Friday, 12 December 2014

Left Behind

The film feels a little strange.  It feels… We grasp for an image as it flies past the window.  Stretching out we…we strain, we grab, we…we…we’ve got it!  Bringing it back into the room we open our hands and see: a crazy editor high on amphetamines.  Cutely diminutive he trembles in our palms.  “What’s wrong”, we ask.  “The director was odd and manic, and I couldn't stand it so I started taking a shed-load of tablets halfway through the editing.”  He became frenetic with insight and he cut with woeful extravagance; scene after scene falling to the floor, where they waited for the cleaner and her big black bag.  She never missed a morning.  Always there at six o’clock each day.

Whole scenes appear to be missing.  Thus within minutes, and with no explanatory detail, a chaotic and unhappy family becomes a psychotic one.  That’s right. Without warning Kathy asks Charlie, her husband’s best friend, to rape Cebe.  The reason?  To stop her daughter becoming a dyke.  The husband agrees!  When this idea is frustrated - Cebe fights them off and makes particularly her father feel guilty -, they all go to bed; where the parents may even have sex.  For Don and Kathy this incident is little more than a row over under-cooked broccoli.  More weird stuff occurs later.  Don visits Cebe, who forces him to kneel on the floor with his face fixed to look between her open thighs.  Removing her pyjama bottoms she forces him stare at her vagina.  He is being humiliated.  Cebe reminding him of the time he came into her bedroom and stuffed her mouth with black panties (the rest is left to our imaginations). Her father, it seems, is a bastard.  Worse: her father is a bastard who doesn't learn his lessons; he has raped his daughter since he left prison, which is not that long ago.  We are shocked.  Don has abused Cebe since this film began and we had completely missed it.  Although this is not surprising, as we have not even seen a sign of sexual abuse.  It is no wonder that she kills him.1

What has happened to these connecting scenes?  Did the editor really take speed or has the censor cut them out?  Or is their absence part of the film’s structure; a sudden and disorientating shift of perspective - the film’s title alluding to the technique - which shows that revelatory moment when the subterranean ugliness of Don’s life is exposed for us ordinary Americans to see. Cebe’s rape is meant to be a revelation; it is designed to arrive as an explosion of truth; a bomb dropped amongst the routines of daily life, shattering the fantasies and revealing the seedy reality in all its horrible banality.2 It is a metaphor. Don’s moral corruption symbolises the underside of the American dream that remains invisible until the moment of bloody upheaval actually occurs - murder, rape, and sadistic perversions merely the effects of causes unknown to the mainstream citizen; who sees them only when they become some inexplicable media event.  Always they appear to happen out of the blue.

To us the cause of such degradation is obvious.  Don is an old rock n’ roller; a free spirit existing outside the sensible if limiting rules of a modern society that engender a mildly oppressive conformity amongst its citizens. Don wants to be free of these rules. But there is a problem: he has no talent for liberty.  His only attributes are his charm and his good looks, which are limited by time and by occasion - not everyone will like him; while his features are withering with age.  Unable to live freely within his milieu he cannot run away from it: the open frontier no longer exists in America.  He has no choice.  He must live like other folks; he must have a job, a house, a wife and a child.  Don is a 19th century cowboy living in a 20th century suburb.  His one freedom is his intercontinental truck, which though an ordinary job gives him the illusion of autonomy.  It is no accident that the truck is wrecked in the movie’s first scene.

His life is very similar to any American joe.  Thus his desire for work and for a family.  However, these things do not exist for him in the same way as they do for other people. His attitude towards them is different. He has no respect for the rules that allow jobs to exist and families to be maintained; Don treating them with an insouciance that totally disregards the conventions that make life safe and liveable.  He drinks alcohol when working; drives without looking at the road (even after this fatal accident); takes Kathy from the cafe and Cebe from school because on a whim he wants a picnic.  He has no conception of a legitimate order existing outside of himself. Don surrenders to his desires. Each moment a self-contained monad of self-interested activity.  Such self-centredness produces a pitiful irony.  The rules of society exist in large part for his benefit - he is a man who needs the moral structure and the social discipline of an institution.  Prison is good for him.  It forces him to connect with reality and except the limits of his own being.  Without such discipline he drifts. Don is a dreamer.  And like most dreamers his ideas will never be realised.  At most all he can achieve is a sad facsimile of his fantasies; the picnic site a bleak spot next to a large river that is used for industrial transportation.  Don is a loser.  And yet in his best moments he has the charisma of a rock star.  It is this charm which still attracts people to him.

While Don was in prison Kathy went out with Paul, a boring but steady man who owns a business.  She leaves him when Don returns home.  It is a huge mistake, dragging her down into a chaos she lacks the strength to resist; though she can see her husband’s faults and would like to escape from his influence.  

