London is Dead

“I like The Smiths—but not Morrissey” is a common music take, usually attributed to two phenomena: the loss of Johnny Marr’s inimitable guitar and Morrissey’s perceived lean to the right. The songs of The Smiths are about love, loneliness, and left-wing political causes (anti-meat, anti-monarchism, antireligion, anti-school, anti-capitalism, feminism, etc.), making them acceptable by modern liberal standards. But when he broke off from The Smiths, Morrissey began to explore more jagged and provocative topics, leading many to get the ick and renounce him. One part of this shift was a growing fascination with macho British subcultures—criminals, boxers, bikers, and skinheads. The figurehead for an urbane, sensitive sort of masculinity was increasingly captivated by the old kind, the kind that leads to bar fights and fires. The most interesting document of this is his 1992 album Your Arsenal.

The title and album art reveal a lot on their own: a snapshot of a shirtless, frenzied Morrissey thrusting his mic forward like an erect penis, emblazoned with a title that doubles as a rude Cockney pun (“your arse ‘n’ all”) and a reference to Britain’s premier soccer team. The packaging reflects the sound; producer Mick Ronson brought a harder, grittier style to Morrissey’s music, mostly expressed on the first side of the album. Those five songs are poles apart from the soapy, mopey ponderings of late ’80s songs like “Yes, I Am Blind” or “Dial-a-Cliche.” The guitars roar, the bass booms, and the drums crash.

Lyrically, these songs emphasize Morrissey’s aforementioned interest in violent male subcultures. A particular theme emerges: that the old, nationalist England is dying, or already dead. On “Glamorous Glue,” Morrissey declares that “we look to Los Angeles for the language we use…London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead, London is dead!” Once a world-dominating colonial power, England is now so weak that it lacks even cultural influence. “The National Front Disco” tells the tale of a young man named David who joins the far-right National Front party, alienating his friends and family. The chorus features David’s repeated refrains of “England for the English,” a slogan founded on an idealized view of what it means to be English (i.e. no immigrants). “There’s a country,” Morrissey says directly to David. “You don’t live there, but one day you would like to…” That country is a white, patriotic England of the past, and David certainly does not live there. London is dead.

The centerpiece of Your Arsenal, “We’ll Let You Know,” is Morrissey’s deepest excursion into these ideas, and one of his greatest lyrical accomplishments. The song is written from the perspective of England’s rabid soccer fans. It opens simply, with a comforting acoustic guitar loop in D major. Initially, Morrissey looks at the subjects of the song sympathetically: “How sad are we? And how sad have we been? We’ll let you know, but only if you’re really interested…You wonder how we’ve stayed alive ’til now—we’ll let you know, but only if you’re really interested.” He seems to be casting a kind eye on these people, finding a sadness inside them not often observed. They’re broken like the rest of us, just trying to survive. Then, as the guitar loop repeats, the lyrics grow darker: “We’re all smiles, then honest, I swear, it’s the turnstiles…that make us hostile.” In other words, our anger is being whipped up by petty things like those damned stadium turnstiles, but we’re nice people inside. One can sense a thick dose of irony in “honest, I swear”; the kind of language a child uses when lying through his teeth. Clearly it’s not the turnstiles.

Finally, in the next stanza, we get the full picture: “We will descend…on anyone unable to defend themselves.” The brutality of the mob mentality is crystal clear at this point. They’re not “sad” or “all smiles.” They’re out for blood. (It should be noted that violence committed by soccer fans was a prevalent issue in the 1970s, which is when the album is focused—so prevalent that it garnered the official title of “football hooliganism.”) As the intensity of the music rises, the lyrics continue: “And the songs we sing, they’re not supposed to mean a thing…” This statement instantly comes true, as in the next line, all the singer can muster is “la la la la la la la la la la la…” Eventually the la-la-las give way to a frightening medley of human voices intermingled with wailing guitars, mostly too distorted to make out. We hear thousands of fans chanting in unison. Someone shouts “Get off the roof!” A referee’s whistle squeaks into the void. One voice, pitched higher in the mix, seems to be crying out, “IS IT LONDON?” It’s a pretty terrifying sonic portrayal of a soccer riot.

Suddenly, a rumbling snare drags us out of the swamp and into a final segment in the unexpected and chilling key of E minor. Morrissey returns with a sober tone: “We may seem cold…or we may even be the most depressing people you’ve ever known. At heart, what’s left, we sadly know: that we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know.” And then the song fades out, along with the sound of fifes and drums, and whispers of “never…ever…”

This last section reveals the answer to the question posed by the voice in the medley. Yes, this is London: mob violence and patriotism and irrationality. However ugly, the soul of the country is on full display (the fifes and drums imply the hooligans are upholding Britain’s colonial legacy). If you want to do away with this way of life—which Morrissey, as an introverted, gay, vegan pacifist, most likely does—you must understand that you are killing Britain.

