Get Out

Get Out

Get Out is precisely the film New Horror needed: an interracial, urban-centered, post-modern film with high production value and mass appeal. While much has been made of the supposed cultural and political topics covered by the film, the artistry of the film is more similar to recent horror hits like You’re Next, We are What we Are, etc., than a horror-fied Social Justice messaging platform. Given that no one comes here for my socio-political interpretations of art (I tend to leave that to my peers), I’ll focus on analyzing the aesthetic qualities that make this movie such a masterpiece of modern horror cinema.

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The protagonist, Chris, is not a stock character. He grew up with no father and a mother who died young, but this has nothing explicitly to do with “the dope game” or some stereotypical urban tragedy. His trauma is extremely relatable to all audiences- it’s a real response of sublimation and uncertainty. He is approached multiple times about Obama, but he’s not at all enthusiastic about the topic. His friends have nothing to do with “the street.” In fact, his best is a highly insightful TSA agent that offers classic, old-fashioned comic relief through out the film. The socio-political fabric of this film is somewhat fluid and ill defined.

This vague cultural backdrop can be seen as integral to the aesthetic of the film, and that’s why I mention it. There isn’t a strong nostalgia for a concrete cultural norm or narrative from the beginning onward. This places squarely in the deeply post-modern camp of horror being pioneered by films such as the VHS series, where the locus of alienation and pathology in the narrative is built from the bottom-up. We take the journey of disorientation and despair with the protagonist. This new aesthetic bent growing in the horror genre is extremely refreshing and regenerative, keeping horror on the cutting edge of cultural critique and relevancy.

While this film features a fresh narrative and aesthetic, it also makes charming allusions to horror films of the past. The family of Chris’s girlfriend, Rose, employs two employees to run their country estate- the location of the horror portion of the film. These black employees use an intonation and manner of speaking that will be instantly familiar to fans of cult-horror classics like White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. It appropriates an uncomfortable stereotyping made of black folks that was common with Caribbean-located tales of plantation workers turned zombies; vacuous, docile, and disturbingly pliant. This stereotype becomes intriguingly inverted as it turns out these presumed “black” zombies are white people’s brains living inside lobotomized black folks.

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Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (a.k.a. Whistler’s Mother)– James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871

Cinematography

 

The horror genre has long utilized tonalistic approaches to creating atmosphere in its cinematography. That is, directors have looked to controlled, limited, or compressed value and color ranges to give an impression of moodiness, brooding, spookiness, mystery, etc. The image above is a famous example of a restrained tonalist aesthetic from James Abbott McNeill Whistler (Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1oil on canvas, 1871).

The reasons for this are many: it links to horror’s roots in European Romantic movements, it connects to sensations of low-visibility (and the resulting fantasies of the imagination), it helps demarcate a relatively safe, separate, dystopian space to enjoy the dark or frightening content remotely, etc. The clip below of horror classic Nosferatu demonstrates this approach to creating atmosphere.

 

Nosferatu Stairs
Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, 1922

 

Get Out forgoes relying on this tonalist cinematography to create its own visual language. While scenes such as Chris witnessing the grounds keeper exercising at night (below) use this effect for distinct purposes, it’s also arguable that the night or late afternoon scenes where this is used are merely naturalistic. It’s natural for there to be lower value and color ranges in certain settings.

Get Out Movie Excercise at Night
Get Out, grounds keeper exercises at night while Chris is out for a smoke

 

Anyone who’s ever spent much time in up-state New York will recognize the seasonal, cool light in Get Out’s suburban New York setting. Having spent time there myself during the Fall season, Get Out appears to be very natural in its over-all camera work and filtering. Interestingly enough, Chris himself is a photographer with an eye for what’s described as “brutal” realism by the gallery owner who later purchases him in an attempt to enslave Chris for his eyesight.