Cebe idealises her father.  Her memories of him are fused with her worship of Elvis Presley; heroes both whose best days are gone (although when the film begins she seems unaware of this).  In a framed photograph that stands by Cebe’s bedside Kathy is smiling blissfully at Don, who dressed in leather stares far away into the distance.  He was magic then.  He would have captivated any gang of renegades.  But now… Although his personality is still the same it exists within an older body, which lives within an environment that has been transformed.  This creates many curious and sad effects.  Don does the same things today as he did twenty years ago.  His late adolescent self is fixed for all time.  Mentally he has not grown up.3  He is a young adult in a mature man’s body, and through this incongruity we see his gradual decay.  What in youth is growing, developing and expanding - what is open to experience and is changed by it - has become static and obdurate; Don’s strong and aggressive personality now resists the local environment (of his middle age years) which slowly erodes it.  The insouciance remains, but his intransigence no longer creates opportunities to do new things; it merely defends itself against change and outside influences; which are becoming stronger and more intrusive.4  The personality is narrowing down and is starting to decline.  Don has no respect for authority.  He thus has no respect for anybody.  Only himself matters.  His psyche is a heavily armed fortress on an island in the middle of the ocean; all strange vessels that approach this island he blows out of the water; it is enough that they are strange and within view for him to destroy them.  And yet he lives in a conventional suburb and is expected to work like any other man or woman. He is a hopeless case.  Worse: he makes others hopeless too. Kathy is desperate for Cebe to perform well at school.  Don couldn’t care less about education, and so encourages his daughter to treat it with contempt.  Be your own person and do whatever you like is his message; an egotistical and essentially incoherent creed, as his independence has led to an extremely narrow and unfulfilling life.  Don is free to get drunk.  His liberty has reduced him to a moral cretin and a convicted criminal.

Rules are for other people.  He therefore ignores them.  He not only drinks when he drives but he doesn’t even look at the road!  This is the cause of a horrific accident.  Everything else ceases to exist when he is joshing with his daughter in the cab of his intercontinental truck - because a moment of fun consumes him. It is an extraordinary metaphor - Cebe is dressed as a clown - for Don’s imperviousness to outside influences.  He is unable to learn from his experiences; it is the reason for his ruin.

After he gets out of prison the father of one of the dead children visits him during the last dregs of his coming-home party.  The man is naturally upset.  Don, always very defensive, reacts too aggressively to the man’s attitude; though he is not without understanding or sympathy; it is just that he lacks the finesse that comes with an empathy for others.  The scene is tense.  First he tries to get the man to sit down and have a drink.  When this fails he stands up and calling himself an arsehole pours half a bottle of scotch over his head. It is his way of apologising for the hurt that he has done.  When his interlocutor does not respond to what Don regards as the appropriate manner he abuses him.  He is now the aggrieved party.  “I’ve served five years, haven't I?”  He is the victim!  Yes.  It is incredible. Don has no idea of how he should deal with this situation, which should be about managing this poor man’s pain.  One of the most important advantages of conformity and social conditioning is that it increases the possibilities of understanding others, allowing us to correctly judge their feelings and reactions.  Apart from the obvious stuff - anger, abuse, tears, flirtation - another person’s thoughts and feelings remain unknown quantities for Don.  He doesn’t grasp them, and therefore cannot comprehend the inner lives of other people, who remain opaque to him. All he can see is their outer behaviour; and so he cannot intuit what is inside them and respond with imaginative sympathy. The result is catastrophic: another person’s most intimate concerns, just like society’s as a whole, have no existence for him.  It is no surprise that his judgement is woefully poor. The older he gets the more apparent this becomes, exacerbating his decline.

If he had immense talent.  If he had plenty of wealth.  If he were subtle enough to acquire power to turn other people into copies of himself, or destroy those who would oppose him; if… If only he had the security that goes with conformity none of these faults would matter that much. If he was rich. He isn’t. Don is a hopeless schmuck. He is just the type of person who needs the help of other people; not just to prosper, but also to survive.  Instinctively Kathy knows these truths.  It is the reason she wants Cebe to go school; for only by accepting the rules of America is there the chance of some moderate success. Freedom.  Autonomy.  The Lone Ranger.  These are all illusions that hide this sad reality.  They are the fancy advertising that packages the compromised banalities of everyday life.  To succeed you must be like everyone else.

When Don was young his life was more plastic than this.  Then anything seemed possible. In those days he would have had so much energy; all of which could have been sacrificed to high jinks and experimentation.  There were so many things to do! While he could easily throw jobs over and live completely on the wild side.5  Surrounded by like-minded souls late adolescence can be a free and exhilarating time, especially for characters like Don, who thrive in such environments.  But these times do not last for long.  After a few years the social pressure is to settle down; most of his associates retiring into employment and family life.  By their mid-twenties the young accept the rules of mainstream America as the natural order, and its customs become their habits.  Those few years of freedom regarded now as a youthful folly that is romanticised or forgotten (or condemned when it manifests itself in others).  Don is different.  He cannot leave this world behind because he is trapped inside it.  It was the best time of his life; the only years when he was any good.  