The structure of Your Arsenal reflects this theme as well. Side One is all down-and-dirty rockabilly aggression; on Side Two, you’ll find jangle pop songs that could have been Smiths singles (“You’re The One For Me, Fatty”, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”), classic Moz miserabilism (“Seasick, Yet Still Docked”), a glam rock love anthem (“I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”), but you won’t find London. London is dead. The closest you’ll get is the closer, “Tomorrow”, and even that ends with its own death—as the last guitar chord rings out, it’s slowly supplanted by a nostalgic and saccharine piano melody. Aggression replaced by weakness. For Morrissey, effeminacy is a virtue (in his autobiography, he writes: “effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death”); nonetheless, he finds a morbid pleasure in the aesthetic of macho violence. London must die, but there must at least be an autopsy.

A month after Your Arsenal was released, Morrissey performed at Finsbury Park alongside the English ska band Madness, many of whose fans were racist skinheads. When Morrissey wrapped himself in the Union Jack during his performance of “Glamorous Glue”, everyone in the crowd blew a fuse. The Madness fans didn’t like his possibly ironic use of the flag, and the anti-racists in the crowd didn’t like his possibly unironic use of the flag. As a result, he was pelted from all sides with coins, bottles, orange juice cartons, and epithets galore. This sorry scene was a perfect microcosm of the general public’s inability to understand nuance when it came to his work. It is the job of an artist to explore complicated things in a way that transcends binaries. To condemn jingoism and hooliganism, as he clearly does on “We’ll Let You Know”, he must first understand their appeal. But this went over the heads of everyone at Madstock, it went over the heads of the British music press (who cherry-picked phrases from Your Arsenal to successfully convince the public that Morrissey was himself a frothing-at-the-mouth racist), and it continues to go over most people’s heads. Perhaps it’s best that they stick to “This Charming Man.”

The Man Who Wasn’t There, Explained

The Man Who Wasn’t There often gets lost in the folds of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. Flanked on one side by towering cult classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski and acclaimed art films like No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis on the other, it comes off as a trifle—a stylish little noir pastiche that the brothers dashed off while more ambitious projects were in utero. It bombed at the box office and received a pleasant, if understated, critical reaction, making no impression on the general public. The Rotten Tomatoes blurb, describing it as an “emotionally distant” but “clever tribute to the film noir genre,” summarizes the standard verdict. 

As someone who instinctively reads the reviews of films before watching them (I know, I know), I went in expecting exactly that—a clever, but ultimately empty, tribute to the film noir genre. What I discovered was a masterpiece, not only the best film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography but one of the greatest of all time. A few people have argued something along these lines, but never to my satisfaction; Mike D’Angelo’s rave, for example, is characteristically well-written, but in my opinion a colossal misreading (you’ll get why if you read his piece and mine). So here goes. Spoilers ahead. Let’s hope I am more adept at translating my feelings into words than the reticent barber we will be studying.

The Man Who – literally – isn’t there…

The Barber’s Paradox

Great filmmakers have a habit of communicating their basic thesis with the opening moments, so when setting about the daunting task of decoding a really complex film, it can be helpful to start at the beginning. This movie opens in voiceover, with a simple statement:

Yeah, I worked in a barbershop—but I never considered myself a barber.

Ed Crane, our protagonist, goes on, “I stumbled into it…well, married into it more precisely. It wasn’t my establishment. Like the fella says, I only work here,” but these clarifications are ancillary; that first line is really all you need to understand the opening monologue. In fact, that first line is all you need to understand the entire film. The distinction that Ed makes here, between working in a barbershop and being a barber—in other words, the Sartrean idea that existence precedes essence—sits at the heart of The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Ed Crane is the existentialist archetype of the Stranger. Unlike everyone around him, and unlike the Greek philosophers, Ed understands that he’s not essentially anything at all. Not a barber, not a husband, not a friend, not a criminal. At his core, he is merely an existent being. (When he is asked, “What kind of man are you?” Ed responds, “Huh?” as if the idea of a “kind of man” were totally foreign to him.) This is a dark, powerful insight, one that emotionally isolates him from virtually everyone else in his life (he has no friends and is not close to his wife Doris). The insight also manifests in his profession; as a barber, he cuts people down to their existence. “Sooner or later,” he says, “everyone needs a haircut.” Sooner or later, everyone needs to drop all the pretenses. The motif repeats itself over and over again—he removes Tolliver’s wig, he shaves his wife Doris’s legs. When he speaks, unlike his brother, he says exactly what he means and nothing more. He always wants to get to the core of things, to cut to the chase, which is why he finds this grand, frivolous world so unnerving.