It’s that “brutal” edge that Chris is supposedly know for that gives the film its most remarkable aesthetic persona. We get a brief glimpse of Chris’s sensibilities during the establishing shots of the film in a montage of his work set to nostalgically urban music. The most iconic sequence of the film features this prominently, as the tears on Chris’s face are vividly visible while he becomes entranced by Rose’s mother (below).

 

Get Out Crying Face

 

Of final note is the general aesthetic cohesion of the film. Get Out manages to create a dramatic, compelling synergy out of the harmony of the various aesthetic elements of the film. The Soundtrack manages to evoke and portend the mood of the film perfectly, for example. In the opening credit scene, upstate New York forests blur in cool light past the viewer as the film’s discordant motif of the film’s sinister elements provides a queasy mood. It flows, as mentioned above, into the warm, familiar soulfulness of urban music in Chris’s home setting. The soundtrack varies from uncomfortably old-timey to hauntingly spiritual, always managing to evoke the proper emotion. It manages to be forward looking and respectful of the genre’s historical sensibilities in a refreshing manner.

In conclusion, Get Out will likely be remembered as an achievement in contemporary horror. It gets political, but no one side comes out as the clear “winner.” It addresses fears of autonomy and control while being anchored in a specific, well-formed narrative. In this way, it is a distinctly lyrical horror film- a film that comes from a deeply personal place but is universally relatable.

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Gallery Show of Mike Van at White Lotus Gallery, Eugene, Oregon

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On Saturday October 22nd, 2016, I attended the art opening of Eugene artists Mike Van and Connie Mueller. Mike Van also happens to be my grandfather, so this was a really great event for me and chance to do a little documenting of his career as an artist.

After a brief couple of speeches from the artists, in which Mike spoke about the mix of more recent works inspired by a unique Spring of 2016 in the Willamette valley and Connie remarking on the growing complexity of her impressive reduction prints, I had a chance to document the event some. I’ve included a gallery of images taken from my liveblog on my instagram page for this site. If you haven’t visited my instagram page before, it’s where I typically post a couple of paintings from the Renaissance through the 20th century and make a few concise observations about the work- much lighter fare than what I post on this site but also very fun and interactive. You can visit that page at @coupdedesart. I also have started doing liveblogs when I visit museums and galleries- this and the previous visit to the De Young in San Francisco (I posted it to this site too!) were so popular I will probably make this a regular thing as time allows.

A couple of things I noticed about this show is that over the years, the image of the crow has been prominent in the work of Mike Van. This has often been an image we can see as a totem or symbol in his work, signifying perhaps everything from a cryptic link between ourselves and our natural surroundings to the struggles we face in interfacing with those surroundings. While images such as “Bather” further this motif via the difficult to interpret actions and personae of the crows, images such as “Me?” are playful with the concept of meta-commentary and examine the psyche of those otherwise totemic characters. “More Cowbell” is a comical title that showcases the young-at-heart levity of the artist (the title being a reference to the Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Christopher Walken about the recording of “Don’t Fear the Reaper).

As I mentioned, this was a lot of fun for me. If you’d like to see more of this kind of contemporary art gallery commentary (specific to the Northwest, more or less ), leave a comment on this page and let me know! I may end up doing more of this in the future, we’ll see!

By the deathbed Edvard Munch 1915 Symbolist art painting 1915

“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch

1915 By the Deathbed (Fever) oil on canvas 174 x 230 cm Munch Museum, Oslo.jpg
“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch (1915)

 

Edvard Munch was an artist given to obsession over graphic notions: his most famous image, “The Scream,” actually had four different versions¹. Other compositions had dozens of versions in pastels, lithographs, oil paintings, and woodblocks. Insofar as Munch’s was an art of iteration, how can we discuss an isolated work? I propose here to focus on one such piece- his 1915 painting By the Deathbed– and draw in to a limited extent references to a few additional articulations of essentially the same compositions.