We see this world in its starkest clarity when Cebe runs away to the big city.  For one night she lives amongst punks like herself.  What a night it is!  Mixing with kids who have the same ideals and who understand her Cebe is experiencing the greatest moments of her lifetime.  And then…she is invited on stage and is encouraged to…play the drums! She is ecstatic with happiness.  But there are enormous dangers in this city. Surrounding the hall where the bands play there is a seedy underlife of pimps, hookers, and drug dealers.  Cebe almost falls into this underworld when a transvestite tries to rape her.  If she hadn’t escaped from his advances she could easily have become an addict and prostitute. Though even the “safe” music scene has its risks. After the gig she drives her new friends home.  Drunk and high they strip off their clothes and play the fool causing Cebe to smash the car -  it is an echo of her father’s accident, although in this case she is not responsible for the crash. 18. 20. 22.  These are dangerous years.  And some people will not survive them.

They are also widely exciting.  How did we let them go?

The liberty of our early adulthood lasts for only a few short years. A little Garden of Eden tucked away behind the office blocks in the backstreets of the metropolis. This garden is so small and so oddly seductive that only a small number of adolescents will discover it.  But those who do will find it immensely attractive. A few will never want to leave.  And it is this desire to stay (in this youthful paradise) that is the biggest danger of all.

To prolong this liberty beyond our mid-twenties is to substitute a relatively innocent, albeit risky, life for a dark and ultimately cynical one (for the freedom such characters enjoy is parasitical on the rest of society).  The nature of the coterie, in the late-teens it consists of mostly ordinary adolescents (but with a mildly eccentric sensibility), begins to change with the passing years until it is monopolised by society’s rejects - those who cannot conform because of sexual preference, addiction or pathology.  Thus by their mid-thirties Adam and Eve are surrounded by losers and psychopaths.  What follows are the inevitable degenerating effects. The longer the freedom lasts the worse their morality becomes; until Don fucks his daughter and thinks that it’s a good idea for his best friend to follow his lead. 

Freedom must have its limits.  Without the borderland of time this particular kind of liberty will become seedy and chaotic; and very dangerous; Don destroying both himself and his family.  Kathy is a heroine addict.  Cebe is alienated from school and confused about her sexuality; when she dresses up in her father’s leathers she could be impersonating a lesbian; or it could be her attempt to recover a past which includes her old fantasies about her now degraded dad.  She frightens her mother.  She makes her father angry.  All is confusion and hatred.  We expect a tragic ending and we get it.

The idols are dying.

Elvis died after her father went to prison.  

Too late!  

Better he died young than to live into a pathetic middle age.

If charismatic stars live past their mid-twenties they will spend the following decades in slow decline.  Don decays and releases toxic material all around him, which corrodes the lives of everyone he knows.  For those closest to him there is only one way out: to press the auto-destruct button.  A strange message, and one I am not sure the director intended - the season at the BFI is called Icon of Oblivion, which I assume refers to the lapidary quality of the doomed outsider who fights against a hostile system.  Although there is some truth in this view it is overstated.  Punks like Don do think they are rebelling against society.  However, we must not be taken in by their propaganda.  They are too egotistical to fight for social justice; such action needing a level of understanding and self-sacrifice that is alien to characters such as these.  They are only interested in themselves.  Me! Me! Me! Me! Don cares about the world only when it intrudes upon his own life.  Then he rages and acts provocatively.  There is a kind of madness here. The consequences are terrible.  The culture has its revenge and destroys both him and his family; Kathy and Cebe suffering the most from Don’s irresponsible ways.   

Charisma.  Such a dangerous drug.  Avoid it at all costs.

(Review: Out of the Blue)

1.  Richard Combs argues that the abuse occurred before Don went to prison, and provides some textural evidence that is strong but not conclusive (BFI Notes).  However, this doesn't explain the sudden and extreme shift in Cebe’s attitude, unless we accept certain dubious psychoanalytic assumptions about repressed memories.  Of course Hopper and the screenwriter may well believe these to be true; but both the film and reality contradict them.

2.  This is apocalyptic revelation is reinforced in the final scene in the movie.

3.  Contrast with Cebe who is old before her time.

4.  This is closely linked to the precocious mentality (see my comments in Footnote LX of One Smile was Enough, It was an Earthquake). 

5.  Like Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

1 comment:

  1. What you're saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I'm sure you'll reach so many people with what you've got to say.