At one point Ed stares down at a customer’s hair with a vexed look and mutters, “It just keeps growing back…It’s part of us…” He’s right. Our essence sits on top of us, like a head of hair, and as much as Ed yearns to strip it away, it always grows back. We cannot get rid of it. To the chagrin of the existentialist, our purpose becomes something like a “part of us,” and that’s what disturbs him so deeply. With a tip of the hat to Bertrand Russell, I will call this predicament the Barber’s Paradox.

The Barber’s Paradox explains our hero’s totally detached demeanor. He feels that in some sense, he exists outside of himself—the “Ed” that presents to the world, that has a job in a barbershop and a wife and a home in the suburbs, is an independent object that the real Ed, the spectral being, can study like a specimen in a jar. Take the scene where he kills his wife’s lover Dave. The important part of this sequence is not the killing, which could pop up in any 40s noir, but Ed’s reaction to it. His eyes drift from the body down to his own hands, (providing a Kuleshov link without the edit)—in traditional existentialist fashion, Ed is terrified by his own freedom. It is a curse, not a blessing.

Sartrean “Dirty Hands”

Freedom, as damning as it may be, also sits at the center of the existentialist worldview; acting freely, acting authentically, is the greatest expression of humanity. At the beginning of the film, Ed’s whole life is in service to other people. He’s not a barber because he loves it, but because he “married into it.” He spends most of his free time bored out of his mind at bingo games and wedding receptions that his wife has dragged him to. And so Ed chooses to take the action that will set the events of the film in motion, investing in a dry cleaning startup that a customer is offering shares in. Dry cleaning, of course, is not what fascinates Ed—no, he’s drawn to the idea of acting entirely on his own accord. The dry cleaning gambit offers him a ray of hope, a chance of escape from his miserable, inauthentic life.

This apparently innocuous action kicks off a complicated domino effect that ends up with Doris in prison for a crime she didn’t commit and two people murdered. The world responds to Ed’s exercise of freedom with swift retaliation. He should never have been so naive to think that he could simply act in good faith (“How could I have been so stupid…” he muses in voice over). Remember, the universe of The Man Who Wasn’t There does not share its protagonist’s outlook. This is what makes the Barber’s Paradox a paradox—how can an existentialist live in a world populated by people who reject the existence/essence distinction and the idea of true freedom? As Ed gradually learns, the answer is hazy; apparently you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Despite his self-deprecating musings, though, Ed still has not learned his lesson. Living alone, he decides to help a teenage girl named Birdy improve her piano skills—yet another attempt to act in a totally self-determined fashion, as an expression of human freedom and good will, and as a repudiation of bad faith. If you have been paying attention to the film, the results are predictable, but they still land with crushing sadness: Birdy has no musical talent, and she mistakes his kindness for lust and tries to give him a blowjob while he’s driving. He begs her to stop, but it’s too late. He veers off the road and crashes in a nearby ditch, injuring both of them (it is the only moment in the film when we see him genuinely distressed). Once again, his instinct to act freely has been met with confusion and violence from a world in which true freedom is forbidden. The Paradox remains unsolved, and we even get an eloquent little monologue from Ed (eloquent by his standards, at least) expressing it:

When I walked home, it seemed like everyone avoided looking at me, as if I’d caught some disease. It was like I was a ghost walking down the street….I didn’t see anyone. No-one saw me. I was the barber.

Unidentified Objects

There’s something I haven’t mentioned—this movie is absolutely littered with images of aliens. It’s set in the 1950s, when Unidentified Flying Objects infected the public consciousness, and we see images of them over and over again: Ed reads about Roswell in the newspaper, the spinning tire from the car crash morphs into a flying saucer, Dave’s wife is paranoid that her husband was abducted by aliens, we see an alien-themed comic book in the prison, and finally, Ed is visited by actual aliens in the film’s penultimate scene.

The word alien comes from the Latin alienus (“strange, foreign”) from alius (“another, other, different”), which stems from the Proto-Indo-European root -al, meaning, poetically, “beyond”. Alien shares these roots with another word, a word that a philosophically-inclined reader might be surprised has not popped up in this piece yet. That word is “alienation.”

Alienation is the technical term for what I have been calling the Barber’s Paradox. The SEP defines it as “the estrangement of the self both from the world and from itself,” which certainly seems to capture Ed Crane’s situation, even filmically; we often see him isolated in the frame, staring off into nothingness (in one exquisite scene, he simply parks his car and watches the shadows dance on the wall of his house). Heidegger may have described this feeling as unheimlich (uncanny). All of these words are trying to capture the feeling of being foreign to oneself.