 

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In all of the versions of By the Deathbed, Munch situates a figure stretched out facing away from the viewer. A cluster of mourners crowd the side of the bed in each work, though the expressions of the mourners vary in each piece: in the pastel version, a feeling of deference to the deceased/deceasing pervades; in the oil paint version from 1895, we see the central male mourner (interestingly the character with the most detail infused into the image) in a more pleading mode. In all of the versions, grief is the predominant mood, with the ages of the female figures varying widely over the different pieces.

In the 1915 version of the painting, the version of the painting I’d like to focus on, Munch uses the same characters for the most part, but the mood and tenor of expressions is much more subtle and uncertain: the older male mourner holds his hands before him, with an expression that could be of deep prayerfulness, pleading (like the 1895 version), or even relief. It is harder to say with certainty what he expresses, and that makes this version of the painting perhaps the most accomplished one.

The nearest figure to the viewer- a female figure- has an almost other-worldly face and expression. She looks like a mask, a clown, or an opera actress highly made-up for the occasion. Her lips are tight and her emotions difficult to ascertain. She stretches her hand out intently, perhaps to grab the medicine bottle before her so as to keep herself preoccupied in the midst of the dreary scene. Perhaps the duties of caring for the dead/dying man falls to her as the others are lost in their own thoughts and feelings. The remaining figures are impossible to discern, as they lack normal human features. Their unnatural coloring says more about their mood than anything else- a woman has a bright red face, perhaps quarreling with the dead person or even with God; the man at her side’s green face betraying nausea and discontent.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is the wallpaper behind the group. Whereas some of the unease and tension of the composition in other versions of this painting comes from the strange perspective over the elongated body of the lying figure, in this piece from 1915, we see a warping and metaphysical distortion of space echoing from the man to the mourners. The pattern of the wallpaper unevenly melts upward and careens toward the mourners in increasingly dark and maroon tones. Interestingly, a common pigment name for that maroon color in Europe was “Caput Mortuum,” or “Death’s Head.”²

This 1915 version is not the only version of the composition to feature strange wallpaper- the pastel version from 1893 replaces the pattern of wallpaper for morbid, grotesque heads and skulls lining the wall. These figures seem to taunt the dying man as he crosses the threshold into death, many of them amused and smiling. This might suggest to us that Munch saw the melting wallpaper as the patched fiber of spiritual fabric surrounding the scene, warping or expanding as the metaphysical balance of the room changes with the death of the lying figure. This more subtle suggestion of the supernatural impact of a death and the prayers and grief of the survivors makes the 1915 version of the painting more compelling and inviting as a viewer.

In conclusion, it would not be fair to say that every successive iteration an artist makes of a core concept improves or enhances the idea. There are times when the purest expression of a graphic idea is the first expression. Nonetheless, the range of moods and experiences, as well as the mystical possibilities of the piece are more refined in this image of Munch’s. The viewer can, in this piece, find comfort, grief, and transcendence within it, whereas other versions focus on articulating one particular impression of the scene.

the pursuit Leon Spillaert Belgian symbolist painter of night and nocturnal painting

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert

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“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert (1910)

 

The Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert was an artist preoccupied by nocturnal themes- images of disorientation, loneliness, exuberance, etc, populate his oeuvre. The Pursuit is a unique painting among his work for a number of reasons. I want to draw attention to how this piece is both exemplary of Spilliaert’s style and exceptional for its darker motif and suggestive title.

The first thing about this image worth noting is that it indeed fits well within Spilliaert’s area of visual interest: The span of the road leading up to the bridge, the strange and elongated perspective, the use of a very narrow range of color yet a broad range of value (i.e. gradient of tone from light to dark), the peculiar and enchanting quality of evening/night-time light, and the effect of light on moving water are all classic motifs among his body of work. The eery effect of the perspective of the image, for example, fits in with both his fascination with exaggerated expanses of bare space and his taste for creating disorientation or discomfort. The two images below- Moon and Light and Dyke and Beach– illustrate his penchant for these themes, yet The Pursuit seems to bring them together in the same space.

