to read cynicism in the fact that the most "serious" and "important" movie about the Holocaust coming out of an American studio is based on the heroism of an Aryan saving the Jews. Genre rules, like the myth of heroism, begin to strain and nostalgic entertainment begins to falter as reality returns to the fore. However, as I will endeavor to show, Hughes' fantastic approach to the teenage years reveals a good deal about American society that makes his cycle one of the more important set of films coming out of the Me Decade even if they are corrupt at their core.

With the exception of Ferris Bueller, all of these films follow the same narrative pattern: an outcast yearns to be accepted by a representative of the upper- or over-class, that representative discovers something about him or herself by falling for the outcast, and everything ends happily when the outcast is accepted.  Sixteen Candles, for example, has two such set-ups: Molly Ringwald plays a fairly well-adjusted (i.e., bourgeois for normal) 16-year old Samantha Baker, who dreams of getting into the pants and social circle of MIchael Schoeffling's BMW-driving übermensch on campus, Jake Ryan. Meanwhile, the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall, of course) knows his place in the order of things and can only dream of being with Samantha in the thick portion of the social bell curve. Just as would occur later with the popular desiderata played by Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink and Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, Jake rebels against his superior position in the social hierarchy by taking on a mate from a lower social stratum. Should critical awareness begin to enter here as the audience realizes that the status quo remains firmly in place by having the Geek lose out once again to the popular kid, Hughes uses the nostalgic bypass (Wright's "sop") of throwing the Geek a bone, namely the chance to have his way with Jake's former girlfriend, the prom queen.

Hughes' nostalgic bypass is akin to the way the Republicans keep the lower white working class within its ranks: serve big business interests at the expense of the voters' economic stability while distracting them from this reality with promises of returning the country to some fabled state of moral purity or a illusory concern with the possibility that they might some day become members of the 2% economic elite. Just as audience identification begins to buckle under the pressure of seeing how Andie (Ringwald again) turns her back on who she is upon choosing Blane (McCarthy) over the perpetually abused and ignored Duckie (John Cryer) in Pretty in Pink, the latter gets a come-hither glance from a beautiful girl, thereby recommitting the audience to the nostalgic trompe l'oeil. For his role in encouraging Andie to give Blane a second chance after he succumbed to the pressure of his snobby friend Steff (James Spader), and jilted her at the prom, Duckie is rewarded with his own promise of upward mobility.  Little wonder why the test audience (and Ringwald) balked at the original ending where Andie went off with Duckie. The surfeit of reality gummed up the working of the nostalgic machinery. We want to believe our society to be classless (and raceless), irrespective of the evidence.

Part 2's acomin'...