Close Encounters of the Existential Kind

In this movie, aliens symbolize their etymological cousin, alienation (it’s no coincidence that the Coen Brothers, one of whom touts a philosophy degree from Princeton, intuited this connection). The flying saucer symbol first shows up during the aforementioned car crash, which is perhaps the film’s darkest moment of alienation, and comes to be associated with existential angst. When Dave’s wife comes to Ed and warns him that UFOs are snatching people off the streets and spiriting them away, her moral panic is rooted not in a fear of literal aliens, but of figurative ones; a fear of the existentialists who walk among us undetected, threatening at any moment to convert (“abduct”) normal, well-meaning people to their dangerous philosophy of life. These aliens have the capacity to act freely and the ability to recognize the meaninglessness of the universe, both of which pose a threat to the status quo. Little does she know she is talking to one.

On this reading, The Man Who Wasn’t There shares DNA with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, released a decade later. Both are about aliens—one figurative, one literal—dropped in the midst of human society and forced to adapt. Both aliens are utterly affectless. (Oh, and they both star ScarJo, albeit in very different roles.) Like the protagonist of Under the Skin, Ed doesn’t quite understand how to function socially; he never talks, he never laughs at jokes, he never has sex with his wife, and he isn’t even perturbed to learn that she has cheated on him with another guy. He simply says, “It’s a free country.” Existentialists never change.

This film is rich enough to warrant many different interpretations. For example, there are many subtle indicators that Ed is a closeted homosexual, enumerated here. I think this reading would gel with my interpretation—being a gay man in the 50s would feel a lot like being an alien forced to disguise oneself as a human to fit in. There are also parallels to be drawn with the Red Scare; the aliens in Ann Nerdlinger’s paranoid monologue could just as well be commies as existentialists (although unlike the gay reading, there is no explicit evidence for this elsewhere in the film).

The penultimate scene, in which a flying saucer visits Ed while he is waiting for execution on Death Row, is perhaps the most enigmatic in a movie jam-packed with enigmas.

Seeing the light…

It’s the first time the audience sees a UFO up close, as opposed to in comic books, newspapers, and whispered rumors, and it’s also the first time our protagonist sees one. But given the analytic precedent we’ve established, we know the Coens are not showing us literal aliens—no, for the first time in his life, Ed is staring his own alienation in the face. The sequence becomes clearer when we put it in the correct context: as soon as Ed finishes the last page of his memoirs—in other words, when he is finally able to view his life as a completed “story”—he understands the Barber’s Paradox. The Coens reinforce with voice-over:

While you’re in the maze you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into dead ends, one thing after another…But get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life. It’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.

This echoes Nagel’s concept of the Absurd, the liberating feeling of stepping back and looking at your absurd little life from a distance, recognizing the “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality”. Most of the time, according to Nagel, we “ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.” But recognizing this absurdity gives Ed, as he says, a feeling of overwhelming peace. Once he acknowledges that his attempts to accommodate the world have utterly failed, that like all true paradoxes, the Barber’s Paradox cannot be resolved, he is able to accept his predicament. Having imparted this final wisdom, the aliens fly away into the Beyond, returning to their etymological homeland.

Ed nods and walks back to his prison cell.

Our hero does not try to escape his punishment; a good existentialist must accept the consequences of his actions. In the final scene in the execution room, we see several motifs of the film repeat—the attendants shave Ed’s legs, stripping him down in a now-familiar gesture. Ed notices that the onlookers have the haircuts that he gives to children at the barbershop, implying that the essence we carry around as adults was bestowed upon us long before we ever had our first job. The human is inducted into the anti-existentialist world at a young age. As Ed is strapped into the chair, he gives one of the more beautiful soliloquies in film history:

I don’t know what waits for me, beyond the earth and the sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.

For the Aristotelian, who believes everything can be sorted into neat labeled categories like BARBER, CRIMINAL, HUSBAND, etc., words are very useful because they delineate telos. But for the existentialist, words are not just futile, but insidious; they exacerbate the everpresent “fog” of human life. By their very nature, words cannot capture the unheimlich—the unidentified, and unidentifiable, objects of the universe. The philosopher Ethan Coen wrote his thesis on, Wittgenstein, has something to say about this: “There are things that cannot be put into words…They are what is mystical.” Ed is unafraid to say goodbye to life; finally he will be able to escape the shackles of human existence; finally he will leave the barbershop and embrace the Wittgensteinian mystical; finally, he will be fully enveloped by the nothingness that Sartre claims “lies coiled at the heart of human existence.” For Ed Crane, the Man Who Was Never There, death is the purest kind of life.

We hear the sound of a UFO opening its doors. Ed Crane—and this “clever tribute to the film noir genre”—is zapped away into the Beyond.

Eyes Wide Shut, Explained

The first thing we get in Eyes Wide Shut, out of the blue, is nudity:

Hardly an erotic shot. You need to build up to erotic nudity, just as you need to build up to orgasm—dropping it out of nowhere is more surprising than titillating. Kubrick is telling us that for this couple, Bill and Alice Harford, far from being hidden or shameful, nudity is a mere fact of life. This is compounded by further scenes where Bill clinically observes beautiful naked women without so much as batting an eye at their nakedness.