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“Moon and Light,” Leon Spilliaert (1909)

 

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“Dyke and Beach,” Leon Spilliaert (1907)

What sets The Pursuit apart from much of his work is that while Spilliaert was typically content with a suggestion of uneasiness, fear, loneliness, and even menace in his works, both his use of the title “pursuit” and his inclusion of two figures chasing each other is more overtly assertive about the tension in the image. For example, Moon and Light might be seen as an expression of vertigo. At the same time, it might merely be a feeling of awe at a unique alignment of perspectival elements and colors.

In keeping with Spilliaert’s character as an artist, even with the suggestion of a chase through the night in a haunting and disconcerting space, the viewer is not certain what kind of pursuit is happening: it could be friends leaving the bar, drunkenly joking with each other; it could be unsupervised children playing in the twilight hour, bored as they wait for their supper; or it could be as sinister as a robber and his victim. As I’ve written before of Spilliaert in my article on his painting Nightthe playfulness with his audience about whether his work is brooding or buoyant elevates his work out of what might otherwise be moody and macabre into a unique space that is uncertain and requires inference and repeated engagement by the viewer to this day.

Franz Kafka's The Castle and the trial

Lost in a File-cabinet: Kafka’s ‘The Castle’

The specter of bureaucracy was not only looming on the horizon of Europe when Franz Kafka wrote his unfinished novel The Castle, its nightmares had already begun to manifest themselves in everyday life. The Russian authors Dostoevskii and Gogol, two authors Kafka had been influenced by, had already explored the dark side of bureaucracy. Kafka did not merely follow this tradition, he created a masterpiece that defies anachronism. In a literary world where bureaucracy was taken for granted, Kafka looked beyond frustration into its yet unexplored realms- particularly, to the phenomenon of insinuating oneself in the system. How can one purposefully entangle oneself with a bureaucracy and make it beneficial? Kafka seems to be looking at precisely that.

K., the protagonist of the novel, is deceitful from the very beginning. He wanders in to a village one night, and even admits originally that he has no idea where he is: “’What village is this I have wandered into? Is there a castle here? (4)’” Of course, if he was supposed to be there, he would not need to ask where he was. Only after being informed that he was to be ejected from the place does he concoct the story of being the awaited Land-surveyor. The blatant lie serves the purpose of getting him out of immediate trouble and buying him time, for it would take some effort to completely disprove his claim.

The Land-surveyor is supposed to have two servants. K. claims that they are his old assistants, even going so far as to claim that they have an apparatus which he gave them with them. When he meets them for the first time, he admits that he does not know them, and then asks them if they are indeed his old servants. They claim that they are, but admit that they have no apparatus. Later in the book, however, one of the servants acknowledges to K. that he was sent by the Castle to cheer him up. The Castle must have known already that K. was lying then, and took advantage of this by insinuating two spies into K.’s everyday life. If K. had truly come as the Land-surveyor, he would not have accepted the two as servants as his old servants.

At one point, K. even admits that everything has been a big con. K. recalls how if it weren’t for Schwarzer, the man he first lied to in the inn upon arriving, there would be no question of him being a Land-surveyor, and he would be involved with the bureaucratic process, but not on his own terms: “The authorities would have pursued the matter further, but calmly, in the ordinary course of business, unhorsed by what they probably hated most, the impatience of a waiting applicant (217).” The fact that it was K. who first engaged the bureaucracy, with a case that couldn’t be settled either way by a miserably dysfunctional government, gave K. all the power. If it was the bureaucracy who came to K., this book would be The Trial all over again.

The sham is even recognized by K.’s fiancee, Frieda. K. tries to enlist a child in a deceitful game against his mother, the deceit of which Frieda recognizes instantly. The deceit of K. in that particular situation is then extended by Frieda into their entire affair: “’To me, you looked just as you did that night when you came into the taproom… and I saw how he had fallen under your influence so completely already, well, what great difference was there between him, the poor boy, being exploited here by you, and myself that time in the taproom? (206)’” K.’s response is that what Frieda has said is not untrue. For K., being with Frieda was just another way to gain connection to the Castle, on account of her relationship with Klamm.

The fact that the real object for K. is not to gain access to the Castle is made apparent early on: “’My assistants should be arriving soon. Will you be able to put them up here?’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ he said, ‘but won’t they be staying with you up at the Castle?’… ‘That’s not at all certain yet,’ said K.; ‘I must first find out what work I have to do… I’m afraid, too, that life in the Castle wouldn’t suit me. I like to be my won master (9).’” At this point, it was not difficult for K. to create a fake purpose, so why not make an attempt at this point to gain access to the Castle? Not long thereafter he doesn’t take advantage of an opportunity to accompany Barnabas to the Castle. Though there is no apparent risk involved, he creates one in his mind to make it easier to decline.

The objective is to involve himself in a protracted engagement with the power structure of the society he’d wandered into. Though he is told that he won’t be admitted to the Castle, he has no real reason to believe that it is really that risky to at least attempt. If it were simply a matter of getting behind the walls, there’s no reason to believe that the goal is unobtainable. He is even told later by the sister of Barnabas, Olga, that there are people who simply wander into the Castle and ask for a job. As K. claims himself, “he had not come here simply to lead an honored and comfortable life (200).” If he mad a claim on a job that could actually be obtained, the matter might eventually be settled, ending K.’s game.

Learning quickly how deeply ineffectual the local system is, K.’s insistence that he has a right to be in the village only increases. First setting his sights on a visit with the mayor, he then insists on meeting Klamm, an official of the Castle, himself. The meeting with the mayor tells a great deal about the system under which the village operates. A convoluted story is told by the mayor about the Land-surveyor situation. A search ensues for the documents about the Land-surveyor problem, the result of which is the revelation that the documents are completely lost. The scene is like a metaphor for the entire novel: just as K.’s case as the non-Land-surveyor becomes lost in endless bureaucracy, documents- which may or may not have ever existed- are lost in the “filing system,” and all action is doomed to postponement. All of this is to K.’s advantage, for as long as he has a case nominally existing in the system, he has a connection to the system.

One reason that being entrenched in bureaucratic processes is beneficial to K. is that it is the only way anything ever happens in the village/Castle society. Olga tells K. of how her father tried to circumvent the bureaucracy, and reach the officials directly: he sat on the Castle hill road and waited for the officials to pass by, so that he could petition them directly. The officials drive very fast, never stop, and have no time for him, however. She also tells K. that her father was the only one trying such a futile way to get to the Castle, and that everyone with common sense would banish the thought of doing so. The point of the story is that no one ever circumvents bureaucracy, and no one ever reaches the officials.

Olga’s own attempts at connection to the Castle are less dignified, but perhaps more reasonable considering the circumstances of village life: “’For more than two years, at least twice a week, I’ve spent the night with the servants in the stables (285).’” She admits that her actions are almost hopeless and undeniably ineffectual,but insists to K. that she is making at least some connection to the Castle. The “crime” of the family that has reduced t˝hem to desperate measures to gain connection to the Castle was that the family declined the greater connection (through Sortini) to the Castle that was freely given. This is not to say that Castle connections are good or worthwhile: observe the case of the Landlady. Nonetheless, in a world dominated by bureaucracy, those who shun it are punished.

In conclusion, though K.’s case is never settled, can’t it be said that things ended well for K.? He managed to drag out his struggle with the Castle over his petty case, and thus maintained his coveted connection to the Castle. In all likeliness, that might be the best that can be achieved, for there is no real reason to believe that direct interaction with the officials can even happen. In the meantime, he got to run free through the village, involving himself in all kinds of intrigue- the pastime of society ruled by impersonal and deeply entrenched bureaucracy.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken, 1974.

King Kong and Alien Horror Movie

Repression of the Monstrous Id in Horror FIlm

The Horror genre of cinema has always been connected to psychology. This is because Horror is tied so closely to fear, and what we fear and why is a matter that psychology concerns itself with. A particularly strong fear is the fear of that which is unknown, but unknown because it has been repressed- the “uncanny.” One of the most uncanny situations possible is an encounter with the something resembling the Id in the outside world. Here, I will compare two Horror films in terms of confrontations with the Id by the protagonist and the differences that arise when the protagonist is male or female: Alien and King Kong.