Here’s our first connection to the story of Adam and Eve—before they eat the fruit, Adam and Eve “were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Kubrick drops this on the audience in part to chide them for their horniness; here is a bunch of nudity, he says, if that’s what you wanted. But he knows it will be impossible to partake in the nudity given the surrounding. A girl unconscious from a drug overdose? A hospital patient? A woman sitting on the toilet preparing for a party? Kubrick totally desensitizes us to nudity, putting us in the mind of our modern-day Adam and Eve.  

So if Bill and Alice are Adam and Eve, a carefree bourgeois couple with no shame or real knowledge about the world, what is Eden? Well, God plants Eden “in the east.” What is the easternmost metropolis in America? New York. Here is our modern-day Eden to house our modern-day Adam and Eve, a wonderful land where all is provided to them. Eden is famously filled with plentiful fruit-bearing trees that are “pleasing to the eye.” Kubrick’s forest is populated by a different kind of tree, also pleasing to the eye:

Note the religious association: the Christmas lights on these trees mark them as “trees of God.” Despite all its darkness, the New York of Eyes Wide Shut is a holy forest. Wherever there is a Christmas tree, God is watching.

In Eyes Wide Shut, little serpents appear before the big one rears his head. At the party Bill and Alice attend, Alice is tempted by an elderly Hungarian man, and Bill is tempted by two young women who offer to take him “where the rainbow ends.” The rainbow combines the colors of the Christmas lights, representing God’s watchful eyes. Thus, going where the rainbow ends means straying away from God. (At this party, we do meet Nick Nightingale, our main Serpent, but he does not play a big role yet.) We also meet God at this party—fittingly, the host—a man named Victor Ziegler. He calls Bill up to help him with the overdosed woman, and we immediately get a sense of how powerful he is, how subservient Bill is to him.

Back at home, a strange sex scene plays out. Chris Isaak’s absurdly carnal voice accompanies the image of Alice staring at herself in the mirror with bemusement as Bill makes ardent love to her.

This was also featured on the film’s poster, so we know it warrants some attention. The obvious difference between the two: Bill’s eyes are shut, Alice’s are wide open. Sound familiar? “God knows that when you eat from [the fruit],” the serpent tells Eve, “your eyes will be opened.” So at this point on the film, Alice’s eyes are opening. She begins to regard her own naked body. As in the biblical tale, the woman is the first to be tempted.

We then get the infamous weed-induced argument between the two, a scene which infuriated many by halting the steamy sex for a seemingly endless session of pontification, acted in the strange, stilted style so unique to this film. At first, Alice seems jealous of Bill, but the conversation soon turns to Alice’s fantasies, and here we get a very important point in the film—Eve tempting Adam. Why would Alice tell Bill about her being enticed by the naval officer (another serpent), other than to invite him to indulge as well?

Their conversation kickstarts the main journey of the film, which is essentially Adam’s very protracted bite into the forbidden fruit. Bill is called to a patient’s home and a woman once again tries to seduce him; he manages to resist her advances, albeit after giving in to a kiss. Wandering the streets at night, images of Alice’s hypothetical affair haunt Bill. Many have read this as an expression of his jealousy. I think it’s much more selfish—Bill can’t get these images out his mind because he desires them for himself. He wants to bite into that plump, juicy fruit, but is scared because he knows he’s not supposed to.

It’s worth asking, at this point in the film, what exactly does the fruit represent? Sex outside of marriage? That’s certainly forbidden by society. At this point, though, it really just represents the ineffable concept of forbidden-ness itself; the hidden truths, the dark depths of our own souls and of the world around us. Bill doesn’t yet really know what fruit he’s about to bite into.

Bill is tempted by yet another serpent, the prostitute Domino, but with Christmas lights still present (the eyes of God), he cannot go through with it. He then travels to meet with Nick Nightingale, the main serpent of our story. (One difference between this and Genesis is that Bill meets the serpent. Adam never does.)

Nick paints a tempting view of what Bill will get if he eats from the fruit. “I’ve seen a few things in my life, but never anything like this…And I have never seen such women.” Kubrick reinforces the connection between eyes being opened and the fruit being eaten —Nick only saw these amazing sights because his “blindfold wasn’t tied on that well.” (It’s also worth noting that Nick refuses to say the name of the party’s hosts when Bill asks. You don’t say the name of God.)

To enter the party, Bill must buy a costume, just as Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” when they ate from the tree. And just as these cloth coverings represent blasphemy, Bill must leave the watchful eyes of God to see this party; to enter the costume store, he must quite literally travel “over the rainbow”:

After obtaining his costume, he finally heads to the mysterious party. Notice we are still surrounded by pines, but the Christmas lights are completely gone. God is not watching this part of the forest.

The famous orgy sequence contains multitudes. Although nudity abounds, note how un-sexual it all is; most guests just hang around, participating in strange Satanic rituals and chatting. Even the sex-havers don’t seem all that horny. They go through the motions, pumping and grunting, but it’s all very mechanistic. The real action seems to be these fucked-up rituals, which raise many questions—what’s the point of all this? Who are these people? Are these women here consensually? Bill eats it all up, gazing with mystified fascination at the goings-on.

In the original story, it’s a bit of a contradiction that God both creates and forbids this fruit; is it holy or not? Is it blessed by God or not? Kubrick preserves this contradiction. In the film, as I mentioned, the eyes of God (Christmas lights) are gone from the trees, but what we hear at the ritual seems to contradict this. “Auov uad auon acnurop ias iicinecu ertac iulunmod asiz,” drones a voice. Flipping each word around, this becomes a Romanian translation of a Bible passage, which translates to “And God told to his apprentices…I gave you a command…to pray to the Lord for the mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, the search, the leave and the forgiveness of the sins of God’s children. The ones that pray, they have mercy and they take good care of this holy place.” So God is present at this party (quite literally, we later learn!) even if it remains in some sense godless.

Let’s think more about that damned fruit. The New International Version describes it as “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” These seem to be two separate features—tastiness/visual beauty and wisdom—both appealing, but in different ways. I think in Eyes Wide Shut the fruit can be similarly divided into two parts: sexual depravity, and the even darker stuff that lurks beneath. Everyone in our society knows about sexual depravity—in 1999, BDSM, roleplaying and plenty of other fetishes had long been mainstreamed. So just as Eve can tell even before she eats the apple that it’s “good for food,” the orgy is immediately enticing to Bill, “good” in a language he can understand. The darker and more important part of the fruit—knowledge of good and evil—comes later, but at least he gets to savor the delicious taste first.

After they eat from the tree, Adam and Eve become ashamed, and shame is beginning to dawn on Bill and Alice as well. Bill returns home and Alice tearfully confesses yet another dream of getting fucked by the naval officer while Bill watches. Bill’s lighthearted demeanor of the film’s first act has fallen away; now he is somber and vaguely horrified by the world around him.

God warns Adam and Eve, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” When he returns to the mansion in the morning, Bill is handed a note that makes a similar threat, although more obliquely, hoping “for his own good” that he gives up his investigation. In other words, that he spit out the fruit while it’s still in his mouth. But he’s too fascinated and intrigued to spit it out. Far from it; he bites deeper. He learns that Mandy, a woman at the party, has been found dead, presumably murdered as some kind of Satanic sacrifice. He has now moved past the “good for food” element of the fruit and is encountering the “knowledge of good and evil” part. I assume I don’t have to go into this in detail, but there exists a giant conspiracy in the world of Eyes Wide Shut, a massive secret ring run by elites, practicing Satan-worshipping, sex trafficking, pedophilia, and murder. Not far from the Epstein Island recently revealed to the unsuspecting public. This is the world of evil that lurks beneath, and you learn about it when you bite into that cursed fruit. (Bill also learns, as if this wasn’t enough awful enlightenment, that Domino is HIV-positive. More darkness lurking beneath the lurid surface.)

Much like Adam and Eve are chased around the garden “in the cool of the day” by God after their transgression, Bill soon finds himself pursued by a mysterious man, presumably a messenger of Ziegler, through the streets of New York. God cannot let Adam escape surveillance after he has tasted the fruit.

Bill also learns that as a punishment for inviting him to the orgy, Nick has been brutally beaten and kidnapped by Ziegler’s men. A witness notes that as he was carried away, he had “a bruise on his cheek.” This echoes God’s punishment for the serpent—that he must crawl on his belly, but more importantly that his head will be crushed.

In the film’s climax, Ziegler summons Bill to his offices. Ziegler explains that he was present at the orgy, that Mandy merely died of an accidental overdose, and that Nick is safe back in Seattle. Then, Ziegler doubles down on the threat, warning Bill never to look into this world again. Here is where Eyes Wide Shut departs significantly from the Biblical parable: in this story, God lets Adam and Eve off with a slap on the wrist. In the original, he forever banishes them and their descendants from Eden. Kubrick opted for a less extreme, more haunting conclusion, one that (as we shall soon see) is nonetheless far from happy.

Bill returns home from his meeting with God. He shuts off the Christmas lights; shame has engulfed him completely; he can no longer bear the piercing eyes of God. In the bedroom he finds Alice asleep with an orgy mask placed on the pillow next to her, presumably sent by Ziegler as a final threat. He breaks down, crying into her shoulder, and she begins to cry too. They have both fully consumed the fruit; this innocent bourgeois couple can never unsee the horrifying depths of evil in the world. You can get rid of ignorance, but you can’t get rid of knowledge.