In Freudian psychology, the Id is the source of our “libido”- that is, the “drive,” typically sexual, to do things. The Id is fully unconscious, operating on primary processes- namely, the “pleasure principle.” The Ego and Super-ego are usually at odds with the instincts of the Id, and its pressures are frequently countered and repressed by the Ego and Super-ego. In a society, the Id cannot very well achieve full satisfaction. The tragedy of Oedipus- a story where a man is put in a position to kill his father, gain power, and marry his mother- can be considered as an example of the social misery caused by Id gratification.

Ostensibly a tale of adventure to a dangerous, uncharted island to film a natural marvel- a gigantic monkey that terrorizes natives and dinosaurs- King Kong can also be read as a highly uncanny showdown between the Ego/protagonist (Jack Driscoll) and the monster/Id (Kong). Harvey Greenberg, in his essay King Kong: The Beast in the Boudoir- or, “You Can’t Marry That Girl, You’re a Gorilla!,” notes the possible psychical connection of Kong and Driscoll: “at another level Driscoll and his simian adversary are also two sides of the same adolescent ego. For Kong may be read as Driscoll’s naked ape, Driscoll’s unconscious pubescent lust (345).”

An ape as an Id works perfectly in the psychical analysis of this film. If the Id is “primal” in Freud’s psychology, the inflated monkey can be easily identified as a symbol for it. Going back to a time before society, before Ego and Super-ego developed in our evolution, the ape is almost a proto-human. He acts entirely on instinct- what Freud called libido. His seizure of Anne and subsequent attempt to horde her away is not something terribly practical or useful to him in any rational, long-term way, as exemplified by his confusion and awkward pawing of her in their brief moment alone sans dinosaur interlopers. Irrational, insatiable, uncompromising, and even “passionate,” Kong is the receptacle for the desires forbidden Driscoll. It is, after all, only after Driscoll enters into a confusing new relationship with Anne that Kong is let loose upon her.

This psychoanalytical reading is made all the easier by the fact that Driscoll lends himself so very well to being read as adolescent. The typical clumsy adolescent male, before he has introduced himself he has already accidentally hit Anne in the face. Apparently in the ‘latency-stage,” i.e. the stage where women are ignored or disliked by the socializing young man, Driscoll’s apologies and follow-up statements resemble unsocialized teenage conversation (Greenberg 342): “(women) are a nuisance. You’re alright, but women can’t help being a bother, just made that way.”

Submitting to the order of the latency-stage camaraderie in word, Driscoll offers a “you think I’m to fall for anyone?” to Denham- the alpha pup apparent on the hunt for Kong- in response to Denham’s expression of anxiety over Driscoll’s recognition of Anne. Denham’s misogyny is very characteristic of the stage in a young man’s life when he has decided to suppress all erotic designs on his mother and focus entirely on his relationships with his same-sex buddies. Driscoll, however, seems to have unconsciously entered a new phase in his development by secretly caring for Anne. Hinting at the feelings he harbors for Anne secretly, Driscoll’s “I wish you would have stayed on board” declarations to Anne while on the island lack the chauvinistic quality of his earlier statements, the aims of which seemed to be to push Anne away because she could simply never be interesting to a boy like him.

Driscoll’s round-about declaration of love further suggests the timid, unsocialized confusion of adolescent sexuality: “I’m scared for you- I’m sort of scared of you too. Anne, I… uh, I guess I love you!” Anne’s “I thought you hated women” is followed up, after all, not by a thoroughly mature acknowledgement of the absurdity of hating and fearing what he had not yet come to understand, but something far more ambivalent: “I know. But you aren’t women.” If he were so far past the adolescent stage of development, he would long ago have created some kind of compromise about women, even if terribly conflicted.