Which brings us to the final scene of Eyes Wide Shut, one of the more elegant endings in film history. Bill and Alice go Christmas shopping with their daughter. At the department store, the Christmas lights sparkle; the eyes of God are back upon them; they are back in Eden. A happy ending?

Alice certainly seems to think so. She says they are “awake” again, and that they should basically forget about what happened the previous night—”the reality of one night,” she says, “can [n]ever be the whole truth.” Bill knows she’s fooling herself—she doesn’t want to wake up, she wants to go back to sleep, back to the comfort of ignorance.

The film’s famous final word—”fuck”—encapsulates her possibly fruitless (no pun intended) desire. She wants to become naked again, to fuck without a care in the world, to spit out the fruit and remain in Eden. Fittingly, we never hear Bill’s response—Kubrick cuts to black after that final request. He does this to preserve ambiguity. Will Bill accept Alice’s request to close their eyes once again, to tie the blindfold tight and distract themselves with a world of materialistic pleasure? Or is he in too deep—will he be forever scarred by the knowledge that the fruit has brought upon him, unable to look at the world the same way?

We don’t know. Part of what made Kubrick such a brilliant filmmaker was his insistence on shying away from easy answers, and so while he borrows many elements from the Adam and Eve tale, he does not borrow its moralistic fire-and-fury ending. Eyes Wide Shut also doesn’t share the Bible’s reverent view of God; Ziegler is a vastly evil man, not even slightly benevolent. But Kubrick does borrow the biblical tale’s ultimate message: that knowledge is a curse. To truly know the world is to peel back all the decorations, the costumes, the euphemisms (“the rainbow”), the fake storefronts, the blindfolds, the masks, even the fake New York that Kubrick constructed on a London soundstage…to truly know the world is to see it without all these things, naked. And that is a truly terrifying sight.

The Myth of Pure Comedy

Whenever a comedian gets in trouble for their material, the reaction is polarized. On the one side are the comedian’s critics, who claim the jokes were promoting a bad ideology or were promulgating negative stereotypes. In stark contrast stand the comedian’s defenders, who themselves are outraged at the outrage. The defenders can be found with fists pumping in Youtube comment sections, Rotten Tomatoes user reviews, and on the mics of hangout podcasts. They often express their concerns with phrases like “it’s just comedy” or “they’re just jokes.”

Take Dave Chappelle’s newest special “Sticks and Stones” as an example of this. The great comedian’s return was universally lauded by fans and comedians, and universally derided by critics. Its critics score on Rotten Tomatoes is 35%. Its audience score? 99% positive. Critics were outraged at what they perceived as Chappelle’s offensive and insensitive jokes. For example, he makes a joke about a Chinese person trapped inside a black person’s body, conveyed through a stereotypical Chinese accent – multiple outlets accused him of racism. The audience, however, thought everyone should just lighten up.

Weeding through what is a joke and what is a message (and what is both) in comedy can be hard, but it is not a fruitless task. Comedians do mean some of the things they say, and to deny this is to denigrate the validity of comedy as a truth-seeking art form.

Critics are, in fact, too easily offended. The “Chinese person” joke, for example, was completely misinterpreted – critics at websites like Salon and Vice thought the comedy was derived from how funny Chinese stereotypes are. Rather, the joke is exploring what we call racist; if a Chinese person speaks with a Chinese accent, that’s normal, but if a black person speaks with the exact same accent, it is seen as an exaggerated racist stereotype. The joke was doing what comedy does best: making a point about the contradictions and confusions of everyday language and ethics.

Notice that my defense of the joke was a defense of its central idea, not an exoneration by its very nature as humor. If Chappelle was making fun of Chinese people with the joke, I would agree with the critics that he shouldn’t have made the joke.

The greatest comedy is truthful. It doesn’t always state a simple opinion, but it always gets at something we can connect to, often something that had previously only existed in the murky waters of our subconscious. Louis CK’s “Of course, but maybe” bit from his special “Oh My God” is one of my favorite examples of comedy that dredges intuition and uncertainty from the subconscious.

In the bit, CK points out that murder and slavery have been crucial in the technological and cultural development of mankind. In other words, bad things need to happen for good things to happen. The joke dwells on the discomfort of this problem (more technically stated, the deontological/utilitarian clash in philosophy). It is memorable and funny because it’s painfully true.

Some comedy, though, argues for bad ideas. Although Chappelle’s first special “Killin’ em Softly” is hilarious, it often argues for wrongheaded ideas. He jokes about how white people are private about their political opinions, while black people are very vocal about them (“I’ll whoop George Bush’s ass!”). Many sketches from Chappelle’s Show play on similar stereotypes – in one, he plays drums, eliciting a jubilant reaction from blacks, and then plays electric piano, eliciting a jubilant reaction from Latinos. These jokes play on racial stereotype, and nothing more. I am skeptical of their validity as statistical claims – in fact, it’s likely they only seem true to us because of stereotype. I have never actually seen a black person say they will assault a politician, but I laughed at the joke because I know American racial stereotypes fairly well.

These jokes promote bad ideas, and we should take that seriously. If we excuse all jokes of this kind because they are jokes, then we must also throw away any appreciation for the truth-seeking of good humor. It’s an insult to the worth of comedy to say anything is “just jokes”: nothing is just a joke.

There are more nebulous cases. Here is CK joke about rape: “Obviously you should never rape anyone, unless you have a reason, like you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you, in which case what other option do you have?” Perhaps the joke comes from some kind of sympathy for rapists. Another way to look at it is that he is highlighting the absurdity of rape, i.e. showing that it has no real justifications. Clearly rape has no justifications, so it’s unclear whether the joke is arguing for something bad or not.

A lot of humor falls into this halfway category. The comedian is neither completely sincere in their ridiculous statement, nor are they completely joking. But we don’t have to reject the idea of humor as a method of delving for truth to admit that we can’t know the answer for every case.

I think comedy is important, as philosophy and as psychology. Great comedians use laughter as a tool to reach deep into our psyches and pull out uncomfortable, sometimes terrifying things. It’s giving this vital part of our culture short change to say that unfounded and misleading comedy is “just jokes,” and that we shouldn’t take it so seriously. Strangely enough, comedy is no laughing matter. 

The Psychology of Serial Killer Movies

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is known for the fact that the main character is killed halfway through the movie. In 1960, when the film was released, this was an unprecedented dissection of a traditional character arc – conflict set-up, drive to accomplishment, resolution. However, it is not just innovative as a story structure; it is innovative as a fictional presentation of a serial killer.  

Most serial killer movies follow a similar structure. The killer is set up as a killer, and then commits a series of grisly murders. Sometimes it is from the perspective of the killer, as in American Psycho, Monster and My Friend Dahmer, other times it is from the perspective of the investigators, as in Seven, Zodiac and Memories of Murder. Often, these deaths are preceded by a short vignette from the victim’s life. Before they are killed by the Zodiac killer, we see a California couple talking and enjoying a romantic picnic.

This structure provokes a cycle of anticipation and catharsis in the viewer. When we are presented with a random new character going through their everyday life, we know they will eventually be killed, and so these scenes become the most exciting. We wait for them to be killed, and there is a bloody satisfaction when they are. In these films, the entire story is now centered around the killer. There is only the killer, the police, and a world of faceless victims.”

Psycho radically breaks this structure. It’s a movie about what it is like to be killed. It is told not from the eyes of a killer, but from the eyes of his victim. Instead of devoting a three minute vignette to the victim before killing them off to the audience’s satisfaction, Hitchcock devotes 45 minutes – half of the film –  to exploring the main character, Marion Crane. We get to know her as a person, and though she is not an especially good one, she is far from the worst that Hitchcock had put on the big screen. There is a small plot about Crane embezzling money from her employer, mainly written in to create the illusion that the film will be about her theft. Despite the crime she commits, we gain sympathy for Marion, and by the 45-minute-mark, Hitchcock has thoroughly put us inside her perspective.

Then, he tears the rug out from under us. After a long and leisurely scene in which she flushes evidence down a toilet and showers, she is suddenly murdered by an unknown assailant in the shower. It’s so shocking because it transgresses the story arc we are used to seeing. We didn’t know this was going to be a serial killer movie until then (part of the reason why Hitchcock took incredible measures to keep the plot a secret). We weren’t expecting her death, while reveling in the anticipation of the killer’s violence. Instead, we were genuinely invested in Marion as a person – through the power of fictional connection, we became her for 45 minutes. Her death is our death; it is the death of a real person.

Psycho was, and still is, a radical approach to serial killer films. Even the Robert Bloch novel upon which the film is based conforms to all the other serial killer stories. In the novel, Norman Bates is introduced from the beginning, setting the timer for the murder. Hitchcock’s brilliance came in the form of subverting the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle of storytelling, employed by Bloch in his novel.

Chekhov’s gun is the idea that: “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” In Psycho, the gun is fired, but we were never shown it hanging on the wall. This is what violent death is really like. It is unexpected, out of nowhere – it cuts our stories short. Victims of homicide do not pop into existence three minutes earlier in order to be killed. They had lives of their own that were abruptly ended (without any setup and payoff) by their aggressor. All other serial killer movies use the fabric of storytelling. Psycho rejects it.