The counter to Driscoll’s burgeoning complex, socialized adult consciousness is Kong- a wild beast of singular, if irrational or confused, intent. Whereas Driscoll develops his feelings for Anne in quiet and over time, Kong walks up, takes Anne in hand and carries her away regardless of her response. If Driscoll was the socializing adolescent, Kong is the ever unsocialized, ever irrational primate at his primary level. He is the voice of the instinct to take the girl, who he has for the first recognized as an object of interest, and explore his unreasoned designs with her outside the symbolic order.

The ultimate victory over Kong, with whom the viewer has learned to identify to some degree, is not only the typical death of the tragic hero. It remarkably resembles repression. Having temporarily lost his love interest, Driscoll/Ego ruminates briefly on the conflict of interests with the monster/Id before calling in the mechanized forces of the state/Super-ego to simply kill Kong (Greenberg 340). The airplanes of the Super-ego having shot Kong to death, Driscoll is right there to reclaim Anne in a more tepid but more welcomed embrace.

Ultra-masculine Id/doppelgängers can be found rampaging across all kinds of uncanny landscapes from Hollywood to the literature section of the library. This should not come as a surprise, seeing as the repression of the Id’s libidinal designs is a crucial matter for men the world over. There is, however, a dearth of expression of the female experience of the Id. King Kong  and its Oedipal ilk are highly idealized Id/Ego epics, their stylized chivalric “damsel in distress” scenarios leaving few earnest identification points for self-aware female viewers. Fortunately, there is Alien.

Alien renovates the time honored Horror landscape in its setting- i.e. empty space- in a way that connects it to traditional Horror journey tales like King Kong, yet signals to the viewer that what is being dealt with is new and uncharted. The symbolic interchangeability of space and sea is recognized in our everyday language- we call space voyagers by a modified version of sailor, “astronaut.” This is because they both serve the same uncanny purpose of evoking existential nausea when confronted by something infinitely larger than like minded, equally impotent mortals encountered in everyday society. The sea and space have both also been identified as symbols for the unconscious mind. Unconscious, uncanny- it is the perfect setting for a battle between the Id and Ego.

What makes the conflict all the more interesting is the strange gender situation on the ship. Ripley has an undeniably masculine side to her. More intensely rational than any person on the ship, she is immediately identifiable as the masculine-female, often called “final girl,” very familiar to Horror cinema. Sitting around the table in the first scene of crew interaction, she is more associated with the “guys” of the crew, laughing and drinking as the other woman at the table complains “I’m cold.” A bit later, at she easily withstands the harassment of two male crew mates, hurling highly aggressive language at them in her curt “oh, just **** off.”

By far the most logical of the crew members, Ripley is the one to say “no” to the away team when they request readmittance to the ship after one of the crew was attacked by a “thing” that is still attached to him. When her request for a clear definition of “thing” is ignored, she refers the explorers to the quarantine rules, adding “it could infect the whole ship.” Her authority is over-rode in what turns out to be an abject-mother carelessness for her and her crew mates’ lives. Nonetheless, she has demonstrated that she can be the rational, unemotional woman.

In this masculine environment, Ripley is the may have her position of dominance in rationality and intelligence, but she is still confined to a small world of “parrots,” people seeking only to “do what the hell they’re told!” as Ash puts it. Thus is Ripley’s Id born. The emergence of the alien comes at a time when Ripley is recognizing how she is trapped in an unfulfilling situation.

The alien is recognizable as the Id from its first willful emergence: having ripped through a man’s chest, it’s cold, calculating gaze seems to ignore the humanity of those present as it sizes them up just before darting away to grow to full size in hiding. Beyond “reasoning” in its primal, bestial state, it is singular in its destructive aims. What differentiates this monster most from the likes of Kong is the ambiguous gender and hidden libidinal designs. As Ripley eludes gendering in her assertive, somewhat masculinized way of being a woman, the alien remains ungenderable. In its androgynous nature, its libidinal drives must be more of the “aspirational,” will-to-power variety.

The alien is further identified as the Id by Ash’s monologue to the disgruntle crew, wherein he expresses his admiration for the “purity” of the alien: “it is unclouded… by consciousness.” After learning the “mother’s” true will- and her willingness to sacrifice her symbolic children- Ripley is all the more uncomfortable in her constrained environment. This could perhaps shed some light on the nature of the alien/Id’s will: killing all of the superfluous “parrots” and robots of the ship would enable the alien to be free from their oppressive order. The alien’s will, like Ripley’s will, is to escape them and the cruelty of the “mother.”

The achievement of the alien/Id’s goal is actually isolation. Alienated in her previous position as intelligent, free-thinking woman on a dominantly masculine vessel, the murder of everyone on board frees Ripley and the alien from this alienation in a way that leaves them with nothing gained and alone in the middle of space. Where before she attempted to run from, contain, and avoid the alien for fear of it, the only thing left to do when everyone else is dead for Ripley is to kill/repress the alien/Id herself.

The answer to the hyper-masculine Id of Driscoll was normative, non-sadistic sexual relations with women. The answer to the ambiguous Id of Ripley then must be the embrace of the femininity of maternity. The first step in killing the alien and leaving the ship, interestingly, is finding and carrying away her cat. The symbolic maternity of this protective instinct is an embrace of femininity in a way that Ripley was not permitted while trying to make her way in the masculine environment of the ship’s society. Cradling the cat in the wake of the “mother’s” destruction, Ripley is ready to repress the Id entirely with her new femininity.

Before she finally kills the monster and successfully represses the Id, Ripley must be her feminine self. To achieve this, she takes the clothes that identified herself as one of the gang in the ship’s male camaraderie order. The actual killing of the alien falls into the psychological framework almost too well: the alien is pushed out into space by means of the technology of her very own mini-spaceship. Space- that is, the unconscious- is the proper place for the alien/Id to be.

In conclusion, our heroes/Egos achieve their victory over the Ids gone wild by repression. The fact that Alien lacks the Super-ego power of King Kong only makes it fit more neatly into the Freudian mold: women supposedly have weaker Super-ego’s in Freud’s theory. The ambiguous Super-ego situation is made all the more Freudian by the bizarre “mother” relationship, whereas Driscoll’s Super-ego is the normal male size with all of its paternal/state state-of-the-art fire-power.The Horror of these films, therefor, is not the threat of aliens and monkeys over-running our world: it is the threat of our libidinal drives to subvert our society as we know it.

 

De Young Museum San Francisco

Museum Liveblog: De Young Museum

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This is a very different kind of post, but hopefully an enjoyable one! I’m going to be in San Francisco next week for business and when I’m in the Bay, I can’t resist hitting the museums down there which are some of my absolute favorite.

I’m going to be live-blogging my visit to the De Young museum next week on my instagram page. There’s a feature on the instagram app called “stories” where, much like snapchat, a series of pictures is featured in a stream of photos and lasts only for 24 hours. If you have the app, follow Coup de Dés for the museum liveblog! Also just generally follow the page for lots more art and paintings than I get a chance to post here- I like to do some heavy-hitting criticism on this site, and the insta-feed is much more light and concise, with much more quantity.

If people like this, I’ll definitely keep doing it with other museums and galleries, as I tend to spend a lot of time at one or another!

If you have a gallery or museum you’d like to see me visit and post about while I’m in the Bay, leave a comment and I’ll try to add it to my list of things to do! Or if there’s a spot in Portland or Eugene, Oregon, that’s much more accessible for me since that’s where I live.

Anyhow, if you miss the feed and want to see what I got up to, I’ll probably upload the best pics to this page in a gallery form and you’ll hardly have missed a thing. Edit: I uploaded a bunch of images to this page; see image slideshow above!

Who knows, I might even find some brand new art to write a new post about while I’m down there? Here’s hoping there’s some great 19th century works on view somewhere I happen to